Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Uncategorized”

Getting Unstuck: Why Gumby never had writer’s block

“Stuck” can take many forms. I’ve been stuck because I was overwhelmed with ideas and stuck because it seemed like the well was dry and I had none. I’ve become obsessed with the structural elements of a story to the point I couldn’t figure out how to get the story out, and lost days to research on minutia no reader would spend more than a few seconds glancing past. Ultimately, for me, one cure (and only one cure) seems to cure “stuck,” regardless of the cause.

On May 19, I posted a question on Query Tracker because, although I hadn’t identified my problem as me being stuck, that’s precisely what had happened. I realized that’s what had happened when one of the board’s long-time members, who happens to be my writing partner, chimed in. She ignored my question about epistolary novels and went right to the heart of the problem. Her sage, if not delicate, advice was: “just start writing the f***er and see where it takes you.”

You may think “just write” is too obvious, maybe even too trite, to be much of a solution, but it’s definitely at least part of any solution to this problem. We know that, since “just writing” is also the goal we seek – any solution is going to be measured entirely based on whether we end up “just writing” or not. But if we were always able to “just write” there wouldn’t be a problem for us to solve by “just writing.”

And we DO get stuck. Sometimes, when the problem is a simple one like me over thinking how to deal with a specific structural issue, ignoring that issue and forging forward is an option — the only option, really. When it comes to distractions, research rabbit trails, structural questions, and other things that mean we’ve basically chosen to be stuck, not making that choice – i.e., “just writing” is the key. So I narrowed my research down to cases where people were motivated and attempting to write but but still unable to do so. Instances where “just write” just didn’t work.

Excited to put off writing this post by researching it, I didn’t “just write,” and instead found a number of studies looking at the causes and implications of this phenomenon. One particularly interesting study was conducted by Mike Rose at UCLA’s Writing Research Project. His conclusion, mirrored in a number of other studies, comes down to rigidity.

For some people, the process of writing is a fluid process. They have rules and plans, but when something requires the rules to bend or plans to change, they respond flexibly. Rose found these writers did not commonly suffer from writer’s block. “Stuck,” only happens when the thing that needs to be written is different from the thing that the writer planned to write.

GUMBY

Your writing process is not the problem. Your prewriting process is not the problem. The problem, and the solution, rests with how rigidly you (mostly subconsciously) adhere to that process when the inevitable happens and your chosen process not the right process for writing what needs to go on the page. Some people tend to adapt their strategies without even noticing. Others see their writing rules and planning strategies as “writing,” not one particular set of rules they’ve adopted, and therefore don’t just use a different set of rules if that’s what it takes to get the job done.

Arrival at the destination drives the process for one group, and their process is a compass. If they need to go east to find a place to cross the river before resuming the trek west, the process keeps them from getting lost, but doesn’t block them from continuing on their way. For others, a specific trail on a specific map drives the process, and if a rockslide has buried the trail, they can’t go off trail long enough to keep moving toward the goal.

And all “just write” means to those people is stare harder at a map they know won’t get them where they need to go.

Flexibility needs to be added to writing for “just write” to work. Particularly for the people who are most likely to need that advice. The real solution may stem from learning what kind of subconscious rules they’ve imposed on themselves – tricky things that are hard to see. There are a million exercises to cure “writers block” all over the interwebs. Used by themselves, they may be a band-aid for one particular bout of writers block. BUT, if you approach those exercises as diagnostic tools and use them to identify the hidden, inflexible rule that caused the bout of block in the first place, you can take a huge step toward mastering even the unconscious and inflexible parts of your process.

Let’s call it an “About the Author” post

The funny thing is, for purposes of this post, I’m a writer not an author. I was about to get this blog caught up with a bunch of posts, and realized I should take a step back and catch you folks up a bit on why they’ve been slow (and why there will be a rush of new posts over the next couple of days).

I’ve been neglecting the hell out of this blog, but I haven’t been wholly useless on the blogging front. I’ve joined the ranks of the QueryTracker Blog team, and blog about the same kind of things there that I do here, except Patrick doesn’t want me saying “fuck” and shit like that, but I can totally do that. I mean, I’ve been an elementary school “Art Mom” for most of the past ten years, and it’s not like I say, “OK, now, get out your fucking crayons.” Anyway, the simple task of just cutting and pasting posts I’ve written about querying and writing from that blog to this one somehow eluded me. This is the last weekend before the summer begins in earnest, and I decided I need to spend twelve hours a day doing things like organizing my spice containers cleaning out my closets, power washing my porch, and catching up my blog.

This is shaping up to be the most wonderful summer ever, with plans to visit and be visited by good friends, a shitload of camping, gardening, and even some dedicated writing time figured in there. I completely scrapped my WIP and started the same project over again, literally opening a blank document and typing “Chapter One” a third of the way down a blank page. I’ve never done anything like that before, but I was several thousand words into the project before I realized what the story was really about. It was a case of “darlings” genocide, but there was no alternative. The story needs to start at a different point, be told in a different order, and any attempt to save or incorporate anything from the old one will make it look like some kind of Frankenstory, with mismatched parts sewn together.

I expected the process of walking away to be painful, and there were things I loved about the old structure (hence the darlings reference). It turned out to be liberating. It just felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and invigorated my writing process. That’s been a theme in my life this year, and the more I streamline and simplify my life, the happier it seems to get. I suspect that’s a lesson I’ll carry way beyond this year, too.

So that’s my first ever post about personal shit, and likely my last for a long, long time, but I thought a preface to some daily posting for the next couple of days was in order, and owed you all a bit of explanation. I also want to wish everyone a very HAPPY SUMMER 2015!

Writing Productivity Tip: Multitasking is Death to Creative Writing

Saying it bluntly, our brains never multitask. They hop between tasks, and with each hop, they do each task worse. Nearly every validated study on the subject confirms this.

I am also a single parent with a full time job pursuing a writing career. As a general rule, I don’t give a damn about validated studies. I may do a slightly worse job on each task as I make dinner, quiz my daughter on her spelling words, switch the laundry, and assemble the next day’s lunches, but if I didn’t multitask she’d be hungry and naked while flunking a spelling test the next day.  

Love it or hate it, creative writing is a unique beast when it comes to multitasking. It’s no accident that praise for good writing centers on “depth” and criticism will often be couched in terms of “shallowness.” Only so much depth can be achieved when your brain is only focused on a project for moments at a time. That ten second email response costs far more than ten seconds. Cognitively, you went from the center of your fictional town to the bus station and bought a ticket to the next town. Even if you change your mind and hop off the bus ten seconds after it crosses the town line, you’re still miles from where you started. You may be writing again ten seconds later, but you’re back to where you started in terms of immersing yourself in that world. If you buy another bus ticket five minutes later, that immersion is unlikely to ever occur.

You are probably already aware of the complications of multitasking in creative writing. Multitasking impacts the creative process more severely than analytic processes. Writing fiction also involves an element of multitasking in itself. There is the event in your mind, then as seen through the POV character, and maybe some questions you have about the way you can convey what another character knows or feels without breaking POV. Add considerations that may change your outline or the direction the story is going, and you’re doing it even more.  It’s doable, because at least all of these tasks are focused on the same output, but make no mistake, you’re already multitasking. The last thing you want to do is leave writing altogether to do something else – even if only for ten seconds.

To begin with, I work when I’m alone (or at least the only one awake), with the phone off and email shut down. Even when intrusions occur – the dog needing out or in, a thirsty child, whatever – they tend not to pull me as far out of the world as I go if I choose to break from it to answer a research question or scan email.

JMC – Just Maintain Concentration is my  primary concern, to the point it’s a mantra. My goal has little to do with avoiding “multitasks” and everything to do with striving to remain as deeply in the story as I can.

In other words, my personal goal is to hold the story as tightly as I can with both hands. I focus less on the nature of the outside distraction or task vying for my attention and more on the end goal – total investment in the story itself.

Code for “getting distracted by shiny objects,” multitasking is an exit ramp on the writing highway, even when the tasks aren’t technically multitasking. Answering a spelling or research question on the internet is directly related to the output (task) at hand. But the bottom line is: if I can’t stay in the world I’m building, I can hardly ask my reader to.

Using Genre to Land an Agent (Or: Direct Marketing Your Unique Novel)

Genres are, first and foremost, screening devices. Everyone from a prospective reader in a bookstore or browsing online to an agent (or screener) slogging through the slush uses genre for one purpose – to quickly weed out the overwhelming majority of books they don’t want to bother with.

Even if you have a difficult time embracing that as a writer, on the business side of this writing thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge it. Screening devices are where the initial sorting (which usually means “sorting out,” complete with a form rejection) occurs, and genre is a key screening device.

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It’s when, not if, you need to worry about genre

Some authors write very good books and make quite a nice living writing to genre. Others write what they feel compelled to write, without regard to genre. But one way or the other, genre matters.

For someone writing to genre, it’s smart to know that heading in. Genre romances have happy endings, genre westerns are set west of the Mississippi and before 1900, and so forth. A very nice book may be set in the west, and occur a long time ago, but if it gets screened “in” by someone looking for a genre western, it’s going to get screened right “out” again as soon as it becomes clear it is not that.

For the rest of us, though, genre is something that either vaguely sat in our minds as we wrote or (in my case) is a gnarly, weird issue that presents itself after we’re done. Either way, though, genre matters. It matters a lot, and the words we use to describe genre directly impact response rate and agent interest. Unless you are intentionally writing to genre, the issue here is about marketing your novel, not writing it. In our case, that means marketing to agents. But agents need to market to publishers, and publishers want to buy things they can sell to readers. So, when querying, your genre description answers two important questions from a prospective agent:

  1. Is this the kind of book I know how to represent?
  2. Can I sell the fucker?

The point behind genre designations in queries is to truthfully let the agent know the answers to both of those questions is “hell yes.”

Categories that are not genre (YA, MG, NA, etc.)

My next post will go into this issue in detail, trying to line out as cleanly as possible where the line is between MG and upper MG, where upper MG turns into YA, and so forth. For now, it is just important to understand that agents are increasingly identifying what they are looking for according to these categories. Sometimes, and, again, increasingly, more so than by traditional genre. These designations matter, and have a lot to do with the two questions I stated above.

Why putting yourself in the right genre matters

Correctly identifying the genre you are pitching is important, beyond just the sorting function. For one thing, it demonstrates a certain amount of knowledge on your part, which brings with it some professional credibility. Or, conversely, if you don’t even know what 99% of the publishing industry would classify your book as, you are essentially adding a post script to your query that says “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing here, so being my agent will be a lot of work.

Also, that designation lets a good agent know at a glance whether she has the relationships she needs to sell your book. If she sold four MG fantasy chapter books last year, three of them to the same acquisitions editor, who she knows is looking for more, your MG fantasy manuscript will pique her interest because of it. Conversely, if she’s struck out with the last fourteen MG fantasies she’s tried to rep, it will do the opposite. And that is not entirely a bad thing. If what you wrote is a MG fantasy, there may be an agent six floors down in the same building with those relationships, the form reject from six floors up may just be saving both you and the wrong agent a lot of wasted time and frustration. The end goal is to have thousands of people paying cash to read your book, not to land an agent. Accurately classifying your book is a step toward landing the right agent for that book.

How do you designate genre?

This can be tricky (or not, depending on your situation). If you wrote that MG fantasy, it’s fairly easy. If you’re like me, writing something that straddles about five genres, without being any one of them much more than any of the others, it’s a totally fucked up vin diagram without much else in the middle. takes a little more effort. In either event, I think it helps to go through a backward looking process —

  • Start with your end-game. Don’t think about what you wrote, think about who will pay hard cash for your book. Ultimately, every decision from the initial slush pile screener to Barnes & Noble’s purchasing agent will be based on one question: who is going to whip out a debit card for this book.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your prototypical reader. View your manuscript from the point of view of the person who decides to start a fan fic page based on your novel. What motivates her to love it? Find the key elements that would stick out to that person, and you’ve found the thing you should focus on when defining genre.
  • Dig deeper. The more you can imagine a third-party’s review, the things that stuck out to that reader, the better you will understand your genre What are the key elements of your story she would focus on? Is it the setting? Characters? Story arc? If your steampunk novel has more leather corsets than steam, or most of the steam in the novel is a product of said corsets, suddenly the steampunk element is more a setting for a steamy romance than an accurate genre designation.
  • Look at comps. There are comps for marketing purposes – current or recent titles that have sold well that demonstrate a likelihood your book will sell well. Those are fine for a query, but they are not what I’m talking about here. The question here is: what are your real comps, the other books, whatever they are, that are truly most like yours? Those are your guide to genre. I have had four agents (out of sixteen total queries sent) and two of my three ABC Partnerstm  tell me my writing reminds them of the same author. He is dead, and his last book was published fourteen years ago, so that’s useless information for a query. When it comes to defining my own genre, however, it is a guiding principle.
  • Look at your specific audience. Not the book-buying audience of the future, the specific agent you are querying. If your research shows you an agent who you think is a good fit (and if you pick agents the way I suggest on this blog, you will know), allow that to inform your genre statement in any particular query. It’s important that your query be accurate and honest, but if your book is 50% sci fi and 50% romance, there is nothing wrong with telling the romance agent it’s a romance novel with sci fi elements and telling the sci fi agent it’s sci fi with romance elements. Each agent will judge from your pages whether the book is a good fit, and either or both will be prerequisites to selling to an acquisitions editor, so there is nothing wrong with focusing on that agent’s interest. As long as the core of the book is, truly, what you’re representing it to be.
  • Know genre rules. As mentioned above, particularly in things deemed “genre fiction,” the use of a genre designation creates some (often surprisingly specific) expectations. Regency romances take place in a certain setting during a single historical decade, for example. Know exactly what is expected of a book in the genre you say you fit. Even if your noel strays from the specifics for the closest genre fit, you gain, instead of lose, credibility by knowing and acknowledging the difference in your query.  
  • Think about the future. If what you want in your heart is to be a romance novelist, embrace that. Your romance/mystery should not be touted as a mystery, if the next three books you plan to write keep the romance, but cross into different subgenres.

More than anything, I think It’s important to realize that genre designations begin and end as marketing tools. That is not as anti-literary or mercenary as it sounds. That is simply the reason they exist. Nobody walks into a bookstore or library planning to start with the first book on the top shelf to the left, reading blurbs until she finds something she likes. Genres point readers (and agents) toward groupings of books they are more interested in than others. There’s an appropriate grouping for any book, from small engine repair to a collection of love poems. The point behind genre designations in querying is to let the agent (who you have already researched and know will be a good fit) know that you have written what she wants to read and rep.

Next up, sorting through the age-based designations.

Writers Process Blog Tour Post

Thanks to Craig Boyak for inviting me on this tour! My interview is posted below. I know you should never share the stage with kids or animals, but I live my life surrounded by both, so I didn’t have much option.

Check out Craig’s blog at: http://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2014/05/31/my-stop-on-the-writing-process-blog-tour/

My volunteers are two of my favorite people from the writing world. Rochelle Deans, daytime editor of some pretty boring-ass stuff, but morning and nighttime writer of some amazing YA fiction http://rochelledeans.wordpress.com/ (who, as that picture indicates, is about to become more of a nighttime feeder/changer of diapers).

And all the way from Nigeria, Ms. Jenny Mundy-Castle http://mundycastle.com/, an intensely talented writer and goddess (who had input into how she would be described, though that doesn’t make it less accurate).

Not a Writing Process Blog Tour Post

Seriously, it isn’t. I’m just figuring out how to post video. Honest. That’s it.

Why I’m done with AbsoluteWrite (Or: the post that lets two dozen people say “LOL, told you so”)

It’s not like I hadn’t been warned about AbsoluteWrite before I signed up. I thought (and still think) that there are some great people there. Some of whom I’m so fond of that I do not take the decision to pull the plug on that board lightly.

But there are also some really weird things about that board. And when I started scratching beneath the surface, it got even weirder. Plus, when someone says “watch what you’re doing, or else” and the “or else” part is “you can’t keep providing free content to my website,” well, yea, fuck you. I’ll “or else” myself right out of there for you.

I joined my first internet bulletin board in the 1990s. Though they’ve almost invariably been about fly fishing, I’ve been a member and/or mod on one or more bulletin boards continuously since. As we say where I live, this is not my first trip to the rodeo. Warnings about bullies don’t do much to deter me. Bullies are trolls with homes, and the day I can’t hold my own in a written exchange with a bullytroll is the day I’ll hand in my interwebz learning permit.

Like any BB, AW had a lot of what I would consider bad advice. Plus, being as big as AW is, things were less cordial than I’m often used to. There’s certainly some truth to the clique complaints I’d heard about, and the groupthink observations were not entirely incorrect (though they aren’t entirely true, either). Those things said, there are also some pretty straight-up people on that board with good insights, and I think the onus is on anyone participating on a BB to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of advice. So I posted for several months, undaunted by the warnings I’d received. During that time, I also became quite fond of several AW members.

One thing that caused me a certain level of concern –well, annoyance is a better word – was the tendency of a couple of the moderators to both participate in the snark/drama/bullshit on threads and then delete posts and/or lock threads where they’d been participating. That does not happen on a well administered, well moderated board. In fact, the main reason I hate being a mod is because being a smartass is integral to how I function, and it takes an enormous amount of energy to turn that off if I take the job. But I also realize that you can’t do both, and not being a smartass or weighing very deep into disagreements is part of the job description. Such is not the case at AW.

The funny thing is, while I’ve since discovered people with legitimate horror stories about the same AW admin and mods, nothing particularly bad happened to me there. Certainly nothing bad enough for me to buy a domain and start a webpage decrying the place (yes, that’s happened). Or anything that would warrant rating about AW on a site about internet bullying of authors. For me, it’s much more like I went to a restaurant – my server was rude and the food was meh, so I decided I won’t be going back.

One incident that involved me directly was a thread about a legal question. A poster asked about public domain issues if a poem had been circulating as anonymously written for more than fifty years. The family of a dead firefighter claimed he wrote it, but nobody had ever asserted a right of ownership. Prior to any of the specifics, but having been told that the poem had been around as anonymously authored for more than fifty years, I said it would be public domain.

A rather snarky mod then told everyone that I was wrong about how public domain works, you can never lose your copyright to public domain by having something published, and that is not how copyright is determined.

Then she locked the thread.

That was annoying, since there is some truth to what she was saying under the current state of copyright law, although it is far from as cut-and-dried as she believes. In fact, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument earlier this year on a case addressing this question because the circuit courts are split on whether copyright can disappear under the doctrine of laches if you fail to publicly enforce your rights. But, since the poem in question had been published as anonymously authored more than fifty years prior the US Joining the Berne Convention in 1989, she was dead wrong about the applicable law with respect to the poem in question. A fact I pointed out in a personal message to said mod, who told me that the site administrator, Macallister was in agreement that the thread should be locked.

My response at the time was that it sucks a mod would rather keep the wrong answer out there and have the last word than get the right answer out, but – whatever. It was advice that incorrectly told the poster how to stay out of trouble, nothing that would get that person into trouble, so no big deal.

By this time I had noticed some (by no means all) of the AW mods had a propensity to lock threads after issuing decrees about how right they were, often in downright rude ways. It began to dawn on me that the “bullying” I’d been warned so much about wasn’t about people who posted on the boards, it was a warning about the mods running the place. Which is a shame, since it’s otherwise a fairly rich and interesting community. I also avoided the threads where these issues are much more frequent. My participation was limited to writing and grammar questions (well, and a cooking thread).

Last Friday it happened again, on a thread I hadn’t participated in at all. Ironically, the person singled out to be slammed before the thread was locked was the person I probably disagree with more frequently than anyone else on the interwebz. I also respect him, and there is no personal animosity between us – in fact, I’m fond of the guy – but we have ardently different ideas about writing.

Being snotty and locking threads doesn’t do much for anyone, and if I were an admin on that board, I’d probably want to know this was an issue. So I sent a politely worded PM to the site admin, Macallister, telling him/her (I had no idea what the person’s first name was) that, in my experience, mods generally do best if they stay out of the snark. If they aren’t going to do that, it’s usually a bad idea to have them participating, getting in the last word and then locking threads.

The next thing I hear is a super snarky response to a post from said mod,with a post of my own also deleted. I promptly (read: naively) forward it on to the admin, saying, “This would be the kind of thing I’m talking about.”

In response, I get the following (Cryptic? Nonsensical? I think it was supposed to be threatening, but it doesn’t make enough sense to feel very ominous) message from Macallister:

You seem to be making some assumptions about what happen when you’ve been corrected by a mod that aren’t going to bear out well for you, Mooky.

To which I responded, “What the fuck?” Well, I literally responded:

I honestly don’t know what you are saying. I assume it’s a threat?

I (still, literally) do not understand what that person was saying. Which is pretty rough, if you are supposed to be the person in charge of running a board for freaking writers.

At this point, I’m wondering who Ms./Mr. Macallister is, so I look at the profile and discover that Macallister is supposedly his/her first name. The full name is Macallister Stone.

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 Needless to say, it took the Google machine about three milliseconds to confirm that MacAllister Stone is not a real person. I also learned that when AW was legally registered to do business (which it no longer appears to be), its registered address was a storage locker (which is a big no-no). Somewhat disturbingly, the fictitious MacAllister Stone was the registered business owner (which is a huge fucking no-no), and MacAllister Stone had also been doing business with people under that name. People who were unhappy, because MacAllister Stone owed them money –which is why it’s such a big no-no to have your imaginary friend own a business.

At this point, I’m getting a pretty iffy feeling about AW. Which sucks, because the wealth of information provided by its members on the “Bewares & Recommendations” portion of the site is extremely valuable. It also sucks, because some of those people are fun, knowledgeable, engaging people who follow this blog and/or whose blogs I follow, and whose company I enjoy. Plus it was a great way to kill time when I was on conference calls, which are how I spend an inordinate amount time.

I don’t want anyone to think I’m storming out of AW, morally outraged. I’m not. I’m mildly annoyed. I just see no reason I should allow myself to continue being mildly annoyed, particularly when someone’s imaginary friend feels compelled to threaten me with…. Well, no longer mildly annoying me, I guess. 

Like all bulletin boards, AW functions on an implied agreement. The board provides a place for me to engage on a topic that interests me. In exchange, I provide page views and content, which happen to be the way boards make money. If Remington MacAllister’s human alter ego thinks she is in a position to threaten to take her half of that deal away, that’s fine. You win. I’ll stop providing free content.

Like I said, I went to a restaurant and the server was snotty. The food wasn’t terrible, but the owner was a pompous ass – and a touch sketchy. There are better places to find a sandwich.

The End.

Post Script (but it’s not an epilogue, so please READ the damned thing)

There are websites that loathe AW for all the wrong reasons. They are also full of information about AW and the whole sock puppet MacAllister Steele thing, much of which turns out to be correct. Some of those sites (not all) having correct information about this aspect of AW does not mean you can otherwise rely on information they provide. Some of their reasons for loathing AW may relate to how much good information AW members provide on the “Bewares and Recommendations” threads, and how well that section steers people away from being scammed. Other information from those sites should be a matter of significant concern and vigilance. It’s pretty easy to tell the sites I’m talking about from sites that may have concerns but not ulterior motives if you pay attention. Please, if you start wandering through these sites, pay attention.

Meet Mary Sue Part Two: A feminist linguistic deconstruction

On the surface, Mary Sue doesn’t present much of a problem. Good writing requires careful execution, and Mary Sues are paragons of poor execution. In a nutshell, they are extremely poorly developed characters whose stunted development is so dense, it creates a gravity field the story cannot escape. The story becomes one of author wish fulfillment at the expense of story development. In short, she sucks so much that it is impossible for a story including her (which means a story revolving around her awesomeness) not to suck as well.

Problem solved. Mary Sues suck, don’t write them, end of story.

But it’s not. I have serious reservations about the label Mary Sue. Specifically, I have big-ass reservations from the term from a feminist linguistic perspective that make me hate the term. Unfortunately, I also have huge problems with most of the feminist discourse about Mary Sue, because it largely points to nonexistent problems to create a strawman (er, strawperson) argument. I’m not thrilled about picking their arguments apart, since I largely agree with the conclusions they are trying to reach. But there are much better and more straightforward ways to criticize the portrayal of women (or the reactions to those portrayals) than shoehorning them into Mary Sue through a logical fallacy. That, and they are completely missing the core problem the Mary Sue trope presents from a feminist/linguistic perspective.

The character development criticism the Mary Sue label attempts to assail –poorly drawn characters suck so much they kill innocent stories– is a valid criticism. Pretending it’s not misses the point entirely. And, since the standard feminist critique relies on a logic fallacy to criticize a legitimate argument about writing, it gives the false appearance that feminist criticism of Mary Sue is invalid. It also gives the impression that the feminist critique of Mary Sues –that strong female characters are often, if not usually, poorly portrayed and received in fiction– misses the boat, which it doesn’t. That’s a completely legitimate concern. It’s also a different concern, that gets lost when you try to make Mary Sue the core problem.

It’s not that I’m pro Mary Sue

Two things here. First, if you’re writing fiction for other people to consume, I have no problem saying you should never write a character who even comes close to being a Mary Sue. Nobody in her right mind is going to tell you that it is a good thing to put your own, overly idealized and poorly drawn author avatar into a story so that you can allow all other characters to fawn over you – er, her. It’s bad character development, it’s bad storytelling, there is no upside for the reader. Just, don’t.

Second, if you are simply writing for your own pleasure, feel free to write Mary Sue adventures all you want. This blog is about fiction writing for consumption by third parties. Some fiction writing is almost a form of therapeutic journaling, and a completely different set of standards apply. One standard, really, because you should just write whatever the hell you want. There is a pretty good argument to be made that, particularly for girls and women, writing Mary Sue adventures can be empowering and beneficial. Actually, that argument has already been made, in  (Re)Writing Mary Sue: E ´ criture Fe ´ minine and the Performance of Subjectivity. That is not the kind of writing I’m talking about. This analysis applies solely to fiction that will (at least potentially) be consumed by third parties.

The current feminist critique of Mary Sue misses the boat completely

The whole “every strong female character gets labeled Mary Sue” argument is bullshit. So is “Batman would be a Mary Sue if he were a woman.” I’m not saying that no idiot has ever posted an asinine opinion on a message board or Yahoo answers saying otherwise, but I have not found any serious review, criticism, or deconstruction of Hunger Games that actually takes that position. By way of comparison, I also Googled “Han Solo is gay” and found similar sources arguing that the guy who spent ten years trying to get into Princess Leia’s pants was really after Luke or Lando, so that’s the level of discourse those critiques are pointing to as an indictment.

BONUS MATERIALS: In case you’re wondering what Hunger Games would be like if Katniss were a Mary Sue, my friends at QueryTracker wrote it. It follows as the epilogue to this post.

The Batman argument is also just a logic fallacy wrapped in another logic fallacy and topped with a bunch of cherry picking. But you can still glean a little bit of the truth of the Mary Sue problem from the misused example. Using any objective measure possible, from box office receipts to critical and audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes to, my favorite, which movies Michael McDonagh thinks are awesomer, you get one result. The more conflicted and complex Batman is, and the more he must struggle to obtain his goals in the movie, the better everyone on the freaking planet thinks the movie is. I.e., the less those cherry-picked aspects of Mary Suism are present, the better everyone liked the movies. So, no, Batman did not get away with being Mary Sue because he’s a dude. The movies worked because he was decidedly NOT a Mary Sue. The less of a Mary Sue he was, the better the movies did.

Although they did make one movie that is pretty close to Batman Sue. The Green Hornet was essentially Batman without the psychologically conflicted, guilt ridden vigilante aspect. It also lost money. That movie gives us a pretty good point of comparison. Here is the difference between Batman and the Green Mary Sue(ish) kind of guy.

Critics

Audience

Receipts

The Dark Knight

94%

94%

$534,858,444

Green Hornet

43%

44%

$98,780,042

BECAUSE THE POINT HERE, AND IT IS AN IMPORTANT ONE, WHICH IS WHY I’M YELLING, IS THAT NOBODY GETS AWAY WITH POORLY DEVELOPED CHARACTERS THAT SUCK. Ever. Even with a $120 Million budget and special effects and big name stars and shit. People loved Batman because of the decidedly non-Mary Sue aspects of the story.

So, please, cut that shit out. It isn’t adding anything to the discourse, and there is discourse that needs to be happening. Instead, we’re dinking around with flawed arguments, logic fallacies, and heated responses to things that nobody said in the first place.

Gendered Discourse: the part we should be pissed about…

If you haven’t noticed (and I kind of hope you haven’t, because that means I’m doing it well), I pay attention to the gendered use of language. My standard nongendered pronouns usually default to she, I wouldn’t consider calling any individual other than myself a bitch, etc. There is a spectrum of discoursive feminism, and for an American (and certainly for a hetero white dude from Idaho), I’m pretty far on the feminist side. I basically go right up to the point on that spectrum where I would have to stop using the word fuck if I took one more step. I stop there, because, fuck that.

So, to me, the biggest problem that exists with the Mary Sue label is its name. The name was an accident of history, and there was certainly no evil intent at play when a parody story was penned naming the main character Mary Sue. But it stuck. And I suspect some (a lot) of that sticking power comes from the fact that it was a tropey, intentionally gendered name. Standing in isolation, it wouldn’t cause me a lot of heartburn, but we live in a society that often uses the feminine in discourse in harmful ways. At best, it can be used to diminish (e.g., every word you’ve ever seen ending in the feminizing suffix “ette” meaning diminished or smaller). A step worse, is blatant classification according to gender (notice there is no such thing as a doctoress, and nurses get their job title from breastfeeding). Then it gets ugly, using the feminine to denigrate (if you have a sister you love, you should be annoyed every time you hear someone referred to as a “sissy”).

Had the main character been male, the level of disparagement associated with the label would have been significantly diminished. Odds are, the trope would be less associated with the particular character and we would call it a fanvitar or something. Originating with an exceptionally female name made it far more likely the name would become the label, because we live in a historically patriarchal society that freaking LOVES to use the feminine to denigrate. Political rhetoric (particularly rhetoric advocating for war and violence) relies heavily on denigration opposing views by feminizing them. If you have a Nexus account and want to see a study of that in practice where the shit really hits the fan, check out The Rhetoric of Sissy-Slogans: How Denigrating the Feminine Perpetuates the Terror Wars in the Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice.

So Mary Sue, having such a Mary Sueish name, was like glue for something bad in search of a name.

On the other side of the coin, language not only reflects social reality, it also creates that reality. “In other words, it shapes how we see ourselves and the world. If language use is constitutive rather than indexical, then it has the potential to help establish and maintain social and power relations, values and identities, as well as to challenge routine practice and contribute towards social change.” Goueffic, Louise, Breaking the patriarchal code, 1996.

That little bit of zing implicit in saying someone’s a “Mary Sue” instead of merely saying “poorly developed author avatar character that sucks” has a name. That name is sexism.

The problem with the Mary Sue label is not –as most of the feminist criticism currently claims –that characters who are not Mary Sues are being labeled that. From what I can find, that’s a fiction. But there is a very real problem in using such a distinctively feminine label as an insult cum criticism. That’s something we do all the fucking time, because our society has some pretty backward ass views on “feminine” and “insulting” being the same thing. And while I am all for eradicating characters with the poorly developed qualities of the character Mary Sue in the original Star Trek fan fiction, the criticism should not be wrapped up in the name “Mary Sue.”

This is where I circle back to where the original feminist critique landed. Although I think the rationale behind the criticism is, well, wrong, the potential harms they point to are legitimate. If anything, I think they are worse. Use of feminine labels to disparage things generally is bad. But the Mary Sue label, which is gendered as hell right out of the gates, is bound to more readily self-censor females writing female characters. And, since all of us write shitty, poorly developed characters who probably represent more self-fulfillment than we should for the first few (hundred) thousand words, the impact of that censorship could be severe. Particularly if it’s self-imposed.

Which puts women writing female action characters on a very narrow path. Maybe even a tightrope. On one side is Mary Sue, and on the other is the hyper-sexualized female action hero one writer dubbed the fighting fuck toy (FFT). There is plenty of room for well developed characters in there, and there is also room for legitimate criticism of poorly developed characters. There should, however, be no room for denigration based on the feminine nature of even those characters that stray over the line.

There are things to be concerned about with regard to the Mary Sue label. Batman and Katniss being Mary Sues are not among of them. That said, from a discoursive linguistic point of view, the trope and the label are almost certainly harmful and unnecessary. A shitty character who makes a book suck for that particular group of reasons doesn’t need a feminizing label any more than shitty characters who make books suck for any other reason. The focus needs to be on the quality of the writing.

Epilogue: The Mary Sue Hunger Games

By Bowden and Kodi

Scene District 12.  A cock crows.  Two girls rise from bed.

Prim:  Morning, Katniss.
Katniss:  Morning, Prim.  You’re looking lovely this morning.
Prim:  I wish I looked as lovely as you.
Katniss:  Oh, pshaw.  You’re like all blonde and pretty and stuff.  I’m like dark and skinny and crap.
Prim:  Oh, yeah?  Then how come I don’t have a bunch of hot guys following me around everywhere I go?
Katniss:  Them?  They’re just being polite and stuff.  They pity me because my dad dying and crap.  God damn, I’m hungry.
Prim:  Oh, no!  Why didn’t you say something sooner.  I’ll go milk my goat!

Mother enters

Mom:  Katniss.  How are you this morning.
Katniss:  (under her breathe) Well I’m cold and I’m hungry and I have a crick in my neck.  But if I tell you any of that, you’ll just be miserable worrying about me all day.  You deserve some happiness, so I’ll pretend I’m fine.
Mom:  What was that?
Katniss:  I said I’m fine.
Mom:  Are you sure?
Katniss:  Yes, mom, I’m sure.  Now leave me alone and think of yourself for a change.
Mom:  Ok, if you insist.  I just wanted to bring you this dress and draw you a bubblebath and brush your hair and give you a makeover with all this stuff that I just spent my life savings on.
Katniss:  Why?
Mom:  Because you’re the best daughter ever, and I can’t have people thinking I don’t appreciate it.
Katniss:  Whatever.
[An hour later there is a knock on the door]
Peeta: Wow!  You look beautiful!
Katniss:  No I don’t, but thanks anyway.
Gale:  Hey Katniss, I’m here to walk you to the quad.
Peeta: No, I’m here to walk her to the quad.
[Give each other dirty looks]
Katniss:  You can both walk me to the quad.  Peeta, can you, like, go get Prim?
[To Gale after he leaves]  I’m sorry I made out with Peeta.  I only did it to make you jealous.
Gale:  That’s ok.  I forgave you a long time ago.
Katniss:  Only, now, I’m like, starting to fall for him, so I can’t decide which of you I like better.
Gale:  Take all the time you need, Catnip.  I’m not going anywhere.
[Prim and Peeta return and they walk]
Peeta:  You know, Katniss.  You should consider becoming a career tribute.  You’d win for sure.
Gale:  Yeah.  Then we can all hang out together at the winners’ village.
Katniss:  No way.
Prim: Oh, come on.  The other tributes will surrender when they see how awesome you are.
Katniss:  You guys are so funny.
Prim:  Oh shoot.  They are drawing the names already.
Effie:  And the male tribute is:  Peeta Mallarky!
Peeta: Gack!
Gale:  Haha.  Guess who has two thumbs and is going to end up with Katniss by default.  This guy!
Prim:  Oh, snap!
Katniss:  Shush.  They are announcing the female tribute.
Effie:  And for female tribute:  Primrose Everdeen!
Prim:  No!  Oh, no!  They can’t pick me!  I’m the only doctor in the village!  What if Katniss gets sick!  I’m going to be so worried I won’t be able to sleep! I’ll lose for sure!
Katniss:  Fiiiiine.  I volunteer!
Crowd:  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!  KAT NISS!
Prim:  Nooo!!!  You can’t take her!  I won’t let you!
Katniss:  Oh come, on Prim, you suck at fighting and you know it.  The guys are right.  I’m going to win for sure.

Scene: The Train Ride

A somewhat drunken man, a very enigmatic woman, and Katniss and Peeta sit eating:

Katniss: *gobbles everything*
Peeta: I wish I was you, Katniss. I’d love to eat everything and not worry about my figure.
Katniss: Oh, you look fine. I’m gaining weight! *is beautiful and skinny*
Haymitch: *drinks*
Katniss: Haymitch, stop drinking, we need to discuss strategies for the games
Haymitch: *Immediately throws the liquor out the window* Yes, whatever you say! But it won’t matter, because I’m sure you’ll win.
Katniss: You expect too much of me, I’m just a poor girl from district 12.
Peeta: *under his breath* Who has every boy trailing after her
Katniss: What Peeta? *flips hair*
Peeta: *twitterpated* Uh Gah
Katniss: Oh, we’re here, I guess we’ll meet our stylists now.
Effie: Like you’ll need them! You’re stunningly attractive as you are–the sponsors will fall over themselves to get to you! You on the other hand *side eyes a Twitterpated Peeta* will need some work.

[Katniss and the others enter the style room and the others are immediately shoved to the side by a hundred screaming stylists.]

Stylist 1:  It’s her!
Stylist 2:  OMG!  OMG!
Stylist 3:  Breathe!  Don’t forget to breathe!
Stylist 2:  [Hands Katniss a pen]  Will you autograph my shoulder?
[Katniss scribbles her name with a heart over the i]
Peeta:  I bet you’ll be never be washing that shoulder again.
Stylist 2:  Hardy har, smartacre.  It’s a tattoo pen.
[Katniss is mobbed by stylists stroking her arms and running their fingers through her hair]
Stylist 3:  How do you get your ringlets so perfectly tousled?
Katniss:  I dunno.  I kind of shake my head from side to side and it just falls that way.
Stylist 1:  Skin: Aphrodite Olive #2.  Hair: Dogwood Demigoddess #10.   [The other stylists furiously scribble into their tablets.]
Katniss:  I didn’t know I’d get so many stylists on my style team.
Effie:  [Laughs a high pitched laugh]  Don’t be silly! These are the stylists for the OTHER tributes.  They’re just here to try to poach some style tips from you.
Peeta:  Hey!  That’s cheating!
Katniss:  It’s ok, Peeta.  No sense in making this too easy for me.
Cinna:  Shoo. Get lost.  [All but three adoring stylists leave]  Hello, I’m Cinna, your wardrobe guy.  And these three are your stylists.
Katniss:  Charmed, I’m sure.
Cinna: I made you a charcoal-dust colored dress, but to be honest, I like what you’re wearing much better, so I’m just going to toss it in the trash.
Katniss:  This old thing?  Couldn’t you at least liven it up a bit.
Cinna:  What do you suggest?
Katniss: I don’t know, like maybe have flames shoot out of it, or something?
Cinna:  It’s genius!  I love it!

##Fin##

The Danger of Following Advice About How to Write (Or: Advice from Nobel laureates r teh suk)

Because writers love to write, there is no shortage of things that have been written about writing. Add the countless interviews with famous writers, where one writer talks to another writer about writing, and pretty much everything there is to know about how to write has been written. That’s a good thing.

It’s also a bad thing.

Or, more accurately, it can be a very bad thing when writers read just enough about writing to “become dangerous.” Particularly when a new, inexperienced, and/or unpublished writer is faced with advice from someone more experienced than she is; i.e., pretty much everyone. What I advise doing with that advice is precisely what I advise doing with regard to advice you get from other writers in the same situation in On Critiques and Writing Advice (Or: Editing on teh interwebs r teh suk). Whether the advice comes from a Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prizewinner, ten-time NYT Bestselling Author, or some schmuck like me, what you should do with that advice remains the same:

You should be willing to consider everything, but don’t get bullied into anything. If you get advice that improves your writing, it was good advice. If not, disregard it.

Many of you may respond to this by saying something along the lines of 

 

image

The answer is, yes. I am absolutely serious. Which leads to the follow-up inquiry:

image

Or, more accurately, WTF makes me think I can ignore the advice of someone who won the Nobel or the Pulitzer or sold a bagillion books? Let alone tell you to listen to me instead of them.

God, I must be an arrogant prick.

Except, that’s not really what I’m saying. I am certainly not saying to ignore the advice. That’s where the you should be willing to consider everything part comes into play. You should never ignore a piece of writing advice from anyone. The point here, and it cannot be overstated, is that you can’t write better just by doing something someone tells you to. Ever. You have to figure out how the advice offered fits with your writing. Regardless of who’s giving the advice, it might not work for you.

Which brings us back to me being an arrogant prick. It’s also where you can use the tsunami of advice about writing to your advantage. You see, there are few things, if any, that writers agree on.

I have absolutely no problem ignoring Steven King’s advice to sit down and write because outlining is a waste of time. The fact that E. L. Doctorow seems to agree with him doesn’t sway me, either. While they’re both fine writers, I’ve tried writing with and without an outline. I write better with one. So King and Doctorow can kiss my lily-white ass.

Arrogant? Not really. If there was a general consensus among all the great writers that outlining hampered storytelling, I’d be inclined to force myself to write without one, figuring I’d eventually get their point. But there isn’t. A quick internet search says that, among others, the list of people who completely disagree with Steve end E.L., include: Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Salter, Henry Miller, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, John Grisham, John Irving, Margaret Atwood, Hillary Mantel, and what appears to be a majority of renowned writers. All three of last year’s Pulitzer finalists outline, too. 

So it’s not that outlining does or doesn’t work. Steven King thinks he writes better without one. More power to him. John Irving thinks he writes better with one. Who am I (or who is E. L. Doctorow) to tell him he’s wrong? And nobody, other than me, is in a position to tell me whether I write better with or without one. 

It’s tempting to look at a phenomenally successful novelist and try to emulate her process as much as possible. The problem is, while there are valuable things to learn from that process, not all of it may add value to your writing.

Writing habits are a good case in point. Some writers advise that you must write first thing in the morning. Others say you must require yourself to write a certain number of words per day. Still others advise that your brain is at its peak in the late morning and early afternoon. One famous writer says that, until the story is completed, you must dedicate nearly every waking hour to it’s completion. Another is more concerned with having a firm cutoff, so your writing does not get stale. E. B. White likened writing to surfing, and advised waiting for inspiration to arrive then riding it like a wave. None of them are wrong. None of them are right, either. Except with respect to themselves and their own habits.

I’m reasonably certain that advice from successful writers about writing habits is advice for overcoming those particular writers’ weaknesses. If you’re prone to procrastination or easily distracted, committing yourself to sit down and write for a set number of hours first thing in the morning makes sense. It worked for Earnest Hemingway, anyway. If you tend to obsess about minutiae to the point it interferes with getting a reasonable amount of words out, setting a minimum word count will compensate for that. I suffer from writer’s diarrhea, not writer’s block, and I could happily write seven or ten hours at a time. But I’ve also found, particularly with humor and satire, my writing starts getting stale after four. The key for me is a firm cutoff, and it has nothing to do with the number of words I’ve written. All of those essays and interviews about author habits are interesting, but they don’t change what my individual strengths and, more importantly, weaknesses are.

A friend from writers boards loves to quote Heinlein’s Rules of Writing. The most famous (infamous) of which preaches:

 You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Contrast that with Earnest Hemingway:

I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Heinlein says, “refrain from rewriting” Vladimir Nabokov says, “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” Those opposite, mutually exclusive approaches worked, both men achieved their goals. 

So, there it is. Plenty of advice about how to write, which begs the question:

I think the first step is take writing advice for what it is — that particular author’s take on how that particular author writes best. Sometimes, maybe even how that particular author wrote a particular book or story best. None of the advice out there will tell you how you should write everything. It’s useful, but its usefulness is almost archaeological. You can look at how prior writers achieved success. It can’t hurt to take note of those things. Just realize you are looking at something that happened to someone else in the past, not a blueprint for your future success. Being able to take bits and pieces of knowledge and tailor them to ideally match your strengths and weaknesses is a blueprint for success.

The real lesson is seldom found in the advice itself. That advice does, however, give you a way to understand the reason for the process. 2,000 word per day minimum? That goal seems to insure against procrastination or getting sidetracked with research questions. Advice to wait for the “perfect wave” makes me think E. B. White constantly came up with ideas, unless he was writing something else. He had to stay unconnected from a story until he knew it was the right one, because the faucet turned off for him when he was working on a story. Don’t revise? Many people think this advice is stupid, but a writer prone to endless cycles of revisions won’t ever submit anything. Even a rough draft is a better submission than no submission. Somewhere between never revising and revising until you’re in a pine box is something we can use. 

So, I’m not saying ignore writing advice from great writers. However, you don’t want to follow it, either. It’s useless at face value, but there is a lot of value to understanding the motivation behind it. For fun, take the next piece of writing advice someone quotes at you and research its opposite. There’s about a 99% chance you will find a Nobel Laureate saying that you must avoid doing whatever that piece of advice is telling you to do. 

The bottom line is: Our novels are the product of a lot of variables, the most important of which is how our brains individually function. As much as I love reading Kafka and Hemingway, I’m also happy my brain functions differently from theirs. No matter who’s giving it, we can’t just follow advice about how to write. But we can mine it for the lessons it stems from, learn from the perspectives it offers, and even take it for a test drive. It it works, use it.  But that way you’re using it because it works for you, not just because someone told you to do it that way.

Of David Lee Roth, Brown M&Ms, and Querying

I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing about how to construct an effective query. If you’ve been reading along, you probably noticed that the overriding theme in those posts, usually bolded, has been: As soon as an agent reads your first sentence, your query has done its job. Aside from containing your contact information, it has served its purpose.

“I’ll see your used-up query and raise you an irrelevant one.” I have heard (though, to be honest, I’m not sure I entirely believe) that some agents don’t even read queries. They request your first five or 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever and skip right to those. My guess is, some agents may read a paragraph or two to see if you are reasonably competent at writing. If you are, I’d be willing to bet they take a quick glance through your query to see if they are likely to be interested in what you wrote. Ignoring the query altogether would seem both incredibly inefficient (most queries get rejected in ten to thirty seconds) and prone to serious errors (Harry Potter was not playing quidditch on the first five pages, and it takes a couple of pages for a good zombie virus to spread).

What I will agree with, though, is that whether the query is read or not, it’s merely foreplay. Given the choice between sending a magnificent chapter with a mediocre query or vice verse, I’ll take the great chapter any day. Plus, all of your queries are (or are becoming) awesome, anyway, so it’s time to dim the lights, put on some romantic music (or Smack That by Eminem, if that’s how you roll) and show what we’ve got.

But, before we get to how to show them, we need to talk about what we show them.

This one is easy: You include whatever the hell they asked you to include. Meaning you go to the agent’s website and look at the submission guidelines and follow them. Odds are, if you’re following a blog on this stuff, or even got here by Googling it, you didn’t even need to be told that. Let’s just call this post a victory lap, because I’ve seen agents claim that half of all submissions are easily rejected because they didn’t follow the submission guidelines.

If you haven’t been through this stage yet, I’ll give you a preview based on my own, limited query experience. This is unscientific (to the point I’m sure it’s inaccurate as hell if you aren’t querying agents who rep upmarket contemporary) but it demonstrates the variance within this group. The various submission guidelines from my first 10 queries requested that I submit:

  • Synopsis and first three chapters.
  • First five pages
  • First chapter
  • Two chapters
  • Synopsis and first 50 pages
  • First chapter and synopsis
  • Query letter only

In other words, who the hell knows what they’re going to want. Ten queries – three wanted a query letter only, two wanted the first two chapters, and each of the remainder was unique. That’s why we read submission guidelines. That, and because of the brown M&Ms.

Which begs the question: What the hell does any of this have to do with brown M&Ms?

Remember the turbo 80’s hair band Van Halen? I do, because they actually played the dink little town I grew up in. They had a brilliant marketing strategy, based on playing shit little towns and underappreciated (which is to say, crappy) venues. They were also the poster-children for SEX, DRUGS, & ROCK & ROLL, BABY! Witnesseth:

image

Van Halen: The bad boys of rock and hairspray.

Legendary hard-core partiers, so spoiled, or addled by drugs and booze, that they actually demanded that their dressing room have a big bowl full of M&Ms waiting for them. Here’s the catch, their contract actually specified that there could not be a single brown M&M in the bowl.

Spoiled rock star prima donnas? Try freaking geniuses.

Their sets were huge – more than a dozen eighteen wheelers worth – and the technical requirements for their equipment were taxing and precise. Plus, we’re talking about electrical wiring, not something you goof around with. Every word was spelled out in the contract, but they still needed to know whether the event promoter and person running the venue were paying attention to every detail of the contract. If a brown M&M showed up in that bowl, they knew their tech guys would have to run a line-check of the entire production. A line check that would inevitably show inadequate amperage, sockets in the wrong place, not enough breakers, or some other technical error.

So that’s what our submissions have in common with M&Ms. An agent can tell a lot from the fact that you sent three chapters plus a synopsis with your query letter. If she asked for those things, she knows that you paid attention to the request, which means this is not a generic query going out to 100 agents simultaneously. She also knows you are reasonably competent as a potential business partner, or at least capable of following simple directions. Also, you can’t be too lazy, because you found out what she wanted and gave it to her. [On a side note, I think I just came full circle on that sex analogy from above].

In other words, no brown M&Ms.

On the other side of the coin, if you sent her the same thing, but she only asked for your first five pages, she knows: (a) this is a generic query you are sending to every agent with a pulse; or (b) you are not smart enough to follow simple directions; or (c) you are lazy. I doubt if she cares which of those things it is or if it’s all of the above.

Brown M&Ms – and you just took two giant steps away from being someone who would be awesome to do business with.

Well, not “you” literally because you are the kind of person who reads blogs about how not to screw this shit up. So what I have to offer you (other than a bunch of sexual innuendo and an awesome story about an 80s hair band – I mean, seriously, who else is working that shit into a blog post on querying) are two key thoughts:

1.     See the brown M&M requests for what they are. This isn’t something that should be frustrating during the query process. In fact, it should make you smile. Half the people competing for the agent’s attention are going to go home without hearing Hot for Teacher and have no clue why. It’s a secret handshake, be glad you know it.
2.     Be prepared to pick all the brown M&Ms out of another bag. Those three “query letter only” agents I queried responded with a partial request, a partial and synopsis request, and a full request. In other words, they wanted a fresh bowl of M&Ms. Even if nobody you are querying asks for a synopsis up front, you should still have one. It goes without saying, you should have a completed (and awesome) manuscript ready to go before sending out your first query. And those things should be formatted correctly.  [Spoiler alert, my next post will have the word “format” in it].

One last bit of context. If agents risked electrocution when we did things outside of spec in our submissions, they would be as picky about them as David Lee Roth was about his M&Ms. But they don’t, so they aren’t. If a chapter ends on the 51st page, go to the chapter cutoff. If a sentence or paragraph gets cut on page 5 and the agent asked for your first five, run four words over that to finish the thought. Being paranoid, I just note that I included the first half of the next page to reach a scene cutoff in my query, which also underscores the fact that I know precisely what they are looking for. In other words, “I intentionally left one brown M&M in the dish, despite Article 245 of the Contract, because I had a reason.”

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