Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Few Tips for Querying

There's plenty of querying advice out there, and given that I am as yet un-agented, I would say 99.9% of it is worth more than mine. Nonetheless, I've learned a lot of tips about the process, little things that more important people might not mention.
  1. Keep track of your queries. I have an Excel spreadsheet in which I write down the date I send a query and an "expiration date" - the date by which the agent says they'll get back to you if they're interested (often 8 weeks). Whenever I open my spreadsheet, I look at the "expiration date" column and for each query whose date has elapsed, I mark it as a rejection and hide the row so I can focus on the queries that are still active.
  2. Send your query to the right address. Many agencies have multiple addresses. They may have one email address for questions and another for receiving queries. The agency may have a specific department that receives queries or a person who receives them. Most agents have detailed information on where to send queries, which you can find on QueryTracker, AAR, AgentQuery, Publisher's Marketplace, etc. If I find conflicting information (and trust me, there's plenty of it), I look for more sources to make sure I get the right information.
  3. Make sure the agent isn't closed to queries. Often this information is only listed on one website - most often the agency's website. Agents sometimes close for a month or two at a time, or they close permanently, or they close to everyone except people with referrals from clients or people they meet at conferences. I've noticed that QueryTracker's information regarding "closed" agents is usually up to date, but AgentQuery's is not. Even better, QueryTracker allows you to check a box that will allow you to search for agents within a genre or agency while filtering out agents who are closed to queries.
  4. Make sure the agent represents the genre of your book. Looking for comparable titles that the agent sold isn't enough because sometimes, agents want things they don't yet represent. Maybe they don't rep YA yet, but they want to, and maybe yours is the first YA book they sell. If so, I might flick you, but secretly I'm happy for you :-) Both AgentQuery and QueryTracker keep good lists of genres that agents represent. I prefer QueryTracker because you can actually search agents within an agency who rep a specific genre - even multiple genres, say YA and science fiction.
  5. Provide a disclaimer. If applicable, include something like "this work is a multiple submission" so that agents know you're submitting to other agents simultaneously.
  6. Use good envelopes. For SASEs, send self-sealing envelopes. I figure it's lowly interns who get the job of filling SASEs with form rejection letters, and I don't like thinking of them going home at the end of the day with their tongues tasting like envelope glue.

    Friday, June 29, 2012

    They're Alive!

    As cocky as this may sound, here's why I haven't lost faith in Safira: I think about the characters and setting all the time. The story is real to me in such an awesome way. It's like when you read Harry Potter and then you look up in the sky and wonder if anybody's flying up there...or when you read His Dark Materials and you start to look for "snags" in the universe. Anyway, over the past month as I've visited the Channel Islands, I've looked in the water and imagined seeing my characters. I must have done a good job writing about my setting, because it seemed entirely possible that one of my characters was going to pop out of the water and say BOO!

    SCUBA!

    I forgot to blog about this earlier. A few weeks ago, when my mom was visiting from Michigan, we took a free scuba lesson at Sports Chalet. My mom was awesome at it. She used to be a lifeguard, she swam competitively in school, and she taught me how to swim before I could walk. Seriously, there are pictures of me as a toddler wearing water wings and a shower cap "to protect my curls". (They were pretty cute curls.)

    I'm also a big swimmer. I was on the swim team in school and I still love to swim laps at the YMCA. However, scuba did not come naturally to me. The instructor said the trick was to keep breathing continuously. I tried, but I kept forgetting, and then I would panic a little. You can't breathe deeply with scuba - you can just breathe, so it's hard to catch up if you forget. I doubt at any point I was actually in danger of not getting enough oxygen, but it was hard to believe that when I was sitting on the floor of the pool. I think I might need to go back for a few more lessons to get the hang of it.

    At least I got what I went for: I dealt a little with my fear of the ocean (indirectly, of course), and I did some research for my book. I throw my characters in scuba gear all the time. I thought it was appropriate that I know how they feel :-)

    Monday, June 25, 2012

    Catalina

    Me in my anti-seasick spot
    This weekend, Derek and I went with some family friends on a yacht to Catalina Island. Derek hadn't been there since he was a boy scout and I'd never been there at all. Catalina is one of those places that you have to eventually visit if you live in LA, and I've been here for 4 years, so I was overdue.

    I saw lots of wildlife - two pods of dolphins, a seal, and at least one whale. I have serious motion sickness, but after a bit of experimentation, I found one sweet spot where I could sit without getting seasick. It was on the staircase that nobody used. I got wet, sunburned and windburned, but all of those things are - even together - are better than nausea.

    We moored in Catalina Harbor, which is not nearly as important as it sounds. Avalon is the only major harbor, and it's on the southeastern side of the island. We were on the northwestern side near the isthmus known as Two Harbors. And we were on the more rural side of the isthmus. We didn't realize this until we walked the quarter mile down the dirt road to the other side of the isthmus and found a bar, public showers and bathrooms, a park, and a visitor services office. Our side had an outdoor picnic area with high-tech port-o-potties.

    After we moored, the rocking was much more tolerable - soothing even. I took a nap shortly after we arrived, got up and played with the boat owners' super cute dog, then we went to a yacht club dinner at the picnic area. The next day Derek and I got up early and caught a bus from the isthmus down to Avalon. We took the aptly named Safari Bus for the first half of the trip, which ended at the also aptly named Airport in the Sky. It's the only airport on Catalina, but it's surprisingly big, and it's at the highest point on the island. We had a half hour "layover" here until the second bus picked us up and took us to Avalon. All in all, it took like, 3 hours to get there on the rickediest bus rides ever. It was like going through Jurassic Park if Jurassic Park was in a desert. No dinosaurs, but we did see buffalo!

    Avalon was about what I expected, maybe a little less. I was hoping to find a bunch of art galleries and local artisan shops, but the best we found was one artsy boutique and the shop attached to the Catalina Island museum. We did luck out at the museum because they had a sale on casino tours. I didn't take any pictures of the outside of the casino, which is weird because that's the icon of the island.

    Basically, it's not a casino at all. There's no gambling there. The tour guide explained that "casino" is used to just mean "gathering place". Despite its enormous size, there are only two things inside the casino: a theater and a ballroom. The whole place is decorated in the art deco style, which is not my thing. But there was a very interesting mural on one of the outside walls. There's a serious problem with the lady on the right, and that problem is one of the reasons I was inspired to write Safira.

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    Anacapa

    This past Friday, I went to the Channel Islands for the first time. My mom was in town, so it was a good excuse to drive the hour-and-a-half to Oxnard. She and I and Derek took a wildlife cruise out to Anacapa, which is the easternmost of the islands (the closest to shore). I've been writing about these islands for years now, and it never seemed right that I hadn't seen them in person.

    Original Image
    On the way out, the sea was rough - like, hold on and try not to get splashed, rough. Of course, we had chosen to stand directly in the bow (front) of the boat. Partially we did this because obviously, the bow had the best view, but also, this was the place where I felt least nauseous. The only disadvantage was that there were no seats, so we had to stand the whole time. The next day, all of us had the kind of sore legs you get from standing on a bus and trying to balance, or the kind you get from skiing. Anyway, I think my mom's favorite part of the cruise was when a big wave started coming right at us. We all held on tight as the wave lifted the bow pretty high into the air, then let it come crashing down. There was a big splash, but the guys on the opposite side got wet instead of us :-)

    My favorite part was seeing the wildlife, mostly sea lions. They were swimming with their heads above water. They didn't seem very efficient. Maybe they weren't in a hurry. If that's the case, they're pretty dumb because I KNOW there are great white sharks in the Santa Barbara Channel. Google Earth told me so. And if Planet Earth has taught me anything, it's that seals are GW sharks' favorite food. The best sighting was 2 or 3 bottlenose dolphins that ironically, we didn't see until we were back past the breakwater by the docks. They were beautiful. I wish I had gotten to see more.

    Anacapa is the smallest of the northern islands by far, but it does NOT look small up close. It's quite massive, actually. Narrow and long, but very high and craggy. The rock walls were almost covered in white from all the bird poop. We saw a little bit of kelp when we got close to the island. The water there was only 15 feet deep. It was a beautiful sea green color (no pun intended - I grew up with Crayola and that's the color of the crayon that matches the water).

    Overall, it was a great time. We all got windburned on our faces and being that cold (did I mention it was VERY cold?) for three hours exhausted us, but the sights and the experience was worth it. Derek and I both caught a "boat bug" (like the "travel bug", an excitement, not a sickness) and now we can't wait to go back. We've been looking at the list of Island Packers cruises like it's a menu in a restaurant. We want to see all of them. I particularly want to go to San Miguel - quite desperately, actually - but if it took a whole hour to get to Anacapa, I can only imagine it takes at least three to get to San Miguel. I just really want to see if I've described it accurately. I particularly want to know if there's really a ledge on Prince Island where Thad can sit in his lawn chair. I won't change that part of the book if a ledge doesn't exist, but it would be cool if it did.

    Saturday, June 9, 2012

    Politically Correct: Crustacean Style

    A few weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of going to the Channel Islands Museum with a friend who lives nearby. She had gone there repeatedly on school field trips, but it was my first time, and to any outsider, I probably looked like a nut-job. Everything enthralled me. Everything was as exciting as Christmas. Things I had seen so many times in pictures were there in the flesh - well, sort of.

    Original Image
    The island fox, who is known for being the only native species on San Miguel Island, is something I've researched extensively. But I had never seen one. The museum had two, and although they were both stuffed, and I'm a vegetarian who usually doesn't like to see dead animals in any form, I was flipping out over these foxes. (The Bloggess would be proud.) You wouldn't believe how tiny they are! They're smaller than my pug, and she's a runt! They're like, cat-sized, only you would never know it from pictures because there's never anything next to them to give a sense of scale!

    During the visit, I touched baleen and shark teeth, I marveled at a 3-D map of the islands, I bought books on identifying fish, and I sat on the floor in front of a fish tank - in a sundress, no less - and stared at the creatures inside IN AWE. That was the first time I had seen a garibaldi up close. My friend, who is much braver than me and goes scuba diving all over the place, has seen many garibaldi in the wild. She tells me they're very cheeky creatures. They're 100% protected and apparently aware of the fact, so they like to get in divers' faces as if daring them to do something about it :-)

    Original Image
    I also saw huge lobsters, a weird-eyed, flat-bodied halibut that I didn't notice until it moved out of the sand, a beautiful species of blue rockfish, and a pair of sunflower sea stars. These things are HUGE. Like, two feet long, easily, with too many arms to count. I've seen videos of them plowing through colonies of sand dollars and leaving only skeletons in their wake. They're like the monsters of the kelp forest.

    Anyway, while I was staring in awe like a child at these fish, a real child said something about the "starfish". One of the park rangers corrected the kid and said they're "sea stars", not "starfish". My first thought was, Really? We have to be politically correct about starfish now? But then the ranger made a point that made me feel rather stupid. Sea stars are not fish by any stretch of the word. They're crustaceans, so why would we call them fish? "Sea star", on the other hand, makes perfect sense because they look like stars and they live in the sea.

    So there are you, kids - today's lesson on how to be politically correct when talking about crustaceans.

    Thursday, June 7, 2012

    The Cure for Impatience? Self-sabotage

    So ever since I came close to querying, I've felt an incredible amount of impatience. I had this almost irresistible urge to query, to move on with the process already. I've been unemployed (willfully) and writing for two years now, with technically nothing to show for it. I'm sick of people asking how its going and not being able to tell them anything concrete. And frankly, I want validation for my work. I worked hard, and what's more - this book is really good.

    In light of the above-mentioned impatience, I queried Safira, and now I believe I did it too early. Not only was it too early, but I was sloppy about it. When I went back and revised recently, I found that there were errors - even typos - in the excerpts I had sent out to several agents. That is so embarrassing, and after all the hard work I've done, typos are NOT representative of my work or my potential as an author. I misrepresented myself. I sabotaged myself. And I may have done it in more ways than one. Here are the possibilities that I've considered:
    1. My sample pages were imperfect
    2. My book was misidentified in terms of genre/demographic
    3. I queried the wrong agents (because I had misidentified the genre)
    4. My query letter was bad
    I'd like the amend the last item by saying that my query letter was not poorly written. I think it's a beautiful letter, but it does several things wrong. It's too esoteric, it doesn't get to the point quickly enough, and it assumes previous knowledge of my work on the part of the reader - not directly, but there are better introductory ways to explain the book. Yesterday morning I wrote a new query letter that I hope corrects all of my earlier mistakes.

    A few weeks ago, I would have sent that letter soon after deciding it was good. But now I'm going to wait. I'm going to send it to my mom and sister and have my husband give it a once-over. I'm going to put it aside and then pick it up and re-read it repeatedly to make sure that it is PERFECT. I'm also going to finish the round of revisions I began but did not complete last week. I'm going to finish revising and re-read new passages until I'm certain that the work is the absolute best I can produce. Before, I thought I couldn't afford to wait until Safira was perfect. Now I know I can't afford to send out anything less.

    Monday, June 4, 2012

    The Value of a Good Beta Reader

    Me and My Favorite Beta at My Wedding
    I am lucky enough to have a brilliant sister. We have a long history of reading together. Whenever I read I good book, I always passed it down to her, even though she's five years younger. Needless to say, she was always reading well beyond her age group even in elementary school. By the time she got to college, she was making recommendations to me, and now we've reached a kind of reading equilibrium.

    Perhaps because we have both always read so much, we've also made good editors for each other. I helped Kelly with personal statements, college applications, English papers, etc. And she has read almost everything I've ever written. We've had issues at times. Kelly can get very critical, although strangely, she's never been terribly critical of me. She gets very critical of my characters. I kid you not, she has actually typed into Word comments like,
    "I want to punch her right now."
    "What a spoiled brat! Why is he even listening to her?"
    "Someone should throw a snowball in her face!"
    These are paraphrased, but they're also accurate. All of these also came from Mina. I learned a lot from this criticism, even though at the time it just made me laugh. My mom saw a copy of those comments and had a talk with my sister about being nicer to me, haha. (We're both in our twenties and do not need her to intervene, but it was adorable.) Kelly and I did have an issue at the beginning of Safira. Based on early talks we had about the book, Kelly saw Safira's character progressing quickly, but I intended for her to develop slowly and steadily throughout the book. I think Kelly found this a little frustrating at first, but once she was assured that Safira would indeed grow up by the end of the book - and become awesome, by the way - she relaxed.

    The point of this post is to appreciate a good beta reader. I have the very best beta reader in my sister, and I have a few other gems, too. My mom, Derek, and one of Kelly's good friends have given me wonderful feedback that definitely improved the book. I know from reading Kelly's papers (and reading all of the comments she sends me on my work) just how much time goes into editing and being a beta reader. It's not something I take lightly. I had seven betas for Safira, and after they all finished the book, I made sure to show my appreciation by writing thank you notes and getting them gifts.

    Beta Present
    I'm not writing about this to brag about my own generosity. I'm advocating for the good treatment of good betas everywhere. I know I go a little overboard sometimes when it comes to thank you notes - I send them for everything - and gift-giving, but I do think if somebody has read your book start to finish and given you honest and constructive feedback, that is a time to be grateful no matter what. The problem with me is that if I ever get this book published, I'm going to want to thank every single person who reads it, even though they won't be giving me feedback.

    That sounds like a wonderful problem to have :-)

    UPDATE (5/2/13): I would like to note while at the time I wrote this, I thought it was a good idea to have seven beta readers, I now realize it's not. Seven is too many to keep track of, and not all readers are equally helpful. Lesson: Choose your readers carefully, and focus on quality over quantity.