February 2010

Today, I’d like to finish up my interview with writer, Dianne Butts, who’s been sharing from her expertise on writing query letters. Here’s Dianne…

Here are the final six pieces of information to include when writing queries:

11. The proposed length given in word count. If you’re querying a book, you could state word count or pages. Make sure your length is within the word count accepted by the publication/publisher.

12. Which rights are you offering? It is assumed you are offering first rights unless you state otherwise.  If your piece has been published before, and/or if you are offering the piece elsewhere at the same time, be sure to mention that it is a reprint and/or a simultaneous submission.

13. When it will be completed. Say, “I can send the article within two weeks of your request…” or whatever you can do. Give yourself plenty of time–writing always seems to take longer than we writers think it will!

14.   Your writing credits.  If you don’t have any publishing credits yet, you need not draw attention to that. If you have been published, give the editor an idea of how often and list a few of your finest credits.

15. Ask if you can send the manuscript.  “May I send you ‘Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter’?”

16. Close. Thank the editor for his or her time and consideration. You can say you look forward to hearing from them.

Other things to keep in mind when you query:

Keep your query to one page (even if sending by e-mail). In rare occasions you might go over one page, but chances are whatever you’re writing right now is not one of those rare occasions! Condense and edit your letter down to one page. (Without messing with the margins or font size!)  If you can’t edit your letter to one page, it may say to the editor that you can’t write concisely,  follow directions, or write to word counts.

When targeting your query letters:

Study the entry for the publication or publisher in a market guide, obtain the writers’ guidelines, and study sample copies of the periodical or the publisher’s catalog (often it’s online). Make sure what you want to send “fits” the publication/publisher. It’s glaringly obvious when writers don’t do this. Don’t submit to a market you’ve never seen or haven’t yet studied their guidelines, copies, or catalogs.

Doing your homework in this area will prove to the publisher that you have thoughtfully considered where you are sending your work, and will instantly put you above most of the submissions they receive.

Dianne Butts has written for over 50 different Christian print magazines and seventeen books. If you’d like to learn more about writing query letters, consider Dianne’s pamphlet, “Conquering the Dreaded Query Letter,” available for $3.95 plus shipping at http://www.dianneebutts.com/conquering_the_dreaded_query_letter.htm.

Dianne also offers a free, monthly e-zine for writers, Dianne E. Butts About Writing. Subscribe at  her website, www.DianneEButts.com. And, be sure to follow Dianne’s adventures and challenges in self-publishing her book at www.DeliverMeBook.blogspot.com.

Last time I talked about using specific verbs and nouns for description. Let’s take that a step further and see how finding just the right word based not only on meaning, but also on sound, can affect your writing.

Connotation is defined as: “something suggested by a word.” The way that something is suggested is through the actual sound of the word. Here are some examples:

Cut, sharp, piercing–these words tend to portray what they mean through their sound. The word “cut” is sharp and pointed. It just sounds like it’s cutting through something as you say it.

Or, how about:

Round, soft, calm–these words project a totally different image. Round just feels…well, round!

In general, words that have hard consonants, especially in the beginning or end, tend to promote hard, sharp, forceful images. If you were describing a fight scene, for instance, you would want to  fill it with hard-consonant words.

On the other hand, words with softer consonant sounds and softer vowel  sounds will produce kinder, gentler words. Use these to describe a scene with a mother and baby, for instance, or to describe a mild-mannered person.

Knowing about a word’s connotation can help you create the exact tone or mood for your writing by deliberately choosing specific sounds for your words. By doing so, you can illicit the response you want from your reader.

Be sure to stop back next week as I’ll be conducting a two-part interview with author Dianne Butts on how to write winning query letters!

We’ve all been told to limit  our use of adjectives and adverbs when trying to describe, and, for goodness sake, show…don’t tell! If we have to show but aren’t allowed to use adjectives and adverbs, what do we do?

We unleash power verbs and nouns!

If, in your story, Joe walked into the room, you’re not painting a very clear picture  for your readers. But, if Joe marched into the room, now it appears that maybe he is mad, or wants to show his authority. If, instead, Joe  ambled into the room, then perhaps he’s trying to be indifferent, or show us his nonchalant attitude. What a different picture these  two power verbs paint, even though they both mean “a way of walking.”

Choosing the most precise verb possible to describe your action is paramount to effective writing. The goal of any writing is to engage your reader and create an emotional response–not just an intellectual one–to your writing. Using  precise verbs will help do this.

Likewise, using specific nouns will also help engage your reader. Instead of saying, “Louise got into her car,” paint a picture: “Louise plopped down into her ’67  powder blue Mustang convertible.” Now your image comes alive, and whenever she drives her car–for the remainder of your story–you will see her in that powder blue Mustang.

Yes, it’s true that I did use a couple of adjectives in the above example, but the key word is “Mustang.” Even with only using that word, your readers will get a more specific image in their heads, which is the goal. The color could be eliminated, but the use of color truly does color your writing!

Instead of  settling for the first verb or noun you think of, find others that still convey your meaning, yet provoke more of an emotional response and cause a specific image to form.  This helps eliminate many of the adjectives and adverbs you thought you needed, and you will be on your way to showing, not telling.

In addition to choosing specific verbs and nouns for their meaning, it’s also important to consider their connotations–how the sound they have conveys meaning.  I’ll be discussing this later in the week. Stay tuned…

A lot of my writer friends right now are talking about conferences that they have selected to attend in 2010. Some are brand new to the conference circuit; others are veterans. However you might classify yourself, it never hurts to take time to prepare. Here are a few steps you’ll want to take beforehand:

1. Research the publishers, editors, and authors who will be present. If you have a finished manuscript or proposal you want to talk with an editor or publisher about, make sure that the people you will meet at the conference are the right ones for you to talk with and that the publisher is looking for what you have to offer. Spending a few minutes browsing the publishers’ websites will help you determine if that house is right for you.

If you know that your book will be perfect for a particular publisher, but the only editor represented by that publisher works with a different line of books (fiction vs. nonfiction, for instance), talk to that person anyway. Editors will typically know enough to say whether your manuscript should be forwarded to another department within their house.

Take advantage of authors who are there as well. Authors who are on faculty will have enough experience with writing and publishing to help tweak your work and offer good advice.

2. Don’t bring your entire manuscript or proposal. No one will have the time at the conference to read through a lengthy manuscript. Instead bring a sample of that work and a one-sheet proposal to give an editor an idea of what your book is about.

3. Prepare your conference schedule. As the conference draws near, the conference director will typically have a workshop schedule finalized. Take time to review the schedule, deciding on which workshops you want to attend and which editors you want to meet with. Often, if you can’t get an appointment with the editor you need to see, that person may be teaching a class you can attend. You may be able to schedule an informal time to meet with him then.

With conferences, a little preparation goes  a long way to help you feel confident when approaching editors. For information on how to enjoy your conference experience, please see my recent article at the Florida Christian Writers’ Conference blog.  For other general information on attending writers’ conferences, you can view a previous post here.

Today, I’d like to feature children’s author, Nancy I. Sanders. Nancy’s latest book, America’s Black Founders, has just hit the shelves…just in time for Black History Month.

Nancy is finishing up a virtual tour for her new book, and I am privileged to be a part of it. You can check out the tour here, and learn more about Nancy here.

When talking with Nancy, I focused on one aspect of her book, which was the many activities she had to incorporate.

Renee: Your new book, America’s Black Founders, features 21 activities. What significance are these activities to this era in history, and how did you go about writing them?

Nancy I. Sanders

Nancy: Each activity holds significance surrounding the history of America’s Black Founding Fathers and Mothers. For instance, there’s a recipe for Pepper Pot Soup. This was a hearty dish that George Washington requested be cooked for the troops at Valley Forge.  There were many black troops who suffered along with the other patriots at Valley Forge that winter, so this is a dish they probably ate.

Another activity encourages students to “pen a patriotic poem.” This activity is included in the book because of Lemuel Haynes, a black minuteman who marched with his company from Granville, Massachusetts, to join the Siege of Boston. Lemuel Haynes and his company camped outside of Boston.

While there, he was so moved by the account of the battle of Lexington that he wrote a stirring ballad about the event, called, “The Battle of Lexington.” His handwritten poem from 1776 is still in existence today! I located the poem and included the image of it in my book. I encourage students to follow Lemuel Hayne’s example and write a poem themselves to honor a great moment in history.

My book, America’s Black Founders, is part of a series of books called the “For Kids” series from Chicago Review Press. Most books in this series have 21 activities in them—that’s one of the characteristics that sets this series apart. The activities in this series must be of significant historic value. They’re referred to as “historic-based activities.”

I researched historical sites and explored the types of activities they did with students visiting their sites. I’ve written a number of activities for other books of mine. Usually, once I determine an activity has value, I’ll do it myself. Even though the step-by-step process to make these historic-based activities might not be exactly how they were made, the process is “based” on the real activity, and students “feel” like they’re making something real.

I often take a lot of pictures of each step of making the activity. For instance, when I stitched together a fanner, or basket used to winnow rice, I took photos of starting the fanner, making knots, and adding rows to the basket. I took photos of the fanner on a table for each stage of the process. I also took photos of holding the fanner and the needle in my hands to actually show students how they should hold it.

When I submitted my manuscript, I also submitted all these photographs. Many publishers ask for these photographs when activities are featured with a manuscript, so now I just automatically take the photographs when I make the sample activities and submit them. The publishers are always grateful to have them!

Be sure to stop by Nancy’s web site to check out all of her numerous children’s books.

To follow up on my most recent post, I wanted to finish my thoughts about what to consider when starting a critique group. The first three considerations were to select the genre your group will be working in, to decide whether your group is an in-person group or an online group, and to actually find the appropriate members for your group.

Today, I’ll finish with two more thoughts:

1. How many people should be in your group?

I don’t believe there are any hard and fast rules to this, and you may have to do some trial and error to see what works best. My Picture This picture book group has eight, and we work to keep it at eight, so if someone has to drop out, we’ll scramble to find someone new. Eight works for us because each person submits every two months.

Considerations when you’re trying to decide on size will be: how often do you want people to submit their work, and how many is too many when it comes to critiquing your work? I’ve been in groups larger than eight, and I’ve found that having too many people can really slow the process down, although you then have the advantage of having more eyes look through all the manuscripts.

Bottom line answer: I don’t know! It’s truly whatever works best for your group. If you decide to have only a few people, you may find yourself stretched to get your work in on time, unless you have large gaps between submissions.

2. Form some loose guidelines for how your group will operate. This is simply to keep everyone on track and to let members know upfront what is expected in terms of participation. It’s not to create a critique group police state.

Simple guidelines that tell members exactly how to submit their work (if you’re sending online), when to submit (create a submission schedule that carries you through six months to a year), and that offers some critiquing tips is all very helpful, especially to writers who may be new to critique groups.

If you’re meeting in person, it’s best to send the manuscripts to the group ahead of time so that when you meet, everyone has had a chance to look through the drafts and write down their comments. You may want to include some guidelines as to how this process will work. Guidelines will help members be better prepared and will create a smoother process for your group overall.

If you’ve started a critique group or have been a “founding member” of one, what tips or advice can you share?

Be sure to stop back next Monday, February 15th, as I will be hosting award-winning children’s author Nancy I. Sanders on her virtual book tour for her new release, America’s Black Founders.

See ya then!

Many people ask about critique groups–are they important, how do you find a good one, and how do you start your own? I’ve already addressed the importance issue in a previous post, so today I’d like to talk about how to start your own.

I struggled for years trying to find a group I could physically meet with to review my work. Because of small children at home, scheduling conflicts, and not wanting to drive across town every week, I gave up. Then I was presented with an opportunity to get involved in an online critique group. That was over a year ago. The group started getting so big, that we had a wait list. Once the wait list got long enough, I broke off from the original group and formed my own. I now facilitate this group, which is a children’s writers’ critique group, called Picture This.

From my experience with this, I’d like to discuss several considerations when trying to start a group:

1. Choose the genre you want your group to focus on. This will probably be a natural byproduct of what you are forming a group for in the first place, but if you have several writer friends who want a critique group, but you all write in different genres, you’ll find yourself with two options: either leave the group open to all genres, which can get tricky if you have too many people who have no experience with certain ones, or choose just one or two you can focus on.

2. Decide on an online or in-person group. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Online is obviously great because you can connect with people anywhere. We currently have a member who lives in the UK, which offers an excellent perspective and insight on the UK publishing  market. Additionally, you don’t have to worry about scheduling conflicts or not making it to a meeting because you’re snowed in (like I am right now). Being able to meet in person is good because you can have in-depth conversations with your members about their work and share critiques in person, which eliminates email “tone” problems.

3. Finding group members. Good places to start when you’re looking for critique group members are local writers’ workshops, writers’ conferences, writer friends and their referrals, mentors, and online writing forums or blogs. One note of warning is to be careful when inviting friends into your group. You may have a great relationship now, but once you start prodding in their manuscripts, you may see a side of your friends that you didn’t know existed!

Another tip is to try to find members who have a similar experience level. It’s helpful to have a couple of members who are more experienced if they’re willing to serve as mentors for the group. If possible, find people strong in different areas of writing. For instance, in my children’s critique group, we have a couple people who are amazing at developing rhyming texts. Others are very strong with plot development; others in word choice or character development. You may not know strengths until you are in a group together, but it makes for a very well-rounded critique group if you can find such members.

Next time we’ll talk about how many members is best and developing group guidelines.

I’m gearing up to teach at the Florida Christian Writers’ Conference in early March. Doing so made me think that a lot of writers are also getting ready for the busy writing conference season ahead and are preparing to put their best foot forward when they meet with editors and publishers.

With that in mind, I’d like to address one aspect of preparation: the one-sheet proposal. The one sheet is just that–one sheet geared to a specific book idea. This is obviously quite different than a full proposal, which can be upwards of fifty pages or so.

The idea behind the one sheet is to present your idea, not your actual writing. One sheets are great for conferences or anytime you only have a few minutes to present your book idea to a prospective buyer. Most publishers discourage bringing an entire proposal to a conference because (1) it’s rather cumbersome to carry everywhere; and (2) they won’t have adequate time to read it anyway.

An effective one sheet, however, can serve the purpose of getting an editor interested enough in your idea that he or she requests a proposal from you. So let’s take a look at what a one sheet looks like…

Add the working title of your book front and center toward the top of the page, just below your contact info. Keep in mind that eventually your title will more than likely get changed by the publisher, so don’t get too attached to it!

Next, write two or three sentences maximum for your book’s concept. What you write could also be referred to as your “elevator speech”: What would you say to an editor if you met one in an elevator and wanted to pitch your book idea? If you can’t summarize your book in two or three sentences, it probably isn’t clear enough in your own mind yet.

You’ll also want to include a brief (one paragraph) synopsis of your book. Here, you’ll expound on your concept and offer specifics on what your book is about and what purpose you intend for it to have: How will it affect your audience? Why is it important? If you’re writing a novel, give a basic overview of your plot line, the main characters, and the book’s theme.

Your next section will be market potential, where you define your target audience, offer statistics and research on the size of your market and why your book is important to this market, and how you plan on reaching your audience. You can also include your platform in this section–what will you do to help market your book? If you have an extensive platform that you know will be a huge selling point for you, you’ll want to create a separate section just for that.

After market potential, add a section on comparative titles or the marketing edge your book has over other similar books on the market already. Do your homework and list a few titles that are like yours, yet give specifics on how your book will differ from what’s already out there.

Final sections include a short bio of your writing experience, especially as it relates to your book, along with any other relevant experience you may have; the proposed length of the book; and the completed time frame of when you can finish writing the book if you were offered a contract (most publishers would expect the book to be completed in 6-9 months).

This seems like a lot to fit on one page, but it can be done. Make sure every word counts and that you’re only including information that is absolutely necessary to help sell your book idea. A well-written one sheet should be very readable so that it can be quickly scanned by an editor, with all the important aspects easy to find.

I realize this was a quick overview of a lengthy topic, so if you have any questions on constructing a one sheet, please share your comment!

“[Fear of success] is definitely a sign that we’re running out of fears.

A person suffering from fear of success is scraping the bottom of the fear barrel.”

— Jerry Seinfeld

Is this true? Should fear of success be validated as a genuine fear? For many, it certainly is enough to stop their dreams dead in their tracks. Where does fear of success come from, and why is it so damaging?

I’m certainly not a psychologist, but from hearing other writers’ stories of how fearing success has slowed their writing progress, I think I can maybe shed some light on this interesting phenomenon.

It seems one of the biggest reasons people fear success is that it means they’ll have to take on more responsibility and more work. I believe there’s something built into us that wants to take short-cuts whenever possible, and we realize that when we’re successful, there’ll be more work involved. As writers, this may mean we have to hire others to help with the administration, financial, or marketing aspects of our job. Or, it could just mean that we’ll have more clients and more people requiring our services, which in turn translates into more responsibility. Although this is a good thing financially speaking, for some, they don’t want to have to put forth the effort required to maintain this level of responsibility.

Another issue I’ve heard from writers is the fear of the unknown. Most people are not big risk takers, yet they realize they must take risks to reap rewards. Success is never risk free. The reason something is considered a risk is because we have not experienced it before or because we feel our investment in it may not pay off. In terms of writing, if we do become successful with our novel or by becoming a sought-after article writer or speaker, what then? We’ve never been there before, so we have no idea what it’s going to take to keep up the status that others have bestowed upon us. What if we don’t live up to their expectations?  What if we can’t follow up our bestselling novel with another?

A third reason for fearing success is the thought that success may change us negatively. While this is certainly true for some who have achieved success, it does not have to be the norm. I know people who have said they’re afraid of wealth because they don’t think they could manage it wisely. Others feel success would bring out the worst in them.

While these are all valid fears that people have, it seems like they’re all symptoms of deeper root issues. If you are one who struggles with a fear of success, it would probably help to dig deeper into your fear to uncover the true root of the problem. Is it that you don’t want additional responsibilities that success may bring? Is it that you need to honestly evaluate your risks involved to see which ones are hindering your progress? Or, maybe you lack confidence in yourself in specific areas, which leads you to believe  your character would somehow become damaged if you were successful.

Fear of success can be just as paralyzing and real as the fear of failure, only for different reasons. If you are one who has experienced the fear of success, I would love to hear your story and how you’ve learned to overcome it.