Deep down I have always felt that I should be writing. That I was meant to be a writer. But for myriad reasons, I never pursued it. Fear of failure, lack of confidence, and feeling that I didn’t have the time were all things that prevented me from pursuing writing.
Fear was probably the biggest factor stopping me. If you have the dream of being a writer and you go for it and fail, THEN what do you have? You don’t even have the DREAM to cling to anymore. One thing I have learned is that “talent” is an overrated concept. Most successful people have become successful by working hard at their craft, developing their skills, and devoting time and attention to the process. For most of us, writing is no different. You may have a natural writing talent, but that doesn’t mean you can skip the steps of learning, practicing and revising. I’m trying to say that you will probably have to experience failure several times before you learn the process thoroughly enough to do it well. As for me? I'm still learning. But by putting imperfect work out there, I'm moving past the fear and getting great feedback for improving my skills.
Several years ago, I hired a life coach. When my interest in writing came up, my coach gave me a “homework assignment” to sign up for a writing class--any kind. The point was to take a step forward. I came back the next week and confessed that I hadn’t signed up for any classes. But, I told her, a brochure offering writing classes had come in the mail and only one of the classes would be feasible with my work schedule. But it was a novel-writing class, so I couldn’t sign up for it. She asked why not and all I could think to say was “I can’t write a novel.” To which she replied “Why not? How do you know you can’t write a novel? Have you tried? I haven’t known you long, but I think you could write a novel.” So I left with instructions to sign up for a writing class—it didn’t have to be the novel writing class. I did end up taking that class and I wrote a novel that year. It wasn’t a good novel, but I got the words on paper and I thought up the concept, developed the plot, sketched out the character traits, and wrote the dialogue. She was right: I could write a novel. To this day I am amazed by the huge impact the confidence of one stranger could have on my self-confidence. Was that what I had been waiting for my whole life? Permission? A vote of confidence? It’s crazy when I think about it.
I have always worked full time and it never felt like I had enough free time to dedicate to writing. But when I took that novel writing class, I was working on a large project at work and also acting as property manager for a duplex. I think the writing class was like a vacation for me. It was “me” time. I only wrote one scene a week. I felt obligated to write something every week because I didn’t want to show up for class with nothing to read aloud. The class held me accountable. I didn’t want to let anyone down. For many years I was a high school teacher. In all those years, with my summers off, I couldn’t motivate myself to finally dedicate some time to writing. If I had just signed up for a writing class! The point I’m trying to make is that you make time to do the things you really want to do. And all the time in the world won’t motivate you to do something that you don’t want to do or are afraid of trying.
A little over a year ago during the Christmas season, I heard “A Cup of Christmas Tea” on the radio. My first thought was that I could do that too. Rhyming is always something I have enjoyed doing, but I had never attempted to write a story that way. The next thing I thought about was how much I used to enjoy the Dr. Seuss books of my youth. The stories were so clever and entertaining. So I attempted to write my first rhyming story. A Christmas story for children. It was terrible, but it did rhyme. I revised and rewrote many times before I got it to a point where I felt I could show it to others and get their honest feedback.
So that’s how I got to this point. A few words of inspiration and a commitment to a class full of other aspiring writers…and I finally got moving. I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing, but I can see progress in my work and it feels good. I am so glad I made the leap and finally tried something I have always wanted to try. I may never make any money at it or become a known author, but there’s only one way to find out, so I’m going for it.
I hope you found this story inspirational. Maybe this is the catalyst you or someone you know needs to get going on something. If so, I wish you the best of luck on your journey!
Today's poem was written in honor of the late Dr. Seuss's birthday, March 2nd. The Washington Post asked readers to write something Seuss-esque with current headlines as the theme. Check it out on the Silly Poem page.
My query letter is a work in progress. I believe it is improving with each rewrite, but the stack of rejection letters on my desk might challenge that belief. Here are my thoughts after gathering information about queries from several online sources.
Paragraph 1: Explain how you know the agent exists. This helps separate you from the form letters and it creates the expectation that you know something about the agent. Examples: “I met you at the recent SCBWI conference in New York”. Perhaps you saw the agent speak, listened to their podcast, read their blog. Maybe you follow them on twitter/ facebook, you have read an interview with them, you read an article they wrote, or you are a big fan of so-and-so author who happens to be their client. If you have no connection to the agent, start researching on the internet to find some common ground.
Paragraph 2: Give your pitch. Examples: “When Dean finds himself trapped beneath the streets of Manhattan, he must find a way to escape and get to his wedding before his nervous bride thinks he has gotten cold feet. This 80,000 word novel would be found on the bookshelves near [other titles in the same genre].” The pitch paragraph should read like a jacket cover and is intended to entice the agent into reading (or requesting) a synopsis or manuscript from you. If the pitch is long, you can put additional info, i.e. word count and genre, in a separate paragraph.
Paragraph 3: If you have written additional books, you may state that so the agent knows investing time and effort into working with you won’t just result in a one-book deal. But don’t pitch the additional books, just give the basic info and mention whether it is intended to be a series. You may also mention marketing plans, platform information or products that go hand-in-hand with your book if this information is well-developed.
Paragraph 4: Summarize your biographical information. Have you been published? Give details. If not? Write an article for your local paper and get published. Write an article for an internet site. Submit a story or article to a magazine. Do you have a writing degree or have you taken writing classes? Mention them. You don’t need to go into detail about this. Do you belong to critique groups or writing organizations? Have you attended conferences? Do you have a skill or profession that makes you uniquely qualified to write this story? If so, mention it.
Para 5: Close with a note about whether the submission is simultaneous. If you have enclosed/embedded something like a synopsis, mention that here. Be sure to thank the agent for their time.
Keep every paragraph short. Make sure to go to the agent’s website and look for info about what they expect in a query letter. Based on this you may be able to exclude some of the paragraphs noted above. Also check the agent’s website to see if they accept unsolicited queries and simultaneous submissions. Make your pitch as compelling as possible. Don’t try to characterize the writing using words like creative, beautiful, interesting, hilarious or anything else that sounds like a book reviewer’s comments. Just give the story line and then rewrite it until it sounds like a jacket cover. It might help to go read some jacket covers. Don’t say “this is the next Harry Potter” or compare your book in that way to another book. It sounds very “sales-y” and ultimately it is up to the agent to decide if you are the next Harry Potter. If you don’t have a very impressive bio, then don’t write much or skip that paragraph altogether. There’s no need to fill up all the blank space. And remember, the whole point of the query is to pique the interest of the agent. Don’t try to give too much information. Less is better in the case of a query letter.
Good Luck!! And be sure to drop me a note if you find this advice helpful!
1. Join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of cool info and it’s so nice to be able to connect with other people who are in the same situation.
2. Join Writer’s Digest. They offer a lot of stuff, like writing courses, critiques, webinars, etc.
3. Join CBI Clubhouse. This may possibly be the most concise source of children’s writing information I have found. And they’re starting email critique groups (I don’t totally understand how that’s going to work yet, but I’ll keep you posted.)
4. Start a Twitter account. I don’t tweet much yet, but I follow tons of literary agents, publishers and other authors. It gives me a CLUE about what’s happening in the world of publishing and these professionals tweet links to fantastic articles about writing and querying all the time. But it’s even better than that- there are blog chats in which you can participate. And professionals will answer your questions…for free!! It’s almost too good to be true.
5. Join a critique group. I now belong to several. Once I got past the need to “defend” my work, I opened myself up to a zillion helpful suggestions. (Yes, that’s “zillion” with a “z”.) Stacy, Barb, Zenith and Sharon: your input on my work has been priceless!
6. Research. I started spending hours at the library and book store studying stories similar to mine. I’d look for one thing. Then I’d ask myself a different question and look through all the books again. The next time I go to Barnes and Noble, they’re probably going to make me buy something. (Usually I just buy those yummy Godiva chocolates at the check-out counter.)
7. Enter some writing contests. My first work didn’t fit neatly into one genre, so the experience was rather painful. Initially the negative comments will really hit home and the positive ones will repel off like water on scotch-guarded fabric. But later, you’ll be ready to believe the good stuff too.
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One thing most people don't know about me is that I have something called spasmodic dysphonia. It's a voice disorder. I get botox injections in my larynx to help me keep a smooth speaking voice.