ClexaCon 2018 -- On My Way!

Me? 

Waiting for my third flight in less than 24 hours?

More likely than you think. Why?

BOOK TOUR!!!!

 My April book tour events! San Diego (Mysterious Galaxy Books, April 2nd at 7:00pm) -- Oakland (Laurel Book Store, April 4th, 6:30pm) -- Las Vegas (Clexa Con, April 6th-8th).

My April book tour events! San Diego (Mysterious Galaxy Books, April 2nd at 7:00pm) -- Oakland (Laurel Book Store, April 4th, 6:30pm) -- Las Vegas (Clexa Con, April 6th-8th).

This book tour has been incredible. I'll write more about it on the flip side -- I'm excited to share stories and videos (including me driving a remote control BB8 around my friend's living room floor -- it was amazing) and things I've learned with you!

But for now, a little bit of what's next: CLEXACON!!!!

First up, the panel on mental health and poor queer representation in the media! I'm so honored to be joining the brilliant folks I'll be joining, including one of my favorite authors, CB Lee!  

  from the ClexaCon site: Poor Queer Representation in the Media and How it Affects Mental Health   We love our queer characters. We see ourselves in them, we empathise with their lives. With the limited representation we have on screen, it is inevitable that we bond on a deep, emotional level with these characters. When they are happy, we are. But when they are, frequently, put through one harrowing event after another, it can affect the viewer deeper than we may realize. Explore the ties between Queer representation in the media and how it affects mental health.  Panelists: Zara Barrie, Nikki Daurio, CB Lee, Jenn Polish, Annie Segarra, Eden Trevino

from the ClexaCon site: Poor Queer Representation in the Media and How it Affects Mental Health

We love our queer characters. We see ourselves in them, we empathise with their lives. With the limited representation we have on screen, it is inevitable that we bond on a deep, emotional level with these characters. When they are happy, we are. But when they are, frequently, put through one harrowing event after another, it can affect the viewer deeper than we may realize. Explore the ties between Queer representation in the media and how it affects mental health.

Panelists: Zara Barrie, Nikki Daurio, CB Lee, Jenn Polish, Annie Segarra, Eden Trevino

Next up, also on Friday in the Sylvia Rivera Room, but this time at 6:00pm, the Sapphic Fan Fiction panel!! It shall be amazing and comb through the different reasons we write wlw fan fic, how it's changed us, and how it heals us.

When I'm not on my panels, you can catch me at Booth 405, where I'll be selling and signing my books and LUNAV merch by the incredible @solaert!!!

I cannot wait -- see you there! And, if you can't be there in person, don't worry: there will be videos and photos and remember -- you aren't alone and you are so loved, wherever you are right now! 

My Launch Event is Finally Here!!!

On Thursday, March 22nd from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, we will have a literary celebration – complete with snacks and drinks (and, I’ve been told, some glitter!) – at Books of Wonder in NYC, the same children’s bookstore where I proposed to my lovely fiancée!

 LUNAV cover: two young Black women's faces (the boyish woman looking down and away, Sadie, is on the left; the femmey woman looking directly at the viewer, Evelyn, is on the right) are studded with stars, just above the title (LUNAV) and author's name (Jenn Polish), with stars also glowing all around a dragon tree named Jorbam.

LUNAV cover: two young Black women's faces (the boyish woman looking down and away, Sadie, is on the left; the femmey woman looking directly at the viewer, Evelyn, is on the right) are studded with stars, just above the title (LUNAV) and author's name (Jenn Polish), with stars also glowing all around a dragon tree named Jorbam.

I will be in conversation with my favorite writer and friend Marcos S. Gonsalez, who’s represented by Lauren Abramo, VP of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret literary agency.

Come for the conversation (and noms) and leave as the first people to read LUNAV: it doesn’t come out until March 26th, so those in attendance will be the first to crack open the pages of Sadie’s dragon-filled world!

Another bonus: with every purchase of LUNAV, attendees will receive a free digital copy of LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, my queer sci-fi retelling of Peter Pan!

 LOST BOY, FOUND BOY cover: a pixelated ocean with a green island in the background; a matrix projects through the cloudy sky.

LOST BOY, FOUND BOY cover: a pixelated ocean with a green island in the background; a matrix projects through the cloudy sky.

For those of you in NYC, the details are as follows:

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018, 6:00pm-8:00pm

Books of Wonder (@booksofwonder) 18 W 18th St, New York, NY 10011

Free snacks and drinks available! 

For those of you who aren’t around the city, you can pre-order LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY right now!

Either way, I’ll meet you in Lunav, in Neverland; somewhere in the pages!

3 Secret Weapons for When Your Plot Hates You

Writing LUNAV took me about three years, give or take: that time frame includes at least five full rewrites. 

Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY -- which is literally a fourth the length of LUNAV -- took me a full year, most of which was time during which it just sat, partially done, in my notebook, antagonizing me.

The plot for LOST BOY, FOUND BOY hated my guts. Hardcore.

With LUNAV, I wrote chaotically. I wrote scene after disconnected scene, and then -- hence all the rewriting -- figured out what shape my plot wanted to take and wove them together.

With LOST BOY, scenes wouldn't come to me. I knew where I wanted to go, plotwise. I knew the elements I wanted to include. I knew what Peter's main emotional journey was going to be, I knew the subplots. I knew how the lesbians were going to fall in love. I knew everything about the damn thing.

Except I couldn't, for the life of me, write it.

Because the plot hated my guts.

But I had secret weapons. Granted, it took me a year to figure them out, but when I did? 

Score one for Jenn, score zero for that pesky plot.

What were my secret weapons, you might ask? Read on, dear reader. Read on.

1. Call a Truce (aka, take a break)

As writers, we often feel like we've failed when we take a break from our characters, our worlds. We feel like we're letting someone -- or the entire world -- down. We feel like not writing means we're not worth it as people.

But you are -- we are -- worth it, even when we're not writing, I promise.

Given that we often feel those things, though, it's tempting -- and I tried to do this so many times -- to say "oh look, I gave it a break: I didn't think about or look at my draft all weekend." And good try, but... no.

Gotta be longer than that. 

To really cleanse our minds, we've gotta turn to different projects: and sometimes, those projects are best not being writing at all. For me, it's the gym (it's always the gym, for me). It's also fan fiction (lots and lots of fan fiction).

I put LOST BOY down for, oh... eight months? I had no choice. I kept trying to force it, and the more I tried, the worse it got. 

I only came back to it when...

2. Talk it Out (with a reader, not a writer)

For me, a friend who's not a writer was actually most helpful. That's not a knock on my wonderful writer friends! It's just... the friend who isn't a writer listened to me moaning about LOST BOY, and the fix was pretty immediate.

She tilted her head and pursed her lips and said the most obvious thing in the world: obvious to her as a potential reader, not as a fellow writer empathizing with my pain about pacing and point of view and other such plot agonies.

As a potential reader, she shrugged her shoulders and made a passing statement that not only transformed and clarified how I was thinking about the project, but that also renewed my passion to dive back into a project that had been causing me so much emotional grief.

Suddenly, the project was new again; suddenly, I liked it again. Don't underestimate the power of liking what you're working on. It's so important, every time.

And, for those of you who're wondering: all she said was, "okay, so Tink is the computer." And... it all went from there.

3. Set a Liveline (get it?)

A liveline for yourself, you know... a deadline, except without... death.

Seriously, though: for me, telling my editor (or someone else to whom you feel accountable) that I was working on this project and could send it to him by xx date really lit a fire under me. And, because I'd set the date myself, it was something that I felt in control of, something that I was excited for. 

Saying to myself, "okay, you've marinated on this project for almost a year now; you've had a truly transformative conversation about it (in addition to a lot of non-transformative conversations about it!), and now you're excited about it again. Great! So... finish it by this date."

For me, it was invigorating and exactly what I needed.

You might notice that very little of this was about the plot itself. And that's intentional. So much of writing is in our own minds, in our own senses of self-worth; in our own feelings. Yes, it's a craft, and there are lots of craft-oriented strategies -- storyboarding comes to mind, as I've written about on here before -- but there's something about addressing our emotions as writers that, to me, is extremely helpful in the actual writing process. 

What about you? How do you get through when your plot hates you?

Everyone's Writing is Better than Mine

"I want to write, but everyone's writing is better than mine, so why should I bother?"

"I have this fan fiction/novel/short story all written, but I don't want to share it with anyone because I know it's terrible."

"I started to write something, but I can't keep going because it's just so bad that it feels pointless."

I hear variations of these statements all the time, whether from students or readers or friends. Heck, I say variations of these statements all the time myself.

And when I think about what to say to people who say this to me, who ask me what to do about it, two things occur to me:

(1) When we tell this to other people, often what we're looking for is simple: validation. A refutation of our statement. When we say "everyone's writing is better than mine," we often want the person we're talking to to say, "no, don't be silly, your writing is great!" 

And we deserve that validation, that support, that encouragement to keep going even when we get down on ourselves, even when things feel bleak. We all deserve that, whether it's about writing or anything else in life.

But that leads me to my second thought:

(2) Who are we competing with, anyway? Yes, there are people in the world who write so much better than we do. There are people in the world who don't write as well as we do, or who don't write at all. That's okay! There's always going to be difference in writing styles and opinions of what makes something "good," anyway.

Not to mention: there are books published by big five presses that are just so bad!!! Especially when they're put up against so many works of fan fiction that people, often young people, toil over for hours and hours and hours, with no financial reward and no recognition from publishing houses.

Because here's the thing: whether you're a highly successful published author or you write fan fiction in the dead of night, or you just dream of one day getting your ideas out on paper, you're going to think other people's writing is better than yours. And that's good! It helps us learn, it makes reading pleasurable, and it gives us something to strive for.

For me, this dilemma takes me to the gym.

When I watch people lifting more than me, banging out pull ups and variations thereof that I am nowhere near being able to do, I have to keep one thing in my mind: yet, yet, yet, yet. 

I can't lift that much yet.

I can't do those pull ups yet.

It doesn't mean I should stop working out because people are at different stages of their training than I am, because I admire other people's power and strength. It means that I can learn new things from watching how other people train; I can incorporate different techniques into my own regiments; and it means I can make more specific goals based on what I want for myself.

Because everyone wants different things for themselves, in writing and in gymming (and, you know... in life). 

I'm good in the gym. I work hard, I play hard, and I'm devoted to my own personal goals.

I'm (and this is harder for me to say) good at writing. I work hard, I play hard, and I'm devoted to my own personal goals.

Significantly, I'm gentle with myself on both fronts. Self-care and recovery are just as important to my gym and writing routines as my actual training and writing times are.

So, everyone's writing might be better than mine. And some days, that makes me internalize things like "I'm terrible" and therefore "I'm worthless," and whooooo, there goes my depression spiral. 

But what's important for me -- and might be for you, too! -- is to try and remember that we're all, always, practicing. We're all, always, growing. 

The world needs your voice. If it's not where you want it to be yet, surround yourself with people who support you, who validate you: who remind you that it's okay to not be everything you want to be right now, because you'll get there. Keep going. Keep writing, keep training. Keep loving yourself.

You've got this! And you know what? So do I.

Even when your writing is better than mine.

5 Things You Need to Know about your Characters (That You’ll Probably Never Tell Your Readers)

So, it's the new year.

And you've promised yourself you're going to finish that novel, flesh out that short story, develop that video game... except your characters seem to hate you. They won't tell you about their lives and even if you have the best idea for a plot, they keep shrugging their shoulders in the ultimate expression of meh.

 Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Oscar Issac, wearing a blue button down and a black jacket, answering an interview question by raising his hand in the air and saying "meh." Gif from https://cdn-enterprise.discourse.org/tnation/uploads/default/original/3X/4/1/411c1cd1fc04964cb6712fd84b5b65f833f3974e.gif

Except you really need them to work with you. You really do. 

So you keep trying to force them to muddle through the plot you have planned, or you keep trying to cajole them into revealing where they want to go and who they want to have a torrid love affair with next.

I've been there. Trust me. I know. Writing LOST BOY, FOUND BOY was a year-long exercise in, "seriously, Peter? Talk to me, man. Tink? What about you? No? Why? Why do my characters all hate me.

If you're anything like me, you might want to take a break from your actual narrative at this point and spend some time getting to know your characters better. Chances are, once you do, they'll help you bust through any plot devices you're having trouble with, because they'll be that much more multi-dimensional.

So, without further ado: 5 things you need to know about your characters (that you'll probably never even tell your readers: not explicitly, anyway).

1. What do they want in this scene? 

Yes. In every. Single. Scene. 

What do they want? Why do they want it?

Clear answers.

In every. Single. Scene.

It's okay if your character doesn't know: hell, we often don't know what we want, or why we want it, in the scenes of our everyday lives. But as the author, you should.

2. What Hogwarts House are they in?

And be careful, here. Hogwarts Houses are always super interesting to me: the only reason Harry wasn't in Slytherin, remember, is because he chose not to be. You can choose, at the tender age of 11. 

So, the question gets more complicated: would the House you think your character would be in now be different than what it would have been or will be when they're eleven? Why? What changed? What stayed the same?

Not a Harry Potter person? No judgment (mostly). The basics here are about knowing what qualities your characters value in themselves and what they value in other people. Does your character think it's better to be kind or to be correct? To have lots of friends or to have a small handful of intimate chosen family? To be on the front lines or in the background? Where are the complexities? The 'yes ands'? The conflicts of values? 

This is where your characters get rich in development.

3. What do they do in their down time?

In book cultures of chosen ones and plucky teens saving the world, we often forget the mundane, the "boring", the "oh my Rao I just want to go home and sleep."

Forget what they need to do to survive, for a moment: what do your characters do to thrive?

Or, what would they do if they weren't wrapped up in whatever intensive plot you have lined up for them?

4. Why do they like (or dislike) x person?

We love chemistry in our books, don't we? Two characters meet eyes across the room, and bam. An OTP is born.

And I'm all for that. I'm all about that.

But what sparks that chemistry (or the hatred, or the ambivalence, etc.) between two characters? What, indeed, keeps it going (or not)?

Sometimes, my favorite questions about my characters are the simplest ones. Someone asked me the other day, "What does Evelyn like the most about Sadie?" And I had to scratch my head and think about it for a hot minute. Hell, I'm still thinking about it. 

Because it was a beautiful question. And I can write an entire prequel and/or sequel as an answer to it. Make sure those things shine through, even if you're not writing about them explicitly. 

5. What is x's relationship with y?

What I mean by that is this: imagine a scene with four characters in it. Let's choose mine, for funsies. Sadie, Evelyn, Zaylam, and Jorbam.

Sadie and Evelyn are dating each other (or at least, they want to; even if they won't admit it yet). Zaylam, Sadie, and Jorbam are hatchling mates who grew up together.

And, Sadie is the POV character.

Great.

But.

What about how Jorbam and Evelyn interact? Jorbam and Zaylam, when Sadie isn't there? Evelyn and Zaylam? The three of them, without Sadie? 

Fleshing out relationships between multiple characters, in multiple combinations -- even if you don't give a massive amount of tangible detail to your readers about these "side" relationships -- is extremely, extremely important, and it makes for a much richer narrative. 

My favorite scene in all of the Harry Potter series, for example, is a small one, an almost insignificant one, in THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE. Ginny is sitting on the floor in the common room, reading a newspaper with her back against Harry's knees. Some of her brothers are there, too, playing wizards' chess. They're all teasing each other and having side conversations with each other and something about Harry having a hipogriff tattoo. They're all doing their own things: but they're doing it, intimately, together. It warms my heart, every time.

Similarly, my favorite scenes in Grey's Anatomy are ensemble scenes: I love the relationships that aren't the main focus of the show. Alex and Cristina. George and Cristina. (I just really love Cristina, okay?) Burke and Alex. 

So, like in HARRY POTTER, one of my favorite Grey's scenes is a really basic one. An ensemble scene, where they're all studying for their boards, and they're all having side conversations and little nervous and excited mannerisms. They're all living their own, full, independent lives, and you can tell from how they're all doing their own thing: but they're doing it together.

It's those little things -- those tiny interactions between characters whose relationships aren't what the story is about -- that can make or break rich worlds and sweeping plots.

Build them out, even if it's just in your own notebook or google doc of character files. 

It'll show up in your writing. I promise.

Pro tip: these questions are especially important for characters who aren't your POV (point of view) characters. Make sure you're always, always, always thinking about the motivations and backgrounds of your "side" characters and love interests. Even if you don't go out of your way to explicitly tell your readers about it: trust me. They'll know.

And your stories will be all the richer for it.

I Wrote my First Book: Now What?

Oh, the world of tumblr, where I get many beautiful questions from many beautiful people. Recently, a wonderful anon asked:

Hi, I'm an unpublished writer but with a finished book. What would your advice be to me? Should I send my book to any and all agencies and publishers, or be picky?


A great question! And first of all, congratulations!!!! You’ve written a book: that’s a huge, huge accomplishment, published or not! So, the first piece of advice? Celebrate yourself :D

 A brown-haired white man wearing a collared shirt and a grin shifts from one foot to the other, turning his head as he asks, "Can we just take a moment to celebrate me?" Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/dc46ef65b42a7061ea7871cf18147380/tenor.gif

A brown-haired white man wearing a collared shirt and a grin shifts from one foot to the other, turning his head as he asks, "Can we just take a moment to celebrate me?" Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/dc46ef65b42a7061ea7871cf18147380/tenor.gif

^^ You. Celebrate you.

And, in addition to all the celebrating, make sure that your book is ready for querying: I rewrote mine I think 5 full times before I got my deal with @ninestarpress. There’s no formula, of course, but the step after you write, a lot of times, is not to query, but to rewrite. 

And if you decide you’re ready to get down to business – because publishing, remember, is a business! – to answer the question the way you asked it is, be picky, picky, picky. The last thing you want to do is to submit to agents and/or publishers who aren’t looking for your kind of work/send a form “dear sir/madam” letter to everyone. The publishing world is small, and people have long memories!

And don’t only be picky: remember that there is a process to this whole thing, involving query letters and partials and all that. Really, it takes a lot of research.

I wrote a lot in this post about the process of writing a query letter, and I hope it’s helpful (if you have follow up questions, feel free to ask!). But for the purposes of your question specifically, I want to focus for a more on the process of actually selecting agents who would be a good fit for you.

Though I do discuss the importance of research, research, research in this piece, I want to draw back for a moment to agent selection. Because getting an agent is often (but not always) the key to getting published. At most agencies, you’ll be prompted by the submission guidelines on their website to only query one agent at a time (or one agent, ever). So you’ve got to chose who that is very, very carefully (again with the research). You don’t only want to investigate what kinds of books the agency tends to get signed; you also want to look into the books the particular agent that you’re querying has signed, and what they’re currently looking for (assuming they’re accepting unsolicited queries).

Often, the key is to query a few select folks at a time: maybe 5-10 per batch. Wait the requisite amount of time (different agents/agencies will say things like ‘consider no response after x amount of a time a pass’, or ‘send a gentle reminder about your query if you hear nothing after x amount of time’) before sending new letters to a new batch of agents. If you get no “bites” the first time around – no requests to read more of your full or partial manuscript – that doesn’t mean give up! It means you’re a writer now! 

It also might mean that it’s time to tweak your query letter. That’s one of the main reasons it’s a rule of thumb to only send to a few agents at a time. Sometimes silence speaks volumes, and you might want to adjust your query letter. It’s frustrating, because theoretically by that point you’ve already written and rewritten it ad nauseum, but a query letter redesign can often mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful pitch!

And keep going. Don’t give up!

As for querying publishers, most larger publishing companies won’t accept unsolicited and/or unagented manuscripts. However, there are many smaller presses – like mine! – that do accept, and in fact actively seek, unsolicited and unagented manuscripts. If you think this is the route for you, just be mindful that your submission is appropriate for what the press is looking for, and that you follow whatever submission guidelines they have to the letter. This includes the ever-dreaded rule against simultaneous submissions: if a publisher doesn’t accept simultaneous submissions and you choose to submit your work to them, it means you can’t submit anywhere else until their response time passes. 

That can be truly scary – trust me, I know – but it can also pay off, big time (trust me, I know that, too).

I’m sending you lots of support and luck, my dear: don’t give up, and feel free to reach back out and keep me up to date on your progress!!

J

Writing with Depression: Getting it Down when You're Down

Over on my tumblr, a brave and wonderful Anon asked: 

"ya girl wants to write but my depressed ass can't commit to a prompt/find the motivation to actually get anything down"


Hey dear – yep, this is super hard. Definitely something that I struggle with: I’m so sorry you’re going through it, too. It’s both comforting and not to know that a lot of people are in the same proverbial boat as we are: one of my best friends and I call it the struggle bus. So… welcome? We have snacks ;)

On a more logistical note, remember – and I know I’m always saying this, but I’m always saying it because it’s true – that you are always worth more than the sum of your “productivity”/how much/how well you write/do anything. I always remind people of this because I struggle with that tremendously myself: if I haven’t written anything today, was I a waste of life today? My answer is probably going to be yes, at which point I start the classic downward spiral: I was depressed, so I didn’t write, and I didn’t write, so I’m beating myself up, so I’m more depressed… And now I feel like Yoda.

 Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Yoda from Star Wars, sitting in light brown robes on a red chair, saying, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Gif from https://media.tenor.com/images/caa3cd4450d22befb16e3976e4fd7535/tenor.gif

Recently, I’ve been crawling out of my downward spirals more and more effectively: it’s something I’ve been working on for years, and will probably continue to work on forever, because we never stop growing and learning. 

The beautiful thing about writing, though? You said you can’t commit to a prompt: thing is, to start, you don’t have to! Sometimes, for me, it’s about forcing myself to get through that first sentence. When I do, the rest often flows. When it doesn’t, hey! I’ve written a sentence. If you haven’t got the motivation/aren’t feeling up to pressing forward, that’s alright: you’ve written a sentence. That is wonderful, truly. The only place to build is up, and you will!

One of my students that I worked very closely with on his writing once approached me with a similar question as you. He wound up writing a series of very short (I’m talking 4-5 sentences, sometimes even one sentence or a few words) drabbles that came to his mind at random intervals, and you know what? They were spectacular. They were short – short, because he was too depressed at the time to work on anything longer – but they gave us so much to talk about, and after a few months, they wound up serving as a basis for him to start a much longer story. The story was stirring around in his bones, and he couldn’t not write it. It was beautiful to experience with him, and very humbling.

For him, being held accountable to a person who was unconditionally supportive of him was important: he wanted me to hold him accountable without getting angry with him if he didn’t generate something new one week (and of course I’d never be angry at him for that!). Because that was his preference, we started a writing exchange: each week, we’d scroll through prompts that either made us laugh, or think, or cry. We settled on a few, and agreed that the next week, we’d meet back and share our writing. Sometimes, he didn’t have his. Other times, he had brilliant, long pieces. Other times, he had very, very short pieces, also brilliant. Each time, though, we learned something about each other’s writing processes, and that time and space was invaluable.

I guess my point is, for me – as well as for many of my students, this one in particular – having a writing buddy who supports you unconditionally, both as a person and as a writer, can be so important. This summer, I dragged myself to the library nearly every day with one of my best friends so we could work on our dissertations together. His presence was comforting, even and especially when I was too depressed to actually carry on a conversation. It helped me get the first draft of my dissertation done, even through an intense spell of depression: I don’t know how I would have done it without him!

Of course, the kinds of community-oriented things I’ve talked about here might not work for you. That’s okay! That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless! What works for some people doesn’t work for others, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever you find starts to work for you, please try to never shame yourself for not writing, or for not writing “well enough”; never give up on your goals, even when you have to take them in itty-bitty steps (there’s nothing wrong with itty-bitty steps!); and please feel free to reach out with more important questions like this.

I believe in you: you got this!!!!

J

Writing Your First Query Letter? 4 Tips & the Letter That Got Me Published

Over on tumblr, a wonderful human asked:

"Does anybody have any tips or examples for writing a query letter pls help

(I’m looking at you @jpolish-writes-queer-ya-fantasy)"


Hi there @smellbig -- thank you for such an important question! And it just so happens that I do!

Now, before I dive in, you should know that there are a lot of fabulous query letter resources out there. A quick search will find lots of amazing resources, and I encourage you to dive into that, with specifications for your genre. That said, a few general query letter tips:

1. Research, Research, Research

Have I mentioned research? 

For each and every agent you submit to -- yes, every one -- you should be reading way, way more than you will ever write in your query letter.

First and foremost, you want to make sure that the agent you’re querying (a) works on your age range and genre; (b) is accepting unsolicited submissions; (c) seems like they’re a good fit for you and your novel.

What does a good fit mean? Well, check their Twitter if they have one, and Manuscript Wishlist (#mswl). And that’s the easy part. 

Because then you should dive into interviews with that agent. These are crucial; I will tell you below, for example, that it’s often important to tell the agent briefly why you’re querying them before diving into it. Some agents, though? They will say in interviews that they don’t want personal flourishes or an explanation, they just want to hear about your book. Many interviews will explicitly ask what agents like to read in their query letters, and what they don’t. Those are always super helpful.

More importantly, though, interviews will tell you more about what the agent’s style is; what kinds of books they’ve sold in the past; what they’re looking for moving forward. Remember that you’re looking to get your book represented, sure, but you’re also looking to form a relationship: so this kind of information is very important.

2. Make Yourself a Database

Okay, this isn’t about writing the letter exactly, but before you do, please keep track of it! Make yourself a spreadsheet with name, agency, email, relevant links, notes about why you want to work with them, specifications they/their agency have for query letters, how long they say it takes to get back to you, the date you sent your query letter, etc.

You want to send maybe 5-10 letters in one go, max. If you get no responses, you might want to tweak your letter! Remember that it’s always a work in progress, and that’s okay. Keeping track of agents you’ve sent to is hugely important during this; it can help you improve your letters, and it will help you avoid industry no-nos (like, for example, querying two agents at the same agency at the same time).

3. Structure It

Generally speaking, there’s a three-paragraph structure to your basic query letter. (You want to cater to each specific agent, as discussed above, but hey, we gotta start somewhere, right?)

Greeting (Dear xx -- please make sure to get the agent’s name right! You’d be surprised how many folks don’t.)

Very briefly introduce your novel and why you’re querying this agent: always include your genre and word count. So, for example, “LUNAV, a YA fantasy complete at 89,000 words.” It’s important to include that it’s complete, and it’d better be: never query with an incomplete novel! And, the ‘why I’m querying you’ should be short and sweet: “I read your interview on x site, saying y”, so your novel would be a great fit for them, etc. This is also the paragraph where you can have comp titles; titles that your book is similar to/would attract readers of. Don’t use industry things like Harry Potter, and don’t do the “I’m the next xx author” thing: if there’s one thing agents seem to unanimously agree on, it’s disliking that intensely.

Your novel: this part isn’t a summary, and you don’t have to include the ending. You do, however, have to “hook” your reader, and quickly. Most agents want to be compelled by your main character immediately; and, the assumption will be that your book is complex, with more than two or three characters, but you really don’t want to mention more than that. You also really don’t want to mention side plots. Stick to the central focus, which -- yes -- is so, so, so hard when you’ve written a whole darn novel! But you’ve gotta. To help you, read a lot of dust jacket copies (the blurb on the back of paperbacks and on the inside of the hardcover dust jacket) in your genre. How do they hook readers? Are there similarities in how the stories and characters are presented? Familiarity with your genre is important, and it will show in your brief, brief, brief (read point below) hook for your novel.

Author bio: This is where you give information about yourself that is relevant to your novel; if your novel is a detective novel, it will help to mention that you were a cop for x number of years. If your novel is a high fantasy with dragons and such, it probably won’t help to mention that. It will never help to mention that your best friend loves the book, etc. Keep this short and sweet; you want to give the agent a picture of you and why you’re qualified to write the book you have, not your whole life story.

Closing: Some people include their Twitter handle and such with their signature, and that’s alright. But again, keep it simple.

Sample: Many agents ask for a short sample of your novel along with the query letter; sometimes it’s the first five pages, sometimes it’s ten, sometimes it’s the first two chapters, sometimes it’s more or less. Whatever they request along with query letters (this info will be on their agency site), send that and only that under your signature. Copy-paste the text; never send unsolicited attachments. 

4. Keep It Short

You’ve written a novel! Congratulations. Truly. It is an amazing feat, and you should be so proud of yourself. 

Now you have to get someone to want to read it in less than 300 words. And that includes the whole letter, not even just the part about your book. Remember that agents are massively busy and receive an overwhelming amount of queries weekly; your letter’s length is almost like a form of respecting their time. Please do that, just like you’d want someone to respect yours.

5. Example Time

Alright, well. 

My query letter has changed a lot over time, but this version (with some comments from me in brackets) elicited several requests for full and partial manuscripts from agents, and ultimately helped get me a publishing contract with @ninestarpress

Dear Nine Star Team,

I hope this finds you enjoying the season. With excitement, I invite you into the world of my literary novel [this part is not typical: usually you wouldn’t say “literary novel,” you’d just say YA fantasy novel; but NineStar has specific querying requests on their site, so I followed them!] LUNAV, a YA fantasy. As a nonbinary lesbian author writing queer characters (including a lesbian protagonist, a main FF romance, and several genderqueer characters), I hope that you will find my novel to be a good fit, especially as you grow your collection of YA offerings. LUNAV is complete at 89,000 words and will appeal to readers of the SERAPHINA duology and OTHERBOUND. [Note that the industry standard is to all-caps book titles.]

They don’t have dragons where half-faerie Sadie was born – not living ones, anyway – but in the Grove, everyone knows that dragon eggs grow on trees like leaves and need dreams to hatch. Without faerie dreams, the dragons won’t survive. And neither will anyone else.

Brash, boyish sixteen-year-old Sadie thinks she can stop the worst from happening, but as a half-human, she looks far too much like the enemy. So she’s been using her looks to spy on the human monarchy. But spying is a risky business: it, like dreaming, is punishable by death. Slow death. Still, Sadie thought she was a pro. Until they sent a new human magistrate to the Grove. Evelyn. 

Evelyn might be the most beautiful girl Sadie’s ever seen, and Sadie might be betraying her family by falling in love with the ruthless leader who locks them up. But that’s not even the biggest obstacle between them: Evelyn is leading the charge against dreaming, and there’s something she doesn’t know. Sadie can still dream.

I run a Tumblr blog dedicated to queer women fandoms, and in the past four months alone, I have developed a following of over 5,000 people through my fan fiction writing (I continue to gain around 40 followers each day). Additionally, I teach writing at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. I have both published and forthcoming academic articles on dis/ability in YA fiction, and I occasionally write for GayYA (a blog dedicated to queer YA fiction). I’m currently a PhD candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Attached, please find my manuscript and synopsis. [They requested it, which is the only reason I attached anything.] Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

...

So. You should know that the novel part of this query, I originally wrote in the first person. My novel is in the first person, from Sadie’s perspective, and it was so much easier for me to craft an authentic letter in her voice. I edited it for third person before sending it.

Aaaand that’s all I got for now. Please feel free to follow up on this with further questions or more specific queries (see what I did there?).

Source: https://media.tenor.com/images/8ca68de9888...

The Sweet (and Stressful) Sound of Character Development

Ahh, tumblr. The home of wonderful and wonderfully important questions!

A great Anon with an unfortunate computer issue asked: "Hi Jenn! I was wondering if you had any character development sheets you used, or any that you really liked? I used to have one I used often, which helped round out my characters, but lost it when my computer got a virus and had to be wiped. Can't wait for your book!"


Oh my! I’m so sorry about your computer virus: boooooo.

I don’t use worksheets, per se, but I do have a bunch of exercises that I love using, especially when I’m feeling like I’m in a writing rut.

First, I absolutely love writing lists of “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character.” I don’t like the idea of keeping secrets from readers; that’s not what the exercise is about for me. For me, it’s about all the little things that make a person… well, a person! Little facts about their first crushes, their friendships, their random fears, random incidents that they’ve experienced, that might not directly show up in the book, but will probably show through in their behavior and feelings somehow.

For example, think of headcanons that fans often make about TV show characters or book characters. For example, Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books has difficulty conjuring a Patronus, but can handle basically every other spell no problem.

Because of this, I have long-since believed ("headcanonned") that Hermione experiences some form of depression, like me: conjuring a Patronus Charm involves the ability to wipe your mind and body clean of fear and doubt and overwhelming sadness and just focus on a happy memory inside you. Hermione has so much trouble with that, consistently. But, nothing in the books ever says this about her flat-out.

 Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

Hermione Granger, in a buttoned-up coat over a hoodie, takes a deep breath and sighs, looking from one side of the Quidditch Pitch to the other, sitting alone high up in the stands. Gif from https://media.giphy.com/media/YbWZxkCmwxvZ6/giphy.gif

So, if I were writing a “20 Things Readers Will Never Know about X Character,” I might write a lot about Hermione’s experiences with depressive episodes before Hogwarts and even during her Hogwarts years.

Then again, if it were me, I would explicitly discuss it in the books, as well, because representation is soooo important! That said, the “20 Things” exercise is such a great way to learn about your characters that it might become a “20 Things I Need to Make Sure Readers Know about X Character”!!! (Just make sure you weave the information seamlessly into the narrative so you’re not just info-dumping information about them!)

And, I also like writing fan fiction about my characters.

For example, with LUNAV, my debut novel, it’s set in a fantasy world, right? So, sometimes I wonder: what if Sadie and Evelyn went on a date in this world, in this very restaurant? What if they were students in New York City? What if they were my students? What if they met in a coffee shop in this world instead of in a forest full of snow and magic in the land of Lunav?

Those are super fun to write, and they give a lot of insight into who these people are, and how their environments shape them, and what the cores of their personalities are. Just like a well-written fan fiction AU, it takes a lot of knowledge of a character to keep them consistently in character even when you’re writing them in a completely different situation than the ones they usually find themselves in.

I know those things aren’t worksheets, but I hope they’re helpful anyway!! Feel free to ask more questions: this was a great one!

Your characters are going to be amazing :)