Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

The Query Conundrum: Tips for Creating the Perfect Query

During my entire agent search, I visited writing forums and writer blogs on pretty much a daily basis to get tips on how to get my book out there. (Also to distract myself from all of the waiting that’s unavoidable in this business!) One topic I saw discussed time and time again was the query. Some people claimed to spend weeks on crafting the perfect query–and sometimes even then, they’d go back and do a second or third version of the query for the same book. They’d post queries for other writers to critique and compete in agent-sponsored contests for professional feedback on their queries. It’s clearly a major source of frustration.

Me? I wrote my query in about half an hour and never revised it. I did ask one vague question on a forum before I began, though, having to do with how to phrase the “it’s a stand-alone story with series potential” aspect and if I should mention the unsatisfying (?) but still conclusive (?) ending I hoped would cause people to want more but not scare away anyone who wanted a stand-alone book. I also sought feedback from my beta readers, but they both thought it was fine. Of everything in the writing process, I spent the least amount of time on writing the query. (And don’t worry, not everything went so smoothly for me–my multiple stabs at the dreaded synopsis took weeks and weeks… A story for another day!)

The query resulted in about a 10% interest from agents (i.e., requests for partials/fulls), although of course it obviously wasn’t to every agent’s taste (which accounts for the other 90%!). Still, I was pretty confident in the query, especially since pre-major revision to the beginning of the book (which inevitably changed the first 5/10/30 pages a chunk of agents ask for with the query) I was pretty sure my query was getting more response than my pages, since almost all of the requests pre-revision were from the agents who only got the query with no sample pages (their preference).

..But I’m not going to post the query. Sorry! The manuscript’s being prepped for the submission stage, and I’m not yet comfortable sharing the details online. (Not that anyone’s going to steal it, but even so!) But I will share some tips I hope can help you nail that perfect query:

  • Read the back/inside dust jacket teasers for your favorite books. This is essentially what you’re trying to recreate for your book. Break down what those writers (not necessarily the authors themselves) did to get you to pick up the book with just a few sentences. They didn’t give away the ending, of course, but they set up the conflict, introduce the main character (and a central secondary character or two) and hint at the major problem behind the plot of the book.
  • Think of yourself as a salesperson. Maybe one reason I enjoyed writing my query was because my other hat as a writer tends to lean towards salesmanship. (Whatever my clients’ clients have to sell, be it product or service, I spend hours writing to try to convince the random web visitor they can’t do without it, even if I’d never heard of it until I got the assignment… Without being too knock-you-over-the-head about it!) The few sentences in a query need to “sell” the book; they need to be so dripping with voice, danger, conflict, and/or some form of drama, they scream, “Pick me up and read me to find out more!”
  • Get critiqued. If you’re struggling, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your beta readers, writing forums, and agent-sponsored contests for help! That’s what they’re there for.
  • Query in batches. Test to see if your query is getting any response. If you query 10-15 agents and not a single one requests material, it may be time to re-write the query from scratch. (Or your problem may lie in the sample pages. Try a few agents who ask for the query only at the start to see if it’s the query or the pages that’s the culprit!)
  • Double-check the individual agent’s preferences. This involves more than just knowing whether or not the agent reps works in your genre or wants samples pages/a synopsis from the start (although paying attention to these points is essential, too!). Some agents–although they’re rare from what I saw–actually do want the whole story spoiled in a query. Others are very strict about the length of the query or want to know whether or not you’re sending the query out to other agents at the same time. (Tip: DO send it out to multiple agents. The process takes too long to limit yourself to one agent at a time!)
  • Break it into manageable chunks. My query was probably a tad longer than what I’d seen in all of the advice–which sometimes says the thing ought not to be more than three or four sentences or so. But don’t make it too long. (The whole query letter ought to be no longer than a page–and that includes the bio, info about word count and genre, and introduction as well as the book teaser.) The actual book teaser part doesn’t have to stick to three or four sentences, but it should fit into these four categories:
  1. The hook. Most places say one-sentence. Mine was four (albeit very small sentences, intentionally chopped up for the effect of “voice”). Let this opening line (or lines) especially drip with the voice of your work. Let it say something unexpected–or better yet, twist something expected into something unexpected. It may be the furthest an agent reads into your query, so it better work to grab their attention! For example (totally made up story here), which is the better hook? “15-year-old Andy just found out he’s a fairy” or something like “Most 15-year-olds are looking forward to getting their learner’s permit so they can learn how to drive. Andy’s got to worry about learning how to control the glistening fairy wings that just sprouted from his back so he can stop floating in front of his friends.”
  2. The world. Not every story necessarily needs this part in the query, but mine did since it’s a fantasy. Explain briefly what kind of world your story takes place in, so the drama you’re going to allude to makes sense.
  3. The set-up. Explain where your main character finds him or herself at the beginning of the story and what kind of problems he or she faces before the big drama/action of the book kicks into gear. (Hint, a lot of times your main character will evolve from the person he or she was at the beginning by the end of the book; explain how he or she starts out in the query.)
  4. The conflict. Here’s the juicy part. Explain the main conflict of the book in one to three sentences and take us up to just before the big climax–without spoiling us about what that big climax may be. Leave it open-ended!

Do you struggle with queries? What are some tips that work for you?

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Give Brainstorming a Try–Even When You Usually Write on the Fly

One of my favorite books, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, has a few jarring moments when the author speaks to the reader outside of the plot of the book. When I first read the book in high school and again in college, I was especially drawn to Fowles’ explanation of how the characters seem to write themselves without his conscious input:

“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” (Fowles, ch. 13)

He also mentions how the novelist cannot plan the worlds that they create through fiction, and goes as far as to say “a planned world… is a dead world.” Non-writers in the classes thought it silly, but this seemed to perfectly sum up how I write: sit down with a few ideas germinating and just write with no specific plan of where you’re going–more likely than not, the ideas come to me, and they sometimes surprise me as much as they do the reader.

On the other hand, I envied anyone who could sit down and write an outline for a book they wanted to write. They had a skeleton of the book in hand and could write without pesky writer’s block butting in. I just could never do it myself.

But about a week ago, I did. I outlined the rest of the second book in a planned series (after writing the first few chapters) and all of the third book. True, things may change when (if) I get to putting the words on paper (er, computer screen), but for the first time ever, I know exactly where I’m going with this! And plus, the experience was similar to that of writing on the fly: I sat down with a few general ideas as I wrote, and the rest came to me, surprising me all the while.

So how do you come up with ideas? You take some time to brainstorm! Next time you write, try the following, even if you don’t usually come up with ideas before you write the draft:

  • Discuss ideas with beta readers. You trust these people to have first access to your drafts, so they’re likely to be the only people on the planet who will be able to help you come up with ideas, since they’re the only ones who’ve read it! I never thought to discuss ideas with a beta before, but one of mine was so anxious to know “what would happen next” that he triggered a conversation over dinner. Ideas both of us came up with served as the general ideas I sat down with as I wrote the outline–and they evolved quite a bit as I wrote. And now at least the two of us know what happens, even if few others ever do!
  • Run with one idea. One idea is all you need to start. Describe how that idea impacts the world of your novel and see if more ideas come to you.
  • Don’t be afraid to try. You’re not married to the ideas you come up with–they’re just going to serve as a guideline once you write. If you come up with something different later, that’s fine, and no one need be the wiser!

 

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Finding the Time and Motivation to Write

If you’ve read the (long) summary I gave of my experience completing that first manuscript, you might think I’m the last person qualified to dispense advice on finding the time and motivation to write. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who hasn’t struggled with distraction, busy schedules and fatigue at some point. You’re going to have some days that are more motivating than others. You’re probably going to fall off the writing wagon and let days, weeks or even months go by without properly working toward your goals.You’ll have plenty of excuses—my personal favorite involves staring at my computer all day writing (business topics), making me less apt to want to spend my free time staring at my computer writing…—but in the end, only you have the power to see your writing goals through.

Here are some tips I’ve found that help me find the time and motivation to write:

  • Make time, don’t “find” time. Get up half an hour earlier or stay up half an hour later. Work during your lunch break. If you have kids, work while they’re at school or ask your partner or a friend to watch them for just an hour each day so you can work while not distracted. Give up an hour of TV.
  • If you go a day or two without writing, try especially hard to get back into the groove ASAP. The longer you go without writing, the harder it will be to re-capture your muse.
  • Make friends who also love writing and share your works-in-progress with each other.
    Watching a friend meet her goals and getting support and encouragement from one another can help you keep going.
  • Exercise often. I’m someone who groans at the idea of exercise, but taking a break from the computer and getting your blood pumping can wake you up and make you feel more alert.
  • Broaden your writing goals. If working on one manuscript is starting to get like pulling teeth, take a day or two to devote to short story, poetry or essay writing. Start a new manuscript; you can have more than one going at once.
  • Discover your writing “style.” Some people write well by first plotting their manuscripts in detail, so they can write with a “map” to follow, allowing themselves to make changes as they come up with them. (Oh, how I envy you….) Others write better with an idea or scene in mind. Just write whatever comes to you–you can fix it all in editing. If you feel like writing a scene that takes place in the middle of a chapter and going back to write the part beforehand later, try it.
  • Turn off the Internet. If you’re typing your manuscript, more likely than not you have access to the Internet and all the little memes and entertainment news and social network pages that bring our brains such joy, even if they’re of no import at the end of the day. It can be tempting to keep checking those every few minutes when writing is going especially slowly for you. Shut off the Internet if possible when you write… And try not to turn it back on.

What tips do you have that have worked for you?