Monday, July 31, 2006

Bad Query. Bad, Bad Query.

Dear Editor,

I am so pleased to give you an opportunity to read my novel, A WOMAN AT THE BRINK OF INSANITY. I know you are going to love it. My mother, father, sister, brother, best friend, and six-year-old son all love this story. Since my mother is quite ill it would mean the world to my family if A WOMAN AT THE BRINK OF INSANITY were published. I've chosen your publishing house, because I think you need an author like me to spice up your line-up of authors. I can add a new perspective, as your publishing house mostly publishes non-fiction self-help books for men. If you take a chance on my fiction, I know you'll make lots of money off me. It's a no-lose situation.

My book is a great read. It's suspenseful, sometimes funny, and has a heart-grabbing ending that will leave a reader wanting to read more of my work. It's about a woman who thinks she's going crazy, but really she's not. She just thinks she is. But she's not really. Which is what makes the story really suspenseful and sometimes funny. And the heart-grabbing ending is something you will have to read to appreciate. It involves the woman finding a dog, but she thinks the dog is as crazy as she is. But the dog isn't. They live happily ever after together. That's kind of a play on the fairy tale theme. Only the woman doesn't end up with a man, she ends up with a dog! Readers are going to love it!

I know I've got your attention now and you're just dying to read what happens in this story. A WOMAN AT THE BRINK OF INSANITY is complete and ready for your request. I look forward to hearing from you, and to working with you on this and future publishing projects.

Of course, I'm contacting several other publishing houses. Even though yours is the one I want to write for, I'll have to take the best offer I get.


Shirlee McCoy

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Sabrina's right. I'm insanely, unbelievably crazed right now! :0)

I've got VALLEY OF SHADOWS to mail out and then copyedits on LITTLE GIRL LOST to finish by Monday. Fun, fun, fun! Actually, it is. However, since we've already established that I'm not supermom, superwoman, or any other variation of super, it's inevitable that staying up until three or four in the morning five or six nights in a row has caught up with me.

Which is fine, because after Monday of next week, I've got some breathing room.

Today, I'm posting an encouragement I wrote in the Steeple Hill encouragement thread. There are certain times in every writer's life when she needs to know that it isn't her. It's God. That it isn't what she can do. It's what He will do. Perhaps this is one of those times for you. It certainly is for me. So...for you and for me:

Do you ever feel that you just can't do it? Not one more load of laundry. Not one more meal. Not one more late night. Not one more day at work, moment of intervening, second of being whatever it is you are.

I do.

In the wee hours of the morning, I stared out the window into our dark front yard, and thought, "Nope. I can't do this. It's too hard. I'm too tired. Here it is, 2 a.m. The rest of the house is sound asleep and I'm working. I just don't have it in me."

It occurred to me later, as I was doing my morning devotional, that I don't have to have it in me. He's in me. And that's enough. Strangely (or not) enough, this was my Bible reading for the day -

You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop, with my God I can scale a wall. As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the Lord? And who is the rock except our God. It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. Pslam 18:30-32

That is the true beauty of life - we don't need to keep the lamplight of our energy burning, we don't have to scale the walls of frustration and trouble alone, and we don't have be the shields that protect the fortress of our weary souls. He is able and willing to do those things for us.

So, whatever it is you struggle with today and in the week to come, I pray His grace will light your way, His strength will give you courage, and His love will surround you. May you know the peace of His presence in you life.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Something to Think About

I'm dragging myself back from the edge of insanity to offer some advice about the publishing world.

Yesterday, I received my line edits for my February release. LITTLE GIRL LOST is the second book in the Secrets of Stoneley continuity, and I was very excited to have the opportunity to write it. Line edits mean my book is getting closer to production. Which means I'm getting closer to holding the finished product in my hand. Yay!

Anyway, I was reading through the comments scribbled in the margin and I started wondering just how many hours the editor and copy editor spent working on my manuscript. I'd say a lot. I know I've mentioned this before, but I feel the need to say it again - every published book is a group project. Sure, the author comes up with the idea (usually). Sure she slaves over the first, second, third, fifteenth draft. She's also the one that's going to get the reader mail, the recognition, and the pats on the back if the book gets good reviews or places in contests. But that doesn't mean the book is only hers.

To survive in the publishing world, authors must realize that they are part of a team. They also must realize that they work for the editor. The editor does not work for them. An author must be willing to release ownership of her manuscript. Rather than arguing and fighting for every word and scene, she must be open to changes and willing to do what it takes to make a manuscript meet the editor's vision of what it should be.

Painful to think about, isn't it? We work so hard to create what we think are stellar manuscripts. We polish, shine, and make them into exactly what we want them to be. Then we sell them and they are no longer ours. They are someone else's. And that someone else has the right (and I'd argue the responsibility) to ask for changes that create a book that more thoroughly meets reader expectations.

Personally, I don't have a problem with being asked to change things in my manuscript. I suppose because I view my books as a product rather than art. Sure, I believe that writing is an art, I love the flow and feel of words as they form sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, but in the end what matters is how well my book sells. In this regard, my editors know more then I do. Of course, if you ask Krista Stroever she'll probably bring up Showergate. It's the one and only time I've argued for a scene. I lost. She won. It was for the best.

If you all come up with really interesting comments, I might share the details of Showergate. Until then, I'd like to suggest that understanding the editorial aspects of creating a book now, rather than after you're published, will help when faced with unfavorable critiques (and no, I am not referring to any manuscripts that I've critiqued or any responses I've gotten from the authors of those manuscripts :0)). As hard as it may be, we must step back from negative feedback and view it for what it is - a chance to improve our writing.

My thought on this is not popular, but I'm sticking to it - there is always a grain of truth in the negative. For the most part, people aren't setting out to destroy our egos, ruin our manuscripts, or change our work into theirs. For the most part they are doing their best to offer advice they think might benefit us. The key is in reading between the lines. I often find that negative comments are misdirected. One of my manuscript readers might feel the ending doesn't fit the book, but not be able to figure out why. I can choose to ignore the comment, or to study the section that doesn't fit and try to pinpoint exactly why it bothered my reader. I've had my freelance editor tell me she didn't like my heroine. Trust me when I say I wanted to ignore her 'opinion'. Fortunately, I didn't.

Don't be afraid of negative comments. Use them as tools to help you become an even better writer than you already are!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Engaging readers

I've had a sore throat and fever since Friday. I only bring this up because it seems to have impacted my ability to type. Now, I understand that I don't want to talk because my throat is raw, but not wanting to type seems a strange byproduct. Maybe it's just fatigue rearing it's ugly head and demanding to be noticed. I try my best to ignore it most of the time, but lately the two of us are having a knock down drag out war (and fatigue is winning).

So, I'll be brief. Or at least more brief than usual. First of all, congratulations to Lynette who has finished her manuscript! You go, girl! Now, of course, I have to put in my little 'I told you so'. Because I did tell her that if she stuck to a word count goal she'd finish in no time. The advice was mine. The effort and determination hers. Good job, Lynette.

Second, Harlequin VP Isabel Swift is blogging. I'm finding her posts interesting and informative. My favorite so far : "Are You Engaged." In it, she talks specifically about series romance, but I think the comments are applicable to all writing. You can check it out at

So, as you're writing today, think about how well you're engaging your readers with your words, your story, your unique voice. How are you taking the predictable and skewing it to reflect your vision?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Stiff writing

I know a lot of us are getting ready for conferences or submissions or both. In light of that, I'd like to discuss a few things I often do wrong. If, at some point, I happen to mention something that you struggle with, we can have a good discussion about ways to fix the problem.

Here's something I spotted in the manuscript I'm preparing for submission - stiff writing. This is one of those things that does not necessarily equate to poor writing. Stiff doesn't mean poor grammar, poorly constructed sentences, or even lazy word choices (which I am also guilty of). However, it is just as detrimental to our bid for publication. Stiff writing results when our sentences are too similar, when we don't vary the length and structure of the sentences, and when we tell the story from our heads rather than from the character's perspective.

Here's an example (not from my manuscript, just from my head)of stiff writing -
Jane pushed the door open and stepped into the living room of her house. She had left the lights off, so she crossed the room and turned on the lamp that sat on the table. The house felt empty and she almost wished she hadn't sent her renter packing the week before. She went into the kitchen and got a soda from the fridge. As she sipped from the can, a sound drifted in from somewhere down the hall. It sounded like a quiet sigh, or maybe the brush of a foot against carpet. She froze and strained to hear more. She didn't hear anything, but the hair on the back of her neck stood on end and she was sure she wasn't alone. She needed to get out of the house and call the police. She stepped out of the kitchen and hurried across the living room. Something slammed into her back and she fell.

This is not stiff -
Jane shoved the door open and stepped into the living room of her house. Darkness and silence greeted her, a stark contrast to the noise and chaos of the emergency room where she worked. She'd thought that was what she wanted when she'd refused to renew her renter's lease. Now, she wondered what she'd been thinking. As much as Kelly's constant chatter and late night visitors had annoyed, having her renting the basement apartment had made the house seem less lonely. In the wake of Matt's death a year ago, less lonely was something Jane needed to feel. She sighed, pushing away the thought and the sadness that accompanied it. She'd grab a soda, turn on the television, create her own noise to fill the silence.

She had the soda in hand, was taking the first cold sip when she heard it - a whisper of sound that clawed its way up her spine and lodged in the base of her neck. Was someone in the house with her? She didn't wait to find out, just set the can down on the counter, and hurried back toward the front door. The police would think her paranoid, but Jane didn't care. She was getting out and she was calling for help. Let the experts deal with whatever lurked, or didn't, in the dark bowels of her house. She reached for the doorknob, her hand brushing against cool metal, and felt a subtle shift in the air behind her. Before she could turn, something slammed into her back, knocking her forward with enough force to steal her breath. Her head cracked against wood in an explosion of stars and pain. And then she was falling, sliding toward the floor and darkness.

So, it's the same scene. However, while the first example is technically correct (minus any grammatical and spelling errors) it isn't compelling. The style is stiff. Each sentence seems to mimic the one before in tone and structure. We've got no insight into our heroine, no true idea of what is going on in her head. Sure, we've got surface stuff, but the paragraph lacks deep point of view. We sit at the surface of the character's thoughts. It's like meeting someone and saying, "How are you?" and getting the response, "I'm fine." Fine is generic. So is the first paragraph.

Oops, it's late. I've got to start on summer school stuff.

Any comments or questions on stiff writing?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Things I Don't Want to Do Today

avoidance: deliberately avoiding; keeping away from or preventing from happening

In case you're reading and wondering, this is a post about writing.

I had originally intended to write about querying, and even have examples of good and bad query letters. That will have to wait for another day.

Today, I am thinking about avoidance. Namely, avoidance of things that really, really must be done, but that I have absolutely no desire to do. For example, I don't want to scrub the downstairs bathroom. I have three sons. I don't think I need to offer any further explanation for my avoidance of this task. I also don't want to call my sons' piano teacher to confirm their lessons for tomorrow. I have several reasons for this, the most pressing is that I simply don't feel like bringing my kids to piano tomorrow. Two of my boys participate in piano competition. Now, that my third son is beginning with the same teacher, we're in for a long year. Why start it now? The other thing I really don't want to do is take my kids to the park. I've been pulling too many late nights finishing VALLEY OF SHADOWS. I'm tired. I deserve a break. Don't I? While I'm listing things I'd rather avoid, I don't want to put away the clean dishes, fold the clean clothes, start another load of laundry, or sweep my floor (for the millionth time). I don't want to make my kids do their summer school, clean their rooms, or do their piano practice. I don't want to move, let alone exercise.

But most of all, I don't want to write. Not one word, not one sentence, not one tiny little punctuation mark. I want to leave my laptop where it is, silent and stagnate on my writing desk. I want to forget, for just today, that I have a manuscript due in two and a half weeks, that I need to print out and polish the story my editors are waiting for, that I have to begin the proposal for the third and final book in my contract.

Just for today, I want to avoid it all.

But I won't, because I've learned that when I avoid things they don't get done (gee, what a surprise) and I just end up with more to do the next day, or the next. I've also learned that avoiding something for one day makes me more likely to avoid it the next. And that is a really good way to form bad habits.

So, I'll do all the things listed above, and probably be happy I did. And when vacation time comes (in August), I'll still be on track with my writing, my homeschooling, my kids' lessons, and I'll be able to relax and enjoy.

Which leads to a question you knew was coming - What are you avoiding today?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Rules, Rules, Rules

The American Christian Fiction Writer's loop had a discussion about rules yesterday. I skimmed most of the posts, afraid if I read too carefully I might learn the rules and ruin my writing.

I'm only half joking about that. Rules are great, but I didn't know any when I got published and I think that's why it happened so quickly for me. Granted, I didn't sell my first or second manuscript, but that's because they stunk. My third attempt created a great story and good writing. A winning combination.

For me, the problem with rules is that I always strive to follow them. If I learned all the so-called writing rules, I'd be so obsessed about not breaking them, my writing would become stiff. Stiff writing does not make for good stories. My personal philosophy tends toward ignorance (in writing) is bliss. What I don't know, I don't have to worry about. And when I don't worry, my writing flows from the depth of my heart rather than from the depth of my rule-obsessed mind. Of course, over time, having joined writing organizations, gone to conferences, and spent countless hours discussing my craft, I've heard the rules. What I've found is that those rules are really just common sense ideas based one what works most of the time in writing. Most of the time. Not all of the time. Done well, lots of things can work.

The way I see it, our society fosters the idea that we can all be successful if we work hard. It's the whole Horatio Alger Rags to Riches thing. Be nice, play by the rules, work hard, and you'll get what you deserve. Unfortunately, things aren't always that way. Hard work? Yes. Be nice? Of course. Play by the rules? In writing, maybe not. Writing rules are arbitrary, based on ideals set forth by editors and authors who are trying hard to help writers achieve their dreams. To do this, they've come up with a set of rules based on mistakes that many, many writers make. Head-hopping, starting the manuscript too slowly, using too much dialogue, not enough dialogue, too much backstory, not enough backstory. I'm sure there is a rule for every conceivable aspect of writing. Each one is meant to be a helpful tool used for building wonderful manuscripts.

While I'd agree there's something to be said for useful tools, I'd argue that the most important tool a writer can have is the ability to tell a good story. Without it, following every rule written about writing is going to do absolutely nothing toward producing a manuscript that sells.

Learning to tell great stories is vital in the quest to write an outstanding book. I could list a number of ways to enhance story telling abilities, but I've got four kids who need my attention. Feel free to post your own ways of honing story telling skills!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Why We Write What We Write

I taught a workshop a few weeks back, and one of the ladies asked me why I write inspirational. I told her that my fiction reflects my world view and is an extension of who I am as a person.

Later, I thought a lot about that question. Why do I write what I write? The fact is, I've never considered writing my calling and I didn't set out to write Christian fiction. It just kind of happened while I was working on my first book. As I've mentioned before, I never set out to be a romantic suspense author, either. That just kind of happened to me, too.

But in life, things don't ever just happen, do they? They happen for a reason and are shaped by divine plan. If you're not a Christian and reading this, you may think I'm bonkers. However, my philosophy of life isn't just a Christian based idea. It stems from the soul of every human being. Even atheist want purpose in their lives. Without purpose, life has no meaning.

Which brings me back to the question of why I write Christian romantic suspense. I think the best answer I can give to that is - because it is what I'm good at, it is what I love, it is part of who I am. I write it because it allows me to create entertaining stories that offer a 'clean' alternative to mainstream romantic suspense. I write it because I will never have to feel embarrassed when my children read it. I write it because I could read a chapter of it in front of my church without embarrassment. I write it because the longer I've been writing, the more I've come to realize that what I do is being used as ministry in God's way and His time. I may not set out to touch hearts and minds, but somehow it has happened. I can not turn my back on that.

Purpose? Plan? Passion? What do you write and why?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Getting to That Ninety-Five Percent

In my last post, I offered advice given by Steve Laube. He said, "When approaching an agent make sure you put your best possible manuscript in front of them. We often see proposals and sample chapters that are 85% ready...But that isn't enough. We need to see material and ideas that are closer to 95% ready for the market."

Of course, the same advice holds true when approaching a publishing house. To make our work shine, we've got to be sure it's a step above most of what is being submitted. That means submitting compelling stories and well-written manuscripts. It means pushing ourselves to create something that stands out as being just a little better, just a little more polished, just a little more publishable than the rest of what's sitting in the slush pile.

Most of us understand this and are trying hard to do it. The problem isn't in wanting to achieve that 95%, but in being able to know when we have. Some writers believe every page they write is on par with GONE WITH THE WIND, or TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD. Others, like me, would never submit anything if they based submitting on their own assessment of the work they do. To find a happy medium, I go through a three step process.

1. Absence makes the heart....more realistic.
I always build in extra time when I plan how long a manuscript is going to take. I don't do it so that I can have my contracted manuscripts in early, but so that I can have anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks to set my book aside. During this time, I work on new ideas, write reader letters, or prepare a synopsis for another project. What I don't do is give in to temptation and read over the work I just finished. When I do come back to my work, it's with fresh eyes. I print the manuscript out and read it as if it were a book, using red slash marks in the margins to indict places where the story doesn't flow. If sentences need to be chopped, I do it on hardcopy. While I'm doing this I take notes regarding the plot and any potential problems with it. Only when I'm finished do I turn on my computer and begin revising.

2. Sometimes it Pays to Pay

This is something I feel strongly about, but is not in any way required. When I finish imputing the changes that were indicated through step one, I hand my manuscript off to my freelance editor. I've mentioned Sara before. She's been editing for me since before I was published. We've built a rapport and a no-nonsense approach to the process that can be humiliating, but is always effective. Basically, she does her best to tear my manuscript apart, and I do my best to put it back together correctly. If you've been writing for a while with little success, paying an editor to look at your work may be the way to go. Before you do this, I'd suggest checking out a variety of services, asking their prices, their client list, and exactly what it is their service offers. Finding a good one is like finding a good agent - it can only enhance your writing and help you in your quest toward publication. Having a bad one is useless. If any of you are interested in hearing more about this, please let me know. I've got a lot more to say on how to find a good fit, but don't want to waste time if the subject isn't of interest.

3. The Family Challenge

I don't have a critique group. If I did, I'd have a critique challenge instead. Once I've finished implementing the changes recommended by my freelance editor, I print off four copies of the manuscript and hand them out to willing victi...readers. This is my final step before submitting. My readers aren't editors, they're not experts, they are just what I've called them - readers. They know good books because they love to read. Just as with my freelance editor, I've built a solid relationship with my readers that has nothing to do with the fact that they're family. My readers know I'm counting on them to spot problems. They don't want to let me down. That means they give me honest critiques that go beyond 'it was good'. Helpful critiques go something like this - I really liked the story, but the ending didn't seem to fit. The mystery was good, but there wasn't enough romance. It was too preachy. It didn't have enough scripture. My rule of thumb for this - if more than one person comments on a particular thing, I change it. If only one person comments, I consider changing it.

When I finally turn in my manuscripts, I know they're as close as I can get to that 95%. Sure, the process takes time, paper, and sometimes money, but if it means creating a great book, it's worth it.

If you're in the market for a freelance editor, I know of a few that might be helpful:

- (put freelance editor in the subject line and mention my name if you do decide to contact her)

- The Story Sensei

From now until July 15th, I will be holding a fabulous contest for my Story Sensei critique service. I will draw the names of TWO lucky winners! They will each receive: A free synopsis critique – up to 10 pages single-spaced, a $40 value!AND
A coupon for 25% OFF any manuscript critique – whether full or partial manuscript, any number of words. For a 100,000 word manuscript, that's a savings of $250!
In addition, EVERYONE WHO ENTERS will receive a 10% OFF coupon for any service, whether synopsis, query letter, or manuscript critique (full or partial). For a 100,000 word manuscript, that's a savings of $100, just for entering. Go to my Story Sensei blog and post a comment to enter the contest.
- eharlquin critique service

I know these links are next to useless. I just can't seem to figure the link thing out. Sigh.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Secret to Writing Success #4

Successful writers write consistently. They also know where to submit their finished product. Whether you're searching for a publishing house, or hunting for an agent, knowing who to submit to is key to garnering interest in your work. Interest opens doors, offering you opportunities to submit something else to someone who recognizes your name (if you're rejected), revise, or sign that coveted contract. While it's true that an editor can decide to pass your unsuitable-for-their-line manuscript on to someone else, there is just as much likelihood that they'll simply pass it back to you.

To find a good fit, a writer has to be willing to do her homework. The Writer's Market Guide is a perfect place to start. Start not finish. After you've searched the Writer's Market Guide and made a list of publishing houses and agents who might be interested in your manuscript, make another list. This one should include titles and authors who are represented by the publishers and agents you've listed. Now, the fun part. Go to the library or bookstore, borrow or buy some of the titles you've listed, and read. Are the books similar in feel to what you've written? If you're doing mystery, are the books from publisher X cozy mysteries, and yours more hardboiled detective? If you're writing romance, have you written down a publisher who does romantic comedy when you write heartrending family drama? While there will always be a range in the tone and feel of books in any particular line, publishers are in the business of producing a product that meets specific reader needs. An author who wants to be successful strives to find a publisher whose readers will enjoy the type of story she writes.

The last and most important part of knowing the market, is staying true to oneself as a writer. Finding the best fit does not mean creating a carbon copy of what is already on the shelves. It means offering a unique spin, a new voice, something that will resound with readers and editors without veering too sharply from the pattern they've set. A successful author strives to find a good fit for her manuscript without compromising her vision and voice. Whitewashing a story to 'fit' a publishing house only leaches it of life and color, creating a bland book that resounds with no one and fits nowhere.

I'll leave you with some advice from my agent: When approaching an agent make sure you put your best possible manuscript in front of them. We often see proposals and sample chapters that are 85% ready...But that isn't enough. We need to see material and ideas that are closer to 95% ready for the market. It is VERY hard to break into the industry as a first time writer. The threshold is very high. But it does happen. Our agency placed eight first time novelists last year and one already this year. But to find those nine writers we had to cull through a couple thousand proposals.

Have the whole manuscript ready if requested. We must be able to read the whole book to determine if the writer can sustain the story to the end.

What makes it 95% ready? Crisp dialogue is critical. Dialogue develops characters and dictates pace. Too many stories bog down with "explanation" from the author. Also make sure each character has their own distinct voice. Often we see manuscripts where everyone literally "sounds" the same.

You can get more great info at his website:

Also, if you're a homeschool mom, or a writer who's struggling with balancing life, I did an interview at

You might want to check it out!