Query Shark

If you’re an aspiring author and have not yet encountered Query Shark, stop whatever you’re doing–no… wait… you’re reading this blog, so DON’T stop what you’re doing… CONTINUE reading!

Query Shark is, I think, the most useful resource on the internet for writers. The primary purpose of the blog is to help writers write the best query they can. But in doing this, Query Shark unloads a ton of excellent writing tips that can improve your novel, not just your query. Since Query Shark was just named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers (see the latest edition of Writer’s Digest), I thought it appropriate to celebrate it for today’s A-to-Z Blogging Challenge letter.

Query Shark is the brain-child of Janet Reid, one of the literary agents at Fine Print Literary Management. Janet receives countless queries from aspiring authors every day, some of which immediately get her attention, but most of which are rejected after only a few lines. To help writers understand where they’re going wrong with their querying, Janet set up Query Shark–a place where writers can submit queries purely for review. Anyone submitting their query must be willing to see it ripped to shreds before the whole world. But Janet’s main purpose is not sadistic pleasure at torturing poor helpless writers. Her primary purpose is to help people improve their querying skills–and often their writing skills. She points out the flaws so they can be corrected. She invites people to revise their queries based on her comments, and resubmit them to the site.

Submitting a query to Query Shark is not an official query submission to Janet, so she doesn’t care about the genre. She knows enough about the industry to know what constitutes a good query for memoir, picture book, MG, YA, etc. A submission to Query Shark is a request for help writing a query.

That doesn’t mean Janet won’t sign someone based on a Query Shark submission. Dan Krokos impressed Janet enough with his Query Shark offering that she requested the manuscript, and eventually signed him. You can read about his story here, and listen to Janet talking about Query Shark and Dan Krokos in this BBC World Service interview.

I may not be the best query writer in the world, but it’s thanks to the Query Shark archives that I understand the purpose of a query letter, what a query letter needs to say, and how to be a better writer generally.

Have you benefited from Query Shark? What’s your go-to site for query or general writing help?

RTW: Outstanding Odes

yahighwayrtw[1]This week’s Road Trip Wednesday/A-to-Z Blogging Challenge mash-up is sheer poetry. No, really–here’s the prompt:

April is National Poetry Month! Share your favorite poem(s) or poet.

I’ve never been much into poetry. Give me a good story anytime; but for some reason poetry just doesn’t resonate with me. The only possible exception is, perhaps, when put to music, i.e., songs. So, I’m going to fudge a little on this one and talk about song lyrics.

A well-written song can teach writers a lot about the value of good word selection. A good lyric will complement the tone of the music. For example, take Come Together by The Beatles (written by John Lennon). The musical arrangement is fairly sparse, lots of space, with jabbing chords. The words complement this effect. Rhythmically, there are lots of single syllable words, and lots of “g” “j” ‘k” sounds that make the words sharp to the ear.

By way of contrast, take My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodgers, lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II). If you know the musical, Maria sings this song to the Von Trapp children who can’t sleep because they’re frightened by a thunderstorm. The words are easy, they flow and bounce with a sense of excitement and anticipation. As well as some clever rhymes and imagery (“Silver white winters that melt into springs/These are a few of my favorite things”) there are some good contrasts. Take the line “Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.” You can hear the cold hard metal of the bright copper kettles in the words; yet there’s a completely different feel to warm woolen mittens. The words sound soft and cozy. What’s really clever though, is the music underlying the words still has a sense of the children’s fear–the minor key, the rapid tempo, and the slightly odd feel of the melody when the harmonic structure changes in the second line of the verse.The-Sound-of-Music

When it comes to prose, and especially to writing novels, these are things we should think about. How can we get our readers to feel the words, not just read them? If you’re describing harsh winter weather conditions, select words whose sounds reflect that. Instead of “the cold air numbed his face,” how about, “the biting chill cut his cheeks”? Or something like that. And also consider the rhythmic pattern of the words. If you want to pick up the pace, one technique is to select words that are short and flow well together. “He retrieved his Walther PPK, discharged three rounds into the guard, and hurried to the waiting Aston Martin,” is longer to read than, “he picked up his gun, shot the guard, and ran to the car.” There’s a place for the fuller sentence, but for fast action, you want brevity, flow, and punch.

What’s your favorite poem? How has poetry helped you in your prose? Comment below or join the Road Trip (details on the YA Highway blog).

Names

bond-nametagWhen we give a name to something, whether it’s a child, a fictional character, or a computer (c’mon, I know you have a special name for your PC/Mac… especially when it doesn’t do what you want it to do!), we do so intentionally. There’s a reason why we pick a particular name. For today’s A-to-Z Challenge post, I want to briefly explore some of these reasons:

What the Name Means

Sometimes we choose names based on their meaning. J. K. Rowling was particularly conscious of meanings when choosing her characters’ names. Either the names tell us about their character, or foreshadow something about their part in the story. For example, Albus Dumbledore: “Albus” is Latin for “white,” in the sense of “good” here, and Dumbledore is an archaic word for a bumblebee (Rowling says he likes to hum, and loves music). Or Remus Lupin: Remus was the legendary co-founder of Rome who, with his twin brother brother Romulus, was raised by a wolf. “Lupin” is from the Latin “lupus,” meaning “wolf.”

For the most part, we gave our children Hebrew names based on their meaning. One exception to this was the name “Rebekah,” which I liked the sound of. The meaning of this name is hard to pin down. Many places say it means a “noose” or a “heifer”–hardly very complementary. I have a difficult time imagining Laban calling his precious daughter “heifer”! It’s possible the name comes from the Hebrew verbal root rbq which means “to tie” or “to bind”–a bit better. I wonder if there’s maybe an underlying Ugaritic or Akkadian name that the Hebrew is transliterating. This is something I’d like to look into if anyone has a Ugaritic lexicon lying around…

How the Name Sounds

Sometimes we’re drawn to a name because of its rhythm or sound. “Severus Snape” has lots of sibilants, like a hissing snake. It also has an easy rhythm that helps it roll of the tongue. (Names that are easy to read are a blessing–do you hear me, fantasy writers?). As I mentioned above, I like the sound of the name Rebekah, which is why we chose it for one of our children.

Family Significance

Some people give their children names that are common to the family. Robert is one such name in my family–it crops up as a first or middle name from generation to generation. Sometimes sons are named after their fathers, so you have John Brown II, John Brown III, etc.

For Comic Effect

There aren’t a lot of real life examples of this (though I’m sure we know people whose names have unintended comic effect… or maybe intended–some parents are strange). But there are plenty of literary examples: Cohen the Barbarian from Terry Pratchett’s Discword series, or Mike Teavee–and all the other misbehaved children–in Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

How do you go about naming characters/children/inanimate objects? Which of these reasons matters most to you?

Hop

On March 31, Robin Moran tagged me in a bloghop called “The Next Big Thing.” First, I need to say THANK YOU to Robin for bestowing this honor on me. Check out her blog–>HERE!

This bloghop requires that I answer questions about my current Work in Progress. So here are the questions and my answers:

What is the working title of your book?

A TEENAGE ALIEN IN VICTORIAN LONDON. It’ll probably change.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The collision of a couple of ideas. First, the idea of a teenage alien being stranded in Victorian London. H. G. Wells’s WAR OF THE WORLDS dealt with malicious martians invading Victorian London. What if the alien was a confused teenager? The other thought was this: why is it aliens are always technologically superior to us? What if there was a race of aliens who thought our technology was advanced?

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a blend of YA sci-fi and YA historical, but it’s probably more on the historical side than the sci-fi.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ummm… ones that can act and look the part? I have no idea!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“A teenage alien winds up stranded in steam-powered Victorian London, in need of electricity to get home.”

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

At this point in my writing career, I need the wisdom and oversight of an experienced agent to make sure my work is the best it can be, and to find the right publisher for it. I have no objection to self-publishing, but I want a few agented novels under my belt before I go there.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A little over a year… or one month. Let me explain. I’d been toying with the first few chapters for a long time, then I re-wrote those chapters and went on to finish the first draft for NaNoWriMo last November.

What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

The idea is a bit Douglas Adams-ish, but it’s not totally sci-fi. This is probably not very accurate, but let’s just say it’s THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY meets Downton Abbey just to make you want to read it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I love British History, Doctor Who, and H.G. Wells. A love child was bound to happen at some point. This might be it.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

You mean the last two answers aren’t enough? How about a handsome stable boy and ABBA?

Tag!

I now have to tag a couple of people to write about their WiPs. And I choose…

RTW: Cross-Country Companion

It’s Day 3 of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and it’s also Road Trip Wednesday day on YA Highway. This week, the YA Highway folks want to kDoctor-RTW-1now:

If you could visit any country with a fictional character as your guide, who would you pick and where would you go?

This may seem like an obvious answer if you’re a regular to the blog, but I would choose The Doctor (as in Doctor Who). My reason may not be so obvious. You see, I’m a contradiction. I’m a home-bod, but I like foreign travel, experiencing different cultures, and meeting people from different countries. I’m also not very adept socially. It takes me a while to get comfortable with people. I don’t do small-talk very well. Now, once I’m comfortable with someone, I can yabber on for hours. But it’s that initial awkward “Uhh… hello…” that doesn’t help if you want to meet people and get to know them. This is why The Doctor would be my perfect traveling companion. He would be all smiles and enthusiasm, going up to complete strangers saying, “Hello, I’m the Doctor and this is my friend Colin. We’re new in town–my, that’s an interesting hat…” etc. I would learn a lot more than if I was left on my own.

Where would we go? Honestly, I wouldn’t care. The Doctor would make it interesting, wherever it was. However, I know the first thing he would ask me when I step into the TARDIS would be: “So, Colin–where d’you want to go?” I ought to have an answer ready, so I’d probably say Scandinavia. Maybe Norway or Finland. I’ve never been to any Scandinavian countries, and I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the world.

What about you? Who would be your ideal fictional traveling companion, and where would you go? You can share your thoughts in the comments, or join in the Road Trip (see the YA Highway blog for details).

What’s Going On?

Those of you who still keep track of my ramblings on this blog may be wondering what’s going on. I haven’t participated in a few Road Trip Wednesdays, I haven’t been posting as many articles (aside from the regular Sunday School Notes and Sunday Devotionals). Am I getting blog fatigue? What’s happening?

First, no, I’m not getting blog fatigue. In fact, one of the things I’m doing is planning for next month’s A to Z Blogging Challenge. I may not be posting a lot of articles at the moment–but wait till next month! Twenty-six articles in thirty days. Consider this a little respite before the storm.

Also, I’m trying to catch up on some reading. If you’re one of my Goodreads friends, you’ll know that I’ve read some really good books so far this month, including Stephanie Jaye Evans’s spectacular second novel, SAFE FROM HARM, and SCARLET, the second in Marissa Meyer’s “Lunar Chronicles.”

I haven’t neglected writing, either. I’m batting around my WIP–the NaNoWriMo project from last November. As I figure out what needs to be done with all those words, I find myself on the horns of an old dilemma: first or third person. I drafted the novel in first person, but as I re-read it, something’s not right about it. She’s supposed to be a teenage alien, and she sounds like a regular American high-schooler. I’ve experimented with changing her speech patterns, limiting her vocabulary… but that affects the readability of the story. I’m caught between making you believe the narrator is not of this world, and communicating the story. Think about it: I have to describe her alien kitchen in language she would use, which would not necessarily be terms or concepts that you, the reader, would understand. The usual way around this is to either give the alien a complete English vocabulary, which at my alien’s age stretches credibility and detracts from her alien-ness, or give her a friend from Earth who then becomes the first person narrator, which for this story really isn’t an option. Do you know of any books where the main character is an alien and that alien is the first person narrator–and the author succeeds in balancing alien vocabulary with readability? Perhaps that will help inspire me. Right now I’m considering re-writing in third person, which would solve a lot of these kinds of issues.

With that, and work, family, church, and life in general, that’s what’s going on with me.

So, how are you?

RTW: Book of the Month for February, 2013

It’s hard to believe it’s that time again: YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday Book of the Month! And this month, I don’t really have one. I read some non-fiction which was good, and some fiction that was okay, but nothing that made me want to say, “This is totally AWESOME!”

There have been a couple of times in the past when the book I ended up choosing for Book of the Month was not five-star-Goodreads-review worthy, but in those cases, the books were at least very good. I can’t say that for the books I read this month. And I’m not going to choose a book simply because it was a bit more okay than the other okay books. You deserve better than that, faithful reader!

So–sorry! No book of the month for February. I haven’t read SCARLET or UNRAVEL ME yet (I’m exercising restraint and trying to get through books that I’ve had for longer first), so I have great expectations that March will be a better reading month! (Come to think of it, I haven’t read GREAT EXPECTATIONS yet…)

Hopefully you had a better time with your February reading. What was the best thing you read this past month? Comment here, or join in the Road Trip (see the YA Highway blog for details).

Some Thoughts on “Talent”

For a few weeks now, I’ve been kicking around in my head the whole question of what it means to have “talent”–to be “gifted” at something, or to have “natural ability.” Not for any particular reason–it’s just something that often comes up in conversation (“He’s a talented musician…”, “She’s a gifted writer…”, “He’s a natural athlete…”), but how often do we ever stop to consider what that means?

Since we talk a lot about writing here, let’s take writing as an example. Most people beyond the age of five can write. Some of those people can even spell correctly, and some of those even have a handle on grammar. If a person can form letters into words, spell those words correctly, and string them together into grammatically correct and coherent sentences, does that make him or her a gifted writer? Almost instinctively, most people–if not all–would say “no.” But why not? Again, most people can point to the grammatically correct history textbook they had in school, compare it to HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, and rest their case. Even comparing fiction with fiction, we’ve all read stories that were well composed–correct spelling and grammar–and perhaps even had a good idea behind them… and yet there was something missing. They weren’t quite J. K. Rowling, or Stephen King.

Now, consider this: prior to the mid-17th century, English spelling was by no means uniform. Shakespeare spelled his own name five different ways. Can we say that because Shakespeare didn’t follow modern orthographic conventions, he was not gifted? Of course not! And consider for a moment the function of grammar. Anyone that’s taken the time to study more than one other language will observe that every language has “irregular” forms–verbs and nouns that don’t follow the rules, idioms that make no sense if translated but make perfect sense to the native speaker, and so on. This is because grammar books are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, grammatical structures are derived from a language, not imposed upon a language. The function of grammar is to try to make some kind of orderly sense of the language, and describe the way the language functions when it is operating at its most communicative. Rules such as “the number of the person must agree with the number of the verb (e.g., “a man (singular) goes” vs. “women (plural) go”), are observations of the language functioning at its most understandable. You can mess with the grammar (e.g., “a man go”) and still be understood, but that defies the conventions of the language, which can lead to confusion.

If we understand spelling and grammar in this way, then it makes sense that spelling and grammar can change according to changing conventions (for example, Noah Webster “simplified” English in his American dictionary, changing “colour” to “color,” etc.), and one’s ability to spell and use grammar is in no way indicative of one’s ability to write. All it says is that a writer is able to follow social conventions with regard to orthography.

Another point to consider: would a writer still be a writer if he or she lost the ability to write? Popular English fantasy writer Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago, the condition had progressed to where typing was difficult. He forgot how to spell words, and his coordination was shot. I doubt that he is even able to type at all now. And yet he is still writing novels (his latest book, Dodger, came out in September, 2012). He uses a recording device and has a personal assistant to help him write, and I daresay he will continue to compose stories until he is no longer able to communicate the ideas in his head in some fashion.

The actual act of writing–putting words on a page (virtual or otherwise)–is merely a mechanical transcription of what’s going on between the author’s ears. As long as the writer can get those ideas out into the world, he or she is writing. Don’t forget that the tradition of storytelling goes back to the days when illiterate people would gather round a fire and thrill their audience with tales they had heard, or they themselves had made up.

So, what do we mean when we say someone is a “gifted” writer? I think we can say this: it has nothing to do with one’s ability to “put pen to paper”, or one’s ability to spell, or one’s ability to use correct grammar. But it has everything to do with one’s ability to tell a story, or communicate an idea, in a way that is compelling, and… well… communicates. And not every gifted writer is gifted equally. Some are better able to communicate than others. But there are a rare few whose gifting is enormous. And we all recognize who they are, because their audiences are large, and their emulators are legion.

Okay, I’ve babbled long enough. What does all this mean for me, or you, as a writer? I would say this: YES, learn to spell and learn grammar. Sure, you don’t need them to be understood, but you increase the opportunities for miscommunication the more you neglect these skills. I think it’s more important, though, to recognize that your writing gift, if you have it, is a gift. It’s not something you can learn, and not something that improved mechanics can increase. I can tinker with the engine of my lawn mower so it operates as smoothly and efficiently as possible–but it’ll never be a Porsche. And that’s okay. Start with your love of writing. If you love to write, and people enjoy reading what you write, the chances are you have a gift for it. Practice, and do everything you can to improve your gift. It may be no more than a lawnmower, but make it the best-running lawnmower you can! Don’t feel pressured to be what you’re not. Learn from others, but don’t compare yourself to others. Be the writer you are, using the talent given to you to the best of your ability.

What do you think, writer friends (and others)? Agree? Disagree? Please comment!

Blogging from A to Z Challenge

You might already be aware, either because I’ve mentioned it on Twitter, or you’ve noticed the big orange widget on the sidebar, that I’m participating in the “Blogging from A to Z April Challenge” again this year. “What in the name of sweet Cadbury’s is that?” you may ask. Let me save you a click on the aforementioned big orange widget. The “Blogging from A to Z April Challenge” is a blogging challenge that entails writing a post every day for the entire month of April–excluding Sundays. A letter of the alphabet is assigned to each day (April 1st = A; April 2nd = B; April 3rd = C; April 4th = D, etc.), and each blogger uses that letter to inspire the day’s article. Why exclude Sundays? Because there are 4 Sundays in April, and 30 days (the number of days in April) minus 4 days makes 26 days. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so that makes one for each day. This also honors those who don’t like blogging on Sundays, and it gives us all (readers and writers) a break.

While the challenge states you can blog about absolutely anything, there are some ground rules. First, you have to incorporate the day’s letter somehow–even if it’s a proper noun. Second, your blog posts need to be at least 100 words long to show you’re at least breaking a sweat to do this. I mean, a challenge isn’t a challenge if it isn’t somehow challenging! You don’t have to come up with an overall theme for the month, but some find it helpful. Last year, one blogger (Kimberly) did an alliteration challenge, where she came up with an alliterative sentence for each day based on that day’s letter, and challenged her readers to come up with better ones. I recall someone else used mythical creatures as their theme.

Last year I challenged myself with coming up with either a flash or a short story every Monday, using the letter of the day to inspire the title. This gave birth to Bloodstain, Hourglass (one of the best short stories I’ve yet written–IMO), Nightmare, Tortilla, and Zoe. In fact, for some of these titles, I asked commenters to make suggestions, which was a lot of fun.

I’ve yet to formulate a plan for this year, but this much I do know: I’m going to limit each post to 500 words maximum. This will be a great exercise in word economy, and push me to be clean, concise, and creative in my word choices. I also want to repeat the Monday story challenge, which, combined with the 500-word restriction, means I will need to come up with flash stories based on the letters A, G, M, S, and Y. Beyond this, we’ll see…

Have you thought about participating? The sign up is still active. Last year, over 1,700 people took part, and they’re hoping for a lot more this year. Check out the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge blog for more information. And if you want to read some of my posts from last year, check out the archives on the right (go to April 2012).

RTW: For the Love of Writing!

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate the love in one’s life. Usually, we think of significant others (and, indeed, romantic love is the intent of the traditional celebration), but there are other loves in our lives we should also recognize. Family, friends–and for readers and writers, that wonderful gift of language and story.

With that in mind, for this week’s Road Trip Wednesday, the YA Highway folks want to know…

What do you love most about writing (and/or reading)?

Quite simply, for me, it’s the actual writing process: putting thoughts, ideas, stories, whatever it might be into words. It’s crafting sentences; finding the correct words to express the thought as succinctly and precisely as I can. It’s thinking about sentence structure and rhythm, so the words flow with elegance. And this applies whether I’m writing fiction, non-fiction, novels, papers, blog articles, or emails. Yes, I will even pour over an email message, checking grammar and spelling, sentence flow and vocabulary. In other words, I never stop being a writer. Even this short blog article will be reviewed and edited as if it were a chapter in a novel!

What do you love about reading and/or writing? Comment below, or join in the RTW fun (details on the YA Highway blog).

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