Sylvia’s saying goodbye for now!

Hello friends,

We wanted to drop in and let you guys know that Sylvia will be going on hiatus from Ex Libris for the time being. Between a new baby and the trials and tribulations of co-running a business across two states, she felt it was time to take a step back and focus on enjoying the new addition (or perhaps edition?) to her family. She’ll still be taking on clients on a limited individual basis, so if you’d like to contract with her in the coming year, you can still reach her at for now.

Thanks, love, and creativity to you in 2018!

—Sylvia & Sarah

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How to Build a Good Query Letter


Cover letters and query letters have more in common than you think.

As any writer seeking traditional publication knows, query letters can be a tricky thing. They are just as personal—and just as difficult—to write as a cover letter when applying for a job, but this time you’re doing it to get your work in front of a much larger audience, and with that comes more scrutiny. While query letters should certainly be tailored toward your audience (you wouldn’t write the same way about a mystery/thriller as you would about a historical nonfiction, for example), there are certain principles you should follow to help build the strength of your query.

Do Your Research

What made you want to submit your book to this press? There should always be a reason: you liked a previous book they published, and your book is similar in theme; they’re looking for a specific genre, and your book fits that; or they’ve been making strong statements on social media, and you think your book fits in with that persona. Whatever it is, you should have a reason, and you should make that clear in your query letter. You have to give the publisher a reason to care about your book, and showing them why you care about them helps establish that connection.

Position Your Book

Where does your book fit within the market, within the publisher, or within existing narratives? All of these can be solved by using comparative titles (frequently shortened to “comp titles”). Positioning your book as a “Title X meets Title Y”—for example, the post-apocalyptic society of The Walking Dead told with the comedic voice of Terry Pratchett—can very quickly convey what kind of readers will be looking for your book and also what the main themes or overarching elements are; the important part is how they intersect.

As an addendum to that, make sure that your comp titles are realistic. Using Harry Potter or The Hunger Games is not helpful, even if it is the closest related title. While it may convey what type of characters you have or the environment your book is set in, those books are cultural phenomena, which makes it unrealistic to expect the same kind of results—and thus difficult for publishers to picture a real marketing strategy for.

Get to the Heart of Your Story

Don’t include just a summary of the book’s big plot points. Pick the most important theme or storyline and focus your pitch on that, even if it ignores some of your other major characters. You want to convey three things during your pitch: the setup or background of the story, the conflict, and what the conflict inspires in the main character. If you are trying to include too many storylines, it can start to blur that focus.

In the end, a query letter should make as many arguments as possible to show why your book is a good fit for a publisher. Each paragraph should support that clearly and succinctly, and while there is no one “right” way to present your argument, following these three suggestions will give that support a solid foundation to build upon.

―Alyssa Schaffer

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Have You Heard the Good Word(stock)?

This last Saturday, thousands of book lovers gathered at the South Park Blocks in downtown Portland for Wordstock, an annual book festival hosted by Literary Arts. While not necessarily well-known outside the community—my rideshare driver was very surprised by all of the people gathered around and that the streets were blocked off—the event is one of the largest for the Portland literary world, and yes, you read that right, thousands of people attend. The goal, according to Literary Arts, is to “[build] community around literature through author events, workshops, a book fair, and more.” This year was especially crowded, with over 100 authors participating, including some big-name speakers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and an estimate of over 10,000 attendees.

The fun kicked off Friday night with Lit Crawl, a series of book-related events hosted at various bars in downtown Portland. I’m proud to say my group, a table of Ooligan students, lived up to our reputation and knocked it out of the park at Hawthorne Books’ Literary Trivia. In a recurring theme for the festival, events were packed, but we managed to make it to a Sci-fi Karaoke Comedy Horror Bingo Night (yes, all that did happen, and yes, it was fantastic) before heading off to Tin House’s after-party.


Danger Slater (right) reads his short story
with visual accompaniment from Jason Rizos (left).

The next morning, I got in line to pick up my wristband—a line that wrapped around the block. Thankfully, the volunteers were well prepared, and I got through the line and into the Portland Art Museum (where the book fair was being held) in no time.

Now, here’s the secret to Wordstock: you’ve got to pick one or two events that you absolutely can’t miss, and just count the rest as a bonus. Even with my best laid plans, I wasn’t able to make all of the panels I had planned to attend; one panel had filled the theater before I could even get in line. Of the panels I did go to, two stood out.

First, I attended a live recording of OPB’s State of Wonder. The guests were Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, the creators of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, and poets Morgan Parker (There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé) and Tommy Pico (Nature Poem). Now, podcasts are a passion of mine, but Parker and Pico shined during their interview, so much so that I immediately went to go buy their books and get them signed—another beauty of attending the book festival.


Joseph Fink (left) and Jeffrey Cranor (middle) chat
with April Baer (right) before the recording.

At the end of the day, I attended a panel about dystopian fiction and how it envisions—in however small of a part—resistance and rebellion. The authors for the panel were Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan), Omar El Akkad (American War), and Benjamin Percy (The Dark Net). Despite the long day behind us, the crowd was energized to hear the authors’ views on the rebellions and social turmoil they had imagined, especially as all of their works had been written before the 2016 election and published after. This particular panel was marked by a very high level of audience participation, from spontaneous applause to an extended audience question period.

Overall, Wordstock was a great experience. The festival has changed over the years, including condensing from two days to one, but at its heart, there remains an honest love of books and the promotion of the connections that everyone—authors, readers, and publishers alike—get to make over them. I, for one, found new books, new authors, and new publishers to watch. While I will always wish I could go to more author panels, Wordstock does a fantastic job of bringing together authors from the area and across the country to talk about engaging topics. If you’re at all interested, Wordstock is a worthy event, especially at a $15 ticket price.

Do yourself a favor, though: make sure you get in line early.

―Alyssa Schaffer

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An Editor’s Tips for a Successful NaNoWriMo


There’s no better time to tackle writing a novel than when you have the support of thousands of other writers.

It’s finally that time of year again. The leaves are falling, the sun is setting earlier, and people around the country are hunkering down in front of their computers in an effort to write 50,000 words in one month. That’s right—it’s National Novel Writing Month.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet—and several of my friends and family members hadn’t, which is probably a failing on my part—National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, as it’s more colloquially referred to) is an effort that started in 1999 in order to motivate writers to make significant progress on their work. Since then, there have been many offshoots, including Script Frenzy for screenplays and Camp NaNoWriMo for the summer months. But NaNoWriMo remains the largest and most well-known event, in part because of its notorious difficulty.

However, plenty of people have made it through. For those of you who are participating, here are some tips to help you make it to the end of the month, to the end of your 50,000 word count, and to the end of your novel.

Enlist Friends

Now, this can manifest itself in many ways, but it all comes down to accountability.

For many people, seeing someone else be productive can inspire them to be productive as well. If that fits your style, grab a group of friends and set up weekly writing dates. A good way to avoid distraction is to set a rotating timer—something like 20 minutes writing, 10 minutes of free time. This can be used either to discuss your writing or to talk about anything but your work. Either way, knowing you have a break coming up soon can help you focus during the productive period.

For a more remote option, set up a group chat and plan to check in regularly with a certain amount of words written. Services like Discord or Slack are great for this, as you can create multiple “channels” as well; for example, one for brainstorming, one to celebrate your successes, and one to share writing humor you’ve found. Goals are easier to stick to as well when you have multiple people to hold you accountable.

Make Time

And I don’t mean simply finding a time to write. You also need to overcome distractions and make the most of that time. Write at the same time everyday, write in the same spot (your “office”), wear headphones—do whatever will help get your brain into a writing mindset and make it stay there.

One of the most oft lamented distractions is the compulsion to edit, and honestly, there are times where that may help you sort out a timeline or figure out a character’s motivation. But there are other ways to revise that will help you reach your 50,000 word goal, rather than detract from it. Instead of editing a scene, rewrite it from scratch, but keep the original there so you can refer back to it. Or, you can write a summary of what needs to be fixed. This will not only help you sort out the same issues that would have been fixed while editing, but also add to your word count.

Similarly, diving into research, while helpful, can also be time consuming. If you run across something in your writing that needs research, mark it in some way (highlighting is one option, but I prefer to use the Comment function because it allows me to note why I need to double-check the passage) and come back to it later. That can be after NaNoWriMo is over, or if it’s necessary for the plot to move forward, after your writing time for the day. The point is to mentally store it on the shelf so you can spend your scheduled writing time actually writing.

Use Tools to Jumpstart Your Writing

Writer’s block really is the Big Bad for NaNoWriMo writers. While outlining and character building can help tackle a majority of that, you’re likely to still run into times where you don’t know how to get from point A to point B.

Stopping your writing for the day in the middle of a scene—rather than at the end of it—will help propel your writing forward. Leave a few notes if you have an idea of how you want to continue. The next time you start writing, you’ll already have something to work off of, and by the time you finish the scene, you’ll be more immersed in your characters’ actions and motivations, which will make it easier to see what choices they would make and where the plot should go next.

In a more literal interpretation of tools, a note-taking app will help stockpile ideas and sentences that can help later down the line when you’re in a rut. Ones that are cross-platform, like Google Keep or Evernote, are particularly useful, as they allow you to write wherever you are and access them later where it’s most efficient for you. The important thing is that you make use of those quick bursts of inspiration that would otherwise be swept away in the course of your day.

Really, what NaNoWriMo comes down to is your willingness to push yourself and dedicate time you otherwise wouldn’t have to get more of your writing done. It’s something you have to commit to, and it’s not always going to be fun. But the easier you can make it for yourself, the more likely you are to succeed in making a habit of it. It is not the publication, but the act of writing that makes one a writer. Now go forth and write!

―Alyssa Schaffer

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Making the Most of Your Social Media (as an Author)

Phone with Facebook app open next to Scrabble letters that spell out Social Media

Social Media becomes easier when you have someone who can spell it out for you.

Undoubtedly, by now you’ve heard about the virtues of building a social media presence as an author. Maybe you even found this post through Twitter or Facebook. However, the importance of a strong personal brand (perhaps even more for authors than most freelance jobs) cannot be understated.

My friend who works as a social media manager often says, “Your social media is a comparative title for yourself.” What she means is that your posts on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. become a way for people to quickly see the type of person you are and what you’re interested in. If your content isn’t tailored to that, it’s more difficult for people to understand where your core values lie.

Social media isn’t just a way to push yourself out into the world, though. It’s also a great resource for you to use for your writing, pitching, or marketing. Hashtags such as #amwriting or #writingtipwednesday (both of which Ex Libris regularly participates in) offer ways for authors to crowdsource their knowledge and to build a community. Hashtag campaigns (#DVpit; #PitMad) and evergreen ones (#MSWL) that focus on pitching allow authors get their work out into the public eye. Social media also helps you stay aware of market trends: Accounts like PublishersLunch (@publisherslunch) and Publishers Weekly (@publishersweekly) post news about happenings in the industry or big book deals. Publishing houses post about their frontlist. Authors post about their current works in progress. Following some of these accounts will give you examples to follow.

So now that you’re up to speed on why social media is essential for authors, here are some tips on how to improve your own social media presence:

Make Use of Visuals

Because social media is often just scrolling through a timeline, it is helpful to have something that is more visual to catch your audience’s eye. Whether it’s a graphic you’ve made to accompany your story, a gif about your feelings during your writing process, or simply some emojis to punctuate your punchline, careful (read: not every post) use of visuals will help your posts stand out.

Watch Trending Topics and Hashtags

Twitter and Facebook have made it very easy to see what topics or hashtags are trending at the current moment—use that to your advantage. Keep an eye on what’s trending, and if there’s something relevant to you and your brand, make a post about it (and be sure to include the trending keyword or hashtag!).

A word of caution: make sure you always check out the types of posts that are among the top viewed before posting yourself to make sure you understand the context and the people who are involved. DiGiorno is one of the more notable examples. In reaction to a public story about domestic abuse, the hashtag #WhyIStayed began trending to fight the victim-blaming criticism surrounding the issue. DiGiorno’s account, responding to the popularity of the hashtag without finding out what it meant, tweeted out “#WhyIStayed You had pizza.” While they apologized for it later, it still serves as a cautionary tale.

Make Conversation with Other Professionals

Tagging or replying to other people on social media can be a great way to expand your visibility. While you may only have so many followers, someone else in your industry or in a related field may have a larger audience—an audience of shared interests. Including another person in your own tweets on occasion, such as tagging an author when tweeting about your reaction to their book or replying to an agent’s thread on recommendations for a restaurant, will get others to see you as a participating voice in the profession, and they’ll want to hear more.

Be Authentic

It is incredibly obvious when people use a hashtag or tag an author for the sole purpose of promoting themselves. Social media works better as a tool for audience engagement than it does for selling something. The key is to be personable. Rather than using your account to post the link to your book every other day, use it to talk about a personal success you had while writing (Finally hit 50,000 words! #amwriting) or a grievance you’re having (Man, does writing take a lot longer when my cat is covering my keyboard #writerslife). You can even use it as a platform to crowdsource some things (Does anyone know whether this word or this word is more correct in this situation? #askeditor). You can then post the link to your book every once in a while without it seeming like you’re taking advantage of your audience. The difference is subtle, but when you take out the intention of selling your book to people and instead aim to provide something—be it entertainment or conversation—people become a lot more open to engaging with and following your posts.

It’s good to note that you don’t have to take on all of this immediately. A good social media presence takes time to build—especially a cohesive, engaging one. But if you follow these steps and make an effort to post at least once every other day, then you’ll be well on your way to building a strong audience, one that will gladly support you when the time comes.

―Alyssa Schaffer

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Meet the Intern!


Our intern, Alyssa Schaffer,
in her natural habitat: a coffee shop.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Sylvia and I owe our livelihood to the education we received while in the Masters in Writing and Publishing program at Portland State (more commonly referred to as Ooligan). In conjunction with that education, our instructors helped us find agenting and editorial internships with previous Ooligan graduates and local publishers. The “real world” experience we gained was invaluable and provided us with a view of the industry you just can’t get in a classroom, no matter how awesome your teachers are. Now that Ex Libris is firmly established and we’re no longer moving from state to state, we wanted to give back to the program by accepting an intern of our own.

This summer, we were fortunate enough to interview several applicants. They were all very qualified (Ooligan sure does turn out great editors!), but we admit to being thrilled when Alyssa Schaffer agreed to join us as our Fall 2017 intern. Over the next two months, she’ll be here helping us with social media and industry research, shadowing us on our edits, and learning more about what it’s like to actually run a small editing business. You have probably already seen some of her work for us if you follow the blog or any of our social media accounts, and while you can certainly learn a lot about a person through their writing, we thought it would be fun to learn more about Alyssa in a somewhat more direct fashion, so we put together a little Q&A session.

So, without further ado, meet Alyssa!

Full name: Alyssa Schaffer

Where are you from? Idaho originally, but I’ve been living in Portland for a few years now.

Where did you attend undergrad? The University of Idaho.

When will you graduate from the Masters program at PSU? Spring 2018.

What is/are your favorite genre(s)? Literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, and manga.

Who is your favorite author?

This question is always really difficult for me because it changes based on my mood, but I would say that Karen Russell and Gabrielle Calvocoressi are often in the rotation.

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in publishing?

Pretty much. I realized in high school that editing could be fun if it was on a creative piece, rather than on a class assignment. Since then, my goal has been to become an editor.

What drew you to the Ooligan program?

The biggest thing was that the press was student-run. I thought that it would be a good way to gain practical experience—versus just learning the process within a classroom setting—and I feel that I owe the amount of progress I’ve made over the past year to that.

What are you looking forward to most about this internship?

Being able to see another side of editing. Ooligan can feel like its own little world sometimes, and it’s nice to see how the same skills function within different settings.

What do you like most about editing?

That moment when you feel like you really get what an author’s intention is and you know what to suggest to help them achieve that in their writing. It’s why I love developmental editing so much, but it happens in copyediting as well.

What do you like least about editing?

When I get fixated on one particular issue. Every once in a while, I end up going down a rabbit hole looking into a historical event or CMOS rule and emerge on the other side realizing that I didn’t really need to spend that much time on a single hyphen.

What is the one thing that always catches your eye while editing?

On the copyediting side, commas. I am very aware of their presence (or lack thereof) because I have a tendency to overuse them in my own writing. In developmental editing, dialogue tags. Whoever wrote “Said is dead” was wrong. Dialogue tags are there to do exactly that: tag who is saying what. If the tags become too colorful, they distract from the dialogue itself. I wouldn’t say it’s a pet peeve, but I always get caught up on them!

If you could have any job you wanted, what would it be?

Part-time acquisitions editor, part-time freelance editor, full-time pet owner.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I’m actually terrible at remembering names, so style guides have become one of my biggest tools, even in developmental edits.

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Infinite Editors

I have been to more than a few “Cons” in my time—most of them fan conventions, but some professional conferences as well. Recently, I attended the Red Pencil Conference, hosted by the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. The event—designed to help editors to brush up on their knowledge, gain some new skills, and network—took place over the course of a day, and featured a keynote speaker, nine information sessions, and a lecture about the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style by none other than Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online‘s Q&A section and author of the book The Subversive Copy Editor.

The highlight for most people (certainly the group I had travelled there with) was this presentation. After coming in early from the break to stake out seats towards the front of the room, we were excited to see Carol—such a well-known figure in editing—introduce the changes to CMOS herself.

Here’s the thing that most people don’t expect to learn about the head editor of a manual of rules: Carol is funny. She cracked jokes. She shared gossip about the discussions over the rule revisions. She included her Bitmoji (an emoji version of herself) on a slide. Carol started in on the changes to CMOS the same way you would discuss an inside joke with a best friend.

And then she got to the singular “they.” The singular they has gotten a lot of traction within publishing-world news, and the editors of CMOS decided to reintroduce a rule for it (the rule had been included in the fourteenth edition, but had been left out in the fifteenth and sixteenth). While she did clarify that there are now two different rules for the usage of the singular they—one pertaining to a person’s preferred pronoun, the other being “a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender”—the singular they can still be a fairly contentious subject.

There is an idea—one we’ve referred to here at Ex Libris before—that an infinite number of monkeys, given typewriters and sufficient time, will eventually write a Shakespearean play. Based on the positive reaction to that presentation, the same could be said about editors: an infinite number of editors, given infinite manuscripts and sufficient time, would eventually create the Chicago Manual of Style. Despite sitting in a room full of editors from all professional backgrounds and all types of publications, each with their own individual style sheet, there was not a single objection in the room to the proposed treatment of the singular they. Carol herself remarked that she expected more backlash after announcing the rule. It seems the Chicago Manual of Style had finally come to a resolution that we could all side with—because it made sense.

While there were other issues that were hotly debated throughout the day (style guide organization and the en-dash among them), there were far more issues that were agreed upon, all in the pursuit of clarity for the reader. While the sessions I attended gave me some tips and tricks to use in my editing, the biggest thing I took away from the day was a reaffirmed sense of how editing serves both the author and the reader. The editor should go to bat for an author’s intentions, but they should also step back and realize how the reader receives it. Having a strong editor on your side can do wonders for your manuscript, and until infinite editors do create a universal style guide, you’ll want to make sure that the editor you work with matches well with your editing style.

And if they happen to use the Chicago Manual of Style, it wouldn’t hurt.

―Alyssa Schaffer

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