Category Archives: Querying
As you know, the main focus of this blog is on the writing and publishing process geared toward teen writers. I put a lot of emphasis on how teens are just like any writer, how teens can get published too, and how teen writers are capable of creating some AMAZING books. However, with that emphasis, I think some teen writers also feel pressed to get published as a teen. I know this because I experience the same thing sometimes, that if I don’t get published as a teen I will have failed. It’s silly, but it’s what I and many other teen writers often feel.
So… what if you don’t publish as a teen? What happens then?
Well, by asking that, you want to hear a secret? Yes, yes you do.
The answer is nothing. Nothing happens. The world doesn’t explode if you don’t get published as a teen. Dinosaurs don’t come back to life and take over the planet. You don’t get so depressed that you can’t ever write again.
It just… passes.
See, as I say on this blog, your age does not matter when it comes to writing. Your age doesn’t prevent you from writing a good book or from standing up in today’s market if/when you publish one. Age is just an attribute about you, the author, that will never be a determining factor in whether your book gets published or not. Adults and teens alike publish amazing books all the time.
Age does not matter.
So why do we push ourselves to get published as teens? Why does it matter when we get published rather than that we get published? (I know many people don’t feel this kind of self-pressure with writing, but there are tons of other that do. Lots of teen writers have goals to get published by X age, usually before you’re twenty or out of college, so that’s why I’m writing this.) The truth is, it doesn’t matter. I think we all recognize that, of course, but many teens still feel like they have to get published as teens, whether to prove that teens can write or because it would be cool to say you got published in high school or college or whenever, or something else altogether I do not know. You may not even have a reason, too, but you just feel like not publishing as a teen is the end of the road. And you know what? That’s okay. I think pushing yourself is good. I think positive peer pressure is good. But don’t take it too far. If you don’t get published as a teen, it does not mean you’re a bad writer, or are a failure, or anything at all. It just means what it sounds like: you didn’t get published as a teen. Oh well. Moving on. You’ll still get published eventually, I’m confident, and it won’t hurt you forever and ever not to publish that coveted first book during your teenage years. And anyway, ideally you shouldn’t want to be marketed as a “prodigy teen author,” because you want your book to stand up in the market on its own, rather than having your age affect it. So there’s no difference about your age when you get published, since marketing shouldn’t be a factor. No matter when you get published, the whole time you’ll still be writing books–doing what you love–and that’s what counts.
Age is just a number. In the long run, it’s almost a nonfactor. Readers don’t care what age you were published at; if they love your book that’s all matters. And you, as an author, should feel the same way. Sure, go ahead and put pressure on yourself. Try as hard as you can to get to published at whatever age you hope to be published by. But don’t get discouraged if you aren’t published by that age.
Because really? I’m confident that if you keep working at it, one day, each and every one of you will have your books on the shelves. Some of you will get published as teens and others won’t. It’s that simple. But you all, no matter how or when you get published, have something amazing to say through your stories and you will get a chance to say it. Isn’t that what really matters? That you get a chance to share your stories with the world? It isn’t the age that’s important; it’s the hard work and the stories that you write that is.
You think that title is a joke, don’t you? Trust me, it isn’t. Once you start “researching” agents it quickly turns into borderline stalking. (But in a totally harmless way. *cough*)
A while back, I made a very long, very rambly post on literary agents and querying, but one thing I didn’t focus enough on in that post is how exactly you find literary agents to query, and many of you have expressed interest in knowing more in that field. So here I am. Even if your book is unfinished, if you plan to try for publication when it’s fully revised it’s never too soon to start paying attention to agents.
First, though, I need to get something out of the way. I’m a strong believer that you should query agents not just because they take your genre, but because you have researched them and think you’ll mesh well personality-wise. An agent-author relationship is still a relationship, and it only works effectively if you are a good fit for one another. So when you find an agent in your genre, take the extra step and check their twitter feed and blog (if they have those) as well as any interviews with them on the web. Plus, it can never hurt to know more about the agent. You should also be wary of agents who can’t do much for you when querying. Established agents are always a safe bet, but there are tons of perks to getting new agents, too. (Like, they’ll have more time for you, they will arguably work harder for you, etc.) With new agents, if they’re at an established agency, chances are they know what they’re doing, though they’re still worth checking. New agents at small and/or start-up agencies, however, should get a more thorough background check. Have they sold anywhere in the past? If so, to where? If not, what kinds of editor contacts do they have to sell your book? Check their Publisher’s Marketplace if they have one, as well as their Literary Rambles profile. (More on that in a second.) There are lots of cases where an agent takes on an author, then never does anything for them because they don’t have the contacts to sell a book. Don’t be that author.
So all that said, how do you find agents to query, anyway?
There are a number of strategies to use, some of which aren’t even listed below. If you have additional ideas that have worked for you, let me know and I’ll add them! Here’s my list.
- Find agents who represent books similar to yours. An agent can’t represent you if your book is too close to one of their client’s, but if an agent has a pattern of representing and selling, say, gritty sci-fi and you have written a gritty sci-fi, query them. In that vein, when you read a book that is similar to your own, always be sure to look up the agent on it. (QueryTracker has a great list of author’s and their agents here.) Then, if they seem like a good fit, query them. An agent who can sell a book which reaches you, as a reader, is already an agent who knows what they’re doing.
- AgentQuery. AgentQuery is an awesome resource. It’s an almost-complete online database listing agents, some of their past sales, and the genres they represent. You can search agents by genre here, as well as by whether they accept eQueries, are an AAR member, etc. It’s a really great way to get started when seeking agents, and I definitely recommend using it.
- QueryTracker. I have never used QueryTracker myself, but I have friends who absolutely love it. Basically, it’s like another Agent Query, except QueryTracker also lists response times for each agent, has a community in the forums, and so on. Another great resource.
- Literary Rambles. So Literary Rambles is my favorite thing ever when it comes to querying. Once I find an agent I’m interested in, usually through AgentQuery searches, I always do research on them to make sure they’re legitimate and would be a good personality match with me. Literary Rambles is my cheat sheet. They do profiles on almost every kidlit agent out there where they give important interview snippets, agent Dos and Don’ts, client lists, and so much more relevant info. I totally recommend using Literary Rambles. If you go to their site, their whole left sidebar is a list of past agent profiles.
- Publisher’s Marketplace. Not all agents have Publisher’s Marketplace profiles available to non-subscribers, but many do. Publisher’s Marketplace profiles are useful because they often list some of the past deals the agent has made, giving you a sense of where they’ve sold to, how their books are doing, etc. Like this profile for Jodi Reamer shows you she is basically the ninja of the agent world, representing huge authors like Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Ally Condie, and so many more. Note: PM pages aren’t usually updated.
- Twitter. Remember how I said it’s important to make sure you’ll mesh with an agent? Twitter is a great way to figure that out. As an active twitter user, I find a lot of the agents I query through Twitter. It is almost like another cheat sheet because if you follow agents, they tweet a lot about query tips, what they’re currently looking to represent, and also their Twitter feed gives you an excellent sense of their personality, so you can even figure out whether you’d work well together. However, Twitter should not be your only resource, if at all, because many established and awesome agents aren’t on Twitter; only some are. Basically, Twitter is an added bonus, but it’s not nearly as important as the above.
All right. I think that’s enough for one day. Let me know if you have any questions! *disappears with sweep of cape*
P.S. Since I feel compelled to remind you all, when querying, don’t mention that you’re a teen writer. In fact, don’t comment on your age at all. It looks unprofessional and it can only hurt you. You aren’t deceiving agents by withholding your age, trust me. They understand. Tell them your age during The Call.
Lately, it’s been my goal to show you all as much as I possibly can about the awesome world of self-publishing and small press publishing, since I realize I haven’t talked enough about them. However, I’ve been struggling to discuss small press publishing in particular because the truth is, I don’t know all that much about it. I am an outsider looking in when it comes to small presses, and I don’t feel as though I can speak honestly to what they do and don’t do.
Cue Danielle Ellison, a brilliant editor at Spencer Hill Press (which, for those who don’t know, is a YA small press I’ve heard great things about.) She graciously agreed to come on and talk about her experience with small presses, and I am so excited to have her!
Anyway, keep scrolling for the phenomenal post.
A few years ago, I was an (occasional) YA book blogger. I was a bookseller who was writing, and working my butt off to make something of my stories, and dreaming that maybe I could work in PR or something in publishing because that ‘involves books’ and ‘wouldn’t it be fun?’ I was a girl who sent an email, then got an internship, then became an editor. I wanted an opportunity, and I got one. I didn’t plan to work at a small press; it just happened.
That’s the beauty of small presses: people who want an opportunity, get them.
When John asked me to write this post, I was thinking about all the things I could say about Spencer Hill to convince you that the small press route is the best decision any writer can make. All of February on my own blog, I’m doing this feature about small presses that will present an unbiased look at five different publishers. Because, ultimately, writers need to be informed of their options, and as someone actively involved in various roles in the small press world, it means a lot to me that the info is out there.
But I can’t say that I think the small press route is the best route for every writer. It’s not.
If you want to buy your own private jet, for example, then maybe you should look at something different. (Perhaps even a whole different field. Publishing doesn’t provide a lot of private jets.)
However, if you are a writer who has a story that you want to share, a story that’s such a part of your heart and soul that you want other people to read it—then keep reading this post because that’s what small presses do. (Or should do.)
I’m a senior editor at Spencer Hill Press, and like I alluded at the beginning of this post, it just sort of happened. I never set out to be an editor.
When I emailed Kate about an internship position with their marketing department, and she emailed me back with a “welcome aboard,” I never dreamed I’d become an editor. I was a writer, and a girl who read books. I told stories and created worlds and got the fictional people who took over my brain into their own space. Small presses weren’t even really on my radar (it was a different time!) and editing wasn’t something I’d ever considered. But then I emailed Kate on a whim, and everything changed.
I never worked as a marketing intern; Kate had other plans for me. She took the facts that I was a writer and a reader and put them to use. She had me do a pass of a book. Then another, and another. Each one got more difficult, more in depth, and I soon started to love this editing thing. Kate never planned to put me in the marketing department, because she saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed.
This is what small presses do. They see someone seeking out an opportunity, pull that person in, equip them and let them fly. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Small presses, at least the good ones, operate on passion. Not on numbers. It’s passion that’s contagious – to readers and writers – not the rest of it. I can’t speak for every small press, but I can speak on behalf of Spencer Hill Press: you’ll never get that with us. (And I really do venture to say most well-known small presses.) Since we operate on a smaller scale, we only take on things that we love.
Spencer Hill has a policy. It’s based on a lesson that some editors have had to learn the hard way, and it’s something I continuously ram down the throats of our interns and editorial assistants. I’m mentioning it because SHP (and its imprints—the Contemporary line and SpenceCity) is a place of passion. To directly quote an email I once sent to staff: “Don’t take on a project unless you can’t live without it. Readers love many books; editors take on the ones that become a part of them that they want to share with others…Love isn’t strong enough in this case. It’s got to be the loss of a project that propels you into action, vs. the love of it.”
I won’t say that every small press you encounter will pursue this model, but at Spencer Hill, we do. Each small press is different and they offer various roles in the publishing industry. If you’re a writer considering a small press, it’s really important to be open, to know your facts, to know the questions to ask, to ask them, and then make sure that you are where you want to be and what you want to accomplish aligns with your small press. If anything isn’t what you want it to be, then maybe it’s not a good fit. Especially the latter point.
As an editor, it’s really important that I only put out the best books I can. The more I work in this field, the more I meet aspiring writers who have the drive and the talent to succeed; they only need someone else to see it. Someone who supports them and gives them the step up they need. Someone who embraces potential. At the end of the day, I believe that this passion is unique to small presses. That passion, when paired with opportunity, is a powerful tool.
I’m lucky enough to wear two hats in the publishing world—editor is one of them—but even as Kate knew in that first email, I’m a writer. And now, thanks to a book deal from Spencer Hill and then another from Entangled, I’m an author.
It was hard to get there. I want everyone to know that. It had nothing to do with me working at SHP. I worked years and years before I got that first book deal. I queried and had the “almost-agent” and the “I love it but…” many times. More times than I can even count. I was always behind the market, despite a book that everyone loved, and it was discouraging. I won’t lie about that either.
Then one day a new opportunity arrived to publish with Spencer Hill, and Kate wanted revisions, which I made, before she bought the series. I get a lot of flack because people think it was just handed to me, but it wasn’t. Despite what other people may think, I know every day that it was a great choice. When Entangled came along wanting SALT, I knew they would be the perfect place for that book because my editors had a great vision for the book and everyone believed in it. At the end of the day, that’s what you want.
Everything starts with an opportunity; they come in various shapes and sizes, and usually, when you don’t expect them. I know it did for me.
I didn’t expect to be an editor at a small press, but I love it so much. Editing has taught me how to be a better writer. Working with amazing authors to help them mold their stories gives me so much joy. I’m constantly surprised by the support of the writing community and the wonderful writers (and readers) that make it up.
I know there are teen writers reading this and you’re all wondering what happens next. The truth? I don’t know. You have to take the initiative to get where you want to be. Very rarely are things ever handed to you. My advice: find something you want, be passionate about your pursuit of it, and when opportunity knocks, don’t close the door because it’s not the door you expected.
The greatest moments tend to come from places you don’t expect.
In a lot of the contests I do here I ask everyone to write pitches, and I’m starting to realize that many of you don’t know how to write them. So I thought I should write a brief post about it. Of course, there’s no correct method to write a pitch, and whatever works for you works for you, but these are my tips.
First, let’s get it out of the way: pitch-writing sucks. Yeah, I get it. I hate them too. But no matter how daunting they may seem, they really aren’t all that difficult.
Note: The following applies to all lengths of pitches. The three-sentence pitch isn’t that different than the one-sentence pitch, like the five sentence pitch isn’t that different than the three-sentence pitch; the longer pitches just have more info. That’s the only difference. The basic elements you need to include are the same no matter the length.
There are three main things you want to tackle in your pitch:
1) Hook: What’s unique about your story? What sets it apart from the other books in your genre? What makes someone want to read it? Before you do anything else, you need to identify this. Once you do, you have your hook. Be sure to show off this hook in the pitch, with the goal of making the agent/editor/reader think, “OHMYGOSH THAT IS SO COOL.” You want to grab the reader’s attention with your hook.
2) Goal: What does the main character want, or need to do? What is the point of the story? This doesn’t necessarily have to jump right out at the reader, but what the main character needs to do,cor what issue he/she needs to overcome, etc. should be inferred from the pitch in some capacity.
3) Stakes: What happens if the main character fails? This usually goes hand-in-hand with the goal of the MC. The MC wants to do X thing. Okay, so what happens if the MC fails to do X thing? You need to highlight this in the pitch, because without stakes, the reader will ask: why should I care about the book? (Hint: in 95% of books, the stakes are either dying or losing the love interest in some way or another.)
- Tension: Your pitch needs a strong sense of tension, which can usually be accomplished by ending the pitch at your hook.
- “Dark secrets”: Tons of pitches include the phrase “dark secrets.” It is not a deal breaker, but even if there are dark secrets in the book, I don’t recommending including that phrase, because, honestly, it can come across as vague and cliche. Just about every YA book in existence has a character with “dark secrets,” so without being more specific, don’t say it. (There are certainly exceptions to this, but it’s usually best to avoid the term.)
- Make your pitch succinct and punchy. I know you want to go into details about your book and all of the subplots. I get it. But DON’T. Stick to the crux of your plot where the hook should lie, and grab the reader with that. The shorter the pitch, the better.
- Adverbs: Adverbs in pitches are not your friend, unless they’re used to show voice in some capacity. But adverbs often imply telling, and telling in pitches is bad. Show how awesome your book is. Don’t just tell the reader.
- Not a deal breaker. Repeat after me: a bad pitch is not a deal breaker. I know it may seem like it is, but overall, your sample trumps your pitch. That’s not to say that the pitch is not important, but it isn’t THE most important thing.
This is probably going to come across as egotistical–it’s not intended that way, I swear!–but I’m sharing my own pitch as an example, because it alone has gotten me three full requests from agents in pitch contests. Keep in mind this is not the best pitch ever, but hopefully it shows you what I’ve been getting at.
For sixteen-year-old Alex Tanner, finding a webpage about himself five years into the future is totally awesome and all until he logs on one morning and his status reads: DECEASED.
Notice how the point of the pitch is pretty much to show off my hook. That is the main thing here, and should be with any pitch. There’s also a sense of tension by ending the pitch the way I did, and the stakes are pretty clear: if my main character fails, he’ll die. The goal of the main character, however, is more implied in this case: to keep himself from dying.
NOTE: Keep in mind there are tons of workable exceptions to the rules. If you can make a pitch that’s untraditional but successful, go for it.
If you guys would like help with your pitch, email it to TeenRiter(at)gmail(dot)com at any time, whether today or three years from now, and I’ll do my best to critique it. Keep in mind that I’m not some sort of pitch guru, but I have a decent amount of experience with them so I should be able to help.
As promised, I’m posting an overview of last week’s Twitter chat with literary agent Pam van Hylckama, for those of you who couldn’t make it. The chat was a ton of fun and very informative, and we even trended for a bit! But since there were so many tweets, I was only able to highlight a few conversations. The tweets below either bring up some interesting points, or they answer questions I get a lot from writers.
Before Pam arrived, Kat Zhang, author of WHAT’S LEFT OF ME dropped in for a few minutes to take questions. Her book, which she wrote and sold to a major publisher as a teen (woohoo to teen writers!), released the same day of the chat, so it was a pretty exciting time for her. I’m only a chapter into WHAT’S LEFT OF ME so far, but it is already amazing. Definitely check it out.
Here are a couple of her tweets:
And, of course, Pam arrived shortly thereafter. Here are a few highlights:
When asked what the most important aspect of a synopsis is, Pam responded:
(Note: Being a teen writer is still awesome, obviously, and the point of this blog is to show that teens can write, but unfortunately, it’s still a stereotype against us.)
And just because I think this is the perfect way to end the roundup:
Thoughts on this chat? Questions? Comment below!
Thanks to everyone who came! We’re also doing a teen writer critique partner match-up on Sunday, so check back then!
I’m sure many of you already know all about agents and querying–and that’s awesome–, but I’m quickly discovering that many don’t, so I decided that it would be best if we had a post on it to refer people to. First off, there is so much to the entire querying process that I will not be able to sum it up all here, but this should get you a start. After that, you’re going to need to do a ton of research on your own.
What are literary agents? What’s the point of them, anyway?
Simply enough, literary agents represent literary works. They are the awesome people behind all your favorite books, the middlemen between you and a publisher. Since many publishers don’t take unsollicted submissions, agents are your way in. You don’t need an agent to get published, since there are always options of some small presses that take unagented submissions, as well as self-publishing, which Oliver Dahl talks about here, but if you walk into the bookstore, about 97% of books you see are by an author with an agent. Think of your favorite books (from the 21st century). I bet almost all of them, if not all, were published by a publisher that requires you to have an agent. If an agent loves your book enough to represent you, they may do some edits with you, then they will pitch your book to all of their editor contacts at various large publishers. Of course, if you have an agent there’s no guarantee of getting published–plenty of the best authors of today had agents represent books that didn’t sell, before their breakout novel–but it will increase your odds a super-mega amount. If you’re lucky enough to get a book deal, they also proof your contract, negotiate to get you the best advance and royalty rate possible, help you with your online presence, guide you along the way, etc. Joanna Volpe, who also happens to be my dream agent, provides great insight on the other things agents do in this modern era here. To sum it up, they do everything. And essentially, you want an agent.
However, agents don’t do all this out of the kindness of their hearts, even if they are nice people. They ask for a standard 15% commission on all sales.
Wait, agents are asking for 15% commission? Those greedy pigs! I’m not sending them my book!
You do that. But really, 15% is NOT much considering all agents do. Without them, you won’t have any chance of getting published by a mega publishing house. Without them, you won’t get the best deal and advice possible. If many of your favorite authors of today decided they didn’t want an agent because agents asked for 15% commission, they wouldn’t be your favorite authors. You wouldn’t even know who they are. And anyway, agents don’t ask for money upfront (please don’t ever give an agent money; if they ask for money upfront, they aren’t legit agents). They only make money when you do. Getting an agent is free (but you they have to like your book!), querying is free. The agent only gets a cut if you make money (so they won’t charge you to submit your book to publishers, etc.). If your book doesn’t sell, they make 15% of your $0.
So don’t worry about the commission. It’s definitely worth it!
So how do I get an agent? Where can I find them?
Agents don’t automatically represent you. It’s hard work to get an agent, it’s stressful, there’s not even a guarantee of getting one; but if you keep at it long enough, it will pay off. Author Lydia Kang gives a breakdown of her query stats here. The rejections were ugly, but she now has a YA sci-fi, CONTROL, coming out with Dial, an imprint of Penguin. i.e. She now has a contract with a super-amazing publisher.
Finding agents to query is easy. Search through a database of agents by genre, style of writing, whether they accept eQueries, etc. at Agent Query, search the ones you find there on Absolute Write for background checks, time it takes to query them, etc. and check their sales on Publisher’s Marketplace to see if you recognize any books they represent (you don’t need to sign up for Publisher’s Marketplace to see most of the listings; just search “Agent First Name Agent Last Name Publisher’s Marketplace” and their page should come up. It won’t always, though.).
Once you find agents that seem like good fits for you, do some more research. Look through their Twitter accounts, interviews, etc. and find little things they like that matches up with your book: So “X” agent represents YA contemporary. Hey, look, I write YA contemporary too. Oh and what? They represent The Fault in Our Stars. That’s like my favorite book and it’s the same style of mine. *more research* Ooh, according to “Y” interview, they’re looking specifically for gritty, character-driven YA contemporary. That sounds exactly like my book! They must be worth querying.
And once you reach this bolded point, once you’ve done this much research, it’s time to query.
What makes an agent “not legit?”
If an agent charges reading fees or any fees along the way other than the 15% commission, they probably aren’t legit. Don’t query them.
What is querying? How do I write a query?
Since agents are busy people, too, they don’t have time to read everyone’s completed manuscript. Instead, they ask for a query letter, which is basically a pitch of your book. Most agents nowadays ask for email queries, so you should be able to find their query email addresses on their agency website. If not, check Agent Query again for their query emails. Writing a query letter is far from easy. Make sure you really take your time on it, and do a ton more research on writing queries beforehand, as well as look up successful ones. When you do write a query letter, make sure it portrays the voice well, sets down the characters, the plot, and shows, not tells. Don’t say that your main character is a nice person. Say she walked the neighbor’s dog for them instead. It brings the same conclusion, but in a better way. Also, another thing: make the query short. Just a couple of paragraphs will do the trick, only one even will.
And before you read on, please go through this whole page on query letter writing on Agent Query. It’s extremely helpful.
Now that you’ve read that, I’d like to reiterate the general query boilerplate and then show you how it applies to successful queries.
Dear Awesome Agent, (please actually personalize it to the agent when you query)
[First sentence hook--make it strong, show the voice well, and grab you] [Rest of paragraph hook]
[Another body paragraph]
[An optional body paragraph]
[Another optional body paragraph, but three is pushing it. Try not to use this much since it's usually too many. Two body pargraphs is always better, even one.]
BLAH BLAH BLAH is a YA whatever subgenre complete at “X” words. I hope this book will appeal to you because of your enthusiasm for gritty, character-driven books with historical settings (or whatever the above mentioned style the agent was looking for that made you query the particular agent was. The bolded should be personalized to each agent. It shows the agent you did your research and puts you ahead of the rest of the pack.)
[Bio--Most sites will tell you that you should include a brief three sentence bio. This is true IF you have any background relevant to your work or previous publishing credits. If you don't, don't include a bio. It won't work against you, don't worry. Plenty of published authors have said they never included a bio in their query letter. Some notes I'd like to make about bios: Being a teenager does not help you this early in the process. It's good promotion later on, but saying you're fifteen or whatever teenage year in the query will only turn an agent off. Your age shouldn't be some secret, but people also (annoyingly) assume that your book won't be any good because you're so young. It's not true, but it's something you should be aware of. So yes, don't give an agent your age until The Call.]
Example of a good query:
So now that I’ve rambled about writing queries, let’s apply our knowledge to an example of a great query. Mindy McGinnis’ query for NOT A DROP TO DRINK (posted here) won the attention of mega-agent Adriann Ranta and went on to sell to Katherin Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins (a.k.a. A huge book deal). Here it is. My notes are in bold.
Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond. [See what I mean about an awesome first line? This one hooks you and doesn't let go!] Seven years later, violence is her native tongue in a time when an ounce of fresh water is worth more than gold and firewood equals life during bitter rural winters. Death wanders the countryside in many forms: thirst, cholera, coyotes, and the guns of strangers. [And the awesome hook continues. Notice how you get such a good feel for Lynn (the main character) and yet, Mindy doesn't tell anything about her. She just shows. Also notice how the voice is strong all the way through and represents the book well. This is exactly what you want.]
Mother and Lynn survive in a lawless land, where their once comfortable home serves as stronghold and lookout. Their basement is a lonely fortress; Father disappeared fighting the Canadians for possession of Lake Erie, the last clean body of water in an overpopulated land. The roof offers a sniper’s view of their precious water source – the pond. Ever vigilant, they defend against those who stream from the sprawling cities once they can no longer pay the steep prices for water. Mother’s strenuous code of self-sufficiency and survival leaves no room for trust or friendships; those wishing for water from the pond are delivered from their thirst not by a drink, but a bullet. Even their closest neighbor is a stranger who Lynn has only seen through her crosshairs. [I love this last line. Gives you such a good feel for the world. Notice, again, how the voice, character, world, plot, etc. are all laid out so well and without telling.]
Smoke rises from the east, where a starving group of city refugees are encamped by the stream. A matching spire of smoke can be seen in the south, where a band of outlaws are building a dam to manipulate what little water is left.
When Mother dies in a horrific accident, Lynn faces a choice – defend her pond alone or band together with her crippled neighbor, a pregnant woman, a filthy orphan, and a teenage boy who awakens feelings she can’t figure out. [And boom. You get the plot, the potential romance, the voice, the characters--everything--but without giving away the whole book. This is a great query letter.]
NOT A DROP TO DRINK (69,000 words) is dystopian YA. I have been a YA librarian in the public school system for seven years, allowing me to spend forty hours a week with my target audience. [Notice how Mindy gives her relevant experience to writing the book in that last line. There's no real bio, but that just means she had no publishing credits. And that's totally fine, especially because now she has a major book deal.]
Please note that this is just the basics of the query. You need a lot more to perfect the query letter, and yes, that means more research. It isn’t easy, believe me, and make sure you get a second opinion on it. Read up on writing good queries on sites like Query Shark, Miss Snark, Miss Snark’s First Victim, etc.
So what else?
Make sure you follow the submission guidelines each agent sets. Some ask for sample pages, others don’t. Some ask for the first 50 sample pages, others ask for the first 10. Pleas please please check the guidelines. If for some reason the agent or agency doesn’t specify, it’s usually safe to send a query and the first five pages in the body of the email. Be sure to format the query and pages to each agent’s requirements–Times New Roman, 12 pt font, 1 inch spacing–is pretty universal if they don’t specify. Also, many agents will ask you to attach the sample pages, while many will ask you to put it in the body of the email. Check to see what the agent prefers. So yeah, read the guidelines!
And now you’re ready to query.
Well that sure took a while to write. I will talk more in the next post. Until then, enjoy! Hope this helped! Questions? Comments? Concerns? Let me know in the comments.
P.S. In case anyone has heard and believes the annoying myth that you have to have prior publishing credits or you have to “know someone” to get an agent to represent you, please let me tell you: It is not true. Authors are picked out of the slush all the time, you just have to work at it. Read the response of Jenny Bent, an awesome literary agent, to this myth here.
7/24 EDIT: I realize there may be some points I missed regarding query letter writing as I work on my own query now. First of all, the above example of a good query is long. This is still a good query, but queries in general shouldn’t be so long. Please don’t make yours as lengthy as the above because chances are, it won’t work for you. As a general rule of thumb, your entire query, including the bio/personal info, should be less than 250 words. I know, I know, it isn’t easy to do that, but you can do it. You should do it. My query is less than 250 words, and my plot is extremely complicated. And, ask anyone, I’m not good at this whole query writing thing. If you eliminate unnecessary info, redundancy, and get down to the core plot (and no, you don’t need to introduce all characters. Two characters is usually best), you will get down to those 250 words. You will, I promise.You might be telling yourself right now about how length is not that important and I’m insane (the latter is true). But it is. Your query is basically a representation of your novel; if there are prose mistakes, grammar issues, redundancy, voice problems, etc. an agent will assume that these issues will appear in your novel as well. = form rejection. So if your query is over-long and not as concise and interesting as possible, an agent will assume your book won’t be tight and concise, and they’ll probably give it a pass. Again, keep your query under 250 words!
Another thing agents look for is that you know your target audience and write to them. That means if you say your book is YA (usually ages 14-18) but your protagonist is 20, you will probably get a form rejection. Or if you call your book a contemporary but aliens take over the world in it, an agent will assume that if you don’t even know your genre, you won’t have written a book to your target audience. = form rejection. Be sure of yourself, be specific, show in your query how your book really is YA sci-fi. Or if it’s a YA thriller, make your writing fast-paced and intense in the query. Show that you know your target audience, because that is a main thing agents look for. No, don’t call your book a “YA paranormal sporty girl book,” but at least give it (if it’s YA) a subgenre, i.e. YA thriller, then prove to the agent in your plot and in your writing style that it is a YA thriller. Make sense?
And if you’re completely desperate for query help, email us your query. To do this, though, you must be a teen writer and preferrably an active participant on the TCWT blog. I can’t guarantee we’ll be able to help with it, but we can take a look.