Nuts & Bolts

Speaking of Characters

My agent is brilliant. He knows how stories work because he reads a ton (as in, he recently tweeted that he was reading 67 books at once), and he is great at wading through the murk and honing in on what is most important in a story.

In our recent conversation about my novel in progress, he made the point that every character needs to have a want or a desire that is separate from the story. Meaning, each character needs something she would go after, whether the events of the story happen or not. That’s what gives each character her own life and makes her multi-dimensional.

For Rosetta, in I Shall Be Near To You, that want was her own farm. She would have pursued and dreamt of that farm whether she ever met Jeremiah or whether the Civil War happened or not.

It seems like an obvious point when I write it here, but it felt a bit like an epiphany to me– the missing piece of the puzzle, despite all the outlining and drive lines and strengths and weaknesses I had brainstormed for the characters in my new project.

Quotation Marks

Some readers have noticed that I Shall Be Near To You uses UK-style quotation marks (single quotation marks that look like apostrophes) and have wondered why. The quotation marks came about as a compromise– I originally wrote the book without any quotation marks at all. That was how Rosetta’s voice “arrived” and I honestly couldn’t even write if I tried to use quotation marks. The inspiration just wouldn’t come and the writing felt forced and un-Rosetta-like. Since it wasn’t a conscious decision to write the book without quotation marks (I was truly surprised when I started writing and that’s the way it came out), I had to reverse engineer a reason for it. My best guess is that the real Rosetta who inspired the book used almost no punctuation in her letters home. I also liked that there was little distinction between what Rosetta thought and what she said, because both the real Rosetta and the fictional one are not very introspective or reflective people. But really all I know was that not having quotation marks was crucial for me to get the voice right.

The book was sold with the understanding that quotation marks were “off the table” (to quote my fabulous agent). However, my wonderful editor at Crown convinced me that not using some sort of punctuation actually drew more attention to the difference between what was spoken and thought and was therefore defeating part of my whole point in not using them. Then too, she pointed out some places where it was maybe too ambiguous and confusing. Being confusing definitely wasn’t my goal! And since I was no longer writing and creating new parts of the story, the quotation marks didn’t seem so all-important as they once had. Then it was just a matter of finding something I liked. I knew I didn’t want US quotation marks (too obtrusive!). I tried dashes (hated them!) and finally settled on the more minimalist UK style, something I had first become aware of in Mary Volmer’s beautiful historical novel, Crown of Dust , which also features a female character disguised as a man *and* another incredibly brave and strong woman. It seemed perfect!

Writing Tips that Work for Me

The most important tip I have is do what works for you. That said, I have learned what works for me by reading about what works for other authors. So, in case my method might serve as an inspiration, here goes!

1. Have a regular writing schedule. I think pretty much every writer says this, but it’s because it really helps! When I was drafting I Shall Be Near To You, I shot for writing 5 days a week–like a job. Often I wrote more than that. Having a set schedule helps the ideas start and keep flowing. It’s much easier to get back into a scene I was working on the day before than one I haven’t touched for a week (or more).

2. Have a writing routine. I think of this as a gentle warm-up– a way to ease into the work and get ready to write. My routine when I was drafting my “practice” novel (and the beginning of I Shall Be Near To You), was to walk my dog and then immediately write as soon as we got home. Invariably inspiration would hit at about the time we turned for home. Now my routine is different–usually I make a cup of tea and then as I sit down to work, I turn on the playlist for the project I’m working on. I love working to music that helps set the mood and tone for the project.

3. Set a word count goal for each session I only do this when I’m writing my first draft. My goal is 1000 words. Though, at the beginning of a project, I often set my goal lower, say at 500 words. The idea is to make it something that feels manageable and then, once that gets too easy, increase it. Usually I find that once I get going, I hit my stride and it’s pretty easy to routinely hit 1000 words (and often more). This tip came from Anne Lamott.

4. Research just enough to get going. I start by researching my characters. Since they are always inspired by real people, finding out more about those real women–what their lives were like, what their childhoods were like–almost always gives me ideas for the events of the novel. Then, as I write, I discover other things I need to know, so I’m sort of constantly writing and researching; the two feed each other.

5. Follow the inspiration. If I have a scene that’s begging to be written, I write it! I take inspiration any time I can find it, even though it means I often write out of order (and curse myself for it later). I find it incredibly freeing (and fun) to write a scene I’m feeling driven to set down. Then, on days when nothing is begging to be written, I work on connecting the scenes I already have. It was an interview with Diana Gabaldon that first gave me the idea that it was OK not to write chronologically.

6. Quit when you know what’s next. I try to stop for the day when I’ve got two things: 1000 words AND a good idea for what comes next. That way I can sleep on the “what’s next” and my subconscious can work on it (and be ready to go) the next day. I can’t take credit for this idea–it came from Hemingway.

So there you have it! I hope something on this list will work for you too.

Query Letters

Quite a few people ask me how to go about getting published. My first piece of advice is to finish your manuscript. Then, while you’re letting it sit before your next round of revisions, you can work on your query letter.

Before I wrote my query letter, I spent quite a bit of time tooling around on The Query Shark blog. It’s a FABULOUS resource! Reading it is an education.

Then I wrote at least 6 drafts of my query letter. It was hard. The first versions were terrible, just terrible! So I revised and revised and had MFA friends and family read drafts and revised some more.

Here’s the query letter I ended up with, and that landed me my agent, the amazing Dan Lazar, who has also written this (which I read before querying him) and this about what he looks for in a query.

Dear Mr. Lazar:

Throughout the summer of 1861, Jeremiah Wakefield courts farm-girl Rosetta Edwards, his childhood friend. But when he comes to church one morning with a Union Army recruiting handbill, Rosetta is mad enough to kick shins. Instead, she demands he make her his widow if he plans to go off and die. After their honeymoon, Rosetta lights on an idea to stay together and earn more money to buy their dream farm. Ignoring Jeremiah’s objections and her own fears, Rosetta does a fool-headed thing, something no woman she knows would dare: she becomes Ross Stone. Marching alongside Jeremiah in the 97th New York State Volunteers, Rosetta struggles with being wife and soldier, liar and straight-shooter, daughter and disappointment. Then the battle of Antietam forces grief-stricken Rosetta to decide whether there is more freedom in remaining secret or becoming known, whether going home would sacrifice everything she’s dreamed or be the only way to hold onto it.

Inspired by true accounts of the more than 400 women who disguised as men and fought in the Civil War, There Will I Be Buried is 138,239 words of voice-driven historical fiction that is both tender love story and hard examination of war. While Rosetta would keep company with the likes of Mattie from Charles Portis’ True Grit, Ellen from Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, and Lydia from Molly Gloss’ The Jump-off Creek, she must answer for herself whether freedom can be gained through disguise and bloodshed, and if the resulting stain can ever be washed clean.

I completed an MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California in May 2010. In March 2010, I read an excerpt of There Will I Be Buried for the monthly San Francisco reading series Quiet Lightning. My short story “Interview with a Union Soldier, Recently Dead” was published in the September 2009 online issue of Hobart. There Will I Be Buried is my first novel. I have pasted the first five pages below. Upon your request I will happily send the complete manuscript.

I am querying you because I think my novel straddles several genres you are interested in: historical, literary, commercial, and women’s fiction. Also, I too, loved the book Middlesex. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Erin Lindsay McCabe

Finding an Agent

Here’s what worked for me:

Start with agents who have represented books you love that have something in common with your own. Usually authors will thank their agents in their acknowledgments, and if they don’t, well, you probably don’t want to work with that agent anyway. (If you don’t have a copy of the book in question, you can almost always get access to the acknowledgements page via Google Books.)

Research about every agent on your list. You can try a simple google search (which often turns up interviews or blog posts that feature the agent–very helpful). Or go straight to websites like Publishers Marketplace, Poets and Writers, AgentQuery, and Writer’s Digest where you can get contact info., submission guidelines, and lists of interests or genres the agent represents. What you’re looking for is not just how to get in touch with the agent, but also what this person likes and whether those are things you also like or qualities that your book possesses. You are searching for someone who will be a good fit for you and your book. Kind of like dating.

Add more agents. Once I had my list of “dream agents” who had represented books I loved and who were accepting queries, I started researching other agents by genre (I looked for agents who represented historical fiction, women’s fiction, literary fiction, and commercial fiction, or who wanted “upmarket” fiction). I started with a list of about 20 agents.

I only added agents to my list who seemed like they might really like my book. You want an agent who falls PASSIONATELY IN LOVE with your book. Plenty of agents rejected my book even as they said nice things about it. They just hadn’t fallen in love. It was hard to hear at the time, but in retrospect, I’m really glad that they turned it down. It makes a HUGE difference having an agent who has been smitten.

Tailor each query you send to the agent you are querying. Tell the agent why you chose him/her. Be specific!

Make sure your manuscript is ready. Have the first 3 chapters in a separate document in case someone wants a partial manuscript. Have the full manuscript ready to go. Have a synopsis too (it seems like few agents want one anymore, but if someone asks, it’s really awful to have to scramble to pull one together–trust me, I know!).

Send out small batches of queries. This is important. If your query is good and you’re sending it to the right kinds of agents, you should get immediate interest (requests for partial or full manuscripts or for a synopsis). If you get nothing but rejections, then something is wrong with your query letter. So send the query out to just a few agents at a time and gauge the response you get. If you send it to everyone all at once and your query isn’t good enough, you’ll get nothing but rejections and then you’ll be back to square one. While you’re anxiously waiting to hear back from those first few agents, you can be researching new agents to query.

Repeat. But use the feedback you get to guide you. For instance, once I had queried those 20 agents, getting requests for partials and fulls, it seemed like people were getting to the same place and passing. Had I not gotten the email from my now-agent Dan telling me he wanted to talk, I had decided to quit querying and revise again (those pesky flashbacks!).