writer’s clinic: 4 mistakes you’re making in your query


This week I’m starting a new series called Writer’s Clinic, where I’ll share tips for writing, submissions, query letters, and more. Today I’m kicking off the series by talking a little about queries. 


Most of us would rather have cavities filled than write query letters. I don’t like writing them much, either. Now that I’m an editor at an indie publisher, I’m on the other side of this fence. I see dozens of queries come through my inbox that immediately turn me off because of the same mistakes. The good news: they’re easy fixes.  


Today, I’m sharing my 4 top peeves and some tips to help you polish your query so you capture an editor’s attention—in a way that doesn’t make steam come out of her ears. After all, you put a lot of time into writing that manuscript—now you need to take the time to write a solid query that does it justice. Here’s my top repeat offenders and how you can avoid falling into these categories:


1.The super-casual “Hey, Dude” email that reads like a text message. It’s true. We get these. They have little to no capitalization, fragmented sentences, and no salutation. I’m horrified by these because I used to spend hours poring over examples of queries to get mine just right to send it to a publisher. Queries like this took less time to write than the amount of time it takes to sneeze. I don’t even read the ten pages that are attached to these queries because I figure if you can’t compose an email, you most likely can’t compose a novel. (Note: below is not the worst offender by any means.)


Not a “Dear Lauren” or “Dear Editor” in sight. The solution: do your homework. Jane Friedman and Writer’s Digest have some excellent examples of what to do and not do with a query. The basics: be polite, be professional, be succinct (but give us more info than the above example). You might have found us via Twitter, but your query to us is not a tweet. You are sending the equivalent of a cover letter you’d attach to a resume—not a text message. Also, write your query in first person, just like you’d write a real letter.


2. The query that guarantees we’ll be hooked, even though you totally ignored our submission guidelines (PLUS didn’t bother to note our names). 

This one is a no-brainer. At BCP we have very simple guidelines, like 80,000 words, please. (We’re flexible, but unless we are BLOWN AWAY by your MS, we’re not going to help you cut 30K words). I know this writer read our guidelines, because he says outright that he’s submitting an MS well over the word limit. However, our current book list does not indicate this “dark alley” that he speaks of. I was also confused by his idea of “feminism” and his genre of “nonfiction novel.” Also: it goes a long way to note the editors’ names when they are emblazoned on the publisher’s website. If nothing else, go with “Dear Editors.” But you need a professional greeting in order to be taken seriously.


3. The query that has too many errors. We all make mistakes and have typos here and there. We’re human. But when you’ve drafted your query, take the time to double-check for typos, those embarrassing auto-correct mistakes, and font changes that come from cut-and-paste. This may seem minor, but as an editor, I’ll be editing your manuscript for errors. If your query is chock full of them, I’m not excited about reading your entire MS.


4. The query that is waaaaaay too long. We don’t want a detailed plot summary of the entire book, but we WOULD like a 1-page synopsis. A good rule of thumb is to keep your query to 3 paragraphs. In a couple of sentences, tell us about you. In one short paragraph, tell us why we’ll love your book. What’s the theme? The main conflict? Did we ask for something like this on #MSWL? Tell us a couple of books that are similar to yours, but don’t shoot the moon and tell us you’re the next JK Rowling. Tell us about other books you’ve published, awards you’ve won, or other publication credits. We’re getting to know YOU in your letter, too. But the key is to condense things down to a quick snapshot that makes us want to read your sample chapter. Writer’s Digest has a hundred excellent examples, and I have them to thank for teaching me how to write a kick-ass query. 


So show us how it’s done, you say. You got it. Here’s a query for a title we accepted for publication later this year. It’s polite, professional, and succinctly captures the heart of the book. The second sentence tells me the genre and lets me know exactly what’s at stake and what the conflict will be. I get a quick summary (very compact with ACTIVE language), plus a few comparisons to other authors to get the marketing side of my brain involved. It’s over our word count, but I’m willing to read on because the synopsis has me intrigued. And it’s evident Robin can paint a picture with words.



Robin closes by telling me about her publishing credits and her experience in an MFA program. An MFA isn’t necessary, but it’s good to know. And for us, publishing credits aren’t a requirement, either. But again, it’s nice to hear about some expertise that informs her writing. (If you’re a park ranger and you’re writing a book about conservation, that’s expertise, too, and we want to know you have that. It’s helpful to hear how authors are inspired to write what they write—and we like to hear when you’ve done your research.) The kicker here was that Robin’s 10 pages she submitted were dynamite. THAT made us eager to read on, even though it was longer than the books we generally publish. (But I’ll save the first ten pages discussion for next time.)


The takeaway here is that your query needs to sing. It needs finesse. You’ve spent countless hours polishing your manuscript, and this email you’re sending has about a sixty seconds to grab an editor’s attention. It needs to prove you have some writerly chops and it needs to present both YOU and your book in the very best light. You can’t be lazy here: you need to make it shine.  


Lauren is co-founder and co-editor at Blue Crow Publishing. For submission guidelines and more, visit bluecrowpublishing.com.

Top image courtesy of JESHOOTS via pixabay.com. 

I’m in Audiobook Heaven with These 10 Books


Audiobooks are my new best friends. I don’t always carve out time to read during the day, because life just got way too busy. So over the last year, my daily commute has become that sacred time when I can listen to an audiobook. This has been great because (1) I speed a lot less when I’m concentrating on a book and not belting out Johnny Cash or the Clash, (2) I get a lot less hacked off during traffic jams when I’m listening to a good book, and (3) I make a huge dent in my reading pile and discover tons of new stories. Sometimes I can burn through a book a week when listening on my drive.

My new job means I spend a lot of time at the computer, and that has me primed to gather more audiobooks into my library. I can’t listen to a book when I’m writing, or editing, or doing much that is word-related, but my new job is in graphic design. For me, that means using an entirely different quadrant of that brain that allows me to create while listening to a book. That’s win-win!

So in case you’re tired of your iPhone’s playlist, like I was, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite audiobooks from the last year:

1.The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. I dearly loved Practical Magic and was skeptical of the sequel. But Hoffman really delivered here, writing a story chock full of humor and heartache that was the perfect complement to the first book. The characters were wonderfully drawn and I was hooked from start to finish.

2. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah. This book was amazing. I laughed so hard, and then—I’ll admit—cried a time or two. This story of Noah’s growing up in South Africa sparkles with wit and warmth. I loved Noah’s storytelling and didn’t want it to end. 

3. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. This is one of my favorite books by Gaiman, and the narrator (Lenny Henry) is out of this world. Modern folklore at its best, and wicked good fun. I’ve listened to it three times already.

4. You, by Caroline Kepnes. A startling thriller, told from the villainous protagonist’s point of view. And the reader, Santino Fontana, is one of my favorites of all time. This one’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s smart, and biting, and full of diabolical humor. Bonus: there’s a sequel that’s equally mesmerizing—Hidden Bodies, also read by Fontana.

5. Nuts, by Alice Clayton. I just finished this one, and laughed until I hurt myself. I love a good sassy romantic comedy, and Clayton always delivers. With lovable characters and plenty of steam, this one is sure to spice up your workweek. Warning: you might miss an exit during the spicy parts.

6. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is one of those books I heard references to my whole life (it won the Pulitzer, for heaven’s sake), and thought it was about something else entirely. I took a chance on this “Don Quixote of the French Quarter” and again, laughed until my ribs ached. 

7. My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, by Annabel Pitcher. Read by David Tennant, this one is part tear-jerker and all sparkle. Wonderfully layered characters bring this poignant coming-of-age story to life. It’s one I can’t forget, and one of those stories I wish I’d written. 

8. The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer. I listened to this one during a low point, and Palmer reignited my creative fire. It’s a must-read for anyone in a creative funk, or anyone who is curious about the engine that drives creativity—and the giving that comes with it. Also, Palmer plays a song with a ukelele, which is about the cutest damn thing ever.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I confess, I never read it. Didn’t watch the series yet, either. But I listened to the re-release last year read by Claire Danes and it was just as impressive as I expected. The story had me hooked, and it’s as timely now as ever. 

10. Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. This one follows a bounty hunter in present-day America—but one where the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists. I was intrigued by the premise, but Winters’ prose and stark commentary kept me listening. Definitely one of the most unique reads of the year. 

Bonus tip: I love the convenience of Audible, but there are lots of other sites that offer free or discounted audiobooks. Book Riot has a good list of options here. BUT don’t forget your local library—even my tiny library has a wide selection of audiobooks that they’ll deliver to me ONLINE just like their eBooks. What’s better than that?

Got a favorite audiobook? Hit me up on Twitter (@Firebrandpress). Maybe I’ll add it to a future post!

How to Retreat

Every year or so, I give myself a gift. I give myself a week (or two, if I can swing it) at an artist’s retreat. My favorite spot is the Penland School of Crafts. Sometimes I take classes there with amazing artists, and sometimes I give myself residency time—which is that wide-open, no-holds-barred “making time” that people like me dream about. I used to spend a much larger portion of my life as a printmaker, but there’s been a shift in the last few years, and there’s a lot less time to make art than there used to be.

But every once in a while, I do a retreat—a residency—that gives me time to focus on making new work, experimenting with new techniques, and rejuvenates me. The problem is, I start psyching myself out. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams?

Each time I sign up to take a retreat week, this cycle of thought occurs:

1. This is amazing. I can’t wait to go. (2 months until time to go)
2. OMG, what was I thinking? This costs too much. What will I make? (1 week before arrival)
3. I have no ideas. I have only one week here. This was a mistake. (Arrival day.)
4. This is wonderful. I have time to make art again. Look what happens when I do this… (Day 2)
5. I wish I had more time. Why don’t I treat myself better? (Day 4)
6. Best week ever. I made something that surprised me. When can I do this again? (Last day)

Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams? This happens EVERY TIME I decide to give myself time at a place like Penland. I second-guess myself until it’s almost paralyzing—even though I know this pattern and know that I always end up making something interesting and meaningful. This time, I went to make prints for an upcoming show in Asheville. I’d psyched myself out so bad by the first day that I didn’t even touch the printing press. I called Andrew and he said, “Are you having trouble getting back on the horse?” I told him, “It’s like the horse sat on me. He’s huge and stubborn and refuses to move.”

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The next day, I just started printing, in full-on “Let’s see what happens when I do this” mode. And the results were pretty cool. I made some calendars, some posters, and learned a new technique that led me right to the prints I needed for the show. (Scroll through the gallery above to see a little bit of everything.  The calendars and posters are for sale in my Etsy shop.)

This story has a happy ending. I had a great week and printed the pieces I needed for the Guild show, and made some things just for fun. I played around with monoprinting, and learned some new techniques. But the question remains: even though I always have a great experience at a retreat like this, why do I still doubt myself before each one? Why do I try to sabotage myself by thinking that money could be better spent on things like gas and groceries?

It’s often hard to justify an expense like that, but sometimes those expenses—and those experiences—bring the most gratifying and meaningful moments in our lives. To retreat in this way is to turn inward, to our most intimate creative selves, and get back in touch with that deepest part of the heart. Retreating reminds me of something John Muir once said. He was talking about escaping to the wilderness, but sometimes the artist’s heart is its own wilderness—and we must have the courage to go. So thank you, Penland, for opening your doors, for harboring us artists when we need you the most, and for giving us space to make, and meet our fellow makers, and for being such a bright spot in the world.


Best No-Nonsense Novel Writing Tips, Part V: Momentum

Note to readers: An earlier version of this post was published over at Underground Book Reviews during NaNoWriMo, but hey—we need to work that momentum into our daily writing routines. So here’s how I do that. 


Happy New Year, Friends! Are you on your last revision of a work in progress? Gearing up to start something brand new with the new year? If you find yourself running out of steam, don’t fret. We’ve all been there. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and re-evaluate for a minute before you proceed towards the finish line. The thing I love about the annual NaNoWriMo is that you build momentum: and I’m trying hard to keep that NaNo spirit year-round. So if you’re at the point now where you could use a little boost in momentum, here are some tips to sustain your creative energy and keep your word count on the rise.

1. Don’t let the word count scare you. Break things down into manageable pieces. NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words in a month. That’s 1667 words per day, or about 7 pages—not a bad routine for your daily writer’s life. If you come up short some days, don’t worry. We all fall off the wagon sometimes, but the important thing is to keep going and create some daily writing habits that will continue to help you in the future. Set goals for yourself: 1000 words a day, 5000 words a week—whatever you think you can stick with. The idea here is to create a new habit and a manageable routine that will help you meet your goal. (Personally, I love the word-o-meter I can get with Scrivener. It’s incredibly satisfying to see my little bar move from red to green as I approach my word count.) You got this, Ace. 

2. Remember that recent post about making yourself a road map? The last time I wrote a novel in a month, I made myself a rough outline with some key events that needed to happen. I laid out some basic cause and effect and presto—the scaffolding was there. Then it was just a matter of filling in the details. Once I had a framework for the big picture, I was able to think of the novel in terms of scenes that needed to happen. And writing scene by scene was a lot less daunting than thinking in terms of chapters or acts. (For more about writing in terms of cause and effect, check out Building a Believable Chain of Events in Your Novel by Steven James.)

3. Remember your setting is a character, too—don’t skimp on the description. When I was doing research for my Bayou series I made a Pinterest board  to collect images for reference. I’d visited Louisiana a few times, but when I wanted to pull in specifics (kinds of trees, particular birds, details about Craftsman houses) I looked to the internet for photos to jog my memory. Sometimes, if I was just having a bad writing day, I let myself do some photo research to inspire me—and sometimes I did a little free writing exercise based on a photo to get myself warmed up. Now, as a bonus, the page is still up to let readers see what inspired me as I was writing. When you’re world-building, you need to be specific. Photos can help you see things in more detail.

4. Take the time to develop your characters. Write a profile of each one and take the time to give them unique eccentricities. In a recent blog post, I confessed that my characters ARE in fact based on real people, but not in the way you might think. Most are a composite of lots of people I’ve known, but every character I write draws from real experiences at some point or another. Let your memories guide you and give you specific details that will create memorable characters. It’s the specifics about characters that really make them interesting. Jane Friedman also has some great tips about writing from life experiences in her article What It Means to Be Fierce on the Page.

5. Create momentum. One of the things I love about NaNoWriMo is that it gives me a sense of urgency, which makes me create a writing schedule. It’s important to create a schedule you can actually stick to: whether it’s two hours a day or a ten-hour writing binge on the weekend. On days when you have short windows of time, try a setting or character exercise to get some words out on the page. I used to write short scenes during my lunch breaks, and would then flesh them out when I got home to my writing space. Just getting down some bare bones of scenes would help me move the story along in my head so I could keep building the plot and creating more conflicts.

6. Don’t let your inner editor hijack your writing. If you’re like me, your inner editor likes to rear its wily head in search of typos, plot holes, and generally second-guess you any time you start thinking a little too hard. Remember, this month is about moving ahead. Don’t let the editor slow you down. Remember Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? That lovely chapter called “Shitty First Drafts”? Do yourself a favor and re-read it this month (You really should read the whole book, but this will get you started.) Distill it into a mantra that you can repeat each day to beat back the editing beast. This month, it’s all about pouring your story out, page by page. Let yourself go and let the editor take over later—that’s what the revision process is for.

7. Don’t let yourself get writer’s block. If you’re stuck at a point in your story and can’t seem to move forward, jump ahead to another scene you want to write and fill the the gaps later. If you know you want to write a scene where character A meets character X, skip ahead and write that—it just might help you fill in the other parts that have you stalled. For me, novel writing entails a lot pf problem solving, and sometimes that means temporarily leaving one problem to work on another. For more tips, check out Sage Cohen’s 2 Keys to Unlock Your Momentum.

Happy writing, Friends! See you next time.