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Habit

How do we make writing a habit?

A lot of you will have experienced that wave of creativity when you first start writing. Suddenly, something clicks and you’re away. It may last for only an hour, or a few days. Mine lasted for the whole of the first draft of my first book. I was just so happy to finally be doing something I’d been telling myself to get on with for so long. Every moment was a joy. I wrote before and after work, during my lunch break, in stolen minutes at the weekend. I couldn’t get enough.

But then the crash comes. You still love writing, but some of that initial flush of inspiration has worn off. You have to think about when writing will fit into your busy life and, when you do finally find the time, you just aren’t as productive as you were before. Something has changed but thankfully this happens to all of us.

If you want writing to continue to be part of your life, then you need to make it into a habit. That’s not something born of a moment of luck but of conscious choice.

I ran into a huge brick wall when I started editing my first novel. It was sooo much harder than writing the first draft. I found myself spending less and less time writing because I wasn’t riding on a high anymore, but if I wanted this book to improve then I needed to prioritise working on it.

I think there are three things we need to do to make writing a fruitful habit in our lives.

  1. SHOW UP

Somehow, around all the other things filling our days, we’ve got to find some time to write.

I would suggest starting small, just 10 minutes or 100 words. Stop thinking of the novel you’ve got to write or edit, and break it down into easily achievable steps. Then put when you’re going to complete those steps into your diary (and don’t book anything else in!)

Sometimes, life is unavoidable. I think we’ve all learnt recently that we are very much not as in control of our circumstances as we would like to think we are. People will get sick, kids will need dinner, bosses will demand more, so it is okay to have blips. The thing about having writing as a habit is that as soon as humanly possible (and sometimes this will take a while so try to be kind to yourself) you get back to it.

Monitor your showing up in some way, either by word-counting, clock-watching, simply ticking it off on your to-do list. Watch those days you commit to writing as a habit rack up, and your craft will thrive.

2. SHUT DOWN

There is always something that is going to stop you writing. These things can be split into two categories – distractions and circumstances. Distractions are temporary and mainly within your power to push away, while circumstances are a bit trickier to overcome (and some cannot be).

Distractions come in many shapes and forms. It might the be the woman talking loudly next to you at a café, the brownie you can’t wait to eat, or the bit of research you really MUST do before you start writing. There is also the always present phone, just waiting to steal away our precious writing minutes with wormholes filled with puppies and cute gifs.

These are in your control to minimise. Put your ear buds in, go get the flipping brownie and EAT IT, make a note of the research and do some writing. Throw your phone across the room. Or, at least put it out of arm’s reach. For half an hour, shut down all the little things dragging your attention away from your writing and get the words down.

And remember, shutting down distractions is an ongoing thing. You might have a great month of putting your phone away while you write, and that’s just when you’ll start getting sucked into Twitter more. Don’t beat yourself up, just shut it down again and get back to your writing.

Circumstances are harder and, in some cases, impossible to shut down. It might be your offspring, an unwell partner, your own health, global pandemics, your living situation, a demanding time at work, or so many other things. These are things you may not have the power to shut down so that you can spend blissful hours each day writing.

We all have these things going on, you may have a combination of these things. Some are joyful, like a great job or your children, but some are really tough, like caring for someone else or dealing with daily pain. There is still a choice, despite our circumstances, to choose to write, but it MUST be balanced alongside kindness to ourselves. Why set goals we can’t meet because of our circumstances at the moment? Instead, I suggest setting small goals and celebrating like heck when you complete them, but being compassionate with yourself when you don’t.

The other thing to shut down is the negative voice inside your head. It’s not a lie that we are our own worst critic. I struggled when first trying to make writing a habit because I felt like a fraud. I was completely happy with my assessment that my writing was rubbish, so it made no sense that I would carve chunks out of my life to work on it. We have to learn to hush that ultra-critical voice so that we can value our writing and protect the time set aside to do it (I know this can be really tough and sometimes my critical inner-voice is VERY LOUD – this is another time when setting small goals is great because you only have to make a tiny stand against the negativity, rather than fighting a battle)

3. SET OFF

No one begins a journey without a destination in mind. That’s a very good way to get lost and end up going no-where at all. The same is true with writing. If you don’t have a destination in mind, you might spend endless hours working on things that don’t amount to much. You don’t need to know everything, but what is it that you want to achieve? What are your dreams?

Once you know this, you can make plans and take small steps towards achieving them.

I want to explore more about making writing a habit – do you too? I am planning a course all about this, starting in January. Email thebrittonbookgeek@gmail.com to register your interest!

Failure

How you feel about failure will affect your writing

Nobody likes failure. No one is pleased when something they’d dreamt about doesn’t go how they’d planned. We don’t like it on a small scale (that poem that just will not come together in the way we want), and we especially don’t like it on larger scale.

My first big writing failure came when I didn’t sign with an agent for the first book I queried. I’m not ashamed to call this a failure, and I think one of the worst things we can do with failure is not name it. It’s a kind of hiding away, not acknowledging that actually you put a lot of time and effort and love into something that just didn’t work out. So first of all, let’s name it.

I failed when I didn’t get an agent for my first book. I failed when I stopped querying agents after just 30 rejections on my second book. I failed, most recently, when I had to cancel a series of one-off courses. And I know I will fail in the future. Publishers will reject my book. I will have other events I’ll have to postpone due to health reasons. I will probably hit some kind of creative stumbling block, be that a lack of new ideas or a lack of faith in the ideas I do have. And then there are all the little failures along the way. A character who didn’t hit the mark emotionally, an idea that no-one gets behind, a morning when no matter how hard you try, the words just will not come.

This is why it’s so important to name failure, to face up to it, because in writing it is going to keep happening again and again. If you shy away from it so much that you can’t even name it, eventually you’re going to stop doing the things that make you fail. And writing will cause failure.

Writing is all about stepping out and opening yourself up to rejection. Even if you only write for yourself, you’ve still got to put pen to paper and sometimes things aren’t going to hit the paper quite how you’d imagined. Kent Nerburn says in his glorious book Dancing with the Gods, ‘any creative act involves great emotional risk.’

We have to acknowledge that writing is scary and that we will fail many times, otherwise we will stagnate. I know so many people who get stuck on tinkering with their opening chapter or they cannot bear to go back and edit their first drafts. I think it is because they are afraid. They have put so much into their writing, even if they have just done a little, and the fear of failure keeps them from taking another step. They know, deep down, that failure is inevitable in writing and they cannot cope with that.

I’ve said already, no one likes failure. I was not a happy bunny when I made the decision to stop querying my first novel (you can read a bit more about that here). It felt like a very significant failure. It was also quite a public failure as I had become more active on Twitter while querying, and so people would know I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to. It was rubbish. I loved my book, and time and time again it had been pushed back. I didn’t feel good enough. I cried a lot.

But there was hope despite this epic fail. I needed time to wallow yet even in that time of sorrow (you may think I’m being dramatic but chat to anyone who has had to shelve one of their book-babies – they know the pain!), there was still some fight in me.

I talk on the rejection course about how important it is to have big dreams. I honestly think this is one of the most important things writers can do. We need to acknowledge failure, and sometimes it feels like it is coming at us daily, but if we have massive dreams there is always something we can be hoping and planning for.

I took time out after querying my first book but, even as I made the decision to stop, I knew I was going to query another book. And then another, and another. I would keep querying as long as it took to get an agent because my big dream is to be a published author. This dream is much bigger than one failed attempt (made up of over a hundred attempts!) at getting an agent. It is bigger than my bad writing days, than my lack of faith in myself, than the comments from beta readers that show I missed the mark.

Big dreams make failure okay because they don’t depend on doing well at one thing and one thing only. Big dreams take several steps. Big dreams mean that sometimes we’re going to have to jump and hope we land on dry land rather than in a bog. But big dreams make the bogs bearable. They reframe the rejections and bad reviews and zero-word days into temporary set-backs.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to spend some time thinking about what your big dreams are. Go mad. Dreams don’t have to be realistic. Some of mine are; to publish books for both young adults and adults, to have a book optioned as a TV series, to one day be contacted by a reader who saw themself in one of my characters.

These dreams are much bigger than my worst days. They are much brighter than my darkest moments. They keep me going when every word I put down is awful and every reaction I get is negative.

Big dreams don’t mean failure will not happen. It will happen a lot. I’m just not afraid of failing because I know that if I don’t step out and risk losing, there is also no chance I’m going to win and get everything I’ve dreamed of.

I hope you will keep failing your way towards your dreams too.

To keep up to date with all my failures (and news) sign up for my monthly newsletter – just email thebrittonbookgeek@gmail.com 🙂

July Reads

I feel very much back into the swing of reading again. I didn’t realise I was missing it so much until I read two books in a day (one was very short!) and felt totally blissed out 😊

July was a strong month for books – it was hard to pick favourites! Just a quick shout out for Wranglestone (perfect if you like people quietly loving one another while the world falls apart around them) and The Little Paris Bookshop (it has a BOOK BARGE).

The Boy Who Steals Houses is absolutely beautiful. Lyrical and emotional, it follows the misadventures of Sammy Lou, a young man who desperately wants to protect his autistic brother from the dangers of the world, even if that means ruining his own life. It gripped me from the first page and I cannot recommend it highly enough (it’s Own Voices as well, which is a bonus!)

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second in the Wayfarer series. It can be read as a standalone, and if you haven’t read anything by Becky Chambers yet then I am very jealous of you! Go grab one of her stories and fall in love with her out-of-this-world (literally) characters.

And who hasn’t encountered The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse in some way? Charlie Mackesy’s illustrations are beautiful and although this may be a quick read, it is one you will find yourself returning to again and again. I’ve given one to my Nan and my mother-in-law, and I’ll keep gifting it to anyone and everyone I can 😊

Read them all and then we can be friends, yeah?

Comparison

Don’t let comparison titles steal your joy

There is a lot of talk about using comparison titles in query letters to agents and it can feel like a minefield. How do you find the right things to compare your book to and why go to all that effort?

The main reason – they are a great way to show off!

  1. Comparison titles show off your up-to-date knowledge of your genre – by referencing new(ish) releases in the area you’re writing in, you effectively display that you are keyed in to what is going on in the book world (or at least the part of it you want to break into)
  2. Comparison titles show off your understanding of the market – because you’ve clearly shown that you know where you fit into it. So when you agent/publisher wants to talk to you about changing markets and sales, you’ll have some idea of what they’re talking about because you already vaguely know where your book fits
  3. Comparison titles show off your love of reading – and this is an important one. It shouldn’t shock you that agents and publishers are bookish people. They will want to talk about books with you. By using good comparison titles, you’re showing that you support other authors, are a keen reader, and actually enjoy the kind of book you’re writing (it’s weird how many people write a crime novel having never picked one up…)

Now you’re convinced that it’s a good idea to put in a bit of time to find the right comparison titles (and you totally are, right?), here is how to do it:

  1. The key to finding good comparison titles is reflecting the feel – You may have written an epic space saga that spans 400 years and includes not only romance but several crimes and a cute puppy. Even if you haven’t written something like this, you may be finding it hard to place your book directly alongside others. But the truth is that your book will have to sit alongside others and to sell well it will need to be compared in some way to something that came before it. Concentrating on the feel of your story rather than the content is a good way to find comparison titles that really clearly point to the kind of story you’re telling. One example of this is the novels of Elizabeth Strout and Becky Chambers. Plot-wise, they are as far from one another as can be. Strout writes about family drama in small town America, while Chambers details epic space journeys hundreds of years from now. However, I would argue that they have a similar feel. They are both gentle reads, and their books delve deeply into character and relationships. Superficially, they are not the same but they share the same heart
  2. It doesn’t have to just be books – so long as you’re reflecting the feel, you can compare your book to whatever you like. Films, TV shows, albums, magazines, podcasts, etc. This can be another great way of showing off – not only do you read well in your genre but you are finding a wider reach for your book as well
  3. Just find one or two – this makes your job so much easier! All you need to find is one thing that reflects a key element of your story – be that the plot, themes, characters – anything! If you can find two, it’s great to combine them in some way, e.g. My YA fantasy novel combines the kind of light-hearted love story found in High School Musical with the gritty realism of a harsh dystopia like the Hunger Games. (Someone please write this!)
  4. Try not to go too old or two big – which would defeat a lot of the points I made about showing off. If you go too old, then how would anyone reading your query letter know that you’re up-to-date with current treads and love supporting others? And if you compare your book to someone everyone has read, then it doesn’t really show you know where your books fit in because those books are too fluky to really try to replicate. This is also a way to make sure that your query stands out – lots of people will compare themselves to big names but if you pick something really carefully, it just might be interesting enough to catch an agent’s attention

One last thing to say – comparison titles are 100% not essential. They are helpful but an agent isn’t going to reject your query just because you don’t have them. If you’re really struggling, then leave them out of your query letter. This is better than referencing anything that doesn’t feel right.

However, if you are struggling it might be worth reading some new releases in the genre and age group you’re writing in. This can only be a positive thing as it will give you a sense of where your area is at, but hopefully you will also find something that reflects some element of your book.

In this very small area of your life, I would suggest that comparison can bring you joy. Please please PLEASE remember this though – do not compare your stories to others in any other way. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your timeline, output, agent, publisher, sales, film optioning, advances… ANYTHING to anyone else. Your journey is unique and so is the way you write and create stories, so try to stay away from the poison that is comparison (in any other form than comparison titles!)

You do you, and let everyone else find their own way.

You can read more tips on writing a great query letter here, and if you need some personalised feedback, check out my editing options!

Partner

What is a critique partner?

A critique partner is someone who gives detailed feedback on your writing. Unlike beta readers, these are people you swap stories with. There is a bigger element of give-and-take in this relationship, and it is one I have found incredibly valuable.

To give more of an insight into what a critique partner is and what they do, I had a little chat with my very lovely CP Emma Bradley.

How did you find each other?

Emma: I was inconsolable at not getting picked for the WriteMentor 2019 summer mentor program, but Anna posted in their Facebook group that she was looking for a critique partner. I messaged back to say ‘yes please’ and she’s been stuck with me ever since!

Anna: Ha! I was feeling the same. I was gutted that I didn’t get picked, mainly because I really wanted another pair of eyes on my work. Posting in the group was a bit of a brave thing for me, but Emma responded almost immediately and was super nice.

What boundaries did you have in place before you started swapping?

Emma: I would no doubt have ploughed in with swapping whole manuscripts, but Anna suggested a chapter a week or thereabouts which proved to be a great pace for us to work at. We were both quite clear about wanting someone who could be thoughtful with feedback rather than cutting or blunt, but still able to pinpoint all the niggly (and absolutely glaring in my case) issues.

Anna: I have a tendency to take on more than I can actually manage and then stress myself out, so I was really clear about only wanting to swap one chapter a week, despite wanting to do more! This has worked really well. We didn’t set any firm boundaries in terms of the kind of feedback we would provide, but after the first chapter it was apparent we worked in similar ways – both thorough and enthusiastic!

How did you know you wanted to keep working together?

Emma: We just never stopped! Once we’d finished swapping one MS we would take a break and move onto another, or in my case abandon one of mine most of the way through and get excitable about the next one. It’s not just the feedback either – having a friend who understands the writing highs and lows is invaluable.

Anna: I had a few people respond to the request I put in the group, but it was clear to me as soon as Emma and I swapped critiques that I would want to keep working with her. She returned her feedback quickly, and spotted really helpful things.

I always make it clear when I’m starting off with a new CP that I think we should just swap one or two chapters to begin with to see if we are a good fit. This gives both of us a chance to see if we work well together and there are no hard feelings if one of you doesn’t feel quite right about it.

How often and what do you swap now that you have been critique partners for a while?

Emma: We’re quite flexible now, although I tend to forget to send things and end up flapping when she tells me off! Whether it’s something we’ve been working on or just a quick idea, the ability to get someone else’s thoughts on it before you sink the next however many months is a big help. Anna’s moved more into thriller/psychological of late, while I’ve marched firmly down the middle-grade route, but it’s brilliant to have a completely different brain involved!

Anna: I only tell Emma off because I want to read more of her stories! They are really engaging and working with them so closely means I get really invested in the characters and want to know what they are up to next. Like Emma said, at the moment we are writing quite different books but her input is still so valuable. I also send Emma any blog posts I’m working on so that she can make sure they make sense! She’s become my writing-sounding-board.

Do you gain anything from critiquing someone else’s work?

Emma: I definitely get a lot from critiquing. Aside from the joy of reading unknown stories and thinking I could one day be seeing them in bookshops (and going ‘omg, I know that person’), everyone has a different approach. Your way of describing anger for example could be completely different to someone else’s, and you get great writing/wording insight by seeing the many perspectives. You also start to recognise mistakes in their story and suddenly they’re glaringly visible in your own! 

Anna: I gain MANY things. Firstly, I get to read stories before anyone else, which really makes me happy. I will be so giddy when I see Emma’s books in shops! It also helps me develop a critical eye for my own work. Often, a mistake I spot in Emma’s work is one that I’ll then find in my own. Working on her stories has made my own storytelling stronger.

What are the best bits of having a critique partner?

Emma: It has to be the writer camaraderie. I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important to have someone who understands. They know how crushing a rejection is and can cheer you on when you finally remember where the comma is meant to go! Anna’s recently started her rejection course and it’s been so lovely getting to see her teaching the ins and outs of querying and coping with all the bumps of it. 100% recommend getting yourself a critique partner (but hands off mine!)

Anna: Ha 😊 The same – it is so lovely so share more closely in this writing journey with someone. I love watching Emma’s style develop and change, and reading her many stories is so much fun. It’s reassuring to know that someone will give me really honest feedback – since we have been doing this for a while now we can we a bit more honest with one another!

If you can, find yourself a critique partner. You might strike out with a few people, but that’s okay. Not everyone is going to be a perfect fit. When you find the right person, it is worth it – it will only ever make your writing stronger and hopefully you’ll find a new cheerleader!

June Reads

I feel like I am slowly getting my reading mojo back. There was a point, early on in the pandemic, when my concentration was completely shot. I think it was also my ability to relax. My brain was too jumpy and settling to read a book was too much. Thankfully, this seems to be abating. If the same was true for you, I hope you are experiencing the same gradual calming.

Three favourites this month. Before I get onto them, the astute among you will have noticed that I went on a bit of a Jenny Colgan reading spree in June. These books are wonderful. Full of kindness and warmth, they are exactly what I needed to help me fall back in love with reading again.

But onto the favourites. Toffee by Sarah Crossan is a must-read for any fans of verse novels. Some poems seemed to almost literally punch me in the gut with their barely controlled emotions. The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur was a reread, but one I enjoyed no less than the first time I read it. Split into sections following a break up, healing, and finding someone new (and better) these poems crack open what it means to be a woman, daughter, lover, and so much more. Such beautiful illustrations as well.

I read cookbooks from cover to cover. I own all of Rukmini Iyer’s Roasting Tin books because they are all brilliant. The Roasting Tin Around the World does not disappoint. I’ve tried three recipes from it so far and they were all delicious, and many more are going to be gracing my plate very soon. If you’re not a confident cook or if you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen, these are the cookbooks for you.

As always, read them all and then we can be buddies, okay?

Words

The writing of a first draft

I have just finished writing the first draft of a story. I feel like doing a jig. For anyone who has ever completed a first draft – you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t YET – it is well worth all the hours put in. This moment is sweet.

There is editing to be done. A LOT of editing. I’m an unashamed pantser so I have no idea, particularly at the start, where my story is going. That means a lot of filling in later on. Maybe at some point I’ll talk about my editing process, but for now I want to focus on how I write a first draft (and I’m going to talk about the book I’ve just finished, because it’s fresh in my head!)

Writing a first draft is something that fascinates me. When other writers talk about their processes, I am THERE. Front row, notepad out. I’m not really interested in changing my approach, writing a first draft is one of my favourite parts of writing, but I love hearing how stories are made.

Because it is magic. Someone has an idea, they write some words on a page, and then that makes something happen in other people’s brains. They can share adventures and fall in love with characters that came from someone else’s mind. Wow.

IN THE BEGINNING

All my ideas start with a person, and they are all already doing something. This time it was a woman called Lina and she was walking home after a party. Pretty basic stuff, until I realised she was limping, it was raining, and she was scared.

Lina came from seemingly nowhere. I think most people have some experience of walking in the dark and feeling scared. I can honestly say that Lina did not come straight from one experience because she popped into my head during a James Acaster stand-up performance, which is probably one of the furthest experiences from walking, scared and in pain that I could get.

But there she was. She was alone and she was afraid. And she didn’t know if she was being followed.

I wrote the first chapter that night after we got home from the comedy show in a flurry. I had so many feelings I wanted to get down. This is often how it is for me with a first draft. The main character walks into my head and they are thrust into some situation and I just really want to follow along with them.

Very quickly, as I was writing, I realised that I wanted there to be a big question mark over whether Lina was being followed or not. In the moment, she felt sure she was. She ducked into a shop but could not see anyone on the CCTV. Only a woman walked past in the opposite direction, drenched because all she was wearing was a green dress.

Fast forward a couple of days and Lina has convinced herself she was imagining things; no one was following her. She walks to her friend’s house and sees a man putting up fliers. His girlfriend (green dress woman) was kidnapped, on the same night and on one of the same streets that Lina fled down.

Lina has to decide whether she goes to the police and tells them she thinks she was being followed that night. She isn’t sure if her information will be helpful, but she thinks that the only consequence if it isn’t is that she will make a fool of herself. As the story continues and Lina tries to act in ways she feels is right, the consequences escalate until being in the wrong place at the wrong time that night might not only cost her friendships, her home, and her job, but also her life.

All that spiralled out of a woman walking home in the rain.

IN THE MIDDLE

This is when I actually figure out what’s going on in my story. A character and situation springs itself at me and gradually I work out how their story will end. Then I have to figure out how to get there. I will be the first to admit that to begin with, I didn’t know if Lina was being followed that night. This story could have gone so many different ways. I find out where I (and the main character) want to take it through the writing of it.

I am a pantser (which to me means generally figuring things out as I go along) but I do make some notes. Some are about characters, so that I can keep them straight in my head. I am terrible with remembering names and that extends to the made-up people in my brain. I make notes about important bits of action that need to happen SOMEWHERE, and little hints I’ve made that I knew I need to resolve SOMEWHERE. As a general rule, I have no idea where.

The middle of the story is the part I find the hardest to write. I still really enjoy it but, unlike at the start and the end, I have to be more disciplined with myself to make sure that I actually sit down and do it. It is the part that is the least clear to me, so I have to think a bit more about it rather than just typing in a mad frenzy.

IN THE END

Although I do enjoy writing endings, and have probably been looking forward to writing the last scene almost since I jotted down the first, this is when it becomes glaringly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of editing to bring everything together. My first drafts are full of massive plot holes.

To be honest, I try not to think about it. I write first drafts to please myself. Since no one else is going to read them, who cares if a character pops into existence halfway through and needs to be written into the first half later, who cares if there is a big hint I forgot to drop, who cares if someone’s name or job or family situation suddenly changes? I don’t. At this point in my writing, that’s future Anna’s problem.

I write a lot of notes while I end my book, because I do feel some sympathy for future me. Then I finish the story. I do a dance. I let it rest, for at least a month, before I start editing. I am a big fan of letting things rest. A month is the bare minimum for me. The longer I can leave it, the better. It means that when I come back to it, I am much further removed. I have a terrible memory, so some things will actually come as a shock to me, and I can approach it more like a reader.

GEEKERY

As a way to monitor my progress, I decided to keep a tally of my wordcount during this story. For those among you who find graphs pleasing (and who wouldn’t?!) – I hope the following makes you smile.

Some of my reflections:

  • Excluding days when I did no writing at all – it took me 60 days to complete this story. I had a lot of breaks though, so from start to finish it was 210 days. I can usually finish a first draft a bit quicker than this, closer to around three months, but my writing mojo was thrown off by a global pandemic so I’ll cut myself some slack
  • The most words I managed in a day was 2696 (not in one go!) and the least was 92. My average words per writing day (including all the days when I didn’t write would skew the results DRAMATICALLY) was 1141. This feels like an achievable number, and makes me think that I could finish my next book in a much shorter amount of time!
  • This way of recording progress kept me accountable. Instead of thinking I’m sure I did some writing last week I could see exactly when I last wrote and that made me get a wiggle on when I was leaving it too long between writing sessions (apart from during April when I wrote nothing because my brain had turned to mush)
  • I found recording my word count rewarding. One key thing I didn’t do, which seems to make a big difference to me, is that I didn’t keep track of what the overall word count was. For some reason, I beat myself up with that and feel quite intimidated by it. But daily ones were fine, and recording them meant at the end I could make GRAPHS

Letter 2

One way to structure a query letter

There are many different ways to write a query letter. The one thing to ALWAYS remember is to follow agency guidelines. If they tell you to shuffle everything around, then do it! But most agencies aren’t very specific about the actual structure of the query letter you send to them, and that is when a template like this will come in handy.

However you choose to write your letter, this template will give you a good idea of the weighting of each section. Ideally, your letter will fit onto a page of A4, and at least half of that will be taken up with talking about your story. That is what agents are (at least initially) the most interested in. They are looking for stories to fall in love with.

ELEVATOR PITCH

  • Keep it short and snappy – this is one or two sentences that give a flavour and peak interest
  • Make your hook specific – your story might be about fairy tales but what makes it different?
  • This is not a summary – you don’t have to introduce many characters or delve far into the story
  • Be wary of asking too many questions – just one is enough

PLOT

  • This is the biggest section of your letter – one or two paragraphs detailing a bit more about your story, setting and characters
  • Leave the agent wanting more – you don’t need to include all the details but tell enough to give them a clear picture
  • Be specific about stakes – agents will want to know what unique consequences there will be if everything goes wrong
  • Ask why – justify your character’s actions. Simply saying that Fred is going to find a pink pearl isn’t very compelling, but saying Fred is going to find the pink pearl BECAUSE it will save his wife is much better
  • Find examples (and copy them!) – dig out your favourite books and see how their blurbs are set out. These are written to entice readers and are exactly the kind of thing you’ll want to replicate

TECHNICAL STUFF

  • Things agents need to know – your word count, genre, age group, themes, etc. You could also mention anything you like about the agency/agent here, plus if your story has series potential
  • Lay it out simply – this section doesn’t need to take up too much room. One mistake people (ME) have made is making too much of a priority of this stuff and not enough of making their story sound like the most exciting thing ever
  • Include comparison titles (if you can) – I could chat for quite some time about comparison titles (I may well do this at some point – watch out for it!) BUT the main things to remember are:
    • Reflect the feel of your book
    • They can be books, films, albums, artwork… get creative!
    • Don’t go too old or too big (so try not to compare your book to Wind in the Willows or The Hunger Games)

ABOUT YOU

  • Keep the information relevant – your relationship with your agent will be personal, but the thing they are primarily interested in is your story writing ability. In your letter, it’s more important to detail your writing-related achievements than detail your many other hobbies (although throwing one in is a great way to inject a little bit of personality!)
  • Always mention pets – who doesn’t love them?!
  • Mention competitions you’ve won/short listed – but stick to ones about this story and make sure they are well known. In my first query letter, which will remain confined forever to the deepest bowels of my laptop, I mentioned winning a competition at my local book fayre. I can only imagine how underwhelmed agents were by this. Unless your local book fayre is the Winchester Writer’s Festival or such-like, it’s probably not worth a mention (although you should ALWAYS give yourself a pat on the back for any competition won)
  • Don’t be shy – agents are being very open at the moment about craving own voices stories so mention if you are BAME, have a disability, are LGBTQ+, or are from any other group currently underrepresented in publishing. However, only share these things if you are comfortable doing so. Own voices is incredible, but no one has a right to personal information about you.

And that’s it!

Query letters can be tough, but once you’ve got a template you’re happy with it is so much easier. Play around, draft and redraft, until you have something that makes your story shine.


I wrote my query letter to this template – you can see all these sections in action (and read some more general tips about query letters) here.

I also offer a query package editing service, which you can read more about here.

Letter 1

Top tips on writing a query letter from someone who made many mistakes

I am not going to share my first query letter with you. Nope. No way. That thing was a hot mess. I will, however, share my final query letter with you. I still maintain that it’s a little messy, but thankfully not steaming.

In my first letter I put the boring technical stuff at the start so that agents had to wade through all that to get to my actual story. I was obsessed with a competition I’d won and included SEVERAL quotes from the judges. I spelt one of my comparison title author’s names wrong.

I worked on it, and then I worked on it some more. I read blogs about writing query letters, searched online for any examples I could get my hands on, and eventually created something that sold my book well and worked for me. Because those are the two most important things. You need to be the biggest salesperson for your book ever, but you need to feel comfortable doing it.

Some advice about query letters from a person who has made fool of themselves in front of a lot of agents:

  1. Follow agency guidelines. Always. This may sometimes feel tedious (or even soul-destroying!) but it is sooooo important. Skip this, and you run a very real risk of your submission not being read. What matters is that the essence is the same – that you’re able to talk about a story you’ve lovingly crafted and tell them a bit about yourself. So, if they tell you to lay out your letter completely differently to how you’d planned, DO IT!
  2. Keep it professional, yet inject personality. This is a hard balance to achieve, but basically – you’re addressing a stranger in a nice way.
  3. Address them properly. Get their name right. Spell the agency correctly. This is such an easy win but an almost instant turn-off if you get it wrong. Having been on the receiving end of submissions as part of my work as a generally helpful person at Eye Flash, I know just how annoying it is when people get my name wrong. Even worse is the dreaded, ‘Dear Sirs.’ Just no.
  4. Do not send to all. No matter how tempting it might be. It is obvious, and it will result in instant rejections. Have a template you work from (I talk more about this in my second post about letters) but put in the time to personalise it to each agent. And remember, almost all agencies only want you to send to one agent at once, so pick your favourite!
  5. Keep it short. Your query letter should fit easily onto one A4 page. Make sure that all the information included is relevant and necessary.
  6. Spend most of the time talking about your story. Make sure at least half of your letter, if not more, is detailing what actually happens in your story. This is where you can get an agent wanting more. They are people and so they will relate to your personal achievements, but what they care far more about than anything else is that you can write well. Make sure you show this off as much as you can.
  7. MAKE IT EXCITING! You probably shouldn’t shout. You should make sure that your love for your story is clearly transmitted though – and why you think this agent would be absolutely mad to pass on it. Like me, you may not find selling your story easy or natural, but push yourself out of your comfort zone. Grab a trumpet and blow it.

When I was querying I loved reading the letters that a real life agent read and liked enough to request a full – so here is the letter that I sent to my now agent, Rachel Mann.

Disclaimer: You will realise quite quickly as you read why this is no longer the story we are working on. And if you’re reading this a while after COVID-19 was a THING, I decided that writing a story about a virus wiping out most of the human race was not what I wanted to work on in the midst of an actual pandemic.

Dear Rachel,

Jay thought that he needed a plan to survive the end of the world. It takes a wise cow and an autistic Boy Scout to show him that the best things in life cannot always be prepared for.

Jay has been living in an abandoned shack with a cow called Lucy since almost all human life was wiped out by a virus three years ago. Gradually, he has found a kind of freedom in being one of the last people left alive, especially in his wardrobe choices, and he tells himself that he doesn’t want anything to do with the other survivors. Then West crashes into his life.

West is everything that Jay is not; logical, practical, and physically fit. He thinks that Jay’s plan to travel to find a peaceful community of survivors is great, and he is ruthless in his commitment to helping Jay achieve his aim. Neither young man is good at handling change, and although they clash constantly, as they plan and travel their friendship blossoms. It could become something more if they realise their plans don’t make sense anymore because they’ve got everything they need exactly where they are.

JAY’S STORY is a contemporary YA novel set against the backdrop of the end of the world, but the focus is on West and Jay’s brokenness and the healing power of their friendship. It explores themes of love, hope, and restoration, with characters who identify as LGBTQ+. The ASD representation in this story is not stereotypical, and I hope will appeal to neuro-diverse young people who currently feel underrepresented in the media. JAY’S STORY is complete at 85,000 words, and would sit well alongside the novels of Patrick Ness and Adam Silvera.

I work in a library and am constantly reading whatever young adult fiction I can get my hands on. Some of my most recent favourites were The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Freshers by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen. I studied English Literature at university and have previously worked in schools, helping young men with ASD reach their full potential. I live on the Isle of Wight with my husband and our beautiful Labrador, Odie.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my work,

Anna


Read about one way to structure your query letter here.

I also offer a query letter editing service, which you can find out more about here.

May Reads

I didn’t read much this month, but revisited four favourites. I’m finding comfort at the moment in the familiar. Reading a book that you already know you’re going to love is a real treat!

Robin Hobb is one of the best fantasy writers I’ve read. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first in an epic series that follows the misadventures of Fitz throughout his whole life. I find these books gentle and engaging, a perfect blend between in-depth character study and winding plot. I’m going to be gradually reading through all three of these trilogies, so why not grab the first two books this month to catch up with me?

I actually have two copies of The Complete Brambly Hedge. This was such a childhood favourite that my original copy is falling apart at the seams. I would spend hours absorbing each tiny detail of Jill Barklem’s beautiful illustrations, my tummy rumbling over the MANY descriptions of delicious food. In this time of huge uncertainty, I found returning to these stories calming. I read one each night before bed, taking my time on every page to mark all those things I’d loved about them when I was younger. This is a book I will read to my children, and that I hope they will then pass on to theirs.

Me being me is exactly as insane as you being you by Todd Hasak-Lowy may be my favourite YA book ever. Told in lists, some with just one-word answers, some that wander over pages, this is a beautiful story of a young man coping with massive change in his family, the adjustment to adulthood, and first love. When I finished it I read the last ten or so pages again, simply because I really didn’t want it to be over.

Read all of these and we can be BEST friends, okay?