Monthly Archives: September 2011
The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!
Dear Ms. Ruth:
Superstes Island is a completed 90,000 word young adult novel narrating the first person perspective of two main characters. This fast-paced read is the first in a trilogy and should fit in well with the popular science fiction slash romance genre that captivates young adult readers.
I would have stopped reading after this paragraph. “Superstes” looks like a spelling error and I’m wondering how to pronounce it. The paragraph is extremely wordy. A novel doesn’t “narrate” anything, it’s characters or narrators do. We don’t need to know, at this stage, anything about point-of-view or even who is telling the story. I worry, at this point, that your thought-process is not focused enough to write a book. There is no “science fiction slash romance genre.” You have lumped two very different, huge genres together, which tells me you might not be very knowledgeable about your target market. Finally, no one, even a hard-core genre reader, is captivated by a specific genre. They might like one fantasy novel and not another. I assume that you were trying to express your awareness of young adults’ attraction to romance and science-fiction, but this was not clear. None of these issues on their own would have earned a rejection from me, but lumped together, all in two sentences, I’m confident that this query is not ready to be sent to agents and I can only assume the same is true of the manuscript.
Adah Trevino is a handpicked orphan who stars as a member of the newest type of reality show. The producers of the show have assumed legal guardianship over three dozen orphans who make up the cast, and the memories of these orphans have been wiped clean of their lives prior to arriving on Superstes Island. These orphans were then genetically engineered to become a new type of being, ones with superhuman abilities from altered DNA strands injected into their bodies. These genetically engineered orphans, or GEOs as the whole world has dubbed them, are the most innovative version of reality show stars known to man. They’re glorified teens who lead a life above ordinary; lives that have captivated an international audience for ten years.
We really don’t need a breakdown of how the orphans became altered. I think it might be better to simplify that into a single sentence and focus instead on building your character and your world.
I also think you should establish Adah’s life as she knows it in a couple of sentences. How is her life above ordinary and how is she glorified. Is she happy this way? Then, you can introduce to the reader that she’s actually a GEO, stolen and abused to be cast in a reality TV show.
But Adah has no idea she is a contender in this reality show that airs twenty four hours a day. She thinks she is the survivor of a nuclear world war that has caused her mutated abilities.
Like millions of viewers around the world, William Harrison watches Adah Trevino every day of his life. Like millions of other males around the country, he is also head over heels for this gorgeous GEO on the show. But his attachment to Adah goes far beyond superficial attraction. Will knew Adah before she became a legendary icon. Not only does their past link them together, but Will’s father is also the network producer for the show. Through this insider connection, he begins to realize that Adah’s life is in real danger.
Suddenly, Adah’s dreams of escaping the island one day become a necessity, and Will plans on doing whatever it takes to help set her free.
How did Will know Adah? Was their relationship significant? More importantly, why is Adah’s life in danger, why should Will care this much, and what obstacles do they face in saving Adah’s life?
The best thing you can do for your query is to build up your story’s world. In what kind of world would something like this happen? How would the authorities allow orphaned children to be abused in this way? Is this set in a dystopian future in which the government no longer cares about its people?
My name is Raiza Jaimes and I have a true passion for writing and Literature. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and I am a high school English teacher. I hope this short taste of Superstes Island captures your interest. Please contact me if you are interested in reading more. Thank you for your time and your consideration.
We already know your name from your salutation. Personally, I don’t need to know that you have a true passion for writing and literature. I’ve already assumed this, since you’ve written 90,000 words. This won’t make or break your query, but I wouldn’t waste space on it. I normally disregard any personal information in the platform/credentials paragraph that does not directly contribute to a platform. Things that directly contribute to a platform are contest wins, previous publications, writing experience, industry affiliations, etc.
Lastly, this story is actually really intriguing, especially the fact that she’s an engineered orphan who doesn’t know what she is, that she’s being constantly watched, and the element of danger in her life. If this query were organized better, I would have been more interested, but I’m concerned that the manuscript will have the same problems as the query.
The following is a query critique. Comments, suggestions and discussion are welcome and we hope you join in. I can only offer one opinion. The author of the query and I would love to hear yours!
Dear Ms. Ruth,
Logan has been protecting the four children of prophecy for the last eighteen years—by staying as far away from them as possible. He has to. If the queen finds them, she’ll kill them. Or worse, she’ll use them.
Why would Logan going near the four children of prophecy cause the queen to find them? Why is the queen suddenly, after eighteen years, looking for the children of prophecy?
They are the only ones who can stop her, or do her bidding and wipe out Logan and his people for good.
Why? Do they have special powers?
He can’t let that happen. And, as the last remaining Protector, he alone can find their bread-crumb trail.
Why is he the only one who can find their bread-crumb trail?
Reluctantly, he agrees to search for them, but his mission has two stipulations. First, finding them is where it ends; someone else can take the name Protector.
Would there really need to be a protector if he was able to find the children? Also, he’s the last remaining Protector, so how can someone else simply take the name Protector?
Further, do we really need to know his stipulations? If they are a large part of the plot, you haven’t done a very good job showing that to us. If they’re not, leave them out and focus instead on the larger scope of your story.
Second, he’ll only look for three. He already knows where the fourth—his son—is. The queen is raising him thanks to the one person Logan trusted most, his wife.
This complicates things. First, is the queen unaware that Logan’s son is a child of prophecy? Why is she raising him and what does Logan’s wife have to do with that? I’m not sure you really need to divulge this information in your query. It’s an interesting part of the plot, but it would serve you better in a synopsis. I would suggest cutting this part and focusing more on building the world you’ve created into this query so we have a firm handle on what’s happening and what the events mean to the characters.
He’ll fight. He’ll even die for his people. But he won’t face that betrayer again.
Except, it’s never that easy. As their Protector by calling, (I thought someone else could take the name Protector?) Logan is bound to the children—all four of them. And when he meets the first of them—Jaden, a young woman who wields daggers as well as her warrior mother did—she is a constant reminder of the promise Logan made to her father—a man who died so Logan could live—the promise to protect her, and the others.
I understand that the conflict here is that Logan needs to find these kids, but why? The stakes don’t seem high enough. Does the queen actually have a goal of finding and killing and/or using the kids? And what would this mean for Logan and his people? Is the queen not part of his people?
The biggest issue with this query is that there is a make-believe world I know nothing about. Details are not explained properly and so I’m left wondering, which is why I’ve asked so many questions, here. Because I worry that world-building will be a problem in the full manuscript, I would reject this query.
[redacted] is a 106,000 word fantasy novel.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
You’ve queried widely. You’ve re-written your book a few times. No one wants to read it and no one’s listening to you. You’re shouting as loudly as your tiny voice allows, but the din of everyone else’s voice drowns your words. So what do you do? Hide your book under your bed and blame everyone else for not seeing your art? Give up? Maybe. Or maybe you become weathered to the tough world that is book publishing and you slog.
Recently, I received a comment on this blog from an author who was angry and hurt by the world’s failure to notice him. My heart sank for this author. I thought about that comment during my work day as I wrote rejection letters and joined my authors in their joy of getting published, during my 2-hour commute home, as I worked toward my master’s degree, during dinner and even as I put my kid to bed. I’m entirely too busy to let something that small irk me, but I couldn’t get that author’s frustration out of my mind. I can’t do much to help authors in this situation because the truth of the matter is, an author is the only person who has the power to amplify his own voice. My advice to aspiring authors: do all of the following to the absolute best of your ability and you will find success.
1. Love your work. Love it so much that you can’t not do it. Be obsessed with it. Live, breathe your work. Make it your devout religion. If you don’t passionately love your work so much that it defines who you are, stop.
2. Read. Read at least 30 novels (50 is better) in your exact genre. Make sure they are the best of the genre. Read them critically. What do they have that your book doesn’t? What does your book have that these don’t? What do neither of you have, but could? Then, read a few of the worst. Is yours better? Read as many relevant blogs as you can. Agent blogs, editor blogs, author blogs, blogs, blogs, blogs. Read Publisher’s Weekly. Check out Publisher’s Marketplace. Haunt the publishing industry by devouring every word written about it.
3. Write. Write part of your novel every single day, even Sunday. Blog. Tweet. Constantly.When you’re done with your novel, query agents with it. When you’re done writing your novel, write another.
4. Connect. Online, collect Twitter followers like nuggets of gold. They are. Tweet interesting things that others will want to re-tweet. That means don’t tell people your dog just got neutered. No one cares. When they do, all their friends might too and other people might be interested in what you say and follow you themselves. Then, when you need to market, you’ll have a captive audience of 1,000 people who share your interests. Write blog posts for others’ blogs, let other bloggers guest-post on your blog. Run a contest on your blog to spark interest. Then Tweet about it. Away from your computer, attend every writer’s conference you possibly can. Join a critique group and participate heavily. Submit your work to contests. Then tell everyone about it. Join every writer’s association, group and organization you can. Take every class you can on all things publishing and then network with all the people there. Attend all publishing events you’re able to. You should be able to find out about them from all your reading.
5. Improve. See opportunities to make your work better and let them sail. Always ask yourself how your work could be better. Because just when you think it can’t get any better, it can. Take criticism as seriously as you would a medical diagnosis. Because it is, to your book. Don’t discount the opinions of others. They are all expert opinions, because each critic–even that weird guy in your critique group whose own manuscript sucks–is the expert of his own tastes, and you have to market your book to wide tastes. Don’t hold on to what isn’t working. Trash what needs trashing, even if that means your whole book. Cut what needs cutting. Somebody (Faulkner? Twain? Both?) said, “Kill your darlings.” So, kill them if you need to. You’ll get over it and get stronger because of it.
All of the above, along with a day-job makes for a pretty busy person. And that’s okay. Because if you love what you’re doing, you’ll love doing it all the time. If you don’t love what you do enough to put that much energy and time into it, then put all of that time and energy into doing something you do love. Do all of the above and your work will get stronger and stronger, your voice louder and louder, until some agent hears you.
Austin Madison, a Pixar animator, recently wrote, about the creation of art and content, “…slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair.” How crushingly depressing. Excuse me while I hide in my flannel pajamas eating a half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s and pretending Madison didn’t just hit the slush-pile nail on the head.
But, ignoring the truth never helped anybody. Ignoring the fact that most of what I read is not publishable material would mean the end of my career. For you, authors, ignoring that what you’ve written has this problem or that weakness would mean the end of yours.
So, an optimist at heart, I can’t help but point out (with one finger raised and light-bulb over my head) that all things are necessarily defined by their opposites. If you’ve received 87 rejection letters from agents and suddenly you get The Call—an agent’s offer-of-representation—that glowing pride and joy will be 87 times better than it would have been had you received only one rejection that you chalked up to some fault of the agent. Save your rejection letters (Stephen King’s were on a railroad spike nailed into the wall). Wave hello to them even as they mock you. Perhaps one day, you can mock right back.
As for me, slogging through all of the material that is (generously) not so good enhances my excitement when something special comes along and the Flash Moment unexpectedly pops up.
Ironically, Walt Disney (a man whose company now works closely with the above-mentioned animator) had something different to say about the creation of art and content: “Keep moving forward.”
So, I don’t know about you, but I happily “keep moving forward,” because I know the more diligently I “slog,” the closer I’ll get to the next Flash Moment.
The debate over the “No Response Means No” policy many literary agencies have adopted has been buzzing over the literary blogosphere for days now and—I just can’t help it—I have to add my two-cents worth.
Some agents are defending their right to simply not respond to queries that don’t interest them (you can catch two of their blog posts here and here.) And, if we’re going to keep objective about it, it is, after all, their right. You, as the author, are not their client. They don’t actually owe you anything. There’s no law or decree binding them to even read your email.
I can appreciate their reasons for deciding not to respond. 1.) It takes time out of the day, time that is better spent with clients or, as one agent wrote, kids 2.) It opens the agent up to receive angry responses 3.) It creates a very negative frame of mind to deliver all that bad news.
I respect these agents. I read their blogs and think almost everything they say is super-awesome. I do have a mind of my own in here somewhere, though, and I have to respectfully disagree with them. Here’s why:
It’s not that hard to write rejection letters. This is a process that could be long and drawn-out, if I didn’t do it so often that I’ve streamlined it into a mindless, automatic, quick process. Mine’s a bit longer than others’ because I have a compulsion to obsessively track everything that crosses my desk. Here’s how I do:
- I ask authors to place the word “query” somewhere in the subject line of their e-query. This prompts my email program to automatically place the email in my “queries” folder and send the author an automatic response to let them know I’ve received their query and what to expect from me as far as response time, etc. Time: 0 seconds.
- When I get around to reading queries (every day, at some point), I log each query in my giant Excel spreadsheet of every query I receive and my response. I do this so that Excel’s autofill feature will tip me off if I’ve received a query from an author more than once and so that when authors say, “Hey, I queried you and…” I’ll know what they’re talking about at a glance. It also helps me compile statistics so that I can have fun making blog posts about them. Time: 5 seconds
- When rejecting, I simply hit “reply,” select a pre-written and preformatted signature from the drop-down menu, remove the word “query” from the subject line so if they respond it doesn’t go in my query folder and hit send. Time: 5 seconds.
- Update my spreadsheet with my response: 2 seconds.
So the total time I spend on each author to reject a query is 12 seconds. The total time I would really need to spend on rejection letters is probably closer to 7 seconds, without my obsessive logging.
I don’t mind angry attacks from rejectees. And besides, I’d get angry responses from those I ignored if I never responded, anyway. I get it. I totally do. Their whole family told them they’re a brilliant writer, their high school guidance counselor sent them off to college with a request for a signed copy of their future first novel, they’ve sent their query and their high hopes to a bzillion agents only to have them dashed. And now I’ve broken the camel’s back by saying I wasn’t hooked. I’m sorry, angry rejectee. I’m not being sarcastic; I really am sorry that things didn’t turn out the way you expected. I hate when that happens too.
I would not want to be the author who gets no response. I would imagine that sending your brain-child out into the world and receiving no response would be agonizing. After putting myself in the author’s shoes, I cringe at what I know my mind would do to me. I’d jump and squeal at the response and then I’d feel really stupid when I figured out it was an auto-confirmation. Doh. Then, I’d obsessively check my email all day long for six weeks, just waiting to hear that response. I’d peruse the agent’s blog and twitter account, hoping to catch a glimmer of something or imagining how great it would be to be the client of this agent. I’d re-read my submission until I had no perspective at all. Then, when no response came, I’d drive myself nuts wondering if the agent got it at all. Maybe it was in her spam folder. Maybe she accidentally deleted it. Should I follow up? Is that in poor taste? Will I be blacklisted for being annoying? Maybe she…well, maybe… This would be my own personal version of a long, drawn-out hell.
If I can spend 12 seconds and rescue authors from that, I will.
A caveat: I sometimes delete queries without ever reading them. Yup. I do that. If the author sends me an email with just a link that I have to then click on, or a Word document attachment as their query, I’ll just delete it because it will take longer than those 12 seconds, taking time away from all the authors who did follow the guidelines.
Finally, what do you think? Would you rather get no response at all or a form response? Would you rather wait something like six months and get a rejection letter that had lots of feedback or only two weeks and get an email that just read: “no?”
At this year’s BEA, an editor told me, “In YA, I’m sick of dystopia and vampires. I’m looking for emotional YA for boys.” At the time, I thought, Emotional books for teenage boys that they’ll actually read? Yeah, sure. I’ll get right on that…just let me feed my unicorn and plant my magical beans.
But I’ve given it some thought, and I think I know what she meant. Boys don’t read nearly as much as girls do and it seems that this is due to a back-and-forth volley of unfortunate circumstances between readers and publishers: boys don’t read much, so publishers are sometimes unwilling to take a chance on a book exclusively for boys. They try and add some element that girls will identify with so that they can market the books to both genders, making more money. This is, after all, a business. Consequently, the boys have a really small selection of YA books exclusively for them…so they look to other media like video games and TV for entertainment, even if they kinda sorta like to read.
Boys are a tough market because fiction necessarily involves the emotions and, let’s face it, guys usually aren’t as emotional as girls. While girls will get really involved in the lives of a novel’s characters—their popularity in school, their love lives, their self-esteem—a guy is more likely to shrug and move on, leaving the book about self-esteem or that cute girl collecting dust next to his stamp collection.
Is it a lost cause, then? Why write books for boys if they’re unlikely to read them, and publishers are reluctant to give them attention? Because some boys want to read and crave situations, characters and themes to which they can identify tightly—and, just as importantly, some publishers (like the editor I met with at BEA) crave an emotional book for boys that’s spectacular enough to take a chance on.
Boys’ tastes differ greatly from girls’. They don’t really want to hear about mean girls (terrifying) vampires (really? This again?) or romance (ugh). Then again, stereotypical subjects for boys like sports or military fighter jets that have little value beyond those hooks can be just as unsatisfying for them. The following are some trends I’ve picked up on in the past few years…
Walk Like a Man
Being a teenager—either gender—is hugely about identity. Young adults are trying to get a firm handle on who they are, where they belong, who they aspire to be. For boys, defining what it means to be a man is a big piece of the confusing identity puzzle for teens. Books give them a private place, within their own mind, free from humiliating talk of feelings and emotions, to explore who they are, where they fit, and who they might become. Books also hold a type of silent authority, so that boys can really trust the morality and the themes within its pages. Reading books like Holes by Louis Sachar, for example, helps boys to informally reflect on elements of the idea of manhood, like strength, perseverance, assertiveness and doing the right thing. Holes (and many other books) created an environment in which boys could think about these elements without feeling preached-to and without that feeling that some old guy is trying to “relate” to them. Boys are not capable of or comfortable with discussing what it means to be a man with adults or with each other, and certainly not with girls, so this private environment for them is something they want, even if they don’t know that.
Teenage boys like women a whole hell of a lot, right? Wouldn’t they want some type of romance in their books? Shouldn’t there be a hot girl somewhere with really big boobs? No, not really. Every time I’ve asked a teenage boy anything about a teenage girl the response was the same: a disinterested shrug or a monosyllabic answer. Boys are tactile. They want to go out and experience women in real time, in their real lives, not sit around and analyze it, talk about it, or read about someone else’s experience of it. A boy won’t stop reading at the mention of a female, but if she comes to the forefront of the book, a boy is very likely to consider it the literary answer to chick flicks and move on.
That’s Bad Ass!
As in most YA, there must be some extremely compelling or edgy element. Books about drugs (Crank), violence (The Outsiders), sexuality (Geography Club), jail (Miracle’s Boys) danger (Brian’s Winter), controversy (To Kill a Mockingbird, Stuck in Neutral) and completely new and undeniably cool worlds (The Giver, The Hunger Games) appeal more to boys than themes that have become almost standardized or stereotypical, such as popularity in school, vampires or romance.
There needs to be an element in YA for boys that is so compelling—like the world in The Giver—that it becomes less of a chore for kids to read through all the text to get the movie in their mind, and more of an awesome journey created just for them that delivers a message they’re actually willing to hear.
After writing this, all of that sounds like a pretty tough racket. But when someone comes along and does it right, it’s always unforgettable.