Query Letters #10: Showcasing Voice

Everything you’ll read about writing a good query will give you usable advice on the technical side. The wordcount you should aim for. Proper formatting. How to find an agent who represents your genre. But one aspect that’s often overlooked is how to add that extra special something to your pitch: voice.

For example, if you’re writing a comedy, you should showcase your humor in the query. Instead of just saying, “My story is a humorous look at what happens when a boy falls in love with an orc,” you can instead write a sentence that will legitimately make the agent laugh. This shows–rather than tells–that you have the skills to pull off what you’re telling the agent you’ve done. It invites them to trust you, and it gives a refreshing taste of things to come.

But how to do it? This time, I’m going to recommend that you err on the side of doing too much, going too big, and then scale it back as you continue to work with your query. Find something in your character’s voice that communicates clearly who your protagonist is and what the tone of their story is going to be.

Let’s just say for example that our hypothetical heroine Melanie is a stuffy know-it-all who feels entitled to top honors. We can communicate that in the query with just a few words, maybe something like, “The valedictorian title is hers, if she can defend it from her covetous sister.” This does double-duty by also coloring their relationship.

To show a more humorous or sarcastic story, maybe I’d write something like, “Now she just has to regain the use of her hands, master the hardest potion on record, not die in the process, and do it all before finals. No pressure.”

If Melanie is a little more blunt or brash, I might say instead, “Melanie is about to make senior year her bitch.”

One other trick that I’ve seen to get voice across clearly is to write the pitch in first-person, as if your protagonist were telling you what their story is about, and then changing it to third-person present. You’d be surprised what great imagery and turns of phrase can come out of something so simple. Give it a shot and see what flavor you can bring your your query!

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World of Worldcraft

For today’s twin Thursday post with Rachel from Undivinelight, we’re looking again at setting. Or, more specifically, how we go about building one.

World and setting is a big thing for me. I won’t say it’s the most important part of the story, but it certainly plays a big role in how much enjoyment I take from a novel. That applies both to the worlds I read and the worlds I write.

So, where do I start? Usually, my stories start from a prompt of some kind, an image, a line of dialogue, a concept or neat mechanic that I want to play with. And the world unfolds from there. For example, the story I’m going to be working on for this spring’s Camp NaNoWriMo started from an offhand thought about–of all things–Fifty Shades of Grey. I had a fleeting idea about magic arising from a dom/sub relationship, and then I built the magic system and social ladder by extrapolating upon that concept.

For physical setting details–language, music, climate–I often use a historical template to get the feeling that I’m going for. Once I have an image of the sort of feel I want the culture to have, I look for existing analogues that I can take inspiration from. The story I mentioned above, for example, has a somewhat ancient Greek or Mediterranean atmosphere to it. That means research, and usually a loooot of it. How fast can a horse travel over rocky slopes? What sort of metal and ore would be available to a culture like this one? What livestock and crops and fibers and building materials?

Once I have a loose framework for the immediate physical setting and culture, I start doing short drabbles or fluff pieces to get into my protagonist’s mind. I like to let their understanding of their world flavor the text so that the remaining gaps are filled in organically. A prince will feel very differently about their lot in life than a pig farmer will, and they’ll both give me tidbits about the setting that I otherwise wouldn’t have come up with.

After I have a good feel for both the characters and the setting comes the hard part. Writing the book.

Query Letters #9: …But Not TOO Specific!

Like most anything in query letters, specificity is a balancing act. You want to give details that are integral to your story and that serve to whet an agent’s appetite. But you don’t want to overload your query with all the minutia of the story; you just don’t have the space for it. Remember, for the pitch you have a maximum of 200 words to distill the essence of your story into. So, how do you decide what’s important enough to go into the query?

Let’s go back to our hypothetical story from earlier and turn the detail up to eleven.

Seventeen year old Melanie Brewer has worked in her mom Cassandra’s teashop, Brewer’s Brews, since she was fourteen. She got her start making relaxation drops to go into the chamomile tea and stay-awake potions to sell with the coffee.

At the end of her last shift before school, her best friend Aderyn comes to pick her up on her winged horse, Moriah. As they make their way to the school, Salem Witches’ Institute, Aderyn reveals that her only hope for staying at school is to win this fall’s inter-scholar winged horse derby. Aderyn’s place on derby team is the only thing keeping her scholarship to SWI from falling through.

This is too much information right off the bat that the agent doesn’t need yet. We’re already a hundred words into the query letter, and it tells the reader almost nothing about who Melanie is or what she wants. It may all be true to the story, but is it strictly need-to-know right now?

To clean up a mess like this, start by looking for details that can be safely removed. The prospective agent doesn’t need Melanie’s mom’s name, the name of the shop, or how long she’s worked there. The tidbit about potions being sold openly at the store is a neat one to have, though, since it gives an interesting look at the state of magic in the world.

Especially take a long look at proper nouns and character names. There’s little in a query to make characters distinct, so try to stick to their relationship to the protagonist or role in the story instead, if they have to be mentioned at all: Melanie’s mom; her best friend; the winged horse.

Now look at the last few sentences, the winged horse derby and Aderyn’s scholarship. That places the focus of the query squarely on the challenges that Aderyn is going to be facing, not what’s about to happen to Melanie. So I would end this particular part of the query, if someone had sent it to me, asking myself why I’m reading about Melanie when Aderyn is so much more interesting. She’s the one with the conflict right now, so she’s the one I naturally want to pay more attention to.

Make sure that the details you include in your query are specific to your story, that they answer who, what, when, where, why, and why the reader should care. But also be sure that you’re not muddying the waters with unnecessary clutter.

Five Things: I Love in a Fantasy Setting

For this week’s twin post with the amazing Rachel from undivinelight, we’re talking about the things that we love when it comes to the setting of our fantasy novels. It was really hard for me to narrow it down to just five things, but I think I managed!

  1. A sense of history. For all that I felt The Lord of the Rings went much too long and was too dry (I know–blasphemy!) I loved how real the world felt. A big part of that was that it practically bled history. Stories of ancient battles, ruins of past civilizations, rivalries that run deep–I eat that stuff up!
  2. A complex system of morality or beliefs. Especially if it has gray areas or aspects that hit me where it hurts. I’m looking for example at Trader culture from Tamora Pierce’s Emelan books. Traders have their own laws, their own taboos, their own superstitions. And all of that adds up to heartbreak for one of the main characters. Even as I’m hurting for her, I understand why her culture is treating her the way it does and not blaming them for acting according to their laws.
  3. Food! Not going to lie, I’m a foodie. Very little builds a setting for me quicker than seeing what the characters are eating. George R. R. Martin catches a little bit of well-meant ribbing for the lavish descriptions of regional meals, but to me it’s invaluable. I know that Winterfell’s meals tend to be spare of frills. It’s a hard land–the people need practical foodstuffs and hardy livestock and crops. Dorne, however, has the luxury of spices. The royals in King’s Landing can afford all the lavish, decadent treats they want.
  4. Music and dance. Instruments, lyrics, rhythm, they all lend a lot to the feel of a world on the page. Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner books use music as a way to distinguish between various regions, what songs are appropriate where, what dances a person of various stations would be expected to know. And all of that builds the illusion of a real place for the reader.
  5. Characters that are deeply impacted by their world. This is the make it or break it moment for me. An author can have crafted the most amazing setting, but if the protagonist doesn’t feel like a product of that world, I’m not going to stick around for it. Pacat’s Captive Prince series, for example, does a fantastic job of drawing the distinctions between Akielos and Vere, and their respective princes fit perfectly into their constructed worlds. That’s what sells the books for me.

And I could go on and on. Fashion, manners, religion and mythology, technology, and too many other facets to even begin to mention. But what’s most important to me is that all the pieces come together into a believable, immersive whole that I can lose myself in for awhile.

 

Query Letters #8: Being Specific

When crafting your query, it’s tempting to play coy with the details. After all, the point of a query is to tempt the agent or editor into reading, isn’t it? Doesn’t it then follow that you want to give them a little taste without spoiling the whole meal? Well, the answer is yes and no. To continue the food analogy, being coy with your plot is much the same as saying to someone you’re inviting to dinner, “There will be a meat course and salad, and possibly dessert” instead of “I’ve made apple roast pork, served with a spinach and goat cheese salad with vinaigrette, and I may be baking pear turnovers if I have time.”

The same thing applies to query letters. Agents see so many of them on a regular basis that the only way to really stand out is to be as specific to your novel as you can. If all you write is, “A young orphan boy finds that he is destined to overthrow a villain threatening to destroy life as he knows it,” that could describe a thousand stories. Do you mean Harry Potter, Eragon, Star Wars?

Don’t worry that you’re spoiling the story. Conventional knowledge is that it’s acceptable to freely discuss the first thirty pages or so of your manuscript (your catalyst should fall somewhere in there, of course). To show what I mean, here’s a quick sample pitch for an imaginary project:

Four years ago, Melanie was accepted to a school for magic. She quickly rose to the head of the class, but a freak accident now threatens not only her standing in the school but her ability to do magic at all. To give up now would kill her dream, but trying to get her power back might just kill her.

That would certainly work; it tells the basics of what happens in the story, but it leaves more unresolved than answered. How old is Melanie? What kind of magic school? What is the setting like? What sort of lessons does she have? What sort of accident, and why does it affect her magic? What sort of cure could also potentially be fatal? Let’s see if we can do better.

When she was fourteen, Melanie Brewer was accepted to the Salem Witches’ Institute. Over the last three years, she’s brewed potions. She’s flown winged horses across the Massachusetts countryside. And, most importantly, she’s excelled at the precise hand articulations–called tics–that channel her magic.

Melanie enters her final year with her sights set on the valedictorian title and the prize that comes with it: an apprenticeship to New England’s premiere potion-crafter, Sandra Kettering. She just needs to complete one complicated brew to cinch the win.

Then a single wrong tic causes her cauldron to erupt. In seconds, Melanie’s hands are scorched, the very nerves shot.

With ticcing now impossible, it seems Melanie has no choice but to drop out. But Madame Kettering herself has another idea: a legendary potion that restores the brewer completely if made correctly. But done wrong, it could cost Melanie her life.

The query now gives us an idea of age range (Melanie is seventeen) and setting (Salem, Massachusetts, New England). It also gives us a few details about the magical world: potions; winged horses; ticcing. It tells us what happened to endanger Melanie’s standing at the school (the potions accident) and what she can do about it (this potentially fatal legendary potion). All of that gives us a much clearer idea of the sort of story we’re about to dive into.

Now, our example is obviously not perfect, but it will give us a place to grow from over the next few posts. Nobody ever said this part was easy!

Characters Done Right: Expertise Vs. Arrogance

People relate to a certain level of expertise. That’s no secret; it’s part of how we choose doctors, elect presidents, root for sports teams. It’s also a good part of what readers like in their protagonists and support characters. It gives them something to admire while also–especially in the case of the protagonist–being a bit of wish fulfillment.

There’s no shortage of examples of this done well: Harry Potter’s excellence at Quidditch; Katniss Everdeen’s marksmanship with a bow and arrow; Sherlock Holmes’s genius. It would be easy for them to become obnoxious if their skills were allowed to dominate the story, but the writers manage to avoid those pitfalls.

What makes them work is that they each have narrative tricks that keep them human. Harry is prone to making rash decisions, often with disastrous consequences. Katniss’s devotion to her little sister strikes a chord with the reader and establishes sympathy. Sherlock’s stories aren’t  told from his point of view but from Watson’s, so we get to see his difficulty relating to people and his struggles with addiction from an outside perspective.

Without that humanizing influence, you end up with a character like Kvothe from The Name of the Wind. Now, the book had other things going for it; I loved the setting, the feel of history that Rothfuss brought to the text, among other things. But I couldn’t for the life of me relate to Kvothe. To me, there was no softness to him, no moment of sympathy. The whole story was a list of all the incredible things he’d done and reasons he’s the best at anything he turns his mind to.

Which, I suppose, works for other readers. For my money, though, I like my genius with just a twist of humanity.

Query Letters #7: The Bio

The next part of the query letter is a bit of a balancing act: the biographic paragraph. You want to give enough information to make it seem that you know what you’re doing, but you don’t want to tell a prospective agent about that one time you won your high school short story contest or how your dad loves your novel. The key words are short, relevant, and professional.

If you have any training or life experiences in a subject that pertains to your novel, you might want to mention it. For example, if you’re writing a contemporary crime procedural and you worked as a police dispatcher for eight years, that’s pertinent to your query. It gives the impression that you know what you’re talking about and that the agent can trust that you’re familiar with the subject matter.

You can also mention higher education and any degrees you hold, especially if they pertain to writing in general or your genre or audience. Knowing that you have an MS in child psychology, for example, might tip the scales in your favor if you’re querying a middle grade or YA manuscript. Be sure,  though, that you’re always keeping your attention on relevance. There’s no reason to mention that you were in a rock band in college if your book has nothing to do with music.

If you have previously published works, you can also mention them. Credits in literary magazines or anthologies are definitely points in your favor. If you’re fortunate enough to have a published novel or an established nonfiction or poetry audience, definitely be sure to put that information in your query.

Even with all of that, your bio should be the shortest part of the query letter. Remember: you only get one page. Maximum three hundred words to make an impression. If you’ve set up your pitch and housekeeping, your novel should speak for itself. Your bio should be a short, sweet summary of why you’re the only one who could write it.

Characters Done Right: The Antagonist’s Arc

To me, no story is complete without a compelling antagonist, someone I can really hate. The most important part of it, though, is that they’re still believable while I’m hating them, that they have their own rich inner lives and motivations for whatever it is they’re doing. I’ve heard it said that the villain needs to be the hero of their own story, and I think that’s pretty accurate to both the antagonists that I love to read and the ones I love writing.

The next step, then, is making the antagonist have their own character arc, a progression from the beginning to the end of the story. For example, Voldemort is terrifying, yes, and of course he hits the first piece of advice strongly. He honestly believes that he’s on a mission to “purify” the witches and wizards of Britain, saving them from themselves. But he misses the second. Throughout all the million or so words of the Harry Potter series, he doesn’t really grow or change. He’s a static villain, which works for the story that JK Rowling set out to tell. But he doesn’t stay with me after the close of the book the way that Snape or even Draco do.

To give an illustration of the kind of arc I like to see, I want to contrast two antagonists from Tamora Pierce’s works. The first is Lord Wyldon from the Protector of the Small quartet. From the first page of the books, Wyldon is strongly opposed to Kel’s enrollment in page training. Not because he has anything against her personally but because of his commitment to tradition and his desire to train the best knights possible to protect the kingdom. He honestly believes that her presence in the castle will be a detriment to both Kel and to his other students, and so he uses every tool at his disposal to urge her to leave. Therein we have the first ingredient of a successful antagonist: a complex inner life and self-justification for the wrong that he’s doing.

The second part is what makes Wyldon stand out to me, though. Throughout the series, Kel chips away at his objections. She proves herself as capable as his other students, grudgingly earning his respect, and Wyldon slowly finds himself in her corner, leaving room for a more dire villain.

The other strong example  that I’ve pulled from Tamora Pierce’s work is Bennat Ladradun from Cold Fire. Ben is the polar opposite to Wyldon–he starts as one of the heroes. Then, slowly, for what he feels are good reasons, his moral compass starts to shift. He sets a fire, meaning it only as a training exercise for the firefighters he’s been  working with. Then he sets another, feeling that the city’s gotten lax in its response. Then another, and someone dies. His fires grow larger, the traps more deadly, and the excuses more paper-thin. Before Ben himself can realize what’s happened, he’s gone from a desire to help to a desire to kill.

It’s a terrifying thing to read the progression, to see someone so normal and respected become a monster. And it’s something I wish more authors would do, make their readers follow their villains deeper into the shadows that they’d thought possible, all in the name of what they feel is a good goal.

 

Query Letters #6-The Housekeeping

Last week, we finished the pitch portion of the query letter. Don’t worry if yours isn’t perfect yet; there’s lots of time to clean it up later as you’re sanding and finishing it. The pitch, by far, is the hardest part of the query, so let it cool for a bit while you work on the rest.

The next part is a cakewalk in comparison: the housekeeping. What I mean by “housekeeping” is the quick and dirty facts about your novel. The length, genre, and audience go here. For example, you could say, “Bone and Blood is a contemporary YA thriller, complete at 95,000 words.”

You don’t have to say any more than that if you don’t want to. You could break that same information into two sentences, even, just as long as it’s all there. You could also include comparative titles, if you have anything that fits, or other details about the story that the agent may need to know but don’t fit in the pitch. If, for example, there are two narrators, or if it’s the first of a series.

There are, however, a few things you’ll want to be sure not to do:

  • Don’t liken your manuscript to a recent best-seller. Sure, it’s tempting to say that you just wrote the next Harry Potter or that your manuscript is like The Hunger Games meets The Maze Runner, but even if it’s true, that’s probably not something you want to say. It sets the bar way too high, for one, and it’s often just not true.
  • Don’t use comp titles that are more than five years old. Even though I love The Devil’s Arithmetic, for example, it may not resonate with a modern audience the way that it does with me.
  • Don’t use long, convoluted sentences. Keep your housekeeping short, sweet, and to the point. Remember that agents and editors don’t have very long to read these, and that they probably have dozens of them to go through in a day. Make sure that they don’t discard yours just because they didn’t know what you were trying to say.

 

Now, as for some things you will want to look into when writing your housekeeping:

  • Be sure your wordcount is appropriate to your genre and audience. While it’s not necessarily make or break, many agents will hesitate to take on a project that seems much too lean or too bulky for genre standards.
  • Identify exactly what it is about  your comp title that you feel an audience will relate to. If your protagonist has a similar voice to Day from Legend and you think it will appeal to your target readership, say so.
  • Show your research without showing off. Agents want to know that you’re serious about your craft, and this is one way to show it.