It’s the season of Easter. Eggs and bunnies are everywhere. Whatever you might think about the origins of Easter, whether pagan or religious, it’s hard to escape. The motif of eggs is woven into the English language. Life is itself a curate’s egg, both good and bad in parts.
We avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, and so diversify risk. We argue in circles about the chicken and the egg. We walk on eggshells through tricky situations, and break eggs to make omelettes. This last saying is the most interesting, because it tells us that sometimes, breaking comes before making.
Easter eggs look so beautifully perfect that it’s tempting to keep them intact. But we know that treasures are hidden inside the colourful exterior, so we’re happy to smash them. (Of course, getting to eat the whole thing doesn’t hurt either.) People, lives, and relationships can have a shiny surface gloss, and yet when they’re broken, something even better may emerge.
It need not be one huge blow, it could be a tiny chipping away that eventually changes everything. Like the chick emerging from its shell one peck at a time, small actions add up over time to something larger.
This is also the month of Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own daily writing goal. After I failed NaNo two years in a row, I decided I absolutely could not write every day. It all felt too much for me. But I want to become more of a writer, so I decided on a smaller challenge, inspired by Shaunta Grimes and her concept of teeny, tiny goals.
My goal? Write 150 words every day.
Stupidly small and hardly worth the effort, right? Well, so far I have kept to it, even after a gruelling 13 hour day at work. It’s so very small, that I often exceed it. Then I get to award myself a pat on the back for over-performing! On the worst days, it’s still doable and there is small but measurable progress.
I track my journey, nothing too involved because I don’t have the energy. Just a Very Easy Tracking Plan™ (as discussed here ). All that’s required is minimal motivation and the idea that I could break out of my shell. I hope to build on a series of daily successes that will help me advance as a writer.
It’s the season of new beginnings.
What tiny, daily goal will you set, so you can escape a self-imposed jail of fixed expectations?
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Into every life some rain must fall. Whether actual or metaphorical rain, it’s soon joined by tears from someone. Maybe that someone is you. It’s a fact that bad things happen to all of us. Then we must choose how to respond.
The energy of anger and grief
These powerful emotions can wreak havoc when suppressed. Instead, try directing them outwards. When I’m angry, I clean my house. I release the anger, and I get a tidy living space; two birds with one stone. I might dig in the garden if the weather permits. You might prefer to walk, or run, or do some boxing. All are good, allowing the body to let go of the tension, and maybe producing something positive too.
For a writer, all emotions are fuel.
To make our characters three dimensional, to give them life on the page and in the reader’s mind, means giving them real emotions. The characters need motivations and reactions that feel believable. As writers, we decide what to include, what to imply, and what to leave out. And we need empathy, that is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. It is the shared experience that defines empathy.
empathy I understand your feeling, because I have felt the same sympathy This feeling is unpleasant, and I am sorry you have to experience it
Put simply, empathy is personal; you walk a mile in someone’s shoes. While sympathy is impersonal; you acknowledge the stone in the shoe without putting it on.
Write what you know?
We are often told to write what we know. If we took this literally, there would be very little literature beyond first person narrative. Stories need characters, and characters need fleshing out. When I think of a character who is not like me, I must inhabit their skin.
I need to draw on my own experiences, in order to know what my male humanoid in a distant galaxy might do in the middle of a pulse laser battle. I have not been in that situation, but I know what anxiety, fear, pain, and courage feel like.
For myself, I rarely bother with detailed check sheets for my characters, except when it comes to personality traits. I am much less interested in a character’s favourite colour, than in how they react to each situation. When I understand how each character thinks and feels, dialogue and action come naturally. And characters gain a life of their own, doing and saying surprising things. I just have to follow them, typing as fast as I can.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. Robert Frost
Resources for character personality traits
One of the most popular schemes for assigning personality traits is the Alignment system, developed from the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. There are nine alignments, drawn from combinations of good-neutral-evil and lawful-neutral-chaotic. They deal with ethical and moral standpoints such as ‘rules are rules’ as opposed to ‘rules are meant to be broken sometimes’ as opposed to ‘what rules?’
Like all classification systems, it is not perfect, but it’s very helpful in making your characters both internally consistent and more diverse overall. Each cast member needs to be authentic, but different from the others.
If you want to make a relatable villain, she must have some trait or behaviour your readers can share or empathise with. Otherwise all villains are chaotic evil, and that is not enough to sustain interest. (A possible exception might be Heath Ledger’s Joker, but one is enough.)
Another fabulous resource is the writers’ thesaurus series by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The Emotion Thesaurus details emotions along with their possible causes and effects on a person. This allows a writer to create finely detailed and observed characters.
Suffering can become art
We don’t have to suffer for art; we will suffer whatever happens, because that’s life. As creators, we can use our suffering to build something that will show the world a truth, as we see it.
Write what you feel.
That’s the alchemy whereby pain becomes beauty. That’s art.
I’ve been following Kristen Lamb ‘s blog for a while now, and she always has something interesting to say about writing and publishing. She is not afraid to say that writers should be paid, for example, and then to write about the ensuing storm of comments. That is not a discussion for today, but if you want to read more, it’s here.
Today I want to talk about query writing, and how to hook a literary agent. Of course I don’t pretend this is the last word on queries, there are resources everywhere. This is what I gleaned from various sources and from Pitch Perfect, one of Kristen’s webinars I attended recently under the WANA banner. She runs regular courses aimed at getting writers skilled, published and noticed.
How to find an agent to query
Literary agents represent specific genres according to their personal taste. They take on a book they believe in, and sell that book to a traditional publisher to offer in bookshops and stores. They also sell rights to film, TV, translations and so on.
You want someone who likes the kind of thing you write. Do your research so you won’t end up sending gory horror to someone who likes cookbooks and cosy mysteries, or indeed vice versa. You and your agent will conduct a business relationship aimed at selling books and making money. It pays to find the person who will be the best fit for you and your story.
Acknowledgements sometimes mention the agent by name. Check in books that are similar to yours – in other words, comparative titles.
Attending conferences and festivals can yield contacts.
Twitter can be very useful for making connections with agents. Also try looking through hashtags such as #mswl (manuscript wish list) which details stories agents are looking for right now, or genre based such as #scifi or #romance. Not all agents are very active on twitter, but it offers a chance to interact and importantly, to see how people behave online.
Google can be your friend here. Searching manuscript wish list + genre + agents will yield more options to look at.
Your agent will be getting 15% of your earnings, typically, so you want to be sure they are adding value. Check their websites to see what they have sold recently, who their other clients are, and so on. Remember that most of their energy will be spent on servicing existing clients. That said, everyone wants the next bestselling author. The new agent looking to build their list might have more time for you than JK Rowling’s agent.
Draw up a long list, and send queries out in batches of 10-12. They need to go in groups, it can take some time to get a reply so sending them singly takes far too long. If two (or more!) agents want to read more of your work after seeing the sample pages, you can always grant one exclusive reading for say, two weeks. Then they need to decide or you can move on to the next prospect.
What to write in your query
First read the submission guidelines. Let’s say that again.
First read the submission guidelines. Then follow them exactly.
Every agent has a slightly different preference. You look this up on their website, and you do not deviate. This is no time to show your creativity, you need to show that you can follow instructions. The agent or assistant has hundreds of these emails to read. They’re looking for a reason to say no and make the job easier. Tough, eh? But that’s how it is. Not dissimilar to making a job application, you need to demonstrate a professional approach. Reading and understanding instructions is a basic skill.
Everything is pasted into the email. Nobody will open an attachment. That’s the quickest way to viruses, the modern-day equivalent of the plague.
The query itself
The query is brief, no more than one page. Write in Word or your preferred program, and trim until it fits. Four paragraphs should cover it.
Greet the agent by name.
If unsure of gender, avoid titles and use the whole name eg Dear Sam Smith. This is a formal letter to a stranger, so unless you know them well, no first name terms. State your connection if applicable, eg met them at a conference, referral from a mutual contact, conversed on Twitter. Otherwise state how you found them eg from manuscript wish list, represented similar books, or anything else.
Write about the book.
“TITLE is a (genre) novel complete at (word count).”
If you have a comparative title, mention that here, “in the style of (title)”. Don’t be overambitious and mention a mega-selling book. Just a current best-seller will do.
Summarise the story, beginning with your log line. This is intended to whet their appetite to read more, it should sound like back cover blurb. It is not a full synopsis, that comes later.
Author biography goes here.
Keep this simple and on topic. Any writing credentials such as an MFA, and any publishing credits or competition wins belong in this section. Personal details such as age, job, how long you’ve been writing, are irrelevant until you meet your agent. The exception is where your thriller is set on an oil rig and you worked in the business for fifteen years, for example. That’s relevant.
No credentials? Just state you’re a writer living in X, you write Y genre, and you’re currently working on Z. Don’t apologise for it. Absolutely every writer started with nothing to their name.
Thank you for your time.
Agents read constantly. Between meetings, while commuting, in the evenings. They have lives just like us, and they love good books, and they don’t get a penny until you do. A thank you is basic good manners, and rude people are remembered for the wrong reasons. Don’t be that person.
Below this, you paste the sample pages or chapters as per the submission guidelines (check them again). And below that, a one page synopsis. This is the one time Kristen suggests going off-menu.
I’ll cover the theory and practice of the log line and synopsis next time.
I’m working on something new right now, a long form story that might run over 10K words. It’s flowing very well, and I’m writing to a mental outline (because I’m really bad at writing them down).
What’s the problem, you ask? It isn’t my primary WIP.
I signed up for a course to help me plot that WIP like a pro, and then write it efficiently. Sadly, I am struggling with the step-by-step approach that is absolutely guaranteed to work. Except when it doesn’t.
Because the plotting isn’t working, my WIP has ground to a halt. In contrast to writing the shiny new story, I found myself blocked, struggling to regain that easy sense of creation. Meantime, I have written a few short stories for the writers’ group. But the more I struggle to fit into a particular way of doing things, the more constrained I feel. It’s like wearing blinkers inside a box. I can’t see which way to go, and straight ahead isn’t working.
Plotters vs. Pantsers
We are often advised, if we want to grow in skills and as humans, to challenge ourselves. I am all for this. So as a confirmed pantser, I am trying to learn the art of plotting. Currently, this is not going well. But – I am still writing. During the writing and re-writing of my first novel, taking time away to work on another short project had many benefits.
A sense of achievement from finishing shorter pieces
A rest from story problems
During which I gave my brain a chance to come up with answers
Returning to the main WIP refreshed and with new ideas
It’s all material
I found the picture above at random. I chose it for this post not because it’s immediately useful, but because I like clouds and mist, and it suggests a story, . It’s beautiful, and therein lies its utility. Inspiration cannot always be harnessed to a particular vehicle. Like a wayward horse, sometimes creativity needs to have its head and explore the meadow. Afterwards, it is more amenable to direction.
If I think I have writer’s block, it is a sign that I am trying to force myself in the wrong direction. Time to check out another path and keep going, because all writing is #writing.
Last time was all about releasing fear and dreaming on a grand scale. I’m giving us all permission to chase great big audacious goals, because why limit yourself? Dreams occupy the infinite space of imagination. There are quite enough people telling us we can’t do the thing. Don’t add your own internal voice to that dreary chorus.
So, you have a goal in mind. Our goals differ in the details, even if they seem superficially the same, and that is definitely okay. This works for any dream, not just writing. Let’s look at one dream; “I want to go to a bookstore and see my book for sale”.
The goal is physical book in major bookstore.
This is true North, where the compass points. You need to plot a route from your current position to that goal. You may be a long way away, you may even think you’re on the wrong path, but fear not. If you plant your flag, you can always make your way towards it by degrees. You might say the goal is write a book, but this is usually an intermediate goal. A big one, sure, and one to celebrate, but not the end of the journey.
The principles of mapping a route apply equally to any goal, whether intermediate or ultimate, smaller or bigger. The process differs only in the number of steps required.
So you’ve written a book, and that’s great. You plan to follow the traditional publishing route. Before you can pick it up in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, some more things need to happen.
1. write book
2. find agent
3. land publishing deal
4. sell book in stores
That’s four steps. Each of those steps can be broken down further, but the first one is the biggest. It is also entirely under your control. It’s all down to you. Now, we’ll take the first step and look at it closely. How do you write a book, and can it be any book? Writing 80-120K words (typical, for novels) is no mean feat.
you must decide what kind of book- what genre or subject
you must find the motivation to finish
you must write the best book you can
Three more steps. Let’s take the first, and break it down again.
What kind of book should you write?
For non-fiction you need authority; that is, the reason people should listen to you. That may be personal experience (I lived this), or it may be academic status (I studied and researched this), or it may be achievement (I succeeded at this). Typically, you will need to demonstrate that you have a platform from which to drive sales, in order to interest an agent. That is your potential audience, which may be smaller, particularly for technical works. For books with a smaller niche, perhaps self-publishing might be better. Another question to answer.
Building that platform and demonstrating your authority is outside my scope, but you can find information by Jane Friedman here .
For fiction, consider your interests. You could start with brainstorming or mindmapping.
Favourite books, films, poetry, artistic pursuits
core principles; love conquers all, the world is cruel, good always triumphs in the end
any characters or situations that pop up ( I have a space pirate in my head, waiting to be written)
From your list or map, start to pull out themes. For example, I love speculative fiction and adventure, good vs. bad but in all shades between black and white, I believe love comes in many forms, and that women and men have equal agency. Those ideas colour my fiction.
Where can I find inspiration?
Some people seem to brim and bubble with ideas. Others, not so much. I talked here about being one of those people who don’t have fifty ideas jostling for space in their head. My ideas come from pictures, song videos, snatches of conversation, or just out of thin air, when my unconscious mind throws something into the real world. (Sometimes they don’t come until after I start work, which is a good reason why you must keep writing. Don’t think about it. Just do it.)
The really useful question for fiction is, “what if?”. Keep asking that question, and stories will come. Somebody wants something, encounters obstacles, is forced to change, and in the process attains their goal. That’s story, in a nutshell.
Looking at finding the motivation to finish, let’s break that down. You could set a word count goal, find a writing buddy, join a writers group, find a mentor and so on. Writing the best book you can will involve editing, feedback, rewriting, working on your craft to name a few.
Each of these steps can be broken down further, in a process sometimes called ‘chunking down’. Eventually you’ll reach the smallest possible step, the first step on the journey. A big dream is built from a million tiny pieces, consistently and mindfully assembled. See how small a Lego brick is, yet you can build the whole world, if you have sufficient.
Big dream ahead, only 37465 miles to go
Your flag is planted so far away, you can hardly see it for all the obstacles and turns in the road. But it is there, and now and again you’ll check that you’re still headed towards it. You can ask yourself a simple question, when considering an activity; does this move me towards my goal? In life, saying yes to a thing means saying no to something else. Make sure you’re saying yes to what’s important for you.
So now, dreamer who wants to make their dream a reality, write down your specific goal. Break it into smaller goals, and break those into their smallest constituent parts. Write it all down in a form of your choosing. That could be a spreadsheet, bulleted list, mindmap, post it notes, or whatever.
Now, pick a tiny step, one that you’re certain to accomplish. For example, make a list of your favourite films. Or Google local writers’ groups. That’s pretty easy, right? Tick it off your list.
Congratulate yourself, and resolve to make another tiny step tomorrow. Celebrate reaching your intermediate goals, and enjoy the journey. You know where you’re going.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu
Okay, so it’s properly 2017 now. The tree and cards are gone, we’ve all gone back to work or school. It’s traditionally the time to look forward, make plans, set intentions and make resolutions for this New Year that we won’t keep.
No, this is the year of setting ourselves up for success rather than failure. Where last time I talked about footprints in the snow, this week is more about deciding where those steps are leading. What is the distant goal or mountain peak on which you hope to plant your flag? Without some end point, your journey is literally aimless.
However, your goal is not my goal. And that’s okay.
One writer might want to be a New York Times bestselling author. The next might recoil from that, but simply want to hold their book in their hands. Another writes only for their own enjoyment, to know themselves better or work through an issue in their history. And yet others want to make enough money from their writing to support themselves. Very different goals, needing very different tools and routes to success. Though it should be said that most writers want to be read by others.
A story comes alive in the telling.
That includes the stories we tell ourselves, that sabotage and undermine our conscious efforts to reach the goal. They usually boil down to fear, that protean trickster hiding behind a thousand faces.
My stories are too _____________
The market is too ____________
But this is fear talking, and that leads to fantasies that have no basis in fact. Writers succeed when they refuse to listen to this internal critic, that claims to protect you, even as it slams the door against the possibility of reaching your goal.
Fear keeps you home, anxiously listening for noises and wolves at the door, when you should be packing your bag and walking boots and getting out there. Remembering a big stick and wolf repellent of course, because a great antidote to fear is anticipating challenges and making a plan to overcome them. Success is not bestowed on a lucky few without effort. Success comes to those who stumble, fall, take a hit, and get up again ready to fight on. Success comes to those who keep going.
What’s your goal?
I’m going to talk about writing because that’s my medium, but this visualisation exercise can apply to any creator.
Take a moment now to exhale, and get comfortable. Close your eyes and fly away into the future. Time does not matter here. You’ve achieved your ultimate writing (creative) goal. Breathe easily as you sharpen that picture of yourself and bring it into focus.
Maybe you’re watching the film of your book. You’re sitting in a bookstore, with a line of fans waiting for you to sign your latest book. Or you see your name on a book in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, and smile to yourself. You get a letter from a fan, telling you how much reading your story helped them.
You’re typing away on a new MacBook in your ideal study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. Or you are at a party, and when asked what you do you say confidently, “I’m a writer, and this is my latest project.”
Be specific. What project? Is it your current WIP or another book? How many people surround you? What are you wearing, what can you smell, touch, hear and see? Is the bubbly drink in your glass Prosecco or beer or soda water? Put in every vivid detail, and set no limits. Imagine it all, because this is where you are going. It’s Shangri-La, it’s the promised land, it’s your perfect idyll.
And it will only exist if you first create it in your mind’s eye.
We are artists and creators. We are the dreamers of dreams, and we deserve to dream for ourselves first. This picture is one to fix in your mind and come back to when things get hard, as they will. To fix it, or anchor it in your brain, it must be associated with a physical sensation. Pinch your left thumb and middle finger together firmly, while the dream plays in your mind’s eye like a bright, colourful movie.
You might be sitting alone on the side of a rough road, bleeding from being knocked down. But the memory of your happy future self is like a photo in your wallet. You can pull it out and remind yourself just why you’re out here, trudging this long and difficult path, risking pain and rejection and loss of faith. The anchor helps you recall it. Pinch your left thumb and middle finger together.
Breathe; time loops on itself, as you relive the memory of your future here in the present. The magic of creation is bringing into reality that which existed only in your own internal world. Dream for yourself, let your creativity flow in the service of a bigger goal, and it will give you the strength to get up and go on again. This is your true North, where your compass points.
Next time I will consider how to plan the route, but remember this.
The prize must be worth the journey. So dream your best dream.
As each year draws to a close, we naturally think about taking stock. What did we do, what did we get, what are we still hoping for, good or bad. It’s been a hell of a year, on many levels. Sometimes the big picture is overwhelming, and we can only make sense of small things. Like tracking our own progress, footprints in the snow.
I recently read a Medium post by Dajana Bergmark, called Blueprint for a productive 2017 . I liked a lot in the post, especially the brain dump and the idea of prioritising your effort, because effort and time are finite resources. I never have enough, and I’m sure you’re the same. But the further I read, the less attractive it became, for me. I’m not good with organisers and ticking boxes, and forcing myself results only in abandoning the whole idea. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Any system has to be customised to suit you. Take what you can use and leave the rest.
I’m a whole picture person who baulks at prescribed step-by-step plans in minute detail. Details matter, but at different levels for everyone. So, I look for a broad brush solution I can live with, then drill down only as far as I will actually implement. I wrote recently about making progress with writing, and seeing that at the level of a whole piece. This is about a closer look at how things are moving forward.
I mentioned before that I took up watercolour painting as a complete beginner. I devised a simple list which allowed me to track progress without it being a chore.
Attend a beginners’ class (weekly for 10 weeks)
Complete at least one painting every week – from the class or a book
Date each painting and write 2-3 comments about technique on the back
File paintings consecutively in a portfolio
Just dating each painting proved to be an incredibly powerful tool. It allowed me to see my progress over time, which was very motivating. Committing to one painting a week, thinking about the techniques and writing a comment helped me move fast, even when the classes were over.
I was able to join an improvers’ class after a few months. Granted, many of the artists there were much more experienced, but that also spurred me to learn more and raise my game. But without my portfolio behind me, I would never have had the courage to consider that class.
But what if I don’t want to paint/write, or don’t know what to paint/write?
Painter’s block, creative block, writer’s block all yield to action. What works for me is to step away from the emotion, and simply get to work. That might mean opening a random page in a magazine and painting whatever is there. It might mean going to a writing prompt website, picking one, and writing. It might mean creating something else; a poem, a meal, a garden, an ordered and tidy room.
If I want to improve, that means practising my art, just as an athlete practises before the big game or competition. I can’t afford to do only what I want, especially when time is precious.
The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.
In other words, inspiration comes after initiation. Get warmed up, then get going.
Tracking my journey as a writer
This is very important, yet it must be simple. For writing, my 2016 list looked like this:
Attend a writing group regularly and produce work for it
Submit to at least 10 competitions
Revise my novel to make it ready for submission
Read 2-3 craft books
Write a weekly blog post NaNoWriMo
Using a standard calendar that comes with Excel, I have noted what I wrote and when. For my blog, WordPress has analytics built-in. It is surprising how motivating it is to see a run of completed boxes. I guess the whole idea of star charts is not just for kids after all. I can see which months were better for writing than others. And I can course correct when necessary, which is why NaNo dropped off the list.
Yes, I achieved those goals. Feels good, too!
Each written piece is tagged and dated, and sometime soon I will compare the first and last, the group pieces with my other work, and so on. Now it’s time to think about next year’s goals, building on this year’s successes and challenges. I might build another layer of detail into my tracking, or commit to a number of words per week. I already know that writing every day is impossible with my current commitments, (because I tried it, and failed) so a weekly target is more realistic.
That which is measured, improves. That which is measured and reported, improves exponentially. Pearson’s law
As long as we don’t spend all our time reporting instead of producing work, this could be useful. Making a beautiful map is not a substitute for making the journey.
My Very Easy Tracking Plan™ boils down to this:
Find a system that you can commit to over a long period.
Track your work, no matter how simply.
Finish your stuff.
Enjoy your achievements.*
In the end, it is producing the work and growing as a creative that matters. Not blog views, competition wins, external validation of some sort. That may come, and of course we hope it will. But the work comes first. Always.