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Posts Tagged ‘critique groups’

I thought I’d have a bit of fun and set you guys a little task. Now, I am not the best query letter writer. No really, I’m not being modest. I really hate writing them.

Below, I have swallowed what little pride I have, and copied an old query letter of mine. Now, your task is to read it:

Donna Newton
1 Writers Lane
London

Mobile: 01234567891
pointwelldonna@googlemail.com

5th July 2011

Agent 007
Their Office
Agent Lane
London

Dear Mr Agent,

Re: Legend – The Messiah’s Cross

The Legend is a supernatural story set around two Reapers in a small Texan town. The idea was created for TV, and the pilot was written for the American market. Earlier this year I went to L.A., where my manager also suggested I adapt it into a novel.

I have been writing for many years and my previous publishing credits are all article based within the UK magazine market. I am a member of the Romance Writers of America and belong to Kristen Lamb’s Warrior Writers Boot Camp. I spent many years with Essex Police, where a large majority of my ideas are born. I have written one other novel, and am ready to start my third.

I have enclosed a synopsis and three chapters as requested in your guidelines.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Donna Newton

 

Okay, read it? Good.

An author friend of mine, Linda Regan, severely chastised me for writing this letter. I want you to see if you can tell me why. Put your comments in the – you’ve guessed it – comments box, and I will publish the corrected version in a couple of days.

Have fun, and be kind to me.

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So you’ve written your book. You’ve gone through a million and one edits and now it’s finished. What do you do next?

Answer: Jump up and down with relief? Phone everyone I know and brag that I’m now a writer? Ah, I know. I find an agent or publisher, of course.

Question. What another one? Okay, what is it? ………..How do I find the right agent or publisher?

I was recently asked this very question and, if I am honest, it shocked me. I just assumed people, especially writers, would know. I mean the information is absolutely everywhere.

It’s like when you watch a quiz show on television. You assume that, because you know the answer to some questions, everyone will, too. They are the easy questions, right? Well it was the same with this question.

I had to sit and think back to the days when I first wanted to submit to a publisher. I was very young and stupid, and all the memories of bad mistakes came flooding back. No wonder I’d blocked them from my mind, along with the images of that awful, back-combed hair do I insisted on during the ’80’s. So, today’s post is going back to basics – just for you new writers out there.

Okay, your book is written, the grammar has been checked, and you’re so happy with the rewrites and edits, you fill like bursting with excitement. What do you do, now? That’s easy, I hear you say. I send it to lots and lots of people who…… Whoa, hang on there, Speedy Gonzales. It’s a little more involved than that.

Mills and Boon have reportedly claimed that, from the massive tens of thousands submissions they receive each year, if they find 10 or 12 new authors, they have had a bumper year.

The days of writing a great novel just isn’t enough to cut it these days. As with everything, the more choice available, the more picky people get – and in our case, it’s publishers and agents.

Would you believe me if I told you there is a high probability your novel will never be read? No? Most publishers and agents have what’s called a ‘slush’ pile, and your novel, yes, the one you’ve slaved over day and night for the past year, can end up sitting on it, like a cherry on top of an ice-cream sundae. Well it can, and most probably will if you don’t adhere to the following rules:

Rule One: Get yourself a copy of the ‘Writers and Artists Yearbook’, and make sure it is an up to date copy. They are printed every year, and also have a website so there is no excuse to use information that is three years old.

Rule Two: The all important research. I cannot stress enough that, just because you’ve typed ‘THE END’ on your novel, it is the end of you research too. Research never ends. It must be reapplied to the next job in hand – in this case, finding the correct agent/publisher. Sending to every contact listed in the W&AY (Writers & Artists Yearbook) is nothing more than a waste of time and money. This book tells you who is best to contact and lists everything you will need to start: The agents/publishers contact details, their required genres, submission details, etc. Everything is in this book.

Rule Three: Over to the internet. Just because the W&AY lists the details, doesn’t mean they are completely up to date. An agent or editor may have left or be closed to submissions. It happens. Think how many times you have changed your email address. Can you honestly say, with hand on heart, you’ve remembered to update every social network site you joined in the past year? So, log on to the contacts company website. Check the editor is still the editor. Check their email address remains the same, check they are still accepting submissions. Check, check, check. These are the things that make sure your novel will reach the right person.

Rule Four: Presentation. Most manuscripts are required in a certain format: Typed, double-spaced, 12pt Times New Roman, inch wide margins and un-justified. Please stick to this. Don’t use fonts so fancy they are hard to read, or make your writing so small the agent will need a magnify glass, otherwise the only thing seeing it will be the ‘slush pile’.

Rule Five: Following the Rules. Just because agent Joanne wants the first three chapters of your book submitted, doesn’t mean agent Tim will too. Tim may just want a synopsis first, and agent Barry may be so busy, he only has time to scan a query letter. It is imperative you only send what the agent/publisher requires. Anything more or less and you will end up on that mountain of slush, and we do not want to end up there, do we?

Rule Six: The small print. The small print is a bunch of extra submission rules. Some are, hopefully, obvious and the main one that springs to mind is not to staple work – always bind it with an elastic band. But some are not so obvious. I read in one set of submission rules that sending your work in the wrong envelope will mean instant ‘slush’ pile. It’s true. The company’s post room were under strict orders not to deliver those fibre padded envelopes to one agent, as she hated the mess it made to her clothes when opening them. Bubble wrap padded envelopes, however, were acceptable. Fair enough. I don’t like opening one of those fibre envelopes either, let alone opening 25+.

Rule Seven:­ Respect. This is so important. The person you are sending your beloved story to is a professional. They are busy, under pressure and can be the gatekeeper to your new career. For God’s sake, respect them. Do not bombard them with gimmicks, such a fancy coloured envelopes, glitter, perfumed pages, photos of yourself or your pets, cakes or sweets….oh I could go on and on and on. Remember, you are trying to sell your story, not your soul. All they want is an easy opening envelope, to remove clean pages and read.

Rule Eight: Last but not least, pestering. If an agent says it will take 3-4 months to reply, don’t start contacting them after two. If you require confirmation of receipt, add a self addressed envelope with the correct return postage. If, after the four months is up, you have not heard back, then it is acceptable to follow up with a polite enquiry as to the status of your work. But, beware. Bother them too much and the slush pile will just get that little bit taller.

I hope this helps, and I would love to hear any mistakes you’ve made in the past, no matter how bad (come on, spill the beans :D), and if there is any advice you can add, please do.

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We often forget about the things we did as kids, maybe because our memories are not as sharp as they used to be when we hit middle age, but probably because these memories are so embarrassing, we choose to block them from our minds.

A couple of days ago, I was searching for some photographs. Now, if your parents are like mine, your whole life is packed into boxes and stored in the attic, and when I say your whole life I mean it. From the love letters you wrote to your first crush in maths class to the hideous video footage of your first sports day when you won the 100 metre sprint but all you really see are my skinny legs and knobbly knees. Anyway, my mum retrieved some of these boxes and, together, we began to go through them. I can tell you, while a mystery to me at the time, I look back at my school photos and now fully understand why I couldn’t get a boyfriend! Just when I didn’t think I could feel any worse about myself, I found something I really couldn’t remember writing. Of course, my hubby quickly took a photograph of it and threatened to publish it on Facebook…Who said a relationship stales after marriage?

So as a bit of fun (and I wanted to beat him to it), I thought I would share it with you.

 

In case you cannot read it, it says, “Dear John Travolta. I like your records very much and I like Grease. Love Donna. xxxxx”

Oh, how I can feel myself regretting this already. Notice there is no date. This is so I can adamantly deny I was older than five when I wrote it. Unfortunately I was 8 when Grease hit our cinemas, so I reckon I had to be 8 or 9 when I penned it. It reads a little like my query letters now, actually.

Ok, that’s enough laughing at me. I want you to comment with an equally embarrassing story or memory from your childhood. If I get over 15 replies, I will tell you of another TV couple who I do remember writing to, and I was a lot older too. 😀

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The UK has had an amazing amount of snow this winter. I frequently found myself standing in the kitchen and just looking out the window at the white covered fields that surround my house – hey, I’ll use any excuse not to do the washing up and snow seemed to be the excuse everyone was using for not working. 😀

One thing is for sure. Snow is beautiful. It can transform even the most horrid of places into a serene and peaceful area befitting any Christmas card.

But then it struck me. Snow is extremely cunning and deceitful. It lures you in with the promise of fun but in reality, it has claimed the lives of so many people. In fact, snow is a real killer and its sister, the wicked Ice Queen, is worse. She is just pure evil and will stop at nothing to make our lives a misery, particularly the ones who don’t take up arms and prepare for her arrival. Frozen pipes, black ice, and have you ever been hit with an iced snow ball? That will draw blood, guaranteed.

So, then I started thinking of other items that lure us in with their perfect beauty, only to attack when we least expect it.

Roses are classed as one of the most elegant and beautiful flowers. Their aroma is intoxicating and they are arguably the most stunning flower created. They draw you in. You have to smell that rose, to touch its silky petals….and then, BAM! Either a thorn stabs you through the thumb or a big, fat bee flies out from the hidden depths of the flower and stings you on the nose. I mean, these flowers are given on Valentines Day as a sign of love for crying out loud. What you’re really getting is a box of thorns hidden by silk petals. If you love me, send me daisies. They won’t draw blood and there’s nowhere for any killer bugs to hide.

So I guess what I am really saying is this. If it happens to snow on Valentines Day, and you have to walk the length of your pathway to collect a box of roses from your post box, just stop and think of the senders real intentions.

Okay, so this was just a fun post, but can you think of any other perfections that have flaws?

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When I look back at the first book I wrote, I feel a twinge of guilt for my characters; all five of them to be precise, if I want to be picky and count the minions.

Why do I feel guilty? Because, unforgivably, I neglected to give them a life. I just dumped them on the wintery London streets of Shad Thames and said “Right, off you go and do this.”

To their credit, they did what I asked, but not to the best of their ability, and that is solely down to me, because I did not spend the time in getting to know them. A year ago, I would have sworn different. I would have told you my heroine was an independent woman, owned a bar and lived a relatively normal life with only her handsome neighbour next door for support. The hero, and her love interest, was an actor who was quiet and thoughtful and ……. Oh my God, so boring!!!

Then I met Kristen Lamb. She told me to write a back story for my antagonist, so I did. I proudly wrote four pages and emailed them over to her. Her reply? “Crap, do it again.” I was mortified. How could it be rubbish? (Yeah, ok, you can stop laughing.) But she was right. It was absolute tosh. Oh, how naïve I was back then.

The reason it was rubbish, and it’s so clear now that I cringe every time I think about letting Kristen read it, was this. My first antagonist was a nice, wholesome, little rich girl who went nuts because the guy she liked was in love with someone else. There was no venom about her. She was kind to others, well liked, popular at school – you get the picture. But my reasoning for creating this totally unrealistic girl, who went off the deep end, was because Glenn Close had done it in Fatal Attraction. If a block busting movie could do it, why couldn’t I? The problem was, Glenn Close was not the normal, hard working, successful woman she appeared to be before Michael Douglas slept with her. If you look closely, she was actually a borderline psychotic and her back story would have backed this up with actions, events and certainly haunting issues.

I was guilty of analysing the plot of a story too much and just letting the characters roll along for the ride. Now, however, and much to my husbands annoyance, I analyse and pick holes in everything on TV. Still, men are there for us women to annoy so I think it is a win-win situation. 😀

So, this is what I have been taught, and would strongly recommend to anyone creating a character:

It starts with their creation. They need a look, a height, and a style. Personally, I look for a picture of an actor or actress and go from there. Then give them a home, a childhood, parents, siblings, pets, school proms, jobs, friends, enemies, lovers, fears, stressors.…. you get the picture. What they do with them after that is then up to you. They can use them, annoy them, play with them or kill them. They can go to jail or become President, but their back story must lead them to the moment you start your book. You cannot have, like I did, a nice antagonist who turns in to a crazy, killing machine, because it is convenient to the plot.

If you are stuck, then I would suggest writing your own biography first. Start with where you were born, who your parents were, if you have any siblings. Remember your childhood memories, relationships, good and bad. Jobs you’ve liked and jobs you’ve hated. Gravesides you have stood at. Tragedies you’ve had the misfortune to bear. All these things define who you are now.

Oh, and one really important thing I have learnt is this. Your protagonist does not have to be perfect. Perfect is BORING! Give her a flaw. Make her human. I guarantee your reader will not dislike them for it.

Look at Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon – he was a suicidal drunk. And Frasier, from the TV show of the same name, has serious commitment issues, but do we hate either of these characters? Do we ‘eck. In fact we become more compassionate towards them.

Now, as always, I want to know something. I want to know who your favourite protagonist is and what flaw they have. Hmmmm….. has that got you thinking?

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I want to play a game.

I’m going to say a word and I want to know the first image that comes to mind. Ready?

Sociopath.

What was the first thing you thought of? No cheating. Can I hazard a guess and say you probably thought of a deranged psychopathic killer, probably from one of your favourite horror films?

Now, what if I said you probably already knew a sociopath. Would you believe me? No? Okay, what if I said there was a high probability you may already work with one, live next door to one or even be friends with one. (God forbid you live with one.) Does that scare you?

Academics calculate that sociopaths account for around 5% of the population. So what exactly is a sociopath?

Forget for a moment that you are a nice person and imagine this: You have two friends who, for some unknown reason, have stopped talking to each other. They both confide to you of their sadness at the situation and that each is going to contact the other to make amends. Now, being the nice person you really are, you would eagerly share this information – after all, it’s the morally right thing to do and you want your friends back as, well, friends. But I want you to imagine deceiving and lying to them, convincing them that each is still expressing their dislike for the other. Then I want you to feel very smug and happy in the knowledge that you have singlehandedly kept them from being the good friends they once were.

Are you horrified? Could you ever see yourself acting in this way? Of course not, but that is probably because you have a little thing called a conscious. You cannot act in a bad way because you would feel appalled and guilty. A sociopath does not have this luxury. They feel nothing. They are crafty and deceitful, selfish, and manipulative. They will take what they want and do as they please and not experience the slightest ounce of remorse or regret for any of their actions. They will hurt a ‘friend’ just as easily as they would hurt a stranger and they will do it with a smile on their face and a song in their heart.

A staggering 1 in 20 people are sociopathic which means that 5% of the population lacks any shred of a conscious, and worse still, these people can be very difficult to spot. Contrary to the belief that all sociopaths look like the Yorkshire Ripper, they do in fact, look just like you and me. They will charm you on first introduction and the majority of people will be blinded by their manipulation. But these people are cold. Maybe they are rapists, or domestic abusers. Maybe they are not violet at all but will think nothing of scamming or stealing from you. Unfortunately, the majority of people find out when it’s too late. Sociopaths are excellent at spotting your vulnerability and will use it against you to get what they want, using every trick in the book to succeed. But sociopaths are very jealous people and if you dare disagree or go against one then watch out; they will happily bring down upon you a reign of misery.

The only way to deal with a sociopath is to dissolve all contact and remove them from your life. Do not try to argue with them, or attempt to out smart them. Remember, they are sociopaths and do not ‘feel’ like the other 95% of the population. You have to protect yourself and you are not doing this if your time is consumed with making them pay.

Protect yourself and live your life. As Dr Martha Stout says, “Living well is the best revenge.”

So, now I will ask…..Do you know a sociopath?

For more on this I recommend reading ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ by Clinical psychologist Dr Martha Stout, Ph.D.

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I thought it would be fun to see if it was possible to write a story in no more than six sentences. This is what I come up with…

The Wrong Path :

He stood at the crossroads at the tender age of seventeen where, as predicted, he had received his first criminal record. He could have walked to the left and stayed on its disastrous path, ending up just another statistical drain on today’s society. But he chose the path to the right, working hard to reclaim his dignity and self respect. He cherished this path, gaining a rewarding job, loving girlfriend and loyal friends. He awoke on the day of his 22nd birthday not knowing that today he would be honoured a hero. Today he would rescue the life of a young child from a burning building, sacrificing his own life in the process.

NOW, it’s your turn. I want to read your 6 sentence stories. Good luck!

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