Queries! Queries! Queries?? – Part Two: How to write a query letter

Queries - Huh2

Ummm, yeah, I have no idea . . .

Seriously, though, I’m still working on it. I have one I’m puttering away at, getting ready to post it for critique, but scared to death. I’ve had my confidence ripped out and fed to me on a platter made from my naivety and good intentions. It was a bitter, bitter meal. And I’ve eaten it again, and again, and again! So why do I go back for more? Because I really, really want to be published. And I guess I’m a little bit of a masochist. No I’m not. I just want to be published.

The real question is, what makes me think I’m getting any better? Well, let’s just say I’m an optimist disguised by the sarcasm of a pessimist. And I’ve been studying. Actually, I’ve been studying queries off-and-on for years. This is where I can help you. No, I can’t give you advice on how to write a better query. Well, I could, but so many have done a much better job before me, why should I ride on their shoulders? Instead, I’ll give you links to the blog posts and forums that helped me. After all, you have to earn it, so you can do all the tedious research I did as well. I’m just making it a smidgeon easier for you. 🙂

Where to start? Well let’s go with HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER on AgentQuery.com. If you are new to queries, or not so new but have had little success, this will give you a good overview on query basics. It also highlights the “when” formula. There is no fool-proof formula to write a query, but the pointers given here can help you write even a basic, if not very exciting, query. Sometimes just getting started with the solid basics can help you on the way to polishing and pizzazing it later. AgentQuery.com is a great source in general for queries. You can spend hours on this site gleaning helpful nuggets. There are other posts and information you can search through, but this is the one that I found most helpful.

If you want to take a look at some successful queries you can start with the SUCCESSFUL QUERIES series on Writer’s Digest. The great thing about this series is the queries are current, allowing you to see what is working now, or at least in the past year or so since the query was written and the author represented. My favorite is Mindy McGinnis’s query for NOT A DROP TO DRINK. It’s a book I’ve read, it’s in the age group and genre of my own novel, and I just love how she fills it with voice and the stark reality her character must exist in. I’ve studied this query so many times, I could recite it by heart, trying to figure out what makes it sing. Hopefully you can find a few that speak to you as well.

Having trouble understanding what a “hook” is, well my friend have I got the site for you. Miss Snark, literary agent venting her wrath on the hapless world of writers. Her blog has gone silent. I think she is actually Janet Reid at a new blog, but not sure about that. And though this blog went dark in 2007, the info is still relevant. Especially Miss Snark’s CRAP-O-METER HOOK “CONTEST”. What do you win, you ask? Not much. Just a nod from the hard to please Miss Snark. But I feel like it would have been worth it. A post on Absolute Write that I will share later suggests reading every single one of the hooks sent in to Miss Snark from aspiring writers. Every. Single. One. Seriously. It’s long. It’s tedious. But it’s like a muscle memory. Doing something over and over will help you to understand what works and what doesn’t. And by that I mean what works for you. Yes, Miss Snark gives her opinions, but she is one person. I didn’t always agree with her assessment of a hook, but that’s okay. Every agent is different, so everyone will be intrigued by something different. The key is starting to recognize what is well-written and what is crap. Plus, you can read comments from blog readers, giving even more insight into the hooks. I didn’t do that. I mean, I have a life after all. Reading 100 hooks and Miss Snark’s comments was like a part-time job for a week. I haven’t perused the rest of her site, but I’ve heard there’s a lot of great content, so if you have the time, read on.

Just a few posts on query letter basics:
BASICS OF A SOLID 3-PARAGRAPH QUERY
QUERY LETTERS AND LITERARY AGENTS, THE BASICS
THE 10 DOS AND DON’TS OF WRITING A QUERY LETTER
FORMATTING AN EMAIL QUERY
HOW TO FORMAT AN EMAIL QUERY
And just to make you feel better about that slightly too-long query: ON QUERY LETTER WORD COUNT

Now that you’ve dipped your toes into the gentle creek where one might find the occasional golden nugget of query research, I give you . . . THE MOTHER LODE!

I’ve mentioned ABSOLUTE WRITE on this blog before. It may not be for everyone. Maybe you already have a writer’s forum, or you use blogging as a way to connect with other writers. Maybe you’ve got a critique circle and don’t feel you need any more cooks in the kitchen. That’s fine, but I would encourage anyone interested to check it out. There are countless forums to choose from. If you’re a writer, you will find at least one that appeals to you. I started out in the WRITING FOR KIDS forums, but spend most of my time now in the YOUNG ADULT forum now. But I dabble in several others. I think it is invaluable for newbie writers to get a better handle on the world of publishing and writing by spending time on the boards. But what I really want to talk about is QUERY LETTER HELL.

QLH is a dark, miserable place full of snarky, evil critiquers who just can’t wait to ruin your day. I’m kidding. It isn’t full of them, but there are a few. And they aren’t trying to ruin your day, though they may sound like it. Really, they are there to help. Many critiquers are kind and helpful. Some are snarky and helpful. Others are impatient-with-newbies-who-don’t-read-the-stickies, but still helpful. Do you sense a pattern here. And it isn’t all about posting a query for anonymous people to rip to shreds. The “stickies” are threads stuck to the top of the forums that are a wealth of information. Most of the links I posted above are probably listed in the stickies somewhere. I have spent hours upon hours reading the thread, reading all the links in the thread, then moving on to the next thread. I actually haven’t read every link I found. Most, but not all. There are just so many and it is possible to get research burn-out. Even just reading the posted queries and what critiquers have to say can make a big difference in your understanding of how to better your own query.

Note: You must have a password to enter the SHARE YOUR WORK FORUMS, but don’t panic, it’s listed under the SYW heading. In order to post your work, you must have 50 posts under your belt. You can even use posting critiques of other’s queries as some of your 50 posts. It was a bit nerve-wracking to critique someone else’s query when I had little or no experience and my own queries were so woefully inadequate, but you do learn. Just suggest things that stick out to you, even if it’s something small as changing a word. And read the other critiques. That always helps.

Now for the QLH most helpful links. I would recommend reading all the stickies, start to finish. (Skip the posts that just say thank you over and over again.) But here are the ones I find most helpful:
HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER
THREE QUESTIONS ON QUERIES
THOUGHTS FROM AN INTERN
EASY WAY TO BETTER A QUERY
PLEASE READ BEFORE POSTING

And if all of this isn’t enough for you, just Google “query letter” and prepare for the avalanche of info out there. Keep in mind queries change over time, so some older posts must be taken with a grain of salt.

So that’s all I’ve got. Hopefully it’s enough to get you well on the way to writing that amazing query rattling around inside you. Hopefully I can find the one inside me! Good luck, and maybe I’ll see you around Query Letter Hell. I seem to be a permanent inmate these days!

I’ll throw this open to everyone else. What query writing resources do you have to share with all of us? And what advice do you veteran queriers have for those of us trying to break into the club?

More of my posts on querying:

Queries! Queries! Queries! : Researching Agents

Agent Research: I Forgot to Tell You Something!

Rejection Spike

Silver-Linings in Those Rejection Letters

How I Got My Agent (Or the art of never giving up)

Query Letters: The Bane of my existence!

Courtesy of thewinmedia.com

Courtesy of thewinmedia.com

bane – noun
1. a person or thing that ruins or spoils
2. a deadly poison
3. death; destruction; ruin

DC Comics did a great job naming that character. I’ve never read the comics, but Bane in the movie personifies the definition perfectly. He murders and pillages, spreading violence and mayhem, almost taking Batman’s life. Almost . . .

That’s pretty much how writing query letters makes me feel. I’ve written close to a hundred tries. Yes, literally a hundred. Between my first manuscript and my current one, I’ve tried, and tried again, with very little success. And by success I don’t mean attracting the attention of an agent, though that’s the purpose of a query. No, I’m referring to a positive response from my peers before I send that bad boy out.

I queried exactly three agents on my MG manuscript a few years ago. The best word to describe that is premature. Not only did my contemporaries over at Query Letter Hell* on the Absolute Write forums tell me it needed work, but the MS was far from ready. I chalk it up to a learning experience, and after spending a great deal more time on the MS, I ended up trunking that project. Once again, a learning experience.

For my current WIP, I’ve taken two or three different stints through QLH. Still nothing great. Which is okay. I don’t mind the work. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing, right? I keep telling myself that.

The problem is, besides the obvious fact my queries are junk, there are so many opinions about what makes a good query. And a query that breaks all the rules and is torn apart by your peers could wow the agent of your dreams. Do you trust anonymous people online to critique your work or go with your gut?

There’s no concrete answer, which makes the process all the more difficult. Do you take a chance on a query that’s critique-approved or even something you love yourself and risk losing the agent you really want? It’s a gamble, and a costly one. Sure there are thousands of agents out there. Somebody is going to believe in your work. But the “better” the agent, the better chance you have of getting published.

So here’s my untested solution: I’m going to mix the two. Recently I entered the Like a Virgin Pitch Contest for YA writers. It consisted of a query letter and the first 250 words of your novel. I was a runner up. Not bad for putting myself out there for the first time, but I mostly attribute my limited success to my first 250. Still, if the query were that bad, I wouldn’t have gotten runner up, would I?

And besides that tiny vote of confidence, I came to the conclusion that those critiquing my query letters don’t know my novel like I do. In fact, most of them don’t write YA, so they don’t necessarily know the market. The biggest complaint I heard was that my MC didn’t have a name. “For the purpose of the query, your MC should have a name,” was a common comment.

Ignore a consensus at your own risk, but here is one time I decided to go with my gut. The name of my novel is I Have No Name. The MC not having a name is vitally important. What’s more, it is something that sets it apart from other post-apocalyptic novels out there right now. If I describe my story as “How a teenage girl survives after a plague wipes out the human population,” the reaction might be, “Um, okay, heard that before.” But if I lead with “Mentally broken, a teenage girl tries to forget her past and the pain of losing everyone to a plague, including her own name,” that might sound a little more interesting.

Of course, that example isn’t enough, but I know that I have to use the core conflict of the story to attract the right agent. I might get a good agent if I describe my novel as “a girl falls in love with her kidnapper, but will she choose him or the innocent romance she has at home?” but that’s not the story I want to sell. Yeah, it’s in there, but that’s the spice not the sauce. I want an agent who will recognize the sauce for what it is. Hearty, satisfying and deep. (At least I think so.)

So, I will write the query I want, including what I think sets my story apart from others, and still use the critiquing process to perfect what I have. I’ll listen closely to advice about the language, the structure, and how to present my story in the most interesting non-cliched way possible. In the end, if my peers tell me it’s junk, but I just can’t agree with them on the core purpose of my letter, then I’ll have to go with my own. After all, it’s not their neck on the line. It’s mine. And I have to be happy about my effort above all else.

There will be failure, but I will own it. I won’t fail because I took the advice of others against my own judgment. I’ll fail on my submission and my choices and what I feel in my heart is my best effort and the best representation of my work. But I’ll also succeed on that too. And that, as a writer, is all we can hope to do.

*You must be a member in good standing with at least 50 posts to post your work in this section of AW and have the password. That’s no biggie though. Just ask around and someone will provide. And you’re always welcome to fill your 50 post requirement with critiques of your own.

What Do YA Readers WANT?!!

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Wouldn’t we authors like to know! Preferably, a good two years before YA readers actually want it, so we can write, edit, publish and market just in time to reach your ever changing moods, er needs. Just kidding. I read as much YA as the average teen, possibly more, so we’re in the same boat. I have wants of my own, and I also want to write a book that will resonate with readers.

Lucky for you, we have a little—just a little—insight into this very question. Recently Teens Can Write Too! ran a blog chain entitled What kinds of published books would you like to see more of? All of the respondents are teens who blog and write beyond their blogs. In fact, quite a few of them have some pretty amazing things to say, so when you’re finished reading this, check out their posts too.

While I was patiently—or not so patiently—waiting each day to read a new teen’s perspective on what they’d like to see published, I was also following a thread on Absolute Write entitled What would you like to see more or less of in YA? Between the two I was reading some great ideas about what books should be published in YA.

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Light bulb moment: I should compile the information and write a blog post about it!

Stress. Woman stressed

Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The sheer mass of data was daunting. It’s taken me hours to compile it into any sort of usable format. You can check the data here if you like. But I’ll try to make some kind of intelligent response, since I promised I would, and I always keep my promises!

Part of the problem is that I didn’t really know what I was doing while compiling the data. Now that I’m finished, I might have done it a little differently, but there is no way I’m doing it over again! It’s like having a term paper almost finished two days before it’s due, and realizing you should have taken a different approach. No ‘A’ is worth the work it would take to start over. Sorry, but I have a life. 🙂

And what everyone wants is as diverse as the respondents themselves. I saw everything from wanting fan fiction traditionally published to requesting a book from the POV of a toddler! Funnily enough, I did have the idea to write a novel about babies and toddlers who turn into teens when they fall asleep and wake up in a fantasy adventure. Yeah, I haven’t written that one yet.

But there were some clear winners, and losers, so if you want the nitty-gritty details, check out the data, but I’ll give you an overview of the most common responses in this post.

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22 teens responded to the question: What kinds of published books would you like to see more of? on the TCWT blog chain, while 40 respondents of an unidentified age responded to the question: What would you like to see more or less of in YA? on the Absolute Write Watercooler forums.

 

Dragon

Fantasy received the most votes for a genre with at least 34% of respondents requesting more in some form. I say at least because it was one of those cases where I would have tallied the votes differently in hind sight. I might have missed a few votes asking for a specific aspect of Fantasy without actually requesting Fantasy in and of itself. Anyway, you get the point.

There wasn’t any one type of Fantasy that was a stand-out winner, but many different kinds were mentioned. In fact, I got the impression that readers would like to see more pure, traditional fantasy, not other types of stories posing as Fantasy, i.e. Romance set in a Fantasy world, Dystopian set in a Fantasy world, etc. The one thing they did not want to see was more Fantasy worlds based on Medieval Europe or books based on Western (Greek/Roman) Mythology. Japanese, Chinese, Egyptian and Celtic were mentioned (I know Celtic is Western, but at least it’s something other than Zeus and Poseidon!)

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On a similar note, Science Fiction, which 17% of respondents requested more of, also seemed to center on more pure forms of its original genre. Readers especially seemed to dislike Dystopian disguised as Science Fiction. They want to see robots, cyborgs, cool technology that’s not the bad guy, and fun adventures that explore new worlds and revel in the joy of future technology and uncharted worlds.

Dystopia was a mixed bag with 9 readers wanting more while 5 wanted less or none. One thing was fairly clear though. Readers want something different than the tried-and-true Dystopia we’ve been experiencing over the last few years. Diversity, LGBTQ+, new settings, and most importantly, move away from the cliched tropes. No big, bad, government that’s outlawed something as the end-all of society and the rebel character fighting against it.

Re-tellings as a category received 10 nods, with respondents asking for non-traditional and non-European fairy tales, classics, Shakespeare, mash-ups and even re-tellings of Anne of Green Gables. One interesting note: only 1 of the 10 votes for re-tellings came from the unidentified age group. Clearly, teens are more interested in re-tellings than their older counterparts who read YA books.

Other than specific genres, another winner was seeing more Families in YA. 26% wanted to see healthy family units in some form, whether it’s present parents, quirky families, complex sibling dynamics, big families and any of the aforementioned relationships being the main emotional stake of the story.

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One of the clear losers was Romance. Not so much the genre of Romance, but rather romance in YA books in whatever genre it happens to appear. 26% of readers said they are completely tired of or would like to see less romance in YA books. 18% said they’d like to see fewer or no love triangles and no “insta love” stories. 9 respondents asked for healthy teen love relationships with a wide variety of realistic relationship requests from LGBTQ+ to mutual breakups to relationships that end and the characters actually learn from them.

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While there were many other responses I could talk about, the last one I’m going to discuss is Diversity. This was another category with a broad scope that I wish I had compiled the data differently. For example, 12 respondents requested diversity in all forms, while 16 specifically said they want novels where the diversity is not the issue of the book. I could have tallied all respondents that called for diversity in any form and had a large number of people wanting something more from their YA, but I didn’t do it that way. And since some readers requested multiple kinds of diversity, I couldn’t just add up all the specific requests because the number would have been inflated.

Anyway, over and over again I heard YA readers saying they wanted to read more about people of color, characters of all sexual orientations, people with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses, neuro-diversity and ethnic people living their culture in contemporary and futuristic settings. The one overriding theme to all of this was the diversity needed to be a part of a character’s life, and the readers want to see how it affects their lives, but it can’t be the point of the book. They want to see people of color in fantasy, a teen detective with Chron’s disease, a wheel chair bound action hero, and romance between characters of all sexual orientations. Those examples are made up based on some of the comments I read, but they’re pretty spot on from the types of diverse ideas they want to see written. They want to see a cross-section of America, and in some cases the world, that isn’t white, Christian and straight.

So, how do we use this information? Well, first of all it would be great to see agents and publishers take a look because my agent research has indicated that agents are looking for Contemporary right now. Yet that had extremely low response numbers from this completely unscientific poll. Unfortunately I don’t have any agents or publishers that follow my blog, so chances are slim for that. 😉

I guess, if you see your book in these results, then congratulations! Get working and get it published! If you see some inspiration in any or several of the requests made by these responses, then once again, get busy! You’ve got some writing to do! But, if you see your book in some of the requests for NO MORE!, well, don’t despair. Even these YA readers couldn’t all agree on what they wanted, so there are readers out there for all kinds of novels. Just keep writing what you love. It’s all any of us can do!

Movie Review – Warm Bodies


Buy Warm Bodies the DVD on Amazon.com

Actors: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Analeigh Tipton
Directors: Jonathan Levine
Writers: Jonathan Levine
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman
Language: English
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Summit Inc/Lionsgate
Run Time: 98 minutes

I’ve been wanting to see WARM BODIES for awhile, for a couple of reasons. Which, when I explain, will seem a little strange. You see, I have an irrational fear of zombies. Vampires, werewolves, demons, I can handle all supernatural beings, but for some reason zombies scare the crap out of me. Maybe it’s because I can actually for see a circumstance where zombies exist. It’s not so far fetched to imagine a disease that makes people’s bodies start to decay (leprosy) and they become rabid trying to bite other people (rabies). I don’t honestly think we could have the undead or walking dead thing, but messed up humans with a horribly contagious disease? Yes, I can see it. So I don’t usually watch zombie movies. Even the funny ones.

Having said that, when I heard about this movie I was intrigued. Years ago I posted on a forum in Absolute Write an idea for a YA book where a zombie and a human fall in love. Since I am deathly afraid of zombies, I knew I would never write it, so I put the idea out there for anyone who wanted to use it. Now, I’m not saying that Isaac Marion used my idea. I mean, what are the chances he saw that and his desire to create a story blossomed around an innocuous post I left years ago? I’d say there’s a greater chance that two people in this world of billions had a similar idea. Either way, it’s pretty cool to say, “I thought of that!” and then see the results of someone’s imagination. His, not mine. I take no credit. I’m just explaining my interest in this story.

So anyway, I was a bit apprehensive, it being zombies and all, but I took the dive. My husband was with me, so I could hide my eyes or squeeze his hand if I needed to. For the most part it was fine. I was only minorly grossed-out a few times and it wasn’t too awfully scary. There were a few scenes that made me jump, fear for the characters and overall be in a state of suspense. Just the right amount of suspense in fact. So basically anyone should be able to handle this movie if I can.

As to the story, I loved it. Especially the fact that since zombies don’t really talk, we hear a narration from the MC’s POV, even though he doesn’t say much in character. He still thinks, he still feels, a little, and we see that through the narration of the boy he probably once was. We get him being a horrible zombie, eating people’s brains, which is repulsive, but hey, he’s a zombie. What do you expect? And we get to see how he feels about it all. The director did a great job of showing the zombies as pretty awful human-eaters, and as sympathetic characters who didn’t ask to be zombies in the first place.

There’s an interesting twist as to why the zombie’s eat brains and also what the zombies become after they’ve been zombified long enough. Let’s just say that’s even scarier than the zombies. And I love the concept of what changes things from the zombies-eat-humans status quo. I won’t reveal anything in case you hate spoilers, which I do, but it’s another great twist on the traditional zombie tale.

The characters in this story were all amazing. Likable, yet flawed, they make mistakes, act selfish, are afraid and do things we know will have bad results, but that’s what makes good characters. You root for Julie even when she’s being a bit of a bitch. You hope R beats this zombie thing even while you’re terrified he’s going to turn on Julie. And R’s best friend? Not only was he cast perfectly in Rob Corrdry, but his character was sympathetic and likable, even when he’s asking R to eat Julie. Well, asking in Zombie grunts and nudges.

Overall I found this to be a great love story. Unconventional? Yes. A little gross at times? Absolutely. But to be honest I’m so sick of been-there-done-that fall in love at first sight with “the one” love stories that I’m open to anything else. This movie was funny, sarcastic (which I love), a little scary, a bit gross and had enough action and suspense to keep me on the edge of my seat (figuratively, not really). I’d watch it again, which is a big compliment for me, and I can’t wait to read the book. It’s actually a big no-no for me to see a movie before I read the book, but I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. So I guess I’ll just add it to my huge TBR pile and call it a day.

My Review: 4.5/5 stars


Buy Warm Bodies: A Novel on Amazon.com

Note: I looked for the post I made online to prove I wasn’t just making that up, but I couldn’t find it. My archived posts didn’t go back far enough. 🙂