QueryTracker is excellent!

After a shamefully long absence, I re-upped my subscription to QueryTracker — for writers seeking an agent (which is a rather Sisyphean task), it’s a great way to find agent contacts that match your project, and also to keep track of where you’ve submitted your work. The site also does a rating system and has a back-end database so you can see how long on average it takes agents to give various types of responses.

Does it work? Will it help me find a book agent? I have no idea. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it. But it’s very well done, and had a recent site redesign. It’s quite nice to look at and to work with, and at the “Pro” level it only costs $25 a year. For that small amount, it’s well worth supporting the guy who takes care of the site. Clearly he puts a lot of work into it.

s.f. writers conference

I spent the day at the San Francisco Writers Conference, at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental, high upon the crest of Nob Hill. The conference was worthwhile, and I got quite a lot out of it. Mostly by being in proximity to other people who are succeeding at getting words down on paper (or rather, computer) but who have generally not yet reached agents or publishers with real success.

So it’s rather validating.

The sessions this time are a bit short–about 45 minutes, which isn’t quite enough time to get more than a brief taste. Most of the presenters spend a bit too long on telling us about themselves, so there’s not much time to get into their content. Nevertheless, it’s been informative. The first session I went to was completely ad-libbed and ad hoc, but was one of the best because of the honest and straightforward way that the presenters, two middle-grade and young-adult book agents/editors, answered the audience questions.

Most if not all of what I learned I already knew–but conferences like these are like A.A. meetings: the repetition and reinforcement is as important as the content. And I met some great people. I’d like to think of it as ‘networking’ but that requires followup. Remind me to get cards printed with my web address on them and something about my writing. Giving out my Adobe business cards doesn’t help much.

I’m headed back for days Two and Three, including the Sunday morning “speed dating with agents”–in which I’ll have about 90 seconds to tell an agent what makes Califar worth reading. I’m going to concentrate on Califar since it’s finished, even though my head is stuck totally in my new book (let’s call it “HT”). I practiced on the drive home, talking to myself in increasingly rapid and animated sentences. We’ll see how it goes: maybe I’ll end up sounding like I’ve been breathing helium. Wish me luck.

Update: it went well! In addition to terrific sessions and some great speakers, I was able to speak to about 7 different editors and show them the first pages of both Califar and H.T. By making quick changes based on feedback, I was able to use the scientific method and test the results with rapid iteration. I’m much happier with those initial first pages now, particularly the first page of HT.

And pitching to agents was fun as well. I was able to see three in my allotted hour: people lined up for various agents, 3 minutes per pitch followed by a bell, and believe me there was no Pavlovian response. All three agents responded well to the pitch and agreed to read a portion of Califar. I’ll be sending the first few chapters along to them shortly, together with a synopsis. Hopefully I’ll get useful feedback from them. Either way I’ve gotten a lot from the conference, and look forward to going again.


using Excel to track your characters and timeline

<spoiler alert: if you’re reading-averse, skip to the end, where I post my templates>

I had gotten only a few chapters into Califar when I realized that a character that I’d described as old was really too young for that description. Another pair of characters were going to hook up when the girl was too young (and probably get her author arrested). Thus the need for a better tracking mechanism.

Being of a technical bent, I fired up Excel and created a spreadsheet to track the various character names, their characteristics, ages, etc. This turned out to be a terrific tool. Of course, if you don’t have Excel, you can use a free tool like Google Docs’ online spreadsheets. Here are the basics:

  • list your character names across the top in columns B through whatever
  • in column A, row 2, type the first year of the activities in your book
  • then go across row 2 and list, underneath each character name, the age of your character at that year
  • fill out other events and do a bunch of math. Or, use my template!

As I add major events to the timeline, I note on the spreadsheet when those events occur and can see at a glance the ages of the major characters at that time. This helps avoid logic errors (such as having characters marry or have children too young, get described as old when they aren’t, participate in activities after they’ve died, live unnaturally long lives or consistently die too young, etc.).

Of course, doing the math yourself is no fun at all, so that’s where Excel’s formula calculations come in. Sadly, this is more work than you’d think (or at least, it’s more work than I though it would be!)–so I’ve posted a template that you can use.

Since Excel documents can have multiple ‘tabs’ for individual worksheets, I use additional worksheets to list and sort the names of my characters as well as their defining characteristics. This way I can ensure that I don’t, for instance, have 7 characters with very similar names, or bunch up all the names at one end of the alphabet. I hate when I’m reading a book with a lot of characters and I can’t keep the names straight because the author has used Harry, Harris, Harold, Hubert and Humbert. Listing all the names lets me ensure that my key characters are unique.

Now that I’ve set up that spreadsheet, whenever I’m writing a chapter and add some new description of a character (their eye color, etc.) I add that as notes into the spreadsheet. Naturally this came from need as well, having realized during an early re-read that I’d described a character as having green eyes and her mother as having blue eyes. Genetically, that won’t work!

Here’s the Excel template for old versions of Excel:

Here’s an improved version for Excel 2007 (Office 2007 Windows)  or Excel 2008 (Office 2008 Macintosh): 



finally submitted a story

I would have thought I’d be much farther along by now.

I finished the last draft of my first novel, Califar, in the spring. Now it’s December. Time flies like a banana. No, wait. Fruit flies like a banana.

In the mean time, the global economy has collapsed and people have suddenly forgotten how to read. Bookstores are in trouble. Tumbling tumbleweeds fill Main Street, and unread newspapers collect in soggy drifts against shuttered doorways. What’s an aspiring writer to do?

Apparently, dither. I have found it hard to actually risk rejection of my novel by sending it blindly out to agents. I have no problem getting on stage in front of thousands of people, but sending my words out to a single person–oh, that’s tough!

Some wimp am I, apparently.

So in an effort to actually make some progress (apart from working on my second novel–more on that some other time) I stayed late at the office one evening, resurrected a short story from the past, and submitted it to the New Yorker.

Might as well start at the top if I’m going to collect my requisite hundred-an-one rejections. I’d feel pretty bummed if I got rejected by Podunk Press Online, but a New Yorker rejection seems a-okay.

Of course, I’ve heard nothing at all from them, and it’s been a couple of weeks. Time to pick up the pace. Now, where’s that online submission link for Podunk Press?