Query for Hoodlum Army

Hey, all~

This is weird, but I’m asking for input on this first draft of my query on here. I’ve decided to concentrate on pitching this one, since it’s more “normal” (meaning: it does have an autistic character, but neurodivergence doesn’t come into play in the plot). So, tell me what you think:

HOODLUM ARMY is a suspenseful romantic comedy, complete at 77,000 words.

Can crime make the world a better place?

Maryann wants to start a cooking school for disadvantaged kids, and Rob wants to save his parents’ farm. When they both try to raise money by robbing the same bank at the same time, they’re thrown together in what turns out to be an adventurous and altruistic crime spree.

To reach their goal before Rob’s parents’ farm is auctioned off, they have to rob thirty banks in sixty days. Dubbed the “Hoodlum Army”, they become a social media sensation. A cop and FBI agent are a step behind as the duo steal across the country. A couple close calls are enough to convince Rob and Maryann that there’s something illegal going on with these lawmen, and that prison might be the best outcome if they get busted.

As the game heats up, the Army set their sights on a bigger target: Larry Lemon, a bombastic billionaire with immense financial holdings ripe for pilfering. They get help from an unexpected quarter—Larry’s own family—and realize the stakes in this game are even higher than they suspected.

Even when you’re a crook, money isn’t the most important thing. Right and wrong are slippery concepts, but some things are worth stealing—or dying—for. They just hope the latter isn’t necessary, and that it’s possible for this tale to have a happy ending.

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Diverse Books and Writing What You Don’t Know

rainbow book(revisiting this post from 2015)

Write what you know. It’s a trite piece of advice for writers struggling to find a subject to which to put their pen, and a dire warning to those embarking on literary excursions into the unknown.

Many feel this saying is a load of crap. After all, if we can only write what we know, then we have no business even writing a memoir: our view of ourselves and our experience is so myopic, and our blind spots so extensive, that we can’t claim to truly know even what’s going on in our own lives. However, when we plunge into writing about something we don’t know, it pays to be cautious. After all, when you’re an “outsider” with respect to your subject matter, those on the inside are going to know if you get it wrong.

I’ll start with this piece of advice: Write what you want. Writing is an art, and stifling that art with a bunch of rules and warnings isn’t going to help anyone. You have something to say, and so say it, with your whole heart and to the best of your ability. But I’ll add this caveat: if you’re going to write about a type of character or situation that exists in contemporary life and yet is outside your personal experience, I advise you give it deep thought. The agonizing, soul-searching variety of deep thought. Your characters, and your readers, deserve no less.

Most of us have heard of the We Need Diverse Books movement. It is a worthy cause. Stories, both fiction and nonfiction, are an integral part of social change. Books help connect readers with people and situations that they may never encounter in their day-to-day life, and can broaden understanding and acceptance in a way that no amount of preaching or direct social activism can do. Books are a safe way to explore situations that we’d be frightened to become involved in in real life, and can help to lessen our fear and misunderstanding of those situations. For instance, a person frightened of foreign travel might be more comfortable after reading a million guidebooks. The more different cultures, lifestyles, and ways of being people are exposed to in books, the more comfortable they’ll be with it in their real lives.

It is precisely for this reason that we need to be mindful of how we portray our diverse characters. I’m not saying that we should never let a diverse character be anything other than a shining beacon of perfection, so that we don’t give readers the impression that all people of that diverse group are “bad”. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is, the character has to be realistic. We have to be comfortable in that character’s shoes. We have to know them like we know a human being, and relate to their struggle, before we write about them. Otherwise, we’ll get it wrong. We’ll portray them as an issue, instead of a character, and we’ll miss an opportunity to let readers identify with them on a human level. And yes, we can end up doing actual, measurable harm to real people by reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions.

I love it when books have diverse characters, but when I hear editors or agents say, “If there’s no diversity in your books, don’t worry: it can be added,” I cringe. It is possible to deliberately add diversity in this way and still have a great book. But, if you’re adding diversity purely for diversity’s sake, be very cautious. After all, if you’re inserting a diverse character just to make the novel more marketable, then you are exploiting the group to which that diverse character belongs. If you’re changing the color of a character’s skin, giving her a limp, or modifying his religious practice, take a long moment to get to know that character again, because you have changed who they are. Make sure you don’t overlook, misunderstand, or gloss over the issues that the character might face in their daily life. Otherwise, you run the risk of your character being a blue-eyed guy with shoe polish on his face asking John Wayne to smoke-um peace pipe.

You’ll have readers that identify with your diverse characters, and if you tell their story incorrectly, you’re selling those readers short and hurting them on a personal level.

This concept also applies to characters who are members of groups which may not traditionally be viewed as “diverse”. If your character is dealing with issues of any kind that you haven’t dealt with personally, make sure you put thought into it. For instance, I’m a recovering heroin addict, an ex-con, and a victim of physical and sexual abuse. I have thrown books across the room and cursed authors’ very souls for, in my view, misrepresenting these issues. I’m really tired of reading about poor, battered women who suffer their completely evil, idiot husbands stolidly until the day they rise up with unblemished inner strength to assert themselves. I know it may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but I feel belittled by this narrative. Abuse is ugly; it changes you. It weakens you. And it can make you stoop to the level of the abuser, because you know no different, and because you’re so scarred and hurt that you can’t function in a healthy manner. I do recognize that not all survivors of abuse see it this way, but it doesn’t stop me from feeling that my story is being exploited and told incorrectly for profit, when I read a book that gets it “wrong”.

Additionally, I’m tired of seeing drug addicts portrayed as objects of pity or contempt; complete hot-mess wastrels; soulless beings with no hope, intelligence, or inner life. I especially hate this narrative when said addict ends up seeing the light, and becomes a pink-cheeked, happy and productive member of society within the course of 350 pages.

It’s also annoying just when people get details wrong: heroin addicts with dilated pupils (opiates contract the pupils), or about a character “melting” black tar heroin in a spoon (it doesn’t melt; you have to dissolve it in water). The details are easy to research, and the rest, well, all I can say is that drug addicts are people, too. Drugs can make people into a hot mess, it’s true; but that hot mess can be interesting to examine, and you’ll make your story better if your character is well-rounded.

And, as a psychotic person, when a book about a “psycho killer” comes out, I have a legitimate fear reaction. People like me are beaten, imprisoned, and killed because of wrongful stereotypes like this. The same for some other marginalized groups. Misportrayals can do real harm, and you don’t want that on your conscience. So, do your research if you’re writing about characters from different walks of life as you. And, the best research is not academic research, but experience*.

If you want to have marginalized characters in your books, but don’t share that marginalization, I say go for it…but put thought into it, and seriously consider having your diverse characters be side-characters, and not main characters. Also, don’t write characters with marginalizations that you’ve only read about. If you don’t have a diverse group of friends, then you might not be the right person to be repping diversity in literature. But, seriously, we all have diverse friends, right?

I have a lot of Mexican-American characters. I speak Spanish and have lived most of my life in areas with a huge Mexican-American population, so I’m comfortable writing about the culture—usually from an outside point of view, because I may not know the internal issues of being Mexican-American, but I can speak to my experience as an observer, and so my characters can as well. I also have Mexican-American beta readers, so if I mess up, as I always will, they can help me with it.

I also often write about characters with mental illness/neurodivergence. I am mentally ill, autistic, and have psychosis. However, when I was writing a book with a schizophrenic main character, I reached a point where I felt like I was getting it wrong. So, I went down to the local park and made friends with a young schizophrenic man I’d seen hanging around.

My friendship with Phoenix was never about writing a novel. I don’t hang out with him because of his mental illness, but because I enjoy his company. He’s an amazing, intelligent, and hilariously funny person.

Hanging out with him taught me a lot about myself as a neurodivergent person, and opened my eyes to the way ableism affects us all. We were kicked out of bars, restaurants, casinos and libraries because people were uncomfortable with his behavior (mine too, to be honest); I had to intervene with the cops and the courts when he was arrested for no crime other than being schizophrenic. I spent horrible, anguished days and nights, crying and worrying, when he was institutionalized, or in the hospital after someone misinterpreted something he said and beat him into a coma. Certain experiences with him have triggered my own episodes of psychosis, as well, which were of course frightening and draining.

My Other Place Series wouldn’t be what it is without Phoenix. I would have missed so much of the joy, the beauty, the horror, and the subtleties of the schizophrenic experience if I hadn’t spent time with him, because seeing psychosis from the outside, and really being part of someone else’s experience, is different than experiencing it myself. The more insight we have into life and people of all kinds, the better our writing will be.

Just like I don’t hang out with Phoenix because he’s mentally ill, I didn’t write my book about the schizophrenic character because he is schizophrenic. I wrote it because he’s an interesting character, with a really good story to tell. Readers will identify with characters, and want to spend time with them, if they’re interesting people, and not just a list of symptoms and diagnoses or character traits you gleaned from internet research.

Putting thought into it doesn’t make you exempt from criticism, however. Nothing will. If, someday, a reader gets angry at me for getting a Latinx character wrong, well, it will upset me, and I’ll listen, but I’ll have the consolation of being able to talk about it with my Latinx beta readers and friends and do better next time, so it won’t destroy my love of writing.

And, y’all, I get criticism about my own voices characters. Nothing makes you exempt. Criticism is part of being a writer. Even when we are writing from experience, we won’t know all facets of that experience. Every experience is valid, and incomplete. (Note: please don’t harass own voices writers because their experience doesn’t match yours. Truly.)

Even if they don’t resonate with everyone, I am comfortable with and proud of my books. I think they can add to people’s understanding, rather than detracting from it by creating false impressions.

This is what we should strive to do when we write, whether it’s from a diverse perspective or not, and whether our tale is a lighthearted romantic comedy or a dark “issues” novel.

Always treat your characters (and your readers) with the respect they deserve, and you will be able to bear any criticism with dignity.

*For the love of God, man, don’t apply this concept to writing about drug addicts and ex-cons. I’d rather your characters be trite and wooden than for you to go get thrown in the slammer for a PCP binge you embarked on for novel research.

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor. You can find THE OTHER PLACE and her other books on Amazon.

How to Be a Writer

I hate advice on how to be a writer.

People say, “Real writers use pen and ink. They write every day. They have inborn talent; are obsessive about grammar; and subsist on tea, chocolate and cat kisses.”

My least favorite writing advice is that old nugget spouted by Hemingway, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I truly don’t mean to call folks out, but there was a writer on my Twitter timeline the other day who coughed up this particular oft-polished gem. “Writing isn’t relaxing. It’s not musing. It’s not a journey. Each word is ripped from your soul like a malignant tumor, and splatted onto the page, while you writhe in anguish.” I’m paraphrasing; it was something to the effect that writing was a process akin to trench warfare or medieval torture, that any of us are lucky to survive intact, but I can’t retrieve the original tweet, because when I responded “naw” and suggested that maybe writing was a bad fit job for him, the guy (it’s always dudes who have this particular advice, it seems like) blocked me. Some folks can’t dig my snark.

The thing is, writing is whatever you make it. Whatever method (or lack of) you use to get words onto a page, to tell your story, is the right way.

For most of us, writing is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. Sometimes it makes us laugh, other times it makes us scream like we’re getting our teeth pulled without anesthetic (what, you guys aren’t screamers? I get the paramedics called on me at least twice a week).

For me, writing is a coping skill, and a job. For others, it’s a hobby. And some think of it more as a lifestyle.

All of us are writers.

None of us have a monopoly on what it means to spew words out onto a page, and none of us have the ultimate secret of how best to accomplish it. Ultimately, it’s just something you do, for whatever reason.

My Successful Queries

Writing a query is a daunting task. When I was facing down the prospect of writing my very first one, it seemed impossible. How can I condense an 80k-word novel into one paragraph, in a way that’s engaging and meaningful? How can I convey the amount of heart and soul I put into my story in a trite marketing pitch? And how can I possibly make my query stand out amongst the dozens (or even hundreds) that an agent can get in a single day?

A lot of writers say that it’s more difficult to write a query than write the novel. I’m squarely in that camp. Knowing which elements to include, and which will just confuse things, can be seriously headache-inducing. It’s a completely different skill than writing a book. But it’s an  important skill, because querying is how most authors find agents and publishers. If you can’t write a good query, it doesn’t matter how amazing your book is: agents will never know, because they’ll never read it.

Like any other skill, query-writing can be learned. There are lots of how-to articles out there. I always recommend the amazing Query Shark, which is a great way to learn the elements of a query, and get an idea of what works, and what doesn’t. You get to see how they’re pieced together, and see a reaction of a top agent to each element.

I thought I would also (gulp) use some of my own queries as examples, to dissect the elements.

So, here we go! This first one is for TRUE STORY, a YA contemp that I’m currently trying to find a home for. This query has gotten me quite a few full manuscript requests. My comments are in brackets.

Dear Ms. Mumblemumble [ALWAYS use their name. Never use the generic “Dear Agent” or “To Whom it May Concern”]:

I’m querying you because you indicated on Twitter that you’re seeking YA own voices books [Agents love to hear why you’re querying them specifically. They want you to be particularly interested in working with them, as well]. I am seeking representation for TRUE STORY, a YA contemporary romance, with elements of magical realism [genre], complete at 73,000 words [word count]. It’s an own voices book that deals with mental health issues [if you don’t know what an own voices book is, ask me. If your book is own voices, it’s a huge selling point, but if it’s not, don’t worry].

17-year-old Mike Charley is a girl, named after her grandfather by a bipolar mother who thought Mike was his reincarnation. Now Mike is in the foster system, and constantly in trouble: for running away from sketchy foster parents, for skipping school. The only safe place for her is in the fantasy worlds she writes about [This is an intro to my main character, and hints toward one of her goals: to overcome the things holding her back from happiness (stigma, hurtful past, bullying)].

Then she meets Vaughn, and is drawn against her will to the handsome, talented artist. There’s a connection between them that sets her spine tingling [intro to the secondary character. If it’s a romance, this is always the love interest. Also introduces another goal: get together with the guy she likes 😊].

When a car accident puts Mike in the hospital and Vaughn in a coma, Mike begins to have visions. Their fates are intertwined, and Vaughn’s life is now in Mike’s hands: she has ten days to complete the book she’s writing, or he’ll never wake up [This introduces the main conflict, and the stakes: “…or he’ll never wake up”].

This belief lands her in an institution, but Mike knows she’s not crazy [more conflict]. Trapped and helpless, not allowed to write, the day fast approaching when Vaughn’s father pulls him off life support, Mike has to find a way to finish her book…or a way to join her boyfriend in death [stakes: do it or die].

[The “meat” of my query is 176 words. That’s a good word count.]

I am an active writer, musician, and freelance editor. I have had five books published by Limitless Publishing: the romantic suspense Love or Money and four books in my magical realism Other Place series. I have two short horror stories set to come out in the 13: Déjà vu and 13: Night Terrors anthologies—an internationally bestselling series of anthologies. I am a neurodivergent person, and a neurodiverse rights activist who speaks at forums and events [My bio is long. It shouldn’t be longer than this, in most fiction queries, but most of this is relevant/interesting stuff. You want to let the agent/editor know that you’ll be a good person to work with, and you have attributes that are marketable—that you’re interesting as a person, and not just a great writer].

Thank you for your consideration.

Elizabeth Roderick

elizabethroderick@att.net

[phone number]

[Always contain contact info].

This query certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it is working for me, because it briefly introduces my characters, conflict, and stakes, with just enough specifics to help set it apart from other books without giving too much away.

Here is my query for THE OTHER PLACE, which got me multiple full requests, and an offer:
I am seeking representation for THE OTHER PLACE, a YA Contemporary novel with elements of magical realism. It is complete at 74,000 words, and is a stand-alone novel with series potential.

Justin just wants to draw and be left in peace, but when his mother takes up with a man who thinks his schizophrenia can be cured with prayer, he has to find a new home or risk involuntary commitment in a Christian mental institution.

He runs off to San Francisco, where he’s discovered by a gallery owner. His bizarre and beautiful drawings create a stir in the art world; people rave about his genius and flock to see his work. Meanwhile, Justin is homeless, couch surfing and battling his mental illness.

He reconnects with a girl named Liria, who has been appearing in his visions since they met back in his hometown. Liria, it turns out, has been sharing those visions. Compelled by their deep connection, she leaves her jealous girlfriend in order to be with him, supporting them both on her meagre income.

They discover that the gallery owner has been hiding something, and Justin realizes that being a genius can have a downside. Surrounded by people who want to exploit his talent, he must fight not only for his career and his freedom, but perhaps for his life.

I am a board member of the San Luis Obispo NightWriters association, assistant editor and columnist for their newsletter. I have recently had a short story published by Akashic Books.

Pursuant to your guidelines, I’m pasting the first 25 pages of The Other Place below.

I hope that seeing these is of some help to you in your own querying endeavors. After all, if I can write a successful query, so can you!


Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor/writer. You can find her on Amazon. Information about her editing services is here.

Do You Need an Editor?

At some point in a writer’s life, we’ll likely wonder whether we should hire a professional editor for our manuscript. I’m an author, as well as a freelance editor, so I wanted to chime in with my opinions and advice on this subject.

Most articles fall squarely in one or another category: YES you ALWAYS need an editor, or NO, they’re a WASTE OF MONEY. In this piece, I’ll discuss both the pros and cons, as well as how to choose an editor if you decide to get one.

If your goal is self-publishing, you probably want to hire at least one editor. Successful indy authors often hire two: a developmental editor, and a proofreader. You will feel more confident about your manuscript if you go through an editing process before publishing, and readers will thank you with their dollars and positive reviews if you do.

I personally would never publish a book without having it go through an editing process, even though I’m an editor myself. We truly can’t see our own work with objective enough eyes to be sure it’s our best effort. Hiring an editor isn’t cheating, or selling out your voice. It’s just part of the process of publishing, and of creating good art.

However, if your goal is getting traditionally published, you may be on the fence about whether you should get an editor before querying. After all, if you get an agent, they will often give developmental critique, and a publisher will always put your manuscript through an editing process before publication. So, why should you bother paying for one yourself?

Hopefully this article will help you decide whether it’s right for you.

PROS

If you’ve spent any time being a writer, you’ll know the value of getting other eyes on your work. No matter how skilled or talented we are, it’s difficult to be detached enough to see our own errors, weak spots, and inconsistencies.

Critiquers and beta readers are invaluable in the revision process, and help us to spot our story’s weaknesses and strengths. However, even if these folks aren’t our family and friends, they might have difficulty being fully up-front with us about our work. If we’re also helping them with their own manuscripts, they don’t want to risk angering us. And besides, who wants to be mean?

Editors, however, are professionals. We get paid to be honest about your book. That shouldn’t mean we’re rude or cruel, but we have no qualms about telling you exactly what we think; after all, it’s our job. You expect it from us. And, we have a vested interest in seeing you published, because that will be another notch in our headboard, so to speak: a point of pride, and a means of getting further clients.

Whenever one of my clients gets a request or an offer, I feel almost as if I’d gotten one myself. I put some of my heart and soul into their book, and my clients always (so far) put me in the acknowledgments when I’ve worked with them. If my name is on something, I have a huge investment in making sure it’s the best it can be.

As much as I enjoy being a CP or beta, it just isn’t the same.

Editors also have more experience than critiquers or beta readers. Our experience can come in a lot of different forms; some of us worked for publishers before hanging out our freelance shingles. Others have degrees in English or Literature. Some, like me, just got our starts with a lot of practical experience such as writing books, short stories, queries, and pitches; judging contests; and being involved in a million critique partnerships.

This experience matters a lot. Writing and editing aren’t innate talents, like some seem to think; they’re skills that we hone through practice, and an editor will bring this skill to bear, helping you craft your novel into something you can be even more proud of.

Be sure you choose the right editor for your manuscript, however. If you get one who isn’t right for your book, it will be a waste of your money.

Being “right” for your book doesn’t always mean someone who is expensive, or even someone with decades of experience. It means they believe in your manuscript and share your vision for it. They need to have a good handle on your personal voice and style, and be willing to work with you instead of against you.

They also need to be good at what they do, however. The only true way to know this is to do your homework before hiring them.

Always research potential editors, ask for references, and have them do a free sample edit (usually first couple pages of your manuscript) to make sure they are not only qualified, but a good fit for you. Make sure they seem enthusiastic about your book, and that their sample edits make sense and seem right (give them time to sink in before deciding this, because often the best editors will strike a nerve, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep from getting defensive when that happens). Email a few of their references and make sure they were happy with the editor’s work. Triple bonus if those clients got requests, agents and publishing contracts after working with them.

Make sure you’re really comfortable with someone before you give them money and hand over your word-baby. A good editor will give you the space and the information you need in order to make the decision, and won’t hound you.

A NOTE ON SENSITIVITY READERS:

There is a lot of bad press out there about sensitivity readers lately. I am myself a sensitivity reader. I’ve worked with many clients, including some of the Big Five publishers, on books containing neurodivergent/mentally ill characters, and characters with addiction issues. I love sensitivity reading, and I’m willing to die on this hill to defend the process.

If your manuscript has a character who is marginalized, and especially if you don’t share that marginalization, please consider hiring a sensitivity reader. We aren’t here to censor your book, but to make it better. We want your book to succeed. A good SR won’t be defensive and actively looking for problems. We will fact-check, and bring more soul, more feeling, and more humanity to your marginalized characters by virtue of our lived experience. Being a marginalized person is complicated, and it’s not something outsiders can easily understand. We can help you to understand, and your book (and your life) will be richer for it.

Most writers would love to have an FBI agent read over their manuscript with an FBI agent main character, correct? They’d delight in having someone to help them on the small details, and let them know how it feels to be in certain situations. It would help the narrative to really come alive. So why is there pushback over hiring sensitivity readers?

The answer, unfortunately, is often bigotry. People are defensive and frightened about confronting their prejudices and misunderstandings which might come through in their writing. That’s normal, and it’s okay, because you can’t grow without confronting these things. Don’t be scared. A good sensitivity reader won’t spend their time berating you. They’ll be relieved you reached out, and will genuinely want to hold an open (if sometimes difficult) conversation about your characters.

Again, be sure to connect with a SR before hiring them, to make sure they’re a good fit for your book, and that they communicate in a way that works for you. Always be respectful of the amount of emotional labor it takes to be a SR, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. As long as you’re truly listening to us, we’ll be happy to answer.

CONS

There can be cons to hiring an editor, believe it or not.

If you put effort into finding good critique partners or beta readers, and put a lot of time and thought into revising your own book, you can get an agent and/or publisher without getting your manuscript professionally edited.

The most obvious argument against hiring an editor is the expense. I haven’t yet engaged an editor prior to sending a book out to agents or publishers. It’s not that I don’t believe in it, I’m just very poor. If you have a few hundred bucks you’ll never miss, you don’t have much to lose by getting professional eyes on your manuscript, but few of us have that luxury.

Another con is that an editor is only one person, and their opinions, while hopefully informed, are opinions and are therefore subjective and personal. Even if their critiques and suggestions make sense to you, that doesn’t automatically translate into revisions that will land you a contract more easily. I have gotten suggestions from professionals (both editors and agents) which resonated with me, only to have a different agent tell me they didn’t agree with that advice, or give me the exact opposite suggestion. So who should I listen to?

There is no right or wrong way to write. This is a subjective business. Being careful in choosing an editor—finding one who is both skilled and shares your vision—can mitigate the amount of “bad” advice you get, but even if you find the perfect editor for your book, not all of their suggestions will resonate, and you can never consider their opinions to be foolproof.

Developmental editors aren’t there to “fix” your manuscript; they are artists, like you, and can only be a partner in crafting your story, not a doctor who cures it of any ills.

Those are the only cons I can think of, but you definitely should take them into consideration.

Hiring an editor is a personal decision. If you’ve already been querying and have had little to no success; if you’re getting conflicting advice from betas and CPs; or if you really want to have full confidence that your manuscript is ready for querying, an editor might be the answer.

Please let me know what pros and cons I failed to touch on. I always love to hear from you.

 

______

Elizabeth Roderick is an author and freelance editor/writer. You can find her on Amazon. Information about her editing services is here.