Tag Archives: advice

Quotes on writing

Having now submitted my short stories to the contests and having little else to do (in a writing sense) than to sit a wait I’ve gone back to the completed manuscript of my novel ‘Exile‘ and started filtering through my drafts for my urban weird novel project.

Not a lot of progress to report per se, but it got me thinking about the rules I try to follow when writing. Many of these are quotations, aphorisms or apophthegms which I have, for better or worse, committed to memory and practice.

Whenever I am struggling with the muses, or more likely their absence,  I call to mind William Faulkner saying “I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is; I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.” He also said “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” These quotes remind me that if I am to seriously consider myself a writer it must be a craft at which I work, not a whim I indulge in the name of inspiration. ‘Writer’s Block’ is, paradoxically, both a nonsense and a default state.

I haven’t actually read any of E.L. Doctorow’s work, and I usually shy from quoting authors with whom I’m unfamiliar, but this sums it up quite well: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” It is as if he knows me, or perhaps as if my procrastination is not unique – nor even uncommon.

I know a lot of writers advocate a daily routine of writing several hundred, or thousand, words each day regardless of circumstances. I’m not quite there yet, but I am thinking it likely has merit. Routines often do. Leonardo Da Vinci warned that “Iron rusts from disuse, stagnant water loses its purity, and in cold weather becomes frozen, even so does inaction sap the vigors of the mind.” To be a writer then is to write. That ‘writer’ is a noun is just a semantic or syntactic necessity. The writer can no more be removed from the act of writing than Nietzche’s lightning can be removed from its flash.

So once something’s down and it’s not at the standard I like to flatter myself I am capable of, what then? Margaret Atwood has said “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” Jung believed that “perfection belongs to the Gods…” I think of this and Nick Hornby‘s advice about accepting one’s own ‘badness’ when I go back over something that last night was brilliant and now is utter drudge. It is these quotes which convince me to work through my horror at what a terrible writer I am and to remember that only by creating material can it be polished and refined until it is a thing of beauty (or perhaps just a thing of minimal ‘badness’). Sometimes of course it can be too tempting to hold on to a particularly fine turn-of-phrase or lyrical waxing, and in overcoming the temptation to keep it at all costs I loop back to Faulkner’s advice. “Kill your darlings…”

And when it is done I generally find that I have an overwhelming urge to hide it away where no other person will ever see it or submit it to judgment, and simultaneously a completely contradictory urge to have someone, anyone, read it and validate it with praise. The fear is paralysis. For years I was under its power, and at times I still am. In those times I turn to a certain professor of biochemistry who has published 500 titles and has works in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal system, arguably the biggest of Golden Age Sci-Fi’s ‘Big Three’

“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.” Isaac Asimov

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Query Letters

Query letters are hard!

Sure there’s plenty of sites that give you some advice*, and often agents have blogs where they explain what thye like or don’t in a query letter. Often though these contradict, and what one agent recommends another despises. Sometimes the same agent will advise against something in early posts and change their view over time. Other times there’ll be a query letter that breaks all the ‘rules’ and yet gets the desired attention.

So here’s my (humbly submitted) take on query letters:

They have one purpose – get you to the next step. 

This sounds simple (I hope), but it sometimes gets lost in the minutiae. Query letters are a tool with a purpose. That purpose is to intorduce yourself and your work and get someone interested enough to want to read more. That doesn’t make them simple to produce, but it needs always to be the guiding principle. All the other rules and recommendations support this goal, but they are subservient to it. If you break all the rules and yet someone is interested enough in your letter to want more, then it’s a good letter. If you follow all the rules meticulously and get a dozen rejections before someone wants to see more, it’s still a good letter; it’s served its purpose.

They need to be honest.

I think query letters are a case of don’t try to please everyone. If your query letter does a good job of introducing you and your work then consider it a success. If it gets rejected that doesn’t mean the letter’s not a successful letter. It might mean that the agent or publisher you queried is not a good fit for you, or for your work. There’s nothing to be gained from a query that represents you or your work as any way other than truthfully. If an agent does make a request based on that query they’ll soon find out that your chapters or your manuscript aren’t exactly what they were looking for anyway. That’s another rejection and back to square one. All you’ve gotten is false hope and it’s cost you time when you could have been finding an agent that wants to work with you.

They need to show your talents.

It’s not just about your work; it’s not just about your bio. It’s a combination of both, and it’s also a kind of demonstration piece. Being able to explain your novel succinctly shows you have a plan, and a structure. Being able to attract interest shows that you have the hook, or point-of-difference, that will make your work marketable. Being able to discuss your work as a product shows that you consider yourself a professional. Being able to write an engaging and interesting letter shows that you have the command of the language to write engaging and interesting prose.

I found that breaking the query letter down into these three focus points helped me cut out a lot of unnecessary plot synopsis and really hone in on what was important. I don’t know if it will work yet, but I’m a lot happier with what I have now than what I first sent out.

This is a query letter I had for a while and submitted to a couple of agents. It relates to my novel Exile, and it was not successful. I’ve changed it because it’s not honest. Reading it I get the wrong impression about who is the protagonist of the novel (Duc Abastille isn’t introduced until about a third of the way through the novel).

I was too focussed on exposition of back-story that I barely introduced the characters which my novel is about. I think it’s an engaging query (but I’ll let you judge that), and some of it I’ve retained for the revised queries, but it is not an honest one.

Specific Agent

Specific Agency

Address

As a young man Gerard Abastille was an acclaimed hero of the Battle of Three Fords. His victory brought peace to the warring families of Alterre, and brought him the noble title of Duc… but that was seventy years ago. Now Duc Abastille is old and the peace he won is worn and brittle. When his sons are killed in suspicious circumstances he is left without an heir, and his legacy is threatened. He suspects his old enemy Jarl Blodax, but in the internecine politics of Alterre no one can be fully trusted.

Jacqueline, only daughter of Duc Abastille, has been disowned for her love of the commoner Selwyn. Together in exile, they have raised a family beyond the borders of Alterre, but their past is not so easily left behind. When become victims of a broader conflict their children are thrust unprepared into a brutal world. Rymon must conform to a role demanded of him by his birth, Marianne must find her place in a world that treats her as chattel, and Jolyon must somehow overcome his guilt and perhaps find a way to bring his family back together.

EXILE is a Fantasy with minimal, ambiguous references to magic and non-human races. The morality is gray, and while the setting is epic in scale the plot is focussed on the narratives of Selwyn and Jacqueline’s surviving children, not the fate of the world. It is complete at 241,000 words. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

* Some of the linked sites here are for cover letters, not query letters. Cover letters are usually either for short fictions (and therefore you’re sending the whole story so a synopsis is, in a sense, redundant), or will accompany a synopsis and/or sample chapters. There’s plenty of other sites too. Google ‘how to write a query letter’ and you’ll have more to options than you know what to do with.