Archive | January, 2011

Query Critique 1: The Recruited

31 Jan

Welcome to Query Week! Every day, this week and next, we’ll be publicly critiquing the queries you guys were awesome enough to send us last week. If we don’t publicly post yours, don’t worry, we’ll still email you our thoughts 🙂

See the bottom of our posts for great resources about queries, and use the tag ‘query week’ to see Query Weeks of the past.


Dear Agent,

Naomi Williams has been in juvenile prison for three years, when she receives a mysterious visitor who reveals a secret about her murder conviction.  The boy she killed was the son of an important terrorist leader, and as a result of his death, the terrorists are seeking hers.

Her last hope lies with her visitor, who persuades her to join the top secret government agency to which he belongs.  Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way.

James Knox is already a weapon, his fighting skills born from his years as a member of a notorious street gang.  He’s already lost the people most important to him, and doesn’t spend much time worrying about where his current lifestyle will land him.

When an assignment leads Naomi to save James’s life, all he knows is that he has to see her again.  Naomi, meanwhile, is torn between the lure of a real friendship and the need to keep her job under wraps.

As James becomes more aware of what Naomi’s life really entails, she must struggle to keep his existence a secret from the agency for which she works.  Because if the terrorists or the government discover what Naomi is hiding it could mean death—to both of them.

THE RECRUITED is my first novel, a YA complete at 95,000 words.  It is the first in a potential trilogy, but capable of standing on its own.  Thank you for your time and consideration.



Overall, great job!  It sounds like an action-packed story, and I always love a good spy thriller.  The main issues for me were: 1) confusion, 2) an ambiguous villain and absence of what’s at stake, and 3) snappy writing.

1) I felt like the opening paragraph was a bit vague/convoluted — like it could carry more “oomph” if it were snappier. For example: “After three years in juvenile prison, Naomi Williams learns the boy she killed was the son of a terrorist — and now that terrorist wants her dead.

In the next paragraph, you say, “Her last hope”, but her last hope for what?  Survival? Escape from prison? Flawless skin? 😉

Then, this sentence — “Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way” — opened a few questions for me that I felt needed to be answered.  What skills does Naomi learn?  What is her goal?  What kind of terrorists are we dealing with?  Why does this government agency hire teenagers?

To avoid confusion in the third paragraph, I think you should describe James after we learn that Naomi met him on an assignment. I thought he was the mysterious visitor from paragraph 1, and it took me two paragraphs to realize he wasn’t!

Next, when you say “all [James] knows is that he has to see her again“, I wanted to know why he has to see her again. Did she steal his wallet?  Is he madly in love?

Finally, what is Naomi hiding?  You don’t need to tell us her secret, but at least hint or introduce that she has a secret sooner.  Like, was the secret that she killed the boy? Or is it something she learned at her new job?  Something about James?

2) Who are the bad guys?  “Terrorists” is kind of general, you know?  There are Irish terrorists, Afghan terrorists, American terrorists, skinheads, unibombers, etc.  What those people want is all different, as are their methods.  Who exactly is Naomi up against?  Whose son did she kill?  What BIG problem is Naomi trying to thwart — I assume it’s more than just saving her own skin since she works in an anti-terror agency.

Offering clear villain and stakes will really up the tension of the query and let the agent/editor want to read more — “Aaah!  What’s going to happen to X if Naomi doesn’t do Y?  Will Naomi be able to do Y?  I must read this novel!” 🙂

3) As for snappy writing, that’s something that will just take several drafts (oh, trust me on that!). 🙂  Cutting out words, tightening sentence structure, and having a query that rolls off the tongue is something that will require editing and tweaking.  Reading out loud will really help you hear how snappy the query is, and having other people read your query can help you find tricky wording.

Good luck!  I hope to hear good news in the future!

-Susan Dennard


Great feedback Susan! I would just like to add that I didn’t really get a YA feel for this… a character in prison for murder, training to be a military weapon, terrorist plots, street gangs… it felt like Naomi should be an adult. I think you should try to work more of your YA voice into this, starting with clarifying that she’s a teen from the beginning.

I would also like just a little background on the murder. Why did she kill him? A teen in prison for murder is very serious, and I would like a small indication of her personality and maybe socioeconomic background (if it was relevant to the murder) by learning details of the situation.

Lastly… why is Naomi hiding James from the government? Furthermore, why does she feel compelled to? I feel like your reason could give a great indication for her character, and probably link it around to YA again. I’m not familiar with your story, but maybe Naomi is lonely for company her own age, or feels like James really understands what it’s like to be a fighter, or she’s fallen deep in infatuation, etc.

Best of luck!

-Savannah J. Foley


Hey! I like to critique in-line, so I’ll just put my comments in blue below…

-Kat Zhang

Dear Agent,

Naomi Williams has been in juvenile prison for three years, no need for this comma! when she receives a mysterious visitor who reveals a secret about her murder conviction.  The boy she killed was the son of an important terrorist leader, and as a result of his death, the terrorists are seeking hers. I’m wondering why she killed this boy. You never say, and I feel like if we knew, it would give us a lot of insight into Naomi as a character. You don’t have to say a lot–just a sentence would do. Did she kill him in self defense? To protect a loved one? By accident? Or in cold blood?

Her last hope lies with her visitor, who persuades her to join the top secret government agency to which he belongs.  Put through training to fight back against the terrorists, Naomi knows she is expected to be a weapon; one who will live or die by the skills she’s learned and not let anyone get in her way.

James Knox is already a weapon, his fighting skills born from his years as a member of a notorious street gang.  He’s already lost the people most important to him, and doesn’t spend much time worrying about where his current lifestyle will land him. I think we could benefit from a line or two about these terrorists. What do they want? Why would James get involved? Right now, it’s all rather nebulous.

When an assignment leads Naomi to save James’s life, all he knows is that he has to see her again.  Naomi, meanwhile, is torn between the lure of a real friendship and the need to keep her job under wraps.

As James becomes more aware of what Naomi’s life really entails, she must struggle to keep his existence a secret from the agency for which she works.  Because if the terrorists or the government discover what Naomi is hiding, comma insert 🙂 it could mean death—to both of them. Some of your sentences tend to be a little long and overly complicated. It takes away from the impact of the words–gives them less oomph. For example, this last paragraph could just read: “As James becomes more aware of Naomi’s life, she struggles to keep his existence secret from her agency. Because if either the terrorists or the government discovers what Naomi’s hiding, it would mean both their deaths.” Not a lot of changes, but it does pare things down a bit. Usually, the longer a sentence is, the less impact it has. And in a query, you want things to speed along, get as much impact in there as you can!

THE RECRUITED is my first novel, a YA complete at 95,000 words.  It is the first in a potential trilogy, but capable of standing on its own.  Thank you for your time and consideration.


Over all, good job 🙂


This sounds like an exciting story! Your query just needs a bit more punch. The others have already given great feedback so I just thought I’d add a few things that jumped out at me. The query feels a bit long; most of the ones I’ve seen agents using as examples are quite short. Tightening up the wording would help with that. You want it to be a quick, easy read that makes the reader want more. Also, I’m going to second Sav and say that I don’t get enough of a feel for Naomi as a character. I would love to see more of her voice in this query, especially as it seems like it would be a major part of the book and important for making this a YA novel as opposed to an adult novel. Finally, I’m a bit unclear on the relationship between Naomi and James. Is it friendship, romantic, or do they want different things? It might help to make this clearer.

Good luck!


Helpful Links

Queries and Cover Letters, from the Elaine P. English literary agency blog

Query Letter Mad Lib, from literary agent Nathan Bransford’s blog

How to Format a Query Letter, also from Nathan Bransford’s blog

Query Shark, where literary agent Janet Reid tears apart your queries and puts them back together

AgentQuery gives their advice on what makes up a good query letter

A Complete Nobody’s Guide to Query Letters, a good article from Science Fiction Writers of America


Saturday Grab Bag: Mashup

29 Jan


Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

  • Yo Mama’s So Fat… Harry Potter Style
    Everyone needs a good Yo Mama joke every now and again.
  • Love List
    A really great way to keep yourself inspired and motivated, from author Stephanie Perkins.
  • On ARCs
    Ever wondered what to do with those ARCs you have lying around? Or what about the ones people give away? Agent Holly Root’s got it covered.
  • How To Use Twitter
    Nathan Bransford does it again: everything you wanted to know about Twitter, and then some.
  • Adding Sound Effects To Your Writing
    A great article on why adding sound effects to your writing can give it a much greater depth.

Upcoming Debut Novels

THE IRON WITCH by Karen Mahoney (Feb. 8th)
SO SHELLY by Ty Roth (Feb. 8th)
ANGELFIRE by Courtney Allison Moulton (Feb. 15th)
RIVAL by Sara Bennett-Wealer (Feb. 15th)
A TOUCH MORTAL by Leah Clifford (Feb. 22nd)

QOTW: Personal Theme Song

28 Jan

We wanted to do something different and fun this week in preparation for heralding in Query Critique Week 2 next week (and the week after)!

So, we decided to answer the following, totally-invented-by-us question:

If you could have one theme song play every time you entered a room, what would it be?


Battle Without Honor or Humanity, complete with slow motion, as displayed in Kill Bill vol. 1. You have to skip to the 0:17 mark:


Mine is totally “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson.


Mine is most definitely “Alles Neu” (which means “Everything New”) by Peter Fox.  This song makes me want to run fast, dance crazy, scream loud, and wreak as much mayhem as possible.


This is a NO-BRAINER for me!  My theme song would be “How Soon is Now” by The Smiths.  No better guitar part to make an entrance to…


My theme song would totally be “Fame” by David Bowie. In a way, it kind of already is. I have this playlist on my iPod labeled Metro Melodies, and it’s the first song that plays. I’m not gonna lie, I sauntered around the D.C. metro blasting that song every day this past summer.

… I’m such a freak.


LOVE THIS SONG. Absolutely adore the Stone Roses. Loooove.


Deinfitely Song 2 by Blur! Whenever I listen to it on my iPod, I get so tempted to just start jumping up and down.


Oh, I don’t know if I can pick just one! I’d need a theme PLAYLIST or something! Lately, though, I’ve been rather obsessed with this song… Though it’s far too sweet and melodious and…peaceful to be anything like a theme song of my life 😛

What is YOUR entrance theme song?

Uh When To Da Ster, Or, Why Accents Don’t Belong In Your Manuscript

27 Jan

By Sammy Bina


While reading submissions lately, I noticed a growing trend in giving characters regional accents. I thought it was a rather arbitrary thing to include in most cases, but I’m an unfailing optimist – I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the accent was an important part of the plot. I crossed my fingers and pushed onward.

Sadly, I gave up pretty quickly. In almost every case (roughly 99.9%), the use of accents was so detrimental to the story that I couldn’t finish the partial. I was so distracted by the inclusion of a (poorly done) Southern twang, or (inaccurate) British slang, that I didn’t even want to know what the overall story arc was. Sometimes there are problems larger than plot that a reader can’t overlook.

To demonstrate why accents in books can be such a huge problem, I thought I’d demonstrate with some quality 90’s British television and a more recent Australian movie trailer. Check out the videos below, and then we’ll reconvene to go over today’s lesson! (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers involved!)

Okay! Back to today’s scheduled programming.

Question: Did you catch everything everyone said? If you’re not from Ireland or Australia, chances are you might’ve missed something. I remember the first time I saw Ballykissangel; I had to rewatch the opening scene twice in order to fully understand everything being said. Why? Because my ear isn’t trained to automatically pick up another accent. Same goes for Beautiful. Though the trailer doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, there are still moments where I catch myself second guessing what someone said. Even after I’ve seen the movie! Sometimes, when watching a movie where people have accents, it takes a while to adjust.

But why?

I took a Shakespeare class my freshman year of college, and my professor told me it takes the brain between 5 and 10 minutes to fully process another accent. I wasn’t sure I believed him until I really started traveling. When I lived in Ireland, it took a while before I was able to understand my professors, and each time you encountered someone from a different county, you’d have to start all over again. Dialects in Europe vary from region to region (ie: different counties in Ireland all have variants of what Americans consider a stereotypical Irish accent); the United States has regional accents as well. While living in Virginia/D.C. this past summer, I had to adjust to a variety of southern accents, each person’s differing slightly from the one before it. To be honest, there are still a few people I can’t understand, and I’ve known them for quite a while. These days I’m definitely a believer in the 5 to 10 minute rule (and then some)!

I like to think the 5 to 10 minute rule applies to writing as well. If your main character is from the deep South, it would be strange to see all of the dialogue written out phonetically. Take a look at your favorite book. More than likely, it’s just written in straight English. You’d see “I went to the store,” instead of “Uh when to da ster.” And while that’s an exaggeration, the principle holds. I’ve seen manuscripts where all the dialogue was written out phonetically, and it was like deciphering a code or trying to read a foreign language. Books today don’t really make use of regional accents. It’s a cool idea, but is rarely executed well. (For a good example, check out our book of the month, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. St. Clair is English, but his dialogue is very straightforward and manages to expertly include some British witticisms.)

Similarly, the use of slang can also be a problem. Having lived abroad (and watched an exorbitant amount of 90’s British television), I’m pretty familiar with British slang, so it kills me inside when I see writers butchering it. Same goes for our strange Midwestern colloquialisms. Google is great for a lot of things, but it isn’t always accurate. So unless you have someone to fact check with, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. You can do what I did and start watching the BBC, or connect with people online to check your usage. We tend to advocate Twitter to you all on a regular basis, as it’s easy to get a quick response to your questions. YouTube also has a number of videos that can school you in regional accents and slang. Be sure to take advantage of these resources if you yourself aren’t sure how to use a word.

The important thing to remember when setting your story in a place that might have a very distinctive accent is just that: the setting. If your story takes place in Louisiana, take the time for world building. By giving the reader the feeling of Bourbon Street, for example, you won’t need an accent to emphasize your point. It’s totally acceptable to simply state your main character has a drawl, or cut off the occasional word (ie: nothin’). But stay away from phonetic spellings and overt use of regional accents. Just like it might take you ten minutes to adjust to listening to someone speak, it can take a reader even longer to make that transition, and in the meantime, you may have lost them entirely. Play it safe, and play it straight – that way no one will be able to doubt your storytelling abilities.


Sammy Bina is enjoying her last semester of college as a creative writing major. She is currently revising her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and is an intern for the Elaine P. English Literary Agency. You can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

Profound doesn’t even begin to describe it.

26 Jan

by Biljana Likic


Think back to an old crush; maybe the first boy or girl you really felt something for. The way they made you feel when they smiled at you, or accidentally brushed your hand. The way that sometimes, when they needed a pencil, they’d ask you for one. No matter that it was because they sat beside you in class, and you were the closest and most convenient person to ask. They asked you for a pencil, and you felt your heart soar.

Until you saw them kissing someone else during recess.

Your heart plummeted and when you went home, maybe you cried, maybe you accepted it without tears, maybe you got over them that instant. Or maybe, you went on liking them even though you knew they’d never like you back, and whenever you thought of them it made your stomach hurt how much you missed them. Oh, you’d still lend them that pencil, but maybe with more sadness than usual. The pencil has lost meaning to you. You’ve realized you’re just a convenience.

And then months later, when you’re over them, you see the situation for what it was: an infatuation.


But it wasn’t trivial while it was happening.

Puppy love and crushes make you do stupid things for people that sometimes don’t even notice you exist. And they have a crappy reputation. First because you often make a fool of yourself when the vulnerable situations you’ve been thrown in crumble against you, and second because, let’s face it, nobody takes them seriously. Even if you swear you’ll jump off a bridge for somebody, hardly anyone over the age of twenty will be concerned. They’ve already deduced that you are not in love, but that you are infatuated. And because you are infatuated, and not in love, that means your condition is a bit of a joke; something you’ll be embarrassed about in a year or two when it’s all in the past.

But the truth is, when you’re infatuated, to you it feels like love. To you, it’s not a joke. You really would try to give them everything. And while you’re in this phase there’s nothing more you would like than being with the person of your affections.

The reason I’m bringing this up is for the sake of all those teen protagonists that like the cute classmate but can’t approach them. More specifically, it’s for the sake of the readers that sympathize. I’ve talked to people who snub YA because the problems of the characters aren’t big enough. They don’t want to read about puppy love. They want to read about the love that makes your gut twist with longing and your heart feel full to bursting; that takes residence in your chest and presses down with the constant worry of what would happen to you emotionally if your loved one died.

They don’t want to read about something trivial.

But aside from constancy, which can’t be proven without the test of time (which books may not have), the only thing this adult love has over puppy love is the retrospective view of the situation. When it’s all over, you can look back on love and think, “It was beautiful while it lasted.” You can’t always do that with an infatuation. In fact, more often than not, you’ll end up thinking, “I can’t believe I used to lend them my pencil.”

The point I’m trying to make is that what’s trivial later in life may not be trivial in the moment. People don’t think it’s funny when they tell somebody about how they cry themselves to sleep every night. Later they might feel stupid, but while they’re crying, all they feel is a yawning black hole where their heart used to be.

So when you write about love, whether it’s infatuation or the real thing, never, ever undermine it. Never make it about how when she’s twenty-five and married to somebody else she’ll look back and flush with mortification. Don’t ever let the character know that when he’s over her, the oceans that remind him of her eyes will be easy to look at again. That’s not what the story is about. And it’s certainly not something your character is likely to believe.

Give infatuation the respect it deserves. It can be as dangerous as love, if not more so, because it’s selfish; you won’t be happy if they’re happy with someone else. You’ll keep doing whatever it takes to get them to love you. That pencil will be given away. She will never find a bridge too high. And the oceans will always look like her eyes.

And he will always be willing to drown.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She is in her first year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here and follow her on Twitter here.

Revisiting Your Writing Resolutions

25 Jan

by Julie Eshbaugh


We are quickly approaching the end of the first month of 2011, and I thought today would be a good day to look back at our writing resolutions, assess our progress, and consider any new goals we should be setting.

At the start of the new year, we here at Let the Words Flow made the following resolutions:

My writing resolution is to be a more patient writer.  Right now I try to force my writing too much.  My goal is to let my writing flow more naturally.


Gah, just one resolution? There’s a million things I want to do better. I just finished Bird by Bird and it’s really inspired me. Mostly though, I want to experience more. Whether that means reading more or just getting out of the house, I want to open myself up to more possibilities for inspiration.


After all the cookies I’ve been eating, I want to make use of the gym that’s included with my ridiculous tuition… but a more writerly resolution is to focus on one writing project at a time instead of jumping between several.


Oh, New Year’s resolutions….:] As far as writing goes (though I suppose this applies to all aspects of my life), I resolve to start practicing what I preach and develop my patience. Things will happen. Things will come. Just need to work at it, not fuss over it


I have so many resolutions this year, but I think I’ll agree with Kat and say that I’d like for 2011 to be the year I learn to be patient. I’ve got a lot of waiting ahead of me this year (with QUEEN OF GLASS coming out in 2012), so learning to be patient will be a pretty useful skill! And I’d also like to stop eating so many double stuff oreos.


My resolution is to find a balance: between keeping up with my client’s needs, answering submissions, completing conference talks, meeting deadlines, and promoting current releases, there is always a lot to do. My Hope for 2011 is to continue the juggling act. And not drop any balls.


My resolutions this year are pretty simple for once! I want to complete the 2011 Debut Author Challenge, and finish up the manuscript I’m working on. Nothing too exciting from me this coming year!


As I read through these, I noticed that they could be broken down into three neat categories:

1.)    Patience (Julie, Kat, and Sarah)

2.)   Self-Discipline (Jenn and Mandy)

3.)   Reading more (Savannah and Sammy)

Since I think it’s probably safe to assume that other writers are struggling with similar goals, I’ve decided to look at each of these three and discuss tricks and tactics to help make these goals more easily attainable for all of us.



I’ve yet to meet a patient writer, so if being more patient is one of your 2011 resolutions, you are in GOOD COMPANY!  Here are a few suggestions to make patience more attainable:

~ Keep busy!  Nothing makes the time pass more slowly than watching your inbox.  Start a new project.  Try turning off your internet/email access for a half an hour while you write.  You will not only feel more patient, you will stay more focused on your writing.

~Accept the things that are out of your control.  Agents need time to consider submissions.  So do editors.  Even once you have that long-awaited book deal, you cannot control your release date.  Instead, focus on the things you can control.  Take your time with your current project rather than submitting it prematurely.

~Find a good listener.  If you have a writing buddy, turn to that person when you feel like the waiting involved in writing is getting to you.  Avoid voicing your frustrations on your blog or through your twitter account!



As a writer, you answer to yourself on everything from what you write to when you write it.  Here are some tips for holding yourself accountable and staying on course:

~If you feel like Jenn and want to focus on one project instead of starting three more, try concentrating on the end result – that completed manuscript!  There is definitely a long, dry hike between the thrill of starting something new and the satisfaction of seeing it finished.  If you are tempted to start a new project because you’ve gotten bored with the routine of your current task, mix it up a bit.  Try writing sprints; write as many words as you can in a set amount of time – say ten minutes.  You will need to go back and edit, but you will see your word count growing and feel inspired to stick with it.  Word sprints are even more fun if you can do them with a writing buddy.

~Budget your time.  If you’re like Mandy and wear several hats every day, it’s important to realize that you can’t do everything at once.  Decide which responsibility is going to get your full attention for a particular period of time, and commit yourself to that task.  Worrying about ten tasks at once only makes you less effective at all of them.

~Set small goals that you can keep, so that you don’t feel like a failure as soon as you start.  If your goal is to “write every day,” accept the fact that 15 minutes before you go to bed may be all that you can spare at times.  Allow yourself to “succeed” by keeping your goals realistic.



We can’t be good writers if we don’t read, but how often have you heard a writer say that they don’t have time to read because they are too busy writing?  Here are some thoughts to help you get your reading done:

~Read what you like.  If EVERYONE is talking about a particular book but you just can’t get into it, don’t force it.  Granted, I do believe that you should be familiar with what people in your target audience are reading, but there will be books you prefer to others.  Read the ones you enjoy.

~Discover new authors.  Sammy has encouraged us all here at LTWF to join her in the 2011 Debut Author Challenge.  Reading newly published authors is a great way to stay inspired (and to keep your eyes off that inbox!)

~Read for research and inspiration.  If you have a strong curiosity about Machu Picchu, don’t feel guilty reading an article about it in a travel magazine.  Machu Picchu might turn out to be the setting of your next novel.  Or maybe you want to read about genealogy, or sailing, or asteroids.  Give yourself permission to read about things that seem unrelated to your writing.  You never know what might spark the idea for your next WIP.

Are you succeeding with your writing resolutions?  Have you already abandoned them?  Have you re-imagined them?  Please share your experiences in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


Taking Tips from the Movies and TV

24 Jan

by Susan Dennard


One thing you’ve probably heard in your writing-career is that it’s important to read.  Perhaps people have told you how to “read like a writer” by analyzing characterization, scene, syntax, and all the other stuff that goes into a novel.

Well, reading can take time, and dissecting can take even more time.  But the same things you see in a book you can see in a movie.  The key is to watch a movie like a writer.  Seems obvious, right?

It occurred to me while I was watching The Walking Dead. You may or may not like the show (there is some definite Cheese Factor and plot unbelievability), but there are a few things I think the creators do really well that keep viewers coming back for more episodes.  And these things got me thinking…

There are a some common elements in all popular stories, and if you keep your eyes peeled, you can easily spot them and use them yourself!

**Sorta spoilers below for The Walking Dead and Pride & Prejudice…  I try to be vague, but some things might be revealing.  Sorry.**

1) Within the first 15 minutes of the first episode of The Walking Dead, I was invested in the story and attached to the hero, Rick.  Why?  Because Rick showed immediately that he was 1) brave (he’s a cop), 2) devoted to his family, and 3) in a really crappy position (um, waking up from a coma to find the whole world has turned into zombies and your family is missing?  SO NOT A GOOD DAY).

Give your readers a reason to care about and respect your protagonist as soon as your story starts. Show your protagonist as the underdog, show your protagonist helping others, or show your protagonist putting on a big smile even those his heart aches, and your readers will have something to instantly latch onto and appreciate.  (Note: don’t go overboard — make it appropriate to the story.  No on likes a Mary Sue or a Mary Jane.)

2) As The Walking Dead episodes progressed, I kept my eyes peeled for other aspects that kept me interested.  The most obvious thing this show has is conflict — but not the kind you’d expect.  Yeah, there are zombies everywhere trying to eat Rick’s brains, but most of the show’s drama revolves around relationships. For example, Rick’s wife thought Rick was dead, so she started having an affair with Rick’s police partner — OOPS.

Conflict isn’t just about external plot; it’s also about tough decisions, strained friendships, blossoming love, disagreeing goals, self-defeating guilt, etc. Harrowing external events aren’t usually enough to keep a plot interesting.  The tension stays high when characters have to deal with conflict within themselves and amongst themselves.  Above all, it’s conflict that matters because it’s conflict we can relate to.

3) In one of the first episodes, one of the characters makes a Really Bad Decision — he leaves someone behind as zombie food when he could have saved the person.  In later episodes, it’s revealed Mr. Zombie Food managed to survive and is now at large in Atlanta.  As a viewer, I know Mr. Zombie Food is going to come back and be a Really Big Problem for the guy who made the Really Bad Decision.

Every decision has a consequence — usually bad or at least not what the character expects. Stories are more than just cause and effect, they’re decision and consequence.  Good decisions can have bad consequences, bad decisions can have good.  But if the consequences are immediately good, you’ve got a very short story.  The best-laid tales show an ever escalating series of decisions and consequences until the final showdown where things are all wrapped up (for better or for worse).

4) And that escalation leads me to my final point.  Life for the characters is bad — like really really bad — and it’s only getting worse as each episode progresses.  Every step forward leads to two steps back, and that leads to me tuning in every week!

The stakes keep rising and rising until the end. What began as one man’s quest is now several families (oh no!  there are more lives a stake!).  What seemed like it might be a solution (a cure for the virus) proves to be a giant death trap (oh no!  There is no cure!).  Every safe haven the characters think they’ve found proves to be a zombie wasteland (oh no!  there is no escape!).  If you can keep escalating the consequences of decisions (a là element #3) and also escalate what stands to be lost, you’ll have a real page turner on your hands.

Looking at Other Kinds of Film

Action TV isn’t the only place these rules can be found.  Throw Pride & Prejudice in your DVD player (faster than reading the book, remember?  But the book is AMAZING — I definitely recommend it), and you’ll see the same things happening!

Element #1: Elizabeth Bennett is the most clever daughter in a household of ninnies (she is a witty and endearing heroine); her family is bordering on poverty (she is a heroine in underdog circumstances); and she wants nothing more than for her sisters to find good marriages and be happy (she is a selfless and loving heroine).

Element #2: While there is some external conflict (illness, unwanted suitors, cruel Bingley sisters) much of the conflict stems from Elizabeth’s interactions with others and her own inner turmoil.  She doesn’t hit it off too well with Mr. Darcy (lots of lovely tension in those scenes!).  She has to deal with her horribly embarrassing mother in public settings (ugh, so much awkward conflict).  And eventually, she has to deal with her guilt/regret over how she treated Mr. Darcy (inner conflict).

Element #3: Every decision Elizabeth makes leads the story in different directions and has resounding consequences.  She learns the truth about Mr. Wickham, but chooses not to reveal his shady history.  As a result, her sister Lydia runs off with him.  She dislikes Mr. Darcy because of his snobbishness, and as a result rejects a marriage proposal that would have elevated her family to prosperity.

Element #4: Elizabeth’s sisters need to make good marriages in order to provide for the rest of the family, but one by one, their options disappear.  Jane loses Mr. Bingley; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins; Elizabeth’s mother embarrasses the family at every turn and lowers any chance that the Bennett girls will attract good husbands; Elizabeth rejects Mr. Darcy; Lydia shames the family by running off like harlot.  You have to turn the page to find out how it will all work out for the Bennett sisters, and most importantly, to find out how it will work out for Elizabeth.

Applying it to Your Stories

When I set out to write The Spirit-Hunters, I laid out all my favorite novels, movies, and shows and I figured out what elements I liked best, why I liked those best, and how I could use them in my story.

Now it’s your turn to do the same!  Grab your favorite films and TV shows, and pay close attention!  I bet you’ll notice elements 1-4 in play, and what you need to look out for is how the elements are executed.  Maybe the hero is introduced right after he got fired from work (element #1), or maybe every episode shows the heroine dealing with dark secrets (element #2).  Whatever the use, is there some way you can infuse it into your own story?  And are there other things you see and want to use in your writing (maybe a spine-chilling ghost or a passionate love scene)?

Good story-telling is good story-telling, no matter if the medium is film or prose or smoke circles, so why not learn from the people who’ve already done and done it well?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Saturday Grab Bag

22 Jan

A few days ago, to our delight, the wonderful Heather Howland awarded us the Stylish Blogger Award!

Thanks, Heather!

So this is what we have to do now:

1) Thank and link back to the person who awarded you this award.

2) Share 7 things about yourself.

3) Award some recently discovered great bloggers.

4) Contact these bloggers and tell them about the award!

And without further ado…

7 Things About Us:
1. We span three continents.

2. Most of us write up our posts an hour or so before they’re scheduled to go live.

3. We’re really responsible.

4. We like cake, though a mutinous few have mentioned something about preferring pie, or whatever.

5. In our calendar, where we’re supposed to schedule individual dates for posts, we’re also supposed to say what topic we’re going to write about. More often than not though, all you see is “[Name] posts something” and its variations.

6. Almost all of our conversations about Serious Things become derailed, and very quickly so. Most recently, a conversation about how it’s generally incorrect to put two spaces after a period turned into a conversation about Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail.

7. We haven’t all met in person, but when we do, it’ll be a party.

Interesting blogs we appreciate, in no particular order!
That Cover Girl
The Rejectionist
CA Marshall
The Book Smugglers
YA Highway


Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

QOTW: Why do we fail so?

21 Jan

As the title suggests, us ladies couldn’t get our acts together this week.

We hope you accept our deepest apologies with this hastily drawn image.


20 Jan

There’s a lot of confusion (even amongst published authors) on the money side of publishing—particularly when it comes to earning out an advance. It seems no one really knows until the royalty statement arrives how they are doing, and whether they have any hope of earning out.

But let me back up—what is an advance? It’s the payments made by your publisher for the purchase of your book. Yes, payments, as in plural, because you don’t see it all at once.  Your publisher pays an advance, roughly based on how well they think the book will do. When the book comes out, you begin earning royalties, which are first credited towards earning back that advance–or as it is more commonly known: earn out.  If a book has “earned out,” than it means enough copies have sold to pay the publisher back for the advance.

First, let’s make sure you understand the basics about GETTING your advance:

Let’s use some numbers here. A very average first time advance is about $10,000. This would be divided into either two payments or three, but it’s becoming increasingly more common to be divided in three, so let’s go with that. We’ll also assume it is a single book deal.

The publisher calls you (or your agent) and makes an offer. You pop champagne, you negotiate basic contract points, and you agree to the deal. It will take your publisher anywhere from a few weeks to several months to send you the contract.

Once you have signed the contract and mailed it back, they will process your first check. In this case, $3,333. Assuming you have an agent, it is routed through your agency, they take their 15% (about $500) and send you a check for $2,833. Don’t go blow it all, though, remember you have to pay taxes on that money. Also, you might need a professional website.

Anyway, your next payment would come when your book has been delivered and accepted. This means all major revisions are done and the book has been sent to copyedits. Then along comes your $2833.

The last payment comes, most commonly, on publication. And yes—that is 12-24 months after they make that offer. So you’re clearly not getting rich here.

Next, let’s look at royalties:

Royalty rates vary widely, especially when you consider that some publishers pay on retail price and some pay on net received. We’re going to go with some very average numbers here, all based on retail.

One point of confusion—even for published authors—is that your retail price may be $16.99 but Amazon is selling it for $12.99. It doesn’t matter, though—your royalty is calculated on the full retail price. It’s amazon who is taking the hit here.

If your book comes out in trade paperback, chances are your royalty rate is between 6 and 8%. For hardbacks, it can vary between 8% and 12%. Generally your contract will also have escalation clauses—like, If you sell 25,000 copies, your royalty goes from 10% to 12%. So you can imagine that it gets complicated.

So, to keep it simple, let’s say your book comes out in trade paperback original, with an 8% royalty rate. If the list price is $9.99, you’re getting about eighty cents a book. You need to sell 12,500 copies in order to earn out.

What happens if you don’t earn out? Is your career done for?

If your book fails to earn out its advance, it doesn’t mean your career is over- not necessarily. Your original publisher is the one with all the information and they may or may not want to publish your next book. If they do, you have a whole new chance to break out. Also, remember that just because YOU didn’t earn out, doesn’t mean your publisher hasn’t made a profit.

If they don’t buy your next book, it means you’ll be submitting it more widely.

Here’s what to remember—other publishers can look up your bookscan data (which is a paid service that provides sales data that covers about 70% of sales to consumers, but isn’t always accurate) but they DO NOT know what your advance was. They DO NOT know what your print run was, what your royalty statements say, etc.

Lately, we’ve seen A LOT of mega deals in the YA world. Some mid-six figure deals, even. And that’s a lot of pressure to earn out, and it’s easy to fail at such a mighty task. But that doesn’t mean you’re sunk. If you needed to sell 200,000 copies to earn out that gigantic advance, and you sold 75,000, you’re not even close. But to an outsider, if they do not know what your advance is, 75,000 is a pretty solid number.

A mention on world rights:

The last thing to keep in mind is subrights—audio, foreign, etc. Many of those mega deals are for world rights, which means your publisher submits and negotiates translation/foreign deals. You split that money with them—anything from 50/50 to 90/10. A real average is 70/30. (70 to the author, 30 to the pub). SOME of those mega deals have earned out before they are ever published, based on foreign deals alone.

Earning out based on foreign rights and not on sales doesn’t mean you’re a raging success, but it alleviates much of the risk for your publisher, and it, too, may play a part in whether they buy another book from you.

Ultimately, it’s good to understand the numbers, but authors have little to know control over whether a book does well. Focus on writing your next amazing book instead.