Category Archives: Writing Skills

To Query…Or Not?

By Benjamin Hock

   To query or not to query? It’s really not a question for those of us who wish to have our stories published through a traditional publisher. It’s one step on a laundry list of things that need to be completed before those precious stories we’ve spent countless nights putting together can see the light of day.

    I’m not here to tell you how to query; you can type that into Google. I simply want to share what it’s like to send your precious baby to a complete stranger whose job it is is to play gatekeeper for publishers. Impressing just the right person in only a few short paragraphs is what stands between me and my book ending up on the shelves of my favorite bookshop. 

    Sending my first query was both frightening and exhilarating. Like every writer, I wrote and rewrote, questioning whether or not my query letter was up to snuff. I sent my first, and eventually would send them in batches, preparing for the 12 week wait, wondering if I would hear back and what they would have to say. 

Then, finally, I see it. Maybe this has happened to you. You’re at work or out with friends. Or maybe you just woke up and saw the notification flash on your phone. It’s a response from an agent and you open it…

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to consider your project. I’m sorry to say that I respectfully pass on yours. 

Agenting is subjective, and while I couldn’t take on your project, another agent may well feel differently.

Thank you, 

[Insert agent name here]

I begin to see this same form letter over and over again. I don’t know if every agent got together to come up with the verbiage for these or what, but they all seem to use it. At first the rejections are disappointing but the knowledge that my other submissions are waiting in agents’ inboxes preparing to wow them brings me hope. After the twentieth rejection it begins to feel personal. Fifty and I’m wondering if I enjoy the rejection, because why else would I keep this up. 

And to be clear, I don’t hold a grudge against any agent that passed on my work. Maybe they read my query on a Friday when their thoughts were on the weekend. Maybe they were having a bad day and nothing was going to catch their eye. Maybe they already had a similar book they were representing or just took on a big project. I’ll never know. But that won’t stop me and it shouldn’t stop you. 

Querying is both simple to do and emotional weighty. The physical act of sending a query today has never been easier. Finding agencies and their guidelines, understanding the template to follow, it’s all a snap. Preparing to hear that others don’t find my book as interesting as I do, well, that’s not so easy. Giving into the resistance that wants me to give up or back down or hide out would be a lot easier.

So why keep doing it? Why put myself through the emotional roller coaster of rejection after rejection? The answer is simple: I want people to read my book. I want to see it in the hands of teens in coffee shops, I want to share it at book readings, I want the characters to be brought to life in the imaginations of people who connect to them.

And even if I get a hundred rejections, a thousand, all it takes is one yes for a dream to come true. My job is not to judge the work or panic over its future. My job is to write the thing that piques my curiosity and do the legwork to advocate for it. I can do that; and so can you.

Writing Time

By Terry C. Misfeldt

When is your best opportunity for writing time? Do you need peace and quiet to think and write? Can you squeeze in a few minutes during your lunch break? Do the kids all have to be in bed before you can sit down at the keyboard?

Knowing your best writing time is an essential element of becoming a professional writer. Let’s consider options. An important aspect of these options is determining how many words you intend to craft in one sitting and how long it takes you to generate that many words. When I gave myself the challenge of writing 1,000 words per day, I learned I could achieve that goal in 40 to 45 minutes…depending on whether my brain was functioning at 25 words per minute.

  1. Pouring and sipping that first cup of coffee in the early morning hours gets some writers started. If you work at 9:00 a.m. and need an hour and one half for feeding and grooming yourself before getting dressed and commuting, you should consider how much you are willing to forego sleep to get in writing time. Could you write 500 words in half an hour? If you can and want to rise with the sun to do that, go for it.
  2. Finding time during the day to write can be a challenge if you are working full-time or in an office environment. More than likely you already spend time in front of the computer screen, but could you sneak in 15 minutes to crank out 400 words? The challenge here is to avoid using the company cloud to save your work…unless you own the company and then it does not matter. Suggestion: Use a flash drive to store your work.
  3. After work, dinner time with the family, and relaxation time can be productive writing time. Many writers work late into the evening or early morning crafting their novel or writing their memoirs because that is when they are inspired to write. Just remember there are also times when your brain is fried by then and what you write may look like rubbish when you read it the next day.
  4. In short, the best time to write is when you are motivated, inspired, and can concentrate on your project. Writing time may also be best devoted to research and making notes. Writing time is your time!

Promotional Outlets

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Finding promotional outlets enables you to market your novel or other writing to specific markets at little to no cost. What is required is taking the time to think things through. What organizations do you belong to, or have a relationship with?

Clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis, Zonta, Lions, and others are often looking for speakers. If you get invited, have a copy of your book as a door prize and bring more copies along to sell after the meeting and your presentation. It is a promotional outlet requiring some of your time in return for potential sales and for visibility with potential buyers.

One member of the Guild, H.G. Watts, wrote about a character related to another religious figure. She was interviewed about the story on WFRV-TV in Green Bay and recently appeared in a feature article about the book in The Compass which is a publication of the DIocese of Green Bay.

Alumni associations–either high school or college–offer publications which may afford a promotional outlet to tout your work. Craft a media release (so it looks official) and forward it to the editor for consideration. Fraternities and sororities offer another avenue for free publicity. If you have books at a book store or cafe, offer them a book signing to help bring customers in and promote sales of your book…and others.

Also, think about your favorite magazines and read about what news they consider. Again, the media release is an excellent way to make your plea look professional. Every chance to gain promotional credibility also builds your reputation as an author.

On Media Releases

Think teaser when you put together a media release. It contains enough information to tell the editor that your submission is news worthy…and teases them to want more details. At the least, it can be printed verbatim in the newspaper, magazine, newsletter, or journal.

Create a catchy headline, centered near the top of the page and in bold. Releases should be one page. At top left goes date, when it can be released, and contact information (name and phone number).

The first paragraph gives the who, what, where, why, and when with a variant being a teaser comment from a respected individual or someone who has read your book and gave you a good quote (perhaps one you wrote for them). Get the rest of the information out there in double-spaced format and end with -30- at the bottom.

These tips make your media release look professional, and gain credibility.

Writing Thank You Notes

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Writing thank you notes may be going the way of dinosaurs, but they are still valuable to the recipients which requires the writer to be artistic with words.

Start with why you are writing someone to thank them. Sure, you can shoot them a text that says, “Thanks for meeting with me,” but what impression does that leave with the person getting the text? To me, it tells them I really do not have a lot of time for you, so here is a quick brush off by means of text.

Imagine that person getting a piece of mail in a nice envelope and a card, preferably embossed with the sender’s initial (surname) or corporate logo. The card contains a hand-written message expressing appreciation for meeting with the sender, solving the sender’s problem, wishing the recipient success, or some similar accolade. If the message is written with sincerity, that will come across to the recipient and be deeply appreciated. They may even save the card as a testimonial to their service.

A thank you note need not be long-winded. Short and sincere, but not necessarily sweet. Write it with the recipient in mind and you can create a relationship based on friendship, honesty, and trust. Use your best penmanship to write the note. Do so as legibly as you can so the recipient can avoid trying to figure out what you scribbled in the note.

If you are a writer, the cost of postage and some thank you notes is minimal compared to the good will you create sending these messages to proofreaders, beta readers, editors, publishers who read your manuscript, agents who consider representing you, and to the people who put up with you during those days, weeks, and months of writing your novel or memoir.

Writing Exercises and Prompts

By Lawrence Wilson

Whenever I experience a lack of motivation, ideas, or energy (which sometimes occurs daily), I look over my collection of exercises and prompts to help get started.

Going back to my high school typing class, I did manage to type 40 or so words a minute without looking at the keys. Using this tool as a writing exercise, I sit quietly for a few minutes and then begin to type. Eyes closed. Letting any and everything that fires through the neurons wind up on paper.

If I don’t lose my place on the keyboard, it usually ends with a jumble of words and phrases that may or may not resemble a theme. It really doesn’t matter. It’s spontaneous, gets the mind and fingers working in synch. Most of the time, it gets deleted afterward. 

Another exercise is the six-word memoir. One of the more famous of these, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” (Ernest Hemingway). My own: “Hearing the call, afraid to answer.” Or “I married up, she did not.”

Word prompts are much the same kind of mental exercise for writing. These can either be timed or have a defined word count. I try to make it to 500 words.

 I have just perused through some old prompts and found some that are rather good and could be developed.

‘Pitching a Frog’, for example. I don’t even remember what the prompt was, but it has the makings of an excellent short story. Another I found, ‘The Secrete Planet’. I called it “Orangetang”, a collection of all the citrus fruit drinks the astronauts couldn’t stomach and thus, jettisoned them so NASA wouldn’t find out. All prompts do not a story make.

Others have made it into the collection of my book, ‘Catching Chickens’. ‘The Door’, ‘Friends’ (the prompt was something about seeing a man on a ledge).

There are many sources of prompts and exercises available on the Web. Here are just a couple of them.

  • ‘The Author’s Publish Compendium of Writer’s Prompts’, http://www.authorspublish.com/writing-prompts-compendium/
  • Writer’s Digest Magazine has many links to prompts. In one contest, they provide the photo, and you write the first storyline.  The winners are published in the next issue.
  • As with anything else writing, all you must do is enter the keywords, “writer prompts,” and AI will find more than you ever wanted to know.

Cover Art

By Terry C. Misfeldt

In this day and age when naysayers believe print books are going the way of dinosaurs, it is ever more important that the cover art of your book grabs a potential reader’s attention.

Print on demand (POD) publishing today demands even more that your artwork is appealing since your book will most likely have a soft cover. That means paper instead of a stiffer, non-printable binding.

Now, if you are getting published in hard cover, there will be a wrap-around cover which will still require cover art. Even E-books have a need for cover art.

How do you create cover art that sells? I have long held the belief that copy sells while art enhances, but selling books with cover art requires both.

Romance writers know their cover art needs to show couples in a passionate embrace. Poets have more latitude in what graces their covers. Science fiction writers need “out of this world” artwork to entice potential readers.

Elements of strong cover art include: 1) Attractive color schemes; 2) Text (like your book title) that stands out from the background and uses an appropriate font; 3) Images that convey the essence of your book and entice people; 4) Catchy blurbs to garner attention; and, 5) a Professional image of you, the author.

Consider hiring a professional graphic artist to create your cover. Many publishing companies have cover artists on staff to assist you in that process…often at a steep cost. An option I employed with my first novel was contacting the local university’s graphic arts department to see if any students wanted to attack my cover. After several drafts and a few hundred dollars, I got an excellent (IMO) cover, thanks to Angela Collier. Can you guess what the novel is about?

Keeping a Journal

By Terry C. Misfeldt

When we were younger it was thought of as keeping a diary. As we have gotten older, that diary is now considered a journal. With age, keeping a journal is one of the best ways to keep track of the special occasions and life moments you experience.

Like my grandmother who started her journal when she was 10 years old and kept it up until 10 days before her passing, i have consciously kept a journal for most of my life. The exception was 2019 when I chose to intentionally skip keeping track of minutiae and just live my life!

The Corona virus pandemic of 2020 has proven to be an excellent reason for keeping a journal. The panic of being close to someone who might be infected. The anxiety of being quarantined. Waiting for test results. Listening to information and wondering whether it is accurate or manufactured. Doubt. Emotions provide insight to what you have gone through it you have shared them in a journal.

You are not obligated to share your journal with anyone. It is your personal property. It can also be a legacy to your loved ones when you leave this existence for the other side. I am fortunate to have some of my grandmother’s journals and the secrets they have divulged about growing up in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Being able to decode her symbols, I was able to determine when my father was conceived.

My fifth grandchild recently joined our family and, in my journal, I have shared my emotions and feelings about my third grandson. Being able to go back and review dates and events enables me to reminisce about his birth when I am older and grayer with a mind less likely to remember details that are fresh now.

If you travel, journal about it. A friend of mine who has been a professional photographer during his entire career has traveled extensively. When he shared images with me about his trips, i encouraged him to create journal entries and share them with his followers. It created a permanent memory of his exploits for himself, his family, and those of us who have always admired his work.

If you consider yourself a writer and wonder what to write, journal. Keeping a journal provides inspiration for that great American novel.

Editing Your Writing

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Part of writing is getting the words out. Another part is editing. Editing is an essential tool for every writer. It involves word choice, story flow, grammar, punctuation, and readability. Let’s look at those elements of editing, or should it be writing?

Word choice. When you write, the words you use are important. Some are useless and unnecessary and editing takes care of them. “That” is one of those words that can often be eliminated. Here’s an example with the previous sentence: “That” is a word you can eliminate. The other aspect of word choice is thinking about which word is most descriptive for the scene you create. The right words can be powerful in your story, creating an image in the reader’s mind describing emotions, building tension, or adding stress.

Story flow. Editing for flow involves reading the copy from a reader’s perspective. Is there a logical progression from one scene to the next? Does a gap exist causing your readers to give up on what’s going on? There are occasions when you are editing requiring you to move sentences, paragraphs, and perhaps even chapters to a better location in the story. Edit for your reader.

Grammar. There are software applications available to catch and correct grammatical errors when editing your work. As the writer, however, ultimate responsibility for grammar changes if yours. By the way, “the” is another often unnecessary word. Think about it.

Punctuation. Readers can be turned off my missing or incorrect punctuation—such as a dash instead of a comma, semi-colon; or misplaced colon: End a question with a question mark? End an exclamation with an exclamation mark! Use parentheses for (parenthetical expressions) in your work. Periods are the end of a sentence. Punctuation is a form of expressing yourself, so edit accordingly.

Readability. Scholars write at university level. Average reading levels for cognition suggest writers craft their writing at a third of fourth grade level. Editing for readability is about knowing your audience and writing for them. It can discourage a reader if they have to stop and look up a word they do not  understand, so keep that in mind when editing. It is okay to add a definition or describe intent to keep the flow going for your reader. Oops! In the second to last sentence, the words “have to” should have been edited out as unnecessary.

Editing is a constant challenge. There are occasions when a professional editor is beneficial.

COVID Motivation

By Terry C. Misfeldt

Writers I converse with regularly seem to lack motivation to write as a result of COVID-19. They are isolated from other writers, family members, and friends, so it is hard to write about anything without human interaction. So here are my thoughts for writers who lack COVID motivation.

  1. Dedicate time each day to writing. Just write! It matters not what you type into your document or scribble on a note pad. Write about your day’s experiences if nothing else. What is essential is that you are writing, whether it’s at 7:00 in the morning or 11:00 at night. Write!
  2. Find something to write about. Your favorite food and why you relish that delicacy. Your best friend and how you get along with that person, even if your best friend is yourself. Write about your favorite time of year or the season that inspires you, such as the colors of autumn.
  3. Correspond with someone you care about. Find a blank note card and send a friend who lives far away a message about why you miss them or what you treasure most about your relationship and your hopes of rekindling it when you can get back together again. Open your heart to them.
  4. Find a writing contest and enter it. There are many magazines and writing groups solicting entries in their writing contests. If you find one you feel qualified to enter, study the rules and write that winning entry. It may cost you a few bucks to enter, but the satisfaction of competing…and winning…can be motivating. And last…
  5. Set a daily goal and write your novel. If you want to write a 90,000 word novel, you can do it in 90 days if you set a goal of writing 1,000 words every day. Perhaps you write 500 words in the morning and another 500 after dinner or all of them at once. The key is to set a goal and keep working at it. It can be your motivation.

Character Descriptions

By Terry C. Misfeldt

How you craft descriptions of your characters is an important element in gaining and maintaining reader interest in your story. Character descriptions vary from quick sketches to detailed revelations that can include emotional states.

An example of a quick sketch would be describing a female character wearing a sleeveless top with colorful tattoo sleeves from shoulder to wrist on both arms. Main character? Perhaps, but more appropriate for a passing stranger in some scene.

The more detailed character description might be something like this: “The plump four-year-old towhead with sparkling blue eyes and out-turned feet plodded barefoot through the mud with his tossled hair clinging to the back of his sweaty neck. His bleeding hand was wrapped in his blood-soaked t-shirt that he held tight to his chest with his belly hanging over the waistband of his too-tight shorts.”

The point of the examples is writers need to create believable characters with precise descriptions. The scene in the second example is used more to describe what might be going on in the towhead’s brief existence, but you learn he is blond with blue eyes and is overweight for a 4-year-old.

Beware: You can divulge too much information about a character in a single description or scenario. This may force you to repeat traits or descriptions at other points in your story that could potentially conflict with your original picture of them.

Suggestion: Identify your characters and write character descriptions on each of them before you dig too deeply into writing the story. This enables you to sprinkle some of their traits throughout the story at appropriate times rather than all at once.

Observe people who may model the type of character you want to create. Take notes about how they move, what they wear, and, of course, what they look like. Writers call it research.