Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , ,
People have asked what my writing specialty is. Not specifically what is my genre (though I do get that question a lot), but more like what's my "thing?" What do I bring to the table that makes my work unique?


Folks in the habit of throwing around writing advice will often say that writing what you know is a bad or outdated tip, but the thing is, we all do it. Sure, sticking only to what you know is a bad way to challenge yourself or stretch your creative muscles, but I think we all have to start from a place of intimate knowledge, be it about a particular subject the characters are exploring, the settings in which they live, or at the very least a mindset they're battling (be it addiction, OCD, bipolar, grief, or crushing guilt). The personal knowledge we have that we share through our stories creates a sort of empathy between the author and the characters. That empathy is like the salt in your stew. If it's missing, the story feels incomplete, bland on the tongue, forgettable.

A lot of fiction writers come to the table with a certain amount of expertise under their belts. They may be cops, lawyers, or other government employees, so they they can showcase their knowledge of procedures and lingo, the inner-workings of government agencies, or how crimes are investigated and solved. Sometimes fiction writers have crossed over from the world of journalism, bringing their journalistic sensibilities along with them in the form of intrepid characters who might also be journalists themselves. Or at the very least, they will often write in a style that befits their training: tight stories that get quickly to the point and don't fuss with extraneous details. And it's the same with nearly all professions. If you're a soldier, you might not write about soldiers, but you might write LIKE one.

In other words, a writer will either explicitly or implicitly use their knowledge to demonstrate "this thing they keenly understand, and therefore you should keenly understand it too" and that is often what sets their work apart from others.

I, personally, am an expert in pretty much nothing. You will very likely never see a non-fiction work from me (apart from the blatherings you find on this blog), unless it's creative non-fiction. And I doubt I'm interesting enough to even pull that off. I have four collective years of college under my belt, but no degree to show for it. A lot of what I know comes from years of observation and simple research, or interacting with experts until I feel like I can fake it on the page. I've read more books and watched more movies than I can count, and I've developed love affairs with certain subjects and causes, but not a lot of it has made it into my writing. For instance, I love cooking and exploring the world of food, but I have no interest in writing about a chef. The idea of using any technical knowledge I might possess to tell a story just doesn't interest me for some reason.

What I do know, however, is people, and particularly how they behave in relation to one another. I believe we are never the full picture of what others see. There is always a drawn curtain hiding a secret self from the rest of the world. Sometimes even we don't fully know or understand our secret selves, and the process of discovering who that person is can make one hell of a story.


Our secret selves self may engage in thoughts and behaviors that don't adhere to the norms societies have constructed in order to feel safe. That's not to say I think we're all doing or thinking bad things, but I think we are often doing or thinking INTERESTING things. The people you pass on the street every day, the ones who fill your drinks or scan your groceries or patrol the streets to keep you safe -- all of those people live lives that you don't see, and within those lives, the people who know them best don't know them completely. Every single one of us has secrets we would rather die before sharing with a complete stranger, those things that for whatever reason our brains sometimes like to remind us of so we can feel bad for a little while.

Sometimes, when I'm sitting in a public place, like a mall or a restaurant, I find myself trying to tunnel into the lives of my fellow humans, to imagine their struggles and triumphs, their dirty little secrets.

And maybe they're completely mundane things, at least to them, but they all have stories unique to themselves, about the things they've seen and the people they've met that shaped who they are, for better or worse. Every single one of them. Every single one of US. And it's in that very realization where I find I'm taking the pulse of something infinite. People say there is nothing new under the sun, that there are only so many ideas out there that we use over and over again. That may be true to a point, especially when we're talking about HOW we tell these stories . . . but the stories themselves are forever unique like grains of sand.
I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist or any other "ist." I don't know much about planes or trains or automobiles. I've never been to war. Hell, I haven't even been out of this country yet. But I was gifted with a curious sponge of a mind with an antenna that tunes into the frequencies of certain people, to see them as they actually are, behind the veneers and the fancy window dressing. The marriages people keep up for appearances, but are actually falling apart behind closed doors, the sad old men filled with regrets that no one will understand, the desperation of someone longing to be free of the chains holding them back, the capering, mean little demons that live in us all, whether we acknowledge them or not. I seek them out. I sidle up next to them on the park bench, and I ask them questions and gain their trust so that they let me in.

And then I write down every ugly little thing I see, using vivid words so that you may see them too, and then I find an artful way to ask if this ugly thing looks a little like the ugly thing living inside of you, inside us all. And if you're being at least a little honest with yourself, you might admit that yeah, maybe. Just a little. But no one else has to know. It's a secret you've confided to the imaginary people living in the pages. And that's okay. I think that's one very fundamental function of art in general. We share our secrets with you, and you quietly pass yours to us.

That's my "thing." That's my specialty. What's yours?
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , , ,

I have been such a busy little bee over the last 24 hours, abandoning exercise and grocery buying obligations, eating poorly, not leaving my pajamas. How is that any different than normal, you ask? Well, I've been GETTIN SHIT DONE, man! At least in the publishing sense. Dirty dishes, hungry kids, and body odor are nothing in the face of monumentally overdue indie-pub spring cleaning and a rare hypomanic spell that somehow gives me the power to work nearly 17 hours straight without a drop of caffeine.

I think it all started when I opted to take another month-long hiatus from Facebook, which is something I think I will be doing quarterly from now on, because there is some kind of magic involved when I leave that place and devote that reclaimed time to my work, as well as interacting more on Twitter. I become magically more productive and for whatever reason, I sold more books in one day yesterday than I had the entire month previous. What mad sorcery is this?!

Anyway, for the last six months or so, I've been procrastinating on all my miscellaneous indie publishing chores. My little online marketplace had become downright stale and was due for a major sprucing up. Front matter was out of date, books needed prepping for wide distribution, there are a few covers (and one title) I've been fundamentally unhappy with, etc. So here's what I've been doing, all in list form. I'll start with the most important thing:

1. "Dust" Gets a Makeover


It's been five years since I completed the story (though four years since its first publication), and in that time, "Dust" has been my most widely downloaded and read title. It's the story that has garnered the most reader mail, and the one I think people most clamor about making into a novel or a movie. When it was a regular Kindle freebie, it also brought the awesome Vincent Hobbes into my life, and from there STRINGS and THE LAST SUPPER came into existence. And from those things birthed KUDZU, which gave way to my recent signing with an agent. You see where I'm going with this? If life really is a twisted and complex domino run, Dust is the first one that tipped. So this story is very very special to me. While I failed to expand it into a novel, I did give it a new cover and 6000 more words (which would effectively make it a novelette). The plot is the same, but I think the story itself is richer, and it scratches a lot of itches I've always had about the original story. I hope it does the same for all of you, too.

I replaced the existing product with the new book file and I informed Amazon customer service of the change, in the hopes that they would push that updated file out to the thousands of people who already own it. Unfortunately, they informed me that this is not possible, because the update was not to fix quality issues and formatting errors. To that end, I will be running a freebie promotion on it this weekend, July 25th and 26th. Also, Amazon provided me with a number that current owners can call that will allow them to receive the updated book: U.S. and Canada: 1-866-216-1072

This is ultimately the best I can do in this situation until Amazon automates this process, which they say they are currently working on doing. Note: the original version will remain in the At the End of Things collection.

2. Phantasmic Flashes becomes The Four Phantasms


It's a minor change to a flash fiction collection that doesn't get all that much play, but it was important to me to make the change, because I'm not sure it was a very accessible and searchable title. I'm all about revising history lately, it seems. Well, that's one particular beauty of author publication. I can change shit whenever I want! There aren't any amendments to the actual stories, but I'm hoping the refreshed title will help it reach more people, because I really am proud of these little babies.

3. Distribution Wider Than My Ass.
Yesterday, I signed up for an account with Draft2Digital. They are an alternative to Smashwords in that they convert your ebooks and distribute them out to other sales channels, like Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc. Only, their user interface is better in several ways. There is no pesky style guide to follow. They can generate front matter, teasers, table of contents, and other things in your books automatically. They also pay monthly, claim to have faster sales reporting, AND they do CreateSpace distribution! Essentially they're everything I've been looking for in an ebook distribution service. I have pre-loaded my currently available Kindle books onto D2D, and expect to start releasing them in August. The first and largest batch containing Wicked Brew, Dust, Agnes Winters, Vermin, and Four Phantasms will go out on August 4th. Then I have two othes on the 5th and 6th. Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer will go out on the 15th.  Consumption, because it's newest, won't be freed from Amazon's clutches until October 3rd.

4. I'm Not Just Hip. I'm PAYhip!


Also starting next month, I will be embarking on something COMPLETELY different: direct sales. If you look at the top menu bar of my site, you'll see a Buy My Stories link. Right now, there is only one story up there, but once distribution goes wide, you'll see a whole lot more. I have always wanted to offer this option to people, but the available tools were a little unrefined, and I had no urge to build an e-commerce site. Over time, enterprising individuals have devised solutions to make direct ebook sales a lot easier. Ganxy is one option, but I found their platform to be half-baked to downright clunky. Payhip seems to be the best I have encountered to date. The interface is slick as hell and very clean. Also, unlike other services I've seen, every time you purchase a book direct from me, the monies are deposited immediately to my PayPal account. I don't have to wait a month or more for a deposit, and the 5% cut these guys take off the top is more than fair. While I plan to distribute my current Kindle offerings through Draft2Digital, I will be offering a lot more on my Payhip site. All my individual shorts will be available there for folks who want just to pick and choose the stories they want, and I plan to make some other special bundles as well as release other exclusive content there that you won't be able to get anywhere else. EPUB, MOBI and PDF file formats will also be available.

5. And if All that's Not Enough . . . A New Novel!


After signing with my agent, the impetus to get the next suspense book off the ground became a lot stronger. To that end, I'm nurturing a little seedling of a novel called "A Marriage of Convenience," which I can only say right now is like American Beauty meets Vertigo. It's in the very early stages (only about 5000 words in so far), but I'm liking where it's heading, particularly because the framework I've built around the story leaves room for a series that I'm tentatively calling The Hartnell Files. We have a weary Ohio sheriff from a rural county (local trivia -- it's roughly based on the Piqua area) named Tom Hartnell, a former Chicago cop with a story of his own. He moved to the country to escape the craziness of the city, but as we'll see in this book and each one that follows, the weird and awful tendencies of human nature have followed him. While he's not actively solving the cases, he gets to bear witness to several bizarre confessions in his tiny interrogation room, and they will tie in somehow to his overall character arc. We'll learn more and more about Hartnell as we go, and he'll provide a sense of companionship for the reader, which is important. So he's basically the "hero" even though he's more of a passive observer. At least for now.
About two years ago, after becoming fed up with inconsistent distribution, unresponsive customer service, and a huge lag in sales reporting, I left Smashwords in a huff and took all my toys with me. Then, because at that time there didn't seem to be much by way of alternatives (other than dealing directly with individual retailers, which is a bigger headache in its own way), I pushed all my chips into the Amazon pot and decided to just hang back for a bit and see what happened. For a while, it was nice only having to deal with one retailer and one set of payment reports, and I was making roughly the same amount of money, but with a lot less of the headache. But I didn't realize then that I was on a downward trend, and now I'm more or less seeing the bottom, so it's time to talk about it.

On KDP Select Losing Its Luster
Amazon Makes an Offer You Can't Refuse
Smelling potential disaster earlier this year, I ventured back over to Smashwords in March with one of my free and clear short story titles ("Vermin") in an attempt to see if things had changed much. I also uploaded my latest Colt Coltrane short story. Aside from a marginally improved user interface, it was same old same old. On any given day, my books would be listed as available in all distribution channels, only to not appear in search results in the actual stores. There was no rhyme or reason for this. No explanation. And of course, sales reporting data appeared to be as laggy as always. I took down the Colt story, but left Vermin up there as a test case. I'll get back to that in a second.

Disenchanted as ever, I dug in my heels with Amazon's KDP Select program for another 90 day cycle as I tried to figure out what to do next. Might as well, right? I mean, with KDP Select, at least I get to do some free promotional days and maybe a Countdown Deal or two. I feel a bit like an addict trying to justify why drugs are so damn awesome, but Amazon had always been decent to me. I mean, I get good sales reporting data that's as close to real time as one can get in this business. They pay every month instead of quarterly, and they even removed that pesky $10 minimum threshold so even the pennies I make from the overseas stores come to me every month. Also, if I've ever had a problem, their customer service has always been timely and helpful.

But the truth is Amazon likes to position itself as the kindly and benevolent godfather that's doing right by you and looking out for you, even as he's whacking your family members in dark alleyways and building an empire with your own blood and sweat. It's hard to hate Amazon, even when you should at least be cautious, or when things start to smell a little off, like maybe they've put a decapitated horse head in your bed.

It used to be if you did really well on a freebie day, there would be a nice little sales bounce afterward. Those days have since passed. I can't remember the last time I had a sizable post-freebie bounce. Hell, I can't remember the last time I had any bounce at all, even after a day where I had nearly a thousand downloads and topped the free charts. It's difficult to put my finger on what has happened over the last six months or so, but making money via Amazon has been like squeezing blood out of bone. Sometimes it feels like the ranking gods are flogging me, or like they've decreased the visibility of my books on the site, but it's not like I can verify that. I also realize I've played a part in this. I shouldn't have stayed exclusive for so long, for one thing. For another, I'm questioning whether it was wise to put all my work into collections while removing the availability of more individual downloads. But I'm also a firm believer that for the most part, you get out of self-publishing exactly what you put into it, and in my drive to finish a new novel and acquire an agent, I have let my indie work slide a bit. I haven't had many releases at all this year, and I haven't promoted much either.

But the slide was happening even before the turn of the new year, and around January, I was pretty sure the luster was wearing off. I intended to start distributing wide again in April, but then due to a snafu on my part, I wasn't able to do so. While all my PUBLISHED work was free and clear, I had forgotten to uncheck the "renew" boxes on the individual short stories in my collections that I had since unpublished. Even in that case, Amazon still holds you to the terms of exclusivity (again, publisher beware, read the fine print). I could have risked violating that, but I didn't want to enter a potential kerfuffle with Amazon. So I unchecked those boxes and then reupped with my other titles for another three month term so that everything would be coming free around the same time in August. With KDP Select, it feels like you're living your life in three month blocks of time. Mini prison sentences. Hopefully my parole will not be delayed by another technicality next month.

But What About Kindle Unlimited?

So I give you everything, and I get pretty much nothing? Where do I sign?!
It looks okay in some ways. For traditionally published authors that are part of the program, they're making similar royalties per download based on the average value of their book for that given month, and they're not locked into exclusivity requirements. However, I'm not entirely thrilled with the way Amazon has set it up for KDP members, as yet another supposed fringe benefit to letting Amazon (and only Amazon) be your kindly godfather. It will likely serve as only a pipe dream for most self-published and small press authors. I can almost hear the siren call now . . . "Stay with us exclusively, and we'll make your book available FREE for thousands and thousands of subscribers, and you'll still make money. Ain't it great?"

No, actually, it really ain't. While Amazon is branding it as another revenue stream, you'll probably be lucky to get five subscription downloads a month, same as the Amazon Prime Lending Library. Is that worth giving Amazon full exclusivity? No, sorry. Most of the readers signing onto this KU program will be doing it for free access to the big names Amazon is using to rope them in. They won't automatically be sniffing out self-published or small press indie authors that had to hand over their only set of keys for the opportunity. But there you will be, another temporarily embarrassed bestselling author, acting against your own best interests, letting Amazon hold the ropes to your work in the off-chance it'll really pay off this time.

Chances are overwhelming that it won't. And like other authors have pointed out (check out this blog post over at Terrible Minds), you're not getting paid based on the value of your book like the traditionally published authors. You're making a percentage of a pot of money that Amazon is setting aside, just like with the Lending Library. Most times, you're topping out at about $2 per download. That's great if you're selling books below $2.99. But anything above that, and you're losing money on the sale. That's not a great deal. And if people start using Kindle Unlimited as their standard for acquiring new books, they will likely be buying fewer of them outright, which means you can say goodbye to your actual paid royalties. You'll be making less money on each sale indefinitely. You know how a lot of musicians hate streaming services like Spotify? It's for similar reasons as this, except unlike musicians, you'll be locked into an exclusivity deal with one retailer for the dubious privilege of making less money on a sale. It's a little frightening to think about what this might do to the future of indie publishing if everyone starts going this way. Hopefully terms will improve, but I doubt it. Not with the Self-Publishing 1-Percenters distributing petitions of undying love and devotion for Amazon. Gee, it must be nice having such shiny gents speaking for us unwashed masses plugging away to make enough money to buy a cheap dinner every month. I'm pretty sure Amazon would prefer to use those guys as their spokesmen rather people like me, who outnumber them 100 to 1.

I've long considered my indie publishing life an experiment. I mainly use my short stories to test the waters of the author-publisher market, and I'm not afraid to move my goalposts and change my strategies when need be. If you become too ardent, too set in your ways, you run the risk of losing your ass. This is why if you find yourself falling under the spell of certain self-publishing demagogues, back the hell away. They may have found success at this great gamble, but they're no different than the skeevy politicians who will tell you that one day, you can be rich and sell millions of books just like them, if you don't give up and if you keep writing awesome books and believing in the big American dream and the Great White Hope that is Amazon. Don't look for that man behind the curtain. Don't question the questionable business practices of Jeff Bezos the Great and Powerful.

It's nothing more than lyrical bullshit designed to divide writers into distinct camps, when really you should be steering a much more dynamic ship that can weather all markets and all conditions. Take it from me what can happen when you fail to diversify even for a little while.

So What's Next?

There is life yet
Well, THE LAST SUPPER is up next, and with that I hope to offer wide distribution of all my other work for new readers to enjoy, provided they don't hate the new book. Oh I hope they don't. So back to that copy of "Vermin" I left up on Smashwords. It's hasn't exactly been doing gangbusters, but I've sold a few copies on Barnes & Noble. I consider it a sign of life and look forward to getting the rest of my work out there again. I have plans to use Draft2Digital and Payhip to make it happen, so stay tuned for more details there in the coming months.

If you're testing the KDP Select waters for a little bit, fine. More power to ya. Maybe it'll pay off and get you some additional readers. Just don't overstay your welcome. Being in the program is like standing in the sun too long without sunblock. You'll walk away bitter and blistered.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , ,
I read a great little article on Lit Reactor about how to build a writing routine, and I think it's definitely a topic worth addressing, because whether you're just starting out writing or if you're a pro, you may have trouble nailing down the reasons why some days you write like gangbusters and others you can't seem to force out more than a measly "the" before the shiny objects or the dreaded sandman pull you elsewhere.

Some of this can be attributed to lack of inspiration or being stuck in a plot dead end, but I know when I'm not feeling on the ball, it's because I did a poor job of preparing myself for the task. Like any other job we do in life, be it cooking, working out, going to our day jobs, or doing homework, a ritual or at least an acknowledgment of some necessary preparation is in order. I'm not the most routine oriented person I know. Sometimes I write a lot in the morning, other times I burn the midnight oil. If the story is in a particular hot spot, I tend to do both. But I have found that a certain set of parameters has to be put in place in order for me to work to an optimum level, and while it's going to be a little different for everyone, I think it's worth trying out these five basic things I'm about to lay down here. Most of my suggestions have to do with how you treat your body, and there is a good reason for that. A good body equals a good mind, and a good mind is a productive one. So let's go.

1. Get Plenty of Sleep

Because everyone looks like this when they sleep...
90% of the writers I know absolutely insist on the magical powers caffeine to help them write billions of words, and the association between writers and coffee is about as plain and common as the one between Colonel Sanders and fried chicken. But I guess I'm odd or something, because I don't require much if any caffeine in order to write. My coffee drinking seems to coincide with seasonal changes or other drastic shifts in routine that have my sleeping schedule in flux (see: summer vacation). On the days when I do feel like I need coffee, it's because I didn't get enough rest the night before. If I don't have my requisite seven hours a night, I feel dopey in the morning. Nothing gets done, let alone the writing. I used to love being up during the wee hours, but doing that and sleeping late to compensate for it just doesn't mesh well with the whole having a family and a couple pesky animals thing. So rather than depend on the caffeine high alone to motivate you to the keyboard, consider whether you're getting enough sleep, and if that sleep is good sleep (apnea and alcohol-free, for instance). I can guarantee that cleaning up the sleep routine even a little will give you a boost of brain power that no chemical stimulant will be able to match.

2. No Food

But only after you write
Oh look at me, recommending a starvation diet. I'm actually not doing that, but the Lit Reactor article mentioned how food can be a creativity killer, and I couldn't agree more. I've been on fasting-style diets and found that when my digestive system wasn't being taxed at all, I was in sort of a writer nirvana mode. Of course, I can't sustain myself for long on diets like that and I'm not saying you should start fasting or even that you should write while feeling physically hungry (because that's just as distracting). But you might consider not writing after you've just had a big meal, particularly one that is heavy on starches. You might be the exact opposite, but to me, writing on a full stomach is a lot like exercising on a full stomach. Both make me feel sluggish and wrong, and I never get very far. On a typical morning following a good night of sleep, I start the day with a very light snack (a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt, sometimes a smoothie). Then I'm ready to commence writing. I like to get a good chunk in before breaking for lunch, at which point I consider myself done until a couple hours after dinnertime. Or if you're going to incorporate a heavy meal into your day at some point, try to counterbalance it with some decent exercise. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Move Around, Dammit

Me in fifty years, before I start an important scene
I'm the least disciplined person I know when it comes to working out, but even making a little effort to move can mean a boost to the word count and to your overall sense of motivation, provided you don't overdo it. When I was swimming more than an hour a day a few years back, I wasn't writing much because I was doing more than my body was equipped to handle, and I didn't have anything left for the page. But if I don't exercise at all, I feel terrible and will often even fall asleep in mid-sentence. For the longest time, I was starting to wonder if I had an attention disorder of some sort, but I realized my body's engine was running worse than a mid-80s Chevy with flood damage due to a severe lack of activity. These days, I try to keep my swims to 45 minutes, no more than an hour. Any more than that, I become stiff and tired, and the whole concept of exercise works against me rather than with me. Either way, just take 45 minutes out of your day and do something. Even breaking it up in to chunks throughout the day is better than nothing. Getting up from your chair a couple times an hour to lift some free weights or do a few yoga positions or some good old-fashioned push-ups will make a world of difference.

4. Kill Your Distractions


Before they kill you...
The article was so right on about that, and I'm sure I've talked about this before, but you definitely have to find a way to deal with outside distractions, especially early on in your career when your confidence is probably shaky and you haven't proven yourself able to finish much of anything. Even if you can't get away from the internet, unplug your router. Or if that would make things too inconvenient for anyone else trying to use the internet in your house, there are programs that will disconnect the internet from your computer for a set amount of time (I particularly like Freedom). Consider a device for writing that has no internet connection, like pen and paper or an Alphasmart. Turn off your phone's ringer for an hour or so. Go in a room and shut the door or tell the people in your life that you are not available during certain hours of the day, that your writing IS a job and they should respect that. One thing that has become the most helpful to me is deactivating my Facebook account when I'm trying to get a new project up off the ground. Some people can handle their Facebook addiction better than others. Sadly, it's probably the largest timesuck in my online world, and checking it has become nothing short of compulsive. When I started my book Kudzu back in February, I decided the best thing I could do for myself and my state of mind was to deactivate Facebook for a month. And that wound up being the most productive and peaceful month I'd had in years. Five months later, I was signing a contract with my new agent for that very book. Hey, I know it won't always happen that way, but I'm just saying . . . there is a lot of good that comes from clearing the noise and clutter out of your head. Take a Facebreak. You'll be glad you did.

5. Make Sure You're Writing What You Want to Write


Maybe you want to try something else for a bit...
I hear from a lot of people who are just having a hell of a time finishing a story they started, or they've thought about it a long time and have plotted and researched a ton of stuff, but just can't seem to get it off the ground. We all hit bumps in the road with a project. In fact, without fail, I reach a major crisis of confidence in any project around the time I hit 30K words. That is usually when the honeymoon period wears off and it starts to feel a bit like a chore. Almost always, though, I forge my way through it and by the time I pass the 50K mark, things start to feel a little better again. Every project is plagued with those kinds of fits and starts, so I don't want anyone to think that having an off week means you shouldn't be working on your current WIP, but I think if the problem becomes pervasive enough that it's not any closer to being finished than it was two months ago, then it might be time to do a little soul searching and ask yourself if this is really what you want to be doing. It's a well-known wisdom that the most important part of being a writer (at least the kind whose goal is to sell books) isn't just writing, but finishing what you write. But there is a fine line between having a rough week and torturing yourself with a piece of work for months or even years on end. It's that kind of thing that tends to make people resentful of the craft and stifles inspiration and creativity. It's OKAY to start something else if it will inure your wounded spirit. It's okay to come back to the old project later, with a refreshed sense of purpose. Hell, it's also okay to not come back to it at all if you've found a project that has really captured your attention. Follow your bliss. Do the thing you can finish. It's easy to build a writing routine around something you don't resent.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , ,
A couple weeks ago, I detailed how one might craft an effective query letter. And it looks like it might have worked, because I now have an agent:


But I really feel like I have to back waaaaay up, because although it feels like I just hit the number that took me straight to the top in the Find a Literary Agent edition of Chutes & Ladders, the road that led to this moment was long and winding and full of potholes and long periods of inactivity. 


So let's start from the beginning of the beginning, the first time I ever tried to acquire agent representation, and then compare it to what just happened.

A Scarlet "F" for FAIL

The first novel I completed was my funny vampire book, Scarlet Letters. I was an awfully eager beaver at that point, thinking I had this whole thing in the bag. I would craft the perfect letter, send it around to every agent in town, and then get the book deal I so desperately wanted.

Of course, I knew other people certainly hadn't had it that easy, but I was special, dammit! I also knew nothing of the humorous fantasy market (hint: it's tiny and consists almost exclusively of Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Jeff Strand, and Neil Gaiman). I knew nothing about how a book like this might actually sell. All I knew was I had a finished novel and the world deserved the opportunity to buy it and shower me with riches. I got a few bites from agents who asked for partials, and that was a buzz. Especially since those agents were notorious for saying "No" pretty much right off the bat. Ultimately they did say no. Then I had a friend's agent take a look at it, and she gave me the reality check I so desperately needed. She told me it had its good qualities, but it was basically half-baked and not ready for prime time, and the subject was just not terribly commercial. I was angry at first, but you know what? It's exactly what I needed to hear. I went back to the drawing board. I still have a lingering affection for this book and have tinkered with ideas of re-editing it and submitting it to a small press, but for now, it rests lovingly in the trunk.

"S" is for Stargazers. Or Strike Two

The Stargazers. My shoddy attempt at YA, and an attempt I will likely not make again. It was the first and only book I started for NaNoWriMo 2010 and managed to complete within the same month. It was about a young witch who lived in her own world and had to cross into ours and impregnate herself, only to return and sacrifice her own child for some magical rite of passage. As hinky as it sounds, it was a slightly better book than the one about the vampire mailman. The only problem was the plot. It was uneven and a little forced in spots, and I don't think I was a good enough writer at the time to take the book where it really needed to go. I pitched it to an agent at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and she asked for fifty pages. I also queried dozens of other agents, all of whom said thanks but no thanks. Again, I got a great reality check from the agent who'd read the partial. It had some good moments, but the voice felt uneven. I just still wasn't ready for the big leagues. It was a painful and difficult truth to swallow, but what was I going to do, quit writing? Also, the e-book marketplace was beginning to really emerge, and I saw new opportunities waiting.

Running Out of Steam

Over the couple years that followed, I dove into e-publishing and found a new following and success there when my stories "Under the Scotch Broom" and "Dust" became a hits on Amazon. That led to a friendship with Vincent Hobbes, who discovered my work there, and eventually that led to a few publishing deals. Two short stories appearing in The Endlands anthology and eventually contracts for two of my novels, The Last Supper and Strings. I'd had temptations of querying out Strings just to see if I could get any bites on it in the agent market, but I decided why push it further when I had a publisher willing and ready to take it on? Also, truth be told, I was afraid that I still wasn't ready for that. Querying is emotionally difficult work and I was loathe to line up for another flogging.

But then my dear friend Ian Healy and I penned a steampunk book together and we decided to send out queries. Same process again. We got some good hits off the bat. Several requests for partials and fulls, and a lot of hope. Only, we struck out time and time again. A number of them said the book needed character work, and ultimately we agreed to trunk the novel. It was another instance of not quite being there, though it seemed like I was getting closer to something.

The 2014 Resolution

After Strings came out in the latter part of 2013 and I got a taste of what it felt like to have a traditionally published book on the market with good reviews coming in, I felt like I was finally ready to take another shot at the big leagues. Also, I was really enjoying writing commercial suspense/thrillers, and I felt like if I could get a foothold in that market, giving the stories my own personal and visceral twist, I'd do pretty well for myself. In February, I decided to finally buckle down and write something with which I could wow an agent and hopefully move my seven year career from the small pond and into something a wee bit bigger. My goal was to land representation by July. It was a very specific goal, and a crazy and unlikely one, but what did I have to lose, really? I'd been down this road before. If it didn't work out, there were other books to try it with, and I had some small press options up my sleeve still.

My southern Gothic suspense novel, KUDZU (which was originally titled GRACE, GEORGIA), was born nearly four months later. I started it the first week of February and wrapped up the first draft on Memorial Day weekend (because I edit a lot while writing, my first draft was really more like a second). My beta readers worked quickly and gave some much-needed feedback, and so I was able to go through and expand it a bit more and have the final draft done by the first week of June. While the betas read, I was able to draft a query and synopsis and have an agent list ready to go. With all that in hand, and a quivering gut, I started sending out the dreaded letters around June 16th.

The Agent List

There are numerous ways of assembling a list of agents and other publishers. The most typical method is to go to a place like QueryTracker, which is a database that allows you to search by genre. You can read comments from other users on how quickly the agent responds, and in what manner, etc. I'd used QT in all my previous endeavors and I still find it to be a handy reference and organization tool.

However, I didn't pick agent names from a search list this time. I had only one plan of attack in mind, and that was to focus like a laser beam. I made a list of bestselling authors I greatly admired in the genres I wrote, and then I looked up who their agents were. I took this approach, because if I was going to sign with an agent, it was going to be with one who had a strong track record for selling books. I know far too many writers who have gone this route and come out empty-handed, and while I know there is still no guarantee of success signing with a bigger name in the business, I see nothing wrong with doing everything in your power to increase the odds. Authors included Stephen King, Joe Hill, Diane Chamberlain, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, etc. The agent I was MOST interested in, however, was Stephanie Kip Rostan, who represents my literary heroine, Gillian Flynn. 

Out of all the authors who have most inspired me to tap into my dark suspense side, it is her. Gone Girl is part of the reason I wrote Strings. It opened this door for me of creating characters who were both unlikable but totally sympathetic. I knew that if there was an agent out there who could appreciate her brand of darkness, that same agent might also appreciate mine. So Rostan was at the tippy top of my list, and she was the first one I queried. Additionally, I was just really impressed with LGR Literary's submissions form. I've queried dozens of agents over the years, and I've never encountered one quite like it. I also sent out letters to fifteen or sixteen others, as well as to Lou Aronica of The Story Plant, a great independent press.

The very next day, ding ding -- I received a full manuscript request from Jim McCarthy at Dystel & Goderich, as well as one from none other than Stephanie Rostan at LGR Literary.

I nearly fell out of my skin with excitement. All I could think was GILLIAN FLYNN'S AGENT JUST ASKED TO READ MY BOOK OMG OMG OMG. I went a little nuts. I guzzled down a gallon of celebratory gin and made embarrassing Facebook posts. It was one of the best days I'd had in a very long time. Of course, I expected to receive rejections all around, but still, it was awesome to receive that kind of attention for this book so quickly.

Over the coming days, I didn't hear much. You gotta let people have time to read. Also, a lot of agents are on vacation in the summer months, so you can't count on timely responses. Jim McCarthy read it with interest but ultimately passed five days later. That bummed me out, but then on the same day, Susan Ginsburg from Writers House requested the full. Lou Aronica also came back and said he liked the partial and would like to read the whole thing. My spirits soared again. As of the third week of June, only a week or so after beginning the process, I had three full manuscripts out for review and had only fielded a tiny handful of rejections. Life was good.

The Email that Ruined My Weekend (in a good way)

The afternoon of Friday, June 27th, 10 days after I'd sent the full manuscript, I heard from Ms. Rostan via email. She said she'd read a chunk of the manuscript and thought it was "incredibly good," and could we speak on Monday? I was sitting in a shopping mall with my kids, and I won't lie and say I didn't get up, jump around, and act a complete fool in a public place. Racing through my head like a bullet train was, GILLIAN FLYNN'S AGENT LIKES MY BOOK AND WANTS TO TALK TO ME OMG OMG OMG. Was representation on the horizon? What did it all mean? I spent hours combing through the very short message for any hidden clues. I was a freak. I blame the gin.

And so I proceeded to endure an entire weekend with bated breath. And would she actually call me on Monday? Sometimes really busy people say Monday but really mean Wednesday. Publishing is the kind of business when you can never be completely certain that something will happen right away. Worse yet, maybe she would get to the end of the book and decide it was no good, and instead of a call I'd get a regretful email saying it was an "almost but not quite." I drowned my worries in more celebratory gin, but that only took care of one night. As Sunday dragged on, I don't think I'd ever wished so hard for a Monday in all my life.

When the day finally arrived, I accomplished precisely dick. I was a fully distracted mess. Would she call or wouldn't she? It was like being an insecure high school girlfriend all over again. Then a call came through from an unfamiliar number, and my body completely froze. Was it her, or was it a telemarketer? I held my breath and answered the phone.

Stephanie was immediately the kind of person that made me feel at ease. I didn't have to put on any airs, and my voice didn't shake like it normally does when I'm nervous. She immediately spoke of the book's potential, but did mention a couple caveats that she'd like to address about some of the subject matter, which was all completely okay with me. Then she said she'd like to work with me, and I might have fallen off the couch, but I can't remember, because it was all a blur. We then talked about the authors we love and the other kinds of writing I do. She seemed interested in some of my more speculative fiction as well. I told her I had to wait to hear back from the other two people reading the manuscript, but that I'd be back in touch soon.

I hung up from that call knowing that regardless of what happened, I had an agent. It wasn't because she liked my book, but because I really liked her. I think it's important to feel a connection to the person who is going to be selling your work. You have to get the sense that they believe in you. I got that from her.

When I emailed the others to let them know I had an offer on the table, they answered back immediately and said they'd have an answer within a few days. Suddenly, I had the ball in my court, and that was a huge table flip from the way this typically goes. I heard back from Ms. Ginsburg and Mr. Aronica that Thursday, and though they enjoyed the book, they decided to pass, which left me open to accept Stephanie's offer. It was the first time I recall being thrilled to receive rejections, if only because it cleared the path. Both of them were congratulatory and extremely friendly, and it reminded me that I was in a very good place. At least I didn't have a nail-biting decision to make between two excellent agents or an excellent agent and an excellent publisher. I choose to believe that was the universe's way of going easy on me.

The Importance of Goals

Wrapping up this ginormous novel of a post, I just want to say that this whole thing hasn't really sunk in for me yet. I've been hoeing this row of being a writer representing only herself for a long time now. The thought that I have an agent, and not just any agent, but a very successful one who represents multiple bestsellers (including a major hero of mine) just boggles my mind. It feels like it's happening to someone else and I'm just along for the ride. I wasn't sure what I expected with Kudzu. Oddly, while I was writing it, I worried like hell it was boring. So much for that now.

There is of course no guarantee this book will sell when she goes to submit it to all the editors, but I feel like it has an excellent chance in her hands. Rostan has a nose for hits, and I only hope we can continue our relationship for a very long time with other work of mine.

At some point, after you've worked hard enough to become good at something, you have to decide when you're ready for bigger and better things. I don't work in a field where people receive promotions and raises--or even steady paychecks for that matter--so you have to really dig deep and find the resolve to improve with everything you write and set goals for yourself. And if you don't meet those goals, go back to the keyboard and keep on keeping on. It's the rare player that hits a home run the first few times at bat. My goal was to have an agent by July, and I had an offer on the table on June 30th. It happened incredibly fast this time, but if I hadn't had those previous seven years of Sisyphean efforts under my belt, it probably wouldn't have happened at all.

My friend Shewanda Pugh asked me on GoodReads just yesterday how I deal with discouragement. I said that it was in large part due to the help of my friends. But not only that, despite moments of crushing self-doubt, I am too damn stubborn to quit. I've worked too many hours and sacrificed too many years to learning this craft and this business to quit now, especially when time has proven again and again that I DO have a talent worth fighting for. I've only needed to wait for my turn. Maybe this is my turn, maybe it isn't, but I won't know for sure if I don't keep going.

So let's see if we can push it a little further. How about a major bidding war and a Tuscan flat. By Christmas. There we go.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , ,

The publishing industry, especially in the age of ebooks, is a lot like a rugged frontier teeming with snake oil salesmen, rabid ferrets, and lots and lots of prey in the form of desperate souls who will do anything, and I mean ANYTHING to be able to call themselves "published authors."

When you're first starting out, it's easy to become enamored with anyone other than your mom or spouse who deems your work worthy of publication, even if that someone is doing very little for you in terms of exposure or pay. Also, when you're first starting out, you may not even be thinking about the long game. You're just dipping a toe in, writing short stories in your spare time, maybe. You're happy even if only a dozen people read your little piece of art. My first publication credit was for an anthology that no one other than the contributors and their few friends and family members ever bought. It never even got reviews on Amazon, and as far as I know, the editor no longer even resides on this planet. But I was still thrilled to see my work in print, and it was that first publishing credit that gave me the impetus to believe that maybe I could be somebody in this business. And maybe that's fine for your very first short story credit. After that, though, it's a good idea to start looking a little further downfield.

It seems that writers, especially the ones who haven't been slapped hard enough by reality to grow the standard author's carapace, just want to have their egos rubbed. And that's when you're going to make some mistakes. You will encounter one of those aforementioned rabid ferrets, and it will take a small chunk out of your ass. Often, that's how you learn what not to do, and you'll discover that a shoddy publisher will do far less for your career than you could do publishing yourself. After all, if you're going to make a pittance, wouldn't you rather keep most of that pittance for yourself instead of splitting it with an outfit whose only real contribution was stamping their name on your work?

I'm NOT saying you shouldn't go with a publisher. You won't find me spouting that evangelical nonsense. I think a good career is built by working with publishers of all shapes and sizes, as well as producing works independently, but how can you tell a good publisher from a shitty one? The truth is, nearly any average Jane and Joe can set up a publishing company. They come up with a name and a slapdash logo and put it on a simple website, and then proceed to take the work of others, shape it into a book-like product, and put it up for sale on Amazon with almost no out of pocket costs. Then they proceed to pocket fractions of the pennies you're making, leaving you to do pretty much everything else to try and get people to buy it. Compared to most large publishers, who are laying out thousands in order to package a book and bring it to market, there is very little risk involved, so it's easy enough to become a book mill after a while, and you can't help but wonder if anyone is actually benefiting from it. Most of them do print-on-demand, if they even do a print edition at all, and that decreases the risk factor even more. Hell, I do the same thing with some of my own work, and a bunch of authors do the same thing for theirs. We're broke as hell to start with, so it's not like we can afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a product that will take years to make back its investment, if it makes it back at all.

That's not to say that people who operate this way are bad. In fact, there are a lot of passionate, gifted people running micropresses just this way. They have the connections to get editing and good cover art on the cheap, and they have also established relationships with the community to help get reviews. And their authors are selling books, winning awards, and carving out nice little niches for themselves in their respective communities. But it doesn't always work out that way, and given the number of disappointments, heartbreaks, and instances of total inertia I've seen in the book selling world, I have come to the conclusion that there are just some people who shouldn't be doing this kind work, period. That goes for both the authors and the publishers.

I'm not trying to be mean about it. I'm just voicing a core truth about the difference between the art of writing and the business of publishing, and how a lot of people might have a head for the former, but not even an iota of sense for the latter. It's how so many writers get taken for rides time and time again by unscrupulous publishing people, to the point that various watchdog organizations have been formed around sniffing out the opportunists and ne'er-do-wells. Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware are two such examples, but since there are so many presses and individuals out there claiming they can bring you and your literary baby to the promised land, you won't find all the offenders listed on any red flag sites. That's when you, as a writer, have to put your investigative acumen to use and start performing various sniff tests. As Montel Jordan once famously intoned, this is how we do it:

1. Scour the Website

This is all about first impressions. Every single publisher's website, from the Big 5 all the way down to the tiniest micropress, should follow the same very basic rules when it comes to constructing a site. There should be a listing of authors the press publishes as well as a list of all the books they have up for sale. Often times, you will have the ability to buy the book direct from them, but if not, you should find ample links to all the places where you can buy the books. You should also see a submissions portal, or a link explaining submission guidelines.

A good publisher's website will look clean and will be easy to navigate and not tarted up with obnoxious graphics and banner ads. It should also be free from grammatical and spelling errors (seriously, I've seen publisher pages rife with them). If they have bragging rights, like bestselling titles or award winners, those will probably be posted front and center. A publisher is first and foremost in the business of selling books and promoting its author list. If you don't get the immediate impression that the site is doing this, or that things look out of date or like something out of Geocities circa 1998, keep looking.

2. Look at the Book Covers. LOOK AT THEM!

Quality cover art says a lot about how much a publisher is investing in making an author's book stand out. It amazes me how many small/micro publishers fail at this most basic test, and it amazes me even more that there are so many authors who still sign the dotted line despite that very obvious deficiency, and who will allow some "artist" to slap flat black letters on a sloppy watercolor and call that their book cover. It's enough to make me wonder if some authors are just completely "colorblind" as to what makes a professional cover, but if this is something you struggle with, go visit your local bookstore or the bestseller lists on Amazon. Study what a great book cover should look like. They'll all look different in various ways, and some will be better than others, but all decent covers will have a certain polish to them. Then visit Lousy Book Covers and see what truly awful covers look like. If the covers at the press you're investigating look more like what you'd see at LBC and not at your local bookstore, there's a very big problem, and again, you should run.

3. Check the Sales Ranks, Reviews, and Samples

They might make great covers and have an awesome website . . . but are they actually selling books? Sales rankings can be a volatile indicator of a book's performance, especially if there are multiple distribution channels and the possibility that the author has other sales strategies that aren't reflected by Amazon's numbers. Also, a book that might have been doing gangbusters for a few weeks could be going through a downturn that is not entirely in a publisher's control. But you can also use the ebook tracker at Kindle Nation Daily to track the titles for a couple weeks and see if there is any kind of upward movement. If you're not seeing any, that can be troubling. Also, read the reviews. Are there editorial reviews from any reputable trade publications, authors, or blogs? Are there at least 8-10 customer reviews? If there are none and the book has an extremely poor sales ranking, and it's been on the market for at least a few months, that could signal that the publisher is more or less milling out books and not getting anything in return. That's only a sign of potential disappointment for you. Finally, look at the samples. If you see errors or questionable formatting, keep moving. This publisher is not going to do anything more for your book than you can do for yourself.

4. Talk to the Authors

The writing community is a relatively small and tight-knit one. If you haven't started befriending other authors, particularly in the genres you write, now is a good time. Facebook is where it's at, generally, though Google Plus has started to show a lot of activity for interactions in the writing community. Once you've met a number of the authors, feel free to ask them how happy they are with their publishers. Not all authors will open up and they certainly won't want to discuss their actual contract terms, but I think most of them would be happy to talk about general stuff, and if they are very happy, they will certainly let you know. Questions to keep in mind: Do they pay their authors on time? How fast do they work to get the book to market? What is their response time like for queries or submissions? Are they communicative when you have questions? You namely want to get a feel for how the authors are being treated, because that could be you.

5. Dig Deeper

Google them. Are people talking about them on various forums, like Absolute Write? What about the company's business name? Is it registered with the Secretary of State? Is it a LLC or other corporation, or is it a sole proprietorship or cooperative? Cooperatives are relatively new on the scene, and they come with a whole other host of things to consider, as well as potential headaches that you will have to sort through. A reputable publisher looking to do business with other authors will hopefully have its ducks all in a row. It's a good sign if a publisher is at least an LLC, because they will understand the importance of protecting themselves in the event of a lawsuit, which is always possible when working in this business. This again goes back to business sense. A publisher that doesn't have this stuff figured out can't always be trusted to do other things correctly. You could wind up with an orphaned book when the IRS comes storming through the door, or having to hire a lawyer to get your rights back when it turns out they aren't mailing you your checks on time and have no interest in releasing your property back to you.

Just keep in mind that even if a publisher does appear to be legit--they have a good website, successful titles, decent word of mouth, and appear to be run by skilled individuals--that still doesn't mean things can't go sour at some point. It happens in the big leagues as well as the minors. Signing with any publisher means you're taking a certain gamble, just as they are taking a gamble on you. But if a publisher can at least pass the smell test on the minimal criteria I've listed here, it might be worthwhile to at least submit your manuscript and see what the next steps look like. If you wind up receiving a contract, that's a whole other ball of wax. We'll save that headache for another time. 

Finally, it's important to note that a small publisher, even the best one, might not have the money or the horsepower to propel your book to the stratosphere. You will encounter unique challenges, and you have to go into it with the proper expectations. You may not hit any major bestseller lists or be shelved in bookstores, but maybe you get many excellent reviews from readers and develop a local following through attending events and conventions. You may not get rich, but you may get a start to a fruitful career with a well packaged book you can be proud of. There are a ton of advantages to working with a reputable small press. They take risks on material that larger publishers often can't afford to take. They give you more creative control, and they're often always on the forefront of trying new things. They can lay the groundwork for a bigger career down the road. I have loved working with a small press for my two novels, and I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything. The key is to making sure you pick the right one, or that the right one picks you.
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , ,

Look, I'm not a big bad-ass New York Times bestselling author. Yet, anyway. I still don't have an agent, and I'm working on getting one as we speak. I have written a lot of query letters, though, and I think I'm pretty good at it. In the past, I have managed to catch the attention of some pretty major agents who are infamous for turning down just about everybody.

Of course, they invariably turned me down after reading the partial or full manuscripts they asked to see, but hey, that's the nature of the game, and it's made me go back to the page and try to be a better writer every single time. Currently, I am going through the agent submission process with my latest novel. This is my fourth go-round. The first two books didn't make it very far, and rightly so. The third book was a co-authored piece that got a lot of attention but ultimately struck out as well, because it needed additional character work, and we decided to put it on permanent hiatus. Still, though, we had a hell of a query letter, and we got a lot of partial and full manuscript requests because of it. That's what a query letter is supposed to do.

This time, for KUDZU, the process has been even more exciting, because I'm managing to catch the attention of some real king and queenmakers in this business, and even though I can't be certain they'll want to represent the book I have to offer them, I get a small thrill every time one of them responds with interest. Of sixteen or so queries, I've received three full manuscript requests, one partial request, and four total rejections (three of them outright, one of them passing after reading the full). The others I haven't heard from yet, but it's only been a few days. Rule 1: Be Patient. These people are busy as fuck.

So I thought this was a great time to talk about query letters in general and give whatever handy advice I can for those of you out there pulling out your hair trying to craft the perfect one for your book.

First off, I learned most of my query-fu from the great folks over at QueryShark, who go to great lengths to look at the letters authors submit and then critique them. You wind up learning a lot about what NOT to do over there, and when it comes to the art of the query, that's often the best way to learn.

So taking a cue from them, I'll post the draft of the query letter I've so far sent to two agents (per their submission requirements I also submitted either the first five pages or the first chapter along with the letter). One of them, from a very prestigious firm, just requested the full manuscript. I'm not saying this letter is the best thing ever, or that someone else couldn't do better, or that other aspects of my submission (like the excerpts or my publishing credits, such as they are) aren't also increasing my success, but the letter appears to be making a dent. The blue parts are, of course, not part of the actual letter.

Dear Mr. or Ms. XXXXXX, [No Dear Sir or Madam or anything like that. Use the intended agent's name, even if it's a generic agency address. Double check the spelling or make sure you're addressing it to the agent you intend to send it to, because sometimes when you're sending out a few of these at once, wires can get a little crossed, and the only thing it results in is immediate ignore or rejection.]
On a hot July evening, a New York sunset plunges Amanda Crawford into harrowing memories of her childhood in Grace, Georgia. In particular, the day she'd helped her cousin cover up the murder of Chloe March, dragging the little girl's lifeless body into a remote bog, where the dying light had painted the water the color of blood. [Open your letter with the most important part: the hook of your story. Agents read dozens or hundreds of queries a week, and most of the time, they're only skimming until something interesting catches their eyes. Don't waste their time with introductions or other info about you. Save all that for the end.] After fifteen years, the secret has taken its toll on all involved. Amanda fights to hide her past at any opportunity, even from her doting fiance. Tonya, the cousin who dealt the lethal blows, once sought refuge in drugs and petty crime, but is now paying the ultimate price. And then there's Abel, the young man who confessed to Chloe's murder and went to prison without ceremony. His reasons for sacrificing years of his life for a crime he didn't commit are a mystery to all but himself, but he's coming up on parole soon, and he's terrified to leave prison, the only place he ever felt free. [What I tried to do here was paint a harrowing picture of the three main characters and their major internal conflicts, which ultimately drive the story. But I've done so in a simple and concise way. I've also laid in a little bit of back story. In other words, I'm conveying a tale about a few messed up people paying for the sins of their past. Depending on how your story is structured, you may have to do it differently, but whatever you do, focus firmly on your characters and your main hook, and BE COMPELLING. A query should almost read like ad copy.]
Amanda's fragile peace of mind begins to break down when she receives a call from back home. It seems Tonya is dying from AIDS following years of heroin addiction, and she intends to confess to Chloe's murder on her death bed. After reluctantly making the trip back home, Amanda discovers her cousin's reasons aren't as simple as a cleansing of the soul. She begins to uncover secrets in her family almost worse than the murder, twisted acts of devotion and coercion, and a sinister plan to wrap the past around her neck like a noose. [This is where I deal with main plot/conflict stuff that's happening in the now. Note how I didn't reveal too much. You want to make it enticing enough for an agent to go, "Oh wow! I need to learn what these secrets and twisted acts of devotion are! Send me the full manuscript IMMEDIATELY!" Wrap it up with a flourish. Look at all the book jackets and blurbs you have in your collection and go for the same spirit.]
KUDZU is a tale of deep family mysteries in a haunting southern setting, where masses of twisted vines consume the ghosts of the past, or anything else that stands in the way. It is complete at around 88,000 words. I wrote this book with the hope of reaching readers who also enjoy the works of _______ or _______, the latter of whom I discovered is your client, hence my desire to query you. [This is summary stuff. One final description of the TYPE of book, followed by its word count, your intended audience, and something that signifies you have researched the agent and why you selected him or her to query. They like knowing you have done your homework and aren't randomly carpet bombing the agent community.]
I write dark contemporary fiction that ranges from realistic to speculative realms. My debut psychological horror novel, STRINGS, released from a small press, Hobbes End Publishing, in October of 2013 to rave reviews. It has managed to reach the top ten on Amazon's bestseller lists in both horror and crime fiction. My next release, a dystopian science fiction epic called THE LAST SUPPER, is releasing from the same publisher in September. I also have a historical fantasy short story releasing from Apex Magazine at the end of the year, and I maintain a successful indie career with a large collection of short stories and novellas available on Amazon. When I'm not writing, I co-host Creative Commoners, a weekly podcast aimed at people trying to balance their creative pursuits with the demands of real life. [Obviously, this is now where you make it about you. Got publishing credits? List them. Did the book do well? Mention that. Didn't do so well? Don't mention that. Publisher now defunct? It's okay to say so. Don't have publishing credits? It's okay to say this is your first novel. Just don't deprecate yourself. ("I'm just a rookie, but I hope you like this..."). List other aspects of your life that might be relevant to your platform. Unless you won or made it to runner-up or honorable mention status, I wouldn't mention contests. I listed my podcast, because it demonstrates my willingness to engage in other venues with my creative endeavors. Whatever you do, be professional, own your accomplishments, and act like you know exactly what you're doing, even if this is your first time at bat.]
Per your instructions, I have pasted the first five pages into the body of this email, and I would love to be able to send you more. [This demonstrates that you have actually read the submission requirements, something a lot of authors just plain do not do for some befuddling reason. DO NOT be one of those authors. Also, this might be a good place to mention whether you have queried other agents and whether or not you have full or partial manuscripts under consideration. That's not always a requirement, but some agents like it, so be on the lookout for it.]
Thank you for your consideration!

A few other considerations to make:

1. NEVER OPEN YOUR QUERY WITH A RHETORICAL QUESTION! I put that in all red caps because it's so important. Opening with a question could very well be the death of any chances you might have had. It is done so much, it's cliche. It's the "in a world" of book queries. It's also just plain lazy.

2. Don't compare your book to movies or TV shows. Compare it to other books. Literary agents want to know that you understand the book industry and not one that is in many ways competing with it.

3. On a similar note, whatever you do, do NOT say "if you enjoyed such and such book, you'll love this." It sounds dangerously close to egoism. Let the agent decide if your work is similar to Stephen King's or whatever. Instead, identify the types of READERS you're hoping to reach with your work. Agents want to know you've studied the market, and that you feel confident in its placement on the store shelves. And yes, that's still relevant in the World of Amazon.

4. Don't say anything about sequels. Your job is to sell THIS book first. Don't get ahead of yourself.

5. Query writing is a learned skill. You'll go through a lot of drafts before you get one you're happy with. I actually have another version of this letter that went out to my first round of agents, and though it also resulted in a few requests, I wasn't terribly happy with it either. Don't drop the same query letter on alllll the people. That's completely blowing your wad. Query a dozen or so first. If you're not getting much response from the few you've sent them to, brush it up and try a different approach on the next batch.

6. Above all, keep it simple. Don't spoil major plot points. Don't get too much into the minutiae of your characters' lives or back stories. I revealed very little about what actually happens in KUDZU, but I gave just enough to make someone curious. When it comes to revealing everything that happens in your book, save it for the synopsis. That's a whole other breed of headache that I'll save for a different blog, but you'll need to have your synopsis and query ready to go at the same time, because some agents want both when you submit.

7. Finally, this isn't for agents only. If you're submitting to small presses or other publishers who don't require agents, you'll more or less follow the same query process. Read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter.

I hope this helps. And if you have any other questions about the process, feel free to ask me below, or check out many of the resources available online. Read enough examples from authors who have successfully placed their novels, and eventually you might be able to write a good query letter too.

I'll let you know if someone actually likes the book...
Posted by Allison M. Dickson | File under : , , , , , ,
You go see bands no one's heard of. In big cities or in small. Venues the size of tool sheds ripe with the perfume of beer and puke. You buy their Cafe Press t-shirts and CDs burned on a laptop with home-printed inserts crafted lovingly by the bass player. Bands that spend more in gas getting to gigs than they'll probably make for the night.

You watch movies made by local filmmakers that run in tiny theaters and bars instead of multiplexes, filmed on cheap camcorders by directors who are actors and actors who are directors. Or set builders who are screen writers. Or sometimes one person doing all of the above, who lost more money than he or she ever hoped to make.

You read books by authors who maybe sell 20 copies a month if they're lucky. Sometimes 20 copies a year. Books with a publisher's name that came out of the author's brain. Books with a few more typos than the ones you find at Barnes & Noble, and cover art with free stock photos and open-source fonts. Books with six-digit sales rankings, where your review stands proudly among three or four others that might be the author's friends or mom.

You buy the artwork of someone who stays up into the wee hours of the night, drawing or painting until their eyes are about to pop. Because that's when the kids happen to be sleeping. Because it's the only time they can do what they love before getting up in five hours to do what pays the bills. Artists who may or may not sell enough to cover printing or convention table costs, but who will draw until their hands are numb. The picture of a superhero you've always loved.

You press Share. You press Like. You Retweet. You Reblog. You tell your friends in casual conversation. "Oh I just finished this book . . . you really need to hear this song . . . hey, there's this great little flick on YouTube . . . this guy can seriously draw ANYTHING." You go to the release parties and crow with joy when these struggling nobodies sign your books and albums and programs and pictures. You pay the admission to conventions. You put the miles on your car. Take the time out of your day. You click to download. You read late into the night. The dreams and hopes of someone who just loves, so much, to show you the world through their eyes.

You're the ones who help make sure that one day, everyone knows who we are. And you'll always have ringside seats.

Because you were there from the beginning. When no one else was. When know one else knew better. When no one else cared. You were there, believing in us, donating your time, your money, your faith, your energy. Holding the door open to let in a little bit of light and a little bit of hope. It kept us going when we thought it wasn't worth it.

You were there when the chords weren't polished.

When the prose didn't always flow.

When the spotlight was dim.

You're a true believer. A generous soul. And adventurous spirit giving the little guys a chance, making them feel like bestsellers, like rock stars. Like Contenders.

From the bottom of our hearts . . .