Jennifer Ashley

Romance Author

Tips for Writers

For more tips see my ongoing blog: Jennifer on Writing

Ten Tips to Stay Sane,
Write the Best Novel You Can, and Launch Your Career

What to Look For in an Agent

The Query Letter: Your Calling Card


Ten Tips to Stay Sane, Write the Best Novel You Can, and Launch Your Career

by Jennifer Ashley

1. Do not compare yourself with others.

We each have our own path to success. Some people are shooting stars. Others are slow and steady. Each may reach the same goal, but at a different pace. Do this: compare yourself only with yourself. Is each new manuscript better than your last? Did you send out more query letters this year? Were your contest scores higher this time around? And always remember -- another author's success does not mean your failure.

2. Find your strengths.

Forget what's trendy and discover what kind of story you write best. Perhaps your writing partner writes wonderfully emotional vampire tales. Does this mean you should write emotional vampire tales? Only if you're good at it. Perhaps you write light, funny, and inspiring tales instead. Write them. No market for them, you think? Doesn't matter. Any book that is strongly written and tells a compelling story will find a place in the market, no matter what the trend is that day. 
(And if you can spot today's trend, it's probably just about over.)

3. Don't be in a hurry.

Many yet-to-be-published writers yearn for publication (I know I did). Rejections can be heartbreaking. But take the time to make what you submit to be the very best it can be--no matter that it takes three years for you to finish. It will be much better for your career in the long run to confront the publishing world with a spectacular book that they will get behind, than a mediocre book that is just publishable and will languish in the warehouse.

4. Don't be afraid to write in the manner in which you write best.

Some writers outline, outline, outline then chart each scene before they can even put fingers to keyboard. Other writers sit down and start page one with no clear end in mind. Both of these writers can end up with a wonderful book. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. If you write best with charts, make charts. If you write best simply writing, then write. Never let someone else tell you that your way of writing stories is wrong. It is right--for you.

5. Be strong.

Readers read to live in a different world from the everyday one. Or perhaps they seek the same world, but one funnier, happier, more dramatic, more emotional, more passionate. Give it all you've got. If you write humor, be hysterical; if you write passion, be wild; if you write emotion, make yourself cry (your reader will too).

6. Be knowledgeable.

Market research is as simple as going to a bookstore and observing what's on the shelves. Do you love writing wild pirate tales? Who else is writing them? Who is publishing them? Find out who the publishers are and where they are. Most have their addresses printed on the copyright pages of books. Search The Writer's Market (the latest edition can be found in the reference section of any library) for names of specific editors. Mail your query or manuscript (Writer's Market will tell you which they want) to that editor.

7. Read authors you admire.

If you admire an author, it's probably for a good reason: they are wonderful storytellers, or they have a lively prose style, or their characterizations are fantastic--or all of the above. Learn from these authors, try to discover how they do what they do. That said, also read widely outside your target genre. Find strengths of other genres to pull into your own to keep it fresh. (And if you read a book that you love, that touches you in some way, write the author and tell him/her so. Authors like to know whether they have done their jobs!)

8. Critique groups are not for everyone.

Critique groups can be marvelously supportive, or they can be stifling. I personally write best in a cave, occasionally coming out to ask an author I trust whether I am going off the rails. If you feel your critique group will not you let you write the strong books you feel you are best writing, don't be afraid to go it alone. On the other hand, if your critique group gives you wonderful help and support, don't be afraid to stay.

9. Don't waste time and money.

The best way to write publishable books is to read books then sit down and write books. Everything else is optional. Develop a critical, honest eye for your own work. Many traps exist out there for the desperate-to-be-published author. Save your money. Never pay to get published. You are writing so that people will pay you, not the other way around.

10. Write every day.
If you produce only one page and you throw it away the next day, it doesn't matter. Writing every day keeps your writing muscles in shape. Continuing to write will teach you how to write better than anything else. You'll learn something new every day!

One more tip for free, have fun! Why on earth would you want to write if you didn't enjoy it? Write wild and fun stories and give it all you've got. If you are tired, frustrated, burned out, depressed, and just plain sick of it, stop! Distance yourself and remember once more why you want to write. Chances are because it makes you feel good. Never lose that!

Back to top


What to Look For in an Agent

by Jennifer Ashley

A good agent will:
  • Find the best deal possible for your type of book
  • Work with editors and publishers to make your contract favorable to you
  • Get better deals at larger houses than you could on your own
  • Be the "bad cop" between you and your editor if necessary
  • Take the guesswork out of contracts
  • Help you make career decisions
  • Never charge an up-front fee, reading or otherwise
  • Be a member of or plan to apply for membership in AAR (Association for Authors' Representatives)

A bad agent:

  • Charges reading fees, or other fees up front
  • Is very difficult to contact
  • Resents answering questions
  • Is coy about his/her list of clients
  • Does nothing in a timely fashion
  • Makes excuses
  • Gets arrested for fraud
  • Pretends to be dead (sadly, this is not a joke)

When seeking an agent, look for:

  • Experience (either at an established literary agency or publishing company)
  • Knowledge of your genre/type of book you write
  • Record of selling to reputable publishers 
  • Good list of selling authors (the authors do not have to be famous, just selling)
  • Familiarity with publishing houses and editors there
  • Authors who report good experience with the agent
  • Professionalism
  • Fairly quick turnaround times; willingness to communicate

Resources for Researching Agents

On the Web:
Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) Web site. Has a database of member agents, plus lists qualifications agents must meet to become a member.
Predators and Editors: Lists agents alphabetically, and points out agents who are possibly fraudulent. Also indicates (with a $) which agents have sold to reputable, royalty paying publishers. (Not all addresses are current; double check with other resources.)
Miss Snark--an (anonymous) agent who tells it like it is. She's snarky but knows her stuff. Check archives of frequently asked questions plus her assessments of first pages. She also links to other agents who blog.

Agent Web sites:

Check an agent's Web site (if she/he has one) for additional guidelines and lists of clients.

In the library:

Writer's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents by Jeff Herman. 
Updated every few years, this is the best print guide to agents.

Guide to Literary Agents, Writer's Digest. 
Updated yearly, another in the Writer's Digest series of guides. This guide takes second place to Jeff Herman, who seems to really know his stuff.

The Career Novelist, by Donald Maass.
Written by a well-known and very successful agent, Donald Maass provides excellent advice for authors wondering whether they should seek an agent, and what to do when they find one. He offers a gloves-off look at the publishing business. If you still want to be a published author after you read this book, you probably have what it takes. 


Back to top


The Query Letter: Your Calling Card

by Jennifer Ashley

What is a query letter?
A query letter (sometimes called simply a query) is a one-page business letter that introduces you and your book to an agent or editor. It is NOT a cover letter (more on cover letters below). 

How long should a query letter be?
Ideally, one page. If you must go to two pages, ok. Write in a legible font, like Times Roman 12. 

To whom do you send a query letter?
An agent or an editor whom you want to interest in your book, and/or an editor at a publishing house that does not accept unsolicited manuscripts and partials. A query is your ice-breaker. 

To whom do you NOT send a query letter?
If an agent or editor has already requested your book or partial, either through a meeting at a conference or because you won a contest, etc., a query letter is no longer necessary. With the partial, you include a cover letter (more below). 

How is a query letter formatted?
Just like any other business letter. Block style with everything flush left on the margin is easiest. Include your return address (use your own letterhead if you have it), the agent's/editor's address (SPELLED CORRECTLY), the date. Write the body, conclude with "Sincerely," and sign.

Use standard white paper or stationary (ivory or parchment is ok). Don't use cute colored paper, cute colored ink, cute graphics, cute language ("if you turn me down, you'll just break my little old heart.") Be businesslike and brief. Don't waste their time.

What is included in the envelope with the query letter?
A self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with one first-class stamp. Do NOT send the manuscript or partial with the query.

What does a query letter contain?
The big question! A query letter should be a very SHORT introduction to yourself and your book.

Paragraph 1:

  • Tell the agent/editor why you are writing ("I am looking for someone to represent my historical romance novel.") 
  • Lay out setting, time period, main premise of the book. ("The story is set in the year 1898 and involves a half-breed Apache and the widow of an Army colonel who must come together to help a handful of schoolchildren in Arizona territory.") Here you have told the when, the where, and some of the who and the what.
Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4:
  • Your blurb. You should have one short paragraph about the hero (1-3 sentences), one short paragraph about the heroine (1-3 sentences), then a short paragraph (1-2 sentences) about the main conflict. Because you are writing romance, include the conflict between the main characters ("He remembers her saving his life with a timely drink of water, but he cannot forgive her dead husband for leading the soldiers who killed his fatherů)
  • Make sure to emphasize an unusual element that makes your story stand out from similar stories  ("The main action takes place high above the tree line on a sacred Apache mountain" or "The heroine secretly studied Tantric yoga when she lived with an army family in India.") 
  • Spark the agent/editor's interest--keep it short, sweet and to the point!
Paragraph 5 (optional):
  • Mention your writing background (short stories, magazine and newspaper articles, other books, fiction or non-fiction) that have been published, if any.
  • Mention any background relevant to the story ("I grew up a half-breed Apache on the White Mountain reservation and have been writing about White Mountain Apaches in major magazines for nine years.")
Closing paragraph:
  • Tell how long the manuscript is and whether it is finished. ("The manuscript runs 100,000 words and is finished.") Offer to send either a partial or a full (ONLY IF YOU'VE FINISHED) at their request.
  • Give your telephone number and e-mail and offer to answer any questions they might have.
  • Conclude with the standard "looking forward to hearing from you" or something similar.
That's it!

What is the difference between a query letter and a cover letter?
A cover letter is what you send when you mail your partial or full manuscript to the editor who requested it. You also use a cover letter to send partials to publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts.

A cover letter is a brief business letter (again on standard white/ivory paper with your name, address, date, yadda yadda yadda). Here's an example of the body of a cover letter:

"I met you at the Desert Dreams conference in Phoenix last weekend. Thank you for seeing me and answering my questions. Enclosed is the full manuscript you requested of Mrs. Watson and the Apache, my historical romance set in Arizona territory in 1898. I have also enclosed a SASE for your convenience. Please feel free to call me at (phone number) or e-mail me at (e-mail) if you have any questions."  That's it.

In conclusion:

Query letters are SHORT introductions to yourself and your book. The purpose is to spark the interest in the agent/editor so that he/she wants to read what you have written. Novels these days are expected to be tight and fast-paced, and your query letter should be as well. Resist the urge to tell the entire story in the query! You want to entice, not tire.

Please see links and books under What to Look For in an Agent for tips on where to research agents.

Back to top