So we’ve discussed why you need an agent (if you want to publish traditionally) and how not to get an agent. But now I want to talk about picking the right agent for you.
So here’s the thing about literary agents: the legit ones are all publishing savvy, business-minded, all around nice people who just really love books. Or at least, the ones I’ve come in contact with are. Every agent (like every person) has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, which often dictate what genres they do and don’t represent. And knowing those strengths and weaknesses is just a teensie bit important to know before you query.
That’s right. You need to research agents before you start querying. Why? The answer’s simple, really—not every agent is the right agent for you.
Some agents are editorial, some agents are not. Some agents represent a huge range of genres, some are much more focused on a couple genres and categories. Some agents have been in the business for over a decade, others are much newer to the publishing game.
I’ve already blogged about where to go to research agents (see that link above? Click it), so I’m not going to delve into that again. What I want to focus on instead, is what you need to be looking for when deciding what agents to query.
There are a couple questions you should be asking yourself while researching agents:
- Does this agent represent my genre? This is the basic filter—the very first requirement is to make sure the agent you’re considering querying represents the genre and category your manuscript falls under. If they don’t, don’t query them. No exceptions.
No, it doesn’t matter if you think they might make an exception for your manuscript (they shouldn’t and they won’t). No, it doesn’t matter if you really like that agent (that doesn’t change the fact that your MS is not a genre they represent). No, it doesn’t matter if your manuscript is supposedly unlike others in its genre or category (if you think that’s the case, are you sure you know that genre as well as you think you do?)—if they don’t represent your genre, do not query them. You’ll get an insta-reject, and you’ll only be wasting your time and theirs.
Note: if you’re not sure what genre your manuscript falls under, check out this post.
- Does this agent represent other genres I want to (or already do) write in? This is important, because you’re not just looking for representation for the manuscript you’re querying—you’re looking for representation for your whole career. Ideally, you’ll have the same agent throughout your career (though that isn’t always the case, which is okay). If your manuscript is a Historical Fantasy and you know going in that you also love writing Sci-Fi, make sure the agents you query represent both Historical Fantasies and Sci-Fi’s.
Why? You want an agent who can potentially sell any manuscript you write, and if you write in multiple genres, you’ll want to make sure the agents you query represent all of them.
- Is this agent editorial? Is this important to me? As I’ve mentioned before, not all agents are editorial (meaning not all agents go through the extra process of revising and editing your work with you before going on submission). This is an extra job, and agents are not required to edit your work (remember: it’s your job to get your manuscripts as polished as possible before sending it to agents). If you know you want an agent who will help you with some of the revision and editorial process, then make sure you query agents who are editorial. (You can find this out through interviews and sites like Literary Rambles).
- What is this agent’s sales record? Do they have a lot of sales? A few things to remember with this one: not having a lot of sales doesn’t necessarily mean the agent is a bad agent. Some agents don’t report all of their sales, and some agents don’t have a lot of sales because they’re new agents, which is totally fine (and in that case, you’ll want to look at the sales for the agency they’re at, instead). But if an agent has been around for a couple of years, they should have some sales reported.
That being said, how much stock you put into the sales thing is up to you. When I was querying, I personally didn’t query anyone who didn’t list sales or their clients, but that’s just me.
- What is this agent’s reputation? What is the reputation of their agency like? Both of these are important to consider when researching agents. If the agent is established, what is their reputation like? If they’re new agents what is the reputation of their agency? (Note: it’s important to check on agency reputation for established agents, too). Check interviews, forums like Absolute Write Water Cooler and sites like Preditors & Editors as well as the aforementioned Literary Rambles to learn about agent and agency reputation.
- Does this agent seem like someone I would work well with? Granted, this is a little more difficult to determine online, but if the agent has a Twitter, follow them long before you start querying. Also, take the time to read every interview you can find—both of these sources can give you insights into the agent’s personality and what their work process is like. There are a couple agents, for example, that I decided I wouldn’t query based off things they said or the way they behaved on Twitter—after all, if your personalities clash, it’s going to make the relationship between you and you future agent more difficult.
Finally, two rules to remember while querying:
- Thou shalt not query every agent known to man. Use the criteria above to narrow down your list to agents that would work well for you and your manuscript. Consider every agent you query carefully. Think, if they offered representation, would I accept? If your answer is “no” then there’s little point in querying—you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
- A bad agent is worse than no agent. I’ve often heard of writers jumping to accept the first offer the get, just because they finally get an offer of representation. I understand this temptation, but the fact is, a bad agent will not help your career. Make sure you do plenty of research on every agent you query, and even more research on every agent who reads your full, and even more research on every agent who offers representation. Know what you’re getting into ahead of time to avoid unfortunate circumstances later on down the road.
What tips do you have for choosing the right agent?
So You Want To Write A Book..
- Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?
- On Inspiration
- How To Write A Novel
- Getting Started With A Book
- Hints About Writing A Story
- Novel Outlining 101
- From Notes To Novel
- Plotting A Novel
- Why Don’t I Have A Plot, And Where Do I Get One?
- How To Create A Character
- Creating Characters
- Character Creation
- Name That Character! (2)
- You And Your Characters
- How To Write Backstory Without Putting Your Reader To Sleep
- How To Use Foreshadowing
- How To Write Dialogue (2)
- How To Make Your Writing More Interesting
- Writing Block
- How To Get Unstuck
- Advice For Young Writers (2)
- On Word Counts And Novel Length
- Top 4 Ways to Know Your Idea is Novel-Worthy
- How A Book Gets Published
- How Do You Go About Getting Published
And remember: Google is your best friend.
How to Write About Death
If you’re a writer, there’s a BIG chance you’re going to kill off one of your characters eventually. Obviously being able to do this isn’t the same as experiencing death in real life, but it’s still something you need to think about and prepare for. Killing off characters should have some consequences to either your main characters or the plot of your story. If someone dies in your story, the loss must mean something to one of your characters. Don’t use death a cheap plot device to move your story forward.
Writing about the TOPIC of death can be a different story. If you’re writing about a character who is terminal and who we know is going to die, you need to know how to approach it with understanding. Writing about terminal cancer or a specific disease that you might not know everything about unless you’ve experienced it requires research. Don’t act like you know what it’s like to have something or the emotions that go into it. Don’t just “guess” what it might be like.
Here are a few tips on writing convincing death scenes:
Don’t cheapen a character’s death
If an important character dies, sometimes authors decide to bring that character back to life. Killing off characters and then finding a way to bring them back lessens the severity of death. Why should your readers care about what happens to your characters if they know nothing bad is going to happen to them? If you want to bring a character back to life make sure there’s a good reason for it.
Not everyone’s story will come together perfectly
Writing a good death scene isn’t about tying up someone’s story perfectly. People often die suddenly with no real time to “fix” things or say something to someone they love. Sometimes there’s more of an emotional impact when a character is not given the chance to change something about their life before it’s too late. Not everyone will be able to speak important or profound last words, so keep that in mind.
Everyone experiences loss differently
There’s no standard way for someone to deal with loss, so every person will deal with it differently. Obviously there will be unhealthy ways to deal with death, but it’s not abnormal for someone to not want to talk about it or for someone to be super emotional about it. Make sure you figure out who your characters are first and how they’d approach the situation.
Writing about death is probably so popular because it’s really about the discovery and appreciation of life. Some of the best stories make you analyze your own life and realize the blessings that you already have. Just make sure you know what you’re talking about and it doesn’t come off as disingenuous. Some people have actually experienced what you’re writing a fictional account of, so be respectful.
The problems of writing
- Having a Beginning
- Having an Ending
- But WHERE’S THE MIDDLE?!?
- HOW DO I GET TO THE ENDING
- WHAT IS A PLOT
- WHAT ARE PLOT DETAILS
- WHAT IS WRITING
And most importantly:
- HOW DO I TITLE
50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Part IV)
Quick summary of essential writing strategies based on Roy Peter Clark’s podcast Roy’s Writing Tools (based on his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer). This is Part IV with strategies 31-40. Part III is here. Part V will follow.
Strategy 31: Build your work around a key question
Stories need an engine – a question that the action answers for the reader. Whodunnit? Which man will she marry? Will the hero escape? Will the body be found?
Bad example from a newspaper report about a man hired as a greeter at a new Walmart: “Charles Burns has been waiting for weeks to say three words: ‘Welcome to Walmart!’ When the doors open this morning at St. Petersburg’s first Walmart Supercenter, Burns’ face will be one of the first that shoppers see. He is the greeter.” – Problem: This feature was written the day before the opening. Thus, he never greets anybody, and the story has no engine. We don’t know how his first day went, what responses he got from the first customer, how his expectations matched the experience, etc.
Good writers anticipate the reader’s questions and answer them!
Reverse-Engineering Your Character Arc
lunabeck said: Hello! I did try looking around, but all questions on character development tend to be about HOW to develop them. my problem is a bit different. because i know her development, and how she is at the end of the story and all that, I keep writing her like that in the beginning. so pretty much I’m having trouble writing her BEFORE the she changes cause i keep writing her like she already had everything happen to her. I’m sorry its confusing, thank you!!!
Thank you for your question, lunabeck!
I’d spend some time figuring out what changes will be made to this character over the course of the story and why these changes are made. Where along the plotline of the story does your character acquire some of these changes you’re talking about? Why do these changes occur? What was your character like before the changes?
Examples? You betcha!
So let’s say that your character (let’s call her Tara) feels a certain way about this guy Bert at the end of the story. She likes him. Cool. Did Tara always like Bert? Is it a worthy plot point to make her not like Bert at some time before the end of the story? If so, what changed her mind?
Perhaps Tara met Bert at the beginning of the story and they totally started off on the wrong foot. Maybe Bert insulted Tara’s friend. Maybe Bert had had a few too many Long Island Iced Teas and acted foolishly. Fair enough. It happens to the best of us. Over the course of the story, Tara has to grow to like Bert, though, right? Because at the end of the story, she likes him, and we know that going in. So what changes?
Bert could get a kitten. Everyone likes kittens. Then maybe Bert helps Tara move. That’s always endearing. Maybe Bert apologizes to Tara for insulting her friend, and Tara realizes that she’s been super hard on Bert for months over some tiny thing. Maybe this interaction puts Tara into an introspective mood, and she finally understands how judgemental she can be toward strangers because of her own fear of inadequacy. Then she and Bert move forward as equals in their friendship. Roll Credits.
The point is that Tara doesn’t always have to have liked Bert. It might actually be more interesting if they don’t start off as besties, you know? Tension between characters is conflict, and conflict drives stories. Maybe play around with what changing relationships might do for Tara’s character arc. If she likes Bert when she didn’t before, how has that changed her emotionally? How would such a change affect her reactions to events in the beginning of the story versus the end of the story?
Maybe Tara moonwalks her way through the story as a kind, generous person and an epic dancer. That’s fantastic (and definitely fun to have at parties), but it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if Tara starts off sort of dull and rude? And she can’t dance. Lame.
Basically, what if Beginning-of-the-Book Tara and End-of-the-Book Tara are exact opposites? How could you make that a thing?
What events would have to occur in the story to change Tara from rude and dull to kind and generous, from a non-dancer to an epic dancer?
Maybe she starts going to therapy to figure out how to transform her critical eye into a force for good instead of evil. Instead of valuing the short-lived high that comes from commenting on other people’s shortcomings, Tara could teach herself to use that critical eye to identify problems and her considerable intellect to work with others on creating solutions. Boom. Rudeness into kind generosity.
Now, a change like this could take the whole story to evolve properly. This isn’t a one-trip-to-the-therapist change; this is a life-altering choice Tara has to make. It needs space. It needs time.
What about the dancing, you ask? Well, have her take lessons. (That sort of takes care of the dullness, too. Everyone needs a hobby!) Maybe dance class is where she meets Bert!
(These are, of course, extreme examples. Most character arcs are slightly more nuanced than this.)
If you’ve already got a character that is, in your mind, a finished project, it’s worthwhile to spend some time slowly unbraiding that character. Where do they seem weakest in terms of personality? How can you exploit these flaws in the beginning of the story? What personal or external struggles would cause even a subtle change in their personality?
At the end of the story, Tara, your character, is still human. If, say, Tara went from being incredibly ungrateful to counting her blessings, it is very rarely so drastic a change. Those are the kind of changes you really only see in articles about character development because they make for the clearest examples. They seem forced, inhuman even. It is more likely that if Tara starts off the story being incredibly ungrateful, she will still struggle with being ungrateful at the end of the story, if only internally. After all, the only type of finished person is a dead person.
So if you have an end-of-the-book character in your mind and you’re trying to chart her journey, and maybe she has a habit of taking things for granted, or struggles with it a little, you can trace this character trait back to when it was at its worst and start there. You might even think about mapping out Tara’s development. Creating a map might help you visualize your character’s development vs. the story’s progression if that is where your trouble lies. It might help with timing and syncing up development with events in the story with each step of the character arc.
Essentially what you’re doing with character arcs is throwing rocks (story events) at a wall (the character) over a given period of time (the story). The rocks chip the paint. They crack the moulding. They dent the drywall. Eventually, if the rock is big enough or you throw enough little rocks at one spot on the wall, you’ll make a hole. At that point, the wall is changed forever. Even patching the hole won’t be perfect, and a patch can’t ever undo the fact that there was once a hole.
To reverse-engineer a character arc, figure out the chips and cracks and holes in the wall of your character, then find rocks that seem to match and decide how to throw them.
Thanks again for your question!
-C and Hannah (theroadpavedwithwords)
Leading into a Flashback
Novels don’t use too many flashbacks; they’re more common in short stories. Flashbacks can be great when they’re done correctly (meaning relevant and necessary), but even then you need to be careful about leading in and out of the flashback. It’s a jump in time, and it could be confusing or disorienting. You don’t want your reader to start the flashback and still be thinking they’re watching a scene happening at that moment—a logistic like that should always be clear. So here’s a 101 on how to ease in a reader by writing your flashback in the right tense.
I’ll be using these terms:
Top story – what’s happening at that moment in the story. Let’s say Alice is 17 and going to the zoo with her friends.
Bottom story (or backstory) – what happened in the past. In this case, our flashback talks about when Alice was 6 at the zoo with her parents for her birthday, but her parents started fighting and yelling at each other.
In general, you want to lead into the flashback as smoothly as possible. If you think you’re just supposed to italicize the whole section and call it good, think again. Lazy. Lazy, lazy. If your story is written in present tense, you’ve got the easier answer. The top story will be written in normal present tense, and the backstory will be written in normal past tense. Still, everyone should consider the following:
- Some authors choose to start the section off with an italicized “6 years ago” or something, which is fine but personally I think it’s lazy, unless that date in particular is important.
- In the top story, something should prompt your character to think about this flashback. Something emotional is less cheesy, but this is still an area to be careful and subtle. A bad lead in is like “seeing the elephant reminded her of the last time she saw an elephant…” *cue flashback* Cheese. So much cheese. And it feels fake and contrived. I tend to lean towards a more emotional link. The current scene makes the MC consider something, and they look to the past for their answer…? Intermission for an example, after Alice has been kissed by her love interest for the first time:
Kisses had different meanings across the globe, but one thing tended to be consistent: they were a sign of affection. Affection, or manipulation.
And here starts the flashback for why she’s come to this conclusion.
- Drop hints early on in the flashback as to where you’ve jumped on the timeline. Like, “school had just let out for the summer” or “It was my first time driving with a permit” or something that gives a sense of when we are.
- Start off your backstory with PAST PERFECT! As in, the past before the past tense. This only applies if you’re writing in the past tense to begin with. It’s that addition of “had.” I had been driving when he called me. The TV had been on while she cooked dinner. The whole thing’s in past, but part of it had happened before the past action of calling or cooking dinner. If your flashback is short (like, one paragraph) write the whole thing in past perfect. If your flashback is longer lead in with three past perfect sentences. Then switch to simple past. Lead back out of the flashback with the last three sentences in past perfect again.
Confusing? Okay. No problem. An example.
“I think it’s broken!”
Mom’s tone had made me start bawling. My arm had hurt, but it hadn’t felt broken. I was only eight years old—I was too young to be broken. I didn’t want to be broken. Mom held my wrist lightly, afraid to be too rough.
(three uses of the past perfect “had” before switching to the normal past of “held,” as opposed to a past perfect of “had held.”)
—rest of flashback is too long to include here, but it would all be written in typical past tense—
Mom sighed, then turned to hold Dad’s gaze. “We still should go to the hospital, shouldn’t we?”
It had taken him a moment to reply. Then he, too, had sighed like releasing a pent up breath. “I’ll drive. Come on, kiddo,” he had said, and he lifted me into his arms.
(the whole middle section is in past tense liked “sighed” and “turned,” but the last three have switched back to the past perfect forms with “had” before the verb.)
This way your reader will get the sense right off the bat that this happened before. This isn’t happening as part of the current storyline. Leading out with it similarly reminds readers that the passage they just read happened before, and now it’s time to go back to now. Don’t confuse your readers with logistics!
Writing Tips: Formatting a Chapter
startingtoflyy asked:Hello, just wondered what the best way to do chapters is? Is there a specific format for when you should start a new chapter? Thanks!
The short answer to this is not really. Some books have no real chapters at all, others have chapters that are just a few sentences, and of course, the ones most of us are used to—a few pages worth at least. While how you do chapters is truly up to whats best for you and the story as a whole, I can give you some ideas on what might be good to consider.
Sort out chapters with certain important scenes.
This is probably the most common way to break up your chapters. Each chapter has concrete scenes that build onto each other as the story progresses. A good example I can think of from memory would be the Harry Potter series, where Harry Potter regularly hops from the Dursleys’ house, to Hogwarts, to classes in Hogwarts, to Hagrid’s, to the Forbidden Forrest, and etc. I find that this is the clearest, cleanest, and easily the most organized way to set up your story.
Have a small conflict found and resolved each chapter, slowing building to the major conflict and resolution.
While this leads to long chapters, this might be an interesting way to go, especially if your novel is like The Joy Luck Club, and designed more like a cluster of short stories or vignettes with multiple different characters. While this setup may be bothersome to plan and write out effectively, it offers something different and efficient for those writers out there who like tying short stories together into one solid book.
Vary the length and content for the mood or impact you are going for.
Bottom line of this idea: Do what’s best for the story. If you want the chapter to drag on because the plot point calls for something bleak and never-ending, go ahead and make that chapter longer than all the others. If you feel like one particular sentence would be best used as one whole chapter to punch in emphasis, go for it. This chapter approach is the most free, and can be excellent if you want even the set-up to frame an emotion or situation.
In the end, only you will know what is best for yourself as an other. Try several different approaches, and practice until you find your own special style.
If you are writing for fun, and if you don’t want any help, please write any way that works for you. I am not trying to convert you to writing with a plan. It truly does not matter to me how you write. However, if you are struggling to finish a book that makes sense, I would love you to carry on reading.
Why should you do it?
When I used to teach Writers Write regularly, one of the first things I asked students was: How does your story end? I did this for two reasons. Firstly, as much as some people love the idea of working with meandering storylines, it has been my experience that those writers seldom finish writing a coherent book. Secondly, most people who go to workshops or sign up for courses are truly looking for help, and I’ve learned that the best way to succeed in anything in life is to have a plan. Successful people will tell you that you need to know where you’re going before you begin.
Smell the roses
This does not mean that you can’t take time to smell the roses, or explore hidden paths along the way. It simply means that you always have a lifeline and when you get lost, it will be easier for you to find your way back again. Remember that readers like destinations. They love beginnings, middles, and endings. Why do you think fans are terrified that George R.R. Martin will die before he finishes A Song of Fire and Ice? They want to know how the story ends.
Here are seven reasons why I suggest you write your ending first.
- If you know who the characters are at the end of the story, you will know how much you should reveal about them at the beginning.
- You will be forced out of the ‘backstory hell’ that beginner writers inhabit and into the story the reader wants to read.
- Hindsight is an amazing thing. We all know how different life seems when we’re looking back. We can often tell where a problem began. We think about the ‘what ifs’ with the gift of hindsight. You can use this to your advantage in fiction writing.
- You will have something to work towards. Instead of aimlessly writing and hoping for the muse to show you the way, you will be able to pull the characters’ strings and write the words they need to get them from the beginning through the middle to the end.
- Plotting from the ending backwards saves you so much time because you will leave out stuff that isn’t meant to be there. You will not have to muddle through an overwritten first draft.
- Writing the end forces most of us out of our comfort zones. We have to confront the reality of what we are doing. It might not be as romantic as flailing around like a helpless maiden, but if you want writing to be your profession, it’s good to make the outcome visible. This is a way to show yourself that you are serious. The end gives you a goal to work towards.
- The ending is as important as the beginning. Good beginnings get people to read your first book. Great endings get readers to buy your second book.
There are a handful of famous authors, like Stephen King and George R.R. Martin, who say they don’t plot. I think they just don’t realise they are those rare authors – natural born storytellers, and that plotting is instinctive for them. I have interviewed many successfully published authors and I can revel that the majority of them do believe in plotting. They outline, in varying degrees, before they begin. And yes, most of them know what their ending will be. Why don’t you try it? What have you got to lose?
I truly hope this helps you write, and finish, your book.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy 10 (Amazingly Simple) Tips to Get You Back on The Writing Track and The Author’s Promise- two things every writer should do. You could also read The Top 10 Tips for Plotting and Finishing a Book.