Questions to ask a literary agent before sealing the deal

Jitterbugging in Negro juke joint, Saturday evening, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi (LOC)

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

Let’s imagine you’re at that turning point in your writing life: You’re expecting a phone call from a literary agent. The email he sent earlier in the week made it clear that he’s interested in taking you on as a client.

What can you do to make sure you’re doing that happy dance after you finish the call?

Ask questions, the experts say. But not just any questions.

Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says in her recent Writer’s Digest article,

To gauge your flexibility, we’ll ask you some questions, and we also expect you to show that you’re thoughtful and savvy by asking a few of your own. This conversation is the final step in making the leap from wish list to client list.¹

Throughout her article, Nakamura makes it clear that agents take into account everything you communicate. “What agents won’t tell you is that every email and conversation with us is a testing ground.”

So it goes with the questions you ask as you’re on the way to sealing the deal. Agents will be listening for your level of professionalism, your personality, and the passion you have for writing.

Questions You Should Ask

Nakamura’s article gives four basic questions to ask an interested agent:

  • What kind of revisions do you foresee?
  • Who do you see as a potential audience for my work?
  • Do you have experience selling in my genre?
  • Do you have specific publishers in mind for my book? is a resource that should be in every writer’s toolbox. Here is a sampling of questions from their article, When Agents Offer Representation:

  • First, a recommendation: You should definitely ask questions—during the second-half of the conversation. But for the first-half, we recommend letting the agent drive the conversation.
  • What do you like best about my project?
  • Do you feel that my project is ready for submission to publishers, or will you require revisions before submission?
  • If you think it needs revisions, are they small tweaks, or do you want a major plot or character development change?
  • Which publishing houses do you believe would be a good fit for my book?
  • How many editors do you plan to pitch in the first round of submissions? 
  • How often will you update me regarding the status of my submissions?
  • Are you interested in representing only this project, or all my future books?
  • Do you use an agent-client written agreement?
  • Do you handle the sale of subsidiary rights, like foreign, film, audio, and translation?

Agents are happy to answer your relevant questions. They want the business relationship to be clear before you sign the agreement. But they are also paying close attention to what you reveal about yourself and your writing life. Clients are relationships, and an agent wants to make sure you’ll be a good fit. (By the way, you should be having the same thought as you listen to the answers to your questions. Is this the right agent for me? More on that in an upcoming post.)

I enjoy thinking about the day when a publishing professional takes interest in my work. I hope you take the time to do that, too. It’s a healthy activity for writers. Sealing the deal with a literary agent may be a good distance down the road for you and me, but there’s no better time to prepare for that moment than now.

Write on!

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.


The greatest lesson every writer should learn

writer-bench-greatest-lessonCriticism is the bane of many writing lives. Receiving it can turn a confident writer into a pile of shattered ego.

Enter Edward Payson Roe, a 19th century pastor who became a writer. I’d never heard of E.P. Roe until I read Rob Stroud’s blog post, Having Our Writing CriticizedIn his day, Roe’s writing was popular, but it was often attacked by the “literary people,” as he called them. He had the courage to take on his critics and, with that, made a statement that I’ve taken to heart.

Stroud’s post includes a portion of an essay Roe wrote about his life. It’s a long read, but, oh, how glad I am that I read this gem.

Towards the end of this answer to his critics, Roe states his 14-word conclusion.

That’s it, I thought to myself.

It’s a simple statement, comforting, challenging, and freeing. I think it’s the lesson that every writer should learn and follow.

It’s a lesson to take to heart for your entire writing life — a foundation that gets you started and keeps you going.

Before you jump down to those 14 words (in the blue box), be sure to read the following points I’ve included from his essay. What you’ll notice are, as Rob Stroud puts it, “the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.”

The New Writer

  • While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly.
  • When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception.
  • I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.
  • A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought.

Criticism Comes

  • I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, “The story is absolutely nauseating.” (Note: The reviewer was one for whom Roe had the highest respect.)
  • My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact.
  • I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York Tribune.
  • Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see.
  • From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending.
  • There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people.

Fourteen Words: Roe’s Great Conclusion

After leading us through his excellent thought process, Roe gives us this:

  • Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm:

The only thing for a writer

is to be himself

and take the consequences.

Don’t you love that? Can you read those words and not have a new boldness for your writing life? For me, they are like a confirmation, and they’ve given me a new way to look at my work and what I plan to do with it.

Be yourself. That’s easy, right? Take the consequences. Now, we come to the tough part. Some people will like your work and others won’t. That’s okay. Those are the consequences of writing with readers in mind. Yet, if you embrace Roe’s conclusion, I think you’re in for a less burdensome and more joyful writing life.

A Circle of Friends: Readers

Roe goes on to give his thoughts on readership. I cannot help but list a number of his quotes on this topic; they are so beautifully expressed.

  • A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds.
  • A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency.
  • He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back.
  • This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.
  • It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown.
  • Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration.
  • On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

The Writer’s Aim

Roe sums it up for us:

  • My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public.
  • I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.

There is much more in this excellent article for you to enjoy. To visit Stroud’s blog and read the entire post, click here.

Roe’s conclusion is hardly a secret, but I appreciate the way he says and explains it in such a practical and intelligent way. I hope his words help you to lose any fear you may have of sharing your writing with the world.

What will you do with these 14 words? Let me know in your comment.

The Best of Darla Writes in 2013: Top 5 Posts

We’ve slipped into a new year, and I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am, with writing goals in mind.

But before we put away another year, here’s a look at my top 5 posts in 2013:

  1. Feeling Rejected? 15 famous authors who were turned down by publishers. If you want to be a professional writer, then prepare for rejection … and join the club.
  2. Know Your Writing Terms: Subplot. Drive. Deepen. Prove. Reveal. Meet the subplot, your key to a rich and satisfying story.
  3. Do it yourself? 10 tips for beginners from top self-publishing sites. Self-publishing has risen out of amateur status, bringing the new writer more options than ever before. (I’m proud to say that this article was published in a magazine for self-publishers.)
  4. SmartEdit: Fine-tune your writing with this new editing software. SmartEdit is a new editing tool for writers that doesn’t just help you polish your work. It’ll help you become a better writer. (This review is included on the software designers website.)
  5. Why Star Wars is a beloved story and what fiction writers can learn from it. The Star Wars saga is loved by millions and it employs the basics of “the hero’s journey.”

That’s a nice range of topics. I especially love that the Star Wars post made the top 5. Being the Star Wars nerd that I am, I had a lot of fun with that one.

And my most popular post of all time? You can read Ten questions I’ll be asking a published author here.

I’m grateful to author Nick Thacker of for including this blog on his Power 100 list of Best Blogs for the Modern Writer. What an honor.

The writing life is exciting, isn’t it? I’ll have more to share with you throughout 2014, and feel free to send me a list of topics you’d like to see covered. Here’s my contact form.

Be sure to subscribe to the Darla Writes blog so that you never miss a post, and connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.

Happy New Year!

How to handle rejection like a professional

Toward Los Angeles, California (LOC)

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

You’ve finally finished writing your masterpiece.

You revise, edit, revise and edit again. You share it with those you trust. You find a professional editor. Again you revise, edit, rinse, and repeat, until you know your story is ready to share with the world.

You’re happy with your work. Your editor is happy. Your family and friends are happy. You send out a well-prepared query letter to a list of agents who are interested in your genre.

In a short time, strangers will be reading what is essentially you baring your soul.

Days pass.

Weeks pass.

Then the responses start to come in. And your reward for this emotional let-go?

A string of rejection letters.

Have you experienced this? If you’re a writer working to be published, then you either already have or you will. I have, and I’m sure I’ll have more letters to add to my file in the years to come.

In a Writer’s Digest article that is dog-eared from my use, literary agent Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says:

As disappointing as it is to receive a rejection, how you conduct yourself post-rejection will set the stage for any future communication with that agent.¹

Rejection. What’s a writer to do?

Accept and Prepare

The most healthy thing you can do as a writer is to expect and accept rejection. Do the research. Writers from all ages own this experience. You are not unique.

Next, you need to prepare for the inevitable rejection letter so that it’s about learning and making a good impression, and not a wholesale loss of confidence. You can decide that you’ll either use the experience to your advantage, as a professional does, or let it smother your creativity until you’re bitter or depressed.

Don’t Take It Personally

Literary agents are looking for new authors who fit their specifics. Nakamura assures us that sending out rejection letters is not something agents enjoy doing. But they do need to look out for the best interests of both the writer and the agency. The worst thing you can do is “email us a nasty response.” After receiving it, an agent will never look at your work again. Don’t take rejections personally. Take them like a professional and learn from the experience.

See Rejection as Striking Gold

Often, the rejection letter will give feedback that is beyond the usual form rejection. That bit of feedback from an agent is gold, says Nakamura. “In no way have you come away empty-handed.” Take that feedback as encouragement, even if it’s basic, nonspecific, or seems critical. When an agent takes the time to add any type of feedback, you might have a chance at resubmission, she says.

Lose the Defense

If you don’t agree with the feedback, don’t argue or get into nasty exchanges with an agent. Nakamura spells it out: “Get defensive about feedback and you’re showing how you’ll conduct yourself once you really get comfortable with us.” And no agent wants to spend time with a defensive writer. “Even a rebuttal couched in niceties burns bridges.”

And I would add this: Refrain from taking out your frustrations in a blog post or other public arena. Not only will you lose the respect of literary agents and other publishing professionals who may come upon your words, but you may also lose the respect of your fellow writers.

Turn the Rejection into an Opportunity

Here’s what a literary agent expects from a professional writer who’s received a rejection letter:

  1. Respond graciously and promptly, and thank the agent for her time and consideration. That’s it. You don’t need to list your other projects or question the agent’s judgement. Just send a nice note.
  2. Wait at least two weeks before querying a new project.
  3. If you’re resubmitting the manuscript, after attending to the agent’s feedback, “trust that the next time we see your name, we’ll remember your thoughtful note.” Be sure, though, that you send back a manuscript that you’ve improved significantly.
  4. Lastly, act quickly. “If you wait more than six to eight months, you risk the market changing,” Nakamura warns. And that could lead to the change in an agent’s interest.

Simple, right? If you want to be treated like a professional, you need to act like a professional.

So, after you finish filing the rejection letter with the others and eating through that box of chocolate consolation, move on to being the professional writer that you want literary agents and the world to see.

Here’s a fine list from Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents that will help you through your rejection blues.

And don’t forget: Rejection has come to the best of writers, so read my post which shows you’re in good company if you’ve been on the receiving end.

Write on!

Next in the series: Sealing the Deal — The Final Steps to Making the Client List

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.

The 12 Days of Christmas for Writers

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me …12-days-christmas

What kinds of things would you want your true love to give to you for Christmas to celebrate your writing life? Just for fun, here’s my list.

First Day: 1 copy of my finished manuscript. I suppose I have to finish it first. Hello, 2014.

Second Day: 2-year subscription to Writer’s Digest. Love this mag.

Third Day: 3 Moleskine notebooks. I write stories and songs, plus I sketch. One paper notebook for each.

Fourth Day: 4 mobile devices. So, along with the MacBook Air, the iPhone, and the iPad to make us rockin’ modern, mobile writers, coming soon is the iWatch. Really.

Fifth Day: 5 Facebook Likes each week. Join me! (Click here to like my page.)

Sixth Day: 6-dozen pencils. See the Third Day of Christmas. Plus, sometimes you just need to put the digital down. My pencil of choice is the classic Palomino Blackwing 602.

Seventh Day: 7 words of wisdom. “You fail only if you stop writing.” Ray Bradbury

Eighth Day: 8 agents spying. I don’t know if they do or not, but I can imagine literary agents trawling through writer sites and looking for the next client. If they are, then eight of them checking out my stories on Afternoon Tea is good enough for me. Nine works, too. Or seven. Okay: one will do. But we’re at the eighth day, so let’s keep it at that.

Ninth Day: 9 new Twitter followers each week. Why nine? Because it’s just so close to ten. (Click here to follow me.)

Tenth Day: 10 apps for writers. You’re a modern, mobile writer, right? Then you need a good collection of apps. Here’s a Top 10 list that introduced several new apps to me.

Eleventh Day: 11 great blogs for writers. Well, there are actually ten listed here as “Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2013,” but I’ve added mine because I kind of like this blog. My favorites on the list are Writer Unboxed, K.M. Weiland, and C.S. Lakin — all terrific blogs for writers.

Twelfth Day: 12 months in 2014 to write, write, write!

Merry Christmas! And it’s going  to be a Happy New Year!

10 Tips for writers from NaNoWriMo pep talks

writer-tips-coffeeThe NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) crew treated their participants to pep talks from published authors as we worked through the month.  Kudos to NaNo for gathering these writers who gave their time and spurred us on.

I won the challenge, by the way. Fifty thousand words in 30 days. It was a fantastic month of writing.

Here are 10 tips for writers that I gleaned from the wealth of wisdom we received as NaNoWriMo participants — all for you to enjoy and put to use.

1) Write Like the Pros Do

Get into a writing routine. Think it’s hard to write every day during NaNo? Most professional writers keep this kind of pace all year round. Holidays, birthdays, vacations—you name it, we’re writing. The trick is making writing into a daily habit. Same time. Same place. Same hot beverage of choice. Every. Single. Day. Again. And. Again. – James Patterson

2) Your Way is the Right Way

Write something true. Write something frightening. Write something close to the bone. You are on this planet to tell the story of what you saw here. What you heard. What you felt. What you learned. Any effort spent in that pursuit cannot be wasted. Any way that you can tell that story more truly, more vividly, more you-ly, is the right way. – Catherynne M. Valente

3) Don’t Just Think

Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. – Patrick Rothfuss

4) Inspiration vs. Discipline

That’s what inspiration is. It’s seductive and thrilling, but you can’t depend on it to call you. It doesn’t work that way. The good thing is, inspiration is irrelevant to whether or not you finish your book. The only thing that determines that is your own sense of discipline. – Malinda Lo

5) Block Out the White Noise

In the workshops I give to writers, I talk a lot about blocking out the white noise (email, Facebook, phone calls, prolonged internet searches for information you don’t really need to know to write your first draft, etc.) and putting on blinders so you can really give your focus to your book. This advice is a lesson I personally relearn with every single book I write. – Bella Andre

6) Love Your Lousy Draft

A lousy draft proves nothing. Rough drafts are rough—everybody’s are. Being a writer isn’t like being a musician. You don’t have to get it right every day. The wonderful thing about being a writer is, you only have to get it right once. That’s all anyone will ever see. The only bad draft is the one that doesn’t get finished. – Lev Grossman

7) It Takes Work

Many an aspiring writer is just in love with a glammed-up idea of being an author, but not enthused about the actual work. Well, the only way to learn to write is to write (and to write a lot). Sit down and get started. Even if you just type, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” – Ralph Peters

8) Fuel Your Imagination

The world is at your fingertips, literally. Writing fuels your imagination, which makes you want to write more. – Holly McGee

9) Your Story = Life

Life is momentum. Life is stories. Let’s keep our stories going. – Grant Faulkner

10) You Should Try NaNoWriMo

I told myself that it didn’t matter if my first draft was bad. All my books have required major revisions, anyway. And even if NaNoWriMo was a complete waste of time—if I ended up with a chaotic mess—a month isn’t much time to waste. (Not compared to the five years I worked on my first novel before showing it to anyone.) …That 50,000-word pile I made wasn’t a mess at all. It’s some of the bravest writing I’ve ever done…. NaNoWriMo helped me push past so many of my doubts and insecurities and bad habits. – Rainbow Rowell

Those are some of the inspirational thoughts that kept us fired up throughout the NaNoWriMo month. What’s the main takeaway? Keep writing and don’t give up.

You can do it.

And though the challenge is officially over, the fine people at National Novel Writing Month continue to help writers throughout the year. Click here if you want to learn more about the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Write on!

[Image credit: Sterling silver and enamel beverage pot designed by Arthur Pulos, between 1940 and 1960, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute]

Your manuscript’s opening pages: Wow those agents from the beginning

Crowd surrounding a woman skating around a giant skillet with slabs of bacon tied to her feet, holding a giant wooden spatula, Chehalis, Washington

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

November has been a month of serious thoughts about novels and manuscript submission. I’m taking part in the NaNoWriMo challenge (my third year), with my dreams of finishing a major work, submitting it to a publisher, and sharing my story with the world, all floating happily around in my head.

Beyond the NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words written by November 30, there is the “What do I do with this now?” phase. The usual suggestion is to put it aside for a month, step away from it, let it breath on its own, and get back to it come January. Others may not want to let go and will continue working into December, they love that story so much.

Whatever your time frame, the moment will come when you’re ready to submit your manuscript — after much revision, editing, professional help, rinsing, and repeating, of course.

A few months later, you’re elated to receive a positive response to your query letter that requests a full manuscript. You’re ready to pack it into an envelope and send your wonderful novel on its way. But is your manuscript ready? Really ready? Really ready to stand out from the hundreds of other manuscripts that flood agent desks each week?

It will be if you’ve researched and taken the advice of literary agents.

In an enlightening Writer’s Digest article, literary agent Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says:

The biggest trick to rising up on an agent’s list is to wow us from the beginning…. The truth is that most agents rarely read manuscripts from front to back, and even more rarely in a single sitting.¹

Okay. What is Nakamura trying to tell us here?

Agents Always Look at the Opening Pages

She says that “without fail we will always look closely at the beginning pages of your work.” Agents don’t read your whole story. They don’t put aside an afternoon to concentrate solely on your book.

But they will read those first pages of your manuscript. Always, says Nakamura. Always.

Sounds like an important group of words, doesn’t it?

Your Opening is Where Decisions are Made

According to Nakamura, there are two piles on an agent’s desk that are homes for manuscripts they receive: Reject and Possible.

How do agents know into which pile your manuscript will be placed? It’s the opening, writer.

Literary agents are the ones who read more prospective novel beginnings than anyone else in the publishing business. Chuck Sambuchino, writer of one of the largest blogs in publishing, Guide to Literary Agents, says “They’re the ones on the front lines— sifting through inboxes and slush piles.” They have a job to do and are experts on what does and what does not work in a story.

But wait, a writer might be thinking. If that agent would just read into the second chapter, then he’ll see the plot thicken. Please, oh, please keep reading!

Sorry. No agent is going to do that. And, if you think about it, no reader is going to do that, either.

How to Wow

Your opening has to grab the reader’s attention to have a shot at getting published. Literary agents aren’t being unkind when they turn down a manuscript with a ho-hum beginning. It’s the best decision for the writer and the reader. Agents want your book to be as strong as possible so that it will sell. And that’s what you want, too, if your goal is to be a published writer who has readers.

What should go into those opening pages that will grab an agent’s attention? In her article, Nakamura points out these four essentials:

  • Clear point of view. Point of view is the narrative perspective from which a story is told. How and from whom do you want your readers to hear your story? This has to be clear right from the beginning. The reader should not have to spend any time guessing about this aspect of your story. Read my post for a more detailed look at point of view.
  • Strong voice. Your voice is what makes you unique from the competition. It’s putting your personality in your writing. It’s your style. An agent wants to hear a distinct voice in the beginning of your manuscript. Will she hear yours or another’s voice you’re trying to emulate? This is an interesting and important writing term, and I will come back to it for a future post. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel that will get you started.
  • Excellent language and prose. From author and editor Victoria Mixon: “Prose is, in fact, the single greatest over-riding quality that separates passing blips on readers’ radar from timeless classics.” Your language and prose is what gives your novel rhythm and makes your novel sing. Every word used should be necessary to the advancement of your story. Your beginning pages should be alive with literary music.
  • Solid emotional connection between main character and reader. In his helpful article, Making an Emotional Connection, author Joe Moore uses a newspaper article to show how, even though something tragic has happened, we don’t care deeply for the victims because we don’t have any emotional connection to them. In the same way, readers won’t care what happens to the characters in your novel if they don’t become emotionally connected to them. And this must happen in the beginning pages. An agent wants to feel that connection right away.

It’s a simple lesson: Pay attention to your opening pages. Make your work irresistible. What you write on those pages will result in either possible representation or definite rejection.

Next in the series: Handling Rejections and Resubmissions — Conducting yourself in a way that leaves a good impression.

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.

Book review: Writing is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor

Writing is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too). Theo Pauline Nestor. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. 256 pp.

[Note: A representative from Simon & Schuster contacted me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing this book to coordinate with its release on November 5, 2013. I agreed, and I received a copy of the book for my effort.]

Writers who are fans of Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron will most likely enjoy Theo Pauline Nestor’s latest book, Writing is My Drink. The book uses a similar combination of memoir, craft, and life lessons to help others uncover the writer within.

9781451665093 FINAL

The story chronicles Nestor’s journey from suffering as the child of alcoholic parents to becoming a respected writer and teacher. It details the relationships and life incidents that shaped her lack of confidence and caused her to lose her voice both emotionally and artistically. Most importantly, Nestor shares her breakthrough that came during a “desperate day,” when motherhood had worn her down, and she could no longer be silent. In a burst of frustration, she decided to write for herself, and a new life of writing began.

Nestor’s goal is to help her fellow writers flee self-doubt and give themselves permission to write, a luxury she had long suppressed. Her “Try This” sections at the end of each chapter offer exercises to help the writer dig deeper and more personally into the hows and whys of the writing life.

Between the advice and tips, Nestor gives intimate details of her life. Her prose is sprinkled with profanity and crude language, which distract rather than strengthen. However, the words do as they intend and the author is well known by the end of the book. It reads almost like a novel, and is entertaining in the way it uses song titles, quotes, and other familiar phrases for chapter headings.

Writing is My Drink is for the writer who struggles and yearns for the breakthrough that Nestor finally received.

For more information on this book, visit the Simon & Schuster website.

Seven Things: Coach John Wooden’s creed and the writing life

coach-woodenLegendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden wrote a wonderful book that I read recently. It contains the lessons he learned from his parents who raised him on a small farm in south-central Indiana. Wooden carried those lessons with him into every area of his life: husband, father, teacher, and his amazing career at UCLA.

In the book, Wooden reveals that his “gift of a lifetime” was his father’s creed, a list of “seven things” to do for lifeHis father wrote the list on a card and gave it to Wooden after he graduated from a three-room grammar school.

Wooden carried that list with him for the rest of his life.

And, of course, his list applies perfectly to the writing life.

1) Be true to yourself

Wooden was one of a kind. He didn’t follow suit; he followed his list, even when others mocked him for it.

I want to be published someday, and I’m sure you do, too.

Often I wonder if what I want to share with the world will ever interest a publisher. There’s no profanity, no sex scenes, no over-the-top violence in my work.

Will I change who I am and what I want to share in order to  blend in?

No, I won’t.

True: Loyal, faithful. Write in a way that tells us about you and the confidence you have in what’s important to you.

2) Help others

Wooden found the most joy in what he could do for others, whether it was in his teaching, coaching or being a great husband and father. What are you doing in your writing life to help another writer? To help another human being? If you’re focused solely on what’s in it for you, then you’re missing out. I’ll never forget how I felt when I read a tweet from a writer who turned back to her craft after reading one of my posts. It gave me the chills.

Give back from what has been given to you.

3) Make each day your masterpiece

The best result of my first NaNoWriMo challenge was a daily writing habit. Before that, I just wrote when I “had time,” and that time didn’t seem to come around very often.

NaNo helped me to see that I have plenty of time to write. I looked forward to doing a bit each day and being satisfied with what I produced.

Wooden would have been happy with that effort.

Don’t waste a day. Go into it with the goal of spending time on your craft.The masterpiece isn’t a finished poem, blogging post, or novel chapter. It’s your sense of accomplishment for sticking to it.

4) Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible

This one is my favorite, not only because Wooden includes the Bible (my favorite book) in such a special way, but also because of the way he describes reading.

A good writer is a good reader. You’ve heard that from the best of them. Wooden sees reading as so important to a successful life that he compares it to water.

Drink. Read as if your writing depended upon it.

Deeply. Read with understanding and purpose.

Good. Read books that will improve your writing. And your soul.

And if you’re curious, here’s the version of the Bible that I read.

5) Make friendship a fine art

In this age of social media, we are introduced to new people daily. Wooden’s call to cultivate meaningful friendships, though, doesn’t have to be discounted. Even though we may never meet our writing life friends in person, there is still a proper way to treat our fellow writers, loyal readers, and business contacts.

Part of being a good friend is not taking the friendship for granted, even on the social media level. Think about your collection of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. Are they people you try to engage with or are they just numbers you use to improve your Klout score and impress your website visitors?

Wooden was a success because his friends knew he appreciated them.

Do your writing friends know that about you? They truly are gifts.

6) Build a shelter against a rainy day

Wooden was speaking of financial savings here, but writers can also apply this to another type of savings.

You probably have a binder, drawer, or file folder full of scraps of paper on which you’ve written story ideas. Or maybe you use an app like Evernote to gather bits of information you find on the web.

You’re set, then, when that rainy day comes — that time when you sit down to write and your brain can’t muster a single piece of creative thought.

No problem.

You’ve planned for such a time as this and your creative storehouse is full. Write on.

7) Pray for guidance, and count and give thanks for your blessings every day

Wooden didn’t live his life on a pedestal, though many tried to put him there. He knew he was only a man, with a talent given to him by his Creator.

We like to have our heroes and stars, even in the literary world. And there’s nothing wrong with gaining fame from writing a great story.

But this final “thing” is a reminder that what really made Wooden great is that he was a humble man.

How can we be humble writers?

I think it starts with acknowledging from Whom our writing talent comes, and understanding that it wasn’t given to us as a prize, but as a tool to write good stories with great messages for a needy world.

Click here to read about the book in which I found these Seven Things and much more wisdom and interesting stories from John Wooden’s extraordinary life. It’s a gem.

The query letter: Your manuscript’s most important page

Packard tourist sightseeing car

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines query as “a question or a request for information about something.”

In your query letter to a literary agent, that something is the level of interest an agent has in you as a writer and what you have produced and shared with that agent.

You can read my post that covers the basics of a query letter and which also includes resources from which to learn more about the mechanics of writing one.

With this post, though, the focus is on the reader of the letter. What qualities is an agent looking for in a query letter? That’s important to know because if your letter doesn’t read well, then the agent is not going to read anything else that you include; namely, your manuscript. That’s the written-in-stone fact I’ve found while researching the query letter.

Let’s accept and embrace that fact. Literary agents get hundreds of query letters each week. They are going to read the letters that are well written and inspiring. And I appreciate that. It makes me happy to know that there are agents who are careful and serious about the craft of writing, and who don’t just focus on the money-making side of it.

In her Writer’s Digest article, literary agent Kimiko Nakamura of Dee Mura Literary says:

Agents look for queries that make us want to turn the pages of your story. That means you need to think of your query as the first and most important page of your manuscript.¹

Isn’t that an interesting statement? Instead of seeing the query letter as a dry business letter, I now see it as another piece of my creative work.

Query Letter Checklist

Well-respected website tells us that agents “take [query letters] seriously and actually respond to the ones that spark their interest.”

So, what’s going to spark an agent’s interest? In her article, Nakamura lists these essentials:

  • Logline (a brief summary of your story that hooks the agent) and manuscript stats
  • How you found the agency
  • A movie trailer version of your book
  • Your main characters and why the agent should root for them.
  • The major points of conflict in your story
  • A brief bio paragraph.
  • The materials you’ve enclosed that were requested in the agency’s submission guidelines
  • Contact info
  • A brief word of thanks for the agent’s time and consideration.

Click here to read a query letter that led to a first request and a signing. You’ll also find agent comments for each part of the letter, which are also helpful, especially since not all of them thought the letter was perfect!

Beware: You can include every one of these checklist points in your letter and still not create any interest. How? By not writing the letter with as much care and polish as you did for your manuscript. You’re presenting your manuscript, but you’re also presenting yourself as a writer. Don’t just throw together a “cover letter.”

Make Them Care

Article after article that I’ve read points to the same objective for a query letter: Make the agent care about your story. She needs to catch the uniqueness of your protagonist, feel the conflict, and wonder about the consequences. Use your writing skills to make sure that every person who looks at that letter will long to find out what happens next.

It’s the most important page you’ll write for your manuscript.

Write it well and with the agent’s expectations in mind. Write briefly and clearly, yet with a bold sense of who you are and how you write.

And get ready for good results!

There’s so much to learn about the business side of the writing life. Stay with me as I share what I learn.

Next in the series: Your Manuscript — preparing your work to “wow” an agent.

(Part of a blog series: How to catch the eye of a literary agent)

¹Your Future Agent’s Wish List: How to Be On It, Writer’s Digest, October 2013 issue.