QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Rule of Three

Certain motifs and patterns appear consistently in storytelling, whether it be fairy tales or literary fiction. The repetition of "threes" is particularly useful in writing humorous scenes and dialogue. Consider the following first draft:

"Kim scowled as she filled out the patient intake form, distracted by the screams of a diaper-clad toddler who managed to void his bladder while assaulting the receptionist."

Applying the rule of three, compare it to this version:

"Kim tried to ignore the screams of a diaper-clad toddler, who flung a sippy cup at the receptionist, screeched in delight at hitting his target, and celebrated the occasion by urinating in a potted fern."

(The above event may or may not describe a recent visit to a walk-in clinic.)

Now consider the use of threes in dialogue. Here is version one:

"Your repeated insults of my home town are off-putting," Bobby said.

"Listen, the other day I bought a hot dog off a guy in a landfill," Jess replied.

Cute, but add in a third line to add some extra zest to the debate:

"It is a salvage yard, not a landfill," Bobby replied, "And they are all beef kosher."

Experts say the human brain is hard-wired to perceive storytelling a specific manner, hence the centuries-old adherence to a three act structure with specific plot points. Three indicates a completeness, whether narrative or dialogue. So if you are conveying that your friend has a slightly creepy crush on your mom, see how it flows if you tighten the description to just three sentences:

"Most of the interaction between Steve and my mom happens in the kitchen. Mom flits around in her gym spandex, microwaving Hot Pockets while Steve pretends he actually wants a snack.  I avoid the scene by stashing twinkies under my bed for an after school pick-me-up."

Let's say you and Steve have a confrontation about his disturbing fondness for your mom:

"Man,  Debbie says you never have anything nice to say," Steve said.

"Stop coming over all the time," I shouted, "She's forty years old for god's sake! It's creepy"

"Debbie says forty is the new thirty."

Give it a whirl. Who is to argue with the likes of Aristotle that the magic number is three?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Funny Side of Writing: Writers and Self-Torture

There’s a certain amount of humor to be found in this wicked world of form rejections and endless edits and dreams that perpetually dance just beyond our reach.

Sometimes, we don’t see the humor in something until some time has passed. Probably because it's a sick kind of humor that really shouldn't be funny at all. When I think back over the years, this story from 2010 always stood out to me as one of those stories.

I'm glad to share this look back at one of the many times my writing career has been akin to torture. Enjoy my pain and hope it makes you smile.


It's a cruel beast, one that strikes through the heart of even the most stalwart person. Writers must be gluttons for punishment because our profession, by nature, is fraught with rejection.

I've been asking for it myself for over a year now, as I've queried agents and submitted my non-novel stuff around to everyone who'll read it. I've heard "no" more times than I can count.

And it never gets easier, not even when the no's are accompanied by apologies and compliments and offers to try again with something new. Even the form rejects hurt, making us think--what, I'm not good enough to reject personally? And how about the ones that say this is good but it doesn't fit my list/this issue/our publication? It's still a no. And it bugs us.

All these no's make it hideously easy for writers to doubt themselves. I used to wonder sometimes why I hadn't developed a complex. I wonder today if, in fact, I have.

Like most working writers (I hope so, at least) I have an email compulsion. I need to check and re-check and re-check often, hoping for a return on a query or a submission. I even developed a sort of separation anxiety since my day job is a twelve-hour shift without Internet. It had become so difficult to endure the day job-email blackout that I got a data plan on my phone. (And then I got a new phone because it was too hard to read mail on my Crackberry. Go figure.)

On my way out of work, I downloaded my mail to find new messages. Yay! I had that tiny thrill of happy-happy that momentarily satisfies my email compulsion.

Even better when I saw two emails from a journal I'd submitted to back in October. Of course, doubt strangled my excitement and the first thing I thought was, Oh great. Rejections.

And sure enough, the first one was a form rejection. Boo. Why bother checking the other right now? I thought. After all, it wasn't like the other had a subject that read BUT THIS ONE WE LOVED!

Being a sadist, however, I decided to read it and get it over with, so at the first stop light, I hit retrieve. By the time the light changed, I'd noticed it was still downloading.

Fantastic, I thought. So much for painlessly ripping off that Band-Aid. The connection was murderously slow. Figures. This rejection was really going to make me work for it. I canceled the download and started over before I headed over the mountain.

Fifteen minutes later, I saw it was still only half downloaded. What the hell? Curiosity consumed me.

I pulled over and checked the file size of the first rejection. Eight MB. Ok. I checked the other one. Thirty-two hundred. Ooooo-kay. Which could mean…maybe not a rejection after all.

Here's where the whole I-think-I-have-a-complex comes in. I instantly began to doubt it could be good news. But I didn't have just any old doubt. Oh, no. This was Writer's Doubt to the nth degree.

Over the course of the next ten minutes, I went through a series of stages of doubt that ranged from maybe it's a form rejection and a copy of their newsletter to maybe it's a rejection and a copy of their submission guidelines with a warning to follow them next time.

By the time I got home, I'd reached the confidence-crippling final stage of it's got to be a list of reasons why they're rejecting it accompanied by a wav. file of all the editors chanting YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK!

It took a while to get up the nerve to turn on my laptop and actually read the message. My heart was in my throat and my anxiety was so palpable the dog hid under the table and whined.

Stupid doubt. My poem "Blackened Madonna" had been accepted by Ghostlight Magazine and the email contained the contract. Whew. Talk about dodging a bullet.

I chuckled and sank bonelessly onto the couch, promising myself that, next time, I won't doubt myself to the point of neurosis. But eh, who am I kidding? I may write fiction but I can't kid myself into believing that fantasy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Lighter Side of Writing: Irony is not the Same Thing as Fate

I’m filling in for Adriana Mather, who apparently thinks starring in a film being screened at the Cannes Film Festival is an adequate justification for skipping out on her QueryTracker Blog duties. [Here’s the trailer btw] That, or readying her debut novel, How to Hang a Witch, for publication by Knopf/Random House. Or getting to work on her second novel, now that her proposal has been accepted by said Big Four publisher. If pressed for lame excuses, I’m sure she has more.
Well, I’ve got news for you Adriana – you are NOT the only person with pressing and impressive matters to attend to. Sure, I’d love to star in movies and fly to the South of France – but Cannes happens to conflict with BOTH Family Fun Night AND the fifth grade sleepover graduation party. Plus, it’s not like my sourdough starter can feed itself. Some of us just have our priorities straight. Cannes and publishing deals are nice, but I have unlimited fresh eggs.
Am I a tad sarcastic and bitter? Naw. Sarcastic as hell but, as Adriana surely pieced together from the two dozen emails we’ve exchanged in the past week (some of which contain the electronic equivalent of me squealing like a twelve-year-old girl at a boy band concert) I’m not particularly bitter. I am so proud of Adriana that I’m basically using (abusing) the post I agreed to cover for her to brag about her. That and use her to demonstrate sarcasm, which I know she won’t mind because she’s such a sweetheart.
Although it’s FAR subtler in my fiction than the above example, sarcasm is a mainstay of my writing. There are not a lot of humorous devices that allow a narrator (particularly an omniscient narrator) to maintain the authoritative persona of Narrator, with a capital “N.” Sarcasm and irony, however, lean on that persona, using the god-like knowledge of the omni narrator as a straight line, with the contrasting description or commentary landing the punch line. I have little choice but to use these devices. That’s what they were made for.
Writing satire, it’s impossible for me to function without at least some sarcasm (which is a source of humor) and a lot of irony (which may or may not be humorous, but turns otherwise innocuous story elements into satire). By way of very quick and very dirty (and therefore not completely accurate) definitions:
Sarcasm is saying one thing and meaning the opposite,
Irony is expecting one thing and getting the opposite.
The difference between what is or is expected and the intent is deciphered by you.
Neither device is inherently funny. The “kiss of death” in Mafia lore and, notably, Puzo’s The Godfather is the ultimate sarcasm, and irony is as often tragic as humorous – just ask Oedipus. But, while they aren’t inherently humorous, each starts out with one of the two elements of humor present: incongruity. The real meaning is not on the page, it’s in the reader’s own thinking.
In my first post on this topic, I discussed the basic neurobiological response that is “humor;” what the brainiacs call “the juxtaposition of mental sets.” “Funny” comes from incongruity. The gap between the normal or expected and the actual outcome is where the punch line for every joke ever told lands. While not every unexpected plot twist is funny, and tragedy relies on irony as heavily as comedy does, both devices still start with everything you need to make a joke out of.
What you do from there is up to you.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Finding the Humor: Jokes in the Midst of Tragedy

One of the worst things to believe about writing tragedies is that every scene must be tragic. Filling a serious book with heavy scenes and bleak dialogue will not get you very far. You want to be taken seriously as a writer of Important Things, and so you take yourself and your story seriously, too.

This can be a huge detriment to the quality of your story. When you're working with heavy themes, the most important thing to remember is that to your characters, there is no overarching theme. There are the present circumstances and what they're doing about them, nothing else.

The point is this: sometimes you need humor where humor doesn't seem to belong. You need it in stories about fighting other children to the death on national television. You need it in stories about cancer. And most likely, you need it in your own story, too.

Most people, and therefore most characters, have a go-to type of humor, be it so-unfunny-they're-funny (a la Ross Geller), sarcastic, hyperbolic, or a number of other things. Tragedy, especially tragedy that hasn't happened yet, doesn't change that.

If you have a character who seeks refuge through humor, it doesn't matter whether he's about to lose his eyesight to cancer and the girlfriend he loves just broke up with him and all his other friends are terminal, too. He's going to continue to seek refuge through humor.

Even if your story ends in a way that makes Romeo and Juliet seem happy, just because your book is sad, doesn't mean it has to read like it's sad. Your characters don't know the fate that awaits them. Give them some hope. Let them make inopportune jokes and feel terrible about it afterwards. Let them have a moment of refuge in the midst of their lives falling apart when they have semi-normal banter with a stranger on a bus.

Trust me, your readers will want a break from the heart-wrenching, anyway. There's nothing like the cognitive dissonance of wiping sad tears from your eyes while laughing at something funny that someone just said. You feel terrible for laughing when the situation is so bleak, and yet you can't help it; it's funny. That sort of cognitive dissonance permeates real life, and it will bring that realism into the world of your story.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Funny Side of Writing: Insert Your Topic Here

Okay, the title is not actually “Insert Your Topic Here.” It’s something along the lines of “How Humor Applies to Two of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing.” For the handful of people on the QueryTracker Blog Team, though, this month’s assigned title is “The Funny Side of Writing: Insert Your Topic Here,” so a handful of people got the joke before I explained it. It’s a bit of an inside joke – an extreme example of the fact that all humor is inside humor.  

Ooh, that’s much better. Forget that bit about “How Humor Applies…” The real title of this post is now The Funny Side of Writing: All Humor is Inside Humor. Plus some stuff about Kurt Vonnegut.

Humor presents an extreme example of Vonnegut’s advice: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” There is no such thing as a joke that: (a) will not offend anyone; (b) every reader will get; (c) can be explained to those who don’t get it in a sufficiently humorous way those who “got it” won’t be bored; and (d) having traversed the minefield that is (a) through (c) on this list, anyone thinks is funny.

Humor is such an effective tool because, done right, it creates a bond between the writer and reader that makes the reader feel special. She “gets” the joke, which means she is in on the little secret the joke presents. This can happen one of three ways:

  • ·         The very direct way that hopefully made the title of this article amusing to five people – The existence of an actual inside joke, like a subtle literary reference few of your readers may pick up on, making those who do feel Überspecial.
  • ·       Letting the rest of the riffraff in on the joke – The explanation provided in the first paragraph of this post, which is, generally, the worst option. That said, some writers (Douglas Adams = God) explain things in such a clever way the reader feels special having received the explanation and joining the “in crowd.”
  • ·         Building the humor from the inside out, first giving the reader the inside information, then making the joke it’s based on – The second paragraph of this post, which is a different version of the same joke about the title. I’m still messing around with the title, sharing the process of replacing the ridiculous one with something more descriptive, but by bringing the reader (that’s you, btw) along, I (that’s me, btw) create the insides of the inside joke: My title sucks because I cut and pasted the stupid thing. Here I am, two paragraphs in, still groping for a title.

Of all Vonnegut’s rules, or any rules of writing I’ve ever seen anywhere, though, the one I think is most important to keep in mind with respect to humor is the Fourth: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. If I ever form some kind of humor writing cult, THAT will be the password, and the initiation will involve writing that on your private bits in goat blood or something else sufficiently weird that it would be impossible to forget.

Now that I look at it, that is a rather long sentence. Yeah, it would definitely need to be “something else sufficiently weird.”

And I live on a farm. It’s not goat blood I’m worried about running out of.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Finding The Humor: Because you can't argue with this

Dear Ms. Lebak:

Thank you for submitting to the Tiddlywinks List Of Excellence. You were declined for inclusion in our list because one judge indicated your piece was only 35 pages long, and we only list novel-length fiction. Plus, the last page had only "Chapter Three" followed by a couple of lines of unintelligible text that terminated abruptly. While many artists are able to carry off this effect, this is not proper manuscript format, so we feel your work would be better suited to a literary contest.

This decision may not be appealed.

Beatrice Smith


Dear Ms. Smith:

I'm sorry to hear about your decision, but the book is 375 pages long and has twenty-nine chapters. I believe your judge's ebook file was corrupted and would be glad to send him or her a better copy.

Thank you,

Jane Lebak


Dear Ms. Lebak: 

Our judges are consummate professionals, I assure you. I didn't want to give a laundry list of issues with your work, but that wasn't the only problem. Another of the judges indicated that in Chapter 25, your main character picks up her phone and consults the goddess Siri, and later on mentiones a so-called Book of Habakkuk. This puts your work firmly in the speculative or slipstream genres, and Tiddlywinks does not list works in those genres.

Thank you for your understanding.

Beatrice Smith


Dear Ms. Smith:

Of course your judges are consummate professionals, but as your second judge had issues with Chapter Twenty Five, clearly the full text of the work does not terminate at Chapter Three.

To clarify about Siri, if you pick up your iPhone and push the button that looks like a microphone, then speak into your phone, you can say something like, "Siri, what is the Book of Habukkuk?" and receive an answer. It has nothing to do with gods and goddesses.

Please reconsider your rejection on those grounds.




Dear Jane:

Thank you! I've been having so much fun with my phone now that I know what to do with that button! I'm very glad you've reached out to me about the Tiddlywinks list, but I'm afraid we still can't accept your piece for our list because you consistently mis-spelled Pheonix, Arizona, which indicates sloppy editing. 

Also, I know Catholics have all those extra weird books in their Bibles, but Tiddlywinks doesn't want to inclue Catholic books. It's nothing personal, but maybe you should look at one of your Catholic Bibles and see who has listed it in their catalog, then see if  you can be included in those lists.


Beatrice (and Siri!)


Dear Ms. Smith:

Siri would be more than happy to verify for you the proper spelling of Phoenix, and Siri will also tell you Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets included in mainstream Protestant Bibles. I did as you suggested, though, and looked up awards won by my Catholic Bible.  Happily, I found one that will interest you. You can find it listed on page five of your Tiddlywinks List Of Excellence. 

Given that you've rejected my book for an alien technology you have on your phone, a corrupted ebook file, and a misunderstanding of both proper spelling and which books are in the Protestant Bible, would you mind reconsidering my book for the Tiddlywinks List of Excellence?

Gratefully yours,



Dear Jane:

My, you are persistent. The first letter did say this decision could not be appealed. 


Beatrice Smith

PS: Normal body temperature is not 37 degrees, and you need to watch your formatting because the degree mark kept getting a C added after it. I'm just telling you this as a friend.


Dear Ms. Smith and everyone at Tiddlywinks:

Live long and prosper.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lighter Side of Business: Book Signings

You've been asked/allowed/we-won't-call-the-cops-if-you-show-up to do a book signing? Great! You get bonus points if it's indoors. I'll just say that outdoor events in the deep south are only bearable for three days between January and March, and no one knows when those days will fall.

My first "official" book signing was in the dead of winter in Michigan, so, naturally, I figured, Captive audience. It's frickin' cold outside!  When I rolled up an hour early just to get the lay of the land, I saw a young man perched at what would soon be my folding card table selling his self-published epic fantasy novel. And, I might add, they were selling briskly. I impatiently gnawed on my Styrofoam cup filled with hot chocolate until exactly ten minutes before my signing was due to start.

"Uhm, you've been in the store for like, an hour, right?" the clerk asked.

"No, that wasn't me," I replied, "Just got here. Had another event."

This was technically true. I'd had lunch with my sister in law and because I was on vacation and it was the holiday season, we could drink at noon without judgment.

I set up at the card table, exchanging pleasantries with the young man, who'd sold all of the books he brought except for one, which I purchased. Good karma, right? He wished me luck and went to the hipster coffee shop next door where I always felt like everyone's mother.

So I sat and smiled cheerfully at the holiday shoppers who bustled in and out of the store. For two solid hours I sat and smiled. A few people smiled back, a few glanced at the book and the display the store manager had kindly set up. No one stopped to pick up the book or read the blurb or notice that supplies were dwindling. So I tucked a few away so it looked like only two remained. I really wanted to take a restroom break after the wine at lunch and all the hot chocolate, but what if I missed the one customer looking for exactly the book I had? No, I had to stay strong.

And I did. With fifteen minutes left, I finally made a sale. To my mother in law. Who only reads biographies and Good Housekeeping. But with a fistful of dollar bills in hand from my sale, I went across the street to buy myself a cool cup of coffee.

And to tell those kids in the café that, for the love of god, they needed to bundle up!