MG, YA, & DECIPHERING THE DIFFERENCE

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ya vs mg.png

Once upon a time, I participated in a query letter boot camp with agents Kimberley Cameron (@K_C_Associates), Elizabeth Kracht (@ElizabethKracht), and Mary C. Moore (@Mary_C_Moore) from Kimberley Cameron & Associates, via @WritersDigest.

During the sessions, I received the opportunity to converse in a discussion panel, learning key rules about writing query letters (more on that to come) and the first 10 pages. For a debut writer like me, best money I could’ve spent. Sure, did I dream of the far-fetched possibility of my one-on-one mentor asking for more pages? Duh. Did I think it likely? Heck no…but that’s not why I did the boot camp (just a chance)!

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you just need a professional to tell you Abby, you do this great, but THIS is what you need to do to make it publishable.

For me, my mentor – Mary – pointed out one CRUCIAL question. Did I want to write MG (middle grade) or YA (young adult)?

Observing how my voice and content were inconsistent, I decided to reach out to bloggers & experts including two agents (Mary Kole @Kid_Lit & Michael Stearns), two writers (Ruthanne Reid & Clair Legrand), and the friendliest Barnes & Noble employee I’ve ever met (I definitely recommend talking to booksellers if you feel lost—they read everything and REALLY know their stuff!).

Conclusions?

A variety of views assimilated into 5 major points (I love bullets!), helping me to infuse YA styles over my original more MG-ish version. If all reads as intended, you can (hopefully) use my thoughts in your great MG or YA debate, clarifying the fuzzy areas and deciphering the important differences! (Phew!)

THE BIG FIVE: MG OR YA?

  • POV (Middle School or High School…age, awareness?)
  • FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)
  • LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)
  • JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning?)
  • VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)

POV (how age of the protagonist shapes it)

Perhaps the easiest way to decide your point of view is by your protagonist’s age: middle school (9-12) or high school (14-18…sometimes out of high school but not yet in college). Remembering that the character’s developmental level should mirror the reader’s developmental level, we can eradicate the gray area.

By popular consensus…the toughest age to make your character is age 13, so maybe stay away from it. It’s a tricky age, playing with the year where the character is a little too mature for MS but not yet in the mindset of HS. Of course, there are exceptions.

Harry Potter, for example, starts off young and ends the series in the end of his teens. Then again, HP is the book agents say NOT to compare your book to…for this very reason. It’s difficult for an agent/publisher to decipher where to place your book in the bookstore if you don’t know the developmental level of your characters.

For a debut book, probably better to focus on a stand-alone novel, with series potential. Hook your audience before confusing them – if it takes off, then you can think about crossing over as your characters grow.

Age isn’t the only way to determine the POV in your book. Clarifying the character’s awareness of the world around them—how they see obstacles and make decisions—also plays a big role. As a high school teacher, I can vouch…maturity difference between 9th (just coming out of MS) to 12th graders is HUGE. Heck, 9th to 10th grade is unrecognizable, especially in their ability to problem solve (9th grader – tell me the answer! versus a 12th grader – how do I find the answer on my own?).

Do your characters come across a lot of things they don’t understand (MS) or do they draw from past experiences to figure out how to get over something (HS)? Such a character approach can make or break the target audience who reads your book. Ask yourself this: does my character need their mentor to get where they need? Or does my mentor guide my character, advising them without giving them the answer? In other words, Dumbledore in book 1 or Dumbledore (now gone) in book 7:

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry pairs up with Ron and Hermione. They learn how to deal with social and individual struggles like flying and potions class with the help of their friends and professors, finding their place in the school.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Harry continues to team up with Ron and Hermione, but they are no longer at Hogwarts – they have a greater task to accomplish, left to them by their deceased mentor. With Dumbledore gone, Harry must rely on past experiences to explore new ones, facing a rivalry greater than him and Voldemort alone.

To put a cherry on top, there’s also the actual POV of the narrator – first, third person, or does it matter? Writer Claire Legrand is the first I’ve seen address this idea in her blog, and I was glad she did! Conclusion? Many YAs are written in 1st, many MGs are written in 3rd. Don’t panic – my heart jumped into my throat when I first read this (I wrote a YA in third person – against the majority). Does it matter? No. Then what does? Following your gut and giving your characters the voice you think gives your book authenticity. Generalities are guidelines, not laws.

dumbledore 1

R.I.P. Richard Harris. We will miss you.

Harry_and_Albus_limbo 7

R.I.P. Dumbledore. You are missed.

FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)

When I taught Secondary English, I came across a bundle of students who complained about reading books too wordy to entertain them. Well, I’d tell them, when you read, do you see words or images? Often it was the first. Of course reading bored them; when you read, you want to visualize the character on their adventure by experiencing the lessons with them. The character’s FOCUS of the lessons can decipher the difference between MG and YA. Let’s see if you agree…

Expanding Character Perspective (internal or external?) It all depends on how the main character identifies their place in the world and how they experience it.

For MG, think the question, what lunch table should I sit at? MG characters focus primarily on friends and family, searching for their identity with a limited, safer perspective that guides their choices so they can avoid bullies and the receiving-end of a swirly (or so they hope!). They still think and act, but their choices keep in mind their impact on their personal social/home life.

Not YA characters. YA characters see the bigger picture, and set out for it. Think the question, where should I go to lunch today? YAs tackle universal social pressures and home issues impacting more than just the character’s personal life. I love when James Barry (playwright of Peter Pan) discusses how he lost his innocence in Finding Neverland. He tells a story of how he tried, desperately, to help his mother get over her depression (suffering from the loss of her eldest son), dressing in his brother’s clothes and walking into her room – it was “the end of the boy James,” he says.

YA characters look for answers to questions outside their safety zone, introducing themselves to experiences and obstacles they have never crossed before – and will be wiser, stronger, better for crossing them. They will have grown up, and ready to take on the world. For example…

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Internal Focus: Harry’s rivalry with Malfoy grows, a major antagonist in this book. Harry does learn more about Voldemort and his growing threat, but we don’t learn much about Harry’s past other than how his mother sacrificed herself for him. Obstacles like the Mirror of Erised allude to Harry’s greater purpose, but the majority of the book focuses on in-school events…Harry doesn’t need to make the ultimate choice yet.

HARRY, BOOK 7: External Focus: Harry has left boyhood. He accepts his fate and gathers courage in the face of death, leading up to his sacrifice for the greater good.

malfoy

I could take this snobby pureblood

vold

Hmm, maybe I need Harry’s help with this one…

LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)

Romance is arguably needed in every novel because, let’s face it, love represents a driving force in our readers’ lives. But how do we draw MG romance away from YA romance? With one subtle difference: sexual stirring or sexual awakening?

In MG, tweens are learning feelings of what it’s like to have a crush– they hold hands, they kiss, they touch…but ultimately, they’re PG. Tweens feel romantic stirrings in their hormonal instincts, but aren’t quite sure how powerful these natural instincts will later affect them in life.

But YA characters …they know what sex is, and recognize when they have a sexual attraction, or awakening. Now, I’m not suggesting you need Fifty Shades of Gray SEX scenes in your book, but your reader should be aware of your character’s ability to feel an awakening in their bodies after interacting with someone who attracts them– reaching somewhere inside them deeper than physical. It’s Love, and everyone wants it. Think Ron and Hermione at 11 versus at 17.

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry does not have a love interest, but Ron and Hermione grow a love/hate relationship, bickering in a way that somewhat annoys them, but ultimately intrigues them. They do not recognize these interactions as love…yet.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Ron and Hermione, at long last, put aside their need to make each other jealous and embrace the heat between them, finally giving the audience what they’ve been waiting for – LOVE!

ron and hermione 1

Ron is so young, so innocent, so…confused & annoyed with Hermione

ron and hermione 7

Hermione…so sexy. RON IS IN LOVE

JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning)

Confession time. I fell madly in love with Joseph Campbell and his theory of the hero’s journey in my junior year of college, and I’ve never really let go. It is a great breakdown of every stage a character needs to experience in order to become a hero, but its complexity could consume a doctoral essay, so I’ll try to save you some time (best I can) and simplify one of its major accomplishments –the character’s CHANGE from beginning to end.

Accomplished screenwriter Blake Snyder points out how a producer can determine the success of a screenplay by reading the first and last ten pages of a script. CHARACTERS MUST GROW in a journey, but they do this in different ways in MG or YA novels.

In MG, the character experiences obstacles in their own world and learns a lesson about their personal life, changing the way they see their world. They grow as an individual, but have not grown up…they are only beginning their journey.

But YA, these heroes experience a journey that teaches them their purpose. They decide who they want to be and discover the opportunities in life beyond education. Life is a journey, but doesn’t really begin until you’ve figured out how you’re going to contribute your skills in the world, using them to make it better. Notice, for instance, how Harry isn’t even at Hogwarts by book 7; there are bigger things than learning magic going on…

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: Dumbledore confirms Harry’s notion that Voldemort is not gone and will return again. But for now, the worst thing on his mind is returning to the Dursleys.

HARRY, BOOK 7: Voldemort is inescapable. Overtaking the world outside the wizarding world, major sacrifices are made on mental, physical, and spiritual levels. This is it, the last battle, and if Harry doesn’t make the right choice, evil could consume both worlds forever.

Dursley_family_(Promotional_photo)

Bloody Hell, not these three again. Do I have to go back?

godrics-hollow

A creepy, old lady’s home on a snowy eve…okay, guess there’s nothing left to do but go inside?

VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)

You’ve made it! The home-stretch!

After reading and re-reading Mary’s feedback to me, I gathered a better idea for the voice, language, writing style, whatever you want to call it, needed to clarify my YA book from MG. For instance, Mary noted one of the biggest hitches in my writing was in over explanation of action/movement. She advised that often I did not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g., “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post.”

This made me chuckle, and feel slightly relieved, since I originally placed this sentence in my first ten pages because a beta reader suggested he needed to visualize the action. It wasn’t this action alone, however, that caused the distractions Mary pointed out.

For MG and YA, you don’t want to tell your reader what’s going on, but show them. Both MG and YA use commas and other punctuation to create tension, avoid fancy dialogue tags, and limit their use of unnecessary adverbs. So how can we decipher the difference between MG voice and YA? Easy – the complexity of the sentences.

Whattt…not easy?

Let’s see if I can help with some examples from my own writing…

MG: She shivered. The dark clouds worried her, hovering over the mountain like a shadow, waiting for the right moment to attack.

YA: Cold ran down her spine, causing her to shiver. She remembered what her father told her about the dark plumes over the mountain – how they would devour the city like a voracious monster, consuming everything and anyone in its path. Even silent shadows can reek of death.

See a difference?

It’s subtle, but evident. The complexity of the sentence makes a monstrous change. One is more innocent and simple, the other physical and internally focused – despite not being written in first person. I’ve spent a good amount of time revising my voice to read more like a YA, and subtle changes like this one have brought (and continue to do so) my writing to a new level.

Best advice I can give you, READ! Soak your brain with everything you can in your genre and pay attention to how these authors create tension between their sentences. With practice, you can turn something great into something immortal. Look at J.K. Rowling.

HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7

HARRY, BOOK 1: “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping.” (Chapter 5, pg. 56)

HARRY, BOOK 7: “‘Severus Snape?’ Mad-Eye Moody’s voice whispered out of the darkness, making all three of them jump back in fright. ‘We’re not Snape!’ croaked Harry, before something whooshed over him like cold air and his tongue curled backward on itself, making it impossible to speak.” (Ch. 9 p. 170)

sorcerers

It all began in a cupboard under the stairs…

hallows

A boy, now grown up, and ready to do more with his life in the world outside Hogwarts..

And now it’s your turn to decide…MG or YA?  Hope these thoughts help!  Good luck! 🙂

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How to Show (Not Tell) the Five Senses

All rejected writers have heard it before: I need you to show me, not tell me. I’ve heard it too, though not explicitly, from the few readers I’ve asked to edit my manuscript. Seems like a simple concept to fix, don’t you think?

On the outer surface, sure, I’d agree with that. But then I went to look at my work and realized I needed to do some serious research before revising my “telling” sentences.

After all, what’s the point in re-wording my work if I didn’t understand the root cause holding me back?

HOW TO SHOW, NOT TELL

First, let’s look at two major problems my manuscript readers noticed, as pointed out by agent Mary C. Moore.

  1. One of the biggest hitches in your writing is the over explanation of action/movement. Often you do not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g. “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post,” or “He spun around so he faced forward.” These are all filler actions that slow the pace and are unnecessary to the central plot.

Perfect examples of when I would “tell” what was going on in my story v. “showing” my reader, a.k.a. spoon-feeding, my reader the story. A definite no-no!

Readers don’t want to be spoon-fed. If they can’t visualize the story, why waste time reading it?

That’s right, I said waste. I don’t want to write the book a reader puts down and thinks, eh, not worth it. I want them to imagine the world I’ve created and experience the adventure my characters take on, encouraging them to re-read – not throw away.

messy baby

Don’t spoon feed me the story, I can feed myself! Ok, I’m messy, but I want to do it!

The question, then, is how do we do avoiding telling? Let’s look at problem two first.

  1. The dialogue tags are too fancy (She squealed, He reassured, They bellowed). These are distracting and take away from the dialogue. The dialogue itself should give the emotion, not the tag.

This was an ah-ha moment for me in my writing. Oh crap, I thought. I only do that…everywhere.

Well, one more reason why revising is so important!

Distracting speech tags like the ones mentioned are cliché and unnecessary. The word said (what they tell you NOT to write in elementary school) is really the magic tag. Why?

Because any other word is distracting, and unnecessary adverbs used to spice up “said” only tell me something about a character’s voice or feelings instead of show me something about them.

For example, instead of saying:

“Get out!” he bellowed.

I could say: “Get out!” he said, throwing his hands over his head, grinding his teeth and spitting in the boy’s face.       

See the difference? The second one gives me a lot more about how “he” reacts to the situation, which the dialogue supports, instead of the other way around.

WRITING WITH THE FIVE SENSES 

Okay, now that I’d figured out the difference between my stronger “showing” writing v. my original “telling” style, I set out to fix those issues in my manuscript (time to tackle problem one).

A daunting task, maybe, if I hadn’t done some research on the five senses and the six universal emotions that all people feel, according to psychological studies reviewed by Cornell University, writer @ChuckSambuchino, and articles from the websites Humintell & novel-writing help.

What are the five senses and how do I write them?

Writers Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino mentions how there isn’t anything “more boring in real life than being told all about someone you’ve never met.” A good point, and an honest one that helps differentiate showing v. telling in writing.

Yes, we do need to provide some exposition and backstory in novels, but too much will bore the reader. Developing tension, delivering natural dialogue, and showing expressions & actions, however, can improve the quality of your sentences.

The easiest way to do this?

Understanding exactly what the five senses are, as well as the six universal emotions that all people feel, and will relate to, if described in a novel.

THE FIVE SENSES:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Sound
  • Taste
  • Touch

THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS: i.e. – the emotions everyone feels & understands

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Contempt

Next, put these concepts into writing:

SIGHT

sight

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to describe a sunset if you’d never seen one before?

 

The easiest and, therefore, most commonly used by writers. In other words, the culprit of telling v. showing writing if you only write visuals, painting pictures of appearances of people, places, etc., without triggering the other four senses in the reader. For instance,

His hair looked black v. His matted hair ruffled in the wind, black and furious like a valiant soldier charging forward in the heat of battle.  

Yes, it is nice to know the character’s hair is black, but remember…we don’t want to spoon-feed information to our readers. The second example mentions the hair is black, too, but indicates sound (ruffling of wind), touch (wind against your face), and other senses (when you think about it). If I was a reader, I’m buying the book with sentence two. Wouldn’t you?

SMELL

scent

Nothing triggers a memory like smell…

Smell, without a doubt, is the best trigger of nostalgic memories, giving the reader a greater connection to a character’s internal thoughts…without telling them about them. Using smell can help the reader relive the backstory of a character through flashbacks without black & white descriptions of what happened (boring!).

For me, it’s the smell of grapes. Can you smell them better with sentence two v. sentence one?

smell2

Time to take a trip down memory lane – using my nose!

She walked through the vineyard. v. The sweet, musty scent of the grapes falling off the deciduous vines reminded her of her grandpa, teaching her how to suck the juice out of the fruit without eating the skin – a tricky advantage. She smiled a half-smile, missing him.

SOUND

sound

Everyone loves the sound of a street performer. Music just makes the day better 🙂

Sound, like in movies, can make or break the tension lingering in a moment. We all know the awkward silence on a date (absence of sound can be just as entertaining as sound effects), the boom of an explosion, the crackle of the fire…see what I’m getting at? It’s not the adjective you’re looking for when writing sound into your painted sentences, it’s verbs…and smart ones – the choices everyone can identify because they’ve heard them before. Take a typical action like walking a dog…

The dog walked down the street. v. I trotted behind Rocky, pounding my feet against the pavement in a rhythm that patterned the jingle of his collar and the pant of his tongue. No friend accompanied me on a summer morning like my dog.  

TASTE

taste

Umm…does this photo even need a tag? YUM!

 

Nothing brings people together like food. It comforts us, it satisfies us, it sometimes even fills the voids in our emotions, lifting our spirits on a bad day or making the night a tad more romantic. Sometimes you don’t even need to mention what a character tastes to help the reader understand what their character’s tongue senses. Just mention the word tongue – people can imagine what the character tastes because, fun fact, we all eat! For example…

She dove into the ocean. v. She opened her lips, washing her tongue with a mouthful of salt water.

Notice how I didn’t mention the character was in the ocean in the second sentence? Do you think you would imagine her in the sea if you hadn’t read the first sentence…well…first?

Gotcha!

TOUCH

feel

Priceless, the warmth of snuggling with your best friend 🙂 Touch brings us together, even if we lack other senses.

 

Touch. No sense can replace it. Especially not sight. Recently, I learned of a friend-of-a-friend who discovered her 5-week baby boy is completely deaf and potentially blind. Can you imagine, a mother who coos to her newborn son hour after loving hour, learning her sweet baby has never heard her voice? Maybe never even seen her? It’s horrific, the idea. But all people can touch. And if this baby is blind and deaf, he can feel the warmth of his mother when she holds him and the thump of her heart beating against his head when he lies on her chest. Drumming him into his dreamworld of nightingales and fairies. Isn’t that a brighter description than The deaf baby lay on his mother’s chest?

Last but not least, don’t forget THE SIXTH SENSE (a very powerful sense that peeks into the character’s psyche, if your novel focuses on a world with supernatural beings).

 

THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS

If you’ve made it this far, there’s a chance (though I hope not!) that your stomach is grumbling or the goop in your drooping eyes is growing thicker, making you sleepier. So I’ll make this snappy – my last suggestion that helped me revise my writing, making it more descriptive!

According to All Things Workplace: “There are 10,000 different facial expressions. About 3,000 of these facial expressions are relevant to emotion and most people only use 50-60 in normal conversation.” Good to know, but telling a reader how these 10,000 facial expressions look on your character’s face is not enough to entertain the reader trying to imagine (and experience!) your novel’s adventure.

Want to know how to change that? Less is more, my friend. Out of those 10,000 facial expressions, seven are universally felt, indicating clear changes in emotions by slight facial muscle movements. Below, I’ve provided Cornell University’s study of the subtle changes in muscle movement (indicating these emotions through facial expressions) with the help of my oh-so-lovely (bear with me, no extravagant makeup on today!) photo collage, demonstrating the subtle differences with visual examples. What are they?

EMOTIONS MOTION CUES (muscle movement)
Happiness Raising and lowering of mouth corners
Sadness Lowering of mouth corners, raising inner portion of brows, eyelids loose
Anger Brows lowered, lips pressed firmly (margins of lips may be pulled in) or teeth bared, eyes bulging
Disgust Upper lip pulled up, nose bridge is wrinkled, cheeks raised, eyebrows pulled down
Fear Eyebrows pulled up and together, upper eyelids pulled up, mouth stretched (opened slightly)
Surprise Entire eyebrows pulled up, eyelids pulled up (expose more white of the eye), mouth hangs open
Contempt Eyes neutral, lip corner pulled up and back on one side only (contempt is the only unilateral expression)

Can You Tell Which is Which?

seven emotions

Which one, which one? Can you tell? Can you imagine how you would describe your character’s facial expressions in your writing?

Were You Right?

seven emotions w: description

How many did you guess right?

 

Why do you think understanding the seven universal emotions matters? Because we all feel them! And if your character feels them, your reader can imagine how they feel, too! Understanding how a character would look when they feel one of these emotions is crucial to writing sight, but (Do I have to say it again? If you insist.) don’t tell what their facial expression looks like alone. Our faces might be the focus of our appearances, but it’s all of our senses & shared emotions that help us connect with a novel’s characters on a different level.

So…

Don’t write: She felt angry. (Way too vague!)

Write: Rage boiled inside her stomach, heating the inside of her throat as she restrained the screams scrapping her diaphragm, begging to escape. She pressed her lips firmly into each other, narrowing her eyebrows and shaking, like the cover on a pot containing boiling water, rattling against the metal until steam popped it off. My mom was not someone you messed with when she was angry.

Well there you go, some sense and emotion pointers to help you write descriptions that SHOW (NOT TELL)! Hope it helps!  I would love to hear your comments and any other thoughts you have on writing…with all five senses!

 

Query Letter in a Nutshell

You can read about the do’s and don’ts on query letters from Google to space, but which way is the right way? The agent’s way, of course! After all, they’re the ones surfing through seas of slush to find the perfect story (for them). Of course, every agent looks for something different and it’s up to you to do your homework (research, read, and research!). But even dedicated researchers enjoy a head start. I give you, writing a query letter in a nutshell (proceed with coffee!).

Cheer up, Sunshine.  These #writingtips will help (I hope)!

Cheer up, Sunshine. These #writingtips will help (I hope)!

What is a query letter?

  • A letter that accompanies your submission to an agent or editor (it is the hook to your manuscript, so make it good!)

What is NOT a query letter?

  • A link to your website or other outside source (social media) – it’s not about YOU. It’s about your story.
  • An assumption that the agent will read your letter/manuscript (they have a lot to get through (some get 500 a week, yikes – thanks agents!)
  • Reaching out through Twitter. You can’t just link your story to an agent and assume they have everything they need to make a decision (if the work is right for them).
  • A desperate “please, read me!” letter filled with forced gimmicks. THIS IS A BUSINESS RELATIONSHIP. Don’t make yourself look “crazy” – you don’t need to do anything to make yourself stand out. If you’ve done your homework, your WORK will illuminate it’s promising potential. Remember, the story is what’s important…not how creative you are in a query (Sorry! No pink resumes needed here.)

Remember, agents take serious time reading your letter/manuscript, so spend equal time providing them what they need to determine if your story is right for their agency. A lazy query letter captivates…zero agents…nor do uninformative assumptions. You’ve spent a bundle of time on your manuscript (I’m sure!); so don’t trip at the finish line.

Write a good query, don't throw your hard work in the PASS slush.

Write a good query, don’t throw your hard work in the PASS slush.

Got it? Great. Moving on…what is an agent looking for in a query letter? Simpler details than you think!

Query Letter in a Nutshell (in my preference of order – yours might be different):

  • Personal Greeting
  • Brief Introduction of Your Book (type, and why it fits your agent)
  • Summary of the Book (FOCUS ON PLOT, like description on the back of a book)
  • Comparative Titles
  • BRIEF biography about yourself (don’t call attention to your lack of experience)
  • Thank You Sentence
  • Formal Send-Off

Details and Examples:

Ok, I'm ready; fire away!

Ok, I’m ready; fire away!

  • Personal Greeting: Dear Mr./Ms.________ (specific agent name)
    • You shouldn’t send query letters to every agent you see on Chuck Sambuchino’s guide to literary agent list. Every agent is an individual (What? You’re kidding? No, I’m not.). Not every agent is seeking your genre – so don’t waste his/her or your time.
    • This is where research comes into play: Writers who research agents ACTUALLY REQUESTING their genre are more likely to have that agent inquire them for more of the manuscript. I know…it doesn’t sound like brain surgery…but it is nice to hear – send young adult novels to agents looking for young adult…not adult or children’s (same goes for your book genre; i.e. romance, mystery, etc.)
  • Brief Introduction of Your Book Type (and why it fits your agent)
    • One sentence on your book type, its word count, and why it’s a good story for the agent.
      • My ______(genre; i.e. YA fantasy) novel _______ (title of book IN ALL CAPS) (85,000 words – number of your novel’s words in parentheses) might be a good fit for you because _______ (evidence that you’ve done your research and are catering this letter specifically to this agent’s interests).
      • Example: My adult mystery novel FINDING JEFFREY (65,000 words) might be a good fit for you because you have published many thrilling mysteries in a historical setting.
  • Summary of the Book (FOCUS ON PLOT, think…the description on the back of a book)
    • Okay – probably the toughest part. Why is it so hard to write a 150 word summary of your book when you’ve written the whole monstrous dang thing? Because you’ve written the whole monstrous dang thing. The best summary you write is the summary when you get out of your head. Avoid backstory. Avoid naming more than three characters (one or two is better). Avoid complicated details.
    • But what will be left to write about, you ask? The Plot. And that’s all the agent probably wants. They need to make sure the story is right for them before reading further.
    • My best suggestion? Avoid focusing on details and as a result you will likely increase the amount of tension in your summary. Without tension the blurb won’t draw in potential readers. Read about 20 back covers of books at once and then rewrite your summary. Consider screenwriter Blake Snyder’s logline from HELL (clear visual, target audience, ironythe hook!), and stop thinking. Then write – who, what, (when?), where, and why. The reader will find out how if they read the book.
    • For example: Here is a synopsis for Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach
      • After James Henry Trotter’s parents are tragically eaten by a rhinoceros, he goes to live with his two horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge. Life there is no fun, until James accidentally drops some magic crystals by the old peach tree and strange things start to happen. The peach at the top of the tree begins to grow, and before long it’s as big as a house. Inside, James meets a bunch of oversized friends—Grasshopper, Centipede, Ladybug, and more. With a snip of the stem, the peach starts rolling away, and the great adventure begins!
  • Comparative Titles
    • Comparative Titles. Some agents want them, some don’t care – but they don’t hurt, so why not add them? You can read my blog on comparative titles for more details, but since I promised blogging a query letter in a nutshell
      • Have one, no more than two, AND MAKE THEM CURRENT.
      • Don’t focus on similarity in plot…why would an agent want to sell the same book? Instead, focus on voice, style, tone…no story has a 100% innovative plot (we all follow some sort of structure/pattern), but each stems from a unique voice.
  • BRIEF biography about yourself (don’t call attention to your lack of experience)
    • One to three sentences on a brief bio, including information RELATIVE to your writing experience. You don’t need to tell the agent you are a single mom dying of cancer…pity points aren’t going to help you.
    • However, you might want to mention…
      • MFA in creative writing (not a requirement for publishing, but it helps!)
      • You’re a debut writer
      • Any publishing experience
      • Other published works
      • Where your from/education
      • Profession (if relatable to writing experience)
    • I’ll say it again because it’s that important – less is more! (i.e. if you don’t have a bunch of experience or no published work…it’s not the end of the world. Just don’t call attention to that detail more than you have to. Saying you’re a debut writer – fine! Discussing how you’ve tried to get an agent for the next Harry Potter for five years…not so much).
  • Thank You Sentence
    • Always, ALWAYS thank an agent for their time and consideration (in one/two sentences). It’s just polite. Besides, the agent is probably cross-eyed by the time they read your query, and will appreciate your sincerity.
    • Example: Thank you for taking the time to review my manuscript; your time is greatly appreciated. I look forward to hearing from you.
      • Professional, Polite, Simple, Sweet…Sold (assuming you followed the previous steps).
  • Formal Send-Off
    • You’re not buddy-buddies with the agent…yet (but you could be with the right query letter). Don’t drown your send-off with superfluous words. Sincerely works just fine, followed by your name, e-mail, and website address (if you have one).
    • For example:

Sincerely,

Cookie Monster

cookiefiend@gmail.com

www.ilovecookies.com

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  I'm ready!

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy; time for writing and revising!

Phew! So that’s it, a query letter in a nutshell. Hopefully this distracted you long enough to recharge your batteries before 5 – and if not, send me comments or tweet me. I’d love to continue the discussion!

Writers Write: Getting into a Routine

Sticking to a writing routine can be scary...the commitment!  Do it anyway, you won't regret it.

Sticking to a writing routine can be scary…the commitment! Do it anyway, you won’t regret it.

There are two kinds of people – writers and thinkers.

It’s not that one of these types is better than the other; the writer is just more disciplined.

They write, every day, and stick to a routine.

Getting into a Routine

A lot of famous writers have shared their writing routines over time to assist fellow writers with the difficult process of designing a writing routine. A discipline much easier said than done.

The bottom line? There is no one, universal writing routine. It’s just not possible. People think differently and have different motivations and pet peeves. If you try to mimic another writer’s routine verbatim, I guarantee you’ll fail. You must find your own…a routine that works for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t design your routine accordingly.

Following the Four “Rs.”

I’m not going to tell you it’s easy to be a disciplined writer. It’s not. Some days you have to force yourself to get inspired (if you’re author Peter DeVries, you might say you force yourself to “get inspired every day at 9 A.M.”). Easy? No. Possible? Writing is a profession, is it not?

But how to you make yourself write every day? Kids take up a lot of time. You barely have time to keep the house clean. Debut writers don’t usually make enough money to support themselves without another job. There’s just too much to do to write every day!   You think.

Poor excuse.

No, I’m not here to lecture you on what you should and should not do; I’m not an agent, or an editor, or J.K. Rowling – and I’m not going to pretend like I’m a bestseller who knows the answer to everything (because I’m not yet, and nobody does). What I can offer is my strategy for getting over distractions – my routine guided by the four “Rs,” organizing essential categories by subcategories.

  • Release
  • Read/Research
  • Write (with an “R”)
  • Resiliency/Remove Distractions

 

You might like some, hate others, or throw all of them all out. At least you will have taken the first step – look for advice on how to make a routine that fits your lifestyle!

R #1: RELEASE

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Exercise the Body, Exercise the Mind

You don’t have to be an exercise junkie like me to get your creative mind churning, but exercise does help relieve stress and other distractions keeping you from your notebook (fun fact, 95% of all stress is emotional; exercise acts as an antidepressant, keeping your mind motivated…people need to move – but not during writing hours!).

For me, I like to kill two birds with one stone – reading and researching on my phone, kindle, or hardcover book while exercising (more on that later). But not everyone likes the elliptical or bike like I do or you might struggle to read while bobbing up and down; yet, you can find other ways to search for inspiration while exercising (like listening to music!).

I don’t think there is a max time everyone should exercise before writing, but I do recommend a good, carefree 30 minutes of cardio (from running to yoga) or weightlifting before you hit the laptop. I know, it can be hard to get to gym, especially after working an eight-hour day – try! Not only is exercising a good way to build your mental strength, physically (pushing through physical pain), but it grounds good habits (if you think you can get through writer’s block, you will!). Try it for 30 days (time needed to become disciplined) and see if you are less distracted and antsy when sitting down to write.

R #2: READ/RESEARCH

Do Your Homework

Don't know much about the publishing business?  Go research it!  I find Twitter and Writers Digest great resources to start.

Don’t know much about the publishing business? Go research it! I find Twitter and Writers Digest great resources to start.

I know…you thought you were done with this post school. Don’t fret; you are – but don’t forsake the search engine! Now that you’ve completed required work, it’s time to research material you actually like. You’ll find lots of writers (like me & other bloggers!) excited to share nugget-filled articles or writing tips, arming you with knowledge needed to understand the publishing business (agents, editors, writer conferences) or kick bad writing funks.

Best place to start? Twitter and Google – both lead you to great hashtags and communicative connections, building your networking to a level you never dreamed!

Read Your Genre

If don't read your genre, you won't know where to place your book in the bookstore...and neither will your agent/editor.

If don’t read your genre, you won’t know where to place your book in the bookstore…and neither will your agent/editor.

“Be well read in your genre and know the market” – Jessica Alvarez of Bookends, LLC.

There is a BIG different between the style of writing expected in a genre and age group (MG is very different from YA, which is far from Adult). Why is reading your genre so important? Two reasons.

1) You want to write in the same voice as comparable authors. They’ve succeeded in capturing the audience you want.

2) You should provide comparable (CURRENT) titles/authors in your query letter. If you don’t read your genre, your titles might be outdated. Comparable titles/authors help the agents decide where to place your book in the bookstore. If you don’t know, they won’t know…and won’t inquire you for more pages.

R #3: Write (“R”)

Hemmingway, if he could do it...so can you.

Hemmingway, if he could do it…so can you.

2 Hours a Day

Why two hours a day? I couldn’t tell you for a fact it’s proven to be the best amount spent writing (though Writer’s Digest suggest it, and I trust 99% of what they suggest). I can tell you from personal experience, however, that unless I put aside two hours a day for writing, I start to get lazy the next time I do try to write. The main flaw of skipping writing each day? I noticed mine in revision 1 v. revision 3 of my book. In my first revision, I took notes in the week and read, but only wrote on Sundays. The result when I read the book in its entirety? Let’s just say at one point I realized I had cut off someone’s hand…only to have it magically grow back again two chapters later. I think you get my point.

Put the two hours in the day, minimum – somewhere, somehow. Once you find a time and make it routine, you’ll dread the days you miss it. I promise (writing is part of who we are!).

Keep a Notebook

God, I love my journals!  How would I take notes without you?

God, I love my journals! How would I take notes without you?

Or multiple notebooks! You might want to assign certain notebooks for certain responsibilities. For instance, I recently completed a stand-alone book, with series potential. In one of my notebooks (a plain leather-brown like Hemingway), I record spontaneous, standout observations I have in the world surrounding me (setting, dialogue, personalities, tastes, etc.). In another notebook (my baby, colorful and quoted with a verse about the fruit of the spirit), I record future plot points for books later in my series. I also jot down character descriptions (names, appearances, relationships) and other sub-world creations. This notebook is the heart of my series, getting fatter every day. Last, I have my elephant notebook (I love elephants – my good luck charm!) for random thoughts and facts. You might use your phone, or you might carry a notebook, but if you’re a writer…CARRY SOMETHING. You will make the common writer’s mistake of oh, I’ll write it down later. Guess what happens later.

Pick a Time

Early to rise/early to bed doesn’t exist for a writer. However, some writers will tell you they prefer to wake up early or stay up late to write. Why? Fewer distractions at these times. Whether this commonality is true or not for you, a designated time WILL help you become more disciplined to your practice. It doesn’t matter what time of day you choose, but allot a couple of hours somewhere in the day, AND BE CONSISTENT.

You might have a day you write more than the assigned time on regular days (I leave Sunday for a full-writing day, and work a minimum of two hours on other days – striving for more), or you might not. Again, you can read lots of suggestions from other writers, but ultimately you need a time that works for YOU (or you’ll find an excuse to skip it).

R #4: Resiliency/Remove Distractions

Push through the brain-block times.  If you don't write, you'll never succeed.

Push through the brain-block times. If you don’t write, you’ll never succeed.

Turn off Social Media

If your stomach just tied in knots, you know this one applies to you! With such easy access to the Internet and other social media, it’s hard to turn off our portable devices and tune out to anything but writing. PUT THE CELL PHONE DOWN! I promise, you’ll thank me for it. It might take a while to get in your writing groove, but you will never get there if you keep answering the ding-ding going off in the phone next to you or checking Facebook. Spending time on the Internet is necessary for every writer (yes, we DO need to promote ourselves!), but only when it is appropriate. Writing time is not an appropriate time. Your characters don’t want to talk to Mom when she’s on the phone or watching TV – they want her full, undivided attention! (Let the magic happen.)

Create Your Inspiration (It’s all about Ambience)

Say it with me...THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITER'S BLOCK!

Say it with me…THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITER’S BLOCK!

There is no such thing as writer’s block (boom! explosions!). Sorry, friends, there just isn’t. Excuses? Sure. Days you don’t feel like writing? Yup. Frustrated? Often. Stuck? More than often. Solution?

You MUST force yourself to let go of whatever is holding you up, and a good way to start this (other than reading and research because you’ve already checked this step off the list for today) is setting up the ambience in your room. Some authors like the chaos of a living room, finding natural background noise to be helpful (or conducive to writing or some other way to finish this sentence). Others prefer absolute silence (hence, those early birds or night owls). You might be an outside writer or inside writer or a writer that needs a beverage within reach. Maybe you make a playlist for writing, played ONLY when writing (acting like a bell signaling food to an animal – crazy to think about, but it works!). Bottom line is you need to know YOURSELF and the atmosphere you work best in.

Find the place and ambience best for your writing, and write there consistently. It’s not OCD (OK, maybe a little); it’s helping settle your mind. If you’re comfortable, you let down your guard. You stop worrying and start imagining.

You stop writer’s block by writing.

And besides the four “Rs”…Don’t Give Up!

I couldn't help myself...this picture is a story of its own.  Now go write yours!

I couldn’t help myself…too cute! This picture is a story of its own. Now go write yours!

The best advice I can give you about writing is this: take it seriously. If you want to write, you can – but you must be patient, disciplined, thick-skinned, and consistent. Accept the truth. You will need to write and re-write (and re-write…etc.). You do need to make a website. You should try to use social media and strive to attend writer’s conferences (try to make connections). You must allot time to write every day. And most importantly, you must BELIEVE IN YOURSELF.

If you want writing to be a hobby, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. Writing isn’t a hobby for you – it’s more than that. It’s the portal to your story (and soul).

The real secret to a writer’s routine? Stay focused, educate yourself, and never get up.

So who you are – thinker or writer?  You choose.

I hope you choose the later.

I hope you choose the later.

Writing Characters

Apple or Orange?

Left or Right?

Follower or Leader?

Head or Heart?

If you Google writing characters you’ll probably find a bunch of websites providing various charts of the same (basic) thing: a character chart (asking questions about your character). Don’t get me wrong, character sheets ask crucial questions an author needs to know before developing complex Katniss Everdeen or Samwise Gamgee characters – but man-oh-man is it hard to answer some of those questions. I know I struggled with some of the more personal questions like character’s greatest fear & character’s secret. How do you answer something multifaceted with a simple one-word/sentence answer? It’s near impossible, isn’t it? Aren’t characters like people, beings that are inexplicably complex?

Aren’t we more mysterious than that?

We wish.

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Confession time: Animals are mysterious. But people? Characters? Sorry to tell you, Joe, but people are not mysterious…and neither are characters. Writers can write surprise plot twist, people can surprise you sometimes…but our personality? Accept it or not, we all have internal instincts that define who we are, revealing our true spirits in the end.

No, I don’t think character sheets secure permeant answers about your characters because characters, like people, grow, mature, and change.  I do think provide guidelines necessary for grounding a writer’s understanding of who their characters are – deep down. If we don’t know who our characters are or what they want to be, we have no story. Period.

HELP! That doesn’t make answering the character chart any easier!

BULLET TIME!

The perfect recipe before writing characters:

Mix…

The result? Four categories to fuel your Q&A till you hit that ah-ha moment – that I KNOW WHO MY CHARACTER IS moment. My advice to you? Be brave and stop over thinking. Completing character charts isn’t an interview for a job, though sometimes it feels like one. Your characters are your babies, your friends, sometimes even a reflection of yourself…let them talk to you, learn from them, and don’t connect – REFLECT. Their flaws and their strengths will identify their personality and psyche, making them universal and reader-relatable.

4 Categories to ONE Realization – Writing Memorable Characters

  • APPLE or ORANGE?
  • LEFT or RIGHT?
  • FOLLOWER OR LEADER?
  • HEAD or HEART?

APPLE OR ORANGE?

This question is probably just because I wanted something light and fun to start with or because I’m a movie buff and my immediate thought (when I hear apple & orange) is the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding reciting his speech at the reception… “You know, the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller come from the Greek word ‘milo,’ which is mean ‘apple,’ so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word ‘portokali,’ which mean ‘orange.’ So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.

Pretty comical analysis used to identify different people, yet true. Apple or Orange, different and yet (in the end) the same…so what does this have to do with writing characters?

Think about it.

Crunchy, sweet, tart, and delicious!  Very tough, versatile fruits :)

Crunchy, sweet, tart, and delicious! Very tough, versatile fruits 🙂

Apple: Apples are hard, crunchy. They come in various colors (green, yellow, red, red and yellow). They have lots of different flavors from tart to sweet, and can be specialized for different cooking like sour ingredients in a summer salad or sugary cinnamon-apple pies. They can bruise, but only after suffering a nasty fall. They endure, growing best in a time when everything else starts to die (fall). They heal, preventing germs from invading our immune systems, which is perhaps one of the reasons Greek mythology symbolizes the honey-tasting, magical apples as the fruit Hera (queen of the Greek gods) protected with a dragon. They’re not perfect (just ask Troy). Tough, yes, but not invincible – a worm can infect an apple at its core, rotting it from the inside out.

Oranges, tangy with an acidic punch, flavoring your tongue with a sticky juice without any surprises!  Tough to tear open, but squishy on the inside.

Oranges, tangy with an acidic punch, flavoring your tongue with a sticky juice without any surprises! Tough to tear open, but squishy on the inside.

Orange: Oranges are squishy, juicy, acidic, and bright. Oranges come in one color, orange (hence the name), giving the fruit-pickers a food consistent with its imagery. There are no surprises to the taste of an orange unless you choose to gnaw on its skin (blah!) – tough skin, much tougher than an apple’s thin layer (easier to puncture, very thin). The difference? Oranges are soft on the inside, storing a sweet & tangy juice (and sticky!) that powers the immune system with Vitamin C – an energy charger, a cold fighter, a contender. A fruit that is mature beyond seasons, leaving no question to why the Dutch symbolized the orange as the social and moral status of a person in fifteenth century portraits.

Did you think about your own characters when you read these descriptions? Good.  Now analyze a complex character like Katniss or Samwise. Can you decide which one they resemble? Or are they, as Papa Portokolos would say…both fruit?

Left or Right?

People tend to use one part of their brain more than others - by identifying the dominant part of someone's brain, we can better predict their decisions/personalities

People tend to use one part of their brain more than others – by identifying the dominant part of someone’s brain, we can better predict their decisions/personalities

There are four parts to a person’s brain – right frontal, right basal, left frontal, and left basal – and two sides – left and right. Scientists claim people use only about 10% of their total brain capacity (how crazy is that?), leaving the other 90% floating off into a less-dominant storage space. Ideally, people would tap into all parts/sides of their brain, overcoming any flaws created by their more dominant instincts. Without the other 90%, however, people are not perfect – and that’s okay because characters aren’t perfect either (it’s what makes them interesting!). Consider the four dominate personalities created by each side of the brain and decide where your characters sit.

  • Left Frontal – logical, judgmental, good at making decisions, black & white way, analytical
  • Right Frontal – out-of-the-box thinkers, creative, sees the big picture and intuitive, but emotional/cares about feelings of others
  • Left Basal – highly organized, attention to detail (might organize everything by color)
  • Right Basal – emotional and nurturing, talkative

Did you decide what your characters are yet? Pump your jets! You should also consider two personality types that complicate your character’s personality –

  • Extroverted – outgoing, social
  • Introverted – quiet, lets others take the lead
extrovert-introvert

Who are you?

Got your brain type/personality now? Wonderful. I bet that helped, didn’t it? If you get stuck, think about the difference between Katniss (right frontal, introvertedtakes the lead even if she doesn’t want to be the leader. Makes decisions and sees the big picture but cares when her decisions hurt people she loves) v. Samwise (right basal, introverteda gardener, very nurturing and caring for the small things he loves but tougher than he thinks…taking the lead when Frodo fades).

FOLLOWER OR LEADER?

Pretty straightforward, so I won’t get into this category much, though don’t mistake how important it is when analyzing your character(s). I will make one point about something I’ve noticed in the fantasy stories (and other literary fiction/nonfiction) I love – follower or leader, the protagonist (hero) usually BECOMES a or BECOMES a STRONGER leader in the end. Sometimes they start off as a follower, like Samwise, but tremendous challenges force them to make decisions, pulling out their inner hero-spirit (restoring the reader’s hope!). Others, like Katniss, don’t choose to be a leader; they’re designated the job. They learn to embrace their role (like it or not) because they understand the importance of the responsibility (again, to give hope!). A hero is leader who must make sacrifices to protect the ones they love.

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Who are your characters? Follower or Leader?

HEAD OR HEART?

Another obvious category but in my opinion the most important. Look back at your character’s brain and reassess their dominant use of it (paired with their extrovert or introvert personality). Got it? Great – so tell me, head or heart? How does your character make a decision? Do they act before thinking, or think before they act? Are they logical and rationalize all sides of a situation before making a decision, or are they emotional, acting from their heart…always.  Head or Heart, your character will always lean towards one side or the other – and it’s that gut-instinct glorifying who they are as a hero.

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Well, there you have it, the four categories I use to help tackle those what-I-need-to-know-before-writing-character questions. Sorry to tell you, but you’re not off the hook. You do still need to (or I would HIGHLY advise you to consider) answer at least Brian Klem’s ten killer character questions via @WritersDigest. No, my blog probably didn’t feed you the answers to these ten, but hopefully it did one thing…

Teach you to stop thinking about your characters and start thinking LIKE your characters!

Getting in their head is the only way you can get them to talk to you. It took me three drafts before this magic started happening. Maybe if I had thought about what I mentioned above, I would have heard them sooner (and been able to answer those ten questions easier!).

Good thing you read this cheat sheet. Now stop reading, stop thinking and…Get LISTENING!

Go WRITE! 🙂