Query me this, query me that

Here’s a lovely post from our beloved Natalie Cannon!!!

Happy Saturday everyone! Soooooo I mentioned last post that I was going to spend my Sunday on agents and queries and I did! Huzzah!

To start, I went back. I had written an initial query letter based on the example in my copy of the 2014 Writer’s Market, and I sent this draft to four friends: the Invisible Ninja Cat, Charlotte Blackwood, Cesar, and my novel exchange partner. I chose these four because I wanted a gradient. INC knows the novel really well, but doesn’t know much about query letters. Charlotte sort of knows the novel and knows more about queries from her own research. Cesar knows the basics of the novel but hasn’t read a word, but he works in academic publishing and has sent out queries himself. My novel exchange partner, the superstar, has read and edited my novel, and she’s sending out her…

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A Camp NaNo Update

Hello, everybody!

The first week of Camp NaNo has come and gone and I have two exciting bits of news.

The first is that although she’s coming late to the game, E. M. McBride – my friend and co-author – is Camp NaNoing, so hopefully she turns out something as excellent as usual. Best of luck her way.

The second piece of news is that I’ve completed my Camp NaNo novel, have met my word count, and am beginning my editing of the first draft!

That’s going to go through nine rounds of edits before I send it over to Natalie Cannon for her miracle-working magic, but I’ll keep you posted. The first stage is going more slowly than I originally anticipated, mostly because it’s harder than I recall to read a whole novel out loud. Apparently, I can’t actually do it in a single sitting. I’m about half through, though.

I’ve got plenty of other projects to work on when I toss that Natalie’s way, so I’ll try to be good about keeping this updated.



Murder Mystery Planning

Like many voracious readers, I grew up on mysteries. Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys. Of course, that bleeds into murder mysteries  as you get older, and for me this led me to television and Agatha Christie.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself as a writer, it’s that murder mysteries – or even just mysteries – are a speciality and a love of mine. For one thing, it gives you a beautiful excuse to kill off characters, and to make everybody seem like suspect sorts of people. It also gives you excuses to dole out information to the reader very slowly.

As my poison-loving (as a writer, not a purveyor) editor and best friend, Natalie Cannon, has told me, the key to writing a convincing murder mystery is to know first of all, whodunit, and how, and why. Just like makers of jigsaw puzzles print the picture out as a whole and then cut it up and jumble the pieces, the writer of a murder mystery has to follow similar steps.

The first step, as I said, is figuring out what happened, what the mystery actually is that everyone’s trying to solve. What it is, what it looks like. Sometimes those are one in the same. Sometimes someone’s killed one way and it’s been made to look like something else. You have to know exactly what’s happened if you’re going to leave the right breadcrumbs. Sometimes, you’ll notice that mysteries will have multiple murders. Both mysteries I’m currently working on are like that, and the one I’m doing for Camp NaNo has two very closely connected murders, whereas my other mystery has about half a dozen murders, much more loosely connected, which makes it a longer and more complicated story. If you’re not sure you can keep all the clues straight, stick to one or two murders, and if you do two, make them very closely connected.

Once you have the murder all sorted out, it’s a matter of figuring out what would leave traces, especially traces that could be misinterpreted. This is the selection of breadcrumbs. It’s important, as well, to decide what sort of murder mystery you’re working with. Will the reader know who the killer is? Will there be a big reveal at the end to (hopefully) stun all but the most astute? In Those We Trust, which is something of a murder mystery, in a way, the killer is a regular voice, but I’m very careful to keep the identity completely secret until the very end. Even the characters never discover who it is, so the breadcrumbs left by the killer are actually deliberate, pointing fingers at everyone else. The reader actually gets to see the killer planting the breadcrumbs, although they might not realize what they are until they’re mentioned later, from a different point of view. This is something that you can play around with if you feel confident: how much are you giving away, and how? There’s even the crime-show motif of “we know who the killer is, now we have to prove it”, which means you have to have someone who can cover their tracks very well, and things that are very difficult to prove, like in the television show, Luther. Knowing and proving are different things, so that can be fun to play with, but requires very precise writing and planning.

The next step is one of the more fun steps: Who are you going to frame? You’ve got your misleading breadcrumbs, so they have to lead somewhere other than the killer, potentially. Whether someone is actually wrongfully arrested or the police just have a list of suspects to whittle through and someone looks uncommonly attractive, at least one red herring needs to muddy (or bloody?) the waters. If you’re going for an enclosed murder scene, like a boat or airplane, and “one of us is the killer” is your motif, then maybe you want multiple guests to look like equally promising killers. If you’ve got a more typical piece, maybe two or three people might fit the bill. In my Camp NaNo piece, I’ve got a handful of possible killers, but when I write murder mystery events, everybody’s got to have at least a small motive. Your needs will depend on your story.

Then, honestly, it’s just a question of writing the thing, weaving the plot and the breadcrumb dropping together. A little hint of this, a little smacking you over the head with a twist of that…. And then nuancing it in the editing process.

Editing is a really important part of writing a murder mystery, actually. If you have a couple of editors/friends read it and they all say either it’s too easy to tell who your killer is way too soon, or it’s absolutely and literally impossible to figure it out at all until the very end, you should listen to them. The worst thing a writer of mysteries can do is frustrated the reader with being overly obvious or impossible to deduce. If there’s a pattern, take the steps you can to fix it and toss it their way again. You’ll be glad you did.



Camp NaNo

It’s that time of year again: July’s Camp NaNoWriMo!

I think anyone who has ever tried or considered trying NaNoWriMo understands the appeal of dedicated a month to working on a novel. It’s sort of a pact with yourself, a dare, pushing yourself to the limit with an organized way of holding yourself accountable, and rewarding yourself with completion. The classic NaNoWriMo is a brilliant writerly tool, but having done all the different sessions, I have to say that the July Camp is my favorite, easily.

First of all, Camp NaNo sessions have a few legs up on the classic right off the bat. Because they’re based around the concept of summer camp, you get cool features like having a cabin assigned to – or, new this month, forming your own cabin with friends you know either from the internet or in your real life! – that gives you regular encouragement, discusses pitfalls, and just keeps you sane with company during the sometimes lonely act of writing.

Also, NaNoWriMo is limited to 50,000 word goals for novels. Camp NaNo is more flexible. You can edit a previously written work, expand on a previously written work, do a screenplay, even set your own winning goals! So if 50,000 seems like a steep chunk out of your summer, set it for 20,000 and write a novella! Or if you know that without the pressures of school you’ll churn out 50,000 like it’s nobody’s business, there’s people in my cabin with over 120,000 word count goals. Mine’s at 63,000, because that’s my minimum estimated amount for the project I chose to churn out this month.

Also, for those of you who know that there are two months of Camp NaNo every year, you might have also noticed that I specified the July camp as the best. I’ll explain why.

When Camp NaNo started a couple of years ago, it was in June and August. Which was great because they were both technically summer camp months. The problem with that, though, was that you had a NaNo every other month for half the year, and then nothing the rest of the year. So last year, they switch camp to April and July. This is good for people who want to space things out, especially people interested in screenwriting, because April is National Screenwriting Month, so they can use that for their first camp session.

But the problem with April, as with November, is that for those of us who are students and/or work within the school-year system or calendar, those are very busy months. Exams, papers, etc. Life bogs you down in those times of year, and the beauty of a summer camp experience isn’t just the weather: it’s about knowing that there’s nothing on your chest but camp during those weeks.

Of course, for people who work year round with no relenting time in the summers, this might not make a difference. But many countries other than the US have their vacations traditionally in July or August, so it’s sort of nice having a NaNo then, so you know you’ll at least have some time off.

Thus for me, someone who is likely to operate on the school-year schedule for the rest of my working life (woot?), the July Camp NaNo is the ultimate timing, the best set-up, and basically the epitome of Christmas in July.

I’ve written the first three chapters of my project already, putting my other novel project on hold until I’ve got the draft of this one done. I’ll be starting chapter four as soon as I post this blog post, and since I’m many words ahead already, I’ll be trying to give you regular updates on my personal and cabin progress. Should be fun.

Also, are you participating in Camp NaNo? Have questions about NaNoWriMo? Leave a comment! Get involved! Things like this are more fun when you’ve got people to do them with.



A Writer’s Guide to Wikipedia

Wikipedia, as we all know, can be one of those sticky life resources. You can’t use it for work usually, can’t use it as a school resource, can’t cite it on an academic paper. But on the other hand, it is a massive life blessing bringing all sorts of knowledge to you at any given time, and the ability to alter things you know to be wrong. What could be better than that?

As writers, research isn’t the sort of strenuous activity it can be for academics. You can use resources that aren’t permissible in a journal article or a term paper, Wikipedia being one of them. But for the same pitfalls that keep it from being a solid academic resource, it can be a misleading one for writers as well. Therefore, all writers should definitely use Wikipedia, but they should use caution and follow a few basic guidelines when utilizing it.

I have two basic scenarios in my research life that make me turn to Wikipedia. The first is when I know absolutely nothing about a general topic, person, or place and I need a starting point. Wikipedia is great for this, because especially on broad topics like Stockholm, pesto, or BDSM (to take a recent search of mine), you can learn a lot of information in one place. From the main article, you can branch out to related side-shoots you need more information on, and more importantly you can use the sources that are cited in the article for further research and information, as well as to double-check any facts from the Wikipedia article itself. This is the almost obvious scenario that most people use it for.

The second scenario is one I’ve encountered recently. BDSM, my recent search, is something I happen to know a lot about. It’s something I’ve studied in both a scholarly and writerly context for years now. But because it’s such a broad topic and I didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how to actualize this in the piece I’m working on, I turned to Wikipedia as a refresher to help me fold certain aspects into my outline and character profiling. Very little of it was new to me, but it helped me to organize a vast amount of information, like numerous types of bondage ties and a lot of different equipment that I couldn’t recall the names of. While I’d read literally all of this before (the Rousseau quote on the erotic spanking page was like an old friend that comes to my mind every time I think of the concept of erotic spanking, actually), it was immeasurably helpful to have such a vast array of information free and easily organized to help me make my own hand-written set of relevant notes.

And that is the most important thing to keep in mind with Wikipedia. It’s a great starting point, a quick reference, a guideline as a beginning of something. But it’s best not to use something on Wikipedia if you can’t find the information somewhere else. Any resources gathered from the source list should be doubled checked to ensure that they’re reputable sources, and if the page you’re reading on Wikipedia has a warning at the top, like one telling you that the article is a stub or the resources are suspected, or that things are improperly cited, pay attention to that and be extra careful.

Wikipedia, like anything else, is a resource. There are some great backdoors, as well, that can be especially interesting on controversial topics. If you can find the discussions on what should and shouldn’t be on the page by regular users, they can open your eyes to some pretty cool debates and how people approach them. On the page for Saladin, there’s a massive, multi-month debate about his nationality (Kurd, Turk, Arab?) that rehashes many of the same points over and over again, and people get very worked up about it. These can be as helpful or even more helpful than the articles themselves.

Remember to be responsible when you’re trying to be accurate, always double and triple check important things, and happy writing!