Posts Tagged ‘#agentadvice’

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Wisdom can come at the oddest moments and from the most unlikely places. This notion ocured to me today as I was making myself a sandwich for lunch.

I happen to be a fan of mustard on my turkey and avocado sandwich, so I always have a bottle handy. Usually something with a little kick, like a good horseradish mustard. If you yourself enjoy a mustard other than the standard plain yellow variety, then you will be familiar with what happens if you squeeze mustard from a bottle that has sat idle.

You get runny mustard. It explodes from the bottle in a watery mess that soaks into the bread, making it soggy and unappetizing and ruining your lunch. So what you learn to remember is that before you squeeze, you have to shake your mustard vigorously, or you’ll be sorry.

This is also true of writing, and in particular query letters. You don’t ever want to just squeeze out a quick query to a prospective agent by using a boilerplate letter you wrote months ago. You need to shake things up by getting to know the agent first — on their agency page, on Twitter, on the Mauscript Wish List page, and by searching for interviews they may have done in the last few years. If you don’t, you’ll ruin your one shot with that agent by presenting them with something watery and unappetizing.

Agents get hundreds of blind queries a month, and like anything endlessly repetitive, certain trends begin to stand out that turn an agent off. You can read all about these by following the Twitter hashtags #100queries and #500queries. Agents want to feel like they were chosen, not picked randomly out of a hat. They like it when a query is personalized — not just with their name at the top (spelled correctly!) — but with reasons why the author choose them. They like to be shown how your manuscript might be a good fit for them.

This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. It only takes a few minutes to discover whether or not an agent is after what you’ve got, and to drop a few words to that effect into your query. You only get one shot at an agent, and this little extra bit of effort can make the difference between a perfect turkey and avocado sandwich and a soggy, unappetizing mess.

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There are several different approaches to querying agents:

  1. Send them out in batches of 5 or more. Pro: wide coverage. Con: lots of research.
  2. Send them out 1 at a time, as you discover new agents. Pro: little research. Con: minimal coverage.
  3. John Berkowitz’s Patented Query Slow-Burn. Pros: wide coverage with little research. Cons: you need to commit.

But what is this amazing Query Slow-Burn? I hear you cry.  Glad you asked, because I am here today, standing in front of you in the hot sun, to elucidate on that very topic. (Imagine I have a handlebar mustache and that I am now twirling it. I am also brandishing a bottle of elixir. There may or may not be a soapbox.)

The main problem, for me, with the “wide net” process, is that you have to research and find five or more agents, then research all of them, write five personalized queries, and put together five submission packages, each following a unique set of submission guidelines. This can take quite a while, and if you are pressed for time, you run the risk of mixing something up. On the other hand, if you take the opposite tack and submit to one agent at a time as you discover them, giving each one your full attention to detail, it will take a long time to reach a decent quantity of subs.

Last summer I adapted a writing exercise to my querying process. The exercise was to write at least one sentence every day on your manuscript, and to see how long of a “chain” you could forge (one link for every consecutive day). By using the Twitter hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wishlist), and the new and improved official MSWL website, www.manuscriptwishlist.com, I am able to filter for agents seeking my genre and age group with ease. And finding a single agent seeking one or more of the elements featured in my book doesn’t take much time. I can locate a likely agent, stalk research their Twitter feed and blog posts, find agent interviews, and read about them on their agency’s website in 10-20 minutes.  With this info at hand, personalizing a query and submission package is a snap, and I can manage the whole thing in under 30 minutes. The key is to do this EVERY DAY.

If I have to gin up half a dozen queries at a time, I often find myself putting it off until I can clear several hours from my schedule (which are hard to find).  On the other hand, I can manage a single quality query on my lunch hour at work, using the Slow-Burn method (patent pending). It doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of a month you’ll have 30 queries out there, and with any luck you’ll already start to see responses to your early subs coming in.

If you really want to do it up right, use a spreadsheet to keep a record of your progress. I keep mine in Microsoft’s OneNote, and my fields are Agent, Date Sent, Reply, Request Sent, Response, and Notes.

Give it a try, and let me know if this method works for you.

 

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There is a lot of advice out there about querying your manuscript, but one of the most common pieces of advice is “Don’t give up!” Variations on this include “Aim for 100 rejections a year,” and “Don’t stop querying until you’ve queried at least 80 agents.”

Fine. I have no problem sticking it out that long. I’ve gotten a grip on my self confidence and can keep this up for as long as it takes. The problem actually comes when you start to run out of agents to query. So what do you do then?

I’m not sure it’s possible to run out of agents to query — only to run out of places to look. There are hundreds of agencies in the U.S. alone, and even if you strike out with one agent, rarely is it prohibited for you to try again with a different agent at the same agency. So where do you look? Following is a list (far from exhaustive) of places you can find agents eager to read what you’ve got, or at least eager to take a look.

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  • Annual Guide To Literary Agents. This is basically an alphabetical directory of agencies, with detailed information including what they are looking for, what terms they offer, recent sales, how to submit, and the names of individual agents. The book also has detailed articles on how to write a good query, how to write a synopsis, what agents look for, etc. The book also contains a directory of conferences. In addition to this book, you can also find similar books such as Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, Christian Writer’s Market, and Poet’s Market.
  • AgentQuery.com.  “The Internet’s largest free database of literary agents.” You can search by quite a large selection of genre keywords in fiction and non-fiction.  The site also contains many resources for writers, including information on e-publishing, networking, what to do with an offer, etc. There is also an active writer’s forum, including critique groups and genre discussions at agentqueryconnect.com.
  • ManuscriptWishlist.com.  This site continues to expand and improve, and now includes extensive articles by active agents and writers, and a monthly e-newsletter to whitch you can subscribe. Manuscript wishlist grew out of an annual Twitter event during which agents and publishers would post on the hashtag #MSWL what kinds of things they were looking for. The main (and best) feature of the site is the searchable database, which focuses on what each individual agent is looking for and how best to get their attention, as well as specific submission guidelines. There is also mswishlist.com, which is basically just an agrigator of Twitter posts using the #MSWL hashtag, which by this point is just a contrast stream. This site also has streams for #AskAgent, “queries” (such as #500queries, #100queries, #tenqueries, etc., where agents post their responses to a set quantity of queries they receive in the course of their daily routine), and #PubTip, as well as a listing of agents on Twitter, including the genres/age groups they represent. You can click on any of these tags, such as MG, and get a filtered list of agents who represent that category.
  • Twitter. Yup. It isn’t just for witty observations and pictures of you lunch anymore.  Haunt the writerly hashtags, such as those mentioned above, as well as #QueryTips, #AmQuerying, #AmWriting, or even just your genre or age group, and you will find an active flow of tips, advice, announcements, offers of assistance, and upcoming events. Many of those who post on these hashtags are agents seeking submissions or offering the benefits of their experience. This is a great way to connect with agents who share your tastes and interests.  Pay attention to the contests, too, because even if you don’t choose to enter, most of them include a roster of participating agents and their bios, wishlist, and contact information.

These are all really just the starting point. Because once you find a potential match through one of these resources, you will want to investigate further before dashing off that query burning a hole in your hard drive. Find them on Twitter and explore their posts. Visit their website — many have both an agency page as well as a personal page. Search the Internet for interviews and read them; you will often discover some pet peeve to avoid or some special interest you share. But most importantly, you will want to find that thing in common between what you have to offer and what they most want to discover in their in-box. This is the key to personalizing your query to each agent.

My last piece of advice is to start a spreadsheet to keep track of who you have queried, by date, and what responses you receive, if any.  Many agents will indicate that no answer after a certain amount of time = a pass.  I personally use Microsoft’s OneNote, because it is free and mobile. I have it on my PC, my iPad and my phone, and they are all automatically synced.

Now, you should have no problem putting out a query a day, or five a week, or whatever goal you set yourself. Get to it, and good luck!

 

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There’s been a be it of a debate over at my critique group.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Our long-standing debate has been a kind of a glass-half full/glass half-empty philosophical conundrum for as long as I have been a member (three years).

The feature in question is the Hook Queue, in which members can enter the first 1,000 words of their story and get feedback.  This sounds great on paper, and in practice many, many members like it.  I don’t happen to be one of them.

See, here’s the thing.  The whole critique group is based on a credit system; you have to critique the work of others to earn the credits you need to spend in order to submit your own work.  It creates motivation and an atmosphere where giving critiques is as valuable or more valuable than receiving them.  Which is actually true.

The Hook Queue is a little different.  Entering into the Hook Queue costs you 3 credits, but you can earn them back by critting 10 other hook submissions.  Here’s how the queue is described:

This queue is a little bit special. Here the critter is playing the role of an underpaid editor searching for that special perfect snowflake of a manuscript amongst a pile of hopefuls.

Anyone can post into this queue but you must have extremely thick skin. The queue is meant to give you an indication of how good your hook is and where editors might stop reading, and more importantly, why.

The theory is that you should run though these quickly (you are timed) and when you feel like stopping, make a short note explaining why at that spot.  It is quite a contrast to the regular story queues we use for chapters, in which additional points are awarded to critters for making more verbose critiques.

The Hook Queue is only open one week per month.  And after each one the debates roll out anew.  Some people (myself included) want more detailed comments on these all-important opening pages of our story, not a cold brush-off.  We want to know what is working so we can make more of that.  But the entire concept of the Hook Queue is that members are asked to pretend they are editors or agents, when mostly likely none of them actually are.  Critters are only guessing at what an editor is looking for.  These people are writers themselves — an entirely different breed.

The people in favor of this method like to point out (according to everything they “know” to be true about slush readers) that they are all just looking for reasons to reject your manuscript.  One member went so far as to suggest they already have all the clients they need and the slush pile is their lowest priority, so in order to get home to their families they slam through it — just like the Hook Queue is designed.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so.

The editors, agents, and slush readers I’ve spoken to (quite a few) express their love of their work.  They can’t wait to find the next great book that takes their breath away, and they invite anybody with an Internet machine to send them their manuscript. But don’t take my word for it.  The other day I ran across an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, being conducted by a slush reader for a New York literary agent.  He answered questions for hours revealing, among other things, that he does it for no pay because he simply loves books, and would rather read a good story than watch television.  Here are a few of his comments/answers:

Most agents will read nearly 100% of all queries and probably something close to that in full requests. What the readers like me are doing is helping to level them out. We’re making sure that good stuff gets noticed quick, because the agent is racing to find new talent before someone else scoops them up. And we’re leveling the agent out when they fall in love with a book that may have some serious flaws. Trust me when I say this – Agents and readers alike want desperately to be in love with your writing and your story. We live for it. Look at it less as gate-keeping and more as trying to find the gold nuggets in the sifting pan faster because there’s only one giant pan and a thousand gold-hungry sharks swimming in it. More eyes is better than less.

 

A good slush reader has to be aligned with the agents interests. The agent wants to find great writing and great/talented authors to sign. Slush readers that are just looking for reasons to hate things last about as long as critique partners who like to tell you how horrible you are at writing (maybe a week?). Now, we sure may get a bad rep for pointing out things that we feel are flaws (especially when the writer doesn’t agree) but I can tell you that what we present is opinion and sometimes Agents ignore their slush readers completely and go with their gut and sign authors they simply love.

 

Anytime a [slush] reader likes a work, it’s good for the author and the agent alike. A reader helps the agent have a pulse on what the “average joe” reads and likes. It gives the agent a more rounded opinion of the work. It can help the agent overcome a gut reaction or objection, and it can point out a flaw that the agent didn’t see.

So, if you are in the query trenches right now, desparing because you think the keepers of the keys to your publishing kingdom only have eyes for your mistakes, buck up.  The people you’re querying want to love your book.  As this slush reader said, “There are exactly 1000 things pulling the attention of an agent at any one moment. If you can keep them from caring about anything but reading the next sentence, you’ll have an agent by tomorrow morning.”

Now, I just need to wade back into the debate and convince everyone that our Hook Queue has got it’s head on backwards.

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This is the big one, kids.  The gold standard of pitch contests, and one of the longest-running. There are something like 130 mentor teams participating this year, broken into four age categories: Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult. The contest runs from today through November 9.

But what is it?

Oh! I didn’t see you there, under that rock.  Okay.  PitchWars is a contest for writers with complete manuscripts and a polished query letter. You choose four mentors or mentor teams (a lot of those this year) and submit your first chapter, query, and contact info. Over the course of the next three weeks, those mentors will review all of their entries and request additional materials from those writers whose manuscripts they like. And by “like” I mean they feel like they can connect to the story and the author, and can offer concrete advice for revising the entire manuscript to agent readiness. These are experienced people — slush readers, professional editors, published authors. Many of them are past PitchWars winners.

Then, for the next two months, the chosen mentees will be in constant communication with their mentors, frantically revising their manuscripts and query letters according to their mentors’ advice.  Then, during the first week of November, these revised pitches and manuscripts will be showcased for participating agents.  There are over 60 of those, this year.  The goal, of course, is for an agent to sign you.  That happened to over 50 people last year, and over 200 in the 4-year history of PitchWars.

Do you have a manuscript you are ready to query?  If so, and you want to enter, the details are here.  When you are ready, the entry form is here.

Good luck!

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You’ve either gotten them or you are working hard to be able to get them.  Rejections.  From agents, from publishers, from contest judges.

But there is a huge stigma attached to the word “rejection” out in the world.  I mean, sure, rejection actually means that you have been rejected, y’know, the opposite of accepted.  But it is nowhere near that cut-and-dried in the publishing world.

Rejection doesn’t mean “Failure.”  At worst it just means “No.”  It might also mean “Not for me,” “Not quite,” or “Not yet.”

We’ve received quite a few rejection letters, my daughter and I.  A good portion of them were form letters.  Usually those form letters included an apology for sending a form letter.  I get it; reading and evaluating hundreds of queries a week is hard.  Time-consuming.  Emotionally draining.  An agent can’t be expected to give back as much heart and soul as each hopeful writer has poured into their query (not to mention novel).  And nearly all of these form rejections include some version of the same comment: “This is not a reflection of your writing … this business is very subjective … we hope you continue querying.”  Those are all positive, comforting, friendly sentiments.  And they are all true.  They mean it every single time.

Okay, fine, agents undoubtedly receive and reject abysmal writing samples they wouldn’t wish on any fellow agent, let alone future reader.  Maybe in those cases some agents eschew the form rejection and say it like it is.  But I bet even then, the agent advises those writers to dig in, improve their craft, and try again.

Here’s my point.  These aren’t failures.  These aren’t the end.  They are more like when a door-to-door salesman goes to the next door.  Each time you knock on a door is an opportunity to hone your schpiel and greet the next prospective customer with a slightly better pitch.

Most of the time its a “No.”  Some people don’t even want to hear how great your cookies are.  But that’s no reflection on the cookies, is it?  There’s a sweet tooth on every street, but you have to knock on a lot of doors to find it.  So it is with querying.  For sure, if an agent takes the time to advise you in their rejection on how to improve your presentation, you should consider that advice.  If you do and you steadily improve, and you keep trying, there is every reason to believe you will eventually find a home for your manuscript.  You certainly have a better chance than if you don’t.

 

Voice

What is “voice?”

Yeah … hard to define, isn’t it.  And yet virtually every agent with a wishlist or contest with judges insist that “voice” is the most important thing about your manuscript.  You gotta have some.  And if you ain’t got it, you ain’t goin’ nowhere in this bidness.

Voice is like seasoning in a recipe.  You’re supposed to add it “to taste,” which basically means, fiddle with it until you like it.  But the thing about seasoning and voice — everybody has different taste. You know that thing where they say publishing is subjective?  This is exactly why.  Your book may be fantastic, but if the agent who happens to be looking at it isn’t a fan of, say, “peppy” you get rejected.  Lot’s of agents rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before J.K Rowling got a book deal.

Voice isn’t the only thing, of course, that is judged in a manuscript.  In fact, there are about a thousand things you have to get right. Spelling, commas, formatting, the agent’s name, dialogue, white space, the first sentence, setting, the font….  But most of those things you can figure out.  Spelling and punctuation are either right or wrong.  Dialogue sounds natural or it doesn’t.  There are guidelines on how to format your manuscript and what font to use.  You research your agent.  But voice….

How do you know when it’s right?  It’s like that joke by E.E. Kenyon, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Same answer: Practice!

Fine, but what is it, exactly?  Well, it isn’t anything “exactly.” It’s the personality of your book.  It’s the tone, the pace, the word choice, the flavor.  Voice is where you get to play with the rules a little.  Maybe your voice is a tiny bit irreverent, so you blithely begin sentences with “And.”  Maybe you’re voice is stern and no-nonsense, so you eschew contractions and use clipped sentences.  Maybe your voice is poetic, so you sprinkle in a few purple words here and there to highlight a feeling.

Voice is where you bring the funny.  Or the scary.  Or the poignant.  It’s where you show your style.  It’s where you choose certain turns of phrase and reject others because of how they affect the “mood” of your story.  Voice is what makes you stare at the page for 45 minutes trying to decide if you should use “challenge” or “difficulty” because meaning is everything and every word counts.

To a large degree, voice is why I chose to write THE LAST PRINCESS in first person.  Because the voice I wanted for the book was Cat’s voice — the main character.  So where somebody else might have written:

I was no longer hungry and, in fact, I began to feel rather sick.

 

In Cat’s voice I wrote:

I squeezed my eyes shut as my stomach rumbled again, only this time it wasn’t a pleasant, oh-please-feed-me kind of rumble. It was more of a get-me-outta-here-before-I-hurl sort of rumble.

This is the voice of a twelve-year-old girl looking at a menu in a French restaurant, staring at pictures of escargots and pressed duck.  The sentence above is not.  Yet they both say the same thing.

That’s voice.

Most of the voice I used when writing THE LAST PRINCESS came from listening to my daughter and reading lots of middle grade books featuring girls with attitude.  If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t panic.  You will.  It takes time.  It takes practice.  And it takes patience.

Go ye forth and get some.

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My daughter and I enter our manuscript (query, pitch, first page, etc.) into a lot of contests. We haven’t “won” any yet.

So why do we keep pounding our head against that wall?

Well, it’s like this.  There are hundreds of good resources readily at hand for how to write your novel: classes — both online and in person — critique groups, how-to books, YouTube lectures, writers’ blogs, your mother, etc., etc. If you are serious, you can thoroughly teach yourself all of the aspects of novel writing, from plot to dialogue to pacing to character development to building tension, and every other particle of minutiae you can think of. You can surround yourself with other writers who can share their experience, collect beta reader who can tell you what’s wrong with your WIP, and hire editors who can help you fix it. Plus, there are like a million books out there you can read as examples of what works.

But what about finding an agent?

<crickets>

Sure, a lot of people are willing to give you advice. Some of them have even found an agent themselves. But mostly their advice is pretty vague. “Make sure your query has voice, but not too much voice.” “In one paragraph describe your entire book, but leave out everything that isn’t essential.” “Include Character, Conflict, Stakes, and Consequences.” “Don’t waste a single word.”

Okay, fantastic. But how?  Maybe there are some examples of successful query letters. Great. But they aren’t about your book. How do you craft the irresistible query for your book? Where’s that class?

There are actually editors out there who provide query feedback for a fee.  But that can get expensive, and what do you do if you pay and still get no results?

Here’s where the contests come in.  My daughter and I most recently entered #QueryKombat, and for the first time we made it into the first round. The actual contest itself is a series of elimination rounds based on voting by agented and published authors, alternating with opportunities for agents to request partials or fulls. What you’re supposedly vying for is agent exposure. The idea is that if you make it though several rounds, revising along the way, you haven been “vetted” and agents are much more likely to be interested.  You’re not actually winning representation or a publishing contract, although in theory your odds go up.

But the real benefit of such a contest is the feedback.  We were eliminated in the first round of #QueryKombat. Over three days the votes were 2-1 in our favor, then 2-2, 3-2 in our favor … then 3-6 against. It ended up 4-6. But each of those ten votes came with a detailed analysis of our query letter and our first page, pointing out both strengths and weaknesses.  In addition, participants were required to comment (but not vote) on at least six other entries.  So we actually ended up with closer to twenty detailed critiques of our query.

This is tremendously helpful. And I don’t know any other place where I could have gotten this kind of targeted feedback on my query.

So if your are querying yourself and unsure about how to craft that perfect query, look for the contests.  There are dozens every year (see my 2016 Pitch Contest Calender).  And the great thing is, you don’t have to “win” to win.

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You can unclench; it’s not that bad.

As aspiring writers we suck up advice like that corner attachment on your vacuum cleaner.  Because, well, we haven’t a clue and desperately need one.  If you step back and actually look at what you’re doing, it’s kind of amazing — you’re writing a book. Like, a real book. Who does that?

Well … you, now.

When I was a kid, I thought books were written by people who had special mad skills and otherworldly talent, because I sure as hell could never write one.  And then I did.  It had to do with the idea that everybody — even people like Abraham Lincoln and Ghandi — started out not knowing anything and not being particularly special.  They all became special by reaching for something just beyond their grasp and not giving up until they reached it.

Writing a novel is a lot like that.

Here’s the thing, though. Writing a novel doesn’t make you Ghandi. Because a LOT of people are writing books.  There are hundreds of aspiring writers with complete manuscripts, flooding the ether with queries to the army of literary agents, who each wade though a knee-deep slush pile.  There’s a lot of competition.  But don’t let that discourage you — there isn’t a finite number of allowable books in the universe. They will keep printing more.  I was standing in the middle of Barnes & Noble the other day, looking around me at the sheer volume of books, filling rows upon rows of six-foot high shelves.  Thousand and thousands of individual titles, and more every day.  There is room for your book, no fear.  But getting it out into the physical world of print is a rubicon, for sure.

So, we look for every tidbit of advantage we can get our grabby hands on and feverishly apply it.  Querying techniques, log lines, killer first pages, etc., etc., etc.  And one of the most commonly-cited requirements for success is the “Author’s Platform.”

Cue the horror movie organ sting.

Who has time for that?  It was hard enough writing a book — and editing it and polishing it and getting beta readers to read it and applying their suggestions and editing and polishing some more.  Now they want you to create a brand and promote it and build a website and collect followers and a mailing list and….

Whoa.  Here’s a paper bag to breathe into.  It’s not that bad.  The platform you’re thinking of is mainly for non-fiction writers, who need to establish their authority on a subject so people will have a reason to buy their book.  It doesn’t work that way for fiction authors (unless you are self-publishing and doing your own marketing). Oh, sure, once you sign a book deal, your publisher will expect you to get out there and promote your book, but you don’t have to do it in advance, like with non-fiction.

To be sure, agents still like to know you’re out there, engaging with the writing community.  And there are several simple ways to do that.  Twitter is a platform.  So is Facebook.  Even Pinterest.  You can blog or write a column or podcast.  But they key is to network with your fellow writers.  You want to do this anyway, because you can get feedback and advice and war stories, moral support and ideas and success stories.  You can meet authors who write books like yours who have gotten an agent, who will recommend you, or help polish your query, or beta read your book.  You can begin to comprehend the lingo.

Agents want to see that you are engaged. Because that suggests you’re serious. You don’t have to have a custom website and a brand logo and a long list of testimonials. But agents want to see some results when they google your name.  Look around, see what you feel comfortable with and dive in.  Talk about your process.  Collect a few likes.  Avoid venting or whining when you get rejected.  That’s all there is to it.  It doesn’t have to eat your life.

Believe me, it will make a difference.

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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.