Acknowledging that one of the things he’s most frequently asked is how he gets his ideas, Stephen King discusses his thought process and how he generates inspiration for his writing. Note: this is a long talk — nearly an hour — so be sure to set aside some time to watch.
I never thought this was something I would need to explain to people, but recent trends in my inbox suggest otherwise. So I am taking a moment here to discuss how referrals work in terms of sending me a query for your project.
If you begin your query letter by stating that so-and-so referred you to me, then I need to actually know that person. And by know, I mean they are my client or an editor I work with or a friend with whom I chat at conferences/online/by phone/in person on a fairly regular basis. Just because I spoke with someone once at a conference eight years ago, does not make them a valid connection. It needs to be a person with whom I’m comfortable confirming that referral, as in, “Hi, did you send such-and-such author my way?” Because I will do that. I will check up on you. So do not name drop if it won’t stand up to my verification.
Also, please understand what a referral actually is. It is when someone who knows both of us specifically suggests that you drop me a line. It is not a referral if someone you know read my name in a round up of agents who represent a specific genre. It is not a referral if your critique partner (who does not know me personally) suggested you add my name to your submissions list. Nor is it a referral if we know someone in common, but they never actually suggest you query me. Referrals are based on real-world connections, and involve a suggestion that we might work well together.
Now, I realize writers talk among themselves and brainstorm and share information, and it’s wonderful if your fellow writers or industry friends give you lists of agents to check out because they represent your kind of book, or represent some author you love. This is how the business works, how you come across people to query. But suggestions and recommendations are not the same as referrals, and it’s important to keep them separated in your mind, and in your query language.
Every writer hopes to find that foot in the door, the trick that will help get them to the next level, and referrals, when genuine, certainly qualify. As an agent, I’m always looking for ways to weed through the material coming my way for a clue as to quality, so if a writer or editor I know and admire suggests that I take a look at something, I trust their judgment and give that writer’s work a chance. That doesn’t mean I’ll sign someone just on someone else’s say so; I still need to love the writing and feel I can sell it. But a true referral definitely serves as a short-cut to my desk.
And that’s the key. It has to be real. Because no agent wants to work with a writer who lies to get a foot in the door, and there’s no quicker way to find yourself with a rejection letter than to pretend a connection that does not exist. I’ve seen a sharp increase in name-dropping in my inbox the last few months, and maybe it’s something I should simply ignore — shake my head and send the rejections and let the writers in question struggle on. But I suspect some of these are honest mistakes, a misunderstanding regarding the terminology that results in some writers giving an incorrect impression, so I’m putting this out there in hopes of setting them straight.
No matter your resolutions for the year, regardless where you stand with your current writing project, the time will come when you need to edit. I don’t mean rework your plot, heighten dramatic tension, or beef up your protagonist’s motivations. Rather I’m referring to that nitty gritty editorial process of looking at your work word by word, sentence by sentence, and examining the language you’ve used. Do your descriptions dance on the page? Have any cliches snuck into the mix? If you had to read aloud in front of an audience, would you find yourself running out of breath?
Sentence-level editing involves more than checking for missing words or making sure your Find-and-Replace changed a character’s name all the way through your manuscript. This is your chance to shape up your prose and show your skills, not just as a storyteller but as a wordsmith. But a manuscript can be a fairly long document, and sometimes it’s hard to remember everything you want to check as you work your way through from first page to last.
Here’s a handy cheat sheet of things you might want to keep in mind while editing:
1. Cut your adverbs and make your verbs stronger.
2. Rework any cliches.
3. Eliminate filler words and phrases, such as “currently”, “that”, and “in order to.”
4. Refer to people as “who” not “that.”
5. Cut repetitious words and/or phrases.
6. Divide long, hard-to-read sentences into two or more shorter sentences.
7. Fix any inadvertent double negatives in long, complex sentences.
8. Hyphenate modifying words.
9. Minimize use of “very” and “really.”
10. Beware of overusing passive voice/passive verb structures (is/was/-ing verbs).
11. Double check the definitions of any words you’re not 100% sure you know.
12. Determine and weed out any words, actions, or punctuation that you personally overuse as filler, such as characters smiling or taking deep breaths, ellipses in the middle or end of dialogue, exclamation points, etc.
13. Replace general words with specific ones, such as “thing(s)” or “stuff.”
14. Cut unnecessary chit-chat from dialogue; limit conversations to substance that moves your story forward.
15. Limit distinctive dialogue quirks or movements to a single character; don’t give “signature” details to more than one person unless there’s a reason (child emulating a parent or older sibling, etc.).
Of course, these are just a sample of common errors you should be checking for at this stage of the editorial process. Depending on your writing style and personal habits, you will add to (or maybe subtract from) the list to customize it for your own use. Likewise, many of these are aspects of usage to keep in mind but not hard-and-fast rules. For instance, I don’t expect you to wipe every single adverb from your work, merely to avoid overusing them. Reliance on adverbs suggests your verbs need to pull more weight, but adverbs on their own are not evil parts of speech.
Clarity should always be your first goal. You wish to tell a story and have your reader understand it. Beyond that, you combine your personal voice and writing style with the style in which you’ve chosen to write this particular work in order to impart everything else to the reader — setting, tone, atmosphere, culture, etc. Use this editorial phase to hone those details for consistency and strength of impression. It’s your last chance to polish your prose, eliminate the ordinary and unnecessary, and make your work sparkle.
How goes it, challenge writers? Have you managed to write every day this month? Did you commit to a new, secret project? Are you pleased with what you’ve accomplished in December?
We have a few days left before month’s end, but whether or not you choose to write through the holiday, right to the bitter end, be sure to take a few moments to consider how the challenge has gone for you. Was it motivating to aim for writing at least a few minutes every day? Did you miss days? What was the reason? Did holiday obligations get in your way or did you find yourself needing a mental break?
Only you can decide if a daily writing habit is the best course for your writing style and your life, but I’m willing to bet even the attempt to write daily opened your mind up and allowed your creativity to flow a little bit more swiftly. And for those of you who didn’t manage to write as often as you wished, determining the why behind those less productive periods can help you figure out how to motivate yourself going forward.
Those of you in the secret-project category may or may not have a viable new work in progress, but even if you’ve been working on something purely for your own enjoyment, I hope you had a wonderful time and feel like your creativity has been pumped up and refreshed for a new year of writing. No matter where you are in your writing career, it’s always important to allow yourself some time to play occasionally. It keeps the prime pumped, and it also lets you remember why you love writing, especially on those days where the work feels more challenging.
I encourage all of you to keep writing daily if you can right into 2015. The more you write, the more you stretch your talent and exercise your creativity, the better the work you will produce. Happy writing!
Just two weeks remain to 2014, which makes now an excellent time to pause and think about the year coming to an end. How was your year? Did you meet the goals you set for yourself? Are you pleased with your writing progress? Where did you exceed your plans and where did you fall short?
I’m not big on resolutions because all too often they seem like vague wishes for things with very little planning behind them. Oh, not always. People who want to lose weight know they should watch their intake and exercise. Writers who want to publish understand it’s important to finish a manuscript, revise, submit. But there’s often a disconnect between the daydream and the planning part of achieving those resolutions. It’s easy to lose track of the plan unless you actually determine what you will do, how your actions will change in order to make your ultimate goal come to pass.
So as I said, now is a great time to look back, just for a moment, to see what went well and what didn’t go so well in the last twelve months. And then think about why. What steps did you take that allowed you to meet your goals, and what distractions or problems cropped up that railroaded those you failed to achieve. What could you have done better? Understanding the hows and whys, your motivations behind your actions, will help you to set new goals for the year ahead, and also determine how best to approach them.
Keep the successes and the goofs in mind as you figure out where you go next.
A few tips for goal setting for 2015:
1. Set goals outside your comfort zone, that force you to reach. They should be achievable, but not so easy that they fail to challenge you or allow you to slack off because you can handle them in a rush at the end of the year.
2. Make sure you set goals that you really want to achieve, not just things you think you should do, or that sound good if someone asks about your resolutions. Tackle things that matter, because your emotional investment will serve to motivate you.
3. Break your goals down into measurable components and/or actions. What steps do you need to achieve to meet your goal? How much time will each step or action require? Schedule regular check-ins for yourself over the course of the year (or however long your goal will take) to make sure you’re on track.
4. Determine what’s at stake. What do you stand to gain if you meet your goal? What will you lose if you don’t? Know the value of your actions long term, because that will help you resist the temptation to procrastinate in the short term. Post the stakes somewhere you will see them often enough to keep your focus.
5. Try setting some shorter-term goals and some big picture goals. Having a few goals of the year that you can finish by March or May will bolster you over the course of the year, and encourage you as you work on the longer term projects.
No matter what stage you are at in your writing career, there are always new goals to set, new hurdles to tackle. A writer can always improve their craft, hone their story-telling skills, or master a new facet of self-promotion. Other goals can include publishing a short story, getting an agent, signing a book deal, hitting a certain mile-marker for sales figures. Or you might approach tasks that are more straightforward, such as redesigning an author site or starting a newsletter. Think about what you’ve been doing, then consider how you can improve upon it. Mix and match your goals to meet your current needs. Don’t beat yourself up over things that haven’t gone well; instead allow yourself to plan out a new strategy for the year to come, and get excited about putting it into action. Good luck!
It’s the middle of the month, writers! How go your efforts to write every day? Are you managing to get in some time regardless of your schedule? Are the words continuing to accumulate between work and shopping and plotting festive dinners? Perhaps you find yourself sneaking the time. Jotting longhand in a notebook in the waiting room at the dentist, or waiting to pick up your kids from school.
No matter. The effort is what counts here. What I most want for you this month is to force your brain to show up at the party; make yourself write every day so that your mind understands what you expect of it. Ultimately, you may not be the type of writer who writes every single day once December is over, but you will see (and so will your subconscious or your muse or whatever you want to call that creative inner part of you) that writing is truly a habit, and your mind is a muscle, and training it all to work on command is a matter of repetition. If you only write when inspiration strikes, you’re not going to write on a regular basis, and while that can be a fun approach if you only write for your own enjoyment, it won’t get you far if you’re intent on writing for publication.
So keep at it! If you’ve missed a few days, don’t worry about it, just get right back in there and recommit to writing every day. Each morning, think of where your writing time will fit. Plan for it. Make it happen. If it’s important to you, it deserves a space in your schedule. And don’t feel you absolutely must work on the same project each day. I don’t recommend starting something new whenever you get a little stuck, but it can also be a good idea to have one or two back-burner projects that you can play with when your primary project gives you serious trouble. Just keep writing.
And for those of you working on secret projects, you keep writing, too! Play! Enjoy yourselves! Let your creative wings stretch a little wider, fly a little farther afield. Writing is hard work, but it should also be fun, so use your mystery project to remind yourself of all the things you love about your craft.
Get to it, writers! Wishing you a wonderful, productive week.
We’re a week into December, which means those of you participating in my December Writing Challenge have seven days under your belts (or a few less if you started late). How goes it, writers? Have you managed to write daily? Are you feeling more committed to your craft? Is making yourself and your writing a priority more or less challenging than you anticipated? Or maybe you’re working on a secret project. Does it feel extra special knowing that it’s just for you for the time being? I think it’s fun to have a secret this time of year that has nothing to do with the holidays — something private and personal.
Of course, writing every day when you have a busy life clamoring for attention can be difficult. But the truth is, something will always pop up to distract you. Sometimes it’s the day job, sometimes family members or friends, and sometimes it’s a chore you’ve convinced yourself is more important than your own writing goals. But if you want to write, if you’re serious about making it your career, then you can’t let yourself be drawn into every distraction. Only you can decide if there’s a real need for your attention or intervention, or if it’s something that can slide (or get solved by someone else).
So today, at this one week mark of the challenge, I urge you to stay strong. You’re not being selfish to want to spend time working on your writing. You’ve committed to the craft and the craft requires regular practice if you want to succeed. Whether you have a deadline looming or are struggling with your very first project with no contract in sight, writing is important to you, and you deserve time to flex your writing muscles, even if you can only manage a half hour each day. So keep at it, stay committed, and happy writing!
Writers never stop learning. No matter what stage you’ve reached in your writing career, it’s always possible to push yourself a little harder to improve some aspect of your craft or become a bit more dedicated in your habits. And any good writing challenge can be adapted to help you reach for the next level with your work.
Right now, I want you to forget previous writing challenges. I don’t care if you just finished NaNoWriMo or if the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month makes you physically ill. Today kicks off my December Writing Challenge, and the entire point of the challenge is for you to commit to yourself, and to your writing.
December can be a challenging month all on its own, filled with holiday gatherings, end-of-year work projects, bad weather across much of the northern hemisphere and a dozen other worries. And in the middle of all that, you can lose track of yourself and your goals. It’s easy to put things off, to make excuses. After all, the new year is just around the corner; you can easily pick up the pace once you turn your attention to resolutions.
But why wait? Is writing really something you’re willing to relegate to the New-Year’s-Resolution category? Or is it important? Is it a priority?
For those of you struggling to commit to your writing, I issue the following challenge: Write every day during the month of December. I’m not saying you need to write for a certain amount of time, or strive for a certain word count. But you need to actually sit down and string words together for some project of your own — no fair counting Christmas cards or a note to your kid’s teacher. It can be for fifteen minutes, though I’d encourage you to at least aim for half an hour. 30 minutes is approximate 2% of your entire day. Commit to taking that for yourself, and for your writing.
I do allow you two “excuse” days, if you absolutely need them. After all, there are holidays and holiday parties involved. So if you find you have to take a day or two off, go ahead, but really make an effort to write every single day if you can manage it.
What about the rest of you folks, the ones who’ve already committed to a daily writing practice? For you I have a slightly altered challenge: Start a secret project in December and work on it every day for at least a few minutes of your writing time. What sort of secret project? That’s up to you. But I encourage you to let your imagination run wild and experiment. Do you write fantasy novels? Try a mystery. Strictly a fiction writer? Give personal essays or poetry a try. Don’t tell anyone about it, don’t share it with your critique partner or your significant other. Just hide it away and work on it a bit each day. See what you come up with. Stretch your wings.
That’s my December challenge for you all. I’ll be posting some encouragement on here and on Twitter over the course of the month, so be sure and tune in. Happy December, and happy writing. Get to it.
The weekend is winding down, and with it the month. If you’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, you might be basking in the glory of having hit your 50,000-word goal, frantically writing to finish up, or drowning your sorrows in hot chocolate because you know you’ll never close your 15,000-word gap by midnight. Regardless of your status, congratulations on your efforts. For those of you not caught up in NaNo frenzy, you might be polishing off the last of your holiday leftovers, plotting for the next holiday on the calendar, or enjoying a good book and ignoring the season entirely.
Whatever you’ve been doing this weekend, or even this past month, I urge you to wake up bright and early tomorrow morning to kick off the new month with my December Writing Challenge. Those of you who frequent this blog know my December challenge bears little resemblance to NaNoWriMo. No lofty word-count goals or frenetic write-ins at the local coffee shop. Instead I ask you to commit — to yourself, to your writing, to your own personal writing goals — as a way to get in shape for the coming new year. Forget waiting around for 2015 to kick off resolutions; December 1, 2014 is the first day of the rest of your writing career. I challenge you to make the most of it.
Details for the challenge will be going up first thing tomorrow, December 1st, so be sure to swing by and check them out. Happy writing!
You’ve decided to take the plunge and participate in NaNoWriMo. You’ve done some prep work and created a few characters, come up with a setting, and done a bit of background research on cool careers or other things you might include in your book. Now what?
November 1st looms, so now is the time to take care of a few last minute things and get ready to start typing. Here’s a quick to-do list, both for these final days leading up to your novel-writing marathon, and to keep in mind as the month progresses.
Stock your kitchen and your bathroom. Make sure your fridge, freezer, and pantry are filled with healthy, easy-to-prepare foods. Yes, it’s important to lay in a supply of coffee or tea, chocolate, chips, and cookies, or whatever your favorite snack foods might be, but brains work better on a healthy diet, so make sure you add nuts and fruit and other tasty treats that will charge your creativity and keep you from crashing. You also want to make sure you have sufficient toilet paper, tissues, aspirin or other pain reliever of choice, etc. Nothing like discovering you’re out of something vital when you’re on a writing tear at 2 a.m.
Inform your friends and family of your plans. Make sure they know you won’t be quite as social as usual during the month ahead. Assign temporary chores to your kids and spouse to keep the household running smoothly (with promised bribes to be delivered in December if necessary). Arrange a signal — closed door, special article of clothing you’re wearing — so they know when you’re deep in NaNo territory and not to be bothered for anything less than fire or spilt blood.
Show your internal editor the door. You’re not going to want to edit at all in November. What goes into your novel document, stays in your novel document. No erasing, no deleting, no backtracking. If you change a major plot point, put a note in brackets mid-text and continue as if you’ve already altered the early part of your story. Don’t waste time making changes or worrying over the beauty of your sentences. Your internal editor is more than welcome to come back once NaNo is over, but for now, they should take a hike.
Mark your calendar. Whether you have a paper planner, a wall calendar, or an electronic calendar, you want to mark that baby up with your NaNo goals, with the obvious 50,000-word goal in bold on November 30th. It’s a good idea to try and work ahead if you can, to leave yourself a cushion in case something keeps you from your writing for a day or two, so aim for more than 25% of your total goal the first week. Add in any local write-ins or NaNo events you plan to attend. Check off those goals when you hit them, adding gold stars or stickers or big, fat exclamation points — whatever makes you smile.
Organize your tools. Are you going to write your entire NaNo novel on your computer? Terrific! Make sure you’ve got a system in place to back up your work, whether you have your entire hard drive backing up, you’re saving to the cloud, or e-mailing yourself the document at the end of each day. There’s nothing scarier than losing several thousand words when you’re up against a 30-day deadline. Even if you prefer typing, you should get a small notebook and pen/pencil to keep with you at all times. That way if inspiration strikes while you’re standing in line at the DMV or waiting at the dentist, you can scribble your thoughts even if you don’t have your laptop handy. Finally, make sure you have a comfortable seat. Add a lumbar pillow if necessary You’re going to be spending a lot of time typing — best to be cozy. And don’t forget to get up and stretch regularly!
The countdown has begun. In less than 48 hours, you’ll be off and running. Good luck, and happy writing!