friday's food for thought

Nathan Bransford posted about whiners a couple of days ago. I appreciate a good whine as much as anyone. My mommy, a few decades years ago would have said I was a connoisseur, in fact. There was the "I want" whine, higher pitched than most, delivered with urgency. There was the "don't wanna" whine, largely developed during Sunday drives to look at houses we were never going to buy: a deeper, nearly unintelligible mutter. And then there was the "it's so hard" whine, replete with excuses, jealousy, and sometime wailing.

Some people (writers), apparently, never give up whining. It's an addiction, a passion. And their favorite thing to whine about, at least in my circles, is the dreaded query letter. (Nathan has wonderful advice on querying. Go there. Read. Stop whining.) I take a tough stance on querying and the writing thereof. I hold that if you can't write an outstanding query for you book, you've got one of three issues:
1.You don't know the market and where your book fits in.
2. Your book isn't ready for publication.
3. You can't write. (Yet.)

You don't know the market and where your book fits in. This isn't really fixed by going to the bookstore and reading back flap copy, though that can help. Those books are 1-2 years old by now. You want the stuff that's selling to editors now. There are bunches of agent blogs right now, so what you do is post questions on one of their blogs, anonymously if you want: "What's hot in X genre right now? What's secondarily hot? What are you looking to see in a query?"

Your book isn't ready for publication and sales. The second problem is bigger and tougher to recognise. I know I spent a few years muttering about my query for my first book--how was I going to boil down my Tome into a paragraph? grumble grumble. Yeah, well.

The problem wasn't the query.

The time to write a query is right now. RIGHT NOW. Yes, I know you're in the middle of chapter 15. That's the perfect time. Start narrowing your focus yesterday. Know what your story is about and stick to it. Not a plotter? Well, synopsize then--free write about your plot, setting, and most of all, your characters. Let them meet people you never intend for the book. Let your synopsis ramble on. Write yourself into a corner within a few pages rather than several hundred. (Elizabeth has great advice on this in her book WRITE AWAY.) Get an idea of where you're headed or you're bound to take the longest, least interesting route of getting there. Rough synopsis and query writing can really help this. And don't we all someday want to be in a position to sell from synopses and proposals? Hone those skills early and often. Your books will be better for it.

McKee says some things about focus and scope in his book STORY. Not quoting cuz I'm lazy, but even a big book should have manaegable focus. Sure you have diversions and subplots. But if you don't know what lays at the heart of your book, the crisis, the conflict that makes your characters irreplaceable and unique, if you can't answer the party question: What's your book about? then you're not in control of your own story.

You can't write. Sigh. Thing is, you don't just write a book and then sell it. It's like any art, it's tough to learn; it's tough to sell; people are picky, from the gatekeepers through to the old ladies browsing sales tables, and seemingly everyone writes. It took me the better part of six years to learn to be a teacher. Why would I think it would take less to learn to write a novel? Nathan says this, which was utter brilliance:

There are some mistakes and awkward phrasing that a publishable writer just isn't going to make -- it wouldn't even occur to them to make the mistake in the first place because it just wouldn't look right... This is also why I'm skeptical when people tell me they can write a compelling novel but not a query letter. Do you have a command of words or not? What if you need to craft a short, wonderful scene in your novel? You can't marshal the words to write it because it's too short of a space?

The bold font is mine, but that there is a nugget of wisdom. Do you have a command of words or not? Are you skilled enough to write a scene or a chapter based on certain plot, characterization and setting needs, and then know if it's good when you're finished? On a bigger scale, do you know if your story is viable? Does it make sense? Do you know what your book is about?

Good writing takes practice. Querying and pitching takes practice. I'm sure better writers than I don't have to subscribe to the Million Word Theory, but I sure as hell have. I've always been a writer--wrote my first story in fourth grade. Wrote my first novel at fourteen. And after the past five years of classes,
critiques, conventions, editing, and well over a million words, I'm only just feeling as if I not only know how to craft a scene, but know when it's good, when it's conveying what I wanted to say.

And to think, just last night, someone asked me what my new book was about and I couldn't marshal the focus, the words, to describe it well. Today's assignment: write myself a query.

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