Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.

YA Literature That Pushes Modern Boundaries

I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Rhyming Picture Books: A Rhyme With Reason

There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing

Using “suddenly” in creative writing can be a faux pas. There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times.

But unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off a quick explanation for why writers generally should stay away from the word “suddenly.”

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Suddenly, a wild chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They wallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see.

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

Context Is Key

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

If you’re finding crutches and clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

Great News!

Since it is officially up on the website now, I can announce it: I am an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency!

Check out my bio on the agency website!

If you are a YA, MG or picturebook writer, please think of me when you put together your query list.

As a result of my new position, I’ll be making changes to the blog, vetting some old posts and generally getting everything into brand new shape. Please pardon the dust while I revamp some of my old content and look for more content geared to aspiring writers in the future!

Teenage Perspective Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite parts of SCBWI (where I took no pictures, because I am made of #epicfail, by the way) was Krista Marino’s voice workshop, where we dissected and discussed what an authentic teen voice is. One of the keenest insights came when she invited her author Frank Portman (mastermind behind KING DORK and the forthcoming ANDROMEDA KLEIN) to talk about his songwriting for his band, The Mr. T Experience (better known as MTX).

Now, full disclosure time: Frank Portman didn’t land on my radar with his brilliant YA debut novel, far from it. I was a fan long, long ago. When I was 14-15-16-17, I’d pile into a friend’s ride or drive my junker Ford Taurus up and down the San Francisco Bay Area and go to MTX shows. (There’s a fangirl picture of me with Dr. Frank, in fact, that I tried to find for you guys, where I’m wearing a leopard print coat, a rockabilly dress, an Avril tie, knee socks… all the trappings of good teenage fashion sense, believe you me… It’s probably best that I seem to have misplaced it, on second thought…)

Dr. Frank and Krista made a very good point during the workshop. Writers, remember:

Teens aren’t stupider versions of adults. They’re just as smart, just as emotional, just as perceptive… they’re simply lacking the experience and perspective that most adults get in the process of living more years on the planet.

And, since your character will change over the course of your story, your narrative is just one way they’ll get some different perspective and evolve as people, right? Excellent. In the meantime, as you’re fleshing your characters out, MTX songs make an excellent primer in teen voice and angst.

Have you forgotten how desperate guys are to find a girl, any girl who likes them/wants to talk to them/can stand looking at them? Do you remember the sting of feeling completely alone and invisible to the opposite sex? Listen to the hilarious “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” off of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Have you forgotten the tremendous roller coaster of first love? The ups and downs and the dizzy compulsion to make it work despite any and all common sense? Try “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” from Revenge Is Sweet, And So Are You on for size.

Do you remember the ecstasy of finding the one person who understands you? The relief of discovering an oasis amidst the torture of high school? Listen to “Thank You (For Not Being One of Them)” off of Love is Dead.

If you think your voice is lacking authenticity, if your teen emotions aren’t ringing true, do yourself a favor and pick up a couple of Mr. T Experience albums. And yes, this is extremely, extremely gratifying for my 16 year-old inner fangirl. Who knew my nerdy MTX fandom would pay off career-wise? You can check out their record label’s minisite by clicking here. You can also check out Dr. Frank’s website.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Start a Query Letter

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Finish a Query Letter

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

Exciting Writing At the Sentence Level

Some writers are just a blast to read, they master exciting writing at the sentence level, from paragraph to paragraph. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from one page to the next.

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Exciting writing begins at the sentence level.

How to Create Exciting Writing at the Sentence Level

How do they do it?

Let me wager a guess: sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are crucial to good, flowing, engaging writing.

A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of craft at the sentence level. Here are three things to watch out for in revision that will make your prose sing.

How to Begin a Sentence

Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.

Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:

I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.

Or:

He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.

If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way.

How Long Should Sentence Be

Sentence length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you write. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.

Now compare to this one:

The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.

I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.

Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing

Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:

Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.

Short, choppy sentences heighten tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:

Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.

Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of the length of your sentences.

How to Use Punctuation

There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon.

Harnessing Your Writing Tics

Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.

One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:

“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”

Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.

I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one.

Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice

Repeat after me, folks:

Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!

Feels good, right? Playing with sentence structure is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!

An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.

When to Use the Second Person

Is everyone clear on what the 2nd person is? It’s the “you” in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally. Here are a few examples:

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also the implied 2nd person, which is sort of like the second example only the “you” is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of the 2nd person… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the 2nd person, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Now that we’re all clear on what the 2nd person is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional 2nd person because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the “you” will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless 2nd person outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Tip: If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of a 2nd person rhetorical question to launch a query letter:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

Inspiration from a Genius

So, quick moment of disclosure: I am a pretty hardcore musical theatre geek. This is a side of myself I have been rediscovering recently. And when I say “musical theatre,” I’m aware that the initial connotations are the likes of Wicked and 42nd Street. No, I like my musical theatre dark. I wrote my college thesis on Stephen Sondheim and, more importantly, on his show Company.

Last night, I was watching the DVD of Company, the John Doyle production with Raul Esparza, a show that I saw in New York last year. And, like the rabid fan I am, I was making my way through the special features when I came across an interview with Sondheim and a quote that I think is an inspiration to all writers.

The interviewer asks Stephen if it is difficult to be “a living legend” and to feel the pressure of such an impressive Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning back catalog whenever he sits down to write. This might not be a situation familiar to the likes of us (just yet), but his answer applies to you (yes, you!) this very second:

“I try to pick something that frightens me. I think a writer should frighten himself, otherwise you tend to write the same thing again.”

This is your writing reminder of the day (from a freaking genius, no less!) to take risks, make bold choices and write from that vulnerable, raw place in your heart that you swore you’d never show to anyone. Only then will you emerge with a piece of vibrant, breathing, authentic fiction that’s worth reading.