That said, it’s totally okay if you want to tell the agent a bit about yourself. This can give them more of a sense of your personality.
Just don’t go overboard. Keep it concise. Remember, your goal is to give more of a sense of who you are and your personality.
Lisa Brackmann had a pretty great bio paragraph in her query letter for Rock Paper Tiger, which made her sound like an extremely interesting person (which, by the way, she totally is):
I have a background in politics, Chinese history and the entertainment industry. I am working on a pop biography of Zhou Enlai for a small press and with a partner wrote a feature screenplay based on a series of Taiwanese fantasy novels, THE IMMORTALS, which was optioned by ActionGate Films. I was also a contributing editor for TWILIGHT OF EMPIRE: RESPONSES TO OCCUPATION, a collection of essays about the American occupation of Iraq (Perceval Press, 2004). I lived in China, travel there often and speak decent, if not quite fluent, Mandarin.
Things that don’t really belong in a bio:
Why you started writing
How dedicated you are to writing
How many rounds of revision your book has been through
Trust me, agents have heard all of that a million times before.
Include all of your books
If you’re previously published, you should include all of the books you have published and/or self-published, along with the publisher and year. This is important. Don’t make the agent go hunting for who published them.
If it’s just a few books you can probably weave them into your bio paragraph, but if it’s a bunch you may want to just list them below your signature and point to them in the bio.
Only include publishing credits that directly relate to your project
As a general rule of thumb, only include publishing credits if they’re relevant to your book project. Don’t include publishing credits for the sole purpose of trying to show you write well.
That means if you’re writing fiction, published short stories in reputable journals are relevant. Academic papers or unrelated articles in a magazine are not.
The exception to this is if you’re, say, writing a novel about a very particular subject like poisonous mushrooms and you happen to have written some great articles on poisonous mushrooms. Then… sure. Include it.
Also, only include publishing credits that have at least a regional audience. Publishing a letter to the editor in your local paper isn’t quite going to impress.
Don’t overthink it
At the end of the day, this is the least important paragraph in your query letter. A great idea for a book trumps everything else.
Don’t agonize over this one. Just be concise, punchy, and focus the rest of your energy on your making your book sound as amazing as possible.
I couldn’t seem to concentrate. I wasn’t as productive as I used to be. Most importantly, I just wasn’t writing very much. The weeks would tick by and I wasn’t feeling like I was accomplishing anything significant.
Then I made two key changes that have seriously changed my life:
What is extreme calendaring? How will it totally change your life?
Read on, friends.
How extreme calendaring works
Before I get to some of the specifics, there is really only rule to extreme calendaring:
Track everything you do in a calendar in half hour increments
I don’t mean literally everything you do, you don’t need to like track every time you get up to go to the refrigerator, but anything substantive you’re doing: track it.
Choose a calendaring system you’re actually going to stick to. Some people I know swear by their paper calendars, I personally love using Google Calendar across all my devices.
The reason you’re tracking everything in one place is twofold:
You’ll actually see what you’re doing with your time – You probably don’t realize how much time you’re wasting doing things that aren’t very important to you. When you’re not tracking your time, you may not actually realize that your quick dip to check your Twitter feed turned into a two hour black hole.
You’ll get in the habit of sticking to your calendar – Did you put a three hour block in your calendar to write? Cool! Now do it.
There are some nuances in how I’d suggest setting things up, but if there’s just one thing you take away from this post, let it be this one: track your time.
Reducing the time I spend on things that don’t actually make me happy is one of the absolute best ways I’ve found to get myself out of ruts and find happiness.
Spend an hour planning each week
The first thing you should enter in your calendar? An hour each week to plan your week. I personally start every Sunday morning with an hour blocked off so I can plan out the rest of my week and look back at how productive and happy I was the previous week.
I’m a big believer in thinking of your time in terms of week-long chunks, because it’s enough time to plan ahead but not so far in the distance that too much unexpected is going to come up to throw a wrench in things.
Thinking in weeks also helps with tracking how much time you’re spending on things, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Start with your must-dos
Just about everyone has things they absolutely have to do in order to make their life function: work, commutes, picking up kids from soccer practice, etc.
Start with those and put them in the calendar. If you’re using a calendar app or website like Google Calendar you can also take advantage of “repeat” functions so you can block out time for recurring things like appointments and, you know, showering and getting ready for the day.
Don’t neglect breaks and things that make you healthy
One of the first mistakes I made when I started extreme calendaring is that I blocked off every minute of the day as if I would never need a break. I thought with the right mindset I could just jump seamlessly from one task to the next.
No one can really work that way. You need rest in there too.
Fill in time for things that are going to make you healthy and happy:
Half hour breaks, especially after strenuous mental tasks
Leisure that’s important to you (TV/sports/reading… It’s okay! Be human!)
Fill in your discretionary time
Once you have your must-dos and some reasonable breaks accounted for, you now have a sense of your discretionary time.
It’s a heck of a lot less time than you thought it was, isn’t it? Wow!! You don’t actually have that much time!
THIS IS GOOD AND IMPORTANT TO KNOW.
There really isn’t as much time in the week as you would like to think. So don’t waste it.
Start filling in the things you want to accomplish! This can be anything: writing, blogging, building a desk with your bare hands, sitting under a shade tree, extra time with your family… whatever is important to you.
Fill up that calendar until bedtime for the whole week.
Now, I know what you may be thinking: What about that friend who likes to show up unannounced? What happens when my kid gets sick and I have to scrap an entire day?
You may need to adjust your calendar in a flash when things come up unexpectedly. But starting with your plan at the start of the week will help you see your tradeoffs when you have a decision to make about how to spend your time.
Visualize each day and do what you said you were going to do
Every morning I wake up and look at my calendar to mentally walk myself through the day.
This is important: visualize yourself doing the things on your calendar.
It’s so easy to talk yourself out of writing just because you don’t feel like doing it that day. But when you’ve known since 8am that you’re going to start writing at 1pm, suddenly when 1pm rolls around it’s so much easier to just… start writing.
It may take some habit-forming to get good at sticking to your calendar, but after a few weeks it will feel like second nature.
Track your time
Did you exercise? How many hours did you spend writing? How much time did you spend hanging out with friends?
Whatever is important to you and your happiness: track it. Like literally add it up and write it down every week.
Why? This will help you “adjust your dials.”
In that hour you have set aside to plan your week, think back on whether you just finished a good week or a bad week:
Did it feel like you didn’t get enough writing done? You may need to bump up the amount of time you spend writing next week.
Did you feel overcommitted? You may need to carve out some more alone time.
Did you feel scattered and exhausted? You may need to add in some more breaks.
Tracking these things through time will help you establish a baseline that will be your foundation. I now have routines that are rock solid because I know they’ll make me happier and more productive.
For instance, I know roughly how much time I need to spend writing (~10-15 hours) and blogging (~3 hours) each week in order to feel like I’m making forward progress.
You are what you spend time on
Tracking my time has been one of the most transformative things I’ve done.
When you spend more time on things that make you happy and less time on things that don’t make you happy… you’re happier. It’s not the solution to all of life’s problems, but tracking your time helps you see the tradeoffs you’re making in life without realizing it.
When you know agreeing to take on a project or attending an event will take you three hours, you know exactly what you’re giving up in order to do it.
Extreme calendaring has made me a better decision-maker, it’s made me a better friend, and it’s made me a happier, more productive writer.
I should have been confident about this new novel. I’ve written novels! I’ve been published by a major publisher! I spent years in this business and have seen it all!
And yet for several years I was plagued with a really serious, gnawing, crippling doubt: what if I never finish it?
What if I just talk about writing but I never actually write? What if that whole writing thing was just a certain point of time in my life that is now gone?
Ironically enough, as so many fears do, this one became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I became so fearful of this novel… I didn’t work on it enough. I completely made my fear real.
Earlier this year I was finally able to banish some of these fears from my head and start charging forth with the writing. I started chipping away and chipping away, passed the halfway point, and now, for the first time in years, I’m confident I’m actually, really going to finish.
The lesson I’ve learned: fears have a way of making themselves real.
The thing you’re scared of has a frightening tendency to make itself a reality. Banish those fears, focus on your goal, and even though it’s so much easier said than done, try not to doubt yourself.
I recently re-read the Harry Potter series and was impressed anew with J.K. Rowling’s incredible accomplishment, especially the way she shows the relationship between Harry and Snape, which is just so masterful.
Gestures can convey so much in a novel. Well-described gestures can help us divine what a character is thinking, they can create suspense, they can take our breath away.
But in order to work, they need to mean something.
So often when I’m working with authors on edits I see gestures that just don’t really mean anything or don’t add anything new. People looking at things or fiddling with things or turning away or coughing or sighing.
I can absolutely empathize with these authors. One of my own writing tics that I have to watch out for is characters looking at things. And sometimes it feels important to slow down the dialogue for a dramatic pause.
But empty gestures can really add up. They can slow down a scene, bog down the pace, and exhaust the reader, especially if they’re repetitive.
More importantly: they can be meaningful.
The master of gestures is, in my opinion, J.K. Rowling. Part of what makes her characters so vivid is the care she takes to show characters doing things that reveal what they’re thinking and show their character. Hermione rummaging through a bag when she’s embarrassed, Ron turning red, Dolores Umbridge “Hem hem”ing.
Take a hard look at your scenes, especially your conversations, and see if you’re relying on empty gestures that can either be removed or made more unique.
With well-chosen gestures, your characters will come alive.
Summertime is here, and some of you may have your eye on a writers conference or two.
Writers conferences can be a significant investment, but they’re also a fantastic learning opportunity. So what should be on your mind as you plan to attend one?
I’ve been to my fair share over the years, and here’s what I would recommend you do.
Keep your expectations in check
Attending a conference may well result in eventually landing you an agent. But it probably won’t. And that’s okay!
There are lots of reasons to attend a writers conference that don’t involve all of your dreams coming true.
But factor in these lowered expectations when you’re considering whether to attend. Don’t spend money to attend a conference that you can’t afford to lose and don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
No one knows how hard it is to write a book except for other people who have done it. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by so many people who have taken the writing leap.
Even if you’re attending with a friend, be sure to mix it up and talk to people, make a point of introducing yourself and having conversations.
I’ve met some lifelong friends at writers conferences and you can too.
Agents and editors don’t bite (Well. Most of them)
The industry professionals who attend conferences are there to meet writers. It’s totally fine to introduce yourself and talk to them. Don’t be scared.
Be respectful of agents’ and editors’ space
Every agent and editor I know has a story of people pitching them in the bathroom, not letting them leave, and otherwise being accosted. Don’t be that person.
Be attuned to social cues and err on the side of not taking up too much of their time. Being a literary agent at a writers conference can kind of feel like being a pot of honey in the middle of a pack of bears. It can be overwhelming.
Consider using pitch sessions to ask questions
Pitching to agents can be a good way to make a quick personal connection and can help you hone your pitch. But there’s really only so much an agent or editor is going to be able to tell you just by hearing your pitch. They’re going to have to, you know, read the book.
Instead of taking up all your time with a lengthy pitch, consider picking the professional’s brain with a question that might be on your mind.
There are no rules! You might learn something valuable.
Have you attended a conference? Any tips? Let me know in the comments!
My heart is incredibly heavy this week with the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and the ongoing poisoning of our shared culture by people who see more to gain in distracting us with hate than in inspiring love.
This is a moment in history that seems designed to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best.
We need art more than ever, but art is not the potion we want it to be. It helps, but it doesn’t solve. It illuminates, but it doesn’t guide. It salves, but it doesn’t cure.
If you’re trying to transubstantiate pain into light: we need you now more than ever.
Bathing in these waters can bring down the hardiest of swimmers. If you need help, please get it. If you can’t think of anyone to reach out to, reach out to me.
I don’t have the answers. I wish I could do more. It’s hard not to crack under the weight of the forces trying to bring us all down.
But please don’t give up the fight. Please choose living. Please choose love.
And here’s the best advice I have to offer for dealing with times like these:
Your novel might have a great plot. You might have great characters. You might have a great setting. But if you don’t know your novel’s perspective? It can sink everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish.
Perspective is everything in a novel. And yet too often when I’m editing authors’ manuscripts I see a mishmash of perspectives that confuses the reader and deadens our emotional connection to the novel. People set forth writing a novel without giving adequate thought to perspective.
In this post I’ll talk about:
Why it’s so important to have a consistent perspective
An overview of the different perspectives you can employ
How to choose your perspective
The pros and cons of the different perspectives
Tips for each type of perspective
Tips for changing perspective within a novel
Consistency is key
Let’s be honest: the perspective in novels is weird.
In real life we don’t have the ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, or over one person’s shoulder while being able to read their mind, or from up above with the ability to divine what everyone in a room is thinking.
And yet for something that is so inherently weird and devoid of real life analogues, there are some surprisingly basic things that you really need to get right about a novel’s perspective.
Namely: A novel’s perspective needs to be consistent so a reader knows where to situate themselves within a scene.
Think about how confusing it is to start a novel. You’re essentially starting in a completely dark room and the writer then starts to fill in details and slowly and steadily bring the world to life.
It’s much easier to contextualize what you’re seeing if you know where to situate your consciousness within the novel. Are we in one person’s head? Looking down on the scene from above? Looking over someone’s shoulder with the ability to read their thoughts?
It can be any of these approaches, it just can’t be this one: It’s completely disorienting to head jump from one character to another.
Head jumping means you have to constantly re-contextualize whose perspective you’re seeing the events from and constantly re-evaluate your understanding of a scene. It’s exhausting, confusing mental labor. Don’t make the reader do it.
Instead: choose a perspective and stick with it. The reader will settle in like a happy passenger.
An overview of perspectives in novels
First, there are two main tenses you’ll need to choose between.
The two tenses
Past tense (He said, I said) is the more “classic” approach, whereas present tense (He says, I say) can feel more modern and convey a bit more immediacy. Whichever one you choose is up to you, but there’s really only one rule: stick with the one you choose.
When writers jump around with timelines, they sometime use present tense to denote the present timeline and past tense to denote the past timelines. Anything can be made to work, but this usually ends up being pretty confusing. Just stick to one tense.
Types of novel perspectives
Next, you’ll need to choose your overall perspective. Here are your choices:
First person: Told from a specific narrator’s perspective. “I did this, I did that.”
Second person: Written as if the narrative happens from the reader’s perspective, or as if it’s a conversation with an invisible character. “You did this, you did that.”
Third person limited: Tied to one character’s thoughts and perspective at a time. If the perspective shifts, it’s almost as if the camera is handed to another character. “He did this, she did that, but he wasn’t sure why she did what she did.”
Third person omniscient: Kind of like a god’s-eye perspective. Sometimes this means an all-seeing narrator who is almost another character, other times it’s just a dispassionate voice describing thoughts and actions. “He did this, she did that, he was thinking this, she was thinking that.”
How to choose your perspective
You may be starting the whole novel writing process with a strong preference for which type of perspective you want to employ, in which case congrats! Move straight on to the tips below.
If you’re having a hard time choosing, here are some tips:
Consider the constraints of the different perspectives: With first person and third person limited, it’s difficult to show things happening outside of your character’s eyesight. With third person omniscient, it’s sometimes tricky to build a sense of deep connection with a particular character. Think through these limitations.
Think about how many characters you want to anchor to: If you want to show events through more than two or three characters, you probably want to go third person rather than first. It starts to feel unwieldy and confusing to have too many first person narrators thrown into the mix.
See what feels natural: Try out a few scenes in a few different ways and see what feels right to you. Chances are one approaching is just going to feel like the right one.
Your reader only knows what your narrator knows and only sees what your narrator sees. It’s really hard to show the reader things that are happening “offstage” that the reader doesn’t know about. You’ll need to shift the plot accordingly.
The narrator doesn’t have to be a good person, but they have to pass the “stuck in an elevator” test. Would you want to be stuck in an elevator with this person for six hours? Nothing kills a first person narrative quicker than an annoying narrator.
Go easy on slang, exhortations, and flippancy or you’ll exhaust the reader. Again, would you want to be stuck in an elevator with someone who is saying “Ugh!” every few seconds and is VERY EXCITABLE?
You can get away with some omniscience in a first person narrative. (Herman Melville does this in Moby-Dick). The key here is just to make it credible that the narrator would know the things they’re narrating.
Don’t write a novel this way, or at least use it sparingly.
If you’re going to write a novel this way, at least make it more like a one-sided conversation with an absent other character than making the reader literally a character. Otherwise the reader will keep saying, “Huh? I’m doing what?”
Third person limited
Inspires a sense of closeness with certain characters while retaining some flexibility.
Able to show what a character is thinking and feeling while still retaining some objectivity and distance.
Similar constraints to first person. We only see what the anchoring character sees. Difficult to show things happening out of their view.
It can be tricky to get the voice right. The descriptions need to “sound” like the character even as you’re not literally describing things from within their head.
Stick with the anchoring character. Even though it’s third person, the reader should be seeing the world through their eyes and only dipping into their head to see their thoughts.
Do not confuse third person limited and third person omniscient and do not mix them. They are two separate beasts.
Don’t head jump into another character when you’re writing in third person limited. Again, stick with the anchoring character. If you want to let the reader know what a character is thinking, show this through action or have the anchoring character observe the emotion in the other person.
You can get away with some cheating with third person limited. If you want the anchoring character to leave but keep the scene going, think of it as keeping a camera in place and ease the reader into the new perspective.
Third person omniscient
Maximum flexibility. You can show the reader anything you want, within reason.
It can be tricky to make it a seamless experience for the reader and avoid disorienting head jumping.
It’s harder to build a sense of connection between the reader and any one character.
The key to a good third person omniscient narrative is a unifying voice. Whether the novel is being narrated by a literal character or just by an unnamed narrator, we should be seeing the scene from one perspective rather than amalgam of the different characters.
Think of a third person omniscience narrator as a clairvoyant fly on the wall or someone looking down from above but not as a combination of the characters in the room.
Try to dip into characters’ heads a bit more sparingly in third person omniscience and remember that we’re only doing this because the unifying voice wants us to know those thoughts in order to understand what’s happening.
How to change perspectives within a novel
Keen-eyed readers will notice that all four types of perspectives have one thing at in common: They comprise one perspective at a time.
Even the omniscient perspective, which may well dip into a few different heads, represents a singular perspective rather than combining multiple.
That said, you may want to combine a few different perspectives in your novel.
Here are some tips for making that work:
If you want to shift the perspective to another character, denote the shift with a section break or a chapter break. It’s good to let the reader have a mental break before you change the perspective.
If you are inserting an interlude from another POV or a wildly different perspective (like a brief passage of first person in an otherwise third person narrative) make it stylistically very different than the rest of the novel so the reader recognizes it as an interlude or something different rather than as a continuation of what came before.
You can get away with some cheating in these perspective types, but be very careful. Always think of it like leaving a camera rolling in one place even if the narrator happens to leave for a bit. The reader shouldn’t have to completely readjust their perspective within a scene.
Perspective really is everything. It’s so important to get right. But if you do, your novel will really come alive.
See anything I missed? Any tips or tricks? Let me know in the comments!