Thursday, June 21, 2012

Query Me This

What I'm Reading NowThe Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Query letter.

Two words that spike my heart rate to unsafe levels. I've blogged about this before, but only in reference to a class I was taking and the feedback from my instructor. Now that I'm getting close to querying again (maybe. Keep your fingers crossed...), I've been thinking about this little letter and drafted a version I'm planning to send out in a few months' time. Which makes me even more excited to send it. I've got to hide the file or something so I stop messing with it.

For those of you who don't know what a query letter is, it's a one-page, single-spaced note/email of no more than 300 words or so, that has one goal and one goal only: to get an agent to request your manuscript. It consists of three seemingly harmless parts:

Paragraph One
Brief introduction, shameless agent flattery, reason you're querying this agent and not just everyone on, and the word count/genre/title of your book.

Paragraph Two
One-sentence hook followed by mini-synopsis. Synopsis should read like the jacket copy on the back of a book and give an idea of who the protagonist is, what his/her Big Problem is, and why he/she cannot simply walk away. Yes, that means you have to condense your 75k+ word novel into about 150 words. The 'hook,' a magical sentence that should touch on the novel's Big Problem and compel the agent to keep reading, should top the paragraph. That one sentence is probably the hardest thing I've ever crafted in my life. It's taken me ten months, one critique group and two query letter classes to create the mini-synopsis I have now, and I'm still working on my hook.

Paragraph Three
Any pertinent accomplishments as a writer (if you have none, leave them out), thank-you-for-your-time, and the all-important "May I send the manuscript to you?". I'll also add here that my manuscript's been through a dev edit for some extra brownie points.

A query letter is definitely not something to rush through, or you'll end up with all rejections at best, or on sites like SlushPile Hell at worst. At the publishing class I went to in Denver, agent Megibow said if you aren't getting a positive response of at least 40% (so, 2 'yes, send it!'s out of 5 submissions), look hard at your manuscript. That seemed like funny advice to me at the time, because a good query letter should fetch a 'yes' regardless of the manuscript, right? But Ms. Megibow said the query reveals more about the quality and readiness of the story than writers realize, and if it's lacking voice or clarity or excitement, the manuscript probably is, too.

My current query letter synopsis got the "I like it" from an agent at PPWC 2012, so I'm hoping I finally have a draft that can shine in the slush. Guess we'll see in a few months...!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Those Golden Beta Readers

What I'm Reading NowThe Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Stephen King says, write your first draft with the door shut, your second with the door open. But once you open the door, how do you get the most out of your readers? It's great if your friend Sally says, "I loved it!" or your brother Joe says, "I really like the action scenes!"—but that doesn't help you improve your manuscript. Here's a list of questions I wish I'd had for my first-round readers*:
  1. Describe the main character/antagonist/[name of any major secondary character] to me.
  2. Is there anything you're still confused about?
  3. Do you have any outstanding questions about the story/world?
  4. Did the ending tie up the loose ends?
  5. Could you picture the world of the novel? Were there any places you wished I'd described in more detail?
  6. How would you describe the relationship between the main character and his father? His sister? The antagonist?
  7. What did you think when character A did/said this to character B?
  8. Did any parts of the book seem slow or out of place?
  9. What was your favorite scene and why?
  10. Favorite character and why?
  11. Did the relationships seem real or were there parts where you felt a reaction/relationship was forced/over-the-top?
  12. What thoughts/impressions did the book leave you with?
*Salt and pepper to taste. By the way: while they're answering, I've learned to resist the urge to counter-explain right then and there. This is important since I'll usually have a beta reader take another look months down the line, and I want the answer to come from my manuscript in case I miss the mark in my revisions.

I try to make the questions as neutral as possible. It puts the reader in a sticky spot if you ask things like "Did you like the main character?", especially if the reader is a friend or family member. At least, I get much more out of, "I'd describe the main character as humorous and slightly insecure, but willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants" than something like, "Yeah, he was cool." For instance, I asked my brother to describe the antagonist. The minute 'ditzy' came out of his mouth, I knew I had work to do.

My beta readers have helped polish a lot of cloudy pieces out of The Novel. Are they a substitute for a professional? No, and you can read why here, but I'd consider them an important prerequisite.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Strap on Your Backpack—It's a Long Hike

What I'm Reading Now: Legend, by Marie Lu

Ever wanted something so bad it feels like you're waking up to the day before a big vacation, but never the day of? That's the stage I'm at now with The Novel. With today's instant Google searches and emails and text messages, I'm used to getting what I want within seconds. The Internet is a wonderful, infinite, deceptive little thing.

Because that's not how writing a book works.

When I finished my first draft, I would have laughed if you'd told me, "You know, you won't be querying agents for this project for at least another year." I would've said there's no way I could make that many changes. It was done, for Pete's sake, and it couldn't change that much, right? And besides, I'm not nearly that patient. I would have an agent within six months (I mean, c'mon, that's plenty of time) or die trying.

One month passed. Two. Eight. No agent yet, and I'm still breathing.

Thank goodness, too. I still had so much to learn about the process. In October I realized this and switched my focus from trying to get published to improving my manuscript. Still, I had to work very hard to harness my excitement. I think I've been through the seven stages of grief during this process, and sometimes I catch myself slipping back. But when I query again, I don't want to have something half-baked that a hundred agents overlook before one (if any) decides maybe my book's worth the work. That work has to go into it now, and that takes time, and I'm slowly accepting that fact.

You might be waiting on something, too. A new job, Mr./Mrs. Right, a move to another city/country. But if I've learned anything, it's that a dream is not a race. It's a hitchhiking trip from Boston to Los Angeles with a backpack that starts empty and fills as you go. You'll meet people along the way who can point you in the right direction, but there are going to be lots of times you want to scream, "Am I there yet??"

No, not yet. But every day's a step closer.

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