Posts Tagged ‘Query’

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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.

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I can’t say that the querying stage of being an author is any easier than the actual writing part.  In fact, I can’t even say it will take less time (I would certainly like to say this).  But I can definitely say it is more exciting!

In the last two weeks we have thrown our hat into a number of query/pitch contests/parties, with mixed success.  I’ve written at length about WriterPitch, and I call that a success.  We collected a great number of promising wishes during MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) day, and now we have a lot of agents that appear to be looking for what my daughter and I are pushing.  That’s a success.

I blogged about #PitchMadness, here. We entered it and spent the next several days haunting Twitter, hoping to see any hint that someone liked our manuscript.  Several of the tweets by the judges teasing their picks seemed to be talking about our manuscript, and our hopes rose.  But in the end our pitch was not chosen.  But the following day I did receive this personal tweet:

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So … that happened.

I also decided to try out the Twitter pitches I had crafted for #PitMad on a smaller Twitter pitch contest for a small book publisher.  They are not as well know, so I’m sure there were far fewer competitors.  I really would prefer an agent to a small publisher, but my goal was to see if I got any response.  In fact I received favorites from three different editors there.  I sent our query, synopsis and first three chapters, per their guidelines, and three days ago we received a request for the full manuscript. So this tells me that based on our first three chapters somebody wanted to read the rest of our book.  Most definitely a success.

But I guess the most important part of this experience has been the many, many individuals and teams who have offered to read our query letters and pitches and first 250 words, etc., and given us free, very helpful feedback.  So the experience has taught us a great deal, and if we win no other contests or get any nibbles on our tweets, we at least improved our chances as we continue to query the old-fashioned way.

So … huge success.

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I never paid much attention to Twitter.  Because I never really had anything important to say and I didn’t feel like I needed to know the random thoughts of any of my friends.  I signed up a few years ago so I could follow NASA during a particular mission hoping for live updates, but it was rather intrusive.  Like being constantly tapped on the shoulder and handed notes while you’re in the middle of work, or dinner, or reading a book, or whatever.  I turned it off.

However now I am a writer with a finished and polished novel manuscript (mine and my daughter’s), and suddenly I am intensely interested in finding an agent.  This turns out to me more work than writing the novel.  And the stakes are much higher.  Why?  If you don’t already now, you’ll find out when it’s time.

So I have been scouring the Interwebs for any and all information/advice/lectures/tips/examples of how to write a successful query and get it into the hands of the best agent. I guess it was inevitable that I would find myself back on Twitter.

The key to making the whole Twitter thing work is hashtags.  These “#” things.  We used to call them “the pound sign.”  You know, back when “.” was called a period, not a “dot.”  Hashtags are like keywords for facilitating searches, only the hashtag has been adopted as the key to a universal keyword system — it works for almost all social media (all that I know of) — Twitter, Facebook, LinkeIn, Tumbler, YouTube, WordPress, the list is both endless and daunting.  I discovered the power of the hashtag when I started posting these blog posts on my Facebook page and in my LinkedIn groups.  You want to hear some advice on how to query your book?  Search #QueryTips.  This is a big one on Twitter; agents and writers post tidbits of advice and links to their sites with more information.  Then I discovered #MSWL, which stands for “Manuscript Wish List” — agents and publishers tweet a brief description of the kind of book they are looking for.  Keep an eye out on February 18th, this year.

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And that’s when I discovered Pitch Madness.  Pitch Madness (#PitMad) is an event held several times a year on Twitter, where on a given day for 12 hours authors post a pitch of their book — 140 characters, including the hashtag #PitMad and one indicating the genre (#YA for young adult, #SFF for science fiction & fantasy, #R for romance, etc.).  Then any agent who wishes to participate (a growing number) monitors Twitter through a filter for #PitMad and “favorites” the pitches they want to see.  Your tweet get a favorite from an agent, and that’s an invitation to send them your query (still according to their guidelines, but now you can mention that they requested your book during Pitch Madness).  The details are here, on Brenda Drake’s website (the agent who invented this contest, I believe).  The next #PitMad event is coming up on March 11, from 8am – 8pm New York time.

The advice from past events suggests you don’t post your pitch more than 2 times per hour (or you cross the line into spam territory), and that you craft your 140-word pitch in advance.  Some people suggest you put together multiple versions, for variety.

I came up with four, for my daughter’s and my book, The Last Princess:

A homeschooler who sees faeries among us must abandon her dreams to stop a changeling from using his magic to rule both worlds. #PitMad #MG

When a 12yo learns she’s descended from trolls she must choose between saving her friend & using a spell to forget her heritage #PitMad #MG

A 12yo discovers a secret world of faeries among us & may become the last princess, unless a goblin w/sinister powers stops her #PitMad #MG

A girl who dreams of being the Faerie Princess learns she’s a troll. Will she be the Troll Princess or use a spell & be neither? #PitMad #MG

At two tweets per hour and a 12-hour window, that means you can pitch 24 times.  And unless you have nothing else to do that day, I recommend finding one of the many websites or mobile apps that will let you pre-schedule your tweets.  I found the one I use on this helpful site.  My 24 tweets are written and scheduled, just in case I forget to wake up at 5am, here in California.

By the way, in case you are looking for more ways to get your query out there, check out the other pitch contests described on Brenda Drake’s site.  There is also a yearly non-twitter version of Pitch Madness:

Pitch Madness is a contest held every March, where writers enter for a chance to win requests from the participating agents. Writers submit a 35-word (max) pitch and the first 250 words of their completed manuscript on submission day. Then a team of readers choose the top sixty (60) entries to go onto the agent round. The agents play a game against the other agents to win requests for more pages of their favorite entries. The best played agent request wins either a partial or full manuscript read of the entry.  The game for Pitch Madness changes each event. We’ve played poker, paintball, darts, and Monopoly.

2015 Pitch Madness SORRY! Edition submission window is February 20, 2015 and the agent round is March 3-4, 2015.

There is also a contest called Pitch Wars:

What is Pitch Wars? Is it another contest? Oh, no, it’s so much better. Pitch Wars is a contest where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions to shine it up for agents. The mentors also critique the writer’s pitch to get it ready for the agent round. Mentors also pick one alternate each in case their writer drops out of the contest. Writers send applications (query and first chapter of manuscript) to the four mentors that best fit their work. The mentors then read all their applications and choose the writer they want to mentor for the next two months. Then we hold an agent round with over a dozen agents making requests. Look for my upcoming blog post for more information coming at the end of July, 2014.

2015 Pitch Wars submission window will open August 17. We’ll announce the mentors’ picks on September 2, and the agent round is November 3-4.

I feel like participation in these contests will give us a much better chance of getting our story in front of agents actively seeking exactly the kind of story we’ve written.  So wish us luck.  And we hope to see you there!*

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*Oh, one important piece of etiquette: if you see a pitch from a friend during #PitMad, DON’T favorite it (unless you are an agent).  This will only confuse things and get your friend’s hopes up.  You CAN, however, re-tweet it.

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We have officially taken the plunge.

Okay, we have officially dipped the tip of our big toe in. Yay! (That’s the “ecstatic” part.)

My daughter and I sent out our first agent query letter. Just the one. It turns out this is much more difficult than sending out your manuscript to critiquers or beta readers or even co-workers or family members. Because 1) you can still fix your manuscript, and 2) because none of them are (presumably) holding your writing career in the palm of their hands. Well, technically they’re holding your manuscript, so they are. But I mean they aren’t (probably) in a position to propel you to fame or reject you with a form letter.

Agents are different than mere mortal readers. And they have the power to do this even before you send them your actual manuscript. So cheeky! But they nevertheless hold the keys to the traditional publishing kingdom. So it pays to make a good impression.

The problem – as with all first impressions – is that you only get one. You fail to impress a prospective agent with either your query or your proposal, and you can cross them off your list. No second chances.

That’s the “terrified” part.

I mean, how do I know if we’re doing it right? We expect to get rejected. Repeatedly. Even if our book is brilliant and commercial and just what the market is craving, it won’t be right for every agent’s list, or the right time, or too close to something they just accepted last week. So there will be plenty of No’s before we get to a Yes. If we do. But what if all of the No’s are because the book is awful? Or worse, what if the book is great, but the query is awful?

It’s entirely possible some sweet and thoughtful agent will take the time to write a note telling us why they rejected us and how to fix it. But how many “perfect fit” agents will we have ruined our chances with before that happens?

What is the word for ecstatic/terrified? I think it’s “query.”

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Lately I’ve been consuming a lot of websites, YouTube videos and blogs about how to write a good query letter.  A lot.

I’ve studied dozens of examples, read tons of advice, made copious notes, and I’ve learned only one thing for sure: writing a novel is nothing like writing a query letter.  And not as hard.

I know you should research the agent you are writing to and show you have done so.  I know you should spell their name right and thank them for their time.  I know the letter needs to fit on one page.  I know it should be no more than 3-4 paragraphs.  I know the synopsis shouldn’t be more than 250 words.  I know it has to better than the 200 other queries your agent of choice reads that day.

But something I didn’t know – because most of my sources didn’t mention it – is that the first paragraph should also contain a logline.  The logline is a single sentence that tells the agent the who/what/when/where/why of your novel.

Yes, I said single sentence.  Because distilling your novel into 250 words isn’t hard enough.

But the more I think about it, the more I think this may be the golden ticket to creating a successful query letter.  People talk about hooking your agent, but they don’t say how to do that.  The logline seems to be a perfect solution.

If you do it right.

No, I’m not teasing you; I’m here today to give you some pointers on how to write a perfect logline, to hook your author.

First the bad news.  It seems like there is a pretty strong consensus among agents and seasoned writers that if you cannot condense your book into a single sentence, there is something wrong with your book.  I know: How do they know?  Well, because they’re agents and seasoned writers, for one.  But it makes sense if you think about it.  Most successful books are about one thing, one conflict, one goal, one thing at stake.  There can be subplots and twists and turns along he way, but if it doesn’t boil down to a single key conflict you will likely lose your reader.

But that can be good news, too.  If your book does follow this traditional structure, you can distill it down to a single sentence.  And here’s how you do it.  Answer the following seven questions about your book.  You may have to take a couple of runs at this to get to the heart of your book.  And you may have to suppress the urge to include your favorite subplots and surprise twists.  But you will get there.

1.  What genre is the book?

2.  Who is the main character?

3.  What makes her unique?

4.  What is the inciting incident?

5.  What is your main character’s goal?

6.  What is the major conflict your character will face?

7.  What is the consequence if the main character fails?

I’ve done this with my own book, and I’ll show you my answers in a moment.  But first, here’s the synopsis (those 250 words) so you’ll understand the answers I came up with.

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier is a daydreamer. She sees faerie-folk among people the way her friends see animals among the clouds. But life in the suburbs is about as far from her dream of being a princess as you can get. Besides, her mom says there are no such things as faeries and ogres and pixies, and if she doesn’t buckle down and get serious about her schoolwork there will be Consequences.

That’s when a mysterious old woman tells Cat the fae were real but they’ve blended in until they’re almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has this “fae-dar” she could become the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the crown before a goblin changeling with sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out. With the help of Mr. Goldschmidt, a dwarf clock-maker, Nanny Schumacher, a brownie housekeeper, Hunter Alfson, an elfin archery instructor, and many others she meets along the way, Cat learns what it means to be fae. Then the goblin reveals the devastating truth: Cat is descended from trolls, not faeries, and nobody wants a stupid troll for a princess. With her dreams and her world shattered, Cat must make a choice: be a troll and stop the power-hungry goblin from becoming prince or trade the crown for a spell to make her forget she’s a troll … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Now here’s how I answered those logline questions:

1.  What genre is the book?
Middle grade urban fantasy

2.  Who is the main character?
12-yo Cat Brökkenwier

3.  What makes her unique?
Her fae-dar; she can see those of fae descent, where most people cannot

4.  What is the inciting incident?
Cat learns the fae are real, not her imagination, and that she might become their princess

5.  What is your main character’s goal?
To unite the fae and become their princess before the goblin prince beats her to it

6.  What is the major conflict your character will face?
Cat must choose between being a princess – and a troll – or making a deal with the prince to give up the crown in return for a spell that will make her forget that she is a troll

7.  What is the consequence if the main character fails?
The prince will rule the fae – and possibly the humans, too – as a tyrant

After about a dozen false starts, here is what I ended up with:

A homeschooler with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her dreams in order to stop a ruthless changeling from using his magic to rule both worlds.

Now I’m going to sit on this for awhile and take it out and look at it in fresh light.  We’ll see if it sticks.

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I’m back, dear reader, with my (hopefully) improved query letter.  I’ve sought and received a lot of advice on what I had thought was the perfect query.  Then I did so again with what I was certain was an even perfecter query letter.  This one received even more criticism than the first, a veritable blood-bath of red.

So I took a few deep breaths and rewote it from scratch, addressing (I think) all of the vagueness and confusion of the latest version.

So here it is, my soul laid bare. Or something less dramatic. After all, it’s only a few hundred words. Even if they are possibly the hardest few hundred words I’ve had to write in connection with my novel. Comments most welcome.

Dear [Agent],

I’m writing to you because I read you are seeking middle grade fantasy novels with strong female characters [or other appropriate specifics depending on the agent].

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier is a daydreamer. She sees faerie-folk among people the way her friends see animals among the clouds. But life as a homeschooler in the suburbs is about as far from her dream of being a princess in a castle as you can get. Besides, her mom says there are no such things as faeries and ogres and pixies, and if she doesn’t buckle down and get serious about her schoolwork there will be “Consequences.” So Cat becomes a model student. For almost a whole week.

That’s when a mysterious, old lady at the fair tells Cat the fae were real but they’ve blended in until they’re almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and because she has this “fae-dar” she might be the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the crown before the goblin prince with his sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out. With the help of Mr. Goldschmidt, a dwarf clock-maker, Nanny Schumacher, a brownie housekeeper, Hunter Alfson, an elfin archery instructor, and many others she meets along the way, Cat learns what it means to be fae. Then the goblin reveals the devastating truth: Cat is descended from trolls, not faeries, and nobody wants a stupid troll for a princess. With her dreams and her world shattered, Cat must make a choice: fight the goblin and his army single-handed or use his magic to forget she’s a troll … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Complete at 66,000 words, “The Last Princess” is a stand-alone book with series potential, and will appeal to fans of Emily Windsnap or The Sisters Grimm.

Thank you for your consideration.

What do you think?  Would you buy this book?