Sunday, June 24, 2012

What does a query look like?

My alter ego Caitlyn Young* is ready to query agents and editors about her romantic suspense/paranormal novel LOVE IS THE BRIDGE. I thought some of you might like to see what a sample query might look like. (My query has too much voice, so I don't recommend being quite as familiar/folksy/chatty as I am unless you've met the agent or editor at a conference or some such thing.)

This is an example of an e-mail query one might send to an agent.


Dear Mr./Ms. SuperAgent:

I am seeking representation for LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, which I describe as a literary ghost story romantic suspense with strong techie elements (but I'm probably wrong, as I never explain my books very well). It is complete at 85,000 words.

Have you ever considered how vulnerable you are to cyber-attack through your cell phone, Facebook page, e-mail accounts, and even any files that might be accessed by a remote system while you are connected to the Internet? Paige Campbell had never considered that she had anything to worry about until she got the first crank call. By the time her Facebook page is hacked and one of her files changed so that she is suspended from college and accused of plagiarism, she's beginning to believe that someone--or something--is out to get her. Can there actually be a "ghost in the machine"?

Alan McConnell doesn't believe in ghosts and thinks it's outlandish to claim that his prototypical AI test system (for writing advertising jingles) has become the portal by which a ghost (or at least a paranormal entity, which he also doesn't believe in) has entered our material plane. But after his studio experiences several problems and strange events, he concludes that there is a hacker with access to his studio, probably the same person behind this "haunting" complained about by his client Paige Campbell.

The young entrepreneur hired Paige to sing radio jingles for his advertising agency, and is determined to help her solve her problem (as well as his own) by catching the hacker. But is it a crafty and cruel programmer they're dealing with, or a ghost (as it claims) who has mistaken Paige for someone else, and is determined to haunt her until she lifts the curse it believes she has set on it during a previous life? The attraction between Alan and Paige threatens to interfere with their attempts to rid themselves of this problem. Still, they can cope with everything--until the night they're trapped in the studio with what is either a menacing entity or a clever killer.

I've pasted the first few paragraphs of the novel as plain text at the bottom of this e-mail, as suggested in the guidelines on your website. Feel free to ignore it if you don't prefer to preview.

My mystery NICE WORK (written as Denise Weeks), first in the Jacquidon Carroll series, won the 2011 Dark Oak contest and will be released this July by Oak Tree Press. At a recent writers' workshop led by David Farland (AKA David Wolverton, NYT best-selling author), I was told by Mr. Farland that in his opinion, the opening of LOVE IS THE BRIDGE was "nearly flawless," and he offered to blurb the book.

May I send you a partial or the full manuscript?

Caitlyn Young


"There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,
and the bridge is love."--Thornton Wilder

Paige Campbell slammed the cash register drawer and grabbed for the store's incessantly ringing phone.

She'd been expecting Uncle Hans to check up on her, because even after three months he still didn't trust her to close the store alone. Amused, she lifted the receiver and recited the prescribed greeting. "Hans' Music Haus, this is Paige, how can I help you?"

A steel-cranked synthesized voice rasped, "Stop asking questions or you're dead."

"What?" Paige blinked. "Excuse me? You've got the wrong number. Hello?"

Silence echoed on the line.

Some kind of prank call. Still, it had shaken her. She tossed her head as if to tell herself she was being silly and settled the handset back in place. When the bells on the shop door jingled to signal a customer, she jumped.

"Boo!" said her best friend Anndréa, who'd apparently headed over the moment her shift ended at Joanie's Scraps next door. "Scaredy-cat. What's wrong with you? Customers don't bite outside of Twilight." Then she looked closer and cocked her head, sending her short black-cherry hair swinging. "Wait, there IS something wrong. You're as pale as a ghost floating in skim milk."

Paige managed a weak smile. "Crank caller. Stupid of me. I guess that's a milestone--my first."

"How romantic." Andi clasped her hands. "Better make a scrapbook page. We've got embellishments on sale." She checked her watch. "Ready to roll?"

"Just about." It was three minutes past official closing time. She circled around behind Andi, threw the double front deadbolts, and flipped the sign in the front window to CLOSED. "I can't stay long no matter how happy the hour is, though. And I'm drinking strictly diet cola. I've got a gig. Paying."

"All right!" Andi shot her a high-five. "What kind of gig?"

"Just a jingle." Returning behind the counter, Paige zipped the blue vinyl cash pouch closed and secured the register. "You know, like the one the Yellow Pages runs: 'We are the pages more people are turning to.' For a radio advertising spot."

"Jingles are cool. That's how little Janie Fricke got started, and right here in Dallas, too."

"Good for her, whoever she is. But I'm not getting started on anything." Paige checked the security system keypad and verified all sensors were green-lighted. "I'm just picking up extra money for next semester's books and fees--you know, what my fellowship doesn't cover. This was a random referral from the dean's office, when this studio called the conservatory to ask for a mezzo-soprano."

"But still. You should play some of your own songs. I'll bet they'd offer you a recording contract."

"They're not that kind of studio." She tied her hair back in a ponytail and checked her makeup in the magnetic locker mirror she'd stuck on the side of one of her uncle's file cabinets. "Let's see how this goes. They probably have a stable of regulars."

"And you're going to be one of them." Andi sounded so confident. It was sweet, although Paige knew Andi was just naïve about the music business. "Your voice is so amazing, better than GaGa or Britney or any of the pop-tarts. It's as good as Celine Dion's or . . . La Streisand's."

"Flattery will get you everywhere." Paige doused the main lights. "But you know I don't want to get sucked into advertising and commercials." Keying in the code to arm the security system, she headed for the back door, clutching the cash pouch close to her chest. "Hurry, we only have ninety seconds."

Andi rushed to catch up. "Everything that isn't opera is not a sellout."

"I'm not exclusively opera. I sing folk and jazz."

As they scooted out the door, the phone started ringing.

Before Anndréa could say anything, Paige shook her head. "If that's Uncle Hans, he'll try my cell next. Otherwise, let them call tomorrow to ask whether we have the sheet music for some new hip-hop song. I'm off the clock at five."

A valid excuse, but not the only reason she didn't want to answer the call.

--end of opening, LOVE IS THE BRIDGE--

Well, there you have it. If you can pigeonhole your book with fewer words than Caitlyn used, you're probably in luck. ("My romantic suspense SONG FROM THE HEART is complete at 75,000 words." "My young adult fantasy SUPERDOG" or "LADY OF THE MORNING is women's fiction" would probably work better than that trainwreck of a description I gave.) If you have other credits, it's always good to mention them in your next-to-last paragraph. Your final paragraph should ask for the sale: "May I send you a partial or the complete manuscript?" It's good to add, "I can be reached at 123-555-1212 or by email at dogdays@dumdum.dum," but I omitted that because I didn't want to post my cell number for the world to see, lest my phone suffer the same fate as Paige's.

Your mileage will undoubtedly differ. But I thought some people might like to see a query, so what the h#$k.

* Why do I have or need an alter ego, or pen name, or pseudonym? It's all about branding. Shalanna Collins writes fantasy, mostly young adult fantasy/adventure in the tradition of Diana Wynne Jones, the Harry Potter books, or Eva Ibbotson's WHICH WITCH? Thus, when it comes to mysteries, Denise Weeks is the author to turn to. Therefore, Caitlyn Young (a pen name tested by the agent of a good friend of mine, tested through focus groups, no less!) will write the romantic suspense and woman-in-jeopardy stuff. You might as well know now, because librarians will cross-reference all my pseudonyms anyway.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

(CRAFT) THEME--it's not just a five-paragraph essay

"I don't write literary fiction," said one author at a writers' workshop, "so I don't do crap like symbolism and theme."

Oh, really? I'll bet that even if you don't recognize it, your work has a theme. Any work that is really without a discernible theme is too shallow to engage with.

An entire genre can have a theme. For example, romance (the category romance sort) has the theme of "love conquers all." Mystery has the theme of justice being done and "good triumphs over evil" and "be sure your sins will find you out." Mystery novels are actually the modern version of the old mystery/morality plays put on in the Middle Ages by the Catholic church to teach the masses before everyone learned to read. They fulfill our need for a story that says, "Everything turns out fairly in the end." Because so often real life is NOT fair. (Did you see the news story about the bus monitor who was bulled by the students on the bus she was there to protect? Sheesh!)

"The hopelessness and pointlessness of it all" can be a theme. "I don't know what the hell everything's all about" could be a theme of sorts. "The only thing that transcends death and time is love," another. "Be careful what you wish for" and "oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive" are fun themes for comic relief.

Theme is one of those toughies to actually "define." It's like the concept of "quality" as discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig: trying to pin down QUALITY drove Phaedrus over the line into chaos. But there have been some useful definitions in various writing books I've owned.

Some people define theme as the meaning or "insight into the eternal human condition" the reader is left contemplating after reading a piece of fiction. Theme is an answer to the question, "What did you learn from this?" "WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?" without the heavy-handedness of the comedian.

You don't want to moralize in a story or make the theme a subject of lots of preaching. Heinlein (among others--Sam Goldwyn, IIRC) once said, "If you've got a message, rent a billboard." But you must have some kind of unifying idea or concept around which the story unfolds or that the story illustrates in some way.

However, you may not be consciously *aware* of your theme at all while you're writing, thinking about the story, plotting, doodling, working on a scene, or whatever. This may proceed completely out of your subconscious and/or the collective unconscious on which many believe all artists draw. So you don't really have to worry too much about having a theme. You've got one.

Themes recur in my own work. Often I have "love is stronger than magic" or "right always trumps might in the end." You will find that you return to the same tropes and themes over and over, perhaps approaching them from different angles.

Sometimes it's more obvious in films. The theme (as far as I am concerned) of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" is stated explicitly in one of the songs: "Don't dream it--be it." (I'm the only person who seems to believe this; my husband did a raspberry and dismissed the very idea of the work having a theme.) Themes in my book Miranda's Rights include, "Don't mess with love," and "Love is stronger than other forces, including magic," as well as "Sometimes you don't want what you think you're wishing for."

Some stories have more than one theme. Or theme seems elusive. If you come away from a story wondering more than one basic "truth," then they can all be themes of the work. (Well-meaning parents can try too hard. Oppression leads to oppression. A parent's repeated dire predictions can be self-fulfilling prophecies. It is doing your child no favor to be overprotective *or* to push them out into the world before you've helped them build rational defenses. All of these have been named as themes of Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl.") In some literary fiction, emotional context changes the theme, or the story contains nothing but intentional ambiguity. Deconstructionists have been perhaps too successful at taking *everything* apart, even the user's manual for putting things back together.

What makes a theme significant?

A theme is significant because that's what the story illuminates for us. It's what the story is "really about" if you ask somebody, "What was that book REALLY about?" It's what you come away thinking about, aside from the characters and how much you wish you could know them in real life. The theme may be what drove the author to work on the story and flesh it out and make it real, because it was part of the creative kernel that drove the creation of the entire work.

Find a worthy theme. That's when you will feel most fulfilled by the work.

Nine out of ten doctors recommend reading my books. The tenth is a quack.

"Grandpa, when will I be old enough to do whatever I want?" "I don't know, Ruthie. No one has lived that long yet." "Dang!" --Rick Detorie, "One Big Happy" strip, 03-03-2003

Thursday, June 14, 2012

FREE Oak Tree Press books! Coming soon!

Guess what?

My publisher just revealed that she has special bookmarks to send me for my personal appearances. If someone buys a book at one of my personal appearances, I will give them a bookmark with a Special Code on it. Then if that person posts a review of my book on Amazon (it can be an honest review! Honestly!), he or she can redeem the bookmark for a FREE Oak Tree Press book by any of our authors!

This is a SWEET deal. I don't know of any other house offering such a deal right now.

It was a brilliant idea. It will be great at my signings.

Also, if someone buys a book somewhere else and I believe them (because I see the review up on Amazon, perhaps), then I will send them the Secret Code on the bookmark.

Win-win-win all around!

In other news, my release date may be set as early as late July! This is rocking my world! (Someone else slipped a deadline.) We could start the promotion tour in mid-July. We might have a tentative cover cobbled up in five days! This is really great. Stay tuned for more details.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Today's words of wisdom are on the craft of writing--specifically, about coping with and getting value out of critiques.

(I suspect a large portion of my readership is made up of fellow writers, aspiring authors, and those who like to read and would appreciate insight into the process of writing. Or you might be curious because you have been told you have a way with words or that you're talented, and you'd like to know more. Maybe you just think I'm funny (in whichever sense of the term you like.) Some people will read anything. So there you are.)

Critiques! God! Heaven forfend someone doesn't like our creation! *sob* But yea and verily, thou wilt find those who are too ignorant refined in their tastes to love every word we type.

And sometimes they are even correct. But how do we sort out the useful from the not-so-useful?

Some of that is just experience. You'll learn. Tip: discard everything that begins, "You will burn in Hell forever because you said X about Y." Or anything that casts aspersions on your own personal character. That stuff is coming out of a bad place in the critiquer, and doesn't have anything to do with you. Do not retaliate by lashing out or cursing them. Instead, pray for them (that'll REALLY get their goat!)

So, anyway. Writers!

You know the drill. You get back the eagerly awaited comments from your critiquer, be it a critique partner or a beta reader, and start going through them. A number of them make sense, until . . . the one that's out of left field.

"What does she mean, that CAN'T happen? I specifically set that up to happen!"

"Why does he think April wouldn't know that word? Haven't I explained that she's been working on SAT vocabulary all year?"

"Of course she has his ID bracelet. I said in the first chapter that she had his dresser tray, and when he's not wearing it, he always keeps it there--"

Have you properly set up the events that are being questioned by your beloved beta? If you haven't, then possibly the problem she has is not with the passage she indicates, but with your previous text.

Very often, when you get a note from a beta reader who says, "This is wrong," you won't find anything amiss with that particular sentence or section. Instead, the problem lies earlier in the manuscript, when you failed to signal whatever it was that the reader has missed.

For example, if you have a scene in a parking lot and someone gets out of a car and shouts that she's getting carjacked and needs help, readers won't buy it if your self-centered diva leaps out of her car and begins beating up the bad guy with her Prada bag. You have to establish that the diva is secretly the kind of person who would do that. You can accomplish this by having her "save the cat" early on, while keeping her nasty-diva facade in place for everyone else except the little boy to whom she gives the baseball she has caught, or whatnot. (This is a terrible example. Let's try another.)

All right, in MIRANDA'S RIGHTS I mention early on that a sunbeam is playing around the breakfast room through the round stained-glass window. Later on, I mention that the downstairs is laid out like a typical Texas rambler. This led famous, accomplished author Rosemary Edghill (you should seek out her TWELVE TREASURES series and especially her Bast novels--they kick hindy) to comment that the floor plan didn't make sense. She had assumed from the mention of the window that Miranda lived in a restored Victorian the likes of which line the coast in Pacific Grove, California (or one like the one in the TV series "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch"). But Miranda's house is a typical Texas new money McMansion with a few modifications. So I went back to put in a few lines about how her hubby the architect had planned the usual bay window when he was building their dream house until Miranda managed to rescue this beauty from an architectural spare-parts yard.

That's still a cruddy example. I don't know why I can't come up with a good one, but I'll keep looking.

One of the worst problems that you'll have when you have a "fifteen pages a week" critique circle that meets weekly (duh) to exchange markups is the problem of forgetting. By the time your group is reading the third chapter, for example, several months may have passed. They may not remember the wonderful setup you did for Ernie's Harvard diploma or that you've already told them how much Zoe hates shellfish and salad. So they'll carp, and you'll dutifully go back and put in a line or two in the current chapter. Only trouble is that when an editor reads your partial, or a reader starts your book, that will be duplicate information, a repeat that will make the reader feel that you don't know how to write. He'll think you are generally just repetitive or that you hit readers over the head with things you have already written.

So be VERY cautious about this. If you are asked to clarify something, especially in the early pages of the novel or way on down the line (if you're feeding someone the chapters weekly and not all at once), be sure you have not already told the reader this. Sometimes we think that we've implied something and we haven't, such as in the case of mentioning M-theory and assuming that readers know it is the extension of string theory and superstring theory. But other times, we HAVE told readers this. They may have forgotten because of the time span. Or they might've been skimming.

If they were skimming when you mentioned it originally, then you might have a problem. Make that part not so boring. Elmore Leonard says he leaves out the parts that readers skip. So when you hide a clue, be boring in the immediate area (not really!), but don't give readers a reason to skip and skim or you may soon lose them altogether. (Yes, it's ALTOGETHER and not "all together" as in "all together, now." Also, "alot" should either be "a lot" or "allot." And "alright" is alwrong. I don't CARE if John Lennon did that one. But I digress.)

There are two types of criticism that people tend to give. One is sentence-level, in which they go through and add or subtract commas and make remarks about your diction (word choice) or phrasing (awkward or unclear), and they mostly talk about reasonable changes. These people generally are following your plot and understand your characters. The second type of critter will read your work and then say it must be completely restructured and rewritten, proceeding to tell you about what *they* would write and how they'd write it. Ignore them; let them write their own books. Concentrate on the remarks from readers who seem to understand your general drift. Not everyone will be in your possible audience, and you can't do anything about that. (Remember that one-fifth of the people you meet will not like you, and there won't be a thing you can do to change their minds. It's got to do with pheromones or chemistry or something. Must be true, because I read it in Psychology Today years ago.)

I leave you with a parody of the most famous aria from the great opera Carmina Burana by Carl Orff--O FORTUNA. There are worse ways to sign off, trust me. (This link pops open in a new window, so never fear--you won't be leaving the blog site!)

(If you need the mondegreen scrubbed away, the real lyrics are here.)

Visit the Oak Tree Press blog at

My personal journal:

Friday, June 1, 2012

ManicReaders page is up!

I'm now listed on ManicReaders. I have an author page with a bio and clickable links to summaries of my books. All of the Oak Tree Press authors should be listed shortly, as arrangements have been made by our beloved and esteemed publisher!

For some reason, when I put my middle initial into my profile, their software included it in my link. I suppose this is good, becuase for the last year or so, when I have Googled myself, I haven't been the first "hit" to come up. Instead, I've gotten several hits for a singer with my name (the very idea! Somebody stealing my NAME) who has had several recent releases. Maybe we two shall meet someday and she can sing Gershwin tunes while I play piano, or we can harmonize on hymns. Also, the speaker of the North Carolina state house is named after us.

I could've kept my maiden name when I married lo these many moons ago, but no one could spell or pronounce "Gerneth." (GRRR-neth, with a short "e" in the second syllable.) It isn't hard for all those Gerneths in Munich, but my mom and I are the only remaining Gerneths in the USA. Therefore . . . there it is. What was I saying?

Oh, right.