Reviews of favorites from my reading list, along with writing tips and advice, beta reading pet peeves, and other tools I pick up along my journey to trad publication.
Sorry, but I need to gush about this one. Kill Your Darlings by L.E. Harper is an astounding piece of writing craft, as a self-aware story inside a subtly unfolding story, where all is not as we perceive. I received a free digital ARC copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
But first of all, make sure you read the forward of the book for trigger warnings. The triggers are there in a big way, so take them seriously if you are vulnerable to trauma.
Our MC is a fantasy author. We learn that she is on book 5 of her wildly successful YA fantasy series, and spiraling. Her editor hates her ending. Her revision deadline is days away. She hasn’t even started them. Depression and burnout have her in a chokehold. Her one escape is in her dreams, where she drops into her main character, Kyla, and spends time in the beautiful world of Solera that she’s created. But this time it feels different. This time, as she wakes up in her fictional lover’s arms, it might not be a dream.
When I first started Kill Your Darlings, I was a little meh on the standard fantasy world and creatures, and a few slightly shaky line edits. But I really loved the meta story. I loved how the MC lampshades the fantasy genre and tropes, playing with the meta narrative and fourth wall, and breaking all the rules. It felt like a Rian Johnson film, where the subtext, background, symbolism, and inside jokes took center stage over the actual plot. Then, as the book progressed and we learned all was not as it seemed, we discover the author was pulling off a master class in unreliable narrator. Just breathtakingly well-executed. And when dreams turned reality turned back into metaphor and the darkness falls, that last twist left me completely destroyed, and unable to put the book down.
I can see why Kill Your Darlings struggled in the query trenches. The real story, the thing that makes it unique and phenomenal, is a slow, subtle burn that takes time to develop. Querying, with the pitch plus ten pages approach, is going to bury a gem like this. It’s like trying to pitch a souffle to people looking for a candy bar. But if a slow-burn meta-narrative is your thing and you’re comfortable with darker themes, this is your dessert.
I picked this up excited for queer and Ace rep. I kept reading because it was a fun escapist fantasy. I loved the lampshading and the cleverness of an MC who knows what genre they’re in. But that last dark twist lets this book live rent-free in my head for the foreseeable future. Even now, days after reading, I look back and see how small pieces fit together into that final whole, and how perfectly unexpected yet inevitable the ending turned out to be.
Kill Your Darlings comes out on May 24, 2023 and is available for pre-order. Connect with this author on their TikTok at
https://www.tiktok.com/@selfpubdragon and make sure you request indie titles at your local library!
Delilah Green doesn’t care. She’s built a whole life around it. Casual hookups, a soulless New York Apartment, and no contact with the small town of Bright Falls and the stepfamily that never cared about her. The only thing that matters is her photography career. When Delilah is critically behind on her rent and on the verge of stardom, her stepsister makes an offer she can’t refuse: come back to Bright Falls and photograph her society wedding. It would mean the kind of money Delilah hasn’t seen in years. Enough to get her through to her big break. But it also means returning to place where she grew up in painful isolation as a strange, forgotten ghost after her father died.
Delilah decides that while they can strongarm her into coming back to the town she loathes, she can do it on her own terms. That means wearing what she likes. It means moving through the pre-wedding events like a wrecking ball. It means seducing her stepsister’s best friend and bridesmaid, just to prove she can.
But the more time Delilah spends in Bright Falls, the more confusing things become. Her sister may need rescue more than torment, and the bridesmaid fling grows into a deeper connection. Delilah finds it harder and harder to not care. And ghosts from her past make her question for the first time, between her and her stepsister, just who stopped caring first.
Delilah Green Doesn’t Care is one of those books that starts off simple, then starts peeling back layers of complexity as we go. It tackles hard topics like blended families, grief, expectations, and whether people are capable of change. But there is enough lightness to carry the weighty topics. I love the symmetry of each character fighting to throw off a different maladaptive coping mechanism. Despite coming from similar wounds, each character has a different journey toward healing. Some must learn to trust those that let them down. Others must trust themselves enough to set boundaries and say no.
The steam is delicious, and Delilah’s connection with Claire is unmistakably hot and powerful from the first moment they meet. The pacing of their emotional connection balances well with their sexual attraction. Claire’s kid and ex both serve as additional complexities in her relationship with Delilah. She must trust Delilah with her child’s heart, as well as her own. Delilah must trust Claire in return to not fall back into her ex’s arms. After all, Claire is one of her sister’s friends, and Delilah already knows what it’s like to be cast aside and forgotten by these women.
For this and other books, visit the author’s website at http://www.ashleyherringblake.com/. And don’t forget to request at your local public library!
Content notices for Delilah Green Doesn’t Care: Death of parent, childhood bullying and neglect, emotional abuse by parent and spouse, cheating exes.
My local library has added some gems lately, and The Layover by Lacie Waldon is among them!
Ava Greene’s fiancé and love of her life is everything she wanted as a child. Settled. Scheduled. Predictable. Everything her irresponsible wandering nomad parents were not. She’s even willing to give up her career as a flight attendant to make this marriage work. Now her last trip has a coveted layover in Belize, and she’s taking the opportunity to celebrate the kickoff of her new life. Especially since her busy lawyer fiancé never has time to travel.
But this trip comes with a sour note in the form of Jack Stone, a former hotshot pilot and party to the most humiliating night of her life. She’s determined to enjoy this trip despite him, but mechanical issues mean delays, and the more time she spends around Stone, the harder it is to hate him. While she swore this was her last trip, it also reminds her of everything she loves about her job. Now Ava starts to wonder whether she can actually leave this life behind.
Her fiancé is adamant. He hates her unpredictable schedule, the unexpected delays, the inconvenience to his own tight schedule. He wants her home every night, a housewife and mother to his children. That’s what Ava told him she wanted. However, what she wished for as a child (stability, permanence) starts to feel more like a cage. Now she wonders whether she can put down roots without giving up the sky.
The Layover by Lacie Waldon is that sweet spot of romcom with profound personal revelation and growth. It talks about how we get to change and want new things, even as adults. It explores that moment when you have to let go of your maladaptive coping mechanisms when they no longer serve you. But all that is going on underneath the hood. At heart we have a light fun beachy romcom full of hijinks, delightful secondary characters, and the chaotic path to true love.
I love the subplots as much as the main, which always makes for a satisfying read. Ava’s unexpected friendships aboard her last flight and the quest to set up Gen and Pilot Paul adds to the hijinks and sweetness. The descriptions of Belize make me ache to trail my own hands through the bioluminescent pools. But mostly I want friends like Gen and Pilot Paul, and Ava and Jack, and the layover adventures they have together.
For The Layover and other work, visit the author at https://www.laciewaldon.com/. Don’t forget to request it at your local library!
I picked up Dial A for Aunties from my local library this month, and couldn’t wait to talk about it!
Meddy is the good daughter. She stuck around and gave up the love of her life to go into the wedding business with her ma and aunties. All her cousins moved away as far and as fast as they could, but Meddy can’t bear to let her family down. Even when they try to control every part of her life.
But then Ma sets her up on a blind date with a creep and Meddy accidentally kills him in self-defense. She turns to the women who raised her for help, her Ma and Aunties. But tomorrow there’s a billionaire island wedding that will skyrocket their business to fame. They need to be on a boat in a few short hours, ready to organize the wedding of the century. That’s hardly time to dispose of a body properly. But it’s okay, because the Aunties have a plan. What could possibly go wrong?
This book is a must-read for writers because it breaks all the rules we stress over. It’s completely implausible, packed with coincidence and chaos, and has plot holes big enough to hide a body. It’s messy and chaotic.
And it’s FABULOUS.
Dial A for Aunties is a romp, a heist, and a romance all rolled up in a pork dumpling. It’s Weekend at Bernie’s meets Crazy Rich Asians. Each new plot twist evokes a “What!?” of disbelief. Every hijink had me laughing out loud and face-palming (which is tricky while wearing reading glasses). Every new dilemma had me turning the page, until I finished the book with bleary-eyed satisfaction after 1am.
Meddy’s arc of finding her own identity and boundaries in the face of a loving but overwhelming family is well-developed and relatable. We root for her to find her balance, and it looks much different from her cousins’ solutions of fleeing to the far side of the country. The immersive cultural details are accessible and beautifully portrayed. Don’t be fooled by the hijinks, this book has depth and heartbreak under the laughter. You just have to let go of your preconceived notions and critical eye, pop some popcorn, and throw your whole heart into this wacky, cinematic, and thoroughly enjoyable story.
For links to this and other books, visit the author’s website at https://www.jesseqsutanto.com/ . Don’t forget to request it at your public library!
Dahlia Woodson has a plan to reinvent herself after a messy divorce left her world gray. If she can just win the reality cooking competition Chef’s Special, the prize money and fame will let her clear away the past and find the kind of future she’s been dreaming of. But when her feelings for her rival, non-binary London Parker, come to a boil, she must decide whether she’s ready to risk it all, including her heart, on another person again.
London Parker is intensely shy and reserved, which is why their coming-out as gender non-binary on a nationally televised cooking show is all the stress they can handle. They don’t have time for a bubbly, breathtakingly adorable rival creeping into their heart. They’re too busy proving the trolls (and their dad) wrong. But love doesn’t always care about your plans in life.
Love and Other Disasters has all the foodie TV feel-goods and sex-positivity you’re looking for in a romance, including a wedding crashing, a sweet grumpy-sunshine dynamic, and a dessert in bed scene that might not hit for all readers. But what really hit me was London’s character. I can see so much of myself in them and the development of their gender identity that the affirmation brought me to actual tears. The dysphoria struggle is real, raw, and honestly handled. It was a fiercely empowering read for me, as well as a gentle, sweet, spicy, sexy taking of SoCal by storm. I particularly loved Dahlia’s complicated, nuanced relationship with her mother, and the healing that rose from it.
At heart, this is a deliciously satisfying read, that also tackles some hard conversations and doesn’t shy away from showing the bad and the good in ways that leave the reader with hope for us all.
Content Notices for: On-page explicit homophobia and transphobia (including transphobic parent rejection and deadnaming), blood, and anxiety, use of AFAB language.
See Anita Kelly’s work at https://anitakellywrites.com/ and don’t forget to request it at your local library!
I’ve lost work. Hasn’t everybody? Mine was a hard drive failure that deleted dozens of short stories and partial manuscripts I’d collected over the years, back when cloud backup wasn’t anything as accessible or cheap as it is today. I had printed copies of some of those, backup diskettes of others, but a few are gone forever.
It’s understandable! We writers are not necessarily also computer people. We come from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, so the routine, rigorous backup and version control practices of software programmers may not be something we’re even aware of. But since I was lucky enough to marry into the ranks of nerdery (who was HORRIFIED at my chaotic-evil approach to file management), I have unlearned some bad habits that put my work at risk.
Don’t: Work From the Same Document Every Day
You don’t have to lose a whole file to lose work. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding out that you don’t like the changes you made yesterday, but since Undo only goes back to the last save, you’re stuck. Or finding out that you hit a wrong button at some point (who knows when?) and deleted large chunks of your document.
Do: New Day, New File
Every day that I write, step one is to create a new document. The document name begins with the date in year-month-day order, then a file name. For instance, on August 1, 2022, I opened my work in progress with the working title Uncoupled, and saved it as 2022-08-01 Uncoupled. This applies whether I’m working in Scrivener, Google Docs, or Word/Libreoffice. Then I work from this new file that day. Tomorrow I will start off my session by saving a new copy, 2022-08-02 Uncoupled.
This means that if a file gets corrupted, I’m unlikely to lose more than a day’s work. It also means that if I make a major change, such as from 1st person to 3rd, I can roll those changes back simply by opening an older version of the book. If I accidently delete a section without knowing, I can retrieve it from an earlier version. It also proves provenance if I have to show that I am the creator of a work in copyright dispute.
Is it “really” your final draft, though? One of the biggest traps we writers fall into is thinking a work is done, then having to tack on new words to try and distinguish it from the last time we thought that work was done. Also, what about when this is no longer your Work In Progress? How would you find this in a file search, or know at a glance which project this is when you’ve written three more books?
Do: “<Date><Working Title>.doc”
Again, if a file is labeled 2022-08-01-Uncoupled.doc (My current WIP) and stored in a folder specifically for this project, I can sort by date and see at a glance that this is my most recent version. I don’t need to label it “Final,” despite the emotional satisfaction of doing so. It’s also easy to find in a search, if I don’t know where I put it in a few years. I can be confident that there isn’t a FinalFinalFinalFINALdraftWIP.doc floating around somewhere that replaces this one. And, by including the date in the name of the file, I don’t have to worry that if I open an older version and hit save by accident, it marks the “last edited” date in the system to make it appear the most recent version.
Don’t: Keep Files in Multiple Local Folders
At one point, I had separate folders for “Drafts” “Querying” and “Books.” The first book I wrote had versions of it spread over all three folders, and one hanging out randomly on my desktop. (Did I mention my ADHD?) I hadn’t yet started good file name practices, so each of those folders contained a version of my project labeled “Final Draft,” and every single one of those “Final Draft” files was slightly different. So which one was my real final draft? I had opened and closed them enough that the system dates were unreliable. I could use specialized software to compare the versions and discover where they differed, but chances were, I was rolling dice and losing edits.
Do: Keep Drafts in a Single Central Location and Link
I decided to use a folder structure of Writing –> Books –> Title for my central repository. There I have all of my notes, scrivener and doc files, and even images for mood boards. I do have a separate Writing –> Query folder, where I keep query specific documents. But that folder contains a link to the draft I’m currently querying, not a separate copy. That way, if I spot a stray typo before sending out pages or full MS, I can correct it, and that change will reflect back on the central copy of the MS. I’m not breaking the chain, and that correction will be preserved if I go back and do a round of revisions between queries.
When I do make changes, however, I save a new dated version as backup. The querying copy is an exception to the naming protocols because it should be <last name>_<Title>.doc for purposes of attaching the file for agents. But it should also exist as a dated draft in the main folder, for future edits.
Don’t: Only Save In One Location
Computers fail. Hard drives fail. Files glitch. Theft happens. Malware happens. It’s easy to lose sight of just how impermanent electronic documents are. Some folks get around that by using only the cloud, such as working directly from Google Docs or Dropbox. But those accounts are just as vulnerable as your local machine.
Do: Minimum 1 Physical Drive, 1 Cloud
This is a bare minimum! The physical drive can be a laptop, desktop, external HD, anything that stores the files locally to a device that is within your physical control. The Cloud can be any of several paid or free cloud services, including Dropbox, OneDrive, Pcloud, or Google Docs. Your writing habit should include opening your writing session with a new file name, and ending it by saving a copy of that file to a new location. If you work from Dropbox, make a local copy on your machine at the end of the day. If you work from your local machine, save a copy to the cloud.
Again, that’s a minimum. Backup redundancy is always a good idea, but does require more discipline. Some authors will work from their laptop, backup their work to an external hard drive, then make separate backups to two cloud services. Those authors are very unlikely to ever lose more than a day’s work.
I split the difference, personally. My ADHD makes it important that my routines are as simple and automated as possible. So I work from my laptop, using Scrivener for drafting and LibreOffice for final layout/edits. Scrivener has the option to set a backup destination and back up your file with one click, but LibreOffice requires an extra step of “Save As” at the end of the day. I backup to PCloud. Once a week or so, I copy my entire writing folder into a zip file and store it in Dropbox for an additional reserve.
Dropbox and Pcloud do have automated options that will back up your files and folders, but after a glitch where Dropbox overwrote my local laptop files with the older cloud version, costing me a day’s work and 5K words on a first draft, I prefer to back up manually.
The most important things you can do to save yourself from losing your work are to work from a new, dated copy of the file each day, stored in a single central folder, and back it up to at least one separate location.
Andrew’s bond with his best friend Eddie was deeper than blood or friendship, rooted in deep magic and deeper secrets. When Andrew gets word of Eddie’s apparent suicide, it tears Andrew’s whole world apart. He’s drawn back to Nashville to piece together Eddie’s last days, certain that there’s more to the death than he’s been told.
I’m picky about gothics. Not because I’m somehow an expert in the genre, but specifically because I’m not. So my favorite gothics tend to be contemporary genre crossovers with accessible writing style, vivid characters, and a strong sense of place.
Summer Sons just clicked for me. It is a slow, dark, languid dive into the Appalachians. We walk the line of social tension between the elite and the back woods, old South generational wealth and generational curses, ivory towers and street racers, queer masculinity and violence.
What I love best about Summer Sons, besides the sheer craftsmanship, is the handling of ghosts. Andrew’s powers and affinity for the dead are woven tightly into the story, heavy with dread and metaphor. There is no friendly Casper guiding the MC gently to a life lesson. The ghosts are visceral, angry, and dangerous, seducing Andrew into a spiral of his own self-destruction.
But the craftsmanship! I simultaneously disliked every single character, yet wanted to really dive into in their head and rooted for their redemption. The author pulled me into scenes and hobbies I had no interest in and made me care. The characters made terrible, toxic, self-loathing, and self-pitying decisions, but made me understand and sympathize. It is the kind of story that lingers for hours once you close the book, like the taste of coffee after you drink. It’s not the kind of book you take to the beach for a light summer read.
It’s the kind of book that haunts you.
To find a copy of Summer Sons visit the author’s website at https://leemandelo.com/
Content warnings for suicide, alcoholism, drug use, graphic violence, supernatural horror, and homophobia.
Here it is, the traditional, ginormous, over-the-top, all-the dish, “How I got my agent” post!
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end. I’ll also break out individual pieces into future blog posts as well, going into more depth with the strategies that worked for me. Please note that no one path to publishing is going to be right for everyone. I have a great deal of privilege going into this process, along with some big disadvantages, and that affected my approach and results. The goal is always to build a big toolbox, then use the most effective tools for the job in front of you.
I always had plans to be a writer, from the short story I wrote in kindergarten about a ghost who was really bad at scaring people, to the truly tragically, hilariously awful fanfiction I wrote in my teens about Star Trek (big crushes on Chekov and Worf) and Batman Forever (Hellooo Chris O’Donnell!) I still have those fanfiction notebooks, by the way, and do solemnly swear that if I ever make it to NYT Bestseller lists, I will release pages of it every April Fools Day to show that writing skill can be acquired through practice, and doesn’t have to exist as an innate trait. So if you’re curious, then buy my books and recommend me to others.
After my meandering path of career changes into my 40s, my partner earned his doctorate in mathematics and got a job offer that we could both live on. With his support, I had a rare opportunity to take my filing cabinets full of bits and pieces of half-formed ideas and unfinished scenes, and set out full-time on a self-directed study of how to be a writer.
BOOK ONE: PUNCH DRUNK MAGIC
I wrote my first full book, Punch Drunk Magic, in the summer of 2018, after searching endlessly for a certain kind of book I wasn’t able to find. It was a not-so-cozy suburban mystery about witches, romance, and identity within a generational community. In the meantime, I started brushing off old social media accounts and joining online writing groups for advice, reading voraciously, and searching for resources on the business end of writing. I learned about the query trenches, synopses, beta readers, and comps. I devoured every piece of advice I could find, sifting through it for patterns so that I could figure out which to follow. I believed so hard in this book. It was everything I wanted to read – sexy, angsty, magical, and subversive. When I sent it off to beta readers, they loved it (except for one who said there was too much kissing for a mystery, but I forgave them).
Then it was time to enter the dreaded query trenches.
THE QUERY LETTER
It turns out that writing a book and writing about a book are two completely different skill sets. So if you’re struggling with your query letter, you are not alone, or a bad writer. You are trying a new writing form for the first time, and it takes practice.
Luckily, I found The Query Shark at https://queryshark.blogspot.com/. Agent Janet Reid runs the blog were she takes queries submitted for critique, and shows us the editing process, often through multiple iterations. To this day, the number one advice I offer any querying author is to go to the Query Shark blog, navigate to the archive, and read ALL 300+ query critiques. After every 20-30 critiques, stop and revise your query letter with what you’ve learned, so the new tips don’t get lost in the shuffle.
That sounds like a slog, right? But again, you’re developing an entirely new skill set, and this blog is a master class in crafting a tight, dynamic, voice-driven query letter. There’s no shortcuts to learning a new skill. Put in the time. Do the work. You can start as soon as you have a rough draft or outline of your book and pick away at 20-30 critiques and one revision a week. Once you have a finished book, you have a polished query letter ready to go.
Note that some agents have specific requirements for query letters that don’t match Query Shark’s (e.g. loglines, housekeeping info at the top). Always defer to the individual agent’s requirements, and poke around to see if that agent has posted sample queries you can use as a guide.
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end of the post.
Again, writing a book and writing about a book are two very different skill sets! The synopsis is the most hated step of the querying process for a lot of authors. And no, that’s not a typo in the section title. You need two. One is a 1000 word version for agents who either don’t specify, or ask for a 2+ page version. The second is a 500 word version for agents who request a one-page synopsis.
Start with a “however long it takes” synopsis. Stick to ONLY your main character’s story and the central conflict. For each chapter or major scene, write out one sentence saying what happens, one sentence describing how the character’s choices or actions led to that event, and one sentence describing the effect of the event on the character or central conflict. Once you have an outline, you can smooth it down to just the major turning points of the story instead of every scene, eliminate any side characters who crept in there, and eventually, make sure it reflects your narrative voice. Then chop it down to just the absolute critical events (inciting incident, midpoint, all-is-lost, ending) for the 500 page version.
If you’re struggling to identify the major plot points that go into a synopsis, I recommend starting with the beats described in the books Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Writes a Novel. For Romance genre, I recommend Romancing the Beat.
I’ll go more into query letters and synopses in future blog posts.
THE AGENT LIST
I do use Query Tracker, but the interface wasn’t intuitive enough for me for tracking and hid some information I wanted to see at a glance. I created a separate spreadsheet using Google Sheets to create a master list of agents. To start, have one sheet in the workbook that serves as a master list of all agents you’re interested in. You’ll do a separate sheet to track querying for each project.
I’ll do a separate post to go into more detail, but you’ll want to start with Query Tracker and search for anyone who reps your genre. For each agent, use their agency wishlist, the Manuscript Wishlist site, and social media (especially Twitter) to determine whether your book would be a good fit. Take notes as you go, as it will help you personalize your query letter later and make good choices. Save links to interviews or blog posts they’ve made. I then scored each agent 1-10 based on how well my book fits their wishlist.
Once you have a complete list, my next step was to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for one month. I went through each agent and agency and took extensive notes on what they’ve sold in my genre (or if they’re a new agent, what the lead agents that might be mentoring them have sold), who they sold it to, and when. If you start with a complete list, you can cram this work into a month and then cancel the subscription if you can’t afford to maintain it. You’ll want to resubscribe if you get an offer, though, so that you can get recent information and dig more deeply into the offering agent(s). Then, of course, you’ll want to re-subscribe long-term once you’re published, to maintain an author account and your book listings.
You can do some of this work for free through Query Tracker, the agency website, and individual authors’ acknowledgment pages, but it is a lot more time and effort. If you can afford the month of PM at this stage, it’s a good investment.
Now you should be ready to sort your agents into A, B, and C tiers based on how much you want to work with them, as well as flagging (not deleting—always keep your research) anyone you absolutely do not want to work with. An A10 agent is a dream match. A C1 agent might not be worth querying, at least not until much later.
When I set out to be an author, I found a lot of advice and resources through social media, including several of my most trusted beta readers, free workshops and courses, and advice. While the primary focus should always be on writing the best possible book and refining your craft, all three offering agents mentioned my social media following as a positive factor in their decision.
I currently keep a Twitter account that’s primarily a professional writing account, and a Facebook account where I participate in a lot of writing groups and workshops. I’ve switched a lot of my Facebook activity to an author page to build interaction, and linked it to my Instagram, which I’m still building and figuring out how to use effectively. (Right now I just post writing quotes and dad jokes).
Before 2018 I barely used my Twitter account for anything and only had a couple of followers. I set out to deliberately build a writing community around me before I queried my first book. It took almost four years to pass 14K, so it’s worth starting early so you don’t have to have a crash course in social media in the short time between signing an agent and going on sub. Trust me, you’ll have enough to do then!
I sent out my first batch of query letters to a mix of A and B tier agents in January 2019, and mixed it up with Twitter pitch parties. I got a few requests from DVpit and SFFpit in 2019. Overall, I sent 38 queries for Punch Drunk Magic between January and May 2019, with 8 requests for partial or full. Then I declared it dead.
This was a brutal process, and I have absolute sympathy for anyone who quits, goes indie, goes straight to publishers, etc. Those are valid paths, but didn’t fit my own long-term career goals. But the querying trenches are harrowing, without a doubt. I was even playing on easy mode, not having to wonder if my race or ethnicity was a factor in the rejections. I knew it came down to my story and the market, and I didn’t make the cut.
BOOK 2: A WITCH IN WINE COUNTRY
What kept me going, aside from sheer stubbornness, was that I had already started a new book. Once Punch Drunk Magic was out there and I only had to occasionally send an email or update a spreadsheet, I took some excellent advice and turned to a completely unrelated story. By the time Punch Drunk was ready to be shelved, A Witch in Wine Country was ready for beta readers, and I started the whole process again.
The thing is, once I had finished writing and revising the new book, I picked up Punch Drunk just to read for fun. With the benefit of more experience, I could see the problems in that first book that I could not see when I was querying it. The characters were underdeveloped. There were some plot holes. The line-level writing was choppy. I used cliches, like starting with the character waking up and describing herself in a mirror. If I had thrown it out there on Amazon as a self-pub, I’d be a little embarrassed of it now. It’s still a good story, and I hope to dust it off and revise it in a few years, but it wasn’t ready.
Overall, I sent out 45 queries for Wine Country and participated in Twitter pitch parties between February and July 2020. I immediately noticed a pattern compared to the previous book. My rejections took longer and were more personalized, so I was hitting more “maybe” piles. I received 6 requests for more material, but more full requests than partials. Then, in September 2020, I hit the next marker in what I considered progress in my writing craft—a revise and resubmit from an agent I really wanted to work with. The feedback was sparse, but I took the bit in my teeth and ran with it, doing a full re-write, adding depth to characters and re-shaping the plot. Unfortunately, I revised it too far away from the agent’s wishlist, and they passed. While I think it ended up a much stronger book, it also ended up a much different book, so I don’t blame them for deciding it was no longer a good fit for them.
In 2021, while struggling with a new project along the same lines, I sent Wine Country back out to beta readers, including, this time, a published author I met through a Facebook group who was able to give me higher-level professional advice. In short, the feedback was that I was trying to do too much in one book. It had a central romance plot, but also a women’s fiction plot, a murder mystery, and paranormal elements, all competing for equal billing. The blend of genres was similar to gothics, but it didn’t have enough of the gothic tropes and vibe to market it as such. I needed to pick a central plot and let the others take supporting roles if I wanted the book to be marketable. I had the same issue with my current WIP, which was stuck at the midpoint.
BOOK 3: TIMBER (THE ONE)
So to focus myself and recover from the disappointment of querying, I set out to write a pure, single-genre contemporary romance. My goal was to really nail down the romance plot with all the genre beats, and narrow in on the character development around that plot. I needed to make writing fun again, so I picked something completely out of my wheelhouse and as different from the previous books as I could get—a lumberjack romcom. It was such a cliché that it begged for a revival. So I put my lumberjacks on the set of a reality TV show and cast it all through a queer, gender-subversive lens. I also put some craft books to work (Save the Cat, Save the Cat writes a Novel, and Romancing the Beat) sketching out each chapter and matching it up with genre beats before beginning the first draft. Hats off to my poor partner, who watched three seasons of Axe-men with me for research, and then listened to me info-dump everything the TV show got wrong according to the behind-the-scenes articles and forum threads from real loggers.
I started querying Timber in October 2021, picking up whoever was still open over the holiday season. Then in 2022, I took a few weeks and just blasted queries, hitting an agent at every agency on my list by the end of February. From 71 queries sent, I received 13 requests for more materials, and, in June 2022, an offer of representation.
I had, at this point, given up on Timber and was ready to shelve it and move on. It hit hard, the rejections on this third round. My partner was talking me out of quitting writing and looking for a job every month or so. I was researching self-publication marketing in earnest, even though it didn’t fit my career goals. When the email asking for a phone call came in, right after a rejection on a full, I had to read it three times to understand that it wasn’t another rejection.
The phone call was like a miracle. Not only did she love my book, she GOT my book. She understood what I was going for (a m/f romance through a queer lens, kicking off an eventual series of various queer pairings) in a way that made me feel seen. She loved my characters for the same reasons I did, and her editorial goals was to make my book more of what we both loved about it, not turn it into something else. She supported my interest in writing in multiple genres in the future, and had ideas for how to map that kind of career. Most importantly to me, she’s an editorial agent, and writing the best book I can is as important to me as selling it.
I immediately contacted everyone who had a Timber query and hadn’t responded yet, even those that were six months old that technically would be considered timed out. This resulted in two additional offers and an outpouring of personalized, supportive rejections congratulating me on my offer (in case anyone though agents didn’t care, the good ones really do want to see authors succeed).
My next step was to weigh the different offers. I reviewed the agency sample contracts with my partner, who is one of those people who reads court briefs for fun. Yeah. I don’t get it either, but it sure comes in handy when reviewing legal documents.
In the end, the deciding factors will be different for everyone. For me, it came down to:
- The editorial approach and this agent’s background in editing that would make this book shine in a very crowded market
- The contract that seemed the most fair and balanced with an assumption of good faith
- A boutique agency where agents had a strong cooperative working style, experienced mentors, and a mission of inclusion/diversity in publishing that I feel strongly about
- The connection this agent had with my book and her enthusiasm for working with it!
AFTER THE OFFER
A few things to keep in mind that I haven’t seen passed around as advice for a newly offered author, and should be:
1. You can request changes to the contract. Probably not something extreme like fee percentages, but if you see a clause in one agency’s contract that you wish existed in another, don’t hesitate to ask for it. Do they specify caps on multi-agent fees for subrights? Do they have a clause that ensures you can be paid directly from the publisher in case of agency bankruptcy or dissolution? They might say no to your request, or ask for a different wording, but they’re not going to rescind your offer for something like that. If they do rescind, you dodged a bullet. You wouldn’t want to suddenly find out your agent has a touchy ego once you’re already in a business relationship and you rely on them to get your checks.
2. If you get an offer, ask around your whisper network. Post in private writing groups on social media asking if anyone has heard good or bad things of the agents, and if someone wants to DM you about it, let them. People in the industry get to know the bad actors, but won’t say anything where it will come up in a search and risk retaliation. Check WriterBeware. Get 2-3 references from the agent, preferably at least one writer that has sold a book and one that hasn’t. Email them to ask how it is to work with the agent.
3. Plan for a crash. You’ve spent a lot of time, either months or years, enduring heartache, rejection, exhaustion, and burnout. You’ve had an adrenaline soaked couple of weeks of fielding life-changing phone calls and decisions. Give yourself time to fall back to earth after you’ve signed the contract. If you can take time off work, do so. Don’t throw yourself into a new project. Play video games. Go for walks. Breathe. Feel your feelings. Process the trauma of this journey. This moment, between your acceptance and either an editorial letter or a submission plan, is the last and best moment to breathe in your career.
4. If an agent refuses to give you references, pressures you to make an immediate decision without giving you at least two weeks to consider other offers, or won’t provide a sample contract from the agency to look over, I would consider those red flags. This is supposed to be a mutually beneficial business relationship. If it isn’t starting out with mutual respect, transparency, and good faith, it can only go downhill from there. You are in a vulnerable position and maybe a little desperate, so you’re perfect for predators to pick off and take advantage of. As much as we want an agent, it is absolutely true that a bad agent is worse than none. This is why your whisper network may be your most valuable tool.
The most helpful lesson I’ve learned through the process of querying three books in three years was that I have more than one book in me. I’m able to let go of scarcity thinking going into revisions with my agent because I know this isn’t “THE BOOK,” It’s one book. It’s my first of many books. If I need to cut a character, plot, or theme, I can re-use it somewhere else. If it fails on sub, then I’ve already started outlining the next book, and it will be even better than this one.
Related to this, the best skill I’ve picked up in this process is the ability to receive critique of my work. As much as I love my characters and story, the fact that this isn’t “THE BOOK” means I can take a step back and consider them objectively. That isn’t to say all criticism is useful, since it’s often highly subjective and sometimes delivered so rudely that it overshadows any useful message buried beneath the jerkiness. But I’ve learned that my real goal isn’t to preserve this story–it’s to make it better. Even if that means tearing it down to the studs for a complete re-build. That doesn’t mean critique is easy to hear, but accepting it is a skill worth cultivating if your goal is to become a better writer.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this, and good luck in the query trenches! If you have questions or need specific advice, feel free to reach out to me in the comments, or on Twitter @JoGeekly.
MY QUERY LETTER for TIMBER
This was my base query letter, which was personalized and modified according to each agent’s guidelines and interests.
Dear (agent full name):
Aspiring producer and secret idealist Anna MacKenzie needs this reality docudrama on Oregon logging to launch her career. She expected the studio executives and her ambitious ex to fight her dream of making sympathetic, positive television. She wasn’t expecting the biggest fight to come from a giant, grumpy, backwoods lumberjerk determined to sabotage her show.
Henry West is not about to let some Hollywood slimeball come in with pretty promises and throw the private lives of everyone he cares about into the national spotlight for public ridicule. Not even for the cash infusion his family’s logging business desperately needs. Not even when said slimeball comes with eyes like the shifting shadows on mossy stone, and reminds him of the poems he stopped writing so many years ago.
In their war of contract loopholes and Disney princess theme songs, the line between fighting and flirting quickly blurs. But a cease fire proves even more dangerous. Giving in to the pull of attraction would risk her career, his family’s reputation, and both their hearts.
TIMBER is a contemporary, dual-POV, enemies to lovers romance of 83,000 words with strong series potential. It was inspired in part by the History Channel’s docudrama Ax Men and the Lifetime series UnREAL, and should appeal to readers of Tessa Bailey’s It Happened One Summer, Lucy Score’s Mister Fixer Upper, and readers of Sally Thorne.
Thank you for your time,
Dev Deshpande makes happy-ever-afters happen. As a producer on the top reality dating show, his specialty is crafting a story of true love, even when his own love life crashes and burns.
But this season’s bachelor, tech genius Charlie Winshaw, is a disaster. Stiff, awkward, picky, and anxious, he’s as far from prince charming material as the show has ever seen. Worse, he doesn’t even believe in love—he’s only on the show to rehabiliate his image.
Dev’s mission is to get Charlie to open up, relax, and give love a chance with the women vying to be chosen as his princess. But the more Charlie opens up, the more they realize he has better chemistry with Dev than the 20 women he’s supposed to choose a wife from. The two men are faced with a high-stakes choice: Go along with the illusion and save both their careers, or challenge everyone’s assumptions of who deserves a happy-ever-after.
This is one of those rare and precious cinnamon-roll love stories that make my heart sing, because the author does not confuse cinnamon-roll with passive or feminine. Charlie is strong, loyal, physical, and willing to fight for what he wants. He’s just also soft, sweet, anxious, and wounded by a world that refuses to see him. With OCD and panic disorder, his biggest struggle is internal; he must take off the mask that he’s worked so hard to make, because he assumed he had to meet the expectations of others to deserve happiness.
Dev and Charlie’s dynamic is reminiscent of Alex and Henry in Red, White, and Royal Blue. Dev has the same frenetic energy and wild charm, balanced by Charlie’s wounded softness. It’s a dynamic that works well, lending itself to adorable squee moments and outrageous, witty banter. The writing craft is strong from the line-level on up, the pacing well-balanced, and the secondary characters are ones we want to see center-stage in their own stories. This one is definitely going in my re-read pile.
Look and ask for The Charm Offensive at your local library, or visit the author’s website at https://www.alisoncochrun.com/ for purchasing options and upcoming titles!
Ari Abram’s dream is to be a meteorologist, and counts herself lucky to work with her childhood hero, the ever calm and cheerful Torrance Hale at KSEA 6 in Seattle. But instead of the close relationship with her mentor she’d craved, she spends most of her time trying to defuse shouting matches and petty fights between Torrance and her divorced husband, the news director.
Desperate, she teams up with cinnamon roll sports reporter Russell Barringer to play matchmaker. If they can make their bosses fall in love again, it will make everyone’s lives easier at KSEA 6. But Ari wasn’t planning to fall in love herself. It would mean letting someone see past the sunshine girl, into the darkness beneath.
My favorite romances have both elements of light, funny, wholesome squish and tackle darker themes of identity and self-growth to keep it real and grounded. Weather Girl is a great blend, with the refreshing bonus of a sexy-sweet fat male lead, Jewish characters, blending families, and a twist that is as surprising as it is satisfying. I love the exploration of generational trauma relieved by laugh-out-loud dialogue. The author is also a master of steam, putting more panting sexual tension into a casual brush of skin than some books pack into an entire sex scene. There are, of course, also a few sex scenes, so lovers of extra chili peppers will enjoy this book.
Please be aware that the book deals with depression and mental health, childhood emotional trauma, and inpatient mental health in a respectful, accurate way. It addresses issues that don’t get discussed often enough, like the effect of medication on sex drive, the reality of bad days even on well-managed symptoms, and processing forgiveness as an option instead of an obligation. It’s real, but so are the good moments, the vulnerability, and the happy-ever-after.
Visit the author’s website at http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/ to find a copy of Weather Girl, or request it at your local library.