Now that you want to get your work published, it’s time to write a query letter!
It’s understandable to be a bit anxious about this. Practice will help a lot, not just with writing better queries, but also with your nervousness. Understand that many famous authors were rejected several times before they were published. So keep on plugging and try not to get discouraged.
Query Letter Basics
First things first: always do what the publisher says you should do. Seriously. Queries are cover letters accompanying your submissions to a publisher or agent. They can vary in length, but Job One is always to do what the recipient wants. That is, if the recipient wants it as an attachment, send an attachment. If they want it in the body of the email or sent via snail mail or faxed, then do that. Double-spaced? Do it. Times New Roman font? Why, that’s suddenly your favorite font, too!
The last thing you want to do is annoy the recipient of your letter. So follow directions to the letter. Unsure of an instruction? How about asking on Twitter? Do not let your manuscript get a rejection under a technicality.
Rather than giving you an example, it’s probably best to link to a successful modern query letter. Now imagine your work, with a showcase like that. Change the genre if necessary, the character names, etc., and you’ve got the bare bones of a query letter.
Suggestion: check several successful query letters, particularly those which are fairly recent and are in your genre. If they are the queries which your actual target admires, then so much the better.
Keep plugging. Queries are a rite of passage for every author. They will get easier as you keep on doing them.
Yes, You Can Still Get Inspiration from Instances of Sexism
Sexism remains an unpleasant reality in our world.
Since sexism is still with us today, you might see it, or even experience it yourself. However, even an unpleasant experience can inspire fiction writing. Because sometimes, you just want to write a villain. And maybe your villain can eventually see the light and change, too.
Sexism At Work
In the United States, there are rather specific laws governing and prohibiting gender discrimination. However, that was not always the case. If you write historical fiction, things can differ considerably. Consider what gender discrimination means. It means judging a person’s characteristics or abilities based upon sex and often traditional gender roles.
Hence judges might see women as better parents in custody battles. Or men might get blue collar jobs more often due to perceived differences in physical strength. And this can happen even when physical strength does not factor into job performance.
Sometimes women lose out on promotions due to imagined differences in toughness. And men can find they are overly scrutinized in professions where they may be in the minority. These can be nursing or teaching or the like.
In Social Situations
Some instances of sexism have mild or semi-benevolent origins in what is gallantry behavior. Holding the door for someone is a nice thing to do. However, when a person only holds the door for women, that is move which treats the sexes differently. Even a positive difference is a difference, particularly when it can be a vestige of not just gallantry. It can also be a vestige of behaving as if women are incapable of taking care of themselves.
Social sexism can also take the form of deciding who asks whom out, or who pays for a night out. Waitstaff can perpetuate this by asking for women’s food orders first, and also by giving the man the check. Teachers might perpetuate these behaviors by giving strength tasks to boys and praising the quietness or cooperation of girls.
When sex is an excuse for a snap decision about someone without taking specifics into consideration, then it’s sexism.
Casual Prejudging and Sexism
Whether you try to excuse it as locker room banter, or it appals you, sometimes people indulge in this. And it can even happen almost inadvertently.
One area where this tends to happen is with apparel. It’s rare when boys or men receive judgment for what they wear. That is, unless it’s overly feminine, filthy, or completely inappropriate for the occasion or task at hand. Or it’s the wrong team’s jersey.
Women and girls are often judged by their clothes. It can be skirt or shorts length, the neckline of a blouse, or the height of their heels. And yes, sadly, that goes into the rape old trope. What was she wearing?
No matter what, we still hear it.
Characters can remark on everything from who pays for dinner to who gets the right to vote. They can support sexist conventions by pulling out chairs for women and giving little boys toy trucks. Or they can upend those conventions by giving up seats on the subway to men. Or by giving little girls chemistry sets.
There is more to the engaging of a cover artist part of working as an independent writer than just selecting an image or giving them an idea of what you want. Working with a cover artist involves some paperwork.
Working With a Cover Artist Should Mean a Contract
A lot of us get nervous talking about contracts and copyright and that is completely understandable. They seem difficult, complex, fraught with meaning, and all-too final. It feels like a prenuptial agreement sometimes – don’t you want to have faith that everything will work out all right?
Eh, not so fast.
This is not your great love (even if the cover artist is a friend or a relative). Instead, this is about rights. Your rights and the rights which belong to the artist.
The question is: who owns what? Without getting into the minutiae of copyright law just yet, this site offers not only a decent basic breakdown of the law in the United States, but also a good basic contract for a free download.
Are you all set now, and just have to fill in the blanks and you’re good to go?
Read over the agreement. If any of it does not make sense to you, talk to a lawyer! Even those of us not specially trained in copyright or contracts law can generally dope out an agreement. Further, in the US, you have got to have competence in Contracts Law in order to pass the Bar examination. It’s a basic part of the Multistate Exam. Hence even your friend the real estate lawyer should be able to answer your basic contract questions.
One Quick Tip
For the part of about State, County, and State, you want to write in your own state and county or parish. Why? Because if a lawsuit comes down, you will be a far happier person if you get to go to the courthouse in your county, instead of one potentially on the other side of the country. It will be far less expensive, and you will be far more likely to exert your rights if you feel they have been violated.
Second Quick Tip
Introduce the idea of a contract before the cover artist does anything. Make it clear you won’t engage them to do the work if the agreement is not signed, but also give them an opportunity to look it over and make changes to it (e. g. they might agree to a different-sized format, etc.). Note: this agreement is rather artist-centric. They probably won’t have much of a problem with it. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Be patient and pleasant like you would be with anyone; this is not you forcing the artist to do anything. But do insist on a signed agreement.
You might want to make changes to a design. You can spell those out in the contract. Should the artist charge you for any changes? They might; make sure all of that is in writing. See why it’s a good idea to know pretty much what you want before you start? It could come in handy for, say, an agreement that the first three changes are free.
Working With a Cover Artist Means Payments
Don’t pay it all up front, and don’t agree to do so. If you are absolutely, flat-out broke, you should still be able to pay something, even if the artist hand waves and doesn’t want anything for their work. Be good to your conscience and at least ask if you can make a small donation to one of their three favorite charities.
Otherwise, payments should be as specified in the agreement. Are they in dollars, Euros, bitcoins? Do you pay with a check, a credit card, Paypal, or something else? When is the first payment due? What percentage of the total is due at the time? What’s the mechanism for getting a refund if things don’t work out?
Do you absolutely love your cover? Or do you dislike it but still think the artist is great (e. g. sometimes our visions can clash)? Then find out where and how to recommend them, whether it’s a recommendation on LinkedIn or a review on Yelp. And be sure to tell your writer friends, too!
Be good to your cover artist, and they will reward you many times over.
It is like any business relationship, or it should be. Respect your cover artist, and they will help you. Don’t, and beware!
Get an Idea of What You Want Before You Start
So the last thing a cover artist wants to hear is, “Surprise me!” When they ask you how you envision your cover, you need to have an idea. One of the best ways to get such ideas is to browse Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even your local bookstore. Look at the typical covers in your genre. Are they natural-looking? Industrial? Hand-drawn?
What are the predominant colors? Black and white? Green? Pink? Red? Something else? So are they angular, or are the shapes softer and more muted?
Now we have all heard or read the expression, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Except that it’s absolutely untrue. We do judge books by their covers. All. The. Time.
Do Your Cover Artist a Favor and Do Some Research
If the covers in your genre’s section of the bookstore are all orange, should your cover be orange, too? It’s hard to say. You want it to look like it belongs in that section, right? But you also want it to stand out. I would say, if you are a new author and you are predominantly selling online, you need to consider how your work is going to look when it’s shown with others in the genre.
Perform an Amazon or Barnes & Noble search for your genre, and for any keywords related to your plot. If your book is a children’s work about a super-ocelot named Clive (please don’t steal this work. I suddenly have a wicked plot bunny ping-ponging around my head), then you could search under children’s works and then under superheroes or animal stories, etc.
It might even be helpful to take a screenshot, print it and then consider images which would fit in and images which would stand out.
So, your name is probably not going to be recognizable to most people. While it is an important part of the cover, it might be better for the artist to make the title stand out more.
Cover Artist Contracts!
Oh, and another thing – be sure to have a written agreement with this person. Even something relatively informal, signed by both of you, is better than nothing. But why? Because you’re exchanging money for labor. And that means, sometimes, people sue.
Have you ever written a blurb for a book? Here’s how.
Grab the Reader’s Attention
The most effective blurbs are:
specific as to genre (don’t be coy; if it’s horror, then say so!)
open about who the protagonist is
not a rehash of the first chapter or the entire plot
neutral about the quality of your work (don’t say: this is an incredible book. Your saying that does not make it so. Sorry.)
So keep in mind – these are not the same as the summary you write for a query.
In this fantasy tale, Dorothy is whisked away by a twister to an unknown magical land. But first she has to deal with the quite literal fallout of her house falling on, and killing, a wicked witch.
Blurbs give us an idea about the story, and they make us want to read more. Also, a blurb for The Wizard of Oz would likely be longer than the above, better reflecting the work’s complexity and length. While a long book does not need to have a long blurb, it at least could conceivably support one. However, a short novel probably would not. Unless, of course, you’ve written The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Reclusive millionaire Jay Gatsby leads the good life in 1920s New York. As his friend Nick Carraway watches, Gatsby’s life takes a turn with the all-too appealing but also all-too married Daisy Buchanan.
Scout and Jem Finch live in Alabama with their widowed father, Atticus, the town’s leading lawyer. It’s the 1930s, and Maycomb seems far from sophistication or enlightenment. And so the trouble starts when a black man is accused of raping a white woman – and Scout’s father agrees to defend the accused.
I enjoy fanfiction as much as, perhaps, the next person. But you still can never, ever charge for it. I implore you: don’t even try.
Seriously, put it out of your mind.
But aren’t there exceptions?
Yes, there are some. But first, let’s talk about why fan fiction is problematic.
Issues With This Form of Expression
For writers like you and me – and Stephen King and JK Rowling as well – we prepare our own universes. Some universes are familiar and take any number of real-life elements. For example, King’s The Stand mainly takes place in more or less present-day America. King does not run into any copyright issues with New York City being New York City. Other places in the book, though, are more the product of his imagination. In Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, though, a lot more of the scene is dreamt up by her.
For both authors, and for countless others, originality consists of creating a universe, creating characters, devising a plot, and then executing the plot in some fashion.
In fan fiction, another person (or persons) created the universe and the characters. Even when the fanficcer adds characters, the fictional world remains the original author’s creation. Hence one of the main issues with fan fiction is that it keeps the fanficcer from learning how to do that.
Benefits of Fanfiction
It’s not all bad, of course. The biggest and most measurable benefit is that it keeps you writing. Creativity is often sparked by simply being creative, that is, you write five or seven days per week, and you can fill up that writing time fairly readily. But if you only write three times per month, you may find you have writers’ block when you make the infrequent attempt. There is something about the pressure of deadlines or at least the pressure of your own internal expectations. It helps to not have a blank page to stare at all the time.
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with borrowing another’s universe in order to keep writing and exercising the creativity muscle.
If you first wrote in someone else’s universe, and now you want to claim your own, you may be transitioning from fanfiction.
Going from fan fiction writing to wholly original writing
It’s more than just ‘filing off a few serial numbers’.
How writing fanfiction can help you
It teaches you how to follow continuity. It can keep you writing when you’re stuck. Writing begets more writing (even fan fiction!), so it pays to keep going. You are better off, in terms of preventing writer’s block, to just keep on writing. Hence, if all else fails, go with fan fiction. Of course there are plenty of places to post it online. Here’s one.
How writing fanfiction can hurt you
It does not teach you how to make your own world, and it can hamper your growth in this area. Furthermore, if you are not used to making your own characters, it can hurt you there, as well.
Flip Your Perception
So consider what the foundational IP (intellectual property) does, and why it matters to you as you start the process of transitioning.
Interesting stories – spend some time deconstructing your favorites. Where did the writers hand-wave a problem away? Also, where did they get confusing? In addition, where did they deliver on the promise of their teaser/preview?
Compelling characters – why do the canon characters matter to you? Again, engage in some deconstruction. Forget who plays a character. So consider how you would feel about a character if someone else played them. Furthermore, consider how you would feel if the character’s gender and/or sexuality were swapped. Would you feel different if the character was of a race different from the current actor’s? Be your own casting director. Who, living or dead, could play the role better?
Fascinating scenes – even within a familiar place, commercial intellectual property exists inside its own bucket. It might be a city block, a hospital, a car driving across the country, or somewhere else. What would happen if the scene shifted? Does the work succeed if it moves from Milwaukee to San Diego to Angkor Wat?
Action-driving plots – what kicks things off? If it’s a television program, what happened during the pilot? Did someone new move in? Did someone lose their job? Have a wedding? Have a kid? Graduate? Get arrested? Would the storyline still work if the pilot was different?
Believable effects, makeup, costumes, lighting, scenery, etc. – technology is a part of onscreen fiction writing. New techniques are constantly being invented, as studios save money but also enhance believability. What happens if an older show or film gets new makeup and green screening? Does that help the story, or harm it?
Blaze Your Own Trail
For every exciting intellectual property out there, whether it’s books, films, YouTube videos, TV programs, or something else, it all started somewhere.
So what is your story? Who are your characters?
Who knows? Maybe someday someone will want to write fan fiction about your work.
Reviewing – Bad Reviews – lousy reviews are tough to write! However, you need to write the occasional less than wonderful review in order to establish and maintain credibility. Not every novel is a stellar one. Not every effort is perfect and pristine.
This blog post is about reviewing badly-written works. But if a work is out and out plagiarized, then have at it. That’s just plain wrong, and it may be copyright infringement.
Soothing Hurt Feelings and Maintaining the Relationship
Let’s face it. A less than glowing review is going to engender some hurt feelings. Plus there is every possibility a friendship will end over it. That’s not someone being a prima donna (at least, that isn’t necessarily the case). Rather, it’s that you just told someone their baby was ugly.
Yeah. It’s like that.
So, what do you do?
I believe one reasonable response is to essentially perform a cost-benefit analysis. Not everyone is a critic of any sort. Consider how hard it is to get your own work reviewed at all. It’s work! And people like to be pleasant, plus they want very much to be liked. They may be a part of the community and hoping for positive feedback in return. Or they might be friends or family. Hence we are all essentially graded on a curve. Know that going in.
One thing you can do is, delay and defer. Maybe that’s weasel behavior. But it will soften the blow if the negative review is not the first one anyone sees when researching a book. If someone already has 100 reviews, then it won’t be quite so noticeable. Of course, lots of indie writers never get that many reviews. But you might be able to delay a bit.
Another idea is to go fast. Detail and length are not your friends here, so make it quick.
Consider the Audience
I suggested this for middling reviews. But it holds true here as well. Who is likely to read your review? If the writers asks you to review on Amazon, then you are going to rather directly affect someone’s sales and potential sales. If you are being asked to review on an obscure book blog read by sixteen people, then the impact will not be as great. Plus you can initially post your negative review only on the obscure book blog. Once the writer sees the review, I doubt he or she will push for you to share it on Amazon, GoodReads, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, or iBooks.
Providing Constructive Criticism
While this is a good idea in theory, it’s not really what someone is looking for when they request a book review. Instead, rather than hearing that they should learn dialogue tags by checking out this Grammar Girl link, they want to read about how their book moved you.
However, you still might be able to slip in some constructive criticisms, and write things like I would love to see this book with shorter chapters; it might benefit from another round of edits or some strategic splitting. Or I was hoping for a less challenging mystery. This one was hard. You’re not damning with faint praise but you’re also not putting lipstick on things.
A Few Escape Hatches
Preface a bad review with some escape hatches which will help the writer. After all, you’re not there to trash them, right? Here are a few ideas:
I am not the intended audience for this work or genre. – If you’re over 50 and asked to review YA, you probably aren’t in the intended audience. Maybe younger folks would be big fans.
The work is unique. – Unless it’s plagiarized, this is honest and accurate.
It is a good freshman effort. – This is straying into the realm of damning with faint praise. But it’s not a horrible thing to write about a work. Most people are not going to do well with their first novel. And that’s okay.
I really liked this one thing and think you should have written a lot more of it. – Liked one of the supporting characters? Enchanted by the setting? Think the plot was a good idea but poorly realized? Then this is for you. Of course you are not rewriting the piece for the writer. But your suggestions might just become helpful plot bunnies for them for later. Maybe they really will write a sequel or prequel, or revisit the scene, or rework the plot in another piece.
Salvaging the Relationship by Privately Reviewing
You might be able to save things by privately telling someone – you don’t want me to post this review. There are review sites which will do this, and will often give the writer a choice. If a writer really wants reviews, they might be okay with a less than wonderful one.
You are presumably friendly or at least cordial with the writer. Give them a break and give them the option.
By the way, negative reviews can often help a new writer. Not only do they give the writer what could end up being really valuable feedback, they can even boost sales. For consumers considering taking a chance on a new, unknown author, a rash of 5-star super-perfect reviews can seem suspect. But a few poor reviews can give the whole thing more credibility,
How about Bad Reviews for Famous People?
If you only write 4- and 5-star reviews, then you are probably selling everyone short. Just like bad reviews can give a writer more credibility, they can also give the reviewer more credibility.
But if you don’t want to hurt your friends’ feelings, what do you do?
One idea is to review all sorts of books. Review classics where the writer is long dead. Or review popular works with hundreds or thousands of reviews where no one will notice your review much, anyway. Did you hate reading The Scarlet Letter? Then go ahead and trash it on any review site you can find.
It’s not like Nathaniel Hawthorne is going to rise from the grave and complain, right?
Reviewing – Middling Reviews – fair to middling reviews are harder to write. Because there is definitely a skill involved. But you are probably going to write more of them than any other type of review. Why? Because truly superlative works are uncommon.
As always, kindness should be your guide. The work isn’t out and out awful. It just needs some help. Mid-level reviews can be extremely helpful. They can provide valuable feedback for a new author. Because it is sweetened with praise and other positives, it is more palatable.
Consider the Audience
But who is most likely to read your review? If you review on Amazon, then anything you write is going to rather directly affect someone’s sales and potential sales. If you review on an obscure book blog read by only a few people, then the impact will not be as great. So what happens if you post your middle of the road review only on the obscure book blog? Once the writer sees the review, he or she might not want to push for you to share it on Amazon, GoodReads, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, or iBooks. Or maybe the author will want to see your review spread all over the internet. It’s hard to say. Your mid-level review may be the best one they get.
The value of middle of the line reviews
For a new author, potential buyers are often suspicious of 100% stellar reviews. Hence if the 5-star reviews are peppered with some 3-stars, then potential buyers tend to feel more comfortable that they are seeing accurate reviews that were not bought and paid for. Furthermore, if the author has enough reviews (the number seems to be ten or more), Amazon will sort them by most helpful positive and most helpful negative. If your middle of the road review is the most helpful negative review, that can actually help the writer.
So, how do you get started?
The Shit Sandwich
Yeah, you read that right. Since this is not going to be a wholly negative review, you can split it into thirds. This makes it feel less unremittingly negative. The first third should be the smallest or smaller positive thing you have to say. In the middle is the negative thing you need to say. Finally, end with your strongest positive.
But why am I suggesting this particular order? Let’s look at some examples.
Consider these examples
The Cowardly Lion character was fantastic and very credible. The Tin Woodsman was dull. Dorothy was okay.
The Dorothy character was all right but could have used some work. The Tin Woodsman was hard to take at times. My favorite character was the Cowardly Lion.
The Tin Woodsman was terrible. Dorothy was passable. The Cowardly Lion was amazing.
In the first example, you might think it’s a purely positive review. It’s easy to forget the negative in the middle when the positive starts off so strongly. In the third example, the writer is put on the defensive nearly immediately. The review feels negative, even though the end is positive.
Further, in the second instance, the first part is generally positive albeit with constructive criticism. The middle part is negative. But it gives a specific reason for the reviewer’s negative reaction. This is also something the writer could potentially build on and fix in later works. And the final part adds a positive personal touch.
Of course you would never write such a simplistic review. Plus you are reading this blog but you are not the author of The Wizard of Oz, so these quickie reviews are not personal to you. So substitute your own work, and consider how each review would make you feel.
Because this is not a negative review, you can add some length to it. But because it’s not unremittingly positive, it does not have to be lengthy. The ideal length is about 50 to 100 words. If you want to say more, contact the writer in private. For self-published works, editing and republishing are usually pretty easy. Hence if you find a glaring translation error, the writer can fix it. You can save the day with your review.
Ending on a High Note
End with a positive. Seriously. Don’t lie, but there is no reason to be nasty. Be encouraging; so many indies suffer self-doubt. This is your opportunity to be kind. After all, next time, you may be in the hot seat.
Reviewing – Positive Reviews – these are the lifeblood of any independent author. We live for them! But how can you make them even better?
Don’t provide a positive review in exchange for a positive one you just got. And don’t provide one in the hopes that you’ll get one in return. Personally, I very rarely give out five stars. A book has to truly leave me sock-free. I can enjoy a book immensely but still not give it five stars. However, I give out a lot of 3- and 4-star reviews, particularly to indie authors. And if my review is a positive one, I spread it to as many places as I can.
Just saying you loved a piece is not enough. It’s better than nothing, of course. But you, too, are a writer. You can do better than that! While you don’t have to hit an actual word count, it is more helpful if you give the review some time and attention. Naturally, if you are pressed for time or you have to do a lot of reviews, then you will not get into things like you would if your time was more open. Plus it does not have to be a novel. A 50 – 150 word review should do nicely, unless it is a blog post. In that case, best practices for blog posts is 300 or more words. So adjust accordingly.
Writers often get crippling self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is common. Generalized reviews don’t help much. Be clear about what you loved.
Scarlet O’Hara was a strong female character in a man’s world. What is most impressive about her is the fact that she was written in 1936. Hence Margaret Mitchell was almost revolutionary in writing her. While today we might scoff at some of Scarlet’s machinations, she still manages to be a memorable and memorably flawed character. Her motivations are clear and logical. Her endgame is satisfying.
While the author is no longer alive to read my praise, the paragraph still gets across my admiration for the work (I do, for real, like the book, although it’s not one of my absolute favorites). This is also a meatier review than just “It’s great!” The review does not just make the writer feel good; it also provides vital information for potential readers.
Please don’t give away the ending! My above review snippet about Gone With the Wind does not give away the ending. In fact, it gives away just about none of the plot at all. I would write a longer review (the above bit is really just a part of it) where I would probably mention the US Civil War and Rhett Butler. I might get into Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton, particularly if I were writing a blog post and needed to make word count.
Spread the Love
There are several online places which take reviews.
Amazon reviews most directly affect a writer’s sales and potential sales. If you provide positive reviews on an obscure book blog read by only a few people, then the impact will not be as great. You can also review on other countries’ versions of Amazon (UK, Canada, etc.), GoodReads, CreateSpace, Barnes & Noble, or iBooks.
Call to Action to Read the Author’s Other Works
A call to action is anything from ‘click here’ to ‘buy this’. It is a statement online whereby you are asking someone to do something. It does not have to feel like a hard sell. Instead, you can write things like:
This book was fun and I can’t wait to see what else the writer has written.
I hear there is a sequel and I can’t wait.
I checked out the writer’s Amazon page (provide the link) and they are blogging there. I’m excited to read what they have to say.