Getting Published: Setting Achievable Goals

My life goals typically look like this:

  • Acquire matching socks.
  • Acquire fingerless gloves.
  • Buy a stupid mango and actually eat it instead of forgetting it exists and throwing it away two weeks too late.
  • Acquire fresh produce and cook a meal. It’s been a while, and I’ve gotten lazy at this.
  • Accomplish list of things required to maintain the frimbly facade of being an adult (including, not limited to: go to bank, schedule ophthalmologist appointment, research cars, probably call internet company?)

Basically, my lists are now-oriented. I’m not a big fan of Bucket Lists or Life Goals. Why? Because I want attainable goals that I know I can accomplish. I want to dangle the cookie just within reach, because then I’ll fight for it. I don’t want to hang the cookie on a distant star in outer space where I can only see it through a very expensive telescope that I can’t afford.

There’s a metaphor in there, I promise.

Anyway, my goal lists are always concrete and reasonable. This goes for things like basic human functions, and larger scale goals that are linked to my passions.

So when I set the goal as a wee child to publish a book, I knew I had a lifetime to do it. It was my cookie in the stars. But as I grew up, I broke that goal down into cookie-on-a-string tasks. Here’s a brief list of goals I set:

  • Write 100 poems and 100 short stories during high school.
  • When, among one of those stories, a premise had enough promise to potentially be a longer story, I set the goal of writing a novel.
  • I set the goal of finishing it while I was in high school. Two years later, as my high school graduation neared, I finished it with less than a week to spare.
  • My first year at college, I set the goal of writing my first NaNoWriMo book during my first year of college, where I wrote 12,000 words on the first day, and I finished the book by that January.
  • I set a goal to revise my first book and write my first query letter.
  • Then I read the entire Query Shark archives to actually learn what a query letter is supposed to look like.
  • I set the goal of researching and querying 10 agents.
  • After I graduated college, I had written three books, and I gave my first manuscript another pass on revisions.
  • Then I gave myself an end-of-year goal: apply to grad school for creative writing or get a job. I got a job as a technical writer three months out of college (which I love).
  • Instead of moving on, though, I entered Pitch Wars 2015 on the last day of submissions. I’ve talked a lot about my Pitch Wars experience here (and feel free to ask questions about it here), but a hop, skip, and boat ride away, I got multiple offers from agents. Then I got multiple offers from publishing houses. Then, suddenly, I had a book deal for two NAMELESS books.
  • But my goals didn’t stop there. Now, my goals have been things like:
    • Cut the opening 100 pages to 50 pages.
    • Write my first outline (it ended up being 13 pages long!) to guide my revisions.
    • Write an outline for book 2.
    • Do line edits for a friend’s book (which I’ve never successfully done before) ((and guys, she’s awesome))

Things are crazy. This place I’ve found myself is crazy. Setting goals makes it seem less crazy and stressful and makes it seem possible. It makes it achievable.

At times, it’s incomprehensibly and phenomenally lightning fast. Sometimes it trudges like dregs of unmixed hot cocoa: delightful and painfully out of reach. Sometimes its simplicity is astoundingly sharp.

Sometimes I get to write blog posts about the hundreds of tiny steps and goals, the relentless and torturous ambition, and the unending thrill of finally being so close to my sky-cookie that I can taste it.

And guys? It tastes like starlight.*

 

*not literal starlight, which tastes more like electric blue and unsaturated nebulas… so I’m told.
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I’m Getting Published!

I don’t have enough energy to squeal with the amount of delight currently contained within my VERY SOUL.

But guess what?

I’M GETTING PUBLISHED.

Can we take a moment to faint? Okay.

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This is me. I’m the Doctor. (I wish)

When you’ve regained consciousness, come back to me.

Come back to me and hear the story of the FOREVER SECRET PUBLISHING JOURNEY.

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I wrote a post about this months ago, but it didn’t contain nearly enough gifs or squealing. So I’m rewriting it on the fly.

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When I fly, it’s often via Ear Plane as well.

*attempts to reign in the gifs*

This story is filled with SECRETS AND SECRETIVITY started back in December. That’s when I got the lovely bombshell from my agent that about a day or so after going on submission, we had our first offer. Then we had plural offers. Then I was at auction.

!!!!!!!!!!

Those exclamation points are my emotions. As soon as we got that offer and then plural-offers, THE NAMELESS QUEEN was going to be published. It was just a question of where. Like a bomb you know is going to go off, if that analogy helps.

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Pete Knapp, my illustrious agent, did some negotiations, which I picture as a high stakes poker game in a New York warehouse where the dealer is an enthusiastic, well-contained auctioneer throwing down pages of my manuscript like playing cards. Pete exchanges poker chips with terms written on them in black sharpie, non-nicotine (probably cotton-candy scented) smoke clouds the air, and there’s a lot of small nods and winks.

[There does not exist a gif for this, but there should.]

In reality, it was a lot of back and forth emails and other business-up-front type of things. The party in the back was me screaming with excitement far away in Michigan.

We settled on the basic terms. I chatted with some editors on the phone. I made a decision.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And then….

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Well, then there was a lot of waiting. And secrecy.

Sometimes things move fast (like getting an agent, going on submission, and going to auction in a number of days), and some things move slowly. In my case, it was a question of contracts.

If you’ve never heard the term “boilerplate,” just know that when it’s being revised, it takes an infinitely looping eon for it to get finished. But that’s okay! Because book writing is both a fast and a slow industry. So while the contract was being worked on (I like to think the contract got a trip to the spa and got a Swedish massage or something, sipping a delightful drink), I started the SEQUEL.

Because YES! The deal is for TWO BOOKS!

THE NAMELESS QUEEN will have an as-of-yet Unnamed Sequel! (pun completely intended)

So while I was waiting for my edit letter and for any news on the contract, I made a decent 1/3 – 1/2-ish dent in the first draft of the sequel. And let me tell you, things get COOL. Familiar faces, familiar world, and a dash of the unexpected!

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And now I’m doings edits on THE NAMELESS QUEEN, and polishing it to a shiny rock. It’s mega-levels of excitement. And the deal has finally been announced!!!! YAYYYYY!

I’m still early on this road of books and authoring and authorial booking of booky authory things. But it’s a long road, and I’m going to enjoy the journey! Somewhere ahead, we’ll get to do final revisions, the cover release, the proper publication date announcements, and all sorts of exciting fabulousness!

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Have questions for me on any of this? Ask me!

The Lie of the 1-Step Process

Looking at any process from the outside is simple. I come at this from two perspectives: having explored a hefty portion of the “Writing a Book” process and having made my first real “Process Tree” for my job as a Technical Writer.

The process I’m making at work is how our team handles documents that we are rewriting and remodeling. Outsiders think the process goes like this, a one-step process:

Our team makes stuff more awesome.

And even I was fooled by its outward simplicity. I thought it went like this:

Draft > Layout/Design > Final Proof > Publication

It turns our the process vaguely (and pixelated) looks like this:

pixlmap.png

As you can see, it’s way more complicated than it first seems. It goes more along the lines of:

First Draft > First Proof > Content Consult > Design/Layout > Final Proof > Interactive Test > Storage

So I figured, what other process in my life did I at one time think (oh-so-naively) was simple? Only to then discover, en medias res, that it was anything but?

Writing. A. Book.

I thought it was a one-step process. Like “update documents” was a one-step process, right? Write a book. Easy peasy. Well, easy until I was in the thick of things. Then, of course, it got more complicated. I figured, okay, it’s a FIVE step process:

Write book > Revise book > Get representation > Get published > Write more books

I thought it was straightforward. Let’s explore how wrong I was. Without getting too far into the weeds, let’s see what this process actually looks like.

Into the Weeds

This is what the process looked like after about an hour of process-mapping. And I only made it up to the “querying” stage before it all exploded.

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Here are the basic stages (probably): Drafting Zone (orange) > Revision Hell (blue) > Query Trenches (purple) > Agent Land > On Submission > Editor Land > Pre-Publication Stuff > Publication Destination > Post-Publication Road

And because I love a good terrible-rendition of my process, here’s a brief idea of what my person journey through these stages looked like for the first book I wrote/trunked. Note that this process took me a culminating of 4 years.trip1

 

And here’s the one that actually made it (purple), when I finally got my awesome literary agent. I spent a good deal of time in the Revisions, and you can see a bunch of other trunked or unfinished books along the way. You should always be spending more time in revisions than anywhere else, I think:trip7

I’m thinking maybe I’ll do a flowchart for each major stage (at least the first four, since those are the ones I have managed to get through) and post them separately. Thoughts?

Query Letter FLOW CHART + Star Wars Example

As always, I begin my post about query letters by pointing you directly at a better, more awesome, and more reputable source than myself: the almighty Query Shark (and what she says about effective queries).

I’ve been working on doing a How To Write a Query Letter type post for a while. Before you can write the query, you have to know what goes in it. It’s like cooking. You need to decide on the ingredients before you start cooking, or else you end up with a mutant half-breed cake-steak-soup.

So. I decided to distill it down to its basic form. The most basic form looks like this (a la Query Shark):

  1. Who is your Main Character (MC)?
  2. What does your character want?
  3. What’s stopping them from getting what they want?
  4. What must they sacrifice to get what they want?

This is a lovely and superb tool. If this helps you, then that’s AWESOME! It helped me. But as with most advice, I tweaked it a bit after a couple trials and errors didn’t seem to capture the whole conflict.

The goal in a query letter is simplicity. Introduce the character/world, give us the premise and stakes, and the terrible decision the MC faces. It takes a lot of trial and error.

Because what if you’re not quite sure how to articulate what your character wants? What if you’re more of a visual learner? Do you find it easier to follow a flow chart?

Adapted from the above sharkly process, is the following visual flow chart:

flowchart3

Don’t freak out! It’s a lot of blue, but it’s not that complicated. You just fill it out from top to bottom. Whiteboards are good for this, but I’ve also included a text format below that you can copy/paste (also in blue).

Essentially, Sharkly Step 2 (what does your character want) is broken out into the choice they face and what makes that choice difficult. Then, Step 3 (What’s stopping your character from getting what they want) is captured in “Obstacle that complicates MC’s choice.” Then Step 4 is broken out into the complicated choice/consequences.

The reason I broke it out like this is because the initial conflict of the story generally persists throughout the entire book. It just gets properly tangled up and escalated, which is great! And I wanted a way to show that shifting conflict in the query letter without giving anything huge away.

A couple notes:

  • The inciting incident is generally plot-based (like an extraplanetary attack or a letter in the mail or a meteor crash).
  • The initial conflict is generally a character conflict.
  • The obstacle can be either plot or character conflict, but I typically find that it is plot-based.
  • The final complicated conflict is almost always character AND plot conflict.
  • When going through the flow chart, try to only use one character. You can go through the same process with ANOTHER character if you have multiple POV, but each character should be able to stand on their own.

Let’s pretend I numbered my handy flow chart:

  1. Who is the MC?
  2. What does MC want?
  3. What’s stopping MC from getting it?
  4. What choice does MC face?
    • Choice A
    • Choice B
  5. Consequences:
    • Of Choice A
    • Of Choice B
  6. Obstacle to choice
  7. Complicated Choices:
    • Complicated Choice A
    • Complicated Choice B
  8. Final Consequences:
    • Of Choice A
    • Of Choice B

 

Let’s do a quick example, eh?* (mild Star Wars: Force Awakens spoilers ahead)

[BLUE SPOILERS ZONE]:

  1. Rey
  2. Rey wants to survive her hostile desert planet until she can reunite with her family.
  3. A droid is in need of her help and her home planet is attacked by enemy forces.
  4. (Choice A) Does she leave the planet to aid those who need her help, or (Choice B) does she stay home to wait for her family?
  5. If she leaves, she will be risking life and limb for strangers, leaving behind her only chance at finding the family that abandoned her. If she stays home, she will be ignoring her natural instinct to help those in need and consigning herself to a difficult scavenging life. (This is where we really develop sympathy for the MC. There has to be a reason we are invested in their struggles.)
  6. She discovers that she has the potential to fill a greater role in a war that stretches across the stars. She has the Force. (Being more specific here runs the risk of spoilers. But if you hedge it well enough, it’ll be tantalizing instead of spoiler-y.)
  7. (Choice A) She can quit the rebellion and return home to wait for the family that may never come, or (Choice B) she can embrace the dangerous adventure ahead and do her best to move on and convince others to join the fight.
  8. If Rey can’t embrace the power within her and her role in the deadly war, millions of people over several planets will die. If she does embrace her role, she will be directly in the path of the darkest enemy she has ever faced. (It’s always best to try to frame the final decision in a way that makes it unclear which decision they will choose. I always frown at dust jackets that say “will the hero do heroic things or be a coward?” because the answer is often obvious.)

*huge disclaimer: this is by no means a comprehensive analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In fact, I’d say that Finn has an equally vital role in the story. If you want a practice run, try going through the flowchart for Star Wars: The Force Awakens as if Finn were the main character.**

**If you do this, totally post it in the comments section!

[/END OF SPOILERS ZONE]

 

After this, it’s a task of reformatting these things into the body of a query letter so that it flows and builds tension. The goal is to get an agent to say, “Man, I have to know what happens next!” Now, I know I’m not a Star Wars expert, and I left out any number of proper nouns that would have elevated my Pro Status. But this is just a rough outline (and a first draft of a rough outline at that), so take it with some salt. Not that much salt. Just a pinch. Just enough to sweeten things up.

Next Post: Compiling a Query Letter — In which I go over how to put the above elements into a query letter and smooth it over. And I’ll probably be using the above starry example.

 

What is a Query Letter — and When To Write It

Before we can talk about how to write a query letter, we need to talk about what it is and when to do it. Depending on where you are in your journey and how much of your soul you’ve devoted to the internet, your understanding of a query letter can be anywhere from “what the spetz is a query letter” to “the query letter and I have a long inglorious history of mutual destruction and loathing.”

Note: This is Step 5 of the 17 Steps to Writing and Publishing

So if you’re at this step (or peeking ahead), you’ve already gotten your book as good as you can get it.

 

What IS a Query Letter?

A Query Letter is proof that you can write. It is a one page email that you send to literary agents and try to convince them to love, read, and ultimately represent your book.

It goes a bit like this:

  • One or two sentences that hook the reader.
  • A paragraph or two that give the following:
    • Who the character is
    • What the character wants (premise)
    • What is standing in their way (conflict)
    • The difficult choice they face and the terrible outcome of both choices (stakes)
  • A sentence or two giving the data on your book (title, word count (rounded to the nearest 500), whether it’s a standalone or has series potential)
  • A small paragraph with your bio (your name, occupation (if you want to share), writing credits (if you have any), and anything witty or compelling you think will endear you to agents)
  • A sentence that proves you read their submission requirements (as listed on [Agency Name’s Site], I have included the first XX pages below)
  • Signature (Sincerely, Your Name; add contact details: phone number, email address, blog (if you want to share), Twitter handle (if you want to share))

The end.

That’s the query letter.

BUT that’s not the only thing you include in the email. As mentioned above, you must THEN include in the body of the email, the first X number of pages that their submission requirements ask for, if they ask for any. Sometimes they also request a synopsis, which you’ll add to the body of the email as well.

 

When Do You Write a Query Letter?

Best advice: before you write the book. A query letter, as you’ll see from the Query Shark link below and the bullet list above, is basically the back cover of your book. It’s what entices an agent to read your pages and hopefully become so enthralled with the character and premise that they request to read your full manuscript.

Straight up truth: The query letter gets you to the heart of your story. It gives you that marketing pitch that makes people perk up and take notice. And sometimes, sad as it is, we can write entire books without ever truly getting to the heart of the story.

Writing your query letter first will provide a LOT of guidance for when you actually start writing.

 

When Do You Start Querying?

When you’re reading to start sending query letters to agents, that’s called “querying”. How do you know when you’re ready to query your book?

That’s a tough question. My best answer is: after you’ve already done it once and realized you weren’t ready. And yes… I might be speaking from personal experience. Very yes.

 

I, like many many other writers, queried my book too soon. And I eventually realized that the first book I wrote wasn’t going to be the first book I published. I thought I would be more devastated by that. I’d spent so long working on Book One (even jumping into Book 2 and Book 3), that I figured the failure would crush me. But it didn’t. I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to write one book and be done. I knew my life would be filled with books, OVERFLOWING WITH BOOKS. I knew I would get better in time.

The moment I knew I was ready to query was when I realized I was close to the limit of what I could achieve through revisions. I knew my next step would be to query it, and if no agents were interested, I would move on.

So how do we answer the question of when do you query? When you reach the end of your revisions. And if it’s still not ready, it’s time to move onto the next project and double down on your efforts. Somethings, like most things, just take time.

 

How do You Write A Good Query Letter?

Good question. I’ll walk you through writing a basic query letter in an upcoming post, following the bullet list above.

Until then, learn how NOT to write a query letter by reading The Query Shark Archives. Seriously. Read it. All of it. I did. Twice. And it really helps. Because there’s nothing better than learning by example (except learning by experience, but the goal is to limit the number of times you facepalm because of a silly mistake you made).

How I Got My Literary Agent

Pitch Wars is a beautiful thing. You can read about it here:

Here is my experience, which led to me getting an agent!!

1. August 17 — I applied to Pitch Wars during the submission phase (as described on Brenda Drake’s blog), submitting my query letter and the first chapter of my manuscript (ms). Over the next two weeks, I get an email—the mentor in question passed my submission to another mentor. I get an email from that mentor asking for a synopsis. I open the email at 4 AM and realize I have not written a synopsis yet. I frantically write one, because who needs sleep anyway? I send it. I get another email—the mentor in question passed my submission to yet ANOTHER MENTOR who seems excited about my work. My arms are made of electricity.

2. September 1 — Out of the 1600 applicants, I was one of 125 people to be chosen to participate. The fantastic Laura Salters chose me as her mentee! For two months, we work on my ms. (PSA: Laura Salters is a beautiful beast of revision and all-around awesomeness!) Revisions, revisions, and more revisions! Things I knew I sort of wanted to change collide with things I didn’t even think of changing!

3. September 2 – October 30 — Over the next two months, I spend a lot of time in a secret Facebook group for the 125 mentees where we support, help, and complain to each other about everything and anything and anxiety. We share anxieties, excitements, methods of revision. The community is fantastic and supportive. I spend a lot of time back-and-forth-ing with Laura on changes and ideas. My stomach has transformed to butterflies and soda bubbles.

4. October 30 — All 125 participants turn in their 50-word pitch and the first 250 words of their ms. We all hold our breaths and have heart attacks and anxiety-panic-run-around-and-scream fiascos. This is where the writing community and support from mentors come into play in a big way.

5. November 3 — The Agent Round begins. Over 75 literary agents swoop down upon the 125 submissions. They leave comments requesting any number of materials from the author: query letter, synopsis, partial manuscript, full manuscript, firstborn, 4/5 of their soul, and a bar of chocolate. (Ok, not those last three. Probably.) Laura and I spend copious amounts of time stalking the blog post comments section, freaking out whenever someone makes a request. A lot of messages are exchanged, mostly IN CAPS LOCK.

6. November 3-5 — Over the next 3 days, I get 22 requests from agents who want to read a partial or full manuscript. That puts me in second place for the highest number of requests. My heart is made of jelly and my brain is toast. My skeleton is probably peanut butter. I send materials to agents as they are requested since Nov 3. I receive lovely updates from some agents that they’re reading, they’re enjoying it. I must restart my heart at least four times.

7. November 5 — I receive an email from Pete Knapp with New Leaf Literary & Media, asking to set up a call. Three people from New Leaf requested to read, and I had received lovely updates that they were all reading and enjoying. Time is now a construct of insanity and anxiety. I spend most of my time pacing and making dinosaur sounds. I set up the call for later today and caution Pete that the only thing that will stop me from making the call is a pack of velociraptors. Pete is strangely and fantastically not perturbed by the involvement of velociraptors.

8. November 5 — I email and inform Pete that the velociraptors are interfering, and we reschedule our call for a half hour later. He is not perturbed by my repeated mention of velociraptors. I have The Call with Pete, and he speaks about my book with enthusiasm, thematic understanding, and excitement that rivals my own. (I don’t want to say he won in the Excitement Level Contest, but let’s just say that neither of us could really contain the levels of energy we were trying to suppress.) Pete officially offers representation! I swoon, have a heart attack, swoon again. I am made of pure energy.

9. November 6 — I send a nudge to the other Agents that requested materials during Pitch Wars, giving a deadline of the following Thursday evening (about a week) to read and see if they want to offer as well.

10. November 7-10 — I do ALL the research. On the agency, on the agents. I become a BOSS of phone calls. I talk to at least six new people. Clients of agents, coworkers of agents, the whole shebang.

11. November 10-12 — I get 3 other offers from agents by this point. I do MORE research. Talk to MORE people. I am now the Master of Phone Calls. Gone are the days of my youthier youth where I avoided ordering pizza because having conversations with other humans was scary and nervous-making.

12. November 13 — I have another call with Pete. I had told him I would likely take the weekend to do more research. But by this time, I’ve already made up my mind. We have a lovely long chat, and I basically SPRING IT ON HIM LIKE A BEAR VELOCIRAPTOR TRAP that I’ve already chosen to accept his offer! I am somewhere up in the clouds, bobbing along like the amorphous non-corporeal gob of bubbly energy that I now am.

13. November 14 — I am inundated with adulting-tasks. Like following up with the other offering agents and declining their offers. (PS: It is weird to say no to people who you know love your work.) Like evaluating and discussing a contract. Like trying not to fizzle into non-existence due to an overabundance of energy. (After this point, I get two emails from other agents inquiring if I’d made a decision yet, but I was already in love with Pete and the entire New Leaf team and nothing short of a horde of velociraptors was going to pull me away.)

14. November 14-19 — It takes me a week to go over the contract to make sure I understand it all. I blame some of this on my meticulous, overwhelming desire to just know things, and the other on a rational Adult-Type-Reason of making sure I understand the legal aspects of things before I jump on-board. Being an adult is hard. Throughout all of this, Pete is patient and walks me through every step.

15. November 19 — At long last, I understand all the Legalese of the contract (sidenote: a contract, aka Agency Agreement, is technically written in English, but it’s not the English language we love and know. It’s a mysterious tangle of terminology and nightmarish syntax), and I inform them of my utter excitement of signing it. An email, a phone call, and some signatures later, and…

16. November 20 — … and I Post Office like an ADULT and send off the contract! I am OFFICIALLY REPRESENTED by New Leaf Literary & Media, and Pete and I have a long and fabulous road of camaraderie and velociraptors ahead! I am still made of electricity and bubbles and soda and jelly toast, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!!

 

If you have any questions, feel free to ask! If I can answer it, I will!