Querying in Batches: Is there an advantage?

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Pexels.com

When it comes to querying, do you dip your toe into the chilly waters or do you wade right in?

After you have scoured AgentQuery, Manuscript Wish List, and Twitter for names of agents representing your genre, written an exciting hook for your novel along with a writer’s biography and a sales pitch that includes a comparison title, the next step is putting your query out there. If you’re like me, a compulsive reader of writer’s blogs about writing, you’ll already know there are many blog posts devoted to this process. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: there’s advice out there for just about every aspect of publishing.

Some of it good. Some of it dubious.

One common bit of advice I’ve seen is to query in batches, a strategy that entails sending out only seven to ten queries at a time. But is batch querying the right choice for you?

The testing the waters

First, sending queries in batches can be a strategy for success.

The big idea here is that each batch acts as an experiment that tests whether the query is any good. If you end up with no requests for either a partial or a full manuscript, then you can tweak your query hook and resend the updated query letter to a new batch of agents. In theory, you can rinse and repeat this strategy until you have exhausted your agent list.

At first, I found this advice exciting. It seemed sensible. In fact, it was better than sensible. It was a plan. The problem, however, is that the strategy seems impractical. Testing a query hook requires that your agent list contains a large number of agents with quick response times. While there are a few highly organized agents who respond the next day- sometimes the same day, these are few and far between. You’d at least need to have a small group of agents that respond within a two to four-week period. This might be likely if you’re looking for an agent that represents a perennially popular genre like mystery, but if your work is more niche, you’ll find your supply of guinea pig agents sorely lacking.

Another major issue with this strategy is that you have no way of knowing what an agent liked or didn’t like about your query hook. Most rejection letters are nicely worded form letters, and often times, the reason for the rejection is vague. The most common one I’ve received is that the book doesn’t fit their list. Knowing that can’t possibly help you tweak your query letter.

On top of that, an agent can pass on your book for a myriad or reasons unrelated to the hook, including word count, subject matter, character gender or ethnicity, etc. There’s a reason why a common refrain in rejection letters is how the business is subjective. Going back to tweak the hook in these cases would be fruitless, like spinning your wheels. You might even end up harming your well-written query hook.

What I suspect is that the benefits of batch querying are psychological. It gives a hopeful author a semblance of control in a situation where they have none.

Manage feelings of rejection

In fact, another touted advantage to batch querying is psychological (see here). In the article I linked to, there’s no tweaking of query hooks. You merely send out queries in batches, then wait for responses. When one comes back negative, you merely send out the next one.

At first, I thought, okay- it’s a little like gardening. Anyone who grows vegetables during the summer knows that you have to keep sowing seeds to replenish anything you harvest, and by doing so systematically, you can guarantee yourself a supply of lettuce all summer long.

But what are you guaranteeing yourself here? I suspect what you are sowing is hope- keeping it alive, but why you’d want to is puzzling. The obverse of sowing hope in this manner is having a prolonged period of rejection letters. And who wants that? I mean, isn’t it better to know right away if the industry isn’t interested in your project so that you can psychologically move on to your next project?

So, should you send your queries in batches? It all depends on your psychological makeup. Do you gently tug at a Band-Aid or just tear it off? I remember watching a fluff piece on morning television about groups of speedo-clad men bathing in the Baltic. They rushed headlong into the chilly water. No toe-dipping for them. And that seemed to work best.

That said, happy querying.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve queried in batches and found it useful. I’m on the fence about it.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

Why you can’t self-publish everything

Photo by RetroSupply on Unsplash

“If I can’t get an agent, I’ll self-publish on Amazon.”

That’s what a writer friend of mine always says.

It’s a good mindset to have- one in which a writer has a choice between traditional publishing and self-publishing- but is it a smart strategy?

Most of the arguments for or against taking one route over another focus on tradeoffs. If you traditionally publish, you lose authorial control over publishing rights, book titles, and cover images. The upside, however, is that you gain a team of experts. Not just an editor, but also professional cover artists, book formatters, and various other industry experts who understand how to market books.

But by far, the greatest appeal to self-publishing is the lure of higher royalties. Blog post after blog post, each with some variation of the title “Why I Choose to Self Publish”, emphasizes this aspect of self-publishing. This isn’t surprising. Many writers going down this path say that self-publishing is akin to starting up a small business. One in which you the writer must take charge of editing, cover design, and marketing. And if that doesn’t seem burdensome enough, you must also take the financial risk as well.

So let’s say you have written a book you love, have money to burn, and are willing to spend the time marketing your product.  Should you then plunge into self-publishing. Well, according to the writing chatterati, it’s your choice. You have to weigh the pros and cons and determine what’s best for you.

But I disagree. I say the choice is an illusion.

And if you’re wondering why, it’s because self-publishing and traditional publishing are two different markets that service two different kinds of readers.

Self-Publishing: the new pulp fiction

When we think of pulp, we think of noir mysteries. But pulp is a much wider field than that. At its most basic, pulp refers to price point. Pulp novels were hastily written, quickly published, and cheaply priced. As an art form, they were written to be enjoyed and then disposed of. To be pulped.

Back in the day, pulp represented a wide range of genres including mysteries, adventure stories, Westerns, and romance. These days, if you walk into your local Target or grocery store, the pulp fiction selection is much smaller. There are only a handful of truly pulp works available, and most of these are romance.

But pulp hasn’t disappeared. It’s only migrated to the eReader. The truth is indie-publishing is the new pulp fiction.

This means that writers who want to break out in self-publishing have to think like a pulp publisher of yore. Understand the genre they are writing. Know what is essential and what can be experimented with. After all, readers shelling out their hard-earned $1.99 or $4.99 for a book will come with expectations, and those expectations have to be met. A novel with a bare-chested dude on the cover ought to have a small amount of erotica even if it’s totally vanilla. Likewise, such a book must also end with a happily ever after. Failing to meet these kinds of genre expectations will only lead to obscurity.

So, what does this mean for the writer sitting at their dining room table, typing away at their novel? The kind of book they always wanted to read.

Well, that book you’ve been longing for better be pulp fiction.

Traditional publishing

Of course, an aspiring author can take the other path. Traditional publishing.

A while back, I sampled the first chapter of Donald Maass’ book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass, who is a New York based literary agent, is an industry insider of some repute. His book suggests that there’s been a shift in publishing. Bestselling fiction is no longer just about plot; it’s also literary in style. He envisions “the death of genre” in favor of authorial voice. Books have to “rise above category”, “transcend” genre, maybe even “blend” them. It’s not hard to see that here is the path for writers whose books don’t meet pulp expectations.

Here is also, I suppose, a challenge to self-publishing. As the pulp market slowly slips away from trad publishing’s control, the industry has to focus on quality. Since most agents barely read sample pages submitted during the querying process, traditional publishing also leans towards books with high concept premises.

So you better have that or you’ll be traveling up the creek without a paddle.

Three UNSPOKEN Dont’s of Deep POV

When it comes to writing in deep POV, there are so many things you shouldn’t do. So many, in fact, that writing in deep POV often feels constraining. Still, every writer today should consider using the technique. One reason is that traditional publishers prefer stories told in deep POV. A second reason is that deep POV is now the new narrative voice. In fact, if you come upon a writer these days talking about voice and fiction, they are usually discussing deep POV.

So What Is Deep POV?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, deep POV emphasizes character and their relationship to the story’s plot, whereas narrative voice favors looking at characters in their milieu. Thus, a novelist writing in deep POV has to stick close to a scene’s story arc while interweaving descriptions and character revelations into the text. In a way, it’s much like plot driven fiction. The aesthetic also discourages narrative digressions, which is another reason why writing in deep POV feels so limiting.

So Many Don’ts

A major reason deep POV is so hard to master is that there are more don’ts than do’s. Here are the classic ones you can find on/in most Writing Blogs/ AuthorTube videos.

  • Don’t use filter words
  • Don’t use emotion tells
  • Don’t use narrative tricks/ Don’t break character
  • Don’t flash back
  • Don’t make characters explain their thoughts, beliefs, and world view
  • Don’t tell

But having to follow these rules can frustrate a writer, especially ones who are used to writing in a more traditional style. You might start asking yourself, does it really matter if I break the rules just this once? Such a writer might even start taking shortcuts to achieve deep POV in their writing.

Don’t Take Shortcuts

As I study other writers using deep POV and practice it myself, I’ve discovered that the overwhelming desire to attain deep POV often leads to sloppy writing. So here are three more don’ts for the list.

  • Don’t Ignore Paragraph Flow

Paragraph flow is the one facet of writing people rarely ever talk about. It is, however, the most important aspect of writing. Good flow connects individual elements into a unified whole and creates meaning. Smoother connections also keep the reader under your narrative spell.

Prose written in deep POV, however, is often choppy. I suspect this occurs because writers are trying to transform traditional narrative styles into deep POV. When they see a “tell” in their writing, they merely replace it with a “show”. Here is a paragraph from K. M. Weiland’s post on choppy prose, This is her “improved” version:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

As you can see, the writing is in deep POV, but clearly, the main character’s introspections are tossed into a paragraph with no consideration for the sentences that come before or after it. After reading a lot of choppy deep POV fiction, I’m starting to suspect that well written deep POV will require a different ordering of information in paragraphs.

  • Don’t Just Delete Filter Words

Mavens of deep POV often imply that filter words exist to create distance between a reader and the character. Nothing is further from the truth. Filter words are mostly used to create transitions in a paragraph, a shift from the panoramic to the personal. Willy-nilly deleting them often leads to choppy prose.

Experts often advise writers to search their manuscript for filter words and then just delete them. For example, transforming “He saw a body floating in the pond” to “The body floated [or was floating] in the pond” is easy enough, but make certain that the revised sentence flows with the rest of the paragraph. That “He saw” might be a transition.

  • Don’t Infodump in Dialogue

One lazy way to write in deep POV is to move everything- from setting description to a character’s thoughts and feelings- into dialogue. The logic is that dialogue is always a part of a scene and therefore always showing. And while this may be technically true, infodumping in dialogue is still a form of telling. It will also bore the reader. I recently read a traditionally published novel where the main story was told in dialog infodumps. It wasn’t fun.

So in conclusion

  • Deep POV requires a different approach to storytelling
  • There are no shortcuts when writing in deep POV

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!

Want to know when I post something new? Follow me on Twitter.

I’m Not a Pantser. I’m an Extreme Pantser.

The Derek Murphy System

I’m not just a pantser. I’m an extreme pantser.

Most pantsers begin with a story concept- a “what if” or a setup. My process begins with a walk. I could be anywhere- on my way to a bus stop or trawling through a supermarket. As I amble along, lost in my thoughts, an image will pop into my head. The first few times it happened, I ignored it. But then one time, I came home and wrote down what I saw. And that’s how I started writing novels.

Once I have the image on paper, a context to them will emerge. Then characters will appear, and these will bring other characters as well as a setting. Scenes will form as characters come into conflict, which will suggest other scenes, until eventually a story forms. It’s only then that I start seeing a plot. After that, I exist in a fictive dream for months until I finish the final draft.

While this is a fun way to write, a major drawback is that you don’t always end up with a salable high concept work of fiction. After writing two books this way, I’ve concluded that this is a poor strategy for getting published. Of course, it was never a strategy in the first place.

After coming to this realization, I started looking into alternative writing processes. Last week, I came across a blog post here on WordPress about novel outlining.

The article spotlighted an uber-novel outline developed by Derek Murphy, one of the hundreds of novel writing gurus one can find on these here interwebs. According to the creator, this outline is good for most “commercial fiction,” though he doesn’t elaborate which genres. The outline he provides not only focuses on elements of a story but also their placement in the novel on a chapter by chapter level. Murphy identifies 24 story-plot points, all of which originate from the Hero’s journey as described by mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and popularized by Hollywood development executive, Christopher Vogler. Using the Derek Murphy System will produce a novel with 24 chapters.

Vogler’s Hero’s Journey overlaid onto the three act structure

That’s pretty neat.

But then I started thinking about it, and my initial enthusiasm waned. Part of this is my pantser nature. A part of it is not.

One issue is point of view. Murphy uses the Hero’s Journey as the source for his guideline, which is a natural fit for him as he is a YA science fiction/fantasy novelist. But even if the Derek Murphy System is appropriate for fantasy, the outline ignores something basic to that genre, namely multiple points of view. The Hero’s Journey typically centers a single hero. It highlights the transformation of one person. So, it’s hard to know how to deal with other POV characters in the 24 chapter outline. Do they get their own hero’s journey? If there are three POV characters, then do we get 24×3 chapters in a book.

Also, I find the Hero’s Journey an odd way to think about non-fantasy genres or even writing in general. Murphy’s outline has the inciting incident at chapter 3 or 4, but this is too late for say a mystery or a romance. And aspects of the Hero’s quest, such as the mentor, don’t necessarily appear in those genres. Sure, mysteries and romances can have them, but it’s not a key genre trope. Philip Marlowe, a detective who most typically resembles a hero, doesn’t have a mentor. Rarely does he have allies and friends. He’s usually a loner. A solitary man against a dirty, rotten world.

(Let’s be honest. Most heroic myths don’t have all the elements of the Hero’s journey either)

And a lot of novels these days are two books in one. Many of the urban fantasy novels I’ve read over the years are one part action adventure and one part erotica. How is the writer supposed to incorporate the Hero’s Journey into such dual fictions? Likewise, if you are writing a mystery for the first time, what you want to consider while outlining is not only the detective’s character growth but also other basic aspects of mystery fiction such as the placement of red herrings.

In conclusion: a template like this is useful, but it has its limits. And if you think back to the last few books you’ve read, very few (by which I mean none) will have any structural similarities with the Derek Murphy system. There’s a reason for that.

Deep POV: an Alternative Version

What do people mean by deep POV? Based on everything I’ve read on the subject, deep POV is a form of hyper-showing, meaning authors must (1) convey the story through dramatic scenes and (2) make sure that the writing is not vague but specific to the mindset of the point of view character.

I previously blogged about an AuthorTube video on deep POV that not only defined deep POV but also provided some excellent tips on how to write in this mode.

Looking for more videos on the subject, I stumbled on Michele Sayre’s YouTube channel.  It was eye opening because what she means by deep POV is a little different from what most blogs I’ve read call deep POV.

In one video, called Deep POV- a Writing Workshop, she gives us a definition of deep POV, which for her is the “removal of the author’s voice and replacing it with the character’s voice.” The nice thing about the video is that Sayre provides examples from her own writing to illustrate what she means. You can see in her example scene (screenshot below) that her form of deep POV has little to do with hyper showing.

The happiness soaring through the character is vague. In traditional deep POV, that happiness would be anatomized. It would be described. Sayre’s aesthetic, however, is against description. In another video on deep POV called “Deep POV-Setting”, she refers to the problem of info-dumping setting, a problem I rarely encounter in my reading outside of high fantasy. Both this and the previous video argue in favor of description that is “short and sweet”. In one example, the setting is a “small London flat” and nothing more- which seems odd for a city that is so socio-economically diverse.

In her examples, Sayre’s storytelling often breaks out of what most would call true deep POV. In the example below, she slips in backstory about a jungle setting, which if done in proper deep POV, would have been conveyed through dialog. Maybe by two characters anticipating an attack.

Then she does it again in the next paragraph.

We neither see the two men’s resentment nor how they give the protagonist Jake and his partner, Patrick, a cold shoulder. Sayre isn’t hyper-showing. She is hyper-telling.

Sayre also doesn’t prohibit the use of filter words, one of the major don’ts when writing in deep POV. Recognize, saw, and heard all appear in her writing examples.

So, here is a whole another way of doing deep POV. Too bad it’s not so different from third-person limited.

As for tips to take away from her videos:

  1. Use only action verbs (limit use of “to be” verb forms)
  2. Keep the story moving (this will limit digressions into backstory or scene description)
  3. Limit description only to the character’s moment by moment existence and make sure it is important for the movement of the plot

I rate this video five stars.

Note: This video is a rare bit of writing advice that advocates for the adverb. Sayre uses adverbs for emphasis, although her video is vague about what she means by that. Adverbs don’t typically add emphasis; they usually modify and restrict the meaning of a verb or adjective. Unless she means adverbs like totally: as in the sentence, “After he emerged dripping wet from the sea and she got a good glimpse of his package, she totally wanted him.”

AuthorTube video star rankings:

1 Star Babbling

2 stars Too basic to exist

3 stars Uninformative but entertaining

4 stars Useful but not engaging

5 stars Highly recommended

AuthorTube Review: Achieve Deep POV (five stars)

Do books compete with films and television shows? Not for my attention. But are books the dominant popular art form they were in the 19th century. Not even close. One means of redressing this irrelevancy is for the novel to ape film. Some authors do this by mimicking the deep structures of screenplays, going so far as to argue that the film lurking inside every narrative ought to be readily apparent to any man or woman working in Hollywood. Others try to beat film at its own game. They write essentially cinematic works- action driven, motion focused- and then give readers deeper access to characters through the use of deep point of view (POV).

Achieve Deep POV (posted on the YouTube channel, Nick’s Lessons on Story) makes just this compelling case before it goes into the nitty-gritty of how a writer can achieve deep POV. Whether you agree with the video’s arguments or not, I think it’s the best video yet posted on the subject.

Here is a list of tips on how to write in deep POV. What makes the video a cut above the rest is that it gives advice on how to stay in deep POV using illustrated examples. It’s a must watch.

  1. Don’t set the scene: Since the main viewpoint character is just a moving camera, a writer must establish the setting while the character is moving through a scene. I’ve seen similar advice before, most recently in a book called Plot & Structure. The goal as stated in Plot & Structure isn’t, however, to achieve deep POV but to create a hook that compels a reader to continue reading.
  2. Write with immediacy: The prose should reflect the character’s existence on a moment by moment level. Two things that disrupt this are (1) narrative considerations (i.e., creating suspense) and (2) digressive character thoughts.
  3. Don’t break the fourth wall: Deep POV requires that you cut out narrative story telling in toto. This means any writing that suggests there is a storyteller spinning a yarn. Here, the AuthorTuber’s example falters. He gives an example of a comic sentence that breaks the fourth wall and then provides a correction. But I think the correction also breaks the fourth wall. It’s possible that comedy, which requires a setup and possibly a detached point of view, may not be compatible with deep POC.
  4. Embrace the viewpoint character’s voice entirely: This means you can’t switch back and forth between third-person limited and third person omniscient in a scene. Writers I love, like Daphne du Maurier, do this often. The mode of storytelling switches as the drama ratchets up. The prose moves from third omniscient to third-person limited and then to deep third person. This technique is best illustrated in her short stories. This is, however, unacceptable in novels written in deep POV.
  5. Write from an inside out perspective: A view point character shouldn’t be aware of their own body language or image, though they should be conscious of such aspects of other characters in the story. When describing a viewpoint character’s experience, it’s best to stick to “primary thoughts,” which take the form of “visceral reactions” and “introspection.”
  6. Limit the amount of point of views: He recommends one viewpoint character for horror or mystery novels and up to three for epics.
  7. Choose introspection over visceral reactions: This was my favorite tip, even though it’s a rehash of tip 5. The example he gives, though, is odd, because his introspection sounds like narrative telling. Deep POV is tricky.
  8. Don’t hide emotions from readers, even for dramatic purposes: Access to a character’s head means access to a character’s head. That means no secrets. His example, however, is about hiding plot points, not emotions. Still, neither is acceptable in deep POV.
  9. Avoid all filter words: This point is the bread and butter of all videos and blog articles on deep point of view. It isn’t a panacea that will lead to deep POV.

At the end of the video, he advertises his novel (you can purchase it here). I was curious about it because I haven’t been successful at finding books written in deep POV. I opened up the sample and read the first page. I’ve pasted a screenshot of the first paragraph below.

Screen shot from the novel, Empty Vessels

The writing is unattractive and feels choppy. I had wondered in an earlier blog post if this would be the case for all books written in deep POV, but as I look at the passage, I can definitely see how you can improve the choppy writing.

In conclusion, I’m rating this video five stars.

Note: My favorite part of the video is his shout out to Gillian Flynn. I love her books too, but none are written in deep POV.

AuthorTube video star rankings:

1 Star Babbling

2 stars Too basic to exist

3 stars Uninformative but entertaining

4 stars Useful but not engaging

5 stars Highly recommended