Writing Goals I: Filling the Toolbox

artists toolbox

Typical toolbox: Palette, brushes…and somewhere in the background, annoying husband

The other day my wife and I were on a long walk and we started talking about a class she’s scheduled to take next month. It’s a week-long painting workshop in which she’ll be working on the same large painting for five full days. This will be somewhat new territory for her, as she doesn’t usually paint in large format like that. This is part of the plan: it’s time to add that skill to her artistic toolbox.

The reason we were discussing it is she had just asked me, earlier in the day, for my opinion on which subject she should paint – the instructor had emailed her several photographs and, prior to the class, she was supposed to email back and let the instructor know which one she planned to tackle.

We had looked at them together and narrowed down the list. On the walk, we were discussing the merits of each of the potentials. I could tell she had a clear favorite.

“Why that one?” I asked her.

“It has the best light,” she said. Good.

“I like the spark of red in the window,” she said. Good.

“It has the most variety,” she said. Good.

“I think it would be the easiest one to sell afterward,” she said. Wait.

“Is that your goal?” I asked. “To create one painting to sell? Or are you trying to learn the skills to paint a hundred paintings? Does how that particular one comes out matter that much at all?”

And of course she said it was the skills she was focused on, that the idea of being able to possibly also sell the painting she created was just a potential bonus in her book. Icing on the cake.

I know her well enough that I already knew this was the case. I was just asking to make a point, to make sure she went into the class with the proper mindset.

In related news, yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

But really, her focus – anyone’s focus in a class or workshop-type setting, in my opinion – should be on filling her toolbox with the skills necessary to do one hundred great large paintings. A thousand.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writers having toolboxes. It’s a great concept, but a lot of times I see writers meandering away from the toolbox mindset and toward the tangible-result mindset. They go to a conference or workshop or retreat with a pointed result in mind – finishing one book, one story, getting an agent or a publisher – and often consider it a failure if they don’t achieve that result.

A good friend runs a local writing conference with lots of activities. What’s interesting is that he finds it much easier to fill the ones that have the potential for that pointed, tangible result associated with them (like Agent Pitch sessions – direct result: getting an agent, of course) than the ones that don’t have as clear of a direct result.

Case in point: the Query Letter critique. It’s much harder for writers to pinpoint the direct result of this activity – since you don’t get to select the agent / editor you end up meeting with, writers don’t see it as a clear gate to signing with an agent. And I’m coming to the conference to sign with an agent, so what good is it, right?

Here’s the thing, though. All the activities at the conference are great and educational in one way or another, but the Query Letter critique is actually the one that fills the toolbox most clearly. It should be the FIRST activity to fill up, not the LAST.

You get your query – a letter you might use to later query one hundred agents – critiqued by experts. Rather than focusing on a pitch session that lets you talk to one agent (who may or may not even be a fit for your work, by the way), the query critique session potentially adds a polished letter to your toolbox. A letter, again, that you can use over and over again to query dozens upon dozens of agents. At least one of whom is far more likely to be a fit for your work.

I see this also in critique groups, which typically allow you to bring five to ten pages, which you either read aloud during or share prior to the meeting. Most writers try to use these groups to get critique on their entire novel in sequence. But if your book is 300 pages long, five pages at a time means it will take sixty meetings to get through it all. That’s almost THREE YEARS if your group meets twice a month!

This is simply not how I view these groups. I love critique groups, but I’m not there to run through my entire novel five pages at a time.

I’m there to fill my toolbox.

If I’m working on adding humor to my project, or the relationship between two characters, or how the antagonist is portrayed, whatever, I bring a section that is representative of that thing, get my critique, then add the reactions I hear to my toolbox. I then apply what I learned (I USE THAT NEW TOOL!) to the entire book on my own. This means I often share my book out of order, skip chapters, switch from one book to the next, then to a short story I want reaction on, and so on.

I am definitely in the minority on that front. In fact I think my approach downright annoys people sometimes. But I don’t really care.

Have I mentioned the related news? Yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say with a bit of advice: when you’re heading to a writing conference or class, a retreat or critique group, a workshop, I suggest trying to think less about that particular direct result you’re hoping for – these five pages to critique (which MUST be the NEXT five pages in your book), that one agent I MUST convince to sign me, this one book that MUST be completed during this retreat, and try to focus a whole lot more on your TOOLBOX.

How does what you’re about to do fill it with more tools you can use over and over again? To query fifty agents. To write a dozen books. To fix your entire novel, rather than just this lone five-page sample.

Over the past year or two, as I’ve continued to traverse the ups and downs of the publishing industry, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing goals. First and foremost my own, which it’s probably fair to say I’ve transformed quite significantly, but also other writers. It can’t be helped: we writers are all bobbing up and down in own own rafts along this strange river filled with dangerous, unpredictable rapids. We’re on our own, but we’re right next to each other, too. We see it when some other writer’s raft gets flipped over by unexpected rocks. And we can’t help but wonder, from afar, what happened to cause it.

More and more, as I see those overturned rafts, those writers sputtering for air, I’ve been noticing a cause-and-effect relationship between these accidents and writing goals.

This post is the result of some of those ruminations – hopefully the first in a series on Writing Goals.

Stay tuned for Writing Goals II: Don’t Quit That Day Job.

Following Query Guidelines

I’m at that stage where I’m sending out queries to literary agents for my first novel. I’ve actually had what I term to be decent luck – several of the agents I’ve queried have asked for my full manuscript, I just haven’t had an offer for representation yet. This tells me that my query methods are at least passably good.

This week a friend from my writing group asked me for some comments on her query. Though I’ve heard her story read in pieces over the past few months during our bi-weekly meetings, I hadn’t had a sense of her full story until I read the query. It was really compelling.

Aside from a few grammatical issues, the main crux of my feedback to her concerning her query regarded the agent’s guidelines. She had told me the name of the agent and agency she was querying, so I looked up that agency’s guidelines as part of my review. This particular agent was looking for a query letter, synopsis, author bio and the first three chapters for a fiction submission.

My friend had a query letter only, with some synopsis and bio elements included inside but not separated out. Now, to be fair, her purpose was special. There’s an event coming up the agent is going to be attending, and she was trying to create awareness for her novel (mind share, if you will) before catching the agent at the event.

However, it made me think that a post on following agent guidelines was warranted. I’ll provide more details on queries later, maybe even showing my query samples, but for now, the main message is this:

Be sure to check the agent’s web site for their query guidelines and follow them closely whenever submitting.

If the agent doesn’t have a web site, how did you find them? Writers Market? (this is what I use) Publishers Marketplace? A printed book? Does this source include the guidelines there? If so, same message: follow them closely.

What if an agent’s web site contradicts their listing on one of these sites like Publishers Marketplace or Writers Market?

I’ve run across this a few times, and my somewhat uninformed answer is to let the guidelines on the agency web site override the others. Why? Because I would think there is more chance they are remembering to keep their own site up to date than the external sites they are listed on, though I imagine you could find agencies where the reverse is true. It all depends on how they operate.

Either way, you have to think that they must ask for what they do for a reason, and it’s best to give them what they want. Aside from the obvious – that not following their particular guidelines gives them a good reason for rejecting you, if merely on principal, it’s very likely that the person that they have initially reviewing the submissions, whether they be an intern, assistant, or the actual agent, needs the information they ask for to conduct the level of review the agency requires.

For example, maybe the initial reviewer is supposed to check on your credentials before passing your work on to the agent. If you don’t include your bio (if they ask for one) then they have to do more searching to find out about you, and perhaps they decide it isn’t worth the time.

Put yourself in the agent’s shoes. Do you really think they are sitting at their desk, rubbing their hands together maniacally, saying, “Let’s make them provide this crazy detail…” just because they like to see you jump through hoops?

Or is it more likely they got together in a meeting and decided on a business process for acquiring clients which led to a determination of what they should ask for when being solicited for representation? A determination now represented by those dreaded “submission guidelines”?

Take it from a Business Process Consultant (my day job): it’s the latter.

So follow those agency guidelines, and good luck with your queries!