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Friday, January 29, 2016

Winning Query Letter / 52 Likes by Medeia Sharif

The Winning Query Letters feature showcases queries from published authors. My hope is that sharing these great queries will help and inspire writers out there who are struggling with query writing.

Today’s winning query letter is from Medeia Sharif!

Medeia Sharif had already published a few books when she shopped around for her YA novel, 52 Likes, but being published doesn’t always mean you’ll land the first agent you query. 52 Likes has scenes and a subject matter that not many agents feel comfortable with, so she had to write a perfect query letter to interest an agent. And she did!

Query Letter:

To whom it may concern:

In my paranormal YA novel, 52 LIKES, Valerie is a young lady with a past and a bad reputation, none of which she deserves. During a night when she's supposed to go to a party at an abandoned house, she goes to the wrong address. A man follows her inside and rapes her. He tries to kill her afterwards, but a bystander steps in and scares him away.

Wanting closure and healing, she has no idea how to go about achieving those things, especially when she’s bullied about a stupid thing she did a year ago and harassed about a new rumor—classmates are saying that during the night of her rape, she had willing sex. A rape counselor, her best friend, and her loving mom all try to help the best they can but then someone, or something, reaches out to her.

She receives assistance from the ghostly realm, and these entities of past victims hover around her and haunt her through her phone and social media accounts. They have a message about her rapist, their rapist and murderer, that she must find out who he is. The closer Valerie gets to discovering his identity, the more likely he’ll come after her to finish the job.

By day I’m an English teacher, and by night I’m a YA and MG writer. [brief list of publications] I hope to interest you in my latest edgy novel complete at 47,000 words.


Medeia Sharif 

Thank you for sharing your query letter with us, Medeia!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Winning Query Letter / White Light by Anna Simpson

The Winning Query Letter feature showcases queries from published authors. My hope is that sharing these great queries will help and inspire writers out there who are struggling with query writing.

Today’s winning query letter is from Anna Simpson!

Anna Simpson participated in #WritePit on Twitter and gained the interest of an editor at a small press who requested the complete manuscript from Anna. Below is her winning tweet and query letter that helped her to land a contract for her book, WHITE LIGHT.

Tweet: Anna Simpson @emaginette When a psychic warns two busybodies where danger lies, she doesn't let her death stop her from joining the fun #WritePit #A Myst

Query Letter:

Dear [editor],

I’d like to thank you for asking me to submit. It made an exciting day perfect.

Emma learns that keeping a secret in a small town is near impossible. As the town folk beg for psychic readings from Alice, Emma's alter personality, Mrs. Perkins, a nosy neighbour and super sleuth wannabe, drags the young woman to an anniversary party.

Their presence triggers an attack and the further random accidents threaten their benevolent host's safety. All Emma and Mrs. Perkins have to do is convince their bull-headed host that his life is in danger before he pays the ultimate price and a killer gets away with murder.

Even if it means going back to the psyche ward, Emma will protect her friend and this innocent man. What good is freedom if it's haunted with guilt?

White Light is a quirky mystery that is finished at 65k. Although I followed most of the cozy mystery guidelines, I did stray, adding some humour, paranormal and psychological elements.

My online persona is emaginette. I have three short fictions and one non-fiction published. My latest fiction is Mexmur, The Huntress published in Portals: A Fantasy Anthology (June 2014) with Roane Publishing. The non-fiction piece, A Complete Thought, was published in the Insecure Writer's Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond (Dec 2014). I have also earned an honourable mention from the Writer's of the Future contest in 2014 for a science fiction submission


Anna Simpson 

Thank you for sharing your query letter with us, Anna!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Winning Query Letter / Our Little Secret by Ashelyn Drake

For the time being I am postponing my Dear Writer posts to do a new feature. I noticed that there are many query critiques here on Unicorn Bell and thought a great addition would be to share winning query letters from published authors. My hope is that sharing these great queries will help and inspire writers out there who are struggling with query writing.

Today’s winning query letter is from Kelly Hashway under her pen name Ashelyn Drake.

Kelly had been previously agented but found herself needing new representation, a task as daunting as having to find your first agent. I love that her query letter is the first for this feature as it gives us more examples for writers in every stage and situation. 

Query Letter:

Dear [agent]:

When my agent left the business, leaving me in need of representation once again, the first name that popped into my head was yours. I've followed your blog for years and commented numerous times about how your wealth of knowledge astounds me. I can't think of another agent I'd want to represent me more. While I know contemporary isn't your favorite genre, it is what I'm querying with now. I do, however, have a young adult fantasy and a young adult paranormal, each in different stages of revision. So as you can see, I plan to keep writing all three genres in the future. 

My young adult contemporary romance, Our Little Secret, is complete at 63,000 words and is written under my pen name, Ashelyn Drake. The manuscript is currently being considered by an agent who requested the full, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to query you.

Toby Michaels is the guy every girl at Lansfield High wants, including seventeen-year-old Becca Daniels. There’s just one problem: Toby is Tori’s twin brother. Tori, as in Becca’s best friend. And Tori is sick of girls falling all over her brother. So how does Becca tell Tori that she has feelings for Toby?

When Becca catches Toby sneaking glances at her and sending her late night texts, Becca can’t ignore her feelings any longer. Life becomes one big complication having to sneak around behind Tori’s back. And when her relationship with Toby threatens to destroy more than just her friendship with Tori, Becca will have to figure out what she’s willing to risk to keep the guy of her dreams.

I am the author of the Touch of Death series through Spencer Hill Press. My upcoming titles include The Monster Within, which is releasing in 2014 through Spencer Hill Press, and Into the Fire, which publishes in 2014 through Month9Books. I have also released one novella series, Campus Crush, under my pen name.

As per your submission guidelines, I've pasted my synopsis and first five pages below. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Kelly Hashway/Ashelyn Drake

Thank you for sharing your query letter with us, Kelly!

Friday, January 22, 2016

How I Got My Agent: J.A. Bellinger

If you ever wonder if online contests really work for writers, this next author is proof that indeed they do! Today we have the world-traveling J.A. Bellinger here to share her agent story. I met J.A. through Query Kombat, and I was so excited when she made the announcement that she is now agented. Let's hear her story...


How I Got My Agent

Typing the title for this submission was surreal. I’ve spent hours studying stories of how other writers got their agents, trying to piece together the formula to make that magic happen for myself.

Turns out that while there was a little magic to it, mostly it was hard work.

I’m going to back my story up a bit for those of you who are as green as I was at the beginning of this process—oh, those innocent days before I could distinguish between a query letter and a synopsis or decipher acronyms like TBR and WIP and CP (that’s To Be Read, Work in Progress, and Critique Partner for you newbies!). Because frankly, I never would have gotten an agent if I hadn’t gotten an editor first.

I started writing my first novel, The Art of Almost, over four years ago. I didn’t set out to be a writer, though I’ve written on and off for my whole life. But on the flight home from my brother’s wedding in Arizona, I had an idea that I loved so much, I knew I had to try. As I drove home from the airport in the middle of the night, I left a voicemail for my office that I couldn’t make it in the next morning. I woke up feeling like an idiot, my belief in my writing ability vanished as quickly as it had appeared. But I’d already called in—I think a part of me knew I’d never write that story if I didn’t start immediately—so I made myself sit down and try. And from that moment on, I’ve never stopped.

Early on, I hoped to avoid the daunting process of getting an agent all together. I had a few friends with some vague connections to the industry; surely someone would hear about my brilliant concept and be so dazzled by my writing that I’d never have to write the dreaded query letter.

That’s not quite how it went.

What I got instead turned out to be excellent advice: get an editor. I agreed, and within the week I’d submitted sample pages to several editors. Secretly I thought they’d read my work and tell me there was nothing they could possibly help me improve upon, then hook me up with their publisher friends and my book would become a bestseller . . . and then a movie . . .

Again, that’s not quite how it went.

Turns out I didn’t need just one editor. I needed three.

I also needed Twitter, another recommendation I initially ignored and hoped I was the exception to. Social media? Not for me. I wanted to spend my time writing. But now I know that Twitter is the water cooler for writers, and there’s no more supportive, generous, gracious group of people than writers. Through Twitter I found out about the Query Kombat contest. At one point the name would have intimidated me—damn the query letter! —but by then I’d gotten tons of feedback on my query letter (and I’d queried before, in a wildly unsuccessful fashion). I was ready for Kombat.

Through the contest, I got in touch with the agents who had requested more pages after reading my query letter and first 250 words (250 words?! How much can someone possibly judge your brilliant story in 250 words?!). One of the agents, the wonderful Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency, wrote back within a week asking for a full. My hopes were sky high. A few months went by, and then Whitley’s email popped up in my inbox (not that I was checking obsessively or anything)—the absolute best way to wake up on a Saturday! We talked the next day, and it was the most validating conversation of my life. She understood what I was trying to say and got my characters in a way no one else had. I knew immediately from Whitley’s enthusiasm that she’d be an amazing agent. We’re wrapping up editing now and will hopefully be submitting soon!

Hang in there, my fellow writers. It takes time to get there, but keep at it and one day the lovely Kristin Smith will be asking you how you got your agent!

J. A. Bellinger lives in her hometown of Indianapolis, a sweet city whose appeal only occurred to her after she had lived in six other places. Brisbane, Australia, where she spent a semester during college, provides the setting for her first novel, The Art of Almost. Bellinger still loves to travel, despite having once awoken to a cockroach scuttling across her cheek and having lived for months in a thinly walled mountain cabin, where a wood-burning stove provided both heat and a lovely substitute for TV. It was huddled by that stove that she met her husband, whom she wooed with the dozens of CDs crammed into her backpack. Bellinger is fascinated by why people make the choices they do and by what happens when regret creeps in, when the what ifs take over. In The Art of Almost, she gives readers the chance to live out those possibilities through the protagonist, Anna Marin.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How I Got My Agent: Gina Denny

The very sweet Gina Denny was kind enough to share her "How I Got My Agent" story. This story was originally posted on her own blog back in February 2015 right after she signed with her agent. You can read her original post HERE. Thank you, Gina!


Not to give away the ending or anything, but the post sort of sums it all up. If you want the quick and dirty details:

I've officially signed with Kirsten Carleton of Waxman Leavell Literary. 

Pitchwars was involved and she originally contacted me via a PitMad event this past summer. 

That's the short version. 

Here's the long version: 

I started querying my first novel, SNOW FALLING, in the summer of 2013. As I was putting the finishing touches on that novel, I had the idea for what would eventually become SANDS OF IMMORTALITY. When I talked to other people, everyone said, "Write that book instead. That's way better than the Snow White one." 

I queried the Snow story anyway and racked up a whole lot of rejections, as would be expected. I wrote the next book - which is loosely based on Sleeping Beauty - and kept moving forward. I started writing in November of 2013, and in fact this novel was the only time I ever finished NaNoWriMo. 

In the late summer of 2014, I started querying SANDS OF IMMORTALITY. I entered it into some twitter pitch contests, one of which was the #PitMad contest. Kristen requested my work based on this pitch: 

Her mother's cryptic journal. An ancient spell. A prince on the run. Waking Sleeping Beauty was simpler when it was just a dragon

At the time, however, Kirsten worked for an agency that required exclusives. My query was with five other agents, and one already had a full manuscript, so I had to hold off on querying Kirsten.

Then came PitchWars. I entered. I was chosen by Mina Vaughn and we worked on my manuscript. When it was all done, I started querying. I got requests back immediately, so I felt really confident in my work. By this time, Kirsten was working for Waxman Leavell. They didn't require exclusive submissions, so I queried her with the new manuscript. She responded pretty quickly (next day, actually) asking for a partial, and then the next week asking for a full.

Then the holidays started.

And publishing slows to a crawl during the holidays and I sat, staring at an empty inbox for about four weeks.

Let me tell you, THAT was the agonizing part. Having fulls and partials out, knowing that everyone was enjoying time with their families and I wouldn't hear anything for weeks and weeks.


Kirsten emailed me last week, offering representation. We spoke on the phone and it was just easy. I'm not big on phone calls in general, but she had an excellent idea for tweaking my ending a bit. I was exceptionally nervous about this because my ending is definitely not a Happily Ever After, and it's not for everybody. But she doesn't want it to be a Happily Ever After, she just saw a way for it to be bittersweet in a more realistic and powerful way.

That sold me.

She got my book and my reasons for doing it the way I did. She liked the ideas for the whole series and wanted to work with me all the way. I was sold already, but I wanted to do the right thing and make sure I had all the information before I made a permanent decision, so I contacted everyone else who had my work. Two more agents requested fulls (one had a partial already, one only had the query), and I sat and I waited, refreshing my inbox like a crazy person for ten days.

But here we are. Today, I signed the contract and I am officially represented by Kirsten Carleton. I'm so excited to make some changes and to make this book the best book I can produce and eventually work towards putting it on some shelves!

For those who like the stats:

First manuscript:
Queries sent: 70
Requests: 10 (including partials, fulls, and 2 R&Rs that asked for wildly different things)
Months on the query circuit: 15

Second manuscript:
Queries sent: 27
Requests: 10 (including partials and fulls)
Months on the query circuit: two, then a break for PitchWars, and then three more, for a total of five. 

Gina Denny is a homeschooling mom to four very noisy boys and part-time band and orchestra director. In both settings, she talks a little too much about Harry Potter. She has a bachelor's degree in business, a master's degree in education, and once stood in line for NSYNC tickets for just over fourteen hours. She loves live music, hiking, overly silly sitcoms, and burritos. She writes fantasy for grown-ups and lives and works in the Phoenix area. Visit Gina's website at ginadenny.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter at @ginad129.

Monday, January 18, 2016

How I Got My Agent: Tiana Smith

Today we are super lucky to have the lovely Tiana Smith here to share her "How I Got My Agent Story." This series has been pretty popular in the past, so I'm excited to have another weeks worth of awesome author/agent stories.

Take it away, Tiana!
While I've been writing for years, I didn't query my first couple of books because they were just that bad. Take my word for it. But my third book felt different. It had more life to it and I was completely invested in it, heart and soul. I sent it into the world and was pleasantly surprised when positive feedback started pouring in. Queries turned into partial requests, then full requests, some R&Rs and even talking with a few agents on the phone. But still, no offers.

I can't describe how incredibly disheartening it is to speak with agents (plural) on the phone and get SO FREAKING CLOSE, only to walk away to the same place you started. It was like competing in the Olympics and leaving without a medal. So super close, but still .003 seconds away. This went on for months and months. And months. I put the book away and waited until I felt ready to try again.

When I finished my next book, I slowly dipped my toes into the query trenches again. I started with the agents who had expressed interest, and as before, the requests came pouring in. This time, it wasn't exciting. It was dreadful. Each request was like a punch to the stomach, because I knew from experience it would end in rejection. I widened my umbrella and queried more agents. After a few months, I decided to send it to a mid-sized publisher who accepted non-agented proposals.

I was incredibly surprised when they made me an offer, and I wasn't sure how to react. I contacted the agents to let them know about the offer. Suddenly it was a flurry of activity as agents rushed to read my book. I got more requests in those two weeks than I'd had in months of querying, and that's saying something. There's no surer way to get an agent's attention than by telling them of someone else's interest. It was crazy. Surreal that querying could take so long, only to have everyone want it at once.

Rachel Marks called me the very next morning after I let her know about the offer of publication. At first, I wasn't even sure if she was offering representation. I'd talked with agents on the phone before, only to have them request revisions. I was a mess of nerves on the phone call with her, but she actually got my book. The changes she put forward meshed with my vision for it. Her personality and mine matched well. Anyone who likes Disney is a friend of mine ;) She recommended I turn down the offer of publication so we could pursue other options, which was what I really wanted.

As other agents came forward, I kept comparing them to Rachel. I knew she wanted what was best for me, my book and my career. I signed with her not long after that and now I'm working on revisions. So, it's been a long process. Longer than I would have liked, but honestly, I am incredibly happy with how things have worked out so far. Full speed ahead!

*     *     *

Tiana Smith is a young adult author represented by Rachel Marks of Rebecca Friedman Literary. She makes a mean box of Mac & Cheese and likes to play around with graphic and web design. She firmly believes in happily ever afters and is married to her own Prince Charming. She doesn't blog a whole lot, but when she does, it's at tianasmith.com. She loves to connect online:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Your turn

Today I hope you'll share what you're working on - even if it's the same thing you were working on last time we spoke:

  1. Working Title if it has one
  2. Genre
  3. Intended Age group
  4. Word count
  5. One of the main characters; tell us something about him/her in one short paragraph.
  6. Were are you in the story? What are the characters doing?
  7. What scene in the future are you looking forward to writing (or have you already written it?)
  8. What about this particular story are you finding difficult to write?
  9. What do you love about this story?

Here are my answers:

1. Bell, Black, & Briar
2. Fantasy
3. Adult
4.  35,824 (I was at 10k last time we spoke - I might be close finishing next time...)
5.  Inspector Ian Beck of the Arcane Crime Unit (ACU for short, you know, kind of like the BAU).  Although considered a loner by his superiors, Beck has good reason to keep to himself, possessing the ability to know a lie when he hears one. This makes relationships difficult at best.
6.  My characters have just found another clue to the killer's identity at Gravesend Cemetery: a Tarot card that may have the killer's prints on it.
7. I'm looking forward to the scene where the killer and one of my characters interact. Needless to say I can't say more (spoiler!)
8.  I've never written a murder mystery before, and keeping track of all the clues I've laid down and what still needs to be investigated has been difficult. 
9. I really love my characters, and the setting, which is a city not unlike Boston, or London, or perhaps Ankh-Morpork, in which the supernatural/paranormal exists, is normal and sometimes messy.  

Now go forth and write good stuff :) 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Path Not Taken

Monday I mentioned the site Writer Unboxed, which I find extremely helpful, funny, inspiring, and probably one of my most favorite sites about the craft and business of fiction. I found this recent post exceptionally helpful: The Storyteller and the Roads Not Traveled. In it the author talks about the paths our characters can take and the questions we can ask to help determine which path is the best. Hint: It's never the easy one.

  • Which path actually raises the stakes? Go with that one.
  • Which path is going to take pressure off the main character? Avoid it.
  • Which path is going to pull the narrative action away from the main characters that the reader is invested in? If possible, redirect so that the action belongs, more closely, to a main character.
  • Which path is more visually compelling?
  • Is your character pulling you hard down a certain path? This is important. Sometimes characters know why they need to do what they need to do long before you do.  A character telling you her story – voice – can carry a novel and truly make your decisions incredibly clear. Someone else is making them for you.
  • Which path scares you? Fear is a positive indicator.
  • Is there a path you’re dying to write? Prize that one. 


 Friday, I'll be back with more questions for you and your characters.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Building Better Characters - and Stories

 Last time I was here we talked about the questions we can ask our characters in order to make them better, something I'm a big fan of.  Since then I found an interesting post onThird Level Emotions written by Donald Maass for Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite sites about the craft and business of fiction. I wrote this post for my other blog mainewords but I thought it was worth sharing here again.

"Start by picking any moment in your story when your protagonist (or any other character) feels something strongly. What is that feeling. Write it down, Now, pause at that moment. As what else does this character feel simultaneously? Write that down. Next ask, what else does my character feel at this moment. This third level emotion is our focus." 

In my current tale there are three estranged sisters who have brought together by their mother's murder. One of the sisters, the oldest, is Alice so I did the exercise for her first. At the beginning of the story Alice is devastated (first level emotion) by the news of her mother’s murder. Not only does she love her mother as her mother but also as a friend. But what else does Alice feel simultaneously? Anger (second level emotion) at whoever did it. How could they? Why? What’s wrong with people? She hopes they rot in hell forever.  Next ask, what else does Alice feel at this moment? Afraid. (third level emotion) Her mother has been the one who has led her through society, provided her with a home and a lifestyle she not only wouldn’t be able to keep up on her salary, but would be afraid to even try to keep up on her own. Without her mother, she feels lost and afraid and alone again, like the kid she used to be and couldn’t wait not to be so she wouldn’t feel like this.
Examine this third level emotion: What is it like to feel this feeling?  Alice hoped never to feel like this again; she thought growing up would mean she wouldn’t. It’s even worse now because there isn’t even an adult to rely on. What might (or should) this character be feeling instead?  What would a finer human being feel? She would feel and exhibit the proper amount of grief for the proper amount of time and then get on with her life and everything would go back to being fine and dammit, what was wrong with her? Why did she always feel like she was faking being grown up? Regardless, why is this feeling the right and only one for this character right now? Because she needs to be down so she can learn to rely on her sisters who will help her be strong, for herself and others. Finally, what does having this third level-feeling tell this character about herself? What does it say about her condition? That she has some shite to deal with and get through. Has this character sunk or risen?  Sunk. Has this character grown or regressed?  Let’s call it a set back. What’s the truth in it?  She’s probably not the only person to feel this way when one of their parents dies. How is this feeling beautifully universal or painfully unique?  Is feeling this feeling to dwell in heaven or burn in hell? It’s hellish. She can’t wait to move on, but it’s going to take some work and she’s going to have to...change.

I did this exercise for all three sisters and it was interesting to see both the similarity in their answers, and the differences. It also helped me realize that Alice isn't as grown up as she may appear to others (or as grown up as I thought she was!), which helps me know how she reacts to situations, and clues me into her inner feelings so I can write her deeper.

Now it's your turn. I'd love it if you'd share in the comments...

Wednesday, I'll be back with more on character building, because if you don't have interesting characters, who's going to want to follow them around for 300 odd pages? 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year!

I don’t know about you, but 2016 snuck up on me out of nowhere. 2015 just swept by while I wasn’t paying attention, I guess. But now that it’s the first day of a new year, this is when we normally sit down and make those resolutions we struggle to work towards and then usually blow them off before January even has a chance to come to an end. So this year, instead of making resolutions, how about making goals? We’re not talking the usual resolutions that are nice and vague like “I will exercise more.” No, we’re talking hard core goals that you can actually achieve. Maybe it’s something as simple as, “I will walk around the block every day.” That’s simple and easy, and as you do it every day, it soon becomes a habit.

So, let’s sit back and look at our writing and reading goals. I personally joined a challenge to write 1,000 words a day. I know I can generally write that many words in an hour if my brain is cooperating. Some days it’s easier than others, but I do know I can achieve it. I have the hope of putting out a book this year, so writing every day will help me achieve that goal. Though I already know I have 2 and maybe 3 major things happening this year that might sidetrack me, if I can establish the habit of writing before they do, then it should be a lot easier to climb back on the writing horse when they’re done. 

Of course, I’m a reviewer, so I also have to have reading goals. Instead of making random goals of, “I will read all of the books on my ‘to be read list’ by the end of the year”, make it easier to achieve. We have to admit that our TBR lists are constantly growing. I know mine is and I can’t be alone in that. So, I have to cut back a bit and make it more attainable so I don’t give up. I probably have more time to read than a lot of people, so you should come up with your own goals. But I would like to throw a challenge at you.

The challenge is to read and review 10 books this year. If they’re written by indie authors, even better! Indie authors depend on those reviews to bring in more readers and more sales. There are so many good ones out there that are waiting to be discovered. So, are you brave enough to take that challenge? Can you find and read 10 books by indie authors and leave them a review? It’s a tiny goal, not even a book a month. And yet, that review you leave can mean the world to another person, especially if you liked it. Remember, write the review as if you were telling your friend why they would like to read it or not like to read it. You don’t want to spoil it for them, but still convey why they should pick it up or ignore it. Be kind if it's negative, but remember, negative reviews aren't bad.

So go forth! Create goals this year instead of resolutions you feel comfortable breaking. Pick things that mean a lot to you and you want to achieve. Then create the steps you need to achieve them. Make 2016 a year to remember.