Writing queries becomes easier using themes

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Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing skills from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot.  Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.


The Things You Buy to Write

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Well here’s a surprise: My first email from a literary agency selling a webinar on how to get published. Really not very costly at $299. It’s only 2.5 hours. Previously named “Think Like an Agent,” it’s now Creating the Road Map for Your Novel.

It’s true, a lit agency knows a lot about building a great novel. Selling you an evaluation on how to do it might have crossed a line back in the olden days. It’s a new age. There’s more money to be made serving writers in all necessary aspects of publishing than in publishing books. These are the Things You Buy to Write, or more accurately, to Be a Published Writer.

Hey, wouldn’t you like to learn about (from the offer)

Market viability – Agents see good writing all the time in projects we can’t sell. Editor or Agent-speak translated: what does “too quiet” or “not commercial enough” mean and does it apply to your project? What are all the other catch phrases that are often used when agents/editors give writers feedback? Do you have a novel idea (pun intended) or should you shelve it instead?

How To Realistically Evaluate Your Own Work – Tips and strategies on how to create the distance needed to read your own writing dispassionately. Creating the road map for your novel. Elements of good critique groups or partners that can be invaluable to your success.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? Each participant is required to submit the first 30 pages of his/her novel. All attendees are required to read each other’s work for comment and discussion. We’ll decide if your writing is market ready and if it’s not, discuss why so you can take the next step to make it so.

MS-pagesIt’s that last one that’s a shot across the bow. (I do have to wonder who the “we” is: the agent, or the other participants.) You might think it amounts to a reading fee for your 30 page excerpt. What the agents call a “partial.” On the way to a full submission. For sure, this agency will read your 30 pages, if you sign up soon enough. You also get to watch and listen to the 2.5 hours for six months online.

Why didn’t I think of this before? Oh, wait, I might have. I believe I call it a writing workshop. It lasts nine months of 2.5-hour meetings, not one afternoon of 2.5 hours, and you turn in up to 180 pages of your novel over that time. You only have to read five other writers’ work, but you get comments in writing from everyone in addition to the talk. (The lit agency likes to call this a critique group. You get a partner if you sign on as a book coach client.) And for now, that workshop’s only $90 more than the 2.5 hours of web time.

I’m not an agent. I probably haven’t read as many novel excerpts as some of these literary pros. I don’t know for sure. But like them, for the moment my writing workshop (I call it a Manuscript Brunch) is almost full-up. You do get breakfasts, being here in Austin. Maybe that’s not important to getting a book ready. It does help a writer build trust in your evaluators. We don’t decide if your book is ready on the basis of 30 pages.

But my surprise is that agencies — which used to just kick back unsuitable queries and pursue the strong ones — are now showing a few authors in why your manuscript isn’t ready, so you might take the next step. At least one agency. I’m waiting for an upcoming webinar on drafting a query letter and writing a synopsis.

So to review: The agency charges $300 for the benefit of having seven other people read your excerpt, along with the agent. Then everybody talks. Eight people, of six; can’t be much more than 15-20 minutes of talk about your writing. You get the assignment to read 210 pages of other novels. Advice on “why your manuscript [may not be ready] so you can do the next step” of work. Authors do buy this kind of advice. From agents, in our modern era. It must have great value, because publishing pros are offering it.

Would you be interested in knowing more about how to query, and sum up your book? I can offer that. Getting the brunch served over the webinar’s phone-line — that’s the real challenge.


Poring over your first five, and why you should

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The air was thick with a tiresome tone last Sunday, the final day of the Agents and Editors conference in Austin. Most of the crowd had been pursuing the people on the dais for days. We listened to three editors and 17 agents. One panelist after another, with few exceptions, told stories of what not to do while querying them. A query is opening a business relationship, so there are preferences and protocol to observe.

Don’t write your cover letter on a half-sheet of legal paper, longhand. Don’t address your letter to another agent (a failure of Word’s mail-merge). “Don’t tell me you’ve written a fictional novel,” said Mike Ferris of a Dallas agency named after him. “Unless you expect a fictional reply from me, one I don’t have to send.”

Be sure to get the honorifics right, one added: “Don’t address me ‘Dear Beth,’ ” said Beth Vesel. A few of us looked puzzled at that one, looking down at the program where she was billed as “Beth Vesel,” also of a literary agency named after her. Oh, I get it. The correspondence to the leader of the Beth Vesel Literary Agency should be addressed “Dear Ms. Vesel:” Or “Ms. Vesel:”

Beth (sorry for the familiarity, but now I feel like I know you better) said she won’t read unsolicited e-mail queries. Put your unsolicited paper query in the mail and send it to her Fifth Avenue office in New York City. (Not to be put off by that address. The office is at 50 Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from the Village and Union Square in NYC.)

She said she wants writers to look at her Web site to see how to submit a manuscript. (Doesn’t appear to be a listing for her agency’s site in my searches via Google or Yahoo.) After 15 years of work at another agency, Vesel started her own in 2003, and according to a 2004 listing at the Agents Actively Looking Web site

is actively looking for new clients. Beth handles serious psychology, cultural criticism, narrative nonfiction and literary fiction. For non-fiction please include a query letter, CV, proposal, and SASE. If a finished proposal is not ready please supply a synopsis, full outline, and related clips.

For fiction please include a query letter, synopsis (with word count), sample chapter and SASE.

Why query her? Because she’s been an agent since 1988. Because she specializes in psychological thrillers, among her interests listed in the conference program. Most important, because she’s hired to get your manuscript in the running for a deal with a major publisher, if she or her readers can get through the first five pages of your writing.

Vesel was blunt and funny. She said she thinks that “literary fiction” is a genre created out of “bullshit,” to quote her term. (She was the only agent to use that word to describe the habits of an industry full of it.)

If it sounds challenging to get a open-minded read from Ms. Vesel, well, that’s the nature of the publishing game at a New York level. You don’t want to think that bright, accomplished people like the agents at that conference would dismiss a work of art in less than 10 pages. The truth is that they do, all the time. And that’s a fact that Noah Lukeman built a book upon: The First Five Pages.

This book’s subtitle is “Staying out of the rejection pile,” and Lukeman begins by saying his book might not be a good use of your time.

Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.

Of course, he goes on to set down not rules, but a chapter-by-chapter examination of where to go wrong while you try to stay out of the recycle bin; how to get past the MFA grad student or under-published writer who reads for an agent. Lukeman’s first chapter deals with presentation, and offers this advice, only partly in jest:

Don’t try to contact an editor or agent between 12:30 and 3. They will be lunching with other editors or agents. Don’t contact them before lunch, because they will be settling in for the day. Don’t contact them between 3 and 4, because they will be recovering from lunch and returning calls from those who called during lunch. Don’t call them after 5, as Hollywood is finally waking up about then, and they are also preparing to leave for the day. So — if you absolutely must call — then call at exactly 4:30.

Or 3:30 if you live in Texas. I do see another opening there, by calling during lunch.

You can read a few basic chapters of that kind of advice in the early part of Lukeman’s book, but the bulk of it is much better than that. He says it’s not a book about publishing, but a book about writing. Face it, there’s not much you can do about the habits of business people focused on honorifics, the color of your paper, who they believe you shouldn’t call, or how you refer to your work. (Self-published already? Don’t hide it, they advise. Open your kimono and tell them about your sales, they say.)

What you can do something about is your writing — and like Lukeman says, that’s a very different subject than publishing. Agents are all about publishing, and whatever they suggest about your writing will always have this motive attached to it: Do this, and it will help me sell your book. That is the outcome a writer wants, after months or years of creative work. Expect requests for change to get a deal done. So it’s better to have your writing done well enough, early enough in your piece of art, to be able to proceed to the “we need these changes” conversation with a professional reader, editor or agent — some of whom revealed sometimes picayune requirements with relish.