Conquering the query letter

Conquering the query letter

Lask week I tackled writing a synopsis for my WIP. Not exactly easy!

This week, I am working on query letters, a similarly despised but unavoidable aspect of writing (unless you self-publish…which is sounding very tempting…). Somehow, I feel like querying agents (and being rejected) is an important part of my writer’s education. So here I go…

What makes a good query letter?

Jane Friedman had some excellent tips last week on writing a good synopsis, so I went back to the source for ideas on query letters.

She explains that there are five basic sections to a query letter:

  • Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
  • What you’re selling: genre/category, word count, title/subtitle
  • Hook: the meat of the query; 100-200 words is sufficient for a novel
  • Bio: sometimes optional for uncredited fiction writers
  • Thank you & closing

Most of those sections are somewhat self-explanatory. I want to focus on the hook, because that’s where I will actually convince the agent that they want to read more of my novel. The hook should convey the following:

  1. Protagonist + his conflict
  2. The choices the protagonist has to make (or the stakes)
  3. The sizzle

The sizzle is what makes your novel stand out. How is your novel unique from the hundreds of other query letters or books in your genre? That is your chance to explain why your novel stands out from the crowd.

Friedman points out a few red flags when it comes to the “hook” section of your query letter:

  • If your hook has several paragraphs or runs longer than 200 words, you probably have too much detail.
  • Your hook shouldn’t reveal the end of the book. Only the synopsis should do that.
  • Your hook should probably only mention the protagonist(s), a romantic interest or sidekick, and the antagonist. Any more characters, and it’s too in depth.

Friedman has a lot of other great tips about what your query letter should and should not contain. Now I’m off to conquer the beast…

Starting on a Synopsis

Photo credit Tim Hamilton,

Photo credit Tim Hamilton,

My work in progress is off to beta readers for the next month. I have to say, I am thrilled to take a much-needed break from editing. I plan to spend the next month working on some other elements of the writing/publishing process, including:

1. Creating a synopsis for my WIP

2. Create a query letter shell that I can use when querying agents

3. Identify what literary agents I would like to query

4. Do some research on self-publishing options

Today I am tackling item one: the synopsis.

A synopsis is a short summary of your novel. It conveys the narrative arc of your work, without covering all the twists and turns, of course! A good rule of thumb is to keep it under a page.

Here are some basics, as laid out by Jane Friedman:


  1. Give a clear idea of your book’s core conflict
  2. Show what characters we’ll care about, including the ones we’ll hate
  3. Demonstrate what’s at stake for the main character(s)
  4. Show how the conflict is resolved
  5. Tell what happens in an energetic, compelling way
  6. Use active voice and third person, present tense
  7. Show the character’s feelings and emotions

     Don’t do:

  1. Mentioning too many characters or events
  2. Including too much detail about plot twists and turns
  3. Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation; every word must earn its due
  4. Confusing series of events and character interactions
  5. Writing flap copy rather than a synopsis (do not editorialize)

These are all great tips, but they still leave you sitting down at your computer wondering where to start. How to Write a Book Now has a great resource, which walks you through seven steps to generate a great synopsis. I will be utilizing this technique this afternoon to draft my first synopsis. We’ll see how it goes!

Robot Editing: Putting Editing Apps and Programs to the Test

Robot Editing: Putting Editing Apps and Programs to the Test

Last week I posted about hiring a professional editor: when, why, how much. But there is another alternative. Editing programs.

There are a lot of different editing programs out there. Not having any experience with the options, I tested out a few. Here are the programs I checked out this week:

Consistency Checker

Cost: Free

Screen shot 2015-07-06 at 9.47.30 AM

If you have a gmail account, it is easy to upload a document to the cloud through “Google Docs.” I then accessed the add-on through the Google Docs store. This is a free feature of the greater program ProWritingAid, which provides a lot of different reports for a license fee of $35/year. Other free reports include the Cliche and Redundancy Check, Acronym Check, and something called Corporate Wording Check.

Consistency Checker ran a report on my whole 94,000 word manuscript in a few seconds. It caught the following:

-Inconsistent hyphenation: There was a fair amount of inconsistent hyphenation throughout my manuscript, and to be honest I never would have noticed, because the words were so far apart. Sometimes, I had correctly hyphenated (“The door was still smoking…” versus “the still-smoking door,”) but at least I could check and confirm that I had used the correct form.

-Spelling variations: Among vs amongst; channeling vs channelling; leapt vs leaped;

-Commonly misspelled words: In some cases this was helpful, but in others, it was not smart enough to recognize that the “misspelled” word was actually part of another word. It kept thinking I misspelled “assess” as “asses,” when this was in fact the end of “classes.”

This program was quick and easy to use, but I couldn’t figure out how to jump to the error it was bringing my attention to. I am not going to scroll through all of the pages in my 300 page book to try to find the one instance where I failed to spell out a numeral. However, for many of the spelling and hyphenation errors, I was able to go into Scrivener, search for the word, and quickly make the correction. So it was still helpful.

Four stars for this one.


Free, or Premium for $25.95 per month

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This program was super easy to add to my browser, Chrome. Now it will grammar check all of my activity on the web. That’s great! But I wanted it for my WIP, which is on my desktop. Never fear, once I created an account, I was able to upload my document to for proofing.

Oops, turns out that Grammarly only edits 20 pages at a time, unless you pay the hefty $26/mo price tag for a nicer version (at least, I believe this version would allow unlimited uploads–it wasn’t entirely clear). I saved the first 20 pages of my WIP in a separate document, and tried to upload it. It was still too big, so I cut it down to about 10 pages.

Grammarly caught a lot of comma misuse. Apparently I have a habit of using a comma before the word “and.” Grammarly definitely wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. I also wasn’t consistent about using a comma when ending quotations. It also caught a few misspelled words that were helpful, like “chirurgeon.” (Who the heck knows how to spell that, anyway).

Another nice feature was that it recommended changes, which you could make with the click of a button. I think for an article or shorter piece, it would be quite helpful. For me, since I would be making any edits to my master document in Scrivener, this wasn’t useful.

Overall, the app was helpful in catching my comma misuse, but would definitely not be worth the trouble of uploading and checking my entire manuscript 10 pages at a time. It also kept trying to change “moonburner” to “moon burger,” which just annoyed me.

Three stars.

Hemingway App

Cost: $6.99

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I went ahead and shelled out the $6.99 for the desktop version of the app, which is supposed to better handle large blocks of text and have a function to save your work.

Despite this, appears you also have to upload into the app in chunks. The program was not particularly intuitive, and there didn’t seem to be any Help or Tutorial options I could find. I did manage to upload my first chapter. The program noted that I had used 6 adverbs, 2 of which were the same (softly). This was good for me to know. It highlighted 3 instances of the passive voice, but I liked all of them, as they were used purposefully. So I left them. It found one possibly confusing sentence, which I ended up keeping the same, too.

Overall, I did not find Hemingway app to be helpful. The annoyance level of having to upload chapter by chapter is such that I will not be using it for larger works. I didn’t feel that it caught many grammatical mistakes. Again, it might be good for a short story or smaller piece you are focusing on.

Two and a half stars.

Edit Minion

Cost: Free

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This is a beta web-based program that allows you to copy and paste chunks of text. I pasted just one chapter and it wasn’t too big for the program to run. It highlighted the following possible mistakes/weaknesses: adverbs, passive voice, weak words (mine was “a little”), and a sentence ending with a preposition. The highlighted items are color-coded in a handy dandy colors.

Overall, I would compare this to the Hemingway app, but it is easier to use and free. It does not appear to catch confusing or long sentences, which Hemingway app does, but on the other hand, it has a cute Strunk minion cartoon, which endears me to it.

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For its limited functionality, it was pretty cool. Four stars.


Cost: $12/mo for unlimited words

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This is also a web-based editing program. You upload your work and it edits it for you. I uploaded the first chapter of my book to see what it found. This was definitely the most thorough of the programs I used so far. It was also the most overwhelming. I need a drink just looking at that bar chart.

Auto-Crit generated a report that breaks down: dialogue tags, adverbs used, adverbs in dialogue tags, passive voice, showing vs. telling indicators, cliches, unnecessary filler words, word frequency and word use (apparently I used the phrase “on a rickety” twice in a paragraph–that was good to know), etc. It also compares your work to overused words in published fiction, letting you know that there are too many words like: look, had, could, knew, just.

I was impressed by the depth of analysis this program provided. But in a way, it was TOO deep. This was only one short chapter of my work, and it gave me about 20 different areas to work on. That is just too many. And sometimes you HAVE to uses words like “could” or “look,” sorry Auto-Crit! To run an entire manuscript through this program would give you a Herculean amount of data that if fully integrated would leave your novel sounding like it was dictated by a robot. I think the better use of this program (at least for longer works) would be to use it on shorter sections to familiarize yourself with (a) common mistakes, and (b) common mistakes you make, in order to better self-edit down the road.

Of the programs I viewed so far, this is definitely the Mercedes model, with the most bells and whistles. It seemed to catch all the items the other programs caught bits and pieces of, and more. And at $12 per month for unlimited words, the price tag is pretty reasonable.

Five stars.

Overall, I would use Auto-Crit and Consistency Checker again, mostly because of the ease of uploading an entire manuscript. I would also use EditMinion for shorter pieces. I found Grammarly and Hemingway app to be more frustrating than helpful, and would not use them again.

There are some real benefits to utilizing these programs. They are not a comprehensive edit, and do not replace a professional editor, but they are an excellent tool to help you self-edit. In just an afternoon, these programs helped me identify some common mistakes I make, which will help me catch those when I do my next edit down the road. You could also utilize these programs right after finishing a draft or an edit, when you are too close to the work to perform a traditional self-edit.

What about the rest of you self-editors out there? Have you had good luck with these or other programs?

Going pro: When should a writer hire a professional editor?

Photo by Nic McPhee, cc license

Photo by Nic McPhee, cc license

I’m kind of sick of editing. There, I said it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?

I’ve been editing my WIP, Moonburner, fairly consistently since January.  Currently, I am completing the fourth edit before I send it to some beta readers. I think part of my problem is that I keep seeing the same issues with my manuscript and trying to fix them, but not quite knowing if my fixes are effective. I end up going in circles. I need a fresh perspective. I think my beta readers will help a lot with this. But I have also been thinking about hiring a professional editor.

Is this a cop-out? I don’t know. One the one hand, you could argue that you are hiring someone to do the hard work for you (although you will still have to implement the changes they recommend). On the other hand, I am a total rookie at this, and it would be helpful to have a seasoned pro give me some pointers.

This got me looking into the different stages of editing. Turns out there are a number of discrete stages of editing, and different types of editors themselves. Many editors may handle some or all of the stages, while other might specialize in one. Much of the info below comes from a great post by The Book Designer.

Developmental Editor

A developmental editor comes onto the scene fairly early in the process, and helps with big picture things. Does the plot work? Are there holes? Are your characters flat or not believable? Advice from a developmental editor might lead to some serious changes in the book. Parts will be cut or reworked. The status quo will be challenged. It works best when this process is collaborative, with ideas and changes bouncing back and forth from writer to editor.

Line editing

I have seen developmental and line editing described interchangeably, but I agree with folks who consider line editing to be a separate stage. Line editing is about readability, about the words being used, while developmental editing focuses on the underlying components of storytelling (theme, character, plot, etc.). A good line editor will dive into the choice of words used to eliminate clumsy phrasing, repetitive words, passive voice, or overly wordy prose. They will reorder sentences or paragraphs to improve transition and flow.


Then comes copy-editing. Copy-editors are the grammar nerds, those who sleep with a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style under their pillows. They will fix your formatting, your punctuation, your split infinitives, your misspellings of common words. (Did you really mean accept instead of except?) This editor focuses on whether your work is grammatically correct and complies with the applicable style guide, not whether or not it actually sounds good or is enjoyable to read.


This is the last stage. Proof-reading should occur after the book had been formatted for publication, preferably with proof pages that look just how the finished book will look. This editor will catch inconsistent formatting like pagination or spacing, fonts, headers and footers, and more. Catching these details will likely be the difference between your book’s pages looking professional and polished, or slapped together screaming “self-published!”

There are other individuals along the way who also play an important role.

Beta reader

Beta readers are third parties (preferably not Mom and Dad or your best friend), who will read your work and give impartial feedback. They are the one to tell you that your main character isn’t likeable, the book jumps around too much, or the great battle scene at the climax of your book kinda falls flat. They will help you figure out what readers won’t like about your book, so you can fix it before publication.

Cover designer

I have heard that if a self-publishing author spends money on anything, it should be a professional cover designer. Maybe others disagree, but the fact is, people judge books by their covers. A quality cover will put you above the self-published pack, and will signal to the reader that you took care with what was inside the cover, as well (which is hopefully true).

Interior layout designer

A proofreader will be able to help catch mistakes in interior layout, but if you don’t know where to start when designing your book, an interior layout designer might be a good investment. There are a number of uniformities in book formatting that we don’t think about as a reader–unless they’re not followed. Where to leave blank space, where to start your page numbers, how to format your table of contents, your headers, your title page…these are all things you should be making conscious decisions about, not hoping you got it right.

To hire each of these editors and experts would cost an arm and a leg, and might not be a wise investment for a self-published work that will cost readers $.99. How much exactly are we talking?

Some editors quote by the word, some by the page, some by the hour. It can be difficult to even compare prices. A good starting point is to remember that industry standard sets 250 words per manuscript page.

According to the Writer’s Market, book development/line editing should cost $6-7 per page, copyright editing should cost around $4 per page; proofreading $3 per page. Translated to price per hour, that equals $50 per hour for development/line editing, $35 per hour for copyediting, $30 per hour for proofreading.

The Editorial Freelancers Association tends to agree, estimating $55 per hour for developmental editing, between $30-50 per hour for copyediting (depending on how heavy the editing is), and $30 per hour for proofreading. The EFA estimates that the average editor can developmental edit 1-5 pages per hour, copyedit around 5 pages per hour, and can proofread 9-13 pages per hour. The figures don’t exactly add up, especially on the developmental editing end, making me tend to think that paying by the word or page would be a better deal for an author at that stage.

As for cover designers and interior layout designers, you should be able to find a cover design, which includes spine and back cover, for about $500-700. More like $200-300 for just an eBook cover. For interior layout, probably a few hundred dollars. For beta reading, you shouldn’t pay. You should be able to find willing beta readers on sites like Goodreads or Wattpad who are willing to beta read for free.

So where does this leave me? Moonburner is about 88,000 words, or 352 pages. It would cost me ~$2000 for a developmental/line editor, ~$1400 for a copyeditor, and ~$1000 for a proof reader, based on Writer’s Market’s estimated prices per page. Add $500 for a cover, and this is looking pricey.

Those who have been through this process and hired professional or freelance editors, what type of editor did you hire? What stage were you at? Do you have regrets? I will likely only spring for one professional edit, perhaps a copyeditor after beta reading. I know I want to hire a cover designer. But I would definitely appreciate any wisdom about whether this combo represents the most bang for my buck.

Slash and burn: separating the wheat from the chaff

Slash and burn: separating the wheat from the chaff

I am now in my third edit of my WIP, and I am in a stage of cutting. I’m kind of enjoying it. Destruction is a welcome change of pace from creation. As I do this edit, I’ve been focusing on trying to cut in the following areas:

Scenes. Are there scenes that are totally unnecessary? Yup. I’ve already cut a few. I’m trying to keep my novel pretty fast-paced, and there is a middle section that really lags. I’ve been cutting and trying to work the critical pieces into other scenes. It’s like spring cleaning. Cathartic.

Characters. Are there unnecessary characters? Can I combine any of the characters to eliminate any of these unnecessary folks? I’ve combined a few. Nameless bodyguard? Meet army captain, your new alter-ego.

Emotions. I have realized that I really like to write about my character’s emotions. Especially my protagonist’s emotions. She is constantly filled with anger, or pushing down her frustration, or brimming with tears. She’s supposed to be a tough chick! Some of those emotions have got to go. I have to leave something to the reader’s imagination.

Character lenses. I read that many new authors make the mistake of putting the character between the reader and the action. Hello, guilty as charged. I do that all the time. I write: “Pete saw the smoke billowing from the building,” when I should write “The smoke billowed from the building.” No, no, no. Finding a lot of these.

Passive voice. I think I use passive voice a lot because most of my writing is complicated legal writing where I am trying to disguise the actor. “The contract was breached…by someone,” (certainly not my client!) At least, this is the excuse I give myself. The fact remains, I default to passive voice a lot. Eliminating passive voice is such an easy way to shorten my writing and make it snappier. Down with passive!

Synonyms. I have found I like to write with a lot of phrases strung together with commas. “The moon shone in the dark sky, a silent sentinel, a watcher over the quiet world.”  There is definitely a time and place for that type of writing, but not sentence after sentence. After all, I’m just saying the same thing in a few different ways. That doesn’t pass the slash and burn test.

Wordy dialogue tags. Yes, I find myself guilty of writing’s worst worst sin (or so says Elmore Leonard). My characters say things softly, laugh heartily, smile broadly. -ly this, -ly that. They shout, they bark, they whisper. Lots to cut there.

Beats. Beats are those little bits of movement that come in between dialogue. “It’s getting dark out there,” Johnny said. He looked out the window. “Sure is,” Ma agreed.  I write with a lot of beats. My characters are smiling, laughing, fidgeting, adjusting their clothes, picking their nose, doing a million things besides just talking. Just talk!

Bottom line, there is a lot to cut.  But, I am far enough from the drafting process that I’m starting to recognize my own patterns and style, which I don’t think I ever internalized before. Although I doubt I am far enough to be totally objective, I like to think I am making some positive progress.

Photo credit: Justin Kern, cc license

Divide and Conquer: How long should chapters be?

Divide and Conquer: How long should chapters be?

What length of chapters do you prefer?

I like short chapters. Being a little type A, I like the sense of accomplishment I get when I finish a chapter (or several). I also like having a definite spot to stop reading. There is nothing worse than having to place your bookmark in the middle of a chapter and forgetting exactly where you left off.

I’m in my second round of editing and I’m beginning to divide my WIP into chapters. My chapters are tending towards the short end, 1500-2500 words mostly. But is that too short?

I looked around, and flipped through some of my favorite books. It seems like different genres have different expectations. For a YA novel, shorter chapter lengths (more in the 1500-2000 range), seems standard. For romance novels, chapters tend to be longer, more in the 3000-4000 range. For thrillers, short cliff-hanger chapters are the norm, more like 1000 words per chapter.

What about consistency in chapter length? Generally, I think consistency is good. Readers start to develop a sense of the pacing of a novel, and a drastically shorter chapter might seem abrupt, upsetting their established expectations. However, sometimes an abrupt change might be called for. In that case, the effect might even be intended by the author. There is no hard and fast rule, but it is something an author should think about when making chapter choices.

I think I am in the right ball-park range for chapter length for my kind of novel. While it is definitely something I am keeping an eye on, I am trying not to elevate form over function. The purpose of chapters is not to divide your novel into perfectly uniform pieces, but to assist the author in making transitions. It seems more important overall that the chapter end when it makes the most sense for the story, rather than at some arbitrary word count.

I’ve noticed two main types of chapter breaks: (1)  a natural break to give the reader a heads up about a change in the story–like a change in time, place or location, or (2) a break at a point with such tension that the reader just has to keep reading. Although you can’t necessarily have a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter, I have been looking for areas of excitement and revelation in my story, and placing the chapter breaks there. Hopefully it will keep the readers turning those pages!

Photo Credit: Wendell,

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