E is for Exposition: When Bad Writing Happens to Good Movies

E is for Exposition: When Bad Writing Happens to Good Movies

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Big Hero 6.)

ELet me say this up front: I loved Big Hero 6.  A lot.  It was probably one of my favorite movies of 2014.  Baymax is an instant classic character, and I want to have Honey Lemon’s girly science babies.  It’s just a solid, heartfelt, entertaining film.

And I was ready to tap out within the first 10 minutes.

We start out really strong with Hiro’s bot fight.  Then Tadashi rescues him from a beatdown and we get the line, “You graduated high school when you were thirteen, and this is what you’re doing?”

Um, I thought.  Okay.  That’s an awkwardly self-conscious line.  But maybe it’s important that we know that right up front.  And so I settled back into the fun moped chase, glossing with only a little irritation over the stiff explanation of bot fighting and Hiro referring to his big brother as “big brother.”

Then they get picked up from jail by Aunt Cass, who starts off saying, “For ten years, I have done the best I could to raise you.”

Oh, thought I.  Oh dear.  But no, it’s cool.  That’s not a completely unreasonable thing for a person to say.  And indeed, it seemed to be part of a sort of no-filter anxious monologue which turns out to be very much in character for her.  We’re still fine.

Then we go upstairs, and there’s this:

TADASHI: What would Mom and Dad say?

HIRO: I don’t know.  They’re gone.  They died when I was three, remember?

Yup, I thought, that is a thing that happened.  That is dialogue that someone got paid to write.  Dialogue that survived who knows how many rewrites and script sessions.  Dialogue that no one has ever said to a sibling.  Ever.  In the history of siblings.  It was such an utterly painful As You Know that it threw me clean out of the story.

The biggest sin of that exchange is that it is completely, fundamentally, 100% unnecessary.  A woman they’ve identified as their aunt already told us that she raised them, so clearly the parents aren’t in the picture.  Does it matter why?  Do the filmmakers assume that if we see anything other than a traditional nuclear family on screen, we’ll flip our shit and demand an explanation before we can proceed any further?  I’ll give you that Tadashi’s line and the first part of Hiro’s response aren’t totally unnatural; Tadashi’s trying to help set his errant brother straight, and it makes sense he’d think about their parents in that context.  But there’s no conceivable reason why they’d need to remind each other of how long it’s been.  And there’s not even any good reason to remind the audience.

It makes me think of when I saw Up for the first time, with its long, wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage.  When the film cut from the two of them painting a nursery to her sobbing in a doctor’s office, there was a voice from the row behind me, a girl who couldn’t have been older than about 7 or so.  I didn’t see who she was talking to, but I heard her quite clearly: “She’s sad because she lost the baby.”

I will never forget that little girl as long as I live.

Audiences and readers are smart.  Especially early on, they’re actively trying to connect the dots and put the pieces together.  It’s okay to trust them to draw certain conclusions on their own, especially when the story won’t suffer if they don’t get to exactly the same spot you had in mind.  And indeed, if you leave some things to your audience to fill in with their own imagination, that collaborative quality will make them more invested in the story (this is known as the IKEA effect).  But it’s not “connect the dots” if the dots are so densely packed that they’re pretty much a line already.

Like I said, I do love this movie, and the clunky opening isn’t a dealbreaker.  Almost immediately after that pointless line, we go to Tadashi’s lab and meet his classmates; the scene is still expository, but we’ve moved from As You Know to Naive Newcomer, so it makes sense within the story, and things get moving after that.  But then, it would take a lot to get me to walk out of a movie theater.  If I were flipping through channels on cable, or if this were a book?  I’d have done an Immerse or Die and pulled the plug after the third WTF.

Personally, I favor erring on the side of too little exposition.  Beta readers and editors can help you find the balance, but I’ve always found it easier to add in extra clarification than to try to figure out what can be safely removed.  What’s important is that you trust in the power of your own words and images, and trust in the ability of your readers to follow your lead.  You don’t have to hit us over the head with it, I promise.  If you sell short your audience, you’re going to sell yourself short, too.

D is for Description: The Magic of the Right Metaphor

D is for Description: The Magic of the Right Metaphor

D(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Neverwhere.)

Of all the tools at a writer’s disposal, simile and metaphor have to be among the most powerful.  Sure, you might spend paragraphs or pages trying to convey an image or an idea in exact detail, or you could get the entire thing across just as clearly in a single phrase.  What we do is basically magic, you guys.

True, as an extremely powerful tool, this one is also really easy to cock up.  (Side note: It would appear that the answer to the question, “Is there a Tumblr of that?” is always yes.)  However, I think more can be learned from examining the ones that do work, and breaking down what makes them work so well.

One of my favorite descriptions of all time ever comes from one of David Levithan’s chapters of Will Grayson, Will Grayson:

The whole place smells like debt.

Just bask in that one for a moment.  This is not an explicit description; after all, the concept of “debt” does not emit molecules that are picked up by olfactory receptors and interpreted by the brain as sensory data.  What it is, is evocative.  If you’re given no other description of an apartment other than that it “smells like debt,” chances are pretty good you’re still going to have a mental picture of the place.  Now, one person may envision musty hand-me-down furniture while another sees a home filled with battered Wal-Mart offerings, but the beauty is that that doesn’t really matter.  Where the specifics aren’t important, you can fill in the blanks yourself.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is another rich trove of great description.  Take this introduction to the assassins Croup and Vandemar:

There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry.  Also, they look nothing at all alike.

It’s a fairly long stretch of pure description, the kind of thing that some writing coaches might tell you to avoid on principle.  Unlike the first example, this one is explicit description, of details that are very well-chosen.  (The fourth point in particular gives you quite a solid lock on their respective personalities.)  The poetry comes from the fact that you’d need a way to tell apart people who look nothing alike; this tells you that they’re a unit, two halves of a single malevolent entity, their interchangeability as torturers and killers more significant than their physical discrepancies.  Plus, there’s a punchline, and the Rule of Funny overrides pretty much everything.

Here’s another passage that’s deceptively straightforward:

Richard could already tell that he was the type of person who was always in motion, like a great cat.

A solid, concrete visual aid to establish the mannerisms of just about anyone.  But he’s not describing just anyone.  He’s describing the Marquis de Carabas, a powerful figure who takes his name (and possibly more, for it is that kind of place and that kind of tale) from Puss in Boots.  It’s a pattern that persists throughout the novel, as de Carabas is repeatedly described in decidedly feline terms, and other characters get their own epithets: Croup and Vandemar are frequently depicted as a fox and a wolf, for instance, and Hunter’s descriptions always come back to leather and caramel.  This usage makes it easier to keep straight the large and colorful cast, and also helps evoke the almost totemic power of these ageless creatures.

It’s fine to have description that’s purely sensory, that only tells us what an object or action looks or sounds or smells like.  But when you’ve got the opportunity to also tell us more about what that thing means, what that thing is?  That’s when the magic happens.

C is for Commentary: Shut Up and Tell the Story, Percy Jackson

C is for Commentary: Shut Up and Tell the Story, Percy Jackson

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1), although we’re only really talking about the beginning.)

CAnyone who reads heavily–be they agent, scholar, or just passionate bibliophile–is going to go through a lot of openings.  You’ll inevitably start to spot patterns, and just as inevitably, start to hate some of them.  One early-page tic I’ve been noticing, one that’s really started getting on my tits, is what TV Tropes calls Little Did I Know.  You know the one: “Had I only known what happened next, I would never have gone in there.”  I note that TV Tropes calls it a discredited trope.  From my recent reading, TV Tropes is a liar, because it’s definitely still out there.

I most recently encountered this in the first Percy Jackson book, which I feel safe using to discuss a device that I detest because 1) it’s a pretty good book despite that, and 2) I’m sure that Rick Riordan can bury any despair over the criticisms of a random Internet plebe under his piles of bestseller and movie deal cash.  The novel starts with a fourth wall breaking aside about the danger that lies ahead, and then twice in the next two pages stops to comment on how things are about to go wrong.

This is a sister trope in annoyance to the “teaser” prologue that flashes forward to the climax: both use a somewhat meta alteration of chronology to inject some excitement and intrigue, and thus both seem like a tacit admission on the part of the author that the opening pages are too boring to stand on their own.  (Note that this isn’t the same as the intercutting style I discussed yesterday; here we’re talking about cases where the timehopping is never revisited again.)  It’s classic “show, don’t tell”: rather than making the opening pages, you know, not boring, the author directly implores the reader to tough it out because better stuff is coming.  It’s as subtle as a shovel to the prostate.

The thing that makes this so frustrating in The Lightning Thief in particular is that it’s so bloody unnecessary.  In the first chapter, Percy throws a bully into a fountain and then kills a Fury with a magic sword.  It is, in technical terms, fricking sweet.  This might just be a factor of me not being the target audience, but I think I can survive a few pages of exposition without constant breathless reassurances that no seriously shit is about to get so real you just have no idea.  I would say that perhaps things need to get spelled out a little more clearly in middle grade fiction, except this trope is the reason I gave up on the decidedly not kid-friendly John Dies at the End, which spent so much time telling me how fucked up things were going to get that I finally despaired of them ever actually getting there.  A cheap tactic is a cheap tactic, regardless of category, and self-aggrandizement is pretty much always off-putting.  No one likes the guy who does nothing but talk himself up.

Look, I get it.  Openings are hard.  First impressions count for a lot, and the overwhelming glut of books on the market means that readers are increasingly likely to abandon books that don’t grab them and move onto greener pastures.  But I’d implore authors to trust their readers and have confidence in their pages.  I promise that I don’t need to be reminded that your story has an inciting incident and/or climax just like 98% of things that have ever been written.

Don’t waste my time telling me that this is going to be awesome.

Just be awesome.

B is for Backstory: Non-Linear Narrative in Vicious

B is for Backstory: Non-Linear Narrative in Vicious

(Standard spoiler warning applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab.)

BBackstory can be a real bugbear for authors.  You’ve built up all this history, the rich and complex details that have come together to make this world and this tale, but how to get it across?  After all, readers aren’t here for the backstory, they’re here for the front story.  And if you’ve got a plot that spans a long period of time, crafting it into something that feels like a single tale instead of several connected ones becomes a tricky juggling act.

It’s tempting in our post-modern world to eschew normal chronological progression to solve these problems, but this is basically trading out your juggling pins for chainsaws: a spectacularly impressive trick if you can pull it off, but if your execution isn’t flawless, the result is going to be a big mess and lots of screaming.  This is where it pays to study someone who’s juggled the chainsaws and come out with all their limbs and digits.  Vicious, the story of two superpowered rivals, can seem rather disorientingly unhinged in time, but there are several important points to consider that make the whole thing work.

eli (2)The first third or so of the novel bounces primarily between the early stages of Victor’s plans to confront Eli and their college experiments ten years earlier.  The chapter headers throughout identify where and when the chapter occurs, but rather than using concrete days and dates, scenes are described as taking place “last night,” “five years ago,” and so on.  You see, dates can be difficult to keep straight, especially when a reader is also trying to orient themselves to a brand new world, but relative positioning is easier to parse.

These chronological headings aren’t relative to just anything, though.  Once we get to “today,” the headers are broken down even further: “this morning,” “this afternoon,” and then “six hours until midnight” and going from there.  That midnight countdown is where this tactic reveals itself most clearly, because midnight is when Victor and Eli finally face each other.  Once the timeline has caught up to itself, it could easily switch to concrete times, but we still get “five hours until midnight” instead of “seven p.m.,” which gives us a rather literal ticking clock.  The entire novel is building up to that final confrontation, and these relative chapter headers propel us there.

Consistent chapter headings also help emphasize the consistent pattern of the overall narrative.  The primary conflict of the story is between Victor and Eli, but just as important is the relationship between the Clarke sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the battle.  While the novel could easily open with the two young men pursuing their joint thesis, the event that drives the sisters apart comes much later, and only really makes sense once you understand how far over the edge Eli’s gone.  By making the fluid chronology a core structural component, Schwab can easily slip back to that key history of the Clarkes without breaking the narrative flow; indeed, the alternation between past and present develops its own rhythm, and having two distinct backstories to relate provides enough past material for that back-and-forth to carry us all the way to the climax.

victorReally, it’s that steady progression toward the finale that makes the whole thing work, giving us a solid core to build around, one defined not by chronology, but by tension.  Thus, Sydney’s discovery of the extent of Victor’s powers unfolds in parallel to Victor’s acquisition of those powers, both reaching crescendo simultaneously.  Frequently the issue with strict chronology is that it gives us the answer to a question we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which can lead to frustration as we’re laden with information that seems irritatingly tangential and irrelevant.  By intercutting the backstory rather than dumping it all at once, that information has context.  Reversing the cause and effect removes a bit of the “and then what happens” tension from the scenes in the past, so the point of those scenes becomes the character study and thematic development.

The biggest danger with backstory is overindulgence, including things because they’re cool or interesting rather than because they add to the story.  Not so with Vicious, where every pop back in time serves some larger purpose.  A good example is Mitch, who is a major character but whose personal history only gets about four pages.  See, as I’ve touched on before, a major theme of the book is loyalty.  So while Mitch’s life has certainly been interesting and colorful, all we really need is to understand his connection to Victor, so we get the Cliff’s Notes with that in mind.  A different book might get into the histories of its side characters, but that’s eschewed here in favor of tighter narrative focus.

It’s a common refrain with me and something that will come up more than once this month: In order to employ a storytelling tool effectively, you have to know what effect you’re trying to have.  You need an understanding of your story that is both broad and deep (which is why a lot of this stuff will only come into focus most of the time with the help of perspective and good critique/editing partners).  Backstory should provide a purpose in the narrative beyond merely imparting information.  When deciding whether or how to include a particular bit of backstory, ask yourself why the reader needs to know this, and you’ll probably have your answer.

A is for Antagonist: The Rocketeer and the Art of Who Knows What

A is for Antagonist: The Rocketeer and the Art of Who Knows What

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer.)

AHowdy, new people!  Let’s give this A-Z Challenge a shot, shall we?  I try not to blog unless I’ve actually got something to say, so I don’t update all that often… normally.  But I’m going to do this daily thing if it kills me.

My philosophy, and also the basis for most of my posts, is that the best way to understand the rules and conventions of writing is to see them in action, to analyze stories and figure out what makes them work and why.  So to kick things off, let’s look at the different ways you can reveal the identity of your antagonist, and at The Rocketeer, which conveniently features all three.

When you talk about imparting information in a story, there are actually two groups that need to get clued in: the audience and the protagonists.  So, we have three potential combinations for how we start:

  • Established Villain: Both the audience and the characters know the bad guy
  • Dramatic Irony: The audience knows who the bad guy is, but the characters don’t
  • Big Reveal: Neither the audience nor the characters know the bad guy

(There is a fourth combo, where the characters know something the audience doesn’t, but that one doesn’t often apply to the identity of the antagonist.  And it would kind of ruin my thesis here, so shh.)

Established Villain

3335-3The Feds in The Rocketeer know from the outset that the rocket thief is working for gangster Eddie Valentine, and as we learn around the second act break, they also know that Valentine has been hired by an unidentified Nazi spy.  In general, you see this one mostly in retellings where the audience is already familiar with the story, or in series and serials where characters reappear frequently.

Benefits: There’s not a lot of mucking about with setup.  Nazis frequently get used in this capacity (though not in The Rocketeer, funnily enough) for exactly that reason.  You don’t need to spend a lot of time establishing who they are, what they want, or just how nasty they can be.  Both the audience and the heroes say, “Oh shit, Nazis!” and we can get on with things.

Drawbacks: Our current storytelling culture tends to favor novelty, originality, and surprise, and the identity of the bad guy is a frequent source of that mystery.  As such, you don’t see this one much anymore.

Dramatic Irony

imagesOur first introduction to Neville Sinclair is when he’s chewing out Valentine for fucking up the robbery.  Though we don’t yet know why he wants the rocket, there’s no question that he’s up to no good.  Tends to be common in kids’ movies where the “sides” are clearly delineated.

Benefits: Easy source of tension.  The audience is on edge from the moment Sinclair sets his sights on Jenny, although she doesn’t realize the danger she’s in until much later.  If you didn’t suspect Sinclair from the start, the only emotional investment we’d have in his seduction of Jenny is pity for Cliff that he’s going to get dumped.

Drawbacks: Be careful to keep track of who knows what, or of treating something as a reveal when the audience already knows.  It’s also easy to fall prey to accusations, fair or not, that a character is carrying the Idiot Ball.  After all, we may know a character is in a horror movie, but they don’t.

Big Reveal

nazisOh shit, Nazis!  We actually get the reveal in two consecutive scenes demonstrating the two different flavors: Jenny stumbles upon information that solves the mystery for both her and the audience, while Cliff puts the pieces together for himself when he’s told about the Hollywood spy, and then explains his conclusions to the group.

Benefits: The aforementioned suspense and surprise!  We all live under the shadow of the spoiler now, so it’s rare to find a story these days that doesn’t have a reveal of some sort.  Throwing this sort of curveball at the characters can also force them to reevaluate and change tactics, as when the reveal to Valentine prompts him to betray Sinclair.  (As a side note, I always thought that development was kind of cheesy, but rather awesomely, it’s Truth in Television: prominent gangsters worked with the government during WWII to aid in the war effort.)

Drawbacks: Setting up a good reveal is a tricky balancing act: too much information and the audience will figure it out early, but too little and it feels like an ass pull.  Also, a lot of times you end up with a reveal for the sake of the reveal, which is something I’ll discuss later this month.

As demonstrated here, the different ways that the antagonist’s identity can be revealed aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other; they just do different things.  Which one is best for your story depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.


The Nuts and Bolts of Querying

There is a whole universe of information out there about writing queries: composition, etiquette, expectations, that sort of thing.  (And yet so many people seem to get it just plain wrong.  The mind boggles.)  But it occurs to me that there’s not much information about the actual mechanics of managing your submissions.  I hadn’t thought this would be an interesting topic, but talking with some local writers made me think that those just starting out on this particular path might benefit from someone who’s been at it for a bit.  Plus, I’m saving up my litcrit posts for the A-Z Challenge, so meta it is.  This isn’t a definitive guide by any means, just what works for me and what might work for you, too.

Finding Agents

Step One: Back when I was waiting on feedback from my beta readers, I took the opportunity to start building my agent list.  There are all kinds of resources out there, but how I did it was this: I pulled up Literary Rejections’ database of US literary agencies in a new window in Chrome.  For each agency that said they accept my genre and category (as well as a few that weren’t clear from the listing), I right-clicked the link to their site and opened in a new tab.  Once my RAM was doing dry heaves and about to pass out from the weight of the open tabs, I went to Menu > Bookmarks > Bookmark open pages and tossed everything into a folder, then closed the lot.  I’d say this step took me an hour or two.

Step Two: Next (a few days later, because this shit is tedious and you should take breaks), I went through those bookmarks one at a time, checking out each site.  Here I was able to weed out the ones that didn’t actually accept what I had (despite initial promise).  Of the rest, I read through the submission guidelines and the agent profiles.  I picked the likeliest agent(s) and added them to a Google Drive spreadsheet with the following headers:

  • Agency name (hyperlinked to submissions page)
  • Agent name
  • Query others at agency Y/N
  • Actively building Y/N
  • Columns for each applicable genre and category, marked if they explicitly listed or don’t want
  • Submission format (most are email, but a couple had web forms and a couple still want dead tree)
  • Materials requested
  • Posted turnaround
  • Notes (MSWL, general conclusions drawn from available materials)

(Some of these columns were left blank if the information wasn’t available; for instance, I marked someone Yes under actively building if their agent page had language to that effect, No if it talked about them looking for “select” projects, and left it blank if there wasn’t an indication either way.)

As I was adding agents, I followed them on Twitter if available and added blogs and Tumblrs to my Feedly if they looked enjoyable.

Once I’d cleaned out that bookmarks folder, I had a good-sized list.  I then ranked them into the tentative order I’d be submitting, using the information I’d gathered to determine which agents might be the best matches and moving them higher than the ones that I thought might be long shots.  I held back my very top choice agents, test driving my submission on agents who I thought were still a good match so that I’d have a chance to revise if I came up totally empty.

I chipped away at this part over the course of a few days (again, tedious) until I was happy with everything.  Once I’d gotten beta feedback and gone through another round of edits and a polish, it was time to go.

Organizing Materials

I work primarily from my Chromebook, secondarily from my desktop PC, and occasionally from my iPad or phone.  Thus, I’ve found Google Drive to be the best option for managing everything (and really, I’m pretty deep in the Google environment anyway).  Here are the documents I keep:

  • The query.  The personalization changes for each agent, but the pitch is the same, so I pull it from here.  This also ensures that everything is spell-checked every time and that the links in my signature work.
  • The manuscript.  For versioning purposes, I keep separate documents for each revision, so the current one is labeled *CURRENT* so I can spot it at a glance.  I considered creating separate documents for the various sample sizes that agents request (5 pages, 10 pages, 15 pages, first chapter, first 3 chapters), but that means to make a tweak I’d have to make that change in multiple documents, so it’s just easier to have one master and copy the correct excerpt from it when it’s time to email.  Pro tip: Holding shift and using the arrow keys is faster than holding the mouse button and scrolling, because Drive doesn’t play nice with large documents and it will lag like whoa.
  • The synopsis.  I have this in several lengths (1, 3, or 5 pages) as requested.  I started with the long one and then kept cutting as needed.

For the most part, agents want these materials pasted into the body of the email.  If they want everything assembled as a PDF, I’ll download them from Drive and use Adobe Acrobat to assemble it into one tidy file with the page numbers and headers all undisturbed.

Tracking Submissions

The thing with that list I built a few hundred words back is that it’s really easy for it to get out of date.  Things move quickly, and you don’t want to waste your time submitting to agents who are now closed, or who have moved agencies, or who have changed their wishlist and aren’t looking for the same genres anymore.  So this is where I created a new tab in the agent spreadsheet.  The headers for this one:

  • Agency name
  • Agent name (both columns copied over from the other page, which preserves the handy hyperlink)
  • Query date
  • Nudge/Requery (I’ll get to this one)
  • Query nudge date
  • Response received date
  • Query response
  • Notes

As requests started coming in, I created columns to track the dates and notes for partials and fulls as well.

That nudge/requery column is a major sanity preserver.  When I send a query, I check the submissions date, check their posted turnaround time, and figure out the date by which I should hear something.  Then, in that column, I’ll note “Nudge [date]”.  (If no turnaround is posted, I go with three months, which seems to be fairly standard.)  If they’re a “no response means no” shop, I note “No response by [date] means pass.”  The reason this is a sanity preserver is that a lot of people tend to freak out about these responses, which leads to premature followups, which leads to irritated agents.  Doing the math up front and making a note means I’m not continually recalculating.  When I’ve got the spreadsheet up, if a date has passed, I’ll either send a nudge or cross them off (or occasionally adjust the date out if I know from Twitter that they’ve been on vacation or at a conference or something).  If no dates have passed, nothing to worry about.

Responses get their dates noted, and I’ll add any personalized feedback to the Notes field to make it easier to spot potential patterns.  I also color code those rows by clicking on the row number and selecting the paint bucket tool.  Here’s the code I use:

Screenshot 2015-03-12 at 19.24.02

The color coding is easier on the eyes than crossing out, so that I can still see that old information.  The “never responded” is handy, because after a certain point, it’s not inconceivable to get a response, but I’m not going to consider that an active query anymore.  I only nudge once, then let it go.  (High fives if you just started singing Frozen.)

As far as the response emails themselves, after I’ve noted the details, they get moved to a folder (even the rejections).  As with the nudge dates, it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” thing.  No matter how thick your skin is, seeing a rejection at the top of your inbox sucks, so get that sucker out of there.

Assembling the Query

So, now that I’ve got all these fancy spreadsheets, it’s time to get to the actual email.  I use Gmail’s web interface due to the aforementioned multi-device setup (and the aforementioned Google fangirlness).  I prefer to put together query emails from my desktop PC so I can have the email draft up on one screen and the various documents and resources on the other, but it’s not impossible to do from the Chromebook.

Here’s what goes into assembling a query for Agent Awesome:

  1. Go to the submissions page for Agent Awesome.  Look for any changes that might affect submissions (closures, new wishlist items) and confirm correct email address and requested materials.
  2. Subject line: If the guidelines specify a particular format, use that format exactly.  You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of an email filter.  If there’s no format requested, I go with “Query: [TITLE] (#MSWL/#PitMad Request/whatever is applicable if anything.)” Manuscript title goes in all caps.
  3. Salutation (checking the spelling of the name about eight times because I am neurotic).  Paste in the query below that.  If it’s a MSWL or pitch party request, I usually lead with that, otherwise I go straight into the pitch.
  4. Paste requested materials
  5. This is my favorite part.  Fonts and formatting can be the kiss of death if you mess them up, but Gmail makes this so damn easy that there’s absolutely no excuse for getting it wrong.  Here’s what it looks like after I’ve pasted everything from three different documents that all have different formatting:
    Mess, right?  There are actually two more different styles in this document beyond what you can see here.  But see that button at the end of the formatting bar that’s highlighted?  That strips this puppy bare.  Here’s what it looks like after selecting all (Ctrl+A) and hitting that bad boy:

    Screenshot 2015-03-12 at 20.00.18
    Boom.  Done, son.  It even correctly throws in the carriage return between paragraphs.  True, I have to go back in and add italics to the manuscript, but I pretty quickly memorized where they are (two on page 1, one on page 5, one on page 9, ball change jazz hands hey) so putting them back is no problem.  The basic font may not look as fancy, but I guarantee this will show up correctly on any given device.
  6. Walk away and do something else for a little while, even if it’s just tabbing out to check Google+.
  7. Look over the submission once more with fresh eyes.
  8. Hit send.
  9. Do a little happy/nervous dance.
  10. Note it on the spreadsheet and do the nudge/requery calculations.
  11. Repeat for remaining agents in this wave, then go do something else again.

I was initially maintaining six active queries at a time (so submitting a new one when a rejection came in or when I’d stopped the clock on a non-response), but I ran into a surprising amount of dead air, so I bumped it up to twelve to keep things moving.

So that’s about it.  I know there are tools out there like QueryTracker that can help manage this stuff, but I’ve always been fond of a good, simple spreadsheet, and I’ve found this has kept things organized and manageable, so I can at least pretend to be a professional and shit.

Does your query management system look like this, or something else entirely?  Do you find it difficult to stay on top of everything?  Sound off in the comments.