Thursday, January 24, 2013

10 Ways The Taste Is Like the Publication World

This week I watched the new cooking competition show The Taste, which is a lot like The Voice, but with a bite of food instead of a song.

A quick description if you're not familiar with it: contestants, who are either professional chefs or really good home cooks, have one chance--literally one bite--to impress the panel of superstar food people. If one or more of the judges falls in love with that one bite, they'll offer the chef a spot on their team. (From there I guess they'll compete against one another and have elimination rounds until there's one chef left standing who'll be crowned The Bite or something like that).

On the surface it probably seems to have nothing to do with writing, but it so much of what was happening reminded me of the struggle to become a published author.

Here are some things I noticed, and a few quotes, that especially hit home: (no quotes from Ludo, since I can't understand the guy. Seriously, I'd be in trouble if I were on the show and ended up on his team).

- Almost everyone made seafood. I found this surprising, since seafood is easy to screw up. Maybe if you're a good cook it makes for an impressive dish. But if everyone's serving up seafood, yours had better really stand out if you want to get attention.
And if you're trying to get published, write that vampire novel if you must, but it has to be especially awesome and offer something your reader hasn't seen before in all the other vampire novels out there.
Only one contestant made a dessert--a home chef, and she did get selected. The panelists were impressed, and Nigella is confident that she has the talent to make all kinds of dishes, not just desserts. Part of what made her stand out might have been that she gave them something different.

- "I liked it, but it's not for me." If you've been submitting to editors or agents for any amount of time, you've likely heard something like this. And it's not a bad thing at all. It means you're a good writer, but your manuscript hasn't landed on the right desk yet. You're giving scallops to someone who doesn't care for scallops.
Several of the contestants impressed the judges with their cooking skills, but the dish just wasn't the kind of food they love, or maybe it was too fancy-chefy when they're more of a comfort food fan.

- On the other hand, "I hate butterscotch. I have no idea where you pulled these ingredients from, but it strangely worked for me." This was Anthony Bourdain's response to the Chilean sea bass with butterscotch and cilantro dressing. Not usually his thing, but it was so good he had to take it on.
This reminded me of agent Faye Bender taking on Kristen Cashore's Graceling, even though she doesn't usually represent fantasy. Or the "rules" like "No rhyming picture books." You still see rhyming picture books getting published, right? So publishers do accept them, but they have to be stellar. It's hard to do well and not many people have the talent to do it, but when it does come together, it's beautiful.
Of course, do your research and submit to agents who you think will like your work, but if your book is amazing, they'll want to see more, even if it's something they don't generally gravitate to.

- "Were you stoned at 3:00 in the morning when you did this?" Another Anthony quote, one you don't want to hear about yourself. Agents get a lot of crazypants submissions. Don't be one of those people.

- Feel the fear and do it anyway. The contestants stood in a kind of elevator-thing, where they could hear the panelists' comments about their dishes. Sometimes the comments were great, sometimes they were terrible. It's a necessary step in moving on, but I can't imagine how intimidating that must have been. At least when we writers get rejected it's not in front of a national audience.
It's scary to send your work out there, but you won't get anywhere if you don't.

- But don't quit your day job. A few of the people mentioned they'd quit their jobs in order to try out for the show. A risky move, but a necessary one if they wanted to seize this opportunity and didn't have bosses willing to hold their jobs for them. Hopefully the ones who didn't make it will find new jobs soon.
I'm thrilled for authors who earn enough from their books to become full-time writers. But they're the exceptions to the rule; most of us won't be able to live the pantless life of a stay-at-home writer. It takes years to get published, and even after you sell a book, it might be a few months before you see the money. And most of the time, the money is a nice supplement to your income, but you'll need to continue doing something that brings in a regular paycheck.

- "There's too much going on here." This was a sentiment expressed several times, in one way or another, like with "This was a mishmash of flavor" or "My taste buds are still trying to figure out what happened."
Yes, you want to be original, but in a good way. Does your novel really need vampires, unicorns, wizards, ninjas, zombies, and mermaids? That's the literary version of pineapple maitake ground turkey sun-dried tomato mac-and-cheese stir-fry. (I did not make that up).

- Your kids love your cooking, but maybe no one else will. Like I mentioned in this post about query letters, of course your children like it when you write a story and read it to them, but mentioning that isn't going to impress an editor or agent. Every contestant on the show has family members, friends, even restaurant patrons who love their food. But like editors and agents, the panel of food experts had to be super-picky. They had room on their teams not just the great chefs, but the exceptional ones.

- Don't be a jerk. A good rule for life, really, not just for writing. Some of the chefs who weren't selected made comments like, "The people I've seen make it through are hacks" and "Nigella picked a woman who made mashed potatoes. I think my dish was a bit more complex than that." Well, you know what? Everyone likes mashed potatoes. "Complex" doesn't automatically mean "fabulous."
And are we sorry these people didn't succeed? Maybe it's shallow, but no. We cheer for nice people. People have long memories, and the Internet is forever. If you enjoy insulting reviewers and putting down other writers, expect to travel the road to publication alone.

- Not everyone chosen was a pro. Many of the contestants who made it through weren't professional chefs; they're just people who love to cook, and if we have a passion for something, we often do it well.
If you're unpublished so far, don't make any apologies for it when you submit your manuscript. You're a writer, and debut novels get published every month. If you love the work, keep doing it till someone takes a bite.

And am I the only one who wants to see more of Jeanette Friedman? Somebody give this woman her own show!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Query Letter Post: Hints For Writing Them, and the One That Got Me Represented

This week at the Houston SCBWI
It feels exactly this awkward to ask.
But if they like it, they'll put a ring on it
meeting I did a brief presentation about writing query letters, and was asked afterward if I'd send my own query letter from CHAINED to the group's listserv so members could have it as an example.

It occurred to me on the way home that it'd be better to include it in a blog post so I could share it with whoever would like to see it, and SuperAgent Joanna kindly agreed to add her own comments about what she thought when she first read the letter!

First, a quick definition of a query letter and a few do's and don'ts of writing them:

A query letter is a one-page letter that a writer sends to an editor or agent, asking to submit a completed manuscript. The goal is to concisely describe the manuscript in a way that will entice them to request it.

What to include in your query:

- A hook: one-sentence tagline to spark the reader's interest
- Genre and age group of the book: middle-grade fantasy or young adult contemporary fiction, for example. (But don't say "fiction novel" or you will get a punch in the throat)
- A mini-synopsis: a paragraph or two about the book, including the main characters and their problem
- A little about yourself: This is hard to write if you're unpublished, but mention if your line of work somehow has to do with your subject matter, or with writing or literature in general. Or just let them know you're in a writers' organization like SCBWI, for example.

What not to do:

x Mass emails. Of course you should be querying more than one person at a time; agents and editors often take a long time to respond, and you're not expected to wait two months or more to for a response before you send your query to someone else. Just don't fill the "To:" field of your email with every agent you've ever heard of. Select a few appropriate agents for your work, and if they accept email submissions, send them one at a time, personalizing the email to avoid a generic "Dear Agent" letter. (And check before clicking "send" to make sure the name in the "To:" field matches the name in the greeting).
x Mention that your kids loved your story. Of course they did. They depend on you for food. Telling the editor or agent that your children, grandchildren, the neighborhood kids, or your horde of cats love your book will not impress anyone and will mark you as an amateur.
x Fancy fonts or paper. You're probably emailing your query, but if you're submitting to someone who accepts snail mail, use plain white paper that you have not sprayed with perfume. However you send your letter, use a readable font like Times New Roman. I know, your letter written in Curlz font on purple glitter paper is adorable, but there'll be plenty of time for annoying your agent once you're represented.
x Compare yourself to J.K. Rowling. Another thing that will scream "I have no idea what I'm doing and I've done zero research." Let your work stand on its own and let the agent/editor judge the writing. You're not J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer; you're you. Also, don't insult other writers and everyone in the industry by trashing existing books.

I think I can sum up what you should do by saying "Do a little research and follow submission guidelines." Submit to editors and agents who are a good fit for the kind of work you're doing, and always check the agency's or publisher's websites to see if they're accepting submissions and how they want you to send your query. Most accept queries by email now, but some do not. Some want the query letter only, while others ask that you include some manuscript pages.

Here are a few resources to check out for more information, though a Google search for "query letters" will give you approximately a kajillion thousand eleventy-pants more results, so there's plenty of information out there:

- Query Shark
- Querytracker
- Writer's Digest (examples of query letters with agent comments)
- Harold Underdown's The Purple Crayon

And now, the query letter for CHAINED! I sent this to about thirty agents in all, and had several requests and eventually two offers of representation. Agent Joanna Volpe's comments are in blue:

Dear Ms. Stampfel-Volpe,

I have written a mid-grade novel of about 50,000 words that I'd like to submit to you if it sounds like something you'd be interested in reading. CHAINED is the story of two captives-- one a boy, one an elephant.
[This line already had captured my attention. I've been a long time animal lover (I had a subscription to Ranger Rick's well into my teen years. Don't make fun!) I don't typically see stories starring elephants, and I really liked the title.]

To work off a family debt, 10-year-old Hastin leaves his desert home in Northern India [Something else that piqued my interest. India! A fascinating and different setting than I'm used to seeing. My heart also went out to this kid immediately at having to work off a family debt.] to work as an elephant keeper. His new boss, Timir, plans to revive his old circus, starting with the elephant act. Hastin's new workplace is as strange to him as the green and humidity of the nearby rain forest. Why was this circus, which used to be the best around, forced to close down years before, only to be abandoned until now? How does the cook know everything there is to know about elephants? How does a person free an elephant from a trap, and how in the name of Ganesh does he take care of her when he does?
[I don't typically love when questions are posed in queries. More often than not, it feels like a forced way to catch an agent's interest. But in this case, there was something so innocent and naïve about the way the questions were asked. I just had this quick thought of "Hello, Hastin." I knew it was him.]

Surviving failed escape attempts, stolen money, an elephant hook, heat stroke, and a shared stable, the friendship between Hastin and Nandita the elephant grows stronger with each passing year, until they discover that the bond that links them together is stronger than any shackle, lock, or chain.
[This whole paragraph is great because it gives me a taste of what's to come, but that final line…I think we've used that in one way or another straight through to publication. I know I added it to my pitch! It's SO good. This might be the line that really captured me 100% because it really cuts to the heart of what this story is about.]

Author Uma Krishnaswami critiqued the manuscript and has been kind enough to offer to answer more questions about Indian culture if needed, and to read the story again to vet it before publication.
[This was just the icing on the cake to show me that she did her research—it certainly would have been one of my first questions when we talked.]  

A few editors have requested the manuscript, and I have listed them here, along with where I met them. :

·  [Awesome Editor A]  - First pages workshop
·  [Fabulous Editor B] - Highlights conference at Chautauqua
·  [Rock Star Editor C] - Houston SCBWI conference
[Since I had no writing credits or anything, this was sort of my "bio" and a way to show that I was actively participating in SCBWI events, for example, and getting my writing critiqued by editors, and to let them know there was some interest in the manuscript. ~Lynne]

Thank you so much for your time.


Lynne Kelly

Hope these tips and the example help those of you who are working on your queries. Have any other helpful hints? Please share in the comments. Thanks so much to Joanna for taking the time to look over the letter again and adding her feedback!