QueryTracker logo.As I mentioned in my last post, I’m back in the query trenches. And that means I’m spending way too much time thinking about querying.

So let’s talk about one of my favorite QueryTracker tools: the Data Explorer!

What is the Data Explorer?

The Data Explorer shows every time a QueryTracker user has submitted a query to a specific agent. It shows you their anonymized data: the genre of the book, its approximate length, how it was submitted, when it was submitted, what their response was, and how long it took to get it. And a whole lot of people use QueryTracker. And that means that, while the Data Explorer doesn’t show you every query an agent is getting, you can still see how that agent has responded to hundreds of other queries–in real time!

First thing’s first: this is, unfortunately, a feature you can only use if you have a paid QueryTracker membership. And while it’s not a feature I’d necessarily get a paid membership for, it’s super useful once you’ve made the jump.

So, with that in mind, you can get to the Data Explorer from your Query list. First, add some agents to your query list. Query people, and log those queries! Add agents to your to-query list! I explained how to do some of this in my last post. Once you’ve done that:

  1. Go to “Queries” in the top navigation.
  2. You can choose what agents to show here–the agents you haven’t queried yet? The ones you have? Choose whatever you want to see under “Advanced Search Filters.”
  3. Click this button:

QueryTracker Data Explorer - 3

The thing that looks like a stack of pancakes? That’s the Data Explorer. (The arrow beneath it goes to the Query Timeline, which uses the same data as the Explorer. The Explorer is a spreadsheet and the timeline is a graphical, er, timeline.)

Both are cool, but we’re going to click on the pancakes.

What does the Data Explorer look like?

Behold!

QueryTracker Data Explorer

I can see every single submission that has been logged in QueryTracker. And this is useful data! If I were about to query this particular agent, I could glean a few details:

  • She responds really quickly! Most of those rejections come in in under 20 days.
  • She might in a few days if she wants to request materials. (But not always! Don’t give up hope, me!)
  • She’s apparently  been busy, because she hasn’t responded to any queries at all since May 8. (Again! Don’t give up hope!)

But you know what? I’ve already queried her! Here I am~

Spreadsheet of manuscript submissions and

See that highlighted submission? That’s me. And that’s what makes this extra fun. I can now sign in to QueryTracker, check the explorer, and watch the people who submitted to her before me log their responses. And that means:

  • I can (roughly) tell when she starts responding to queries again. (I took that screenshot last week, for example, and she still hasn’t responded to anyone. So we’re still waiting!)
  • If she goes through her inbox in order (which isn’t a given), I can watch the people ahead of me log their responses.
  • Based on that, I can roughly guess when she might respond to my query.

And if I triangulate that with her agency’s website, that says she tries to respond to all queries, and usually does so within 4 weeks, I can say… Errrr, I probably should anticipate an answer around early June. So I’ve still got several weeks to go.

So… yes. This can make you obsess a little.

The Data Explorer does have some limitations, though.

The biggest drawback to the Explorer is that it’s self-reported data from the people using QueryTracker. It has some limitations:

  • People often forget to choose their book genre, leading to book submissions listed as “Not Specified.” That makes it harder to tell what an agent is requesting.
  • QueryTracker tracks Middle Grade and Young Adult books as their own genre, and you can only categorize your book as one thing. I write YA fantasy, so I have to choose: YA or fantasy? And since everyone else has to choose, I have no idea what an agent is actually requesting. They’re requesting YA! But what genre?! They’re requesting fantasy! But is that adult or YA?! I have no idea!
  • And, of course, people don’t always record their submissions right. People forget to report when they got a rejection. They forget to close out responses for “no response = no” agents. So sometimes you’ll see weird and likely inaccurate results.

So the data isn’t perfect. But it still gives you a general idea of what that agent’s doing.

This isn’t the only data you can get in QueryTracker, mind you.

If you want to get really number-crunchy, the Data Explorer isn’t actually the most useful tool in QueryTracker. There’s a whole other feature in QueryTracker called “Reports” that does stuff like, telling you an agent’s average response rate, or what genres they’re requesting, or whatever. But that’s a separate feature, and something I should talk about another day.

So, yeah. You don’t have to export the Data Explorer data into Excel and do your own number crunching (unless you really want to). But it’s fun for at-a-glance and real-time information.

In conclusion, this is an awesome way to obsess constantly over your queries.

Querying is slooooooooow. But if you have something like the Data Explorer, you can at least get a rough estimate for how long you might have to wait. Watch the responses to other people trickle in! Watch your submission slowwwwwwly creep down the queue! It’s still going to be a multi-month wait, but at least you know where you are in the queue. Kind of. Maybe. Sort of.

Or you can just be obsessive. That’s fun, too.

 

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I’m officially back in the query trenches! I’ve got a brand-spanking-new YA fantasy ready to go, and I’d dearly like to get a literary agent for it.

It’s harrowing! It’s nerve-wracking! I’m anxious!

And, well, that’s a lot of emotional energy. I just sent out my first batch, and… hey, it looks like most could respond any time between now and August. And since that’s a long time to be anxious, it’s time to distract myself!

…By writing a post about querying. This might not be the best plan. But screw it, let’s talk about how I find agents to query.

Step #1: QueryTracker is life.

QueryTracker logo.I’ve looked for agents a ton of ways–I’ve used Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and their website, gone to a ton of websites, searched through forums… But my absolute favorite tool, and the one I use almost exclusively these days, is the QueryTracker website.

It’s glorious. With a free account, you can find agents, track who you’ve applied to, and get basic statistics. (With a paid account, you can track multiple books and get access to the really awesome statistics–like the absolutely glorious data tracker.)

And it’s simple to find agents:

  1. Go to Agents > Search for Agents.
  2. In the right column, under “Advanced Search Features,” find the “Select A Genre” drop-down menu.
  3. Select your genre.
  4. Click “Hide agents who are closed to queries.” (This will be above the Advanced Search area.)

That’s it! A list of agents in your genre will appear on the page.

Step #2: Sorting through the QueryTracker results.

Now, don’t get too excited: you can’t query all of these people.

What are we looking at, and why can’t we query all these people?

You now have a list of agents who might represent your genre. Might. Maybe. But even if they’re all viable agents in your genre, you can only query a subset of them.

First off, an agency may have multiple agents in your genre. This is tricky! Some agencies let you query all their agents (as long as you let each agent reject you before going to the next) and some have a strict policy of “A no from one of us is a no from all of us.” So you’re going to have to choose one person per agency, at least to start–and possibly one person per agency, period.

And that’s assuming that you could query any of the people in that agency. You see, even though QueryTracker gave you a shiny list of potential agents, they still might not be appropriate for your book. An agent might represent fantasy, but they might only be looking for urban fantasy. And if an agent represents multiple age ranges, they might not represent your genre at all–I’ve seen a few agents that are listed under young adult and fantasy, but who only want contemporary young adult and adult fantasy.

So how do you deal with all this?

Research every agency.

Let’s say that you’re looking for YA and your QueryTracker search results include a boatload of agents from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You now know you have to start with one of them. But who?

  1. In QueryTracker, click on any agent’s name from that agency. It doesn’t matter who.
  2. You’ll end up on that agent’s page. In the far left column you’ll find that agent’s email (if known), the agency’s website link, and some other information.
  3. Click on the agency’s link.
  4. Now you should be at the agency’s website. Every agency website will include a page about the agents and a page about their submission process. Start by finding their list of agents. (For the above-mentioned Andrea Brown Literary Agency, that page is here.)
  5. Read every agent’s bio. What are they interested in? Do any of them actually seem appropriate for your book? Out of all of these agents, who seems like the best fit for you?
    1. Optional: This is also a good time to check out #MSWL, a promising agent’s Twitter account, or your good ol’ friend Google. These might help you learn whether your story is a good fit for them.
  6. Write down the agents who seem most appropriate. But do you have to choose one or can you query one, wait for a rejection, and query the other? Let’s find out!
  7. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. You’ll have to dig for that page, too, but you can usually just look for a “Submissions” button. Here’s Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s submission guidelines.
  8. Now you have decided which agent to query first. You also know how to query them! Return to QueryTracker.
  9. Go back to Agents > Search for Agents. Find the agent you decided on.
  10. To the left of their name (and left of the “Query Status” column), there will be a single, unmarked checkbox. Check that!
  11. This will add this agent to your “My Query List,” which you can view by clicking “Queries” in the top navigation.

Phew! Now you have this agent on your to-query list.

Now do that again. And again. And again.

Step #3: Keep track of your submission guidelines.

Before you actually query someone, it can be helpful to know what to prepare. Submission guidelines are tricky. What do they want? A query? A query and 5 pages? A query and 10 pages? A query, a 2-page synopsis, and the first chapter? A query, a 1-page synopsis, a biography, and… OK, you get the point. It varies.

And if you want to make querying as easy as possible, you probably want to know who wants what ahead of time. There are a few ways to do this.

Option #1: Use QueryTracker

QueryTracker has a few tools to help you track your data.

  1. Go to “Queries” In the top navigation.
  2. You should see a list of all the agents you want to query. (If you don’t, click on the “Advanced Search” tab in the right column and click “Outstanding Queries.”)
  3. You can see who you queried, when you queried, how many days your query has been out, and a ton of other things. For now, find the “Query Details” column.
  4. The second icon in that column (which will be grayed out) is “Add a Note for this Query.” Click on that.

This creates a private note that only you can see. You can track your submission guidelines there (or anything else you want to.)

Option #2: Keep that information on a file on your computer.

I know this is a little low-tech, but I track all my agent research on QueryTracker AND in an Excel file on my computer.

I love my Excel tracker. I write down the agent’s name, what materials they want, and any special notes about what they’re looking for. And since this is Excel, I can see all this information in columns, side-by-side, at a glance.

This is especially fun for keeping track of stuff like “What version of my query I used” and “When the agent should respond by (if ever.)” You can track that stuff in QueryTracker, but only in your private notes. And the stuff in your private notes aren’t visible on your My Queries page, or sortable, and you can’t see them at all unless you open them one at a time. So I use Excel so I can see those extra details without digging.

Step #4: Get your materials ready.

So what do these agents want? You have to make a query letter. But what else? Do you need a synopsis? Do you need a bio? Do you need an ultra-polished, Standard Manuscript Format-formatted version of 5 pages? 10?

Get all that stuff ready.

Step #5: Enjoy querying!

And now you’re good to go. Look at your list, decide who to query in what order (or, hey, go into QueryTracker and assign each agent a Query Priority. It’s under the “Query Details” tab!)

Go back to the submission guidelines for that agent’s agency. Do everything they ask. Send the right materials to the right agent.

Then wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I like to use QueryTracker (or my friendly local Excel file) to track the agency’s estimated response times. Did they say that they respond in 6 weeks, and no response = no? Or  was it “We’ll respond to everything within 3 months”? Write that down.

Then you, too, can settle in for the long haul. And you, too, can write random blog posts to keep your mind–unsuccessfully–off the realization that you’ll be waiting a long time.

So, yes. I guess I’m saying that I’ll probably post a lot more about querying these next few months. You might as well prepare yourself.

The Scrivener logo.This week’s post is going to be a short one. But I have to share!

Scrivener is an incredibly popular piece of writing software. It has loads of features. Loads! It has so many, in fact, that you could use it for years and still find ones you’ve never seen before.

I had one of those moments last week. Scrivener has a name generator. You know, for coming up with names for your characters. And it’s ridiculously full-featured.

And now I’m going to show you where it is. Just in case, you know, you also had no idea it existed.

Note: these directions are for the Windows version of the software.

How to find the name generator

  1. Go to “Tools.”
  2. Go to “Writing Tools.”
  3. Optional: Boggle at the list of tools. Did you know those were there? I didn’t.
  4. Click on “Name Generator…”

That’s it! Super simple.

Screenshot of the name generator in Scrive

So what’s in this thing?

Just look at it!

The Scrivener name generator, with a list of generated names, genders, first/last name origins, and other fields.

You can:

  • Choose male or female names (or both).
  • Choose a culture for the first and last name.
  • Filter a little: do you only want names starting with the letter A? You can! Do you want a name that ends and starts with the same letter? I can’t imagine you’ll use that a lot. But you can!
  • Save the names you like in the shortlist.
  • Check out what the names mean in the “First Name Meanings” tab.
  • Import a list of names from somewhere else. Do you have your own list of names? Then plug them in!

And the “First name/Last name origin” tabs? Look at them. Look at them!

Scrivener's name generator with the "First name Origin" drop-down menu selected.

Not only can you choose names from many modern cultures, there’s also a large selection of ancient cultures. A list of ancient Aztecan names? That’s phenomenal.

Will this feature change your life? Probably not. But is it cool that it exists? Absolutely. It’s a cute, versatile little tool, and if you ever need it, it’s there. Go wild!

Are you a plotter or a planner? Well? Do you plan things or do you wing it? Are you organized or spontaneous? Do you structure your books or do you wait for the muse to take you by the hand?

You’re one or the other! Choose!

If you’ve been writing any amount of time, you’ve heard this approximately five million times. And like most things that separate people into groups, people can get tribal about it.

And you know what’s nuts? It’s nonsense. There’s no black-and-white line between plotting and pantsing. I don’t even know how we got here. Who decided that the only choices available are to write a story completely blind or to plan everything ahead of time?

When it comes to planning a story, your choices aren’t “plan everything” or “plan absolutely nothing.”

Here’s the problem with plotting and pantsing. If there are only two choices and you have to choose one, you might think there are only two ways to write: you plan everything in advance or you plan nothing.

This is so, so limiting.

I’ve seen people commit to planning, try to figure out every scene in their book, then despair when they come up with new ideas mid-story. They act like these unplanned-for ideas mean they did something wrong.

And I’ve seen people try to pants a story and hit a creative wall. They don’t know what to write next. Nothing seems natural, the characters could go a dozen different ways, and they may not know where the story is going. But they’re so bought into the idea of creativity as spontaneous experience that they feel they are not allowed to plan ahead at all.

These people have squeezed themselves in tiny little holes. They’re a “planner,” so innovating in the writing phase is wrong! They’re a “pantser,” so planning ahead is forbidden!

Why do people do this to themselves?

Plotting and pantsing is a continuum, not a binary choice.

OK. So let’s throw away the idea that you have to be in either Camp Planning or Camp Spontaneity. Let’s think of it like a continuum.

Imagine a line. On the faaaaaaaaarthest left side is “plan absolutely everything in your story.” And on the other end, the line ends with “plan absolutely nothing.”

And in the middle is a great, vast expanse. What belongs there, you ask? Everything! Anything! Because you know what? There are degrees of planning and degrees of spontaneity.

  • A really hardcore planner might map out all ~40ish scenes in their book before beginning.
  • …But they could still give themselves permission to deviate from it if they come up with a better idea when they’re writing it. They may even end up with a totally different book than what they planned.
  • Or you could do a lighter outline and sketch out bullet points for each scene (or chapter!), but go into the story not specifically knowing how all those events will happen.
  • Or hey, you could do some really light planning and go in only knowing your Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Climax, and wing everything in between!
  • Maybe you like to plan your characters and world, but not your plot? That’s good, too!
  • Or you could jump in without an outline, pants the story, but “micro outline” one or two chapters ahead of where you are, so you never start a writing session “blind.”
  • Or you can wing the story, but have a backup plan in case you ever hit a wall. Maybe you can be spontaneous until you really don’t know what to do, and then you can brainstorm some ideas, write down the best of them, and see how to integrate them into your work.

Or maybe you have your own technique! That’s even better!

And you know what? These are all perfectly viable techniques. You can plan a lot or a little. You could write an outline and also write organically. You can wing a story but still plan certain parts of it. You can make your own system, where you do the things that work for you and don’t do the ones that don’t.

And you know what? I’m willing to bet that most people do this. The people who pants an entire story and start without knowing anything that will happen? They are the panstiest pantsers there are, but they certainly aren’t the majority. They’re just as much an outlier as the people who plan 100% of their stories in the outline phase and never, ever deviate from it.

And if you’re not trying to cram yourself into a box, you can take advantages of BOTH ways to be creative.

And that’s the magic: planning can be useful. Letting the story guide you in an unexpected direction can be useful. So wouldn’t you want to give yourself permission to do both? It just gives you more tools to use.

And who wants to cram themselves in a box, anyway?

So, seriously: why is this a thing? Why are people so rigid about it? Can’t we treat plotting and not-plotting like techniques we can all use, and stop telling ourselves that we “have” to be creative in a certain way?

Just do whatever works for you.

The Scribbler logo.I’ve got something a little different this week! You’ve probably heard of these monthly subscription box programs that have been so popular lately. If not, here’s how it works: people send out monthly mystery gift boxes based on a theme. You sign up, and you get mailed a box every month. I’ve never signed up for one before, although I’ve been mightily tempted–there’s a lot of cool stuff out there!

Then I saw a writing-related one, and I couldn’t resist anymore.

Scribbler, which you can find at goscribbler.com, was created by two authors: Victoria Scott and Lindsay Cummings. Each box comes with a novel, a “writing passport” with tips and tricks from the author of that book, an exclusive invitation to an event with an industry professional, and some goodies.

The first Scribbler box launched last week, on March 23. Let’s look at what was in it!

The Goodies

Let’s get the little stuff out of the way. This box came with:

The Scribbler box poster: I will write 500 words and I will write 500 more!

A mini-poster. This was printed on heavyweight paper and was coiled to fit into the box. Interesting idea, but I had to pin the heck out of it to make it lie flat.

Decal that reads #WRITER.

A decal. Slap it on your stuff.

A sheet of stickers. It includes multicolored typewriters reading 'word count'

Word count stickers. Cute and colorful, although I admit that I don’t know how you’d use them. I write on the computer and I keep track of my words in Excel. I guess if you had a calendar and wanted to give yourself some kudos, you could put one up for every day you write? Unfortunately, these are also tiny. You’d need a fine-point pen and a careful hand to put four digits on these.

A set of 10 Yoobi mini-highlighters in a rainbow of colors.

Mini-highlighters! They’re on the small side (as you can tell from the mini) but they’re cute and come in a variety of colors. It’s also a pretty nice brand. This is probably my favorite gift out of the goodies.

Pencil bag that reads 'The Throne of Glass Series, From #1 Bestselling Author Sarah. J. Maas, worldofsarahjmaas.com, Bloomsbury.'

Photo Mar 26, 11 10 49 AM

And a little pencil bag from the Throne of Glass series. I’m not the largest fan of the design. The back is alright (it has a tagline from the series, at least) but the front seems kind of silly. I’d rather have a picture or a logo. It seems a bit anticlimactic to literally write just “The Throne of Glass Series” on a bag.

The book!

Brigid Kemmerer's More than We Can Tell, next to an autographed bookmark, an autographed sticker, and temporary tattoos that resemble the cover of the book.

This month’s box came with Brigid Kemmerer’s More Than We Can Tell, a YA contemporary. It also comes with a few goodies for fans of the author, including:

  • A plain sticker with Ms. Kemmerer’s signature on it, so you can stick it wherever you want
  • A bookmark, also signed, from Ms. Kemmerer’s previous book, Letters to the Lost
  • A set of temporary tattoos consisting of the text bubbles seen on the cover of the book.

More Than We Can Tell is a bit out of my genre, unfortunately–I will read almost any genre fiction and non-fiction, but contemporary fiction has never been my cup of tea. But this seems like a highly acclaimed book from a really successful author, and I am probably now required to at least give it a shot.

The Writing Passport

Small, stapled pamphlet reading 'Writing Passport: Emotional Touchpoints, Volume 1, March 2018.'

Going hand-in-hand with More than We Can Tell is this month’s Writing Passport. This is a regular feature where the author of this month’s book gives some tips on how to do the things they do best.

It’s a cute little book. It’s a decent length (23 pages) and is printed on decent, sturdy paper. It includes an introduction from the Scribbler team that explains what the pamphlets are for and how the Scribbler boxes generally differ from other boxes. Then there’s a bio for Ms. Kemmerer and her tips on Emotional Touchpoints.

She briefly goes through her approach and includes three mini-exercises. I didn’t take toooo very much away from them–the tips weren’t radically different from what I’ve read in most books on craft. All in all, it was a nice, quick read, with some nice concepts, but nothing super groundbreaking.

A Special Invitation to an Event with an Agent

An invitation to an exclusive skype chat with Literary Agent Mandy Hubbard. Explains that a private link will be emailed before the chat.

Now this is something I’m excited about: an event with Mandy Hubbard from the Emerald City Literary Agency. Apparently, the folks who signed up for this Scribbler box will get to attend a Skype chat with her.

I have absolutely no idea what it will entail. But isn’t that awesome?

Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited as I could be, because while Ms. Hubbard represents YA, including fantasy, it looks like she only wants stuff with strong romance elements. And I… am definitely not writing anything that can be considered fantasy-romance. So if this does turn out to be a pitch event (and it may not!) I don’t know how much it’d help me. A presentation from an agent is always a fun and illuminating experience, though!

The concept is absolutely killer, and this is, hands down, the most useful and interesting part of the box.

And that’s it!

So what do I think? I don’t know!

…What, “I don’t know”? Yeah, that was a lame response. Sorry. But I really don’t know how I feel. I’m truly excited about the agent invitation, even though I don’t know what kind of event it is. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of event it is! It’s an awesome idea, and the idea of getting something like this every single month is amazing.

But outside of that, I admit I’m kind of meh. Out of the goodies, the only thing I really love are the highlighters. They may be mini, but they are genuinely something I’d buy on a whim.

The others? Ehhh. I’ll probably slap the decal on my laptop, but it’s nothing I’d normally go out of my way to get. The wordcount stickers are a nice idea, but they’re small. And again, when and how am I going to use them?

The book may be highly rated, but I really don’t read contemporary. Like, ever. (Wouldn’t a touching tale of two kids in school be better if they were slipping through time, or possessed of an ancient power, or at least being hunted by a creature of pure darkness? No? Come on. Can’t it at least be set in space?) Is it good to read widely? Yes. Should I read it anyway, because the author is really good at what she does? Maybe? But I have such a long reading list already!

All in all, this is… pretty much par the course for a subscription box. It’s a gamble. You spend a chunk of money and hope, at the end of it, that you get enough stuff that you actually like. And for me, I’m on the line. The agent thing is great. So are the highlighters (but, then again, they’re $5, and this box is $30/month.) The pamphlet is a cool idea, although I didn’t get much out of this month’s.

So is this a good value? Financially, it’s reasonably priced–a hardcover book, one $5 big-ticket item, and a bunch of tiny goodies is a good amount of content for $30. But it’s a subscription box, and that means that you might end up getting a bunch of stuff that isn’t up your alley.

Personally? I’d love to see more craft-related stuff, even if it’s just a one-sentence thing that fits on a notecard: a writing prompt. A step-by-step writing exercise. A challenge. Something that tells people to go out and write something. The pamphlet kinda scratches that itch, but I’d love to see more.

All in all, it’s not a bad box for a writer. I wasn’t blown away by this box, but I’m interested enough to give it another month. And if you’re interested, give the April box a look–it’s about point of view!

Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.

It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!

Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.

But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people.  So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.

What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?

So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:

  • Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
  • If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
  • Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
  • Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
  • Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
  • Write all the way to the end.
  • Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.

Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.

The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.

What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?

So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”

And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!

No! No no no no! You should definitely not:

  • Write nonsense.
  • Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
  • Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
  • Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
  • Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.

And why not?

The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.

When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)

The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?

  • Characters you want to keep
  • Events you want to happen
  • Plot arcs you like

…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.

But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.

Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.

A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.

But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.

So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.