Category Archives: writing

Editing as whittling

PCC collage

We are getting rain. The painters stayed home today, but yesterday as I sat upstairs in my writing chair, a man worked on a ladder directly out the window. He chatted on his phone, Spanish providing him privacy since I don’t know a word. But how I worried about him, scaling the ladder with one hand, or gripping the phone with his neck and shoulder while balancing two stories up!

In today’s blessed quiet, I’ve been editing, determined to get my word count below 140,000. Deb would scoff and maybe my paid editor would too. But a lower word count would be more appealing to the average agent. Or so I’ve heard.

Couple years back — before Covid so it feels like another lifetime — Deb visited and invited me as a guest to a writer’s conference where she was the keynote speaker. Talk at the table turned to word count.

“For a debut author, anything over 90,000 is a no-no,” one writer said. Others agreed. (Deb’s speech was amazing BTW — part humor, part wise advice).

Well, I’m not gonna even get down to 120,000, but you have to admit that our minds respond differently to 141,800 than to 139,800.

And I did it! Gonna keep going because I have a new appreciation for where I can carve. Mostly I’ll go to the Eliza chapters because she thinks too much and can be flowery in her speech. Snip. Snip.

Query trenches redux

Send us the first five chapters of your manuscript. Send us the first 10,000 words. Send us the first three pages. Send us the first three chapters. Send us 100 pages.

Make your query letter sing. Write it in a tone consistent with your novel. Limit your query letter to a single page. Include a blurb, target audience, word count, comparable titles, and your special qualifications and publications. Limit your query to 750 words. Add a synopsis. Tell us outcomes in the synopsis. Don’t hold back, you can tell us the ending in your synopsis, but not in your blurb or your query. Make your synopsis 500 words. Make your synopsis 200 words. Make your synopsis 2000 characters. Make your synopsis fit within the box provided. Don’t get frustrated when you can’t edit within the box and we just cut off text that doesn’t fit. Don’t get frustrated when all your line breaks disappear in the box. Patiently re-insert them, and hope you catch them all.

Tell us who you are in ½ a paragraph.
Tell us your special qualifications, publications, and awards in a sentence. Don’t worry if you don’t have any. Make it colorful.

Be sure to capture font changes. You won’t know about this until you read back a sent-query and discover that the first paragraph is blue for some reason. You decide you like it blue and leave it for the next few letters but then, going forward, take the trouble to highlight all your text and select ‘black.’ Don’t get frustrated by this or by reinserting line breaks or by having to repeatedly cut and paste text in online submission forms.

Revise your novel’s beginning radically so that the first five chapters, 10,000 words, or three pages, actually reveal the overall tone and voice of your novel. Question yourself about re-querying one or two agents who only got third-person male chapters that provided backstory when the entire novel is first-person female, meaning they didn’t even sample the voice of the novel. Try not to hate yourself for not thinking this through more thoroughly two seasons ago.

Include your sample pages in the body of your email. We do not open attachments. Send your sample pages as a word doc. Make sure every page is numbered and has your name on it. Send your sample pages as a word doc but exclude all identifying information. Space it at 1.5. Double space it. Only use New Times Roman.

In the re line put your book’s title, your name, and the agent you’re querying. In the re line put your book’s title, its genre, and the agent you’re querying. Do not query more than one agent at a time.

If you don’t hear from us in 8 weeks, consider your manuscript rejected. If you don’t hear from us in 10 weeks, consider us uninterested. If you don’t hear from us in two seasons, you figure it out. If an agent dies or moves to another agency, you’ll have to subscribe to QueryTracker to find out. Subscribe to QueryTracker, the deluxe package, but also subscribe to Duotrope in case you like their screen better. Notice that 5% of the agents you want to query are not in either data base. Ignore their suggestions that you inform them.

Give us comparable titles and make sure they’re recent. Don’t list prize-winning books, be humble. List at least three but not more than five. Don’t worry if one of the books is also about your subject matter and still selling briskly on Amazon. Tell us why these novels are comparable but don’t let your query exceed one page. Don’t let your query letter exceed 700 words. Limit yourself to 2000 characters.

We have a reply rate of 58%. We have a reply rate of 8%. Of .7%.  We do not reply, generally.

Look at our recently published books to see if we’re a good fit. Be sure to do this even if the selected agent’s wish list lines up with yours. Try not to cringe when all the titles are romances, mysteries, or young adult which you have nothing against but do not fit with your novel.

Read the agency’s ‘about page’ Does it matter if they’re a new agency with up-to-date outlooks and methods or a well-established one with the credentials only time can provide? Boutique agencies say they can give authors special attention. Their reply rate is 8%. The agencies with offices in Denver, LA, New York, and London have a reply rate of 70%, 90% of those, rejections.

All agents have too much work to do. Most agents are underpaid. A significant number of agents are closed to submissions. Agents die and move to other agencies and agencies fold and you will have to find that out on your own.

They say they want compelling, inventive, unforgettable prose that tells a story highlighting marginalized people or forgotten histories. They say they want character-driven stories that also have a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want stories saturated with a sense of place, with complex characters but also with a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want historic fiction, but nothing before 1800, please. They say they want history fiction but will not read anything with sexual violence.

They like dark humor, quirky twists, complicated relationships, and a plot that drives like an engine. They say they want literary fiction that is also women’s fiction, that is also commercial upmarket fiction, that is also book group fiction, that is also historic fiction but nothing prior to 1800, please and don’t send anything with sexual violence. 

Try not to cry when every single braggy announcement on twitter about signing with an agent or getting a book deal involve witches, vampires, demons, and magic powers. Every. Single. One. Try not to get hung up on the prevalence of Young Adult and Middle Grade. Don’t consider rewriting your novel a fifth time so that is would appeal to readers aged 12 to 20.

Do not reply to an email acknowledging receipt of your query. If you get a rejection, do not reply. It is a courtesy and it is boilerplate. But do notice how the bleakness and overarching silence of the query trenches makes a little pop of pleasure burble up when you receive an agency email, even when it is a boilerplate rejection.

Also notice how the initial satisfaction at getting rejections and joining that club —  Hooray! – fades very fast and how you have to keep going and try not to cry when the next tweet announcing an agent contract or book deal is for young adults or features a queer maiden with magic powers who sells her soul to an archdemon.

Keep going but start thinking about when you will stop. Keep going and wonder why. Keep going and wish things were otherwise. Ignore people who tell you to write another novel like it’s taking a shit or unloading the dishwasher. Keep going and watch how the dread about self-publishing might morph into a slow accretion of resources.  


You are not your thoughts

Below is a prompt-response from last week. There was a line in a shared poem that was structured: “All of my __________s are ______________ing.”


All of  my thoughts are turning black, a black run through with quivering rust. An alive black, in other words, like a gleaming blob of paint or an oozing puddle of oil. Rust signaling metallic processes of age.

All of my thoughts sprout wings, but not to soar and gain drone-like perspective above tree-lined streets, car lights at night like traveling jewels. No, more like a statue of Mercury, whose sandals are cutely adorned with wings but who, being carved out of marble, is going exactly nowhere.

You could take a trip to Barcelona. You could call in a chit for Aspen. You might even consider Great Barrington, somewhere with wi-fi, somewhere hospitable to dogs. But no, bench and pillow, table, puzzle and cloud-cover — at last! — all conspire to keep you in place.

I watched a video about a table upgrade. Some guy started by pouring black paint in its center. The table was round; the paint in five gallon cans. Next, pea green, poured around the black center. Orange, white, more green, a band of black, and ending with a rim of white, he walked in circles, pouring paint. And then, I guess we were supposed to be impressed, he used a garden rake to perform a basic paper-marbling technique. He dragged the paint first one way, then at exactly right angles, the other way. The tines made furrows of color. Green flirted with white, orange intersected waves of black. Some sort of design. But that black center didn’t give way and the effect did not please in the end.

My thoughts are the black paint being run through by an amateur crafter overly pleased with himself, dragging little furrows of white and green into my darkness.

This morning, I refuse specifics. My friends do not and vary in their beliefs. One predicts a pardon, another shakes her head and gravely pronounces, “No consequences. There will be no consequences.” Some feisty part of me believes that someone is gonna nail the bastard. Orange run through with black.

Representation, espionage, a special master? Threats of riots. Lists so long and so classified, they cannot even be described in public. Quick! Someone speak to me of roses. How they vary — climbing, vining, shrubbed or miniature, fragrant or not, astonishing in their delicate feminine beauty. The tall Betty Priors that graced our lot line in the 90’s have long since perished, a struggling native magnolia in their place. This summer even the reliable hosta struggle and wilt.

Struggle and wilt, go my thoughts. Even the ones that were chlorophyll-informed. Looking to sun, subsisting on sun, not quite the opposite of black paint run through with rust, but almost.

Is it possible my thoughts are hiding from me — fey, mercurial, interruptive of ambition and sense? Maybe. But I think I’d feel more relief if that were so. Instead, a metal-tined garden rake is drug across my forehead, trying to turn darkness into a DYI design.

Monday — again?

Slept til 8:30. Walked Finny. Read poems by Charles Wright. Made a lunch designed to empty as many containers as possible: reheated pesto penne with cherry tomatoes, corn on the cob, the last wedge of cantelope, and for K, a heated up salmon burger with avocado and impromptu aioli.

So now I’m upstairs and already identified another agent I’d like to query (why do they all look like they’re 28 and, does it matter?). It’s an online form submission, which is tedious in the extreme. All those boxes to fill!

I’ve written a query letter and a synopsis by now. I’ve assembled the requisite comparable titles. But I still struggle with bio (I like dogs?) and blurb (aka elevator pitch). How do I say what my novel is about in three sentences? It gets me every time.

It was an unusually busy weekend. Hallelujah for that! We went to Boston’s MFA on Friday to see the Philip Guston show that Maggie mentioned on Instagram. More later?

And last night we had a nice dinner on the North Shore with fireworks as an unexpected finale.
PCC prompt is a barn this week

Pause without intending

It’s been hot. Very hot. I’ve been walking Finn early and late to avoid the worst of it. I’m even watering the trees at this point.

My writing workshop resumes next week and so I am collecting prompts, cleaning my work area, and thinking about the writers who will hopefully be showing up. I ordered a few books in anticipation as well.

Not shown: Peter Elbow’s WRITING WITH POWER
Paris Collage Collective visual prompt plus quilt with writing and more. Used dianaphoto app

I hope I get back in the blogging grove soon, but it doesn’t seem to be today. (I meant to say “groove,” but I like the idea of a blogging grove!)

The above collage was produced digitally, then printed out, and marked with white and regular pencils. I am excited about this. Maybe I’m excited about this all out of proportion to the technique, but it feels like a new direction, one that might yield unexpected and interesting results.