First Impressions Can Make or Break a Book Deal

Posted: May 10, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Books are like long-term relationships, and querying an agent is like dating.  You only get one chance to make a first impression, and it goes by really fast.

So my daughter and I have been querying our middle grade novel for over a year.  For the first several months, we continually fine-tuned our query letter, reading advice columns like Query Shark and entering Twitter competitions where the judges review your query and give feedback, etc.  I also paid $20 for a lecture audio on how to write a good query.  Eventually we had one I was happy with and started querying a few agents here and there.  Most of these were based on “likes” during Twitter pitch events, like #PitMad and #KidPit.  We ever got a few requests for the full manuscript.

However they were all ultimately rejected and not for any reasons that seemed consistent. However over the last few weeks I’ve been asking for advice from various people I’ve met in the online writing community, and have started to see a new way to look at the all-important query letter.

I had always relied on the final conflict of our book as the hook to entice the reader of our query.  In this case, there is a hard choice our main character has to make near the end of the book, going into the final showdown with the villain. The fate of many people rest on her decision, but it requires a sacrifice. Classic stuff, right?  The problem is, it’s complicated.  Complicated to explain, and complicated in terms of structure. So in order to make it pithy and exciting, I kind of fudged a bit in the telling of it.  Here’s the query we’ve been using for most of a year:

 

To [Agent],

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie-folk want to crown her their princess. But to protect the fae from a goblin she must embrace the heartbreak of her trollish heritage and give up the crown.  My daughter, Melissa, and I are pleased to offer you the manuscript for our middle grade contemporary fantasy, THE LAST PRINCESS.  We see from your wish list that you are looking for [voice-driven magical realism featuring strong characters coming of age], and we suspect you will find our book to your liking.

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. Then a mysterious crone tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can spot them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this rare “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the scattered fae-born before a goblin changeling with sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her button-down mother finds out. Cat embarks on a quest to do a tricky favor for an ogre-born while learning what it means to be fae, but discovers the devastating truth: she is descended from trolls, not faeries, and who wants a stupid, clumsy troll for a princess? With her dreams and her world shattered Cat must make a choice: admit she’s troll-born and confront the ruthless goblin and his army, or bow to the wanna-be-prince for a spell to make her forget her troll heritage … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Complete at 67,000 words, THE LAST PRINCESS is a stand-alone upper middle grade contemporary fantasy with series potential. TV’s Grimm for kids, our book will also appeal to fans of Emily Windsnap or The Sisters Grimm.

John Berkowitz & Melissa Berkowitz

 

Big conflict, right? Hard choice.  But in the book itself, it isn’t exactly like that.  The actual choice Cat is faced with is more subtle: She’s a troll, so she can’t be the princess, and the choice is to either live with it and give up, or let the goblin make her forget … and give up.  Lose-lose.  Actually, she chooses neither and outwits the goblin and saves the day.  Naturally.  But there’s no way to phrase that in the query to entice the reader to want to find out what happens.  Does she give up and let the goblin win, or not give up?  Obviously she doesn’t give up, or why read the book, right?  There’s no suspense or tension in that choice.  So I highlighted just the part that made for a good hook.

Problem is, every agent who has gotten to the end has been disappointed, to one degree or another. It wasn’t the ending they were expecting. Well, of course not; I’d pulled a fast one and crossed my fingers and hoped that it would all make sense if they read the book.

Then I read one of those “Here’s the query letter that hooked me an agent” blogs.  The one thing this author did differently from what I had been doing was to not synopsize the entire book, but rather only the first few chapters. The hook she used was the inciting incident.

Of course!  That’s the hook that’s supposed to make the reader want to read the whole book in the first place!  That’s the premise!  That is what goes on the back of the printed copy so people will want to buy it. Eureka!

So I wrote a new query, revising both the logline (that 35-word mini synopsis at the beginning of the letter) and the main book description.  Here they are:

 

Twelve-year-old Cat’s fantasies come true when the faerie-folk she sees turn out to be real. Now to save them she must race for the crown against a power-hungry goblin with an army and a plan. […]

Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale and sees magical creatures everywhere. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. When her little brother goes missing on her watch Cat half-believes he was eaten by an ogre. So she runs off in a panic to find him, only to discover her stories had terrified him into hiding and she’d left him all alone. Her mother, fed up with Cat’s head-in-the-clouds attitude, takes away her treasured books and tells her it’s time she grew up. After weeks of living up to Mom’s fun-sucking expectations, Cat snaps. She sneaks into the garage to rescue her beloved books while the family is asleep and stumbles upon an ancient diary all about the fae. Cat embarks on a quest to learn more and meets a centuries-old dryad who tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last Princess of the Fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the hidden fae-born before a sinister goblin and his army beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out.

 

My hope is that agents will read this and be as interested (or more interested) as before, but now there isn’t an expectation of how the book is going to end.  The revelation that she’s a troll will come as a complete surprise – just like it is meant to for the eventual readers.  That twist now becomes a bonus instead of a burden.

Here’s the best part. I re-read the rejection letter I got on my very first full request, and the last thing they said was, “Don’t pitch it as princess of the trolls. That is a gorgeous twist at the end that you shouldn’t need to reveal to capture people’s attention.” Maybe I should have listened sooner.

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Comments
  1. Bobbie says:

    Hey John, I’m not sure I agree with your revision. It seems to be too detailed with small events.

    I wonder, what’s wrong with a combination of your previous query, and this:

    She’s a troll, so she can’t be the princess, and the choice is to either live with it and give up, or let the goblin make her forget … and give up. Lose-lose. Actually, she chooses neither and outwits the goblin and saves the day. Naturally.

    This is good. This is intriguing. I want to know how she solves this problem. It’s a hook.

    The thing is, you say that the agents were disappointed with the resolution to the story. Have you rewritten that? The query did get you requests. The resolution to the story got the rejections. I don’t think that a revised query is the solution to the problem.

    Oh wow. Can’t wait to start my own query process at the end of this month.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bujabs says:

    This post here is very helpful, also, congratulations, you have actually finished writing your book. Am still at 50k words and dreading the querying to come.

    Like

  3. Amira says:

    I do think you’re on to something, but the new query needs a lot of work. I love the ending, but like Bobbie said above, the beginning is too detailed.

    Like

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