Write a query? Shoot me now.
I have been working on my query letter for over a month now. It has gone through the careful eyes of several, trusted Beta editors and STILL opinions vary as to which version they like (I have roughly five variations).
I am just about to . . . What’s that? What is a query? Ah . . . let me back up a bit then.
A query is one of Dante’s realms of Hell. It is roughly 200 words (possibly less – sometimes a single sentence), that must sum up your entire book and makes the agent DESPERATE to read more. Not just “want” to read more, but MUST read more, because: a) your prose is so outstanding and b) your concept so amazing, that they are going to give you a chance to be heard via your manuscript. Note: they can still say “no” after they read pages.
This past week, I have been attending the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference and, I must say, it is worth your attendance. So far, I have taken two classes taught be NYC agents – Sorche Elizabeth Fairbanks – The Art of the Query, and Anne Hawkins – Why Agents Reject Good Books. Here is what I learned:
FOR FICTION WRITERS:
1. A query must contain the protagonist, antagonist, conflict, and resolution. ONLY NAME those characters. Forget the BFF – if the friend is a critical player, just mention her, but not her name. Too many names = too confusing.
2. Be vivid and not a broken record. Your query shows your writing chops, your flow, and the feel for the character. It needs tempo and brilliant writing skill. Do not be redundant. For example (and I am using what Fairbanks gave as a great specimen): “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Do you see the mistake/redundancy? I’ll let you stew on that and cough up the answer at the end of this post ;)
3. If you have a personal story that links you to your fictional character, add it. This is not some long, rambling story, but something that makes the agent think, “Wow, this person is going to really be able to portray this character.” This is NOT: “I’ve read nine-milion sci-fi pieces” OR “I published two articles in a sci-fi magazine” (your credits go at the end). This is “Dear so and so, when I was ten, I nearly lost a limb in a shark attack, but I was lucky. It got me thinking: what would my life have been like if fate wasn’t on my side that day? SHARK ATTACK is the fictitious story of so and so who loses her leg to Bruce the Shark and how she becomes stronger though that loss blah blah blah.”
4. EVERY BOOK must contain one of the 4 S’s: STYLE, STORY, SETTING, SOMEONE. This means that what makes your book spectacular is one of the afore-mentioned. STYLE is very rare – it is a true literary work, so don’t even think “you ‘dat fly.” STORY is the gift of storytelling so richly, that people read for that aspect alone. SETTING is when the location is so brilliantly drawn that it becomes a character unto itself. SOMEONE is a beloved protagonist. MOST writers fall into the SOMEONE category, so make him or her shine. IF you can’t pick out which one is your strength, your book may not be strong enough.
5. Conflict: Agents want to see an INTERNAL struggle and an external one as well. They want to see an active, vibrant protagonist, not just someone who is dragged around by an outside conflict. Do not have more than three, major plot points in the query or you will be ringing your own death knell.
6. Personalize to the Agent: Let the agent know HOW you know them. Did you see them speak? Read their blog? Love a book the represented? Let them know. Plastered their photos on your bedroom wall and built a mini-shrine to their greatness? I’d probably skip that tidbit.
7. Word Count: Word counts for fiction (including YA) should run between 80k and 125k. Anything shorter or longer raises a questioning eyebrow. Agents also want to know if your book is the first in a series (which helps them figure out if you are just going to be a one-hit-wonder). Series books are popular and a great series it their golden goose.
8. Crucial Lines: Agents normally read the first couple sentences from your letter. If they are not grabbed immediately, they jump to the last few sentences (your credentials). If you have professional writing experience, or valid writing chops, they go back to the top and read the entire query. This means that those first, few sentences BETTER GET THEIR ATTENTION.
Everything above applies BUT, non-fiction is harder (stop screaming and pull yourself together!):
1. YOU MUST HAVE A PLATFORM OR CREDENTIALS: For non-fiction, showing a platform (basically an already established readership that you bring with you to the table) is critical. The agent is not there to get you readers. You bring your own and they can help make that group grow. No platform? Then you must be an expert in your field. Writing a book on landscaping? You better have a degree, or loads of professional experience in high-profile places and published work in magazines. Having four-zillion Twitter followers and nine-million blog-lovers works as well.
2. FOR MEMOIR: You must be the first in your idea / story. Have a cancer story? Forget it. It sounds harsh, but we were told over and over that no one wants another cancer story unless you have a mind-blowing spin on it. Basically, why would someone buy an unknown person’s memoir that someone famous has already written?
A Few More Tips:
Remember that some genres are dying. Apparently ChickLit is gasping its last breath (IN HER SHOES walked right out the door). Didn’t know that.
Beware mixing genres (romantic horror can be hard to sell because the romance fans don’t want the horror and the horror fans don’t want the romance). If you try it, one genre in the book MUST take the lead.
Conflict of interest: Agents won’t take a book that is too similar to something they are already representing, or a subject that would insult their current writers (see comment below to clarify this mind-twister).
Beware of querying the big five publishers directly. If they reject you, an agent often doesn’t get a second shot to approach them with your book. Small and medium-sized presses are fine. The big five are: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House and Simon & Schuster.
Beware signing contracts without a good LITERARY ATTORNEY. Joe Shmoo, attorney at law from down the street, most likely will have no clue what a good contract looks like.
Lastly, some things you have no control over, like an agent’s personal taste. Some rejections come down because a book is simply not their cup of tea or they can’t figure out who they would sell it to.
Okay – so the answer to the sentence from above: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Did you figure it out? It should be: “Anne walked down the cellar stairs, her
bare toes cold on the icy floor.” Your mind’s eye will KNOW her toes are bare because she can feel the floor. Remember – MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT.
BEST OF LUCK!
Stein states that, “The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.” His full op-ed can be found HERE.
Really? THE HUNGER GAMES trumps vulgar nudes on the disgust-o-meter? I think that may be a bit extreme (especially if you HAVE seen some of the trash that floats on the Internet). His opinion however, is an intriguing observation, especially for someone like me – someone who writes not only for periodicals like Stein, but who also writes YA urban fantasy (see 408 ON MAIN). While I do not agree with his stance (I think adults should read whatever the heck they choose, whether FALLEN or THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), he is on to something. Something that I will admit: I am not a huge reader of YA fiction, even though I write YA fantasy.
I know, I know: GASP!
Calm yourself. I do enjoy excellent YA: BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS, anything Jack London & Scott O’Dell, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD and yes, HARRY POTTER and MAXIMUM RIDE, plus many others. However, to only enjoy YA novels (heck, to even read more YA than any other genre) would be, for me, creative suicide.
Why? Because great fiction begets great fiction and some of the finest examples are in adult novels. When we, as writers especially of YA, neglect the wide range of adult fiction available our characters can lose their sharpness. They can fade, no longer providing the reader with that vivid contrast within their fictional realms that vaults them off the page and into the theater of the mind.
I read EVERYTHING and I am a voracious bibliophile at that (I burned through the TWILIGHT series in four days WITH an infant). JURASSIC PARK? Decimated that sucker in two days while in high school (okay – it was propped up inside many a text book during class). Trust me, the rabid-dino book was brilliant and sealed my fate as a huge Crichton fan. I also loved the fact that the attractions would eat the tourists (secretly all Cape Codders love that idea).
Yet, my characters would not be who they are without the darkness of Patterson, King, Hoag, Grisham and Larsson. They would not have the vividness of realm without Tolkien, Benchley, du Maurier and Crichton. They would lack the laugh-out-loud dialogue without Brockmann and Hiassen.
So, do I think YA authors should be only YA readers? Absolutely no.
Do I think it is still important for YA writers to read YA fiction? Absolutely yes.
What do you think?
Can any writer be a great storyteller without reading outside their genre?
I suspect camping is quite different now-a-days then it was even five years ago. Granted, I have only been REALLY camping for the past two years (anti-roughing it with my Jayco X20E trailer), but when we go, our electronic devices and laptops come with us. Is such techno-heavy camping a good thing? Dare I say . . . yes?
I’m not irrational (or suffering sunstroke), and here is why:
1. Have phone, will travel: My daughter, firmly loving tween-life, is one of those old souls in a young body. She is a thinker, not prone to engaging in idiotic ideas and making me a nervous wreck (I thank my genes for this and definitely NOT hubby’s). With her cell phone (plus unlimited texting) she can wander about, meeting new kids and exploring different places while still firmly attached to me – or rather my iPhone. Without her phone, exploring our campgrounds and enjoying the great outdoors would be curtailed (see my other post about kids and instructions HERE).
2. Download & Unwind: My daughter also has an iPad 2 (lucky bugger) and I have a Macbook. When we have had our fill of sun, sand, pool and playground, my daughter can read a book or watch a show on her ipad and my 4-year old son can snuggle in a bunk and watch Curious George. Now before you howl, “TV is BAD for kids,” remember that over-doing it without some downtime can fry one’s good nature as well. With her iPad, my tween is able to also take photos and record her camping adventures, sharing them with her family and friends.
3. Socially Enabled: When we went camping at Pine Acres with my husband’s cousin and her three girls (my daughter and her cousin in the picture above) would lay in their respective campers at night, giggling and texting one another. With the dawn of Facetime, they now can also chat face-to-face planning their next day’s adventures. Kayaking? Off-road biking? Swimming? Granted, most places we go do have free wifi, but even without it, texting would allow her to communicate with friends without nagging her parents (okay, mainly ME) about going somewhere and seeing someone.
4. Work and Play: As a writer, having my Macbook with me means I can write when inspiration strikes. It means I can add to an article or one of my novels OR blog. Case in point? I am writing this now, while seated in the dappled sun of BayView Campground, overlooking the distant, blue bay dotted with white sails. I know – life as a Cape Codder is tough.
So do I believe in digital campfires and tweeted S’mores? You can bet your blogging biscuits I do!
Cheers y’all – I’m headed to the pool!
I once posed the question about music and the art of writing to a bunch of other scribes on Agent Query Connect (a great site with similar crazy souls like myself).
Their answers were near unanimous: music is our muse.
When I began writing more than fifteen years ago, I listened to a variety of music, often rock, while penning an article. I recall many a time when the music would match my written voice. When I was suckered into interviewing the FROSTBITE FLEET (aptly named, btw – my article is in the link) during the dead of winter on the Hyannis docks, I knew I would be rocking out to ABOUT A GIRL. Those hearty, fearless souls were the embodiment of Kurt Cobain . . . minus the drugs and drinking. Nirvana was my muse as I envisioned them (and the loss of feeling in my toes) while writing their story.
Raef and Eila’s torturous, yet elegant relationship, quickly garnered an anthem to their hearts in the form of Evanescense’s BRING ME TO LIFE. I now see their faces, feel their story, the moment I hear that song. It is not that it is the only song I listened to (my playlist pushes easily 200 tunes), but it fueled their passion and their pain.
For writers, music is like a sensory link into the mind’s eye. It can help us push through the difficult spots in a manuscript or envision new moments for our characters. It can draw out the deep agony of loss or the luminous passion of a first kiss.
For the inspiration of my characters and the revelation of a world within our shadows, I raise my pen to those who call to me through their own creativity encompassed in a thrumming guitar.
Long live the Rock N Roll Muse.
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Lots of them.
IN JULY NO LESS.
We are totally *BLEEPED*.
If you ask “why” then you aint’ from this ‘hood. You see, here on Cape Cod, when acorns rain down from the trees like jimmies on a Steve and Sue’s soft serve twist, we know we are going to be digging out – of snow, that is.
The last time those little, brown arboreal nuggets assaulted our driveways, patios and lawns, we Codders didn’t believe the hype. We moaned (and marveled) at how these friggin hardwoods could produce so many potential offspring. We were sweeping them, SHOVELING THEM, filling entire trash cans with the suckers. The squirrels became so fat that the bluebirds needed to help them into their burrows with a crowbar. Heck, even the chipmunks started to resemble that rotund, singing rodent, Theodore (unfortunately, Capemunks don’t belt out a sampling of pop-tunes – talk about a tourist attraction if they did).
We still, however, didn’t believe.
Then winter hit. People were wondering if the Cape had suddenly been moved to Nome, Alaska. It snowed and snowed AND SNOWED. Understand that Cape Cod doesn’t get a lot of snow and, when it does, it at least melts fairly quickly. Right? RIGHT?
WRONG! It stayed, for months.
In the space of seven days, the town of Bourne racked up nearly 50 INCHES. Garage doors and full-sized pick up trucks disappeared under impromptu Everests. We laughed our butts off at people who thought their 80k Land Rovers could plow through it and had their vanity crushed when they became stuck.
After that winter, we never underestimated fat furry creatures and acorns ever again.
Have no fear however. One can easily stock up on snow shovels and ice melt in another week or so, since Walmart already has out the Halloween section. Using the store’s adjusted calendar, you can have a new slowblower and your Christmas tree or menorah in hand by Labor Day ;)
Take heed fellow beach-bums: THE ACORNS ARE BACK!
Recently I had a discussion with a dear, old friend about how, when we were young, no one read warnings. We kids were flung in the far back of a decrepit station wagon with the dirty dog and sand-encrusted beach toys. Suntan lotion was known as the bottle with the bare-butt baby on the front and was applied once, if you were lucky. Chicken McNuggets and fries were considered the healthy “option” and came in styrofoam packaging that is most likely still in the landfill. Mosquitos gave non-diseased bug bites and everyone had an assortment of Weeble toys that were an ideal size to choke on. Oh, and red M&Ms would kill you and the hose-water was perfectly safe to drink by the gallons.
Yup – our parents were entirely kid-ignorant. Why? Because their own folks did the exact same thing (plus gave them a hot potato for lunch, which they would keep in their thread-bare pocket so they could walk nine-miles in sub-zero temps to get to school. Which was in a barn. With no heat. And run by a masochistic nun with a giant ruler).
Which leads to OUR generation, which is trying to be better informed. Sort of. Initially.
Our generation tends to read every label and heed every warning . . . with the first kid. By the second kid, we realize that even if we do everything perfectly, kids still get cuts and scrapes, throw temper-tantrums in line at the grocery store and climb on the roof. They crave crappy food and still drink the pond water. Yup – by the second kid, we take the warnings with a grain of salt. By the third kid, we go by gut instinct and do what our parents did – just wing it.
Which is why kids don’t come with instructions.
Because the manual would rival five YellowPage Directories. Because the kids don’t want to read it or abide by it. Because, at the end of the day, rules are more like guidelines anyway. And because the older generation knows we will eventually catch on.
Kids don’t come with instructions because that would cheat our own parents out of a fabulous opportunity to see us sweat.
Thanks Mom and Dad . . . I’m dropping the grandkids off at your place tomorrow. Feel free to keep them for a few weeks. At least.
My three-year-old sees a face on every car that crosses our path. Secretly, you see it too. The headlights are eyes, the grill a smile. Sometimes a vehicle can be temperamental, breaking down at the most inopportune times. Sometimes we name them and cry when we sell them.
Which raises a valid question: are the vehicles that tote us hither and yon ALIVE?
On a day in June, I got my answer.
I drive a 16 ton school bus with roughly 100 kids (on two runs, Middle and Elementary – yes, they try to kill me, especially the small buggers). On a brilliant, Cape Cod morning I woke the beast at 6:45 A.M. and started my first run of the day: the middle-schoolers (the texting-swearing-gossiping crowd). They can be loud, but they are good kids from the hills of Sagamore Beach. While I enjoy them, it turns out the bus may have its own tie-rod to pick with them.
On that beautiful morning, the bus decided to eat the kids.
Perhaps it was the gum stuck to the floor. Or perhaps it had its tormented fill of seats being ripped. Whatever the reason, it wanted to crush a few kids in its hydraulic doors.
The run started out very normal, but by stop #3, the door was acting suspiciously slow, as if biding its time and calculating the opportune moment. Kids getting on eyed the Loser Cruiser with a curious eye.
They it finally happened – while stepping onto the bus, one student got pinned by the doors, followed by a gasp of collective shock, then a scramble to release the door manually.
The bus had finally flipped and was channeling Stephen King’s twisted mind. Thus began the kid-munching drive from hell.
Through a joint effort between myself (driver) and several, tasty victims, we managed to out-wit Bus 14 using a coordinated attack involving the automatic switch and manual release.
Supposedly, the whole incident was blamed on some faulty thingamajig, but let’s face it: If Christine was the pinnacle of vehicular perfection, then Bus 14 had at least a dozen loose screws.
In April, my grandfather, an Iwo Jima Marine and truly gentle soul, died. I was asked by the family to write his obituary and when I was done I realized, without doubt, that his was the definition of a well-lived life. It was a cathartic writing experience for me and led me to realize that I too wanted such a complete and full existence, never wasting a moment. We only get one chance on the stage, folks. This life is not a dress-rehearsal. Make the most of it.
For your consideration: a well lived life:
NORTH EASTHAM – Joseph Blackburn, 86, artist, Iwo Jima Marine and long-time resident of North Eastham, passed away peacefully on Wednesday, April 18, in the company of his daughter Cynthia Robotham of Hyannis and beloved wife of 64 years, Pearl Blackburn.
Joseph was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 17, 1925 and moved to Berlin, Connecticut with his family as a young child.
He joined the United States Marine Corp when he was 17 and by 18 he had landed with the Marine’s 5th division on Iwo Jima as a machine gunner in the Engineering Battalion. He was one of only 600 men to survive what was considered the bloodiest, month long battle in Marine Corps history. During his time with the Marines, Joseph wrote hundreds of letters home to his family, all illustrated elaborately with cartoons covering the envelopes. Some of his artwork from the war, along with letters he wrote while under fire on Iwo Jima, is displayed in the World War II museum in New Orleans, LA.
Never one to blame the Japanese people for the decisions of their commanders, Joseph found himself guarding a Japanese Colonel after the surrender of Japan. Seeing that the man had himself lost people he cared for, Joseph drew his portrait and gave it to the Colonel as a gift of peace. The next day, the Colonel brought an elaborate, 5-foot scroll from his home known as Japanese Heaven and gave it to Joseph as a gift. The scroll still hangs in granddaughter Kate’s home as a symbol of forgiveness, tolerance and peace.
When he returned home to Berlin after the war, Joseph fell “madly” (yes, his own words) with 18 year old Pearl Thompson of Hartford. They were married a year later and had two girls, Cynthia and Kathleen. Joseph attended Randall School of Art in Connecticut on the G.I. bill and eventually worked as Art Director for General Electric in Plainville, Connecticut. Joseph also served as a selectman, Civil Defense Director, in many capacities at the Berlin Congregational Church as well as volunteering for the Boy Scouts of America. During the fifties he built a crashed plane and rocket replicas to full size for Boy Scout exercises.
He and Pearl moved to North Eastham in 1977 where he worked on the Mosquito Pest Control until his retirement in 1990. A gifted oil artist, Josephs’ work can be found in numerous churches, museums and private homes across the Cape and nation-wide. He was known to paint for the sheer joy of doing so and often painted elaborate seaside scenes on the green head fly trap boxes that could be found on salt marshes across the Cape during the eighties (many of which were frequently stolen for the artwork).
Joseph and Pearl were avid gardeners and kept the grounds of their home plentiful with flowers, fruit trees and vegetable beds, all of which were often toured at the requests of passerby’s. If one could not find the Blackburn’s at home, one need only to drive the mile to Nauset Beach and find them enjoying the vistas from the dunes. Joseph will be greatly missed by all who loved him.
In addition to his wife Pearl, Joseph is survived by two daughters; Cynthia Robotham and her husband Jerry of Hyannis, MA and Kathleen Bachta and her husband Robert of Jefferson City, Missouri; grandchildren; Jacob Bachta of Jefferson City, MO, Joseph Robotham of Hyannis, MA, and Kate Conway and her husband Russell, of Bourne, MA; great grandchildren, Finnian and Kalli Conway of Bourne, MA. He is also survived by beloved sister-in-law, Mildred Snow of Berlin, CT whose late husband, Charles, was Joseph’s best friend.