December 20, 2013

Casual Friday: #PitchWars! Query Tips from a Mentor

Hey Lovelies!

As you MAY have noticed, there's this little contest going on. You have to really watch twitter to see, because nobody's really tweeting about it or anything but I think if you looked up the #PitchWars you might find one or two tweets or something maybe possibly I don't know.

It's only the contest that repeatedly broke Google three (four? five?) days in a row.

Quick recap: PitchWars is the product of contest mastermind, Brenda Drake. Published and/or agented authors act as mentors, and writers with completed, query-ready manuscripts chose four mentors to submit their work to (a query and first five pages). The mentors each chose one manuscript to mentor, and two alternates. We work together for a little over a month to polish and revise the manuscript, and then a stellar line of literary agents will peruse all the mentees' books toward the end of January.

We had more entries this year than ever before (over 2000). I wound up with 63 entries in my inbox. (Some mentors had over 100. I think that would've actually killed me.)

Here are the five most common issues I saw in queries:

Too vague 
Don't tell me all about your main character and her love interest, and then yada-yada-yada your way through the conflict. There were several that gave me really interesting descriptions of their characters and then said something like, "after a wild turn of events, how will they survive?" 

Guys, that "wild turn of events" might be the only unique thing about your story. There are all kinds of interesting characters landing in agent and editor inboxes. There are few stories that haven't already been told in some form or another. What's YOUR unique twist on the girl meets boy story, or the one about the boy who finds out he's the key to some prophecy? Showing the details makes your story stand out.

Too confusing
On the other hand, we don't need to know about every single conflict of every little subplot going on in the book. Your query doesn't need to include every single character. I don't need to know every main event from the beginning to end. Doing this only makes your query choppy, and leaves me wondering, "What exactly is this story about?" Give me the MAIN plot.

My lovely friend Ari Susu-Mago has some experience reading queries from her time as an intern with a literary agency, and many moons ago she'd critiqued my query for me. She gave me four things she looks for when she reads a query, and I'm sharing them with you now!

  1. Who is the protagonist?
  2. What does s/he want?
  3. What is standing in the way of the protagonist getting what s/he wants?
  4. What are the consequences if s/he doesn't get what s/he wants?
Megan Grimit's THE BLOOD TRAIN, one of my alternates, did this perfectly. I knew exactly what her character was dealing with, what the obstacles were, and what was at stake if she didn't succeed. It was an extremely well-written, clear-cut query. (Not to mention it's a horror novel and the query itself was deliciously creepy already.)

Bland characters
If I wasn't entirely sure of the plot itself, I looked to the characters to see if they interested me. I specifically wanted to read more from my other alternate, Ann Foster's STOP MOTION, because her main character is a stop motion animator, which is such a cool and different hobby that I wanted to know more about her. Give me a sense of who your character is. I know you don't have lot of words, but use them efficiently. Don't say "a seventeen-year-old girl" when you could say "a seventeen-year-old ballerina or artist or book nerd or Star Wars fanatic or WHATEVER." Another good way to show me your character is through the voice of the query. I know it's not easy to give all this information in a short amount of space AND include voice--but nobody said queries were easy. 

Nothing unique about it
One of the main things I learned from this was just how hard it is to make your book stand out in a query. You'd be amazed how many of the stories in my inbox were fairly similar. Do everything you can to make sure your query highlights the things that make your book different from what's already been published. If you've done your homework and are well-read in the genre that you're writing, I'm sure that you haven't spent the last several months writing a book that's just like everything else out there. The problem is, you didn't give me anything in your query to show that. Working on the first three things I mentioned in this list will help with this. Sit back and think- WHY is my book different? What's the hook? And MAKE SURE that's in your query. 

The manuscript I chose to mentor, Tara Harte's HUNTER HIGH, involves zombies and a girl who finds out she's the granddaughter of the original zombie hunter. Without including the right details, her query would've easily been dismissed as another "character discovers she has special powers" book. Luckily, Tara was sure to add the things that make her story unique. In HUNTER HIGH, being a zombie hunter is actually not at all desirable, and the query was filled with hilarious voice. It's a horror-comedy mashup that made me laugh out loud on the first page. The voice alone was a hook for me, and seeing Tara's twists on the "typical" story made me confident that her book was different from what was already out there.

Note: A couple queries said, point-blank, "This is unlike any paranormal/fantasy/love story you've ever read." Don't say that. You shouldn't have to say that. If your query does what it's supposed to do, it'll say it for you. (Besides, how could you possibly know what I, or an agent who's read plenty of unpublished work, has already read?)

Here's the one you can't do anything about. In some cases, even if the story was fantasy or contemporary or horror or any of the things I'd specifically put on my wish list--the story just wasn't for me. Annoying? Yes. Frustrating? Sure. Does it mean there's something wrong with your book? Not at all. 

I'm giving feedback to everyone who submitted to me (and still working on that, by the way- however, if I didn't request to read your first three chapters, you should've already received feedback from me. If you haven't, tweet me @meganwhitmer and let me know and I'll double-check!) so if I rejected your query, I tried to be very specific about why. If I told you that it just wasn't for me, I truly meant that, and it means I didn't have any suggestions for things to improve on in your query.

Writing a query takes a skill set all its own. They're not easy. Treat the query like your manuscript: 1) expect it to take a few drafts; 2) have a few beta readers; and 3) don't rush through it, hoping it's good enough. 

Good luck!!


Sarah said...

Working on my query now and this was really helpful, thank you!

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