QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Did you NaNo? Welcome to the "Now What?" Months

As Jane mentioned at the end of November, November isn't the time to query your NaNo novel. And, despite the glory of starting your year of by sending out batches of queries, that isn't the best idea, either. After all, traditional advice for revision includes waiting (at least) a month between your first draft and your first re-read, so you can look at the story with fresh eyes.

So, using the official NaNoWriMo etymology, January and February are the "Now What?" months. This, however, is where the official site falls short. Per their page on revisions, they recommend the same kind of "anything goes" approach to revisions as they do to writing.

While I (and most others) are all for first drafts in which anything goes and nothing matters but the words on the page, revisions should be approached more carefully. There are many moving parts in a novel that need to be in perfect alignment if you want the smoothest, most enthralling story for your readers. You need to have characters that are well-developed and (usually) follow a character arc, a plot that hits the major plot points, and a theme that comes organically out of the characters and plots.

It can be overwhelming to think about everything your novel needs when you first sit down to re-read what you've written. The most important thing you can do is realize what you have accomplished. Think about the strengths in your story. Consciously dwell on the pieces you're most proud of--whether it's a specific line, or a plot twist, or a fascinating character you just love. You've already done more than most people ever will: you've written a novel!

There are lots of successful writers who use intuition in revision, but if it's your first go of it, or you like a little more structure, I recommend finding a revision process that works for you. I use the detailed revisions process laid out by Susan Dennard as a jumping off point, which has evolved over time to suit me.

A Google search for "Revising your novel" leads to a lot of x-step guides to a finished novel. Holly Lisle, for instance, says she edits a full novel in one to two weeks and if you're taking more than a few months you're probably doing it wrong. I disagree with her, especially if writing isn't your full-time job. Many of us, myself included, simply don't have the time to devote 6- to 8-hour days to working through our manuscript. Take the time you need to take. That said, she offers excellent advice (set a realistic deadline for yourself; write the best book you can now, without worrying about the best book you can write next year) and some great questions to ask as you re-read. Despite the title, Anne Lyle's Revising Your Novel in 10 Easy Steps doesn't overly simplify the process, but gives you a great place to start and concrete steps toward making your book the best it can be.

If you either enjoy consciously plotting story structure or don't understand much about it, K.M. Weiland's website, Helping Writers Become Authors, is my go-to website for learning about structure. There are series on structuring the whole of a book, structuring scenes, and structuring character arcs, as well as a database of examples and a plethora of other things. If you don't know what to look for when it comes to making sure your story holds together, her website is an excellent source.

However you choose to go about revision, there are a few things to remember:

  • Always revise big picture first and details last. If you have to add a new scene, treat it like a new first draft, making sure the right things happen before making sure dialogue is perfect before making sure typos are absent.
  • There comes a time when you will need to show your work to critique partners and betas. This is absolutely necessary before sending to agents or out for self-publishing. For me, this step is after my second draft, when I've done my revision for the big picture and tackled much, but not all, of the smaller issues. For you, it might be after the first draft, so your critique partner can work as a sounding board for how to change things. It could be as you write, chapter by chapter. It might be after your fifth draft. What matters isn't the timing, it's making sure you get someone else's opinion.
  • Revise again after you receive feedback. Probably set it aside for a few weeks and revise another time after that. Revise until you're not sure you like the story anymore. Then stop, trust yourself, and head over to QueryTracker to start querying. That's when you'll be ready.
Rochelle Deans is an editor and author who prefers perfecting words to writing them. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two young children. Her bad habits include mispronouncing words, correcting grammar, and spending far too much time on the Internet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A poignant story of love and self discovery that you've already forgotten

My family watches MST3K's Santa Claus Conquers The Martians every Christmas. It's our personal wacky tradition, and often I surprise myself by catching a new reference even though I've seen it twenty times.

This year, I caught Tom Servo whispering under his breath. Joel has managed to get ahold of some classic Christmas films, and then at the end he's down to a few low-budget films from the bottom of the bag.

Joel: This one is The Christmas That Totally Ruled. It's about a curmudgeonly old man who learns the true meaning of Christmas.
Servo: Fresh idea!

The meta-irony here, of course, is that I found something fresh in a movie I've seen at least twenty-five times, but for now, just keep it in mind that every genre has its cliches.

On January 1st, I got a multi-book ad in my inbox, and one of the books was this:

"A poignant story of love and self-discovery." Doesn't that make you want to run right out and plunk twenty dollars on the counter at Barnes and Noble? "I heard someone talking about this book," you might say. "It was really intriguing, and I just can't get the concept out of my mind."

Or, as Servo would say, "Fresh idea!"

Would I be correct in assuming that fifty percent of the books published in the past hundred years involve love or self-discovery? And that many involve both? This particular book's genre is literary. Can you name a title in the literary genre that in no way deals with self-discovery? Some characters may resist self-discovery, but I think in most literary fiction, discovering things about oneself drives the character development.

What makes literary love and self-discovery so precious to the reader are the circumstances under which they take place. The love takes place across enemy lines at wartime. The self-discovery occurs at great personal price in a woman wondering why she consistently sacrifices for people who don't value her at all.

Queriers, take heed. Anyone who takes part in a Twitter pitch event like #PitMad, take even more heed. Don't do this to your story.

Do not pitch your romance as "A couple meets and falls in love, but they face many obstacles to happiness." Yes, that's a given. Tell me that he's an animal rights activist and she's a slaughterhouse owner, and now we've got something more memorable.

Similarly, don't query your fantasy as "In a world where magic is commonplace, one amulet may hold the key to power."

(I can do this all day. "In order to succeed, Chris will have to overcome many hurdles, but the stakes have never been higher!")

Avoid having your future agent to open your query and mutter, "Fresh idea!" just before deleting it.

  1. Read widely in your genre so you'll know the standard tropes.
  2. Go beyond those tropes when pitching your story. You can do that by including setting, timeframe, or other details that set your book apart.
  3. Keep touch with those tropes, though, so your story feels comfortably within its genre. 
The last point means you need to take your trope and leave it unsaid while simultaneously dancing all around it. 

Take your curmudgeonly old man learning the true meaning of Christmas. Don't say curmudgeonly, but tell us he's hated Christmas ever since his wife died four years ago on Christmas Eve. Don't say he learns the true meaning of Christmas, but give us a bit of his situation (maybe he volunteers to take a 24-hour shift at a local animal shelter so everyone else can have the day with their kids.) And then give us the situation that challenges our MC's steady state. He finds a runaway boy huddling among the dog crates for warmth, and now they're going to spend Christmas together.

We don't need to hear "finds the true meaning of Christmas" but by that point in the pitch, your brain has anticipated the trope, and now we want to know about the kid, about the man, about the puppy we're sure the kid is going to bond with during the holiday, and maybe about the turkey sandwich they split because all the takeout places are closed and it's the only food in the building.

Maybe you want to read it now. Maybe I do too.

I suspect the poor book in the ad above is a complicated and intriguing novel that a beleaguered marketing intern on a deadline had no idea how to pitch, and that's why it ended up as "love and self-discovery."

But for your own complicated and intriguing novel, see how much you can add with only a little work. Try adding in a timeframe: "A story of love and self-discovery during the Black Plague." Or a location: "A story of love and self-discovery at a hot dog cart in Times Square." Or character: "An anarchist descendant of Alexander Hamilton engages in a journey of love and self-discovery."

Take the hobbles off your story so the thing can stretch out and run. And then, when it catches your future agent's eye, she'll say, "Fresh idea!" and really mean it.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

An Insider’s Look at the Querying Process, Part I

It’s a brand new year, aspiring authors! Perhaps 2017 will be the year you land an agent or a book deal, or both. Now that the holiday doldrums are over, the querying trenches await. Full of hope, and filled with more than a little anxiety, we polish up our query letters and make sure our manuscript is revised, edited, and ready to go out into the treacherous waters of an agent’s query inbox, which bears the unfortunate appellation of slush pile.

To help start off the new year with some useful information direct from the source, I asked literary interns Lindsay Warren and Tia Mele of Talcott Notch Literary Services to provide the QT blog readers with some insight into how queries are evaluated, and to answer some questions I think all querying authors have asked themselves at one time or another.

QUESTION 1. Conventional wisdom is that "The hook, the book and the cook" is the best, tried and true, template for a query letter. Do you agree or disagree and why?

(For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it basically refers to a query format where you “hook” the agent or editor’s interest with an enticing line or two, then describe the book’s main character and conflict (i.e., the stakes) and then wrap up with your author bio, in a brisk, professional, cover letter)

Lindsay: “As an overall format for what goes where, this is a good starting point. I definitely agree with the book and cook as significant portions, but I'm not personally in need of a hook (by which I mean a pithy one-liner about what's going to happen in the story). If you look at jacket flap copy as an example, a well-done hook can be great, but I like to focus on the paragraphs delving into the characters, their inciting incident and stakes, and how tension is going to build throughout the story. Hooks can be great bonus points, but not every book is going to translate easily into one.”

Tia: “I think this is the perfect template for authors to follow when writing their queries! The book and the cook are the most important - tell me what your book is about and who the author is. As for the hook, if you can write a good one that makes sense, then definitely include it. But if a hook is something you struggle with, leave it out. Let your book description speak for itself!  Following this hook, book, cook template also helps weed out the extra information authors sometimes include with their queries. More on that in question two!”

QUESTION 2. What are the most common mistakes people make in their queries an opening pages?

Lindsay: “For queries, there are a lot of basics that authors miss (addressing the query to a specific agent, including genre and word count, including sample pages when the agency website requests them). Unless an agency specifies otherwise, I highly recommend pasting pages into the body of the query e-mail--many of us aren't fans of unsolicited attachments.

As far as content rather than formatting, it's really important to keep the query focused on the most important and/or unique aspects of the story. Who is the main character (or who are the main characters)? What makes this person a unique-enough protagonist? What obstacles are they going to face and what tools do they have to try to push through? A large part of the trick is finding ways to show the agent these things rather than spell them out. One thing that can happen is that the querying author never quite gets to the "point" of the story: sometimes they focus on describing things about the story world that aren't needed, or just offering too many details in general, or they editorialize and/or include reader or editor feedback on their work, or they put more words into the "cook" portion than the "book."

In short, the query should be a miniature story that's coherent in its own right. An author is never going to hit all the nuances of what makes their book great, but it's good to point to what an agent would find should they request more.”

Tia: “The biggest mistake I find in queries is either giving too much or not enough information. I want to have a relatively good idea of what the book is about after I have read the query. But I don't really need to know that the author's great uncle's cat has the same name as the main character. Relevant information is important - what is this book about? But authors can get a little carried away with their queries and add in a ton of extra information, drop names that have no meaning, or try to flatter the agent with "personal" references, and that's not necessary. Make us want to read your book because of your book, not because you know people and you copied and pasted a couple of sentences from the agent's bio!

For opening pages, typos and grammatical errors are deal breakers! It's hard to catch every little thing, but it's important that authors read and reread to make sure there are no blatant mistakes. The first thing that catches my eye when I'm reading first pages is a typo or a word used incorrectly or in the wrong form and I have trouble continuing after that point!

Also watch out for pacing. If ten pages in the main character is still sipping her coffee and petting her cat Whiskers, I'm going to be bored and I probably won't request any additional pages. If in the first ten pages, the main character has already been in twelve fights, lost an arm, and rescued Whiskers from a tree, I probably won't want any more pages either. Too much too quickly is as much of a turn off as not enough going on. There has to be a balance and that balance is what makes me want to continue reading to find out what comes next!”

QUESTION 3. What makes the difference between a request for additional pages and a pass?

Lindsay: “Sample-page wise, there are a ton of things to consider, mostly revolving around the choices an author has made, and some things depend on the genre. Does the story open with an actual scene, as opposed to description or internal monologue that doesn't advance the plot? Is the setting reasonable for what the query says the story is going to do? Are the characters believable? Is the dialogue authentic? Is there intrigue or tension that makes me want to keep reading? Is the writing good? Good writing can definitely be subjective, but I'm always looking for a clear voice that offers the right amount of details and balance between internal and external considerations.

All of these craft elements go into what I'll call "confident writing." The author needs to convince me they know who their characters are and what their story is, both on the page and in the things that happen "behind the scenes" of the words--in all the little character interactions and meaningful pauses, etc. Publishing people can help an author make their story even better, but they can't tell an author what the story *is*. Show you know what's happening in what you write (or don't write), and the hope is that the people who are meant to be your readers will pick up what you're putting down.

Aside from the very long craft answer above, the short version would be curiosity to follow the characters and see how their plot unfolds, as well as trust in the author to pull it off. Have I seen enough promise in the first pages to make me excited for 100-400 more?”

Tia:  “A good, strong voice and a well written story will get an immediate request from me. Passes can be because of the reasons I included for question two, or if the writing just isn't up to par. For example, if there is more "telling than showing" in the opening pages or the beginning is just an info-dump that doesn't move the plot forward, I will probably pass.

The plot outlined in the query is a big determinant as well. If the plot seems interesting and I want to read more after the first ten pages, I'll request more. If the plot does not seem interesting or I worry about the execution, then I will usually pass.”

Okay kids, next month there will be more questions, including the one we’ve all asked ourselves: “Hey, does the agent even see my query?”

Stay tuned.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2017. Her website is Kim-English.com. She is represented by Gina Panettieri.