Tuesday, April 24, 2018

An Agency Intern Shares Common Query Mistakes

Today's guest for the SHIT (Submission Hell, It's True) is A.M. Rose, author of ROAD TO EUGENICA who is going to take it from here!

So this time we’re doing things a little different. I’m not a literary agent, but I’ve been an intern with an agency for over the past year and have gotten an in-depth look at the slush. I’m here to offer some insight into the things that I’ve seen on the other side of the submission process.

How many queries does your agency receive a day? 

It really varies on day and time of the year, but I’d say on average anywhere from twenty to fifty.

How many requests do you make from those submissions? 

For simplicity, I’ll break this up into batches of ten. Sometimes zero are requested sometimes as many as three. Now how many of those requests turn into offers is even a smaller number. 

Most of the time when we make a request it’s because the query was intriguing, and the opening pages were good. What we see most often is the middle falling apart. So while it’s important to grab attention in those first few chapters, it’s just as important to have a solid story from start to finish. 

What is the most common mistake you see in submissions? 

Not telling us anything about the book. Seriously. Some people will spend the entire query letter talking about their process or why this book is so important to them, and never tell us what the story is about. 

Remember all your query letter has to do is tell us:
Who is your MC?
What do they want? (Goals)
What stands in their way? (Obstacles) 
What happens if they fail? (Stakes)
(Also include your genre, (age group if appropriate) and word count.) 

That’s it.

Another problem we see a lot are people not following submission guidelines. We ask for a synopsis, and it’s amazing how many people don’t include one. And they are important. We want to make sure you have a complete story arc and most of the time if there isn’t one included it results in a rejection even if we liked the pages. Because without the synopsis we aren’t sure if there really is a story.  

Is there anything an author can do to stand out? 

Yes! Don’t try to be clever or funny. Just write a clean query letter. Keep it short and simple. Consider it a business letter, and while you think being different will make you stand out. It does. Just not in the way you want it to. When you read hundreds of letters a week there becomes a rhythm to it and when that rhythm gets broken it’s hard to get back into it.

Are there any particular trope or story lines you see most often? 

We see a lot of God and demon stories. And recently the number of submission with political references has climbed considerably. 

Do some people try to subvert the standard query for something else? What is the strangest thing you've seen?

Yes, this happens more often than you’d think. The photographs are always interesting, but the strangest thing I’ve seen is a person who spent probably about five pages talking about how amazing their book was, and how it already had a screen-play and interest from Hollywood. They went on and on about how they were going to market it, but never once said anything about the book. Not one word. It could have legitimately been the next best thing, but since they never told us anything about it, (and didn’t follow submission guidelines by including their first ten pages and a synopsis) it was an automatic rejection.

You want someone who’s going to champion your work regardless if it’s going to be the next best thing or not. 

Is there anything I can do to make my query letter better? 

Again, yes. Have other people who’ve never read your story before read your query. If it doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to an agent. Query Shark is a great reference for what to do and what not to do. I also like Agent Query Connect. There you can post your query letter and others will critique it for you. Of course you have to critique in return, but in doing so you’ll get better at seeing what works and doesn’t. 

Do you think having this behind-the-scenes look gave you an advantage when querying your book?

Road to Eugenica actually never went through the full query process. After winning the 2016 PYHIAB contest from the NJRW it was quickly picked up by Entangled. And my next book Not Innocent was also contracted with Entangled without an agent.

However, I do think it’ll help me when I get back on the query train. (Which I’m hoping will be soon.) 

Monday, April 23, 2018

3 Things Real Teens Want, 7 Things They Hate, And How They Find Their Next Book

This past weekend I attended YA FEST PA, a book festival featuring YA authors in Easton, PA. I've been to a lot of festivals, and sat on many panels. But this time they did something different.

It was called a Teen Reverse Panel. The organizers asked the teens from the audience to switch places with the authors, putting us in the crowd and the teens in the spotlight. Then... we got to ask them questions.

It was fantastic.

I learned a lot, and I wanted to share a few of the things I picked up.

What They HATE

1) Limitless free time. "I'm in dance twelve hours a week," one panelist said. "I've got homework. I don't have time to just go to the beach and hang out, let alone take a road trip."

2) Absent parents. Real teens have to ask permission to go do stuff. Most of them can't just run out the door or disappear whenever they feel like it. Not without getting grounded, anyway.

3) Text speak. Smart phones have changed the way teens text, and adults need to catch up. "I text in full sentences," one teen said. "When I see something like when r u going 2 b here? I just roll my eyes."

4) Romance. It's true. Throwing in a romance is really starting to piss them off. "There's an area of the bookstore for that," one teen said. "I don't go there." There was a lot of head-nodding on the panel -which, I'd like to point out - was predominantly female.

5) Repackaging. This isn't in control of the author, but publishers take note. Teens like to read series, and they want their covers to match. These are savvy kids - they said they don't like paperbacks that don't match hardcovers, and they want to have the whole series in matching covers.

6) Stylized Fonts. Something else that is out of your control if you're traditionally published, but self-pubs, listen up. A pretty title might look cool, but more than one panelist agreed that an overly stylized font for cover design can make the title hard to decipher, and quite a few of them will pass over that for something more straightforward.

7) Partying. Not all teens are doing it. Noted.

What They WANT

1) Honest Representation. A PoC panelist noted that she thinks white authors are capable of writing PoC characters, but that we must do research and above all - listen.

2) Boys. No, not romance (see above). They want more books written from a male POV.

3) Horror. Yep. While there were plenty of Potterheads up there, at least one said Stephen King was her favorite author, and heads nodded.

How They Find Books

In publishing this is called visibility or discoverability, and it was the question I put to the panel: "How do you find what you're going to read next?"

Guess what? It's not social media.

Nope. They all shook their heads when I mentioned it. Not Twitter. Not Tumblr. Not Instagram. Definitely not Facebook. All those tweets and posts and pics and we've been pumping out into the universe have been finding readers... just not necessarily our target audience.

All of the teens emphatically agreed that they find what they're going to read next through word of mouth. Here's the rundown.

1) Friends. Teens talk. Readers talk. Teen readers talk to each other, and are unapologetically enthusiastic about things that they like.

2) Librarians & Teachers. These are the adults that are suggesting books to kids. And they're listening.

3) Bookstores. It's true. Teens browse shelves. Some are scanning for author names they already know and like, some are targeting genre sections they prefer, and some are just looking for whatever grabs their eye.

Know what doesn't weigh into their decisions?

Reviews.

So stop worrying about those :)

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Allii (Princess Albalia of Sallonia) spent the first seventeen years of her life closeted in her father’s castle, studying plants and rocks to fill the long hours. Then her beloved step mother is murdered and Allii is accused of killing her.  Now she is on the run from her father’s justice and her father’s soldiery, with only a daemon dog for company. Good hook, and I love the twist that she actually loved her stepmother - that's nice to see! Only tweak would be to strike what I ran through above, to get rid of "father's" echo.

Allii is determined to uncover the real killers, bring them to justice echo here from "justice" in hook and clear her name. But her quest takes an unexpected turn when she discovers that everything she thought she knew about herself was a lie. She is not a Sallonian princess but a Halfling bastard. Her parents loved each other but couldn’t marry because Sallonian law forbids any interaction between her father’s people and her mother’s people. Her mother didn’t die in childbed but was killed in an accident while fleeing Sallonia with the baby Allii. Her father had been trying to divorce her childless stepmother when she was poisoned. He is desperate for an heir because he doesn’t want his despised cousin to succeed him. His chief minister and his chief priest start searching for a new queen before the old one has been buried. So this entire paragraph - and therefore the bulk of the query - covers backstory. This doesn't tell us what actually happens in the book and to Allii... this tells us more about her father and mother than her.

As Allii digs deeper into the past, she begins to wonder whether uncovering the truth will release her from her travails or lead her to a worse bondage. But she has no choice, not if she wants to stop her father’s people from unleashing a war of annihilation on her mother’s people. So you're telling us what she discovers and what is at risk, but not how she discovers these things, or what true danger she's in. This whole story could unfurl while she's reading old texts in a library, which - while realistic - would make for a pretty boring book. I don't know what her "travails" are because all I heard about is what happened to her mom - and stepmom. 

Murder is easy (complete at 110,000 words) is a standalone YA fantasy novel with series potential. That's a hefty word count, even for a fantasy. You get more room to play with world building in fantasy, but as a debut you'll want to pare it down to under 100k.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Talk & Giveaway: THE STARS AT OKTOBER BEND by Glenda Millard

i am the girl manny loves. the girl who writes our story in the book of flying. i am alice.

Alice is fifteen, with hair as red as fire and skin as pale as bone. Something inside Alice is broken: she remembers words, but struggles to speak them. Still, Alice knows that words are for sharing, so she pins them to posters in tucked-away places: railway waiting rooms, fish-and-chips shops, quiet corners. Manny is sixteen, with a scar from shoulder to elbow. Something inside Manny is broken, too: he once was a child soldier, forced to do terrible, violent things. But in a new land with people who care for him, Manny explores the small town on foot. And in his pocket, he carries a poem he scooped up, a poem whose words he knows by heart. The relationship between Alice and Manny will be the beginning of love and healing. And for these two young souls, perhaps, that will be good enough.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wednesday WOLF

I've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications. I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you in the form of another acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF  Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit.

You probably know what an oxymoron is, but in case you don't I'll supply you with a definition and a few examples. An oxymoron is a combination of what appear to be contradictory terms. Here are some fun ones:

Civil War
Act Naturally
Only Choice

But what does oxymoron mean? It's from the Greek "sharp fool," or "sharp dull."

My favorite oxymoron?

Good morning.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Author Kerry Reed On Taking A Germ of An Idea & Building It Into A Story

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Kerry Reed, author of DREAMSCAPE. Kerry graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English and then from George Mason University with a Masters in Literature because apparently she couldn’t get enough of the books. She loves transatlantic accents, blackberry frappes, and old-school British detective novels. She writes YA Fantasy but enjoys a good story wherever she finds one.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I absolutely agree that ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere. For me, the germ of an idea usually begins with one very clear scene or concept. I might not know how the story starts of where it ends but I can picture that one tiny piece in my mind and it all grows from there. For Dreamscape (I literally just opened an early draft to check) I wrote the first scene first, which for me is actually pretty rare. The story opens in Chloe’s dream, a sunlit field she remembers from childhood and a strange boy she’s never seen before. I really liked the idea of a serial dreamer so powerful she dreams an entire world into existence. The story isn’t quite like that, but that was the initial concept.   

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Once I had this concept of Chloe’s dream-world, certain things fell into place. I wanted the magic in the story to feel like the way a dream works. This idea, that the “magic” of the dream-world mimics the fluid possibility of dreams in general, and is powerful but often unconsciously employed by the dreamer, ended up sparking the central conflict of the story. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Constantly. I usually do make a basic outline after I’ve written my first few scenes but if you look back at my outlines they rarely resemble the final project. Often it’s not until I’m in the middle of something that I figure out what actually makes sense (or what doesn’t) – or I think of something (hopefully) more clever than my original plan. 

I also tend to write in circles, adding in the parts I have most clear in my mind first and then working in the rest. When I reach the end, I begin again (and so forth and so on). Since I’ve started working with a critique partner I’ve modulated this somewhat – like everything else my writing process is a work-in-progress – but if I have a scene in my mind I always find it worthwhile to put it to paper, even if I change it later.  

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

So many ideas, so little time. Right now since I only write part time, I feel like I have more ideas than I could ever actually use. Of course some of them are probably terrible… I have several abandoned drafts that didn’t quite “work” for one reason or another. And I’ve had those days where I literally cannot manage to write a single sentence and cut my losses and head to Netflix. But the idea part isn’t usually the problem.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

For me if there’s one idea or story that I can’t not write, even if I should be working on something else, I usually end up starting with that one. At minimum I try to get down whatever part is in my head even if I do set it aside after that. If I don’t have that itch I try to focus on whichever story is closest to completion. When in doubt it’s always better to have a full draft of something than to have a million openings (or, in my case, random scenes) of promising but unfinished projects. 

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

This question is making me miss my dog, who was a champion snuggler, and tempted me to write more than a few chapters on my couch. These days I do most of my writing in coffee shops and my local Panera where I have lots of stranger-writing-buddies. They don’t know me and they don’t realize it, but their imaginary judgment forces me to focus.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Recap of Release Week & A New Podcast On Writing and Branding



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Today’s guest on the podcast is JR Johansson author of the Night Walkers trilogy as well as CUT ME FREE and THE ROW. J.R. Johansson's books have been published in a dozen languages and more than twenty countries worldwide. She has a B.S. degree in public relations and a background in marketing. She joins host Mindy McGinnis to talk about the process of landing her agent, how writing thrillers came to be her brand, as well as the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing stand alones.