A New Series: The “Roaring Twenties” You May Not Know, Post 1

As a follow-up to my research on SIRENS (Penguin, 2012) I wrote a series of ten articles that summarize different aspects of the 1920s. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting them here so that they’ll be available in my archives. Here’s the first in the series…

Home From World War 1: Returning From the “Great War”

In SIRENS, Jo Winter’s most pressing internal problem is the whereabouts of her missing older brother, Teddy. He returned from his stint in World War 1 damaged by “shell-shock.” Here’s a bit about what that means:

The end of the First World War in 1918 was a time of great social and economic transition that led directly to what made the 1920’s “The Roaring Twenties.”departing for the front 1917

Soldiers who fought in the First World War, then called “The Great War,” and survived came home with devastating injuries to both body and mind. Over four million Americans served in the First World War, and served under ghastly conditions, facing for the first time in battle heavy artillery, machine guns, and poisonous gases.

And while these physical traumas were terrible, the internal traumas may have been far worse. PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – isn’t a new thing. Called “shell-shock” at the time of the Great War, the damage inflicted psychologically on soldiers serviDownton-Abbey-Season-2-downton-abbey-31759476-960-543ng in the war was unanticipated. Men in the 1900s were expected to be “masculine” and repress their emotions. Crying and breaking down were behaviors thought unacceptable, and were often cited as reasons for placement in insane asylums. Doctors, and the public, had no way to understand the experiences of these soldiers, and they were treated indifferently at best and punished for their behavior at worst.

The end of the war for these returning soldiers could not mean a return to “business as usual”, even if thin the trenches WW1at had been the hope. Technological advancements, urbanization, and immigration led directly to the social upheavals of the 1920s. With so many men serving, killed in action, or returning disabled in body and mind, women had been needed in the work force, and they were reluctant to return to domestic situations, which served to strengthen the cause of women’s suffrage and independence. This independence was evidenced by the adoption of less restrictive clothing and shorter skirts and the fad for shorter hair that was easier to manage.

Movements like pacifism, isolationism, and spiritualism grew following the end of the war as people sought to retreat from the horror. And the need for relief from the emotional traumas of the war may have contributed to the “anything goes” atmosphere that prevailed in the 1920s. Advertising, commercial manufacturing, the rise of the cinema, and the automobile promoted “new” and “more liberal” ideas that conflicted with the traditional thinking American soldiers left behind when then went off to fight.

Any war impacts the generation thworld-war-i-women-working-in-a-british-munitions-factory-1915at lives it and the decade that follows it, but the changes in society following World War 1 were rapid and extreme. It would have been a tough homecoming for those soldiers.

(Check out the fashions in the Downton Abbey image. The designers of that show have it right. Austere, severe, and probably uncomfortable.)

Writing the Killer Query Letter

Writing a great query letter is an art, but once you’ve created your synopsis, you’ve got the bones. Here’s the rest of the story:

Your synopsis forms the basis for your query letter.

Almost all queries today are email cover letters; your manuscript or pages are sent as a Word attachment – but these are requirements you should establish first as some houses still prefer your pages in the body of the email and rarely do houses or agents ask for hard copy. Note also whether the editor/agent prefers pages (usually the first 10-20) or the full manuscript. Never send something from the middle of your novel.

All editors and agents will specify their requirements for submission, so follow those exactly.

The norm today is multiple submissions are acceptable as long as you notify the recipient of your intent. My advice is to limit multiple submissions to 3-4 agents/editors in each round, and if you should hear back in the positive let the others still considering your submission know that you have interest right away. Also, the norm today is that if you don’t hear back in three months, consider your work rejected. Not nice, not fair, but that’s what it is.

Here are the fundamentals of query letter writing:

  1. Should be no longer than a single typed page. Seriously. Shorter is better.
  2. Should be addressed to the individual editor/agent. Check spelling, check your facts. Find out what the editor/agent has previously edited/agented because you will tell them why you believe your work is a good fit for them.
  3. Your opening sentence should be short and to the point: “I submit FAR CRY, my 75,000 word young adult romance set in contemporary Indochina, for your consideration.”
  4. Follow this with your pitch sentence: why you have chosen this editor/agent for your work: “I’m submitting to you based on your work with Joe Smith and his acclaimed young adult contemporary romance, LET LOOSE THE DRAGONS, one of my favorite novels of last year.”
  5. Your middle should be your synopsis or a reasonable facsimile thereof. This is where you really pitch your story, with an enticing, engaging summary based on your synopsis. Don’t go into details; leave the editor/agent hanging and wanting more – you are pitching your concept and selling your book.
  6. Your ending summarizes your previous publications if any, and your professional writing related experience (i.e., membership in SCBWI or other professional organization, MA/MFA from wherever, whether you are/have been a teacher or librarian). Non-writing related experience need not be mentioned.
  7. Don’t tell the editor/agent that your mother/aunt/children/students loved the story.
  8. Don’t go on and on with gushy personal feelings.
  9. Do sound professional, serious, and educated.
  10. After sending this out for a couple of rounds, if you’ve had no interest, revise and try again. Good luck!

Darlene Beck Jacobson and Her Historical Fiction WHEELS OF CHANGE


Today on the blog I'm pleased to host an interview with Darlene Beck Jacobson, whose debut middle grade novel WHEELS OF CHANGE is an inventive look at a window of history as the car was making its debut. Here's just a bit of the great … [Continue reading]

Loglines and Elevator Moments

If you read my "Synopsis" post, you'll see that you've already got a start on crafting a logline. But we're going to take it a step further. A logline is a one-sentence summary of your story. Think about a movie poster, with its brief but … [Continue reading]