Category Archives: queries

Query Wednesday – How snarky is too snarky?

I know I haven’t done Query Wednesdays in a while, but I got a request from an author who has been getting a lot of rejections and needs some help. I thought it might be a good way to bring Query Wednesdays back! So here it is:

Dear ______,

Sophomore Max Lewis is living in a world of suck: he’s considered a nobody for quitting the lacrosse team, he’s just pissed off a tyrant – err – vice principal, and now he’s been humiliated in the latest epic prank by the mysterious Chaos Club.

And that’s just his first day of school.

Angry, embarrassed, and tired of being victimized, Max recruits four other misfits to form The Water Tower 5. Their goal? Destroy the Chaos Club. But how do you wipe out an organization with an anonymous membership capable of trapping cows on the school roof and assembling stolen desks into a giant phallus on the football field? Easy, by relying on what Max does best – scheming, scamming, and swindling.

Well, maybe not that easy.

The Water Tower 5 lures the Chaos Club into the open by framing them for a series of pranks involving precision vomiting and indecent pictures of the school mascot. Unfortunately, they also succeed in attracting the attention of the school’s administration and security team. And it’s not like the Chaos Club is going to let a bunch of underclassmen take them down without a fight. Soon, Max finds himself arrested, suspended, and even worse, dealing with an angry girlfriend. With summer only days away, can Max devise a caper ingenious enough to clear his name and expose the Chaos Club? (Hint: It’s possible, but he’s going to need a hell of a lot of weather balloons to pull it off.)
THE WATER TOWER 5 is a contemporary YA novel (94,000 words) fusing the offbeat relationships of The Breakfast Club with the capers and cons of Ocean’s 11. It is the first in a planned series, but also works as a standalone.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

The first thing I get from this query: snarky. And that’s good, right? The best YA heroes we know are snarky, full of witty remarks and quick comebacks. But one thing that happens too often in YA manuscripts is that “snarky” fills in for voice. And that’s when it stops being so good.

This is a fun query. But you spent so much energy trying to be funny and sarcastic, I don’t connect to this character. We see, for instance, that he is “tired of being victimized”. So does that mean he’s been bullied his whole life? Does he have friends? Is he a nerd? Does he wish he could fit in?

Being sarcastic is great, but only when the character has a background to explain it. And please, I’m not saying dump a bunch of back story in your query and a whole lot more in your first few chapters! Please don’t! But maybe lose the “world of suck” (or move it a little further down the paragraph). Maybe start with who he really is. Something like, “Max Lewis spent kindergarten being shoved around in the playground, middle school having his head flushed, and his freshman year of high school experiencing a whole new level of torture in the hands of the infuriating Chaos Club—a mysterious organization that seems to anonymously rule the school and has a penchant for humiliating pranks. And it looks like his sophomore year isn’t about to be any better. He’s considered…”

That’s just an example, of course, but the idea is to give this character a little vulnerability before you allow him to hide behind his wit. And also to add some showing. It could help to show a bit about his misfit partners, for instance. Maybe just an afterthought, like “…four other misfits—a chubby and feisty girl, a world class geek, a hacker wannabe, and a broody and scary guy—to form…” Anything that is showing rather than telling is a score for you.

When you build you character a little, you create a stronger voice to go with the snark. And when you show, you make it easier for someone to start imagining how this will be and get interested. You have a good plot. Just make sure you paint the right picture.

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Query Wednesday – How short is too short?

Dear Agent,

                Few things happen in the snooty town of Pappington besides yachting, shopping, and gossip. But when Peter Aristot—a handsome teenager from a Kennedy-like family—is paired to do a science project with classmate Lizzie Willard—a misfit girl attending their prep school on a scholarship—the usual upper-class activities come to a standstill. In fact, everything comes to a standstill. Only after a plane falls from the sky, crashed cars clog the street, and hundreds of piles of clothes litter the town does Maxwell Frederick Axington III—a strangely informative eight-year old with a penchant for fireworks—inform Peter and Lizzie that they are the only ones left in Pappington and that they were paired together to do something much more than an eighth-grade science project.

                Timshel is my first, but hopefully not last, foray into fiction. It is a 50,000-word, upper-middle-grade fantasy novel.  I wrote it for the shy kid in the back of his middle school class who, more than anything, wishes he could be on an adventure far, far away from anywhere algebra is taught.

                I have a degree in English, an advanced degree in management, and a J.D.

                I’d be delighted to send you my complete manuscript for your review. I know you receive dozens of submissions each day, so I truly appreciate your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

 

We’ve all seen the recommendation: keep your query short. But how short is too short? That depends a lot on the kind of manuscript you have. A straight-forward contemporary romance, for instance, will probably take less explaining than an intricate high fantasy. But, no matter what you’re writing, the first thing you need to do is make sure your story is clear. Worry about the rest later.

This sounds like an interesting plot. The characters sound interesting, the events sound interesting. But I don’t really know what the plot is. Not really. I just have a vague idea. I don’t need to know every twist and turn, but I do have to be able to picture it. The way it is, it’s too summarized. What does “everything comes to a standstill” mean? Does it mean they walk out of school to find everyone frozen? Or just the things like planes and cars? And how do they find out? Is it when the plane crashes? Is it inside the school? What is the scene that gets this started? What happens? I want to picture this, but I can’t because I don’t have enough information.

The writing in this query is really good. It all sounds intriguing, all the sentences have sort of a cliffhanger quality to them… It’s all very well planned. But it lacks a bit of showing. And it lacks a POV. It would help if we saw this through someone’s eyes. For instance: “Few things happen in the snooty town of Pappington besides yachting, shopping, and gossip. That much is clear to Lizzie Willard, the only kid attending the local prep school on a scholarship. No money, here, definitely means no friends. So she’s sure being paired up with Peter Aristot—the cutest boy in school, with a family that acts like they’re hotter than the Kennedy’s—can’t be a good thing. She just doesn’t imagine how bad it could be. When the clocks in school stop working, Lizzie and Peter think it’s odd. But when a plane falls from the sky? Yeah, bad. Now the entire world is on standstill and they have no idea what to do.” (This is just an example off the top of my head, guys. I haven’t read this author’s manuscript.)

Do you know how many extra words that was, when compared to the first five lines of the original query? 45. That’s all. And there you have POV, voice and a clearer explanation of what is going on. You have showing rather than telling.

Of course I won’t tell you to write a four-page query. Please, don’t! But when you’re cutting, make sure it’s really worth it. This original query is 232 words. No agent would complain about a 300-word query. Really, for most, as long as you stay under 500 words, you’re fine—although I don’t see a need to go that long unless your plot is really complicated.

(Unless, of course, the agent tells you otherwise on his or her guidelines. Agents’ submission guidelines always, always trump anything I say here. When I say most agents, it probably doesn’t work for all agents. Check guidelines first and follow them!)

And if you need cutting? Cut at the end. The fact that this is your first foray into fiction? Not necessary. That you wrote it for the shy kid? Really cute (I’d probably keep that, I’m a softy), but in the end, not necessary. Your degrees? Nope. How busy the agent is? Nope.

If you really need to cut, the last three paragraphs could be reduced to, “Timshel is a 50,000-word, upper-middle-grade fantasy novel that would compare to XX. I thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.” That’s it.

But your plot? Your voice? That certainly cannot be cut. Make sure that’s in your query.

Thanks for the query! I hope this was helpful!

Want to have your query analyzed too? Send it to gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line QUERY WEDNESDAY.

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Query Wednesday – Analyzing your rejections part 3

So we’ve seen the basics a rejection can tell you and how to learn from rejections that come after your initial query. But what about those that come after requests? How do you make the best of them? Let’s go into the stages 2 and 3: rejections after partials and rejections after fulls.

Stage 2: Rejection after a partial

You got an agent interested enough to request a partial. But then, instead of a full request, you got a rejection. What happened?

Two things make this the easiest rejection to analyze. First, they often come with comments from the agent. And second, you know for sure that the problem is in your first 50 pages (or 30, or 60, whatever you sent).

The first thing to consider is: did you have a complete, revised manuscript? And did you send the actual opening, concurrent pages? Sometimes, when requested a partial, authors will send a first chapter, a middle chapter, something that will be included at some point in the manuscript, another writing sample… That’s a big no. You’re supposed to send the first sequential 50 pages of your manuscript. If you don’t have that many, you shouldn’t be querying in the first place. And if you don’t feel they will be the best pages to convince an agent, you’re in dire need of a revision. Your first 50 pages should be exactly what hooks an agent—or a reader, for that matter. If you don’t trust them to do so, edit before sending.

But we’ll assume you did it right. You finished your manuscript, you revised and you sent the opening pages according to the agent’s request. What went wrong? First, be open to critique. Agents will often add a note with a rejection of requested material, and the greatest disservice you can do to yourself is to dismiss it. People will often get mad that the agent “didn’t get” their work, and their first reaction is to pout and say “his loss”. Well, not really. If an agent didn’t get your work, neither will a reader. So you should cherish every word that comes from an agent and use that invaluable advice to your advantage. Revise, revise, revise.

But what if the agent didn’t send a note? This is not a rule, but chances are he or she stopped around page 20. The most common reason for an agent to reject a partial without a comment is that the opening pages weren’t catchy, and therefore he or she didn’t read long enough to have a comment other than “this doesn’t work.” So if you got a rejection on your partial without any notes, go for the opening pages. More often than not, they will be the problem. (To know what the common problems in opening pages are, go to the previous post on analyzing rejections.)

Stage 3: Rejection after a full

You got a request for a full! That’s big, right? Better than a partial, right? Wrong. Not always.

If you got a request for a full after the agent read a partial, yes. That’s definitely a step forward. That also means the agent is highly unlikely to send a rejection without any notes. The agent has read your partial, liked them enough to want to know what happens next, and then was disappointed. He or she will probably let you know what disappointed them. So take those comments very seriously and revise, revise, revise.

But what if you got a request for a full right away, without ever sending a partial? Sure, that could mean the agent absolutely loved your query and first few pages and wants the full straight away. But, most likely, this is an agent who doesn’t request partials. Many of them don’t because they feel it’s a waste of time. Having to get back to the author, request the rest, wait for it, remember where they stopped…it’s a lot of work. Plus, if the first 50 pages are fantastic, they don’t want to have to wait to read the rest. Therefore, many agents simply request the full straight away. It doesn’t mean they necessarily read the whole thing. If the first 50 pages don’t work, they stop right there, just like they would with a partial.

So, if you got a request for a full right away and then a rejection without comments: go back to stage 2. The probable reason for that is that the agent only read the partial. Your problem, most likely, is on your opening pages.

The main thing to remember here is to put all of your rejections together. If you got some requests for a partial and some for a full, and they all came back with rejections: revise those first 50 pages. If your requests for partials mostly lead to a request for a full, but your fulls all get rejected: check your plot arc and character arc. The problem could be how the story is developed. It probably starts well, but derails towards the middle. If you get requests only when you send queries without the pages, but rejections on the queries with pages and on the partials: your query is awesome but your opening pages aren’t.

There’s no math here, and you’ll never know for sure what the agent was thinking. But when you add up all this information, your rejections will probably give you enough to focus your revisions. So pay attention and never dismiss a rejection. They all tell you something.

Was that helpful? Do you still have questions about rejections? Let me know!

Next week, we’ll go back to analyzing queries on Query Wednesdays. If you have a query you’d like analyzed, send it to gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line QUERY WEDNESDAY.

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Query Wednesday – Analyzing your rejections part 2

It’s time for step 3 on our analyzing rejections special. You remember I posted steps 1 and 2 last week, right? We covered following guidelines and checking how long it’s been, since sometimes rejections can come faster than requests.

So now we move on to step 3. You have thoroughly checked all agents’ guidelines and you have followed all of them, so you know you’re not getting rejected over this. You have waited a couple weeks, and you’re only getting rejections. What does that tell you?

Well, first you have to figure out when the rejections are coming. Are they coming right after you send the query? Are they coming after you’ve sent a partial? Or are they coming after you’ve sent a full? Let’s analyze each possibility.

Stage 1

Stage 1 means you’re not getting requests. You’re getting a lot of rejections solely on your query. The first thing you do is follow step 2. Make sure you’ve waited long enough. Sadly, there’s no magic number that tells you what long enough is. I would say you should wait at least 2 weeks. In two weeks, check how many responses you’ve received. Have, let’s say, a third of the agents you queried replied yet? And were they all rejections? If so, it’s time to stop querying and make changes.

First, check who the agents who replied to you are. Are they really the best fit for your manuscript? Maybe you queried too many agents and ended up adding in your query list some that are a bit of a stretch. Are those the ones replying?

If the rejections you got are from people who seem to be actively seeking new clients and who definitely represent your genre, then check what you sent to each of them. Some agents require that you send a query and 10 pages, others ask for query and synopsis, others for just the query. If you got rejections from people who ask for just the query, bingo! That’s where the problem is. I’m not saying your manuscript is definitely fantastic, but if you sent only the query and got a few rejections based on just that, focus on that query first. (One way to make it shine is to send it for a Query Wednesday analysis!)

However, most agents these days ask for query + 10 or 15 pages. So what if all of your rejections (or the vast majority of them) came from query + pages submissions? Then you focus on the query first. Why? It’s easier. There are tons of places (this website included) where you can get free or cheap feedback on your query. There are several books and blog posts about writing the perfect query. So, before you start changing your manuscript, make sure your query is fabulous. Send it to a few bloggers who do query critiques, buy a critique, fix it with the help of books… Focus on the query first and make sure it’s fantastic.

But maybe, after you get feedback on your query, you see that it wasn’t so bad. Not bad enough to cause all those rejections. So what do you do? Well, then it’s time to focus on the pages. Sometimes the query is fantastic, the agent excitedly moves on to the pages and…disappointment. The agent stops reading after the second paragraph. WHY???

Opening pages turn offs

There are several things that can be a major turn off on opening pages. Let’s go through a few of them.

One of the main issues with first pages is back story dumping. You start with all that boring background information, no action. Or you start way too early in the story, way before the action is supposed to happen. Sometimes, the first few pages start so far back they don’t resemble at all what’s in the query. Tip: if the core of your query, the event that gets your plot started, isn’t even close to happening after 10 or 15 pages, revise.

On the other hand, you could be starting too into the story. You could be dropping your reader right in the middle of the action, and we don’t even know who this character is or what the stakes are. So avoid back story dumping, but make sure your first few pages answer the question, “Why should I care?”

Another issue is voice. You managed to add just the right amount in your query, but when your story starts, it falls flat. I can’t, for the life of me, relate to that character. That’s a big no. Voice should be there from the beginning. If the voice in your query (or in you 100th page) is very different from the one in your opening page, revise.

Your opening might also be cliché. Starting with something that turns out to be a dream, for instance, is a major pet peeve of several agents. Starting with the weather is also not so hot. Neither is starting with your main character looking in the mirror so you can sneak in a physical description of her. Or any lengthy descriptions, for that matter. If your opening is a cliché, revise.

Yet another thing is the writing. Usually, that’s something that will show in the query. But some authors are obsessed with queries. They have revised that query, written and rewritten it a hundred times, sent it to every contest, blogger or editor out there. They have mastered the query, but forgot to do the same with their manuscript. When you get to the pages, punctuation is all wrong, phrasing is awkward, typos are all over the place. It’s a disaster. So make sure your pages are as polished as they can be.

These are the main problems in opening pages. Can’t find any of them? It might be time for a new beta reader or an editor.

Oh my. Stage 1 got a bit long, didn’t it? So we’ll leave stages 2 and 3 of step 3 for next week. Next Wednesday, we’ll see what you can get from rejections that come after a request.

Now, is there anything in this post you’d like to see expanded? Any tips on queries or opening pages you want to see more of? Any questions you have that weren’t addressed? Let me know and I’ll discuss it further!

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Query Wednesday – Analyzing your rejections

This week, we don’t have a query to analyze here. (If you do want your query analyzed on Query Wednesday, you should email it to gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line QUERY WEDNESDAY.) So, instead, I thought I’d analyze one very hard thing: rejections.

They’re a part of every author’s life, sadly. And most of the time, you feel they don’t give you any information at all. You’re not supposed to ask agents for feedback, you only get plain form rejections, so you don’t even know what you’re doing wrong or what you need to change. It’s hopeless!

Calm down. That’s not alway true. There’s a way to make data out of your rejections! Here’s how.

STEP 1: Make sure you’re following guidelines

That’s alway, always, always, the first thing to check. Many agents automatically reject anything that doesn’t follow their guidelines. If you’re getting only rejections, that’s the first thing you need to double check. Before you change your query or give up on your manuscript, you need to be 100% sure you’re not getting rejected on something stupid, like sending group queries or adding attachments.

STEP 2: Keep track of how long it’s been and how many queries you’ve sent

Many agents like to analyze a query a little more closely before they request. Or they have a longer process with their assistants about requesting than they do about rejecting. So it’s likely that the form rejections will come faster than the requests. Sure, sometimes requests are quick too: an agent can fall in love with a query immediately. But don’t freak out if that doesn’t happen.

Just do your math. How many queries have you sent? How long has it been? How many rejections have you received? If you sent out ten queries and got three form rejections in the first week, there’s no reason to start doubting your manuscript just yet. Give it a little time. Sure, it might be goode to hold new queries while you see what happens–after all, if there is a major flaw in your query, you don’t want to send out more of the same. But wait another week or two. See if some requests come in before you start making changes.

Remember: you will get rejections, even if you have the best manuscript in the world. It really is, as all those form rejections say, a subjective business. So don’t let a few rejections bring you down. Don’t freak out before a few weeks have gone by.

STEP 3: When are the rejections coming?

Aha! That’s a critical step, one that can be divided in several steps. It all depends on what stage of the process you’re getting your rejections: after the initial query? After a partial? After a full? Each one will have its own details for us to analyze. So I’ll leave step 3 for next week. Stay tuned!

And tell me: what questions do you have about rejections? What confuses you about them? What would you like to learn? Let me know and I’ll answer your questions on Query Wednesdays!

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Query Wednesday is back!

Query Wednesday is back!

And to get started again, nothing better than our winner’s query! This is Katie Newingham’s complete query, including the pitch that won the This Meets That Contest.

Some people say a radical is born in an instant, like a crime of passion, but for 18-year-old Dani Caldwell, her transformation begins the summer of 1958, when she meets a boy in pre-revolutionary Cuba. 

In the heat of the Danze de Amore, under the moonlit skies of the Malecon, Jose breaks down Dani’s walls of reserve and steals her heart.  But when the American mob threatens the future of his family’s storefronts, Jose aligns himself with Fidel Castro, and the two young lovers’ stars cross as their worlds divide.  She’ll have to choose between the man she loves and her American ideals. 

Lurking behind the scenes, a revolution that will test the bounds of their love, challenge their resiliency, and for Dani, change the very core of what she believes about her world.  TLS is Havana Nights meets The Way We Were, in a Sue Miller-esque voice.

THE LOST STORY is an Adult Historical Romance and is complete at 80,000 words.

Author Bio:

Katie Newingham is a mommy by day, word contortionist by night and part-time wife, since her husband spends a considerable amount of time traveling for work.  She’s passionate about supporting new moms and writes a monthly column for NewbyMom.com, focusing on lack of sleep, how potty training can save your marriage and other self-deprecating and humorous tales from the home.  She holds a BA in social work and a master’s degree in journalism.

So, Katie wanted to know if this goes straight to the point and if it is too vague. Yes, Katie, it does go straight to the point! And it’s not too vague. Sometimes, people feel they have to include almost their entire plot development into a query. What they end up with is “this happens, then that happens and then that happens,” which can get very boring. It would be nice, however, to see a little more voice, a little more of the feeling they have for each other. Up the stakes, you know? Leave me heartbroken just by reading your query! You wouldn’t get in trouble for having a shorter, straight-to-the-point query like this. You’d probably get several requests. But if you show voice and feeling, you’ll certainly grab more attention.

Also, make sure you check you Spanish. If you mean “Love Dance,” that would be Danza de Amor (amore is Italian). If this is an actual name of a dance they have in Havana, make sure you mention that, like “the famous Danze de Amore” or something like that. Otherwise, if you reach an agent who knows some Spanish, you lose a little credibility.

On the bio, make sure you don’t talk about yourself in third person. You’re addressing this agent. Talk to her. This is a letter you’re writing to someone, not a résumé. Oh, and I would cut the TLS. It’s confusing where it is, before you mention the name of the manuscript. I would go for “THE LOST STORY, a 80,000-word historical romance, is Havana Nights meets The Way We Were, in a Sue Miller-esque voice.”

You have a great premise and your query is going in the right direction. A little tweaking here and there and it’ll be ready to shine!

Thank you so much for sharing you query, Katie. I hope the comments are helpful. If you have further questions, don’t hesitate to leave them on the comments!

 

Want your query analyzed too? Send it in the body of the email to gabriela@gabrielalessaeditor.com with the subject line QUERY WEDNESDAYS. Chosen queries will be analyzed here on the blog.

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