Friday, June 29, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 3

If you're just joining us, this is my week-o-How NOT to Write a Query, wherein I'm helping my future competitors with their queries to build up karma for myself and, well, yeah, the logic sort of breaks down after that.

Let's do another one anyway, shall we?

I should also mention that I'm starting to feel bad about putting this tag on real queries. I want to make it clear that there are a thousand ways to write good queries. I started this series because I kept finding all the ways NOT to write them and I wanted to try to analyze what I was doing wrong. I'm probably never going to be an expert on how to do it right, but I've spent a looong time studying how to do it wrong. And practicing how to do it wrong. Seriously--if there's a way to do it wrong, some agent has my query doing that in their rejected query folder. I just want to save everyone else from my fate, if possible. :)

This next query is by Tara Tyler (who has a lovely grasp on the beauty of alliteration). First, for your reading enjoyment, the intact query, in which I did remove some odd line breaks. Just so everyone is aware, it is a VERY good idea to email your query to yourself before you send it to an agent, just so you can preview all the wonky things your email program does to your formatting.
Oh Agent of my Future Publication,

Since pop travel teleportation overtook flying, people are excited about going places again, unaware that some travelers who aren’t following the rules have disappeared.

Jameson Cooper is the exception. He avoids pop travel, blaming it for the loss of his wife and successful career. If not for his brother, he’d be wallowing in a gutter downtown.

Accepting his final resting place in a small town as a low life PI, Cooper is struck with a spark of hope when a desperate stranger begs him to prove pop travel made his fiancé disappear. Proving pop travel has a glitch might ease his guilt enough to let him get some sleep, worth a trek down to the Atlanta Travelport. But when Cooper stumbles onto a video of a disintegrating traveler, people around him start to die and disappear. More than a glitch, Cooper wants to pass off the video, but realizes his brother could be next and sucks it up, determined to expose the fatal defect.

With webcams everywhere and the Q-net filtered by the government, Cooper can’t waste time with the authorities. He must go directly to the Creator of pop travel, young genius Hasan Rakhi, and convince him to admit the truth to the world. No problem. All Cooper has to do is face his pop anxiety, crash a party at Hasan’s plantation compound, and use his old lawyer powers of persuasion. What he doesn’t account for is being helplessly distracted by Southern Comfort in a purple dress, Geri Harper (a rookie Agent sent to retrieve the drive and protect Hasan). Since Cooper’s lame attempts to discourage her fail, Geri tags along and they sneak in to confront Hasan who surprises them by asking for help to escape his luxurious corporate prison. Cooper and his new accomplices concoct a plan, leading a chase across the world, hoping to reveal pop travel’s deadly flaw before they disappear.

POP TRAVEL is a thriller, complete at 80,000 words.

Tara
My first impression: love the idea of pop travel and the problem that people are disappearing. Oh, and that he's a lawyer. 'Cause lawyers are coooool. Main issue I can see is that the stakes seem to be underplayed.

Let's do the four questions first this time, shall we?

Who is the protagonist: Cooper is a married lawyer-turned widowed small-town-PI. There's quite a bit of great character information in the query. Maybe too much, actually. While I feel like I know him pretty well, I'm still confused about his motivations. Also, why he feels guilty. Why does he blame pop travel for his wife's death and the loss of a successful career? Is there a quick way to say "After Coop's wife popped out of existence, he became obsessed with exposing pop travel for the danger it was, and lost his job as a successful lawyer"? The first three paragraphs portray a man who has accepted his fate--and maybe he did that, but was there fire first? Was there struggle before the final slump? This all seems pre-inciting incident, but I bet a lot of his character could be squished into a few sentences about how hard he fought before he gave up. That would also help us understand how big the problem really is.

What does he want: Well, eventually, he wants to expose pop travel. It sort of sounds like he wanted that before, gave up, then had his passion reignited? 

What stands in his way: Not sure. There is reference to government control and to... well, someone keeping Hasan prisoner. But who is it? Who could be benefiting from pop travelers disappearing? Who is covering it up? If Cooper doesn't know, maybe say so? Without a specific antagonist, it sounds like he's boxing with clouds. Hard to hit, but ultimately insubstantial. Tell me who he's fighting. What are their strengths? 

What will happen if he fails: Mostly, it seems that he'll disappear if he doesn't expose pop travel... but what would happen if he just leaves it alone? He spends some time wallowing in a small town, so what makes him leave there? A stranger's fiancee? Strangers (and their loved ones) have been disappearing for who-knows-how-long. What is it that finally convinces him to put his life on the line to solve this problem? What will happen to the world if the problem isn't solved? What, exactly, is at stake here? It has to be something big to bring Cooper out of his wallowing small-town life, but I don't really know what it is.

So let's get back to the query and see if we can carve out some room.
Oh Agent of my Future Publication,
Since pop travel teleportation overtook flying, people are excited about going places again, unaware that some travelers who aren’t following the rules have disappeared.
Maybe some sort of time-frame reference? How long has pop travel been all the rage? 2 years? 20 years? And when did people lose their excitement for going places? What are the rules that make people disappear if they don't follow them? Is it a pop travel rule or a general government "do-what-you're-told-or-the-next-time-you-pop..." sort of rule? Also, how is it that people aren't noticing that people are disappearing? Maybe something like "Twenty years ago, pop travel teleportation replaced flying as the favorite form of long-distance travel. It's fast, it's cheap, and it's a great way to make rebels, malcontents, and lobbyists disappear." Only, you know, better.
Jameson Cooper is the exception. He avoids pop travel, blaming it for the loss of his wife and successful career. If not for his brother, he’d be wallowing in a gutter downtown.
Let's get painfully specific here. Jamison's wife popped out of his life... when? What, exactly, did he do to find her? Lay blame? Ruin his career? What did his brother do to bring him back? This paragraph makes it sound like she never came back from a pop trip and he was all "Aw, dang. Well, you won't catch me using pop travel anymore! I just bet something's wrong with that there contraption. Where's my whiskey bottle?" Specifics will save you.
Accepting his final resting place in a small town as a low life PI, Cooper is struck with a spark of hope when a desperate stranger begs him to prove pop travel made his fiancé disappear. Proving pop travel has a glitch might ease his guilt enough to let him get some sleep, worth a trek down to the Atlanta Travelport. But when Cooper stumbles onto a video of a disintegrating traveler, people around him start to die and disappear. More than a glitch, Cooper wants to pass off the video, but realizes his brother could be next and sucks it up, determined to expose the fatal defect.
There's a lot that doesn't make sense in this paragraph. Where does his guilt come from? Why does a stranger's loss spark hope? Did he need to be asked before he could generate the gumption to finally solve this problem? How does he stumble upon  a video of a disintegrating traveler? How many people "around him" die and disappear? People he cares about or random strangers that happen to be standing near him when he finds the video? What sort of a time period are we talking about? The last sentence, especially, is convoluted--What is more than a glitch? He wants to pass off the video to who?? Why does he think his brother is next? How can he "suck it up" and still be determined to expose the fatal defect?
With webcams everywhere and the Q-net filtered by the government, Cooper can’t waste time with the authorities. He must go directly to the Creator of pop travel, young genius Hasan Rakhi, and convince him to admit the truth to the world. No problem. All Cooper has to do is face his pop anxiety, crash a party at Hasan’s plantation compound, and use his old lawyer powers of persuasion. What he doesn’t account for is being helplessly distracted by Southern Comfort in a purple dress, Geri Harper (a rookie Agent sent to retrieve the drive and protect Hasan). Since Cooper’s lame attempts to discourage her fail, Geri tags along and they sneak in to confront Hasan who surprises them by asking for help to escape his luxurious corporate prison. Cooper and his new accomplices concoct a plan, leading a chase across the world, hoping to reveal pop travel’s deadly flaw before they disappear.
This paragraph seems to finally get to the heart of the conflict, and makes me wonder if the third paragraph is even necessary. Finally, we have a specific plan: get the creator (lower-case c, by the way) of pop travel to denounce his creation. I don't know why Cooper thinks this will work, but I love how the tension escalates with the revelation of a kidnapping, a jailbreak, and an international pop-chase. (It is a pop-chase, right? Please tell me it's a pop-chase.) Given everything that came before this paragraph, the one thing I wonder about is... when, exactly, does this visit to Hasan happen? It seems probable that this is a looong time after the inciting incident. If so (or even if not) you may want to disguise that fact by speeding the query along to this point: Pop travel sucks, Cooper's wife is gone, he sets out to expose pop travel, visits Hasan. I'm not quite sure what to do with Geri, since she sort of comes out of nowhere, and I don't know what she's an Agent of or what the drive is that she's trying to retrieve. What is Cooper trying to discourage her from? Why? You might want to just mention her as "a sexy pain-in-the-butt federal agent" who joins him on his pop-chase to protect Hasan and [whatever she wants to do with the drive].
POP TRAVEL is a thriller, complete at 80,000 words.
I'd stick Sci-Fi into the genre description. Just sayin.'
Tara
Okay, so I'm not sure how helpful all that gobbeldy-gook was, so let me sum up:
  1. Identify what Great Evil Cooper is trying to prevent.
  2. Identify Cooper's plan to prevent it (and his motivations).
  3. Identify the antagonist.
  4. Lose the brother, the engaged stranger, and anyone else who doesn't directly factor into the above three points.
  5. Rewrite the query focusing on only the most essential elements. And keep it to 250 words, total.
Let me know if you'd like me to tear it apart again. :)

Okay, your turn, everyone. Chime on in and let us know if you agree with me, if you think I'm giving bad advice, and if you suddenly have a hankering for a good pop-chase.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 2


In case you're wondering why I'm posting so much this week, it's because I'm trying to build up good karma by helping my potential competitors improve their queries so they can trounce me in an upcoming query contest. Yeah, doesn't make much sense to me, either. Oh, well.

Let's play another round of:


This one is from Robin Hall, who, as might be obvious, has just about the most perfect first name on the planet. (You know it's true.) You should go check out her blog. Just like with Randy, I'm going to assume that Robin has a thick skin. (Because thick skins are cool, and so are Robins. Therefore....)

First, this is her query, as delivered to me (only I put it in a prettier color--never use a pretty color when sending your query to an agent, FYI).
Dear Agent,
Because you’re so awesome I thought you might be interested in my magical realism YA, LOVESENSE (55,000 words)
Seventeen-year-old RAE, with her overactive olfactory glands, can sniff the length of a relationship from a photograph like other people smell sour milk. She has to be careful where she looks, or else her bite of chocolate could taste like puke. She puts her talents to use in the clandestine library bathroom, earning money for the two “c’s”, a car and college.
When Rae’s illegal business is exposed by her school rival, she has to figure out how to get the school off her back so she can still compete in the 110m hurdles at Regionals.
Worse than that, SAM, the first boy Rae has ever liked, totally drops her when he realizes she’s some psycho gypsy freak. When Rae finds her own soul mate in an unidentified baby picture, she begins a quest to find him, all the while struggling to believe that real love is possible since she’s so rarely seen it.
Rae must embrace her lovesense and pull her life back together if she’s ever going to find true love.
I have included the first ten pages of the manuscript. The complete manuscript is available upon request.
Thank you for your time,
Robin Hall[contact info redacted]
My initial reaction was "REALLY fun premise, but a bit scattered." I love the idea of being able to smell relationships' longevity from a photograph. I especially love that she runs across a baby picture and knows he's her soul mate. This sounds like a book I'd love to read.

The reason I called it scattered is that I don't know what the actual story is about. Every paragraph makes me think that the main conflict is something different:

Paragraph 1 makes me think the main conflict is earning money for college and a car using her unique talent. (I'm not all that upset that the main conflict isn't introduced in the very first paragraph of the blurb, btw.)

Paragraph 2 makes me think that the main conflict is either with the mysterious school rival OR with getting to compete in the track Regionals.

The beginning of Paragraph 3 makes me think it's the struggle with Sam (don't name unimportant people), but then switches on me and now I think the main conflict might be finding the boy in the baby picture.

Paragraph 4 makes it clear that the main conflict is finding true love. Which makes me wonder why I had to hear about bathrooms, rivals, track, and Sam.

Can you see why I think it's scattered? Too much focus on things that can't all be the main conflict.

Taking the basic premise, I'm going to assume that track has nothing to do with her special abilities or quest for her true love. It might be a fun hobby that helps define her character, but it isn't the main plot, so the track meet probably isn't necessary to mention. Sam, also, can probably be cut or severely minimized (and un-named)--he's a stupid jerk and he'll probably hurt her, but, in the end, he's a subplot. (The first 4 versions of my query had a subplot that would NOT leave. It's sooo much better without it.) I'm not sure what to make of the unnamed rival, since s/he could be the main antagonist, but I don't know enough about him/her to be sure--not even the gender.

Like with Randy's query, this could be helped by focusing on the four questions:

Who is the protagonist: Rae likes track and she has a special sense that lets her sniff out good and bad couples. These are good details, but I'd love to have more on how that olfactory sense works. Does she look at pictures of couples? Why would her sense trigger on a baby picture? How does she know that he's her soul mate?

What does she want: She wants to compete, but that's not the main conflict. I'm actually a little confused as to whether she wants to find her soul mate or not--she goes looking for him, but she doesn't really believe, right? So why does she do it?

What/Who stands in her way: Again, I'm not sure. Is it just that she doesn't know who the baby is? Where did she find the picture and why is it so hard to figure out who it is?

What happens if she fails: Well, it seems she won't have true love. Which, if you classify the story as a romance, is a perfectly adequate consequence... but this is fantasy, so you usually need to have more. Higher stakes. Some sort of consequence that will echo beyond whether the MC has a boyfriend at the end of the book. I'm guessing that sort of consequence is already in there somewhere--put it in the query. (True story: I added the actual consequence to my query... two weeks ago.)

So let's go back to the query and see what can be cut:


Dear Agent,
Because you’re so awesome I thought you might be interested in my magical realism YA, LOVESENSE (55,000 words)
I'm not an expert on genre, but I don't think "magical realism" is accurate for this. I'd go with either YA Paranormal Romance or YA Contemporary Fantasy. Given that the main conflict seems to be about finding her true love, I'm leaning toward PNR.
Seventeen-year-old RAE, with her overactive olfactory glands, can sniff the length of a relationship from a photograph like other people smell sour milk. She has to be careful where she looks, or else her bite of chocolate could taste like puke. She puts her talents to use in the clandestine library bathroom, earning money for the two “c’s”, a car and college.
This could be a Robin thing, but I've realized through sad experience that tricky phrasing is usually confusing. The first sentence is a great hook (other than the, well, no-duh part), but after that I get confused. I see her eating chocolate and looking around--does she see photographs of couples everywhere? 'Cause I just don't notice that many couple photos in my daily life. Or does her sense work when she sees couples in real life, too? And what, exactly is a "clandestine library bathroom?" I'd stick to saying what she can do and that she makes good bucks at it. I don't think it's necessary to say what she wants the money for--her age will make it easy to assume, and college and a car aren't unusual enough to be notable.
When Rae’s illegal business is exposed by her school rival, she has to figure out how to get the school off her back so she can still compete in the 110m hurdles at Regionals.
I'm not convinced that any of this is necessary. If the rival is the main antagonist (or the subject of the baby picture), though, some foreshadowing could be good here. If so, more details (name? gender?) will help me predict whether s/he is important to the plot.
Worse than that, SAM, the first boy Rae has ever liked, totally drops her when he realizes she’s some psycho gypsy freak. When Rae finds her own soul mate in an unidentified baby picture, she begins a quest to find him, all the while struggling to believe that real love is possible since she’s so rarely seen it.
More deets on HOW she identifies her soul mate in a picture. I'm assuming this hasn't happened to her before? Has she seen it done? How does she recognize the smell of her own soul mate? Keep the explanation simple, but a few words ("when she smells the almond essence of a soul mate when no one else is in the room, she realizes she's found her soul-mate"--only better) would help.
Rae must embrace her lovesense and pull her life back together if she’s ever going to find true love.
I'm lost again on "pull her life back together"--it was pulled apart? How so? All her problems so far have sounded like pretty normal teenage drama. Hardly life-shattering. Upping the concrete details on how her life has been adversely affected by all the drama could help.
I have included the first ten pages of the manuscript. The complete manuscript is available upon request.
Obviously, you'll adjust this to match what they ask for. It is usually unnecessary to say that the complete manuscript is available--they'll assume that from the fact that you're querying.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Robin Hall[contact info redacted]
Okay, that's all I got. I do want to take this moment to point out the obvious fact that agents have and will continue to request material based on imperfect queries. Obviously I like this book idea no matter how much I find to criticize in the query. Still, the more concrete the query is, the better your chances that busy agents flashing through their slush piles will stop, read carefully, and decide to request more.

If you want to revise and have me look at it again, I'm happy to do so.

Anyone else have advice for Robin? Disagree with my advice? I gotta say, I'm excited to see how you go about phrasing your comments to distinguish between us. *scoots closer to the screen* *props chin on hands* *grins with anticipation*

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

HNTWAQ: Practice 1

Yesterday, I passed along word of a query contest and offered to help two blog readers get ready to, well, beat me in the contest. 'Cause I'm a big fan of karma, mostly. And embracing the inevitable.

Anyway, two of you took me up on it, so today and tomorrow, we're going to see how well I've learned from my own How NOT to Write a Query series... and all the query revisions I've done of my own query... and all the advice I've picked up along the way.

Welcome, then, to the first ever:



It's called practice because, just like Edison, we need to keep writing bad ones until we figure out all the ways NOT to write one. Then whatever's left will be right. Or something like that.

Ready for my first brave victim volunteer?

Randy Lindsay was first to raise his hand, so we're doing his first. He assures me he has an extremely thick skin, and I'm taking him at his word. Long-time blog readers will know that I only normally critique others' work anonymously, but, well, he volunteered.

First, here's his query, all pristine and intact and exactly as he delivered it to me:
Banan, an Anglo-Saxon warlord in life, has one chance to escape from Hell. To do so, he will be competing against some of the vilest and most ruthless souls the Earth has ever produced. As the race is about to begin, however, he discovers that his wife bore him a child after his death. Now, the last of his descendants has been targeted for murder by his arch nemesis, Wregan. He must choose between saving a girl he doesn’t know and winning HELLATHON.
Wregan and his lackeys are given free entry into the race. While Banan scrambles for the opportunity to compete, his enemy attempts to thwart him at every step. On Earth, Banan’s wife, Morna, watches over Loni as a heavenly spirit. Fearing that the last living monument to her love with Banan will be slain by the forces of darkness, she defies the rules of angelic intervention and protects the girl, but is forbidden to help further.

All of them come together during the race, which passes through all the cultural versions of hell, as well as through an Earth street that lies not far from where Loni lives. Wregan prepares to sacrifice Loni during that earthly portion of the race to further his ambitions in Hell. Banan rescues her, but the two of them are forced to continue the race together.
Parts of the story take place in 700 A.D. England, during the Saxon conquest of the Britons. I have done considerable research on that time period, and chapters that take place there are historically accurate.
My first impression (which I was kind enough to email to Randy yesterday) was that I love the idea of hell games, and he has some enticingly high stakes, with wanting to get out of hell and also save his last descendant. However, I think he's including a few too many details, and I'm getting lost in them.

First, let's break down what we know (and what we don't):

  • Banan was a warlord who is now in hell (Why? Was he bad?)
  • He has a chance to escape from Hell (And go where?)
  • The games have vile, ruthless people in them (And these people get a chance to escape?)
  • He has a descendant, Loni, still alive (How did he find out? Why didn't he know this before?)
  • Loni is targeted by his arch nemesis, Wregan (Why? How does that make a difference?)
  • Wregan gets free access, but Banan has to scramble to compete (Why? I thought he was IN the race?)
  • Banan's wife, Morna, is Loni's guardian angel, breaks some angel rules to protect her, and is prevented from forbidden to help more (What does she do? Who stops her? How?)
  • The HELLATHON passes through cultural versions of hell (What does that mean?)
  • Wregan thinks sacrificing Loni will help his hellish ambitions (What makes him think so?)
  • Banan rescues Loni from Wregan and they have to continue the race together (Why? How does that make a difference?)
  • Parts of the story happen a long time ago and are historically accurate. (I'm not at all curious about this detail.)
For me, the problem isn't that I have questions and, Randy, please DO NOT TRY TO ANSWER THEM ALL IN THE REWRITE. The problem is that, for every concrete detail, I have a question. That's too many questions.


Let's review the purpose of a query letter:

TO GET THE AGENT TO READ THE FIRST PAGE

That's it. You want them to be curious enough to read your actual writing sample. Or, if they don't have it, to get them to request it. Nothing else. It's not a synopsis, and it's not an opportunity to convince them that you're a terrific sub-plotter. A lot of common wisdom says to stick to the main plot and the first 30 pages.

Other wisdom says to focus on just four things:

  1. Who is the protagonist? 
  2. What does he want?
  3. What stands in his way?
  4. What will happen if he doesn't succeed?
To that end, let's break down which details we need.

Who is the protagonist: Banan is an Anglo-Saxon warlord who is now in hell. Is he a bad guy? Was he falsely sent there? Do I WANT him to escape from hell? Has he been rehabilitated? Should I be scared at the thought of unleashing this man on the world?

What does he want: Banan wants to win the Hellathon so he can get out of hell. We don't know why (there are worse places, certainly)--where does he want to go once he's out? Will he be accepted into heaven if he wins? (Would ANY of the vile competitors be accepted into heaven?) Will he be free to roam the earth? What does he want to do when he gets out? How does winning improve his life? Who is letting people out of hell, anyway, and why?

What stands in his way: Wregan is his arch nemesis (um, don't call him that--show me) and if HE wins, Banan can't. I don't know why Wregan is so formidable--giving some concrete details about him will not only convince me why I should be afraid of him winning but also a sense of how hard it will be to beat him. And then you don't have to call him the arch nemesis, because I'll already know.

Loni is also something that stands in Wregan's way, since she is being used as leverage... but it seems that Banan HAS to race to save her since Wregan will sacrifice her during the race AND that Banan has to choose between saving her and winning... which is confusing. Make this obstacle more concrete: what, exactly, threatens her, and how, exactly, does that prevent him from winning? Also, if it's a complicated subplot, you might stick with mentioning that Wregan is threatening his last remaining descendant if Banan tries to stand in his way, or whatever is accurate--then leaving it alone.

What will happen if he doesn't succeed: Um, dunno. Maybe it's just that Banan has to remain in hell, and I'm sure that's awful, but he's been there long enough to get used to things, so what's the big whoop? If Wregan wins, will terror be unleashed on the earth? Will he get to take his lackeys with him? (Does Banan get lackeys?) Is it just that Loni could die? That tends to happen to all people eventually. Family lines die out all the time and that's awful, but this is a fantasy--it needs bigger stakes. What will happen to the world at large if Banan fails? If Wregan wins?

Okay, so I want you to add a lot of information, so let's help you make room. Let's go back to the query:
Banan, an Anglo-Saxon warlord in life, has one chance to escape from Hell. To do so, he will be competing against some of the vilest and most ruthless souls the Earth has ever produced. As the race is about to begin, however, he discovers that his wife bore him a child after his death. Now, the last of his descendants has been targeted for murder by his arch nemesis, Wregan. He must choose between saving a girl he doesn’t know and winning HELLATHON.
This first paragraph seems to be a whole-book pitch and isn't all that bad as a short pitch. In the context of the query, it's a bit confusing, since the race is about to begin... but in the next paragraph he's scrambling for the chance to compete. I don't think either the timing of the you're-a-daddy reveal or the biological fact that descendants come from children is necessary to include.
Wregan and his lackeys are given free entry into the race. While Banan scrambles for the opportunity to compete, his enemy attempts to thwart him at every step. On Earth, Banan’s wife, Morna, watches over Loni as a heavenly spirit. Fearing that the last living monument to her love with Banan will be slain by the forces of darkness, she defies the rules of angelic intervention and protects the girl, but is forbidden to help further.
None of this is essential, in my opinion. Wregan getting free entry doesn't convince me that he's a strong competitor, and since I already know that Banan will compete, I don't need the query to tell me he struggled to get in--it's wasted space that could be used to tell me what the actual conflict is. Also, enemies thwart. That's what they do. Don't use phrases that can describe a book other than yours. Finally, as wonderful as the Morna subplot is, this is the query. Unless Banan's motivation is somehow based on her guardian angel status, leave her out.
All of them come together during the race, which passes through all the cultural versions of hell, as well as through an Earth street that lies not far from where Loni lives. Wregan prepares to sacrifice Loni during that earthly portion of the race to further his ambitions in Hell. Banan rescues her, but the two of them are forced to continue the race together.
This is plot synopsis and doesn't help me understand the conflict--only the steps to resolve the conflict. It is enough to know that Loni's in danger: we don't need to know the course of the race... especially when it travels through terms we do not know.
Parts of the story take place in 700 A.D. England, during the Saxon conquest of the Britons. I have done considerable research on that time period, and chapters that take place there are historically accurate.
This paragraph really just confuses me. Will this be a book that jumps back and forth among time periods? Also, if you included this to prove that you are the perfect author to write this book... it doesn't quite go there. Anyone can research. The quality of your research will play out in the text. I can't see an agent being ho-hum about the rest of the query and decide to request because you tell them you've done research (though I'm sure it was fantastic). Do you have some special connection to or expertise in this period? If not, leave this part out.

Now, Randy, if I knew how to write a good query, this would be the point where I'd tell you what to say and how to say it. Sadly, even if I was good at writing good queries, I still haven't read your book, so I'd get it all wrong. So, instead, please feel free to revise and, if you're still speaking to me, send it back. I'd be happy to tear it apart again--either in another blog post or in a more private setting.

And, if you're not speaking to me, please keep in mind that my own poor query has gone through more than 6 complete rewrites. Sooo much of the first draft is gone completely. And good riddance.

How about everyone else? Do you have any advice for Randy on how to rewrite his query in time for the contest in a week and a half? Please feel free to disagree with MY advice, too. As long as this post is, I'll never be able to say everything in every way to explore all different sides of what to do and what not to do.

Thanks for playing, Randy!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Contest Alert: Christmas in July (and a chance for a query crit by yours truly)

Yanno, someday, someone will read my blog, find out about a cool contest, compete against me, win, get an agent, sign a publishing contract, and probably won't even put me in their book acknowledgements. And that's okay, because this way I can just assume that everyone who places above me in contests I announce learned about them here. And I can claim bragging rights. Go me.

So here's your next chance to show me up:


This is being hosted by the awesome Michelle Krys and her partner in coolness, Ruth Lauren Steven.

During a 9-hour window (6 a.m. EST - 3 p.m. EST) on July 9th (that's 2 weeks from yesterday), would-be participants will email their queries and first 500 words to lottiehumphries14 (at) yahoo (dot) co (dot) uk. (And isn't it cool that they're in the UK?) Michelle and Ruth will then read and pre-judge all entrants.

On July 13, they'll announce 30 finalists (15 per blog), who will have a chance to polish their queries with feedback from the hosts before 10 (yes, 10) agents have a look-see.

The contest is open to ALL genres except for erotica.

See here/here and here/here for more details, then spread the word using the hashtag #XmasinJuly on Twitter.

Now, since my own query just went through some major revisions, does anyone want to volunteer to have their own query torn apart right here on my blog over the next week? If so, email me at robinweekswriter [at] gee mail [dot] com. I'll accept two, at most, first come, first served. You can be anonymous, if you prefer, though your friends will probably recognize your query, should they stop by. As I've mentioned before, I'm not the best at doing it right, but I am starting to figure out when things are done wrong.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How NOT to Write a Query 5: Breakdown

On Tuesday, I broke a great query by removing all the specifics that might have helped distinguish its book from all the other dystopian books out there. 

Only... people recognized it anyway. I'm going to assume it wasn't that my vagueinator was broken, but just that this particular book is super-duper famous right now. Anyway, the winners are:

Matt
Heidi
Eric
L.M.
SA
Ru
and Jamie

That's right: everyone who commented on Tuesday gets a prize, if they want it. Even Ru, who guessed the wrong books. (Mainly because I'm so grateful that SOMEONE guessed wrong, even if it was intentional.) :)

What is the prize? *Drumroll*

A query critique by yours truly. Winners can choose to either: 1) have me critique YOUR query; OR 2) give away the query crit to someone on your blog. Winner can also pick whether I tear the query apart in private or right here, on my blog, to be seen by tens of people--who just might comment an help you even more. Please keep in mind that I can't tell you how to do it right, but I can probably help you spot some of the things you're doing wrong.

Now, on to the breakdown!


I'm going to add the real sentences back in, one sentence at a time. When do you recognize the book? (Or, rather, when would you recognize the book if it wasn't the first book that springs to mind whenever you think "dystopian?")

First, this is my vaguanated version from Tuesday:
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane is a survivor. She fights back. But if she is to survive, she will have to decide what is really important.
Let's add in one of the real sentences, shall we?
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane is a survivor. She fights back. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
Got it yet? How about another? (Names are staying neutral for now.)
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature.  She fights back. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
 Still kind of vague, huh?
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
What's most interesting about this particular query is that the last three sentences are actually kind of vague in their original form... when you don't know the concrete details that come before them.

Can you guess the book yet?

Are you sure?

Since the rest of the blurb is quite impossible to mistake, I'll give you the rest all at once.

As soon as we're far enough down the screen....



A little farther....



Just a bit more....



Far enough?

Good.

Here's the real back cover blurb:
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister’s place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before—and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
Do you even need me to tell you the title? Do you see the obvious superiority of the details in the real blurb over the vaugueosity of my own poor imitation? How even the more general sentences at the end relate back to the details (with words like "before" and "contender" and "win") to make them come alive? Would you even give a book with my blurb on it a second glance?

I participated in a pitch contest a few weeks ago and one of the primary concerns of the agents was--you guessed it--they couldn't tell what made THIS book different from all the other books out there in that genre. It was a brutal and enlightening experience. If agents feel like they've heard it before, they will pass. Different is not only good, it's essential.

So the take-away is probably obvious, but I'll spell it out anyway:
  1. Look at every sentence of your query
  2. Identify which sentences could apply to a book other than yours
  3. Add details until each sentence screams with uniqueness
What do you do to make sure your query describes your book and not everyone else's?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Not to Write a Query 5

It's time for another round of:


For those of you just joining us, the query process has taught me that I know very little about how to write a successful query. I'm just not good at it. Yet. But, like Thomas Edison, I am learning a thousand ways how NOT to write a query. And I'm sharing with you. 'Cause I'm generous like that.

Also, since it can help to see how a bad query can become a good query (and because, again, I'm no good at writing the aforementioned "good query"), I like to take the back cover blurbs of bestselling books and make them bad. THAT I'm good at. Then we compare the two and see what I did wrong.

Are you excited?

Today's lesson is on the importance of including story specifics, rather than hide-the-secrets vagaries. I've taken the back-cover blurb of a bestselling book and I've vagueified (vaguarized?) each sentence. The basic meaning of each sentence is still there (sort of), I haven't added or subtracted any, and they're still in the same order:
Many years ago, American life changed forever, and a new government took power. The new government keeps its citizens in line with high-tech propaganda, mass psychological abuse, and the torture of innocents.
Sixteen-year-old Jane Doe knows she’ll die when she saves a loved one from torture. But Jane is a survivor. She fights back. But if she is to survive, she will have to decide what is really important.
I think you can probably guess the genre, but can you guess the book? Leave your guesses in the comments and the winner will get a prize. Um, any ideas for a good prize? One that doesn't cost any money? Would anyone be interested in a query crit from someone who can only say what's wrong with it?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

That Green-Eyed Monster

On Tuesday, my awesome writer groupie, Deana Barnhart, had an amazing announcement. After long effort and piles and piles of rejections, she finally landed an agent! Her story is amazing and inspiring and gives so much hope to those of us still treading the path behind her.

Despite the screaming and yelling you know she was doing when she got the news, what she said at the front of her announcement was so sad--but only because she felt she had to say it at all:
I almost didn't want to do this post, because I know how it feels to be the writer who checks in to the blog-o-sphere only to read yet another "I got an agent" story. To be so happy for them while at the same time battling the "why them and not me" thoughts. I know how many hours us writers slave over our words, making them just so, only to get the query door slammed in our face over and over and over again. Believe me, I know.
So, yes, I ALMOST didn't want to do this post.
But I say almost, because while I don't want to seem like I'm rubbing it in, I also want everyone out there trying so hard to get a foot in an agents door, to believe that it IS possible! And that when it does happen, you deserve to be happy about it!
Don't mistake me: I'm not saying Deana did anything wrong, here. In fact, I think I know exactly where she's coming from. So many of my fantasies about getting an agent have been plagued by worries about how my unagented, arguably more deserving friends would react to the news. (Yes, I have an overactive fantasy life. That's why I'm a writer.)

Still, what does it say about our community that we can't assume that everyone will be happy for our good fortune?

What does it say about ME that, well, yeah, some part of me (hastily squashed) was frustrated by Deana's news?

I'm not sure I know the answer, but I do know three things:

  1. It isn't always possible to control how we feel about something.
  2. It IS always possible to control how we react--or at least how we react online, where we can control the delay time needed to pull ourselves together.
  3. If you start out with the wrong feeling, you can change that.
I want to share a thought that, lately, has helped me tremendously whenever the green-eyed monster strikes (which, with my awesome writer friends, happens with increasing frequency). 

[T]here are going to be times in our lives when someone else gets an unexpected blessing or receives some special recognition. May I plead with us not to be hurt—and certainly not to feel envious—when good fortune comes to another person? We are not diminished when someone else is added upon. We are not in a race against each other to see who is the wealthiest or the most talented or the most beautiful or even the most blessed....
Furthermore, envy is a mistake that just keeps on giving. Obviously we suffer a little when some misfortune befalls us, but envy requires us to suffer all good fortune that befalls everyone we know! What a bright prospect that is—downing another quart of pickle juice every time anyone around you has a happy moment!
Doesn't that make you feel a little ridiculous? Wouldn't it be awesome if we could just decide to never, ever be envious of anyone ever again?

Anyway, I'm going to go back to planning out what I'm going to say in my own "I have an agent" post. Right after I finish sending off the partial request I got Tuesday (which, truth be told, helped a LOT).

So do you ever have to do battle with the green-eyed monster? Did he spray you with pickle juice?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why You Should See YALitChat Pitch Slam--Also, Congrats to Deana!

In case you've ever wanted to find out what agents are thinking before they send that form rejection, now's your chance.

Well, maybe not for your work, since I was a slacker and didn't tell you about this while you could still join in the fun and bloody games, but still.

Over the last two weeks over at YALitChat, Pitch Slam 2 has been in full swing. Three agents have made it all the way through the scores of pitches that entered. One agent is still commenting.

It's been brutal, folks. BRUTAL. A virtual bloodbath.

Also, instructive.

I now know:

  1. Why agents don't have time to send personalized query feedback--the hours these ladies are logging while they comment are simply amazing. There is NO WAY they could do this with their slush piles. Even if they did nothing for their existing clients, there are simply not enough hours in the day.
  2. Why most queries / pitches get rejected: they don't stand out. They sound like everything else out there. Even if the premise is exciting, if it sounds like something the agent has read before--and doesn't have some indication as to what makes it unique, they pass.
  3. "Pixies" + "rainbow colored" = "This sounds like MG" Who knew? 
Head on over and see for yourself. Even if your pitch isn't in there (and, really, you'll probably feel better about yourself if it isn't), the simulated slush pile they have going on is amazingly educational.

In that "pain is good" kind of way.

Also, I should mention that my writer's groupie, Deana Barnhart, got rather negative reactions on her pitch from the participating agents... and still landed an agent yesterday. 


Shows what they know. (It probably has something to do with the fact that her agent got to read more than six lines, but still.) 

Congrats, Deana!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I Love[ed?] Ray Bradbury

Sometime in my grade-school years (this was probably high school, but might have been middle school), I was required to write a paper on a favorite author. I chose Ray Bradbury.


I read, I believe, everything he had written, from short stories to novels and the thing that struck me the most, and which I wrote my paper about, was his habit of giving power to the traditionally powerless.

In one short story (forgive me, I can't recall the name), a colony of African-Americans moved to Mars and, when a spaceship full of white people fleeing the nuclear holocaust on Earth asked for refuge, the colonists initially cordoned off the back half of buses for the newcomers and designated separate drinking fountains and the like. Then the refugees arrived, full of tales of places that were gone. The hill where a colonist's grandfather had been lynched, gone. The sites of other racial atrocities, all gone. The colonists then tore down all the separation markers and accepted the refugees as equals. It was their choice, and the refugees told them they'd rather be slaves than dead... but the colonists forgave them. It was beautiful.

Of course, not all of Bradbury's stories ended so happily. I remember one where the spoiled children who lived in an automated super-house programmed their nursery-slash-virtual reality room with real lions who ate their overworked parents. Then, of course, there's the short story The Small Assassin, which should never be read by a pregnant woman. *shudder*

There were scores of other examples. My paper was called "The Rulers of Bradbury." Clever title, yes?

Ray Bradbury helped form my appreciation for science fiction as well as my views of the world. His haunting stories (like the one where everyone abandons Mars to go back to Earth and fight in the last world war... except for one guy who answers the phone one day to find that he's not the last human on the planet... and that he wouldn't marry the caller even if she IS the last woman on the planet) keep popping up in my brain at odd times. He had a perfect balance of innocence and horror--and the "innocents" inflicted the horror as often as they suffered from it.

His stories were empowering to the downtrodden... and put everyone on notice that weak does not equate harmless, that beauty can hide the beast, and that men, women, and the smallest of children can rise above fear into a bright future.

I'd say he'll be missed, but he's left so much of himself behind it doesn't seem like he can ever quite be gone.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

200 Posts--and I Feel Like a Slacker


In honor of my 200th blog post, I've written a poem-type thing using only 200 words. It's about why I feel like a slacker (mostly because I am). Enjoy!


One day job: full-time fun, free-time price
Too many books to read: sixty-seven this year... so far
Three children growing fast: how can I not read to them?
Forever companion: he lets me read, he lets me write. He deserves attention
Five people in a fixer-upper I should occasionally clean.

I have written, edited, polished, and queried one book
I have finally outlined my next book
I have an idea sitting, gathering sparks
I have a short story percolating, waiting its turn
I have to query more, write more, edit more, dream MORE.

I’m a slacker group leader of an awesome writing group
I’m a procrastinating host of a podcast that's been silent too long
I’m a blogger of writing topics who neglects her own writing
I’m a wanna-be who wants it to be NOW
I’m afraid I’m a poser.

There aren’t enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in my life
There isn’t a single excuse for the way I’ve been waiting for my dreams
There can’t be a vice more powerful than sloth
There doesn’t seem to be rest for the weary
There won’t ever be a pinnacle I’m happy to rest on.


What dreams do you neglect?