Monday, January 28, 2008

Credentials in Your Query

The unwritten-rule book for finding an agent (and subsequently selling your manuscript) suggests you need credentials to be recognized, e.g. winning awards or being published in literary magazines. But finding the right magazine and/or contest is key.

When looking at a few of the well respected literary journals, I’ve noticed an interesting catch. Most of the journal’s short stories are written either by published authors or by graduates of fancy MFA programs. Hmmm.

Okay, you say, I’ll win a contest first. But when considering which contests to enter, think about this: Prize amount, entry fee, reputation of the judges. If you win an award for a contest no one’s ever heard of, did you really win?

Poets and Writers, Inc. lists contests by submission date. Over the past three months, I’ve entered nine contests and am about to send another for a February 1 deadline (yikes, I have only four days!) I look for contests specific to my genre (literary fiction a.k.a. the “no-genre” genre) and those having either semi-exciting dollar awards or judges by whom I’d like to get noticed. The negative results are in on four, one of which didn’t make it to the final judge: Joyce Carol Oates.

I don’t look at my not placing as failure. I’ve entered novel excerpts and short stories, a few culled from my first manuscript, and they’re being read. But if I’m really a novelist, am I wasting my time trying to be a short story writer. After all, I don’t normally seek out short stories to read. So, should I write them?

One of my critique partners recently pointed me to the Rejecter's blog about credentials. Here is the rejecter’s advice: “Don't stress over short stories if you're not a short story writer. Some people aren't. If you are, by nature, a novelist, then you might burn a lot of time and frustration trying to get some short story that you threw together for the query letter published. The magazines/journals we care about have very, very high standards and way too many submissions to publish everything they would even want to publish.”

Whew. Now I can get back to work on what I do best. But if by some chance I place in one of those contests, you can be sure I’ll mention it in my next query letter.

Friday, January 25, 2008

History Lesson

Confession time. I used to get Cs in history. I never saw the merit of remembering the names of war generals, types of foreign governments, or other equally fascinating details (see, I really didn’t pay attention). I don’t write historical fiction. So why am I spending more time researching than writing?
Each time I write a new scene in my Bodley Boys book (suggestions for a new title greatly appreciated!) I stumble on a topic involving research. If I’m describing Broad Street in the fall of 1935, I need to know details of building architecture, which cars were being driven, whether horse & buggies were still clomping through the cobblestone streets. (If this is one of those really obvious facts, please forgive me. I’m smart in other ways.) If the librarian is shuffling through the Bodleian in 1947, I need to know his real name, the clothes he wore, and the phrases he used.

Wait a minute; am I writing historical fiction? Granted, most of the book is set in current day Oxford. But once the tour group enters Duke Humfrey’s library on the second floor and touches the centuries’ old books hanging from original chains, the reader needs to be transported back in time. When an English professor lifts a book off of the shelf in the Upper Reading Room, I need to make sure that particular book is not located in the Lower Reading Room instead. When the kids in the 1930’s bicker at each other, their language needs to be accurate.

Maps and brochures from my visit to Oxford are very useful and internet research is invaluable. A fascinating book, Most Noble Bodley, edited by Ursula Aylmer, an anthology of writings from prominent library historical figures (even Thomas Bodley himself), sits on my desk, yellow post-its sticking out from the pages. I’ve been scouring local libraries (online, of course) for History of the Bodleian: 1845-1945, by Herbert Henry Edmund Caster (former librarian) so I don’t have to pay the $55 for a used Amazon seller’s version (plus shipping!) But, imagine that, the Plano and Frisco libraries don’t have a copy. This morning I located a copy at one of SMU’s libraries and I’m off to see if they’ll loan it to me.

If only my high school History teacher knew his C student was this excited to learn. Maybe he’d change my grade. In the end, though, we all know my goal: to hop a British Airways flight for another site visit to Oxford.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Agent Search: Can This Really be the One?

Pardon my stream of conciousness. But you tell me, what are the chances this ends with an “I want to represent you” phone call?

Query letter and first chapter sent to agent
Receive email from agent requesting larger excerpt by snail mail or email.
Chose email—and attach full manuscript
Receive automatic response from agency—translation: “you’re in the slush email loop.”
Call agency to inform them of dilemma. Receptionist offers to leave message for agent.
Agent calls when I’m not home (I’M ALWAYS HOME!)
Agent leaves voice mail explaining I should send an email if I have a question about my manuscript.
Send another email
Receive another automatic response
Print hard copy of manuscript online to Kinko’s
Prepare Express Mail package with stamps purchased from self-postage machine in May 2007 and placed in the drawer for future large mailings (post office is not close to home).
Call critique partner from Kinkos store to confirm spelling of word I’ve already spellchecked. It is correct.
Critique partner says to make sure postage is adequate. Yuk yuk, after all this, wouldn’t that be funny?!
Go to Mail Box store to double check weight for postage
About to seal package, realize I’ve left my business cards at home and the cute plastic folder I purchased in which to send manuscript has the perfect business card slot.
Notice the “Extremely urgent” notation on the express mail package and decide agent might be perturbed at my insinuating the priority of my work.
Change to Priority Mail package and attach more May 2007 postage
Drive to post office to get in 1pm pickup.
Wait in line to find out my postage has “expired.” WHAT!?
Go to self-serve postage machine and order up new postage
Opt for delivery confirmation and drop package in the box
Panic because now agent will be perturbed at delivery confirmation request.

My phone won’t be ringing, will it?

Monday, January 21, 2008

I Can Do That

We’ve all heard about how difficult it is to find an agent, and harder still to get published. We’ve heard about the impossibility of earning a living as a writer. We should just throw our pens and laptops into the trash can and crack open a book, right? But new writers get published every day. Really. Nathan Bransford mentioned in his blog last week that according to PW, 3,000 books are published each day. Sure, many (maybe most) are written by previously published authors, and I have no idea of the breakdown between fiction and non-fiction. But debut novels are published every day too.

Last week, an agent passed on the full manuscript for The Cemetery Garden because it got “bogged down in the middle.” Luckily, I received another agent request the day before and sent the full manuscript right away. I’ve decided not to consider rewriting The Cemetery Garden until I complete my next manuscript (goal date: March 31). When I emailed published author Sophia Nash on the status of my journey to publication, she wrote back: “You are playing this portion brilliantly - by continuing to write. That's the hard part. But I have to say that it's the only way to hone your craft.”

How do we stay motivated and become debut authors? Advice on this subject is abundant. Maria Zannini’s April 16, 2007 blog discusses motivation. Maya Reynolds suggests treating your writing career as a business. She should know. She followed her own plan and made it happen.

Here’s a true story that should motivate us all: A writer watched each of her friends get published for 8 years. And last summer she sold a manuscript which ended up being a 2 book contract. Then in December, an editor at another NY house plucked a manuscript that had languished in the slush pile for 2 years. They offered her a 3 book contract. When her first house heard about her single title sale they wanted 2 more books. Then – are you ready for this - ANOTHER editor plucked ANOTHER old manuscript from the slush pile in late December - and offered her another 2 book contract. She has to finish or write 9 books in the next 18 months and will be published by three different houses. That's what happens if you just keep writing and submitting!

Bottom line or big picture, however you visualize it best: Writers with goals, determination and positive attitude (and yes, either natural or hard-earned talent) are more likely to be published.

I can do that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Too Many Blogs

At first I thought blogging was silly. Arrogant rants about vacations, politics, breakfast menus, celebrities, skiing, tree-hugging, you name it, you can find it (sort of like eBay). But that's the beauty of it, too. Blogs are internet Op-Ed columns. No matter what the subject, someone has an opinion on it. Try it. Think of the most ridiculous idea and Google it. You'll find a blog about it. I don't want to plug weird blogs, but you can read about marshmallows, dryer lint, even anteaters.

Thanks to a tip from a fellow writer, I recently visited, an author community website. Published authors can set up web pages and blog. You can read reviews of the latest books. It's a one stop publicity frenzy. Amy Tan blogs there!

But if you're not careful, you can spend all day reading blogs. Although I read mostly writing blogs, pretty soon I'll be clicking a link to another blog to understand the first blog. Then I'll see another interesting link, say, to writing the perfect query letter or reading what really ticks agents off (rhetorical questions, spelling their names wrong). Then I'll go to some of my favorite writer's blogs. Many have links to their favorite blogs: literary critique, e-Mags, author friends. Fascinating stuff, all of it. But if I'm reading blogs all day, guess what my word count for the day will be.

So, I visit the blogs of a few agents (still reading the pitch critiques even though her taste baffles me!), writer friends, and authors. But I limit my time. And when I start feeling envious of the writers with books on the docket, I stop reading and get back to writing.

By the way, I'm much more careful about word echos when I'm working on my novel. Count how many times I wrote the word blog!

Do you blog? And what are your favorites to read?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Grammatically Undesirable

Recently, I read a piece in The Atlantic (Word Court, by Barbara Wallraff) about the misuse of certain phrases. The magazine's special section covers language questions and disputes and in this edition addressed the following:

1. The misuse of the word scores (as in scores of people). A score is twenty ("four score and seven years ago means 87 years ago, not way back when.") So, when speaking about the number of talented, unpublished writers, say, or the number of published authors earning enough to support themselves, scores would be a very small percentage.

2. The slip of phrase, "rule of thump" instead of "rule of thumb." Now that's just funny.

3. The use of preregister and preregister early (a writing teacher said these "drive me nuts.") Turns out, although seemingly redundant, both are correct. As Ms. Wallraff wrote, "If returning students, for instance, are allowed to register in advance of the general registration, why shouldn't that be called preregistration? And if they're allowed to do it well in advance, can't they preregister early?" Her peeve is "advance reservations" as "there is no such thing as a reservation that isn't made in advance."

I love word questions. Like this one: am I feeling nauseous or nauseated? Actually, either use is correct.

How about grammar problems? Now, I've had to work hard at mastering grammar (I'm sure there is something wrong with that sentence--or others in this blog-- and someone will point it out to me!) And really, if you ask any of my critique partners, you'll find that I haven't really mastered grammar. But, here are two of my peeves:

1. "I'm going to get me one of those." With "I'm going to get" the "me" is implied, right?!! Not to mention, I don't have another "me" standing next to me.

2. "My bad." I know all of the kids are saying it (except mine, he's forbidden to say it in the house). And though I haven't looked it up, the phrase has probably made its way to some dictionaries.

One of my sisters is a gramma-phobe and Latin teacher. She's shared some hilarious examples of butchered grammar over the years. She shared this with me: "One year I was reprimanding a student about saying 'that's mines' instead of 'that's mine.' When she asked what was wrong with her version, I said, 'Among other things, it doesn't sound right.' Her response was, 'Well it sound all right to me!' "

What's your peeve?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Writerly Gifts

Writers don't clock out. We never stop trying to be clever. Not only do we agonize over plot twists, but we rephrase mundane sentences into clever ones, revise thank-you notes, reread email messages before clicking send, and rewrite poorly written newspaper articles in our heads.

We also receive clever gifts.

One of my critique partners gave me the coolest gadget: an embosser to personalize my books. It resembles a notary stamp, with the same cool hand-squeeze design. A design that makes me feel important when stamping Library of Joan Mora on my books.

My son gave me Defining Moments in Books. This gem is almost 800 pages about the greatest books, writers, characters, passages and key events in the literary world.

So, when I need a brief diversion from clever writing, I'll be embossing my books and rediscovering truly great literature.

What fun gifts did you get (or give)?

Monday, January 7, 2008


Happy New Year all,

I'm returning to my blog well after any reasonable time off, but I'm ready to join 2008 now.

One of my critique partners pointed me to J.A. Konrath's invaluable writer's resolutions (, blog date Dec 21). Good advice about keeping up with your blog (ahem!), finishing the damn book, attending writer's conferences, etc. The resolutions I'll focus on are setting realistic goals, helping fellow writers and refusing to be discouraged.

Although I'd like to believe it's in my power to find an agent, it's out of my control. But sending queries is in my control. And, although I strongly believe TODAY is the day I'll hear from the agent reading my full manuscript, realistically I know I need to identify more perfect agents and send more queries. So, every two weeks, as I'm finishing my damn second book, I'll identify five more agents to query.

Although I'm not published YET, I can still help fellow writers. I attend a critique group where hopefully my critique is of value to others. I attempt to follow the critique advice I previously blogged about and I'd like to believe it's helpful. I was elected Treasurer of The Writers' Guild of Texas, a non-profit organization formed to support the Texas writing community. I've spent the last two years researching, improving my writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. If someone asks for (reasonable) help, I'll give it to them. As I'm finishing the damn book.

Now the hardest: Refusing to be discouraged. Soon I will blog about contests. But for now let me say, I've entered eight over the last two months (some short stories, some novel excerpts) and will send one more entry by January 15. I've received three "Sorry, not this time" responses. I've received 22 rejection letters in response to queries. We've all heard/read about Stephen King's 500 rejections before he was published. So every time I start to get discouraged, I think about that stack of paper stabbed to King's wall, login to, and research a new agent to query. As several of the rejections I've received from agents have advised: "It's not right for me, but it'll be right for someone." And as Maya Reynolds ( advises, set goals and take the steps necessary to reach those goals. Treat your writing career as a business. That I can understand. That I can control.