Wait For It

Blessed be, all! Sit down with me a moment; I want to talk about something that’s near and dear to me right now. Or maybe a couple things. The first of which is the musical Hamilton, which I mentioned back in this post here. The second is taking the time to do justice to the story while also caring for yourself.

But wait! Doesn’t being a writer mean working even when you don’t want to? Even when the inspiration isn’t there or when you’re convinced the work is terrible? Even when you’re tired, even when you don’t have the time? Don’t you have to Write Anyway and keep your hands on the keyboard and all those platitudes?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer, though, is yes, but.

What brings this about is this: an agency that I follow obsessively is going to be holding a Twitter pitch party within the next month. Two of my top-choice pie-in-the-sky dream agents will be participating. And me? I’ll be playing Cinderella, stuck home from the ball.

The reasons I came to this decision are threefold. First, both of the two stories that I’d like to query are in the middle of intensive revisions, and I don’t feel that a month is adequate time to get either of them in shipshape. Second, I know that the month of June is going to be an extraordinarily busy one for me, and I don’t need the added stress of a deadline contributing to my load.

The third reason–and the one I want to focus on–is that you only get one shot to make a killer first impression. Just like with the query letter, you want your manuscript to showcase the best of your ability. While you may be eager to start querying or pitching your project right out of the gate, it’s better to sit back, let it cool, take another look, and then send it out when you’re sure it’s the best you can do.

You’d be surprised just how much your craft will improve between one draft and the next. Things that you’d never thought of before will suddenly be obvious; moments that you thought were beautifully rendered will feel flat. Holding back for just a minute gives you a chance to fix those things instead of realizing after you’ve gotten a rejection from your dream agent that, oh. That wasn’t my best work, actually. And being unable to take it back.

I speak from experience on this. The two top-choice agents I mentioned above have both seen an early draft of my vampire history. One of those being an incredibly premature draft with flat writing, an overdone opening, and–being frank–tons of plotholes that I was too underdeveloped as a writer to notice. Even after extensive rewrites, I will probably never get those chances back again. You can read Danielle Burby’s (one of the agents in question) thoughts on first impressions and if your manuscript is ready here.

All of this brings me back to Hamilton. I have friends who write, especially among my classmates from grad school, who are routinely selling short stories or talking excitedly about their latest novel’s release date or the agent they just landed. I find myself feeling like Burr in the song “Wait For It,” watching as life passes by and wondering when it will be my turn.

In recent days, though, I’ve decided to embrace the core of the song. I’m working to the best of my ability. I’m getting better every draft, honing my skills all the while. Sooner or later, my opportunity will arrive. All I have to do it wait for it.

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Query Letters #12: Polish Until it Shines

By now, you have all the pieces of your query. Your pitch is engaging, tantalizing, and specific to your story. It showcases your protagonist’s voice and demonstrates exactly what kind of trouble they’re about to get themselves in. Your housekeeping is concise and to the point and clearly communicates the nuts and bolts of your manuscript genre and audience. Your bio is personable without being overly-familiar, and it lists your qualifications and experience as they are relevant to your novel. You’ve even trimmed the fat out to turn your query into a lean, mean, interest-inviting machine! That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Now what? The next step is to make sure that your prose is the absolute best it can be. Here’s a couple ways to shine up your query even further.

  1. Read your query out loud. Where do you trip up your sentences? Where does it sound unnatural, repetitive, or stagnant? Make notes and fix it.
  2. Record yourself or have someone read it to you. See if it sounds different to you when you’re not the one reading it.
  3. Give the query to a brand-new reader that you trust, someone who doesn’t know your story. Are they interested in reading more? Are they confused by the way you have your query set up or the phrases that you use?
  4. Play jigsaw with your query. Are the sentences in the best possible order? What happens if you move this sentence from late in the query to earlier? Experiment a little with the structure, and see if it shakes new ideas loose.
  5. Personalize the query to the agent you’re intending to send it to. If they represent your favorite author, mention it. If your book has an element to it that they said on their blog that they like, tell them that. If you saw them speak at a panel and it really struck a chord with you, bring that up.

Query Letters 11: Trim to Fit

So now you have your glorious query letter! It’s witty! It’s funny! It gorgeously shows off your character’s voice! Aaaand it’s six pages long. Now what?

It’s time for the hard cuts. You’ve written all of these beautiful sentences, and now you need to make some of them vanish to get it down to the golden window of 250 to 300 words. Fortunately, there are a couple ways to make the trimming down process a little less painful. I’ll show you exactly what I mean below.

  1. Start by eliminating redundant language. Anywhere you find yourself being repetitive, cut it out. 
  2. Make sure your query is focused on just one main story thread: the best friend’s illness the love triangle the protagonist’s primary goal and the obstacles they face.
  3. Anywhere you find yourself getting excessively wordy or your sentences erring on the side of too long or too complex, be diligent in finding ways to simplify your work.  Simplicity is best. If you find a long sentence, try breaking it into two shorter ones.
  4. Look for unnecessary, cluttering adjectives. If they’re not vital to the sentence or plot, they can go.
  5. The same goes for adverbs; look carefully search for them and replace them with stronger verbs.
  6.  Look, also, for unnecessary linking words.
  7. Hunt down filler words. They can be very sneaky.
  8. Actually, almost any word in a sentence that isn’t doing any legwork is fair game.
  9. Check for Name Soup excessive named characters and other forms of jargon. If you have to spend words explaining a concept, you risk going over budget.
  10. Make multiple passes. I’ve found it’s always easier to make a dozen small passes, doing tiny cuts to my wordcount, rather than doing all of it in one go.

If you find it hard to cut your own words, try practicing on someone else’s first. Take a paragraph from a book you like–or, better, one you hate–and trim out all of the unnecessary words to get it down to its core.

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!

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.

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!

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.

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.

Query Letters #5: The Pitch- Catch

Okay, now for the final piece of the query pitch puzzle. This next bit is what I call the catch. Put simply, the catch is one to three sentences that tell the reader what’s at stake for the protagonist, both the physical and the emotional. What I mean by this is twofold.

First of all, what does the character stand to lose? What happens if they fail whatever they’ve set out to do? Do they lose a competition? Will a lot of people get hurt? Simple enough, right?

The second part is a little more complicated. External tension is good, but a dynamic story also has internal tension for the main character, competing wants or needs. What emotional turmoil will the character have to go through to complete their goal? Does winning the competition mean losing their best friend? Does chasing their dreams mean disappointing their parents? Have they vowed to never take another life but find themselves in a kill-or-be-killed situation?

Let’s have a look at our two example pitches and how they did it.

STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up. Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.

I really like this example especially because the catch is so understated. It’s just that one sentence, twelve words. Wayne challenges Diggy’s view of family and his priorities. At some point in the story, he’s going to have to square that.

THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame. When a failed mission lands Kyra in the Palace dungeons, she faces an impossible decision. If she cooperates with the authorities against the Guild, James will kill her family, but if Kyra does nothing, she’ll see Forge overrun by Demon Riders. As the city falls into chaos, Kyra uncovers a secret from her past – a forgotten link to the barbarian invaders that will test Kyra’s loyalties and ultimately challenge the limits of her humanity.

This one is buried in there a little bit, but I like it because it combines the physical and the emotional catch. Her loyalty to the guild and the safety of her family are placed at opposition, and Kyra then has to make a difficult choice.

Now you try! What physical and emotional stakes are there for your characters?

Query Letters #4: The Pitch – Conflict

The next part of the pitch is the conflict, essential in a strong query. These next two to four sentences are kind of tricky. This is the part of the pitch that sets up what, exactly, your protagonist is going to be fighting for or against or trying to accomplish.

Try to be as specific to your story as possible; these are the things that are going to provide the meat of the novel. This is the part that separates Harry Potter from Star Wars from Eragon. On the surface, they’re all about orphans growing up to stop a tyrant. But Eragon never had to deal with a mysterious substance that could turn the drinker immortal, and Harry Potter’s misadventures at Hogwarts never involved a superweapon capable of destroying entire worlds.

Here’s a look at how the people we’ve been following did it:

STEERING TOWARD NORMAL:
Diggy’s life may not be typical, but he’s content. He hangs out with Pop and the county’s farmers, raises steers to compete, and daydreams about July Johnston, high school senior and girl of his dreams. Hardly anyone teases him anymore about how his mom abandoned him on Pop’s doorstep and skipped town on a tractor.
Then Wayne gets dumped at Pop’s, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother messing things up. Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl.

THE MIDNIGHT THIEF:
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame.

What about your novel? In two to four sentences, what in specific does your protagonist have to struggle against? What are they trying to accomplish, and what’s in the way?