QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Five Query Mistakes That Make You Look Like An Amateur

A query letter is a declaration, of sorts. It says your book is ready for the world and that you are ready to be its author. Whether you query agents or editors, the query is going to tell its recipient two things: whether your book is worth reading, and whether its author is professional enough to back it up.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s got to be if we're going to listen. Many of us writers are still trying to make our debut. We've written our books out of passion, rather than obligation to a creative writing degree. Quite simply, many of us are simple folk who dream of seeing our hard work, our literary sweat and tears, our home-schooled writing craft bear publishable fruit. We came into this game as amateurs.

But amateurs don't become published authors.

Professionals do.

That doesn’t mean that home-schooled writers (such as myself) can never break into the ranks of the published. It just means we have to work all the harder to school our brains to the business side of writing…because the query letter is our final exam.

And as with all final exams, there is the risk of failure.

Your query must speak for both you and your book, a single shot to garner a second, deeper glance at your work. One thing is for certain: if your query appears to be the work of an amateur, it gets a rejection. End of story.

Here are five query mistakes that will make you look like an amateur. These mistakes may keep you from making the grade—and that final, big step towards publication.

1) QUERYING MORE THAN ONE BOOK A query is a pitch for a single product. It’s not a peek at your entire collection of unpublished manuscripts. I’m not an agent, but I imagine agents would have a list of opportunities and publishers and editors constantly circulating in their heads. As they read queries, they scan their internal list of possible markets and decide whether or not each book fits their current connections. Your first line—containing genre and word count—helps them sort your book against their outlets. If they think they can pitch the book, the query makes the first cut.

Pitching more than one book messes with that flow. Small wonder why this reason shows up on a lot of agents’ pet peeves lists. It also pegs you as an amateur because who writes a dozen books and doesn’t publish any of them? A professional would have either sold them or kept quiet about them until they were ready to sell.

2) QUERY IS TOO LONG A rambling query tells the recipient that there’s a solid chance your book rambles, too. You’ve probably spent twice as long editing as you did writing, so don’t let your query give the wrong impression. A query letter template is the perfect place to start—it will make sure you include all the requisite info about your product and yourself.

If this is your first query, follow the template. (See this classic QTB post here for a great example.) Unless you are touched by the hands of the writing gods, a template will suffice. You don’t need to be brilliantly unique; you need to be concise and professional. A query needs to tell everything the agent wants to know at a glance. Remember--they are professional skimmers. Be a professional author who helps the process instead of hinders it.

One page query. Intro, pitch, bio, thanks. That’s it. No conversations, no anecdotes, no bribes. Short and sweet is all you need to sell it.

3) BLANKET QUERIES Imagine: your dream agent receives hundreds of queries a day. You want yours to stand out, right? You want your book to be THE ONE that an agent cannot turn down. Why wouldn’t you give an agent the same consideration?

Don’t start with “Dear Agent.” You know how much you hate getting form rejections that begin “Dear Author”, so don’t inspire an immediate reciprocal response. Don’t query every agent in the company. If an agent gets a query that might be a better fit for one of their partners, they’ll pass it on because no one wants the Next Big Thing to get away. And don’t send one email to a slew of cc’d agents. If an agent doesn’t deserve their own query, your query doesn’t deserve individual consideration.

A professional author will send an individualized query to a single agent because ultimately, that’s who goes into a contract: one agent, one author.

4) NOT FOLLOWING GUIDELINES Every agent has guidelines. What they want in a book. What they want in their submission. How they want it sent. Don’t assume that one query package fits all because it doesn’t. If you want a particular agent to look at your work, show them what they want—no more, no less. Only an amateur thinks they don’t need to play by the rules. Are rules annoying? Sure. But they are in place for a reason.

A hallmark of professionalism is the query that shows you’ve read the guidelines and put effort into following them. Would you want to work with someone who thinks they are above the rules? Me neither.

5) NOT BEING READY And by ready, I meant completely ready.

Is the book ready? Is it finished? If not, DON’T QUERY. Remember that queries are marketing tools—and if you don’t have a product ready for market, you’d better not waste the salesman's time.

A query isn’t a cotillion. It doesn’t announce you and your nearly-complete wonder to the world. It’s not a proclamation that says Here I am, get ready for #mindblown. A query says I have a book, this is what it’s about. Can you sell it for me? Nothing about a query screams amateur louder than the realization that the author doesn’t even know what a query is for.

Not only that, is your query ready? If not, tweak it. Critique it. Run it by the other writers in the QT forum. And for the love of all that’s holy, proofread it.

And still not only that, are you ready? Because if an agent says yes, you’d better be. Everything changes. You don’t want to be the guy in his pajamas typing and fooling around on Twitter. You want to be the professional author, ready to debut.

A query letter tells an agent that you have a great book that’s ready for the market. It also tells the agent that you are a professional author who’s ready to promote it. Those are the two things that an agent is looking for—a product to sell and the professional client behind it.

Are there other mistakes? Goodness, yes. However, a slip-up may be overlooked if you present yourself and your work in the most professional way possible. A great book with a pro behind it won’t be passed over for the sake of a mere infraction. A great book with an amateur might be because, despite a great product, an agent wants to work with someone who is willing to make themselves easy and professional to work with.

And it’s important to remember that even when you present you and yourself in the most professional manner, you may still get a form rejection or three. It’s not you. It’s them.

And it’s okay, because you want a champion to say yes to your query. You want an agent that is the perfect match for your book and for you. Taking care to stand out from the amateurs will make sure that you avoid those amateurish first impression rejections.

If an agent or and editor is going to say no, make them say no for all the right reasons. Being an absolute professional makes it harder for them to say it.

 
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Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

QUERYING IS NOT A ZERO SUM GAME


Sometimes, it’s hard to be genuinely, selflessly, happy for someone else’s success, especially when you have been striving and failing to meet the same goal. In the querying trenches, writers can fall prey to the belief that getting an agent is a zero sum game. In game and economic theory, this term refers to a situation where each participant’s gains or losses are exactly balanced by the gains or losses of the other participants-- essentially, if one player obtains something of value, that means another player has lost that same item. There comes a point in every writer’s querying journey where the virtual claps and hearty congratulations we offer our fellow writers comes with a healthy dose of “Why not me?”

Why do we harbor this notion that when someone else gets an agent, your chances of getting an agent necessarily decrease? Perhaps because we know that agents reject up to 99% of queries they receive, including the good ones that they just “didn’t connect with.” (Raise your hand if this ubiquitous critique makes you want to scream) This is the reason we obsess over a typo in a query that can’t be un-sent and slap our heads in frustration at “blowing my ONE AND ONLY chance.” With that mindset, it’s no wonder that we battle with inner jealousy when our friends hit a career milestone: We assume that their success is not just their success, but also our loss. Conventional wisdom, also known as Twitter, reinforces the belief that only a select few will ever breathe the rarified air of traditional publishing. Naturally, with so many talented writers in the world, there just can’t be room for everyone, right? So if someone else gets a spot, that means one fewer spot for you, right?

In my opinion, this mindset is wrong and counterproductive. A writer connects with an agent because of timing, market trends, personalities, and a million other variables, including luck.  And that’s just the first stop. An agented writer doesn’t always get a publishing deal. Books often don’t earn back their advances.  Some writers get three book deals and some get digital-only one book deals. There is simply no point in equating another writer’s success with a commensurate failure on your part because everyone succeeds differently and at different times in their life. So if your “dream” agent picks up a new client, that new client hasn’t taken your spot any more than your promotion or pregnancy announcement means someone else is going to get demoted or be childless.  It stinks that publishing is not always a meritocracy but still, you’ve lost nothing by the fact of someone else’s success.  When your path to traditional publishing seems to be a series of dead ends, don’t be tempted to buy into the zero sum mentality and miss out on the celebrations.
 
 
 


Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Saving Grace of Brackets

I really really suck at writing endings. I rush into them, and the conflict that built so well through the Black Moment just... disappears. And boom, happy ending. Or at least, I stop writing. I have hated my first draft ending for everything I've written in the three years that I've been writing seriously.

So when I got close to the ending for the manuscript I just completed, I decided to do something different: I didn't write it. I knew I was going to get stuck writing the conclusion, and that whatever I came up with would suck, so I got 2/3 through the story, wrote a terrible ending that was way too fast-paced for the story, and started revising.

As I revised, I was better able to understand my plot and wrap my mind around which of the three different endings I'd thought of would work best with the story. I planned more conflicts for the second and third acts as I rewrote the early parts, and by the time I wrote the ending for real, I was pleased with it.

I realize that not everyone sucks at endings like I do, but I think everyone has their own Achilles' heel. Even the best writers have the part that they're least-awesome at. Maybe it's witty dialogue. You know you need some, but when the moment comes to write it, it always falls short. Maybe it's scenery—you see it in your head, it just never makes it onto paper. Maybe it's sentence rhythm. No matter what you do, your sentences fall flat when read aloud.

My advice: skip it. Even if it were beginnings or middles that I struggled with, I still would have skipped my weakest part (with only a vague sketch to get out my worst ideas) as I wrote my fast draft. If you really need witty dialogue, but slowing down to think of something will take you a few days, just write "[insert witty dialogue here--Karen zings Horace]" and come back to it later. If you can't picture a scene, but you need your reader to, write "[insert fitting description of room]" and then keep going. That's the important part: understand why you're stuck, make a note to fix it later, and keep going.

In my most recent book, I had so many brackets--research I needed to do, names I couldn't remember offhand, dialogue I couldn't get right the first time... and missing scenes after the midpoint. When I did my first revision, I could just search for opening brackets and look at what I needed to fix. With my editing brain on, I was able to come up with a solution that I wouldn't have managed during the original drafting.

When I remember that not everything has to go down perfectly in the first draft, and give myself permission to save research and "hard stuff" for later, then the most important part of the process happens: I get the book written.

Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Best Writing Advice: Sometimes, You Just Gotta Throw Darts

I once had a good friend named Carolyn.

We met through QueryTracker, talking informally through the forum. Turned out, she worked closely with the site's captain and moderated the QT blog. One day, she invited me to write with them.

It was a huge opportunity. I thought, what a great gig. This could really pan out for me. What I didn't know was I'd be getting a dear friend and mentor in the bargain.

Carolyn was bright—no, brilliant—and funny and innovative and she had a charm about her that was far too humble to accurately portray her innumerable talents. One of those talents was giving advice. And over the years I'd turned to her quite often for guidance.

Once, I was lamenting being stuck for a topic for my upcoming spot on the blog. After a lot of sympathizing/grumbling on both our ends (because writer's block doesn't discriminate), she shared a few of her tactics for treating Topic Absentia. Then she added:

"I've also been known to flip through writers' books and just put my finger on a page and write about whatever I end up with."

As offhand a comment as that seemed at the time, it stayed with me. Frankly, it was good advice. For one thing, this nifty little trick actually worked. I've got a pretty sizeable writer's library, so every time I've resorted to this, it worked like a charm. It was an innovative way to harness the elusive muse and her inspiration.

Apart from the simplicity of the advice, there was a deeper takeaway message.

And, like just about everything else Carolyn said, it was light-hearted and poignant and brilliant, all at the same time.

Sometimes, you just gotta throw darts.

Ready, Aim...
Picking a random topic out of a writer's book is like throwing a dart. Close your eyes and pick one.

It's a stress-free way to make a decision and it pretty much takes you off the hook for it. Fate determined the choice. Now, all you had to do is make something of it.

These days, I find myself with more options than opportunities to see every single one of them through. Sometimes, it's just too hard to choose…and we waste valuable time waffling. If you've ever faced a deadline, you know how desperate lost time can feel. And what if we pick the wrong option? In a profession where doubt can do serious damage, anything that makes a decision a lot less guilt-ridden is a commodity.

In moments like these, you need to close your eyes, center your spirit, and lift a dart.

That sounds scary, I know. (And it would qualify for Jane's advice to do one scary thing every day.)

But it doesn't have to terrify you. You already know that, no matter where the dart lands, it's going to be a choice that you had already considered. It was on the table. It was something you wanted to do. And, if any one of those choices is a scary thing in and of itself, tell yourself this: you control that fear, because you had already been willing to face it.

Knowing that you have a table full of things you'd like to do doesn't mean it's easy to choose one from amongst them. Maybe you want to do all of them with equal intensity. Maybe they've divided themselves into categories like Easy, Necessary, Impressive (or Fun, Feels Like Work, Would Look Awesome in A Bio). But if you didn't think they should be done, they wouldn't be on the table in the first place. There are no bad choices.

So, feel the dart in your fingers. Weigh it. Envision its flight path. Imagine the satisfying thunk it will make when it hits home. Let fate make a decision, for once, and revel in that tiny fleeting moment of blameless freedom.

...Fire.
Then open your eyes, see what life has next in store for you, and smile because your aim is true.

You made sure of that before you even picked up that dart.




Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received: Rhythm in Writing Makes a BIG Difference


There are lots of questions we ask ourselves while we’re creating or revising a story. Is this scene flowing? Are my characters speaking in believable ways? Is this chapter about a three-legged poodle joining a street gang engaging enough? As careful and crazy diligent writers, we break our stories into tiny parts and investigate each one. The minutiae of choosing the right word or a strong sentence can consume us.

Ultimately, we want to know if we’re communicating effectively and if people “get” what we’ve written. Considering the rhythm of our words is one critical step. It can be the difference between someone reading your book in one day or in one month…same characters, same content.

And by “rhythm,” I’m referring to the combination of three things:

1) How Words Sound in Your Noggin – When the majority of people read, their brains reproduce the same sounds as if they were reading out loud. Crazy, right? This means one VERY important and albeit obvious thing… your writing needs to sound good when spoken. If you can, get a friend and read it out loud to her. Encourage her to tell you when something is confusing or sounds squidgy. While you’re reading you’ll come across all sorts of sentences that stick in your mouth like peanut butter. Change them. If you can’t even read them well, and you wrote them, what do you think they’ll sound like to others? Reading out loud is your first line of defense against suckage.

2) The Effect Sentence Length Has on Reading Ease – When all of your sentences are short, they sound choppy. When they’re all long, they become increasingly difficult to understand. Vary those puppies up. Sentences that are all one length have the sound equivalent of monotonous tones. And boring isn’t sexy. Monotonous sentences can kill your exciting content.

3) Writing the Way Humans Actually Speak – Most people worry about dialogue having a good “flow” and sounding realistic. We phrase our dialogue to be easily understandable and to roll off the tongue. But what about all the other sentences? In my opinion, every single sentence should be approached the same way dialogue is. They should be easy to say, interesting to listen to, and have a voice.

As far as I know, “rhythm” (in the way I used it) isn’t writing jargon. I made it up. But if I’ve explained it in a way that you could both easily understand and easily read out loud, then I’ve done my job. I’ve created something and convinced you of its viability and importance. I’ve told you a story.

Happy writing, everyone!!


Adriana Mather is the 14th generation of Mathers in America, and as such her family has their fingers in many of its historical pies – the first Thanksgiving, the Salem Witch Trials, the Titanic, the Revolutionary War, and the wearing of curly white wigs. Also, Adriana co-owns a production company, Zombot Pictures, in LA that has made three feature films in three years. Her first acting scene in a film ever was with Danny Glover, and she was terrified she would mess it up. Her first young adult novel, HOW TO HANG A WITCH, is forthcoming from Knopf/Random House in Fall 2016. In addition, her favorite food is pizza and she has too many cats.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Best Writing Advice: There's No Such Thing As Talent

A writer's main activity is procrastinating. Sometimes it's useful procrastinating, like time spent letting a manuscript marinate before starting to edit. Sometimes it's the procrastinating that happens when you have a deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) that you really don't feel like keeping. I'm excellent at both.

Self-portrait in charcoal,
September 2008
Recently, I've gotten back into art as a form of procrastination. I enjoyed it when I was younger, though I was never particularly good and, like with writing, my teachers taught me how without the subject ever penetrating deep enough to matter. Thanks to a poor teacher in college, I barely passed my required art class. She noticed that I wasn't doing the techniques correctly but couldn't be bothered to teach me the right way. Didn't stop her from grading me down, though.



Thankfully, you don't have to be very good at whatever you do to procrastinate for it to be a worthwhile pursuit. So I looked up tutorials and got to work. It turns out, the writing advice I once received from a critique partner applies to art as well, and it's the most important advice I've ever received, inside or out of writing:
Flower in oil pastel,
circa spring 2009

There's no such thing as talent.

Sometimes things come easier for one person than another, but in every project you take on, something will come easier for someone else. And there is nothing that cannot be taught. A tall person might have the advantage in basketball, but tell that to 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, who played for the NBA from 1987 until 2002.

If something about your writing isn't working, practice. Find a critique partner (or several, or an editor) and learn what your weaknesses are. Work on them. Practice creating plots that are organic. Practice writing dialogue. Practice weaknesses in short stories until you master them, then move on to novels. Don't be afraid of writing something that is horrid and unsalvageable. Just learn from it and improve the next time.

Portrait of my daughter in colored pencil,
July 2015
The only thing that separates "experts" from "n00bs" is the number of hours put in. Sometimes those hours are spent learning. Concert pianists practice their scales and arpeggios daily. Sometimes those hours are spent on actual projects. When I paint my nails, I run the polish over my finger and move onto the next. When I get my nails done professionally, they mess up as much as I do. They just go back and remove their mistakes. They use more layers of polish to keep it on longer. When a child colors a pictures, they grab blue for the sky, green for the grass, and peach or brown for the person. When a professional artist colors a picture, they grab five different blues, three grays, a white, and a few purples for the sky alone.

The change in perspective is everything: lacking in talent means you're setting the blame externally. Lacking in practice, however, is something you can fix.

Don't use a "lack of talent" as an excuse for not reaching your goals. Call it a "lack of practice" and then get practicing.


Flowers in oil pastel
June 2015




Rochelle Deans sometimes feels like the only writer on the planet who rushes through the writing so she can start editing. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and young daughter. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Best Writing Advice: Do One Scary Thing Every Day

I was frozen. I'd done my research. I'd spoken to my agent. I'd checked my contracts. I'd even gone as far as getting a business license, but now I was stuck. I needed to buy ISBNs.

(This isn't just an indie-publishing post. Bear with me.)

For two days, I'd looked at my list and found other things to do, but really, I needed to buy my ISBNs. I had a business bank account. I had money in it. What I needed was to go over to Bowker and give them money in exchange for the numbers.

"I can't," I said to my Patient Husband. "Every time I get almost to that point, I freeze. Because buying the ISBNs is the point of no return."

Once I did that, I figured I couldn't double back anymore. I'd be committed.

My Patient Husband said, "You need to do one scary thing every day."

Of course I was scared. I'd prepared extensively because I was taking my writing career seriously, but that meant doing the things I'd prepared to do. I needed to be willing to fail in a very big, very public way.

The next day, I said, "Okay, buying ISBNs is scary. So I'm going to do it, and then I don't have to do it again."

I did it. And after I'd done it, it wasn't scary anymore. But I took the rest of the day off anyway.

The next day, I made myself an IngramSpark account. Again, it was scary to enter in sixteen-digit numbers (or longer ones) but after I did it, I was done. The day after that, I made myself a KDP account, but that was less scary than it had been the day before, so I went on to do something else scary instead.

When you're writing for publication, you're going to find yourself right at the edge of your comfort zone more often than you ever thought, sometimes on the wrong side of the fence. In the story itself you're going to find yourself writing deep and touching emotions you never wanted out in the daylight. Then comes editing. And getting beta-readers. And reading your beta-readers' responses. And making those changes. And asking for help with your query letter. And then sending your query to agents.

Eventually you have to open the responses you get from agents. Sometimes reading those is scary, especially when you really like an agent and hope she likes you back. How about phone calls with agents? Those will scare you too at first. Signing your first agency contract? Terrifying. And then going on submission. Going through the publication process. Reading reviews. Writing your next novel.

If you had to do all those scary things at once, you'd think your life was a horror movie. So instead: one scary thing every day. When you're terrified, motivate yourself with, "Good. This is my scary thing." The next time you face the same task, you'll find it's not so scary any longer.

(Except for reading reviews. Those are still scary. I get a friend to read them first.)

And then give yourself a little breather afterward. "I've done my scary thing. I don't have to be scared again for a little while."