On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 67

Irony

Irony is when you use a word or words to mean the opposite of their definition. When used in speech, it’s often synonymous with sarcasm. For example, an ironic (and also sarcastic) statement would be if you said to someone, “Nice hair,” but actually meant that their hairstyle looked ridiculous. An example of an ironic situation might be if the coming of spring, the season symbolic of rebirth and renewal, was marked by a death.

For this week’s prompt, reflect on the meaning of irony then start a piece of writing that begins with an ironic scene, statement, or situation. Feel free to use the one above if you like.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 66

Into the Heart of a Child

This week’s writing prompt is to write from the point of view of a child. Choose a memory from your own childhood (if you’re uncomfortable with that, then make something up) and try to write it as if you were telling the story through your child self. Consider your age at the time, the specific era in history, your temperament back then as well as your personality, developmental level, and any thoughts or emotions you recall experiencing. Think about how you might have to adjust things like vocabulary, word usage, and expressions to make them appropriate for a child narrator. How else could you convey to your reader that this is written from a child’s perspective?

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 65

And oh, my dreams
It's never quite as it seems
Never quite as it seems
— The Cranberries, "Dreams"

Take something you experienced in a dream and make it the plot of a new story, turn it into a poem, or write about its symbolic meaning and application to your waking life.

On Writing

Kick It Out

With input from my fabulous clients E.S. Oliver and Catherine Forrest, I’ve revised my presubmission checklist to help you kick your manuscript out to a literary agent. Whether your goal is to publish your book with a big-name publishing company or a smaller indie press, your best bet for doing so is to find an agent willing to represent you.

Note that if you’re a writer of short fiction or poetry, you don’t need an agent to represent you; instead, you can submit your individual stories and poems directly to publishers or literary magazines/journals. If you’re not sure where to start your research for publishing outlets, Poets & Writers offers a searchable index of publishing venues that’s quite helpful. Most small/independent publishers, literary journals, and lit magazines take submissions electronically through systems such as Submittable, so it’s a good idea (and also free) to create an account with the more popular ones. For outlets that use the same system, you’ll conveniently be able to see and track all of your submissions in the same place.

This post and the associated checklist are intended for writers seeking to submit a book to an agent. I offer a bit of insight and advice on each step of the process and the physical, downloadable version of the presubmission checklist is at the bottom of this post. The checklist is meant to be used after you’ve finished revising and editing your work; agents will not accept unfinished fiction manuscripts from potential clients. Nonfiction is another story and you can submit a book proposal without having completed your manuscript; for more on that, I suggest you check out the following post on Shelf Life: https://catherineforrest.substack.com/p/producing-your-first-proposal?utm_source=url).

Step 1: Check your spelling. Always run a spell check on your manuscript as well as any additional materials before you send them to anyone else. Running a spell check on your manuscript will at least clean it up a bit and is akin to putting your best face forward in a job interview.

Step 2: Edit your manuscript (alpha read). Granted, most writers are probably not also professional editors, but you should still read through your own manuscript, revise it, and do your best to catch and correct any errors that you’re able to, especially major ones. If there are gaping plot holes or your main character’s name changes halfway through the fifth chapter, those are things that can and should be addressed prior to anyone else ever seeing your work.

You can certainly employ a professional editor or writing coach to help you with this step of the process, however, there are numerous options in terms of editing services and providers, so you’ll have to do some research to find the one that’s right for you. Consider what you’re looking for: a light read-through for errors only, a very mechanically focused edit, something more substantive, a partnership with feedback and questions. Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for in an editor, spend some time checking out websites, visiting writers groups online and on social media, and asking fellow writers for their recommendations, then compare editorial services and rates, contact some editors you think you might like to work with, and see if those editors’ styles/approaches mesh with your needs.

Things that can also be included under the editing umbrella are sensitivity readings and solicited feedback from experts. These types of reading/editing can be useful for writers with characters whose background or culture differs from their own (an American writing about British characters, for instance) or a more focused assessment of technical info or fact checking (for example, if you want to get expert opinions on anything from space travel to fashion shows).

Step 3: Solicit reader feedback (beta readers). Getting feedback from readers is an excellent way to determine how your work will be received by the people who might actually be willing to buy it. Exactly who you ask to read your draft is up to you—you can ask friends/family, readers of the genre, and/or fellow writers. I recommend a mix of these because you’ll get different types of comments from each. Whoever you choose, it’s helpful to give them a guide in terms of the type of feedback you’d like to have so as to shape their comments. Ask them specific questions or tell them what areas you’re looking for input on. Once you’ve received your reader feedback, you can revise if needed before moving on to the actual submission phase.

Step 4. Write your query letter. Aside from having a finished manuscript, the other requirement for securing a literary agent is a query letter. A query letter is your chance to “sell” your book and convince an agent to represent you. As such, the essential elements of a query letter are a brief blurb about your book, a bit about you the writer, and a little about why you want this particular person to represent you. MasterClass offers some advice on writing a good query letter to an agent as does my friend and colleague Catherine Forrest, the maven behind ShelfLife, but some agents will also offer handy plugin forms that you can use to generate your letter.

Step 5: Prepare your ancillary submission materials. Although all agents will require a query letter from authors, unfortunately, they don’t seem to be on the same page in terms of what else they’d like to see from you in order to make a determination about whether or not to represent you. Several agents seem to have taken a cue from the scholarly publishing and indie publishing worlds and have moved to using an online system for managing queries called QueryManager (https://querymanager.com/), which, thankfully, is free to use. I recommend creating a QueryManager account to submit to those agents who do use this system. For those who don’t, you’ll have to email them individually. Based on my client experience with the query process, I also recommend writing a brief author bio (that “about the author” blurb you typically find at the back of books) as well as a short synopsis or summary of your book (2 pages or less) so that you have all the potential pieces that an agent might request prior to submitting and can plug in accordingly.

Step 6: Research and compile a list of agents to query. How do you decide which agents to query? I recommend you start by checking out Manuscript Wishlist (https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/), which is a site where agents have created profiles and listed the types of works they are actively seeking. You can also do a social media search of #manuscriptwishlist to accomplish the same thing. It’s basically a shortcut to finding out if there’s anyone out there specifically looking for the sort of book you’ve written. If so, peruse those agents’ profiles and add the ones who appeal to you to your must-query list. You can also find legitimate agents and check whether they are currently accepting new authors to represent by searching the directory of the official professional organization for author representatives. Note that this is a bit more cumbersome, but a good back-up to the Manuscript Wishlist.

Step 7: Submit your query along with any other requested materials. The final step in the process is actually submitting your query and accompanying materials to an agent or agents. Standard manuscript format is typically a double-spaced Word document. Make sure you’ve included all of the pieces that the particular agent has requested and do one last proofread of your query letter before hitting that send button.

Given the sheer number of writers who submit to agents on a yearly basis vs. the number of authors a given agent can reasonably represent, you’re bound to receive a large number of rejections before you finally find one who says yes. So keep trying; you may have to go through several rounds of revising, querying, and submitting before that happens.

The physical checklist is available for download below. Happy writing, fellow ink-slingers, and good luck with your submissions!

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 62

This week’s writing prompt is taken from the Beatles song, “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” The opening lyrics give us a description of two characters—a girl and a man. We’re told that the girl (who might actually be a woman) is “not a girl who misses much.”

She's well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand
Like a lizard on a window pane

What does this say about her? Who is she? What’s her backstory? And who is this other character who emerges in the next line?

The man in the crowd with the multicolored mirrors
On his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy
Working overtime

What does the description tell you about him? Does the girl/woman spy him in the crowd; is that why we get such a detailed description of his footwear? Are these characters connected in some way? Your challenge, fearless writer, is to weave a story from these threads.

On Writing

Watching the Detectives

Given that today marks the theatrical release of a new film version of one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels, Death On the Nile, I’ve written a post dedicated to mystery stories. They were, after all, one of my first literary crushes and, honestly, I think the suspense and dark subject matter of murder stories were what ultimately led me to fall so much in love with Edgar Allan Poe and tales of horror.

I suppose my interest in mystery and detective fiction grew out of playing the board game Clue as a kid. I had such fun trying to solve the crime—even more so when we got the Clue: Master Detective edition—and to this day, Clue is still one of the games that I will never turn down, even if it’s just me and my son playing together. In addition to playing a lot of Clue the game, I also saw Clue the movie and I watched more than a few episodes of Matlock with my mom, who was (still is) a big fan of crime and detective dramas.

I guess it’s no surprise that, as I got older, I gravitated toward mystery stories. In the seventh grade, I checked out every book by Agatha Christie that my junior high school library possessed. I also sought out her novels in second-hand bookshops. Death On the Nile and The Murder of Roger Akroyd (both featuring the detective Hercule Poirot) were among my all-time favorite mysteries. Aside from Christie, I read several other mystery authors and series throughout my teens and twenties including Poe’s mystery stories, Dorothy L. Sayers, some Sherlock Holmes, Mary Higgins Clark, quite a number of books from Harlequin Intrigue, and Dead Until Dark, the first book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Series (the wonderful Beth Foxwell got the author to autograph a copy for me!). Getting to interview mystery writer Jan Burke for the journal Clues was definitely one of the highlights of my professional career (you can read that interview below if you’re so inclined). For that opportunity, I owe a debt of gratitude to the amazing Beth Foxwell.

My love of mystery and detective stories wasn’t confined to books, though. As I mentioned, I’ve watched my fair share of mystery shows and films like Charade. Even ones that weren’t strictly mysteries but had an element of the genre to them, such as The DaVinci Code or The Prestige captured my attention as did things like the “Who Pooped the Bed?” episode of It’s Always Sunny. I think the writers of that episode were just as crazy about mystery stories and “the big reveal” as I was. The ability to craft an intriguing, suspenseful plot while dropping strategic hints for your reader along the way is pure genius to me!

However, I once read a book where the author had left all these red herrings with regard to suspects and then the murderer turned out to be just some random, nameless guy instead of one of the actual characters. I was so angered by that ploy that I vowed I’d never read another book by that author. That’s because, for me, the best part of reading mystery/detective fiction or watching a mystery/crime show, was trying to solve the crime myself before the big reveal at the end. I would pay attention to the details the narrator or director gave, examining clues and pondering how each piece fit into the puzzle (or not). Sometimes I solved the crime; sometimes I didn’t. Even when I didn’t, it was fulfilling to me to go back and see how it had all unfolded, noticing what I’d missed.

I suppose that’s probably why I never really got into Sherlock Holmes. With a lot of those stories, I felt like Doyle didn’t give the reader enough information to solve the crime for themselves, that we were just supposed to bask in Holmes’s brilliance. Oddly enough, I did enjoy the TV shows House and Sherlock, both of which were based on the Sherlock Holmes character and stories. I think my interest in the former was solely due to Hugh Laurie’s portrayal of the main character. Similarly, I adored Cumberbatch as Sherlock (and Martin Freeman as Watson). Also, as dark as that show could be, it had some fabulous moments of hilarity (almost everything involving Irene Adler, for instance).

While I’ve gotten away from reading murder mysteries over the past decade and a half, the hubs and I recently watched the show Only Murders in the Building and it was so fantastic that it rekindled my love of mysteries. Who knows? Perhaps there’s some suspense in my own professional future. In the meantime, I will be eagerly awaiting Season 2 of Only Murders and looking to check Death On the Nile off of my watch list.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 60

The Zeppo

"It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, super powers⁠—Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires⁠—and you're, like, this little nothing. You must feel like ... Jimmy Olsen."  
     — Cordelia Chase to Xander Harris

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 3, episode 13, “The Zeppo,” Cordelia Chase relishes in pointing out her ex-boyfriend, Xander Harris’s, utter ordinariness, telling him that he’s “the Zeppo of the group”—the tragically un-hip, totally un-cool, useless hanger-on. However, Xander goes on to have a very un-Jimmy-Olsen-like day in the episode in question, an ordinary guy proving he’s capable of doing some extraordinary things despite his lack of super powers. The ordinary person doing extraordinary things is a common trope, but in this week’s writing prompt, I’m challenging you to employ a less common one.

What if your hero was an ordinary Zeppo like Xander, but instead of saving the day by doing something out of the ordinary, they did so simply by being their regular self? Maybe your hero saves the day/world/humanity/the universe by taking out the trash, skipping school, hugging someone, ordering a cup of coffee, or doing any number of other uneventful, seemingly unimportant things. What if they were completely unaware that they’d even saved anyone or anything at all? Does that sound boring to you? I say it’s only boring if you make it so, but I don’t believe that you will because you’ve got this brilliant thing called an imagination that can turn something mundane into something fantastic.

Happy writing, fellow ink-slingers!