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My Winning Query

Quick post today. My new friend Aimee L. Salter does a really neat thing on her blog where she posts query letters that actually snagged agents or publishers. The query for my YA Mystery WHISPERTOWN is currently featured. Check it out here: Aimee’s Blog.

For more winning queries be sure to add Aimee’s blog to your RSS feed or some other preferred reader. Follow her on Twitter, too.

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Your query doesn’t work because…

I got serious about my publishing career when I was 20.

I’m 30 now, and just yesterday my agent–who I signed with 2 months ago–submitted my Young Adult mystery novel to several major publishers. So, your math is right…it took me 10 years to get the right query into the right person’s hands. And, that’s just to score representation, there’s still no guarantee of a sale.

My point?

For a decade my query package (letter, sample pages, and finally, the entire manuscript) didn’t garner the results I wanted. In the beginning, I accepted the rejections I received as Badges of Honor, something every writer goes through. At some point badges became bitterness. Gone were the lofty ideas of Rites of Passage.

It became the agent or the editor’s fault. They weren’t recognizing good writing.

Their assistants weren’t trained well enough to distinguish superb from slush.

The submission guidelines were too generic so I couldn’t stand out among the other 100+ queries that arrived the same day as mine.

It was all a giant conspiracy to keep my book off the shelf…

All of that was bulls***. The truth nibbled at the back of my mind, a truth I didn’t want to admit for a long time.

My query didn’t work for two reasons: 1)I just wasn’t good enough yet. 2) Even if I was a good enough writer, I wasn’t producing salable material.

Quality writing is a must, but it must also be writing that can GENERATE MONEY.

That’s the part the New/Frustrated/Stubborn Writer never wants to think about. A publishing career is not built solely on the ability to craft beautiful prose. Agents and Editors have bills to pay, so every hour they spend with a client/acquisition must have some benefit to their bottom line. That’s not to say they don’t love words as much as you do, or that they aren’t sensitive, friendly people who love cats, and ice cream, and taking their kids to the park. But publishing is their BUSINESS.

Yours, too.

In a successful publishing career the New Writer will wise up (some, like me, more slowly than others), and begin to tailor their writing and queries towards salable. They may still be the Frustrated Writer for awhile, but will break through eventually.

The Stubborn Writer may never wise up, and will continue to write what they want (sometimes referred to as ‘write what you know’) instead of writing something that can make money.

And they’ll have more Badges of Honor than anyone…

Speak up:


Querying: learn from the mistakes of others…

The saying goes, “A smart man learns from his mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

If you plan to query anytime soon, you need to LIVE THIS MOTTO.

As great as it is to see a good sample query letter (like you’ll find in Writer’s Market or at any number of sites that feature sample queries), it’s even better to see bad (horrible…terrifying) queries.

Two blogs stand out, and if you’re not reading them, you should be:

Query Shark

In my opinion, Query Shark is the most helpful query critique site on the web. Agent Janet Reid brutalizes willing submitters, breaking down the (oft-common) flaws in their query, even calling out the exact moment when she’d stop reading the letter. Sound harsh? Good.

Here’s the thing, those who end up as The Shark’s chew toy have the option to revise and resubmit for another chomping. While each subsequent feeding is just as brutal as the first, many submitters eventually get it right, earning a full manuscript request from The Shark herself.

If you’re serious about doing queries the right way, swim here.

Slushpile Hell

Though posts in Slushpile Hell rarely exceed two sentences, the lessons are invaluable.

Anonymous agents submit a single line from a single, sad query and offer a sarcastic/snarky/mean humorous response. It can be enjoyed for pure comedy, or it can be studied. Dissected. Branded into your mind.

Never do what these writers do.

The Formula

The query letter formula is all over the web, but for easy reference I like The Nelson Agency’s break down. Study the right way and the wrong way.

Next time, I’ll talk about what to do when you’ve followed the formula and it isn’t working…

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What ideas are you looking for?

Want to know how I went to my “where” and found an original “what”?

In other words, how did I beat the odds to not only score an incredible agent, but get 70% of the agents I queried to request my full manuscript?

I focused on finding ideas that AREN’T like everyone else’s. You can, too. Listen up.

The question

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s the question pro fiction writers hear most often.

For the average reader, the question is simply the most concise way to discover how an author took them to another place, touched them, made them want more. For others, particularly the aspiring writer, the question might be seen as a key to a secret club (or Fort Knox if it’s Stephen King’s, James Patterson’s, or J. K. Rowling’s key).

Ask 10 writers and you’ll get 10 answers ranging from witty, to straight forward, to annoyed. Some are inspired by news stories, some by dreams. Ideas can come from anywhere.

The dutiful aspiring writer will likely try whatever technique their favorite author ascribes to, and if that doesn’t work for them, they’ll move on to the next. That’s great, they (and you) should keep going until they find what works for them. In my opinion, it won’t take most scribblers very long to find their “where”.

But, now that you’ve found this secret idea garden, with all of the possibilities in the universe buried just beneath the surface, another dilemma forms. Another mystery.

“What”, exactly, are you looking for?  If you want to get past the gatekeepers (namely literary agents), your “what” needs to stand out. In order to find it, you need to understand the winning ideas in your market/genre. Study the “whats” that have made your favorite authors household names.

I did. Then I did something pretty simple. Once I understood what was selling, I wrote what wasn’t selling.

You wrote what wasn’t…huh?

It’s counter-intuitive, I know. Hear me out.

I took a look at the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller List awhile ago. Here’s what I saw in the Top 10: Twilight, Percy Jackson and Olympians, The Hunger Games.

All great series, the kind of fantasy stuff I wanted to write. Me and a million other writers.

Agents were harping on all the derivative fantasy getting pitched to them, and I knew my chances for recognition were slim if I went down the well traveled road I wanted to take. I needed to find a gap.

What was missing from the bestseller list?

It was obvious. None of the books in the top 10 were based in any sort of contemporary reality.

How could I spin that? How could I still write an epic story about a hero in a fantastic situation facing evil monsters/villains without any true fantasy elements? That’s the sort of “what” I needed to find. Once I had that framework in place, my ideas came naturally.

My novel WHISPERTOWN (repped by Jamie Weiss Chilton of Andrea Brown Literary) was the result. A noir-ish murder mystery, set in contemporary times, with a hero in a fantastic (but not supernatural or post-apocalyptic) situation.

I sought my idea, my “what”, with several specific goals in mind. 1) To be able to write a query that stands out from other queries 2) Get a top-notch agent 3) Get a book deal with a major publisher.

Right now, I’m 2 for 2. WHISPERTOWN will be going out on submission next month so we’ll see how number 3 works out then…

Notice that my goals weren’t to “write what I know” or “write what I love” (though I do love WHISPERTOWN). I’ve always wanted to be able to walk into my local bookstore and see a book with my name on the cover (that wasn’t in the true crime section). If you desire the same thing, it’s time to get past romantic notions about this job. My methods may sound mercenary to you, but even mercenaries have to start somewhere…

This post is long, but there’s a ton to discuss here. If you have specific questions, lay them out in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll continue in a separate post.

Keep Writing!!

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The Query Process: My .02

I’ve struggled with this blogging thing for some time now. I’ve stopped and started several times, always searching for a sustainable angle, the oft-mentioned “sticky content”. Haven’t had much success, though.

The obvious direction is a writing advice blog. But, I’ve always avoided it for a couple of reasons:

1) Only a billion other writers are doing it

2) I always felt like I wasn’t quite qualified enough

Recently, a good friend pointed some things out to me. She noted that I’ve been writing for over 20 years (and in the past 10 years I have racked up some professional sales). I’ve completed several novels. I’ve won awards and placed in prestigious contests. I’ve crafted a query letter that generated a nearly 70% positive response rate from the agents who read it. And, just recently, I actually acquired an incredibly qualified agent at a well respected agency (Jamie Weiss Chilton of Andrea Brown Literary, for those who don’t know).

Basically, I know a little bit about this writing game.

My friend went on to point out that my reluctance to give writing advice wasn’t about my qualifications, but my confidence. In my mind, anything less than a book deal was a failure, and failures shouldn’t give advice.

Yes, I’ve been hard on myself. But no more.

I have knowledge to share, and I’m not shying away anymore. So, if you have any topics you’d like me to touch on, feel free to ask. In the meantime, I’ll steer the ship.  First up, let’s talk about your query process (not the specifics of the letter, that will vary), particularly when and how.

The First Thing

This should go without saying, but don’t query until your book is complete. I’ve met more than a few writers who worry themselves with what agency they should sign with (you’re lucky if you have a choice), whether they can negotiate commissions (not likely), and whether or not their agent is going to have the experience to negotiate six-figure deals BEFORE THEY’VE WRITTEN THEIR FIRST WORD (your agent actually needs something to negotiate with). It’s so counter-intuitive to me, but I’ve met enough of these writers to know this has to be said. So, please, write THE END before you even THINK about writing query letter.

Tier-y Eyed

Even though you have a list of 20 agents you wish to query, I suggest you break them into tiers. Your top choices, the middle, and the guys you’re not that interested in. Then, pick a couple from each group so you can send out an initial 5-6 queries. Based on the response, you’ll know if your query is solid (they’ll ask to read your whole book) or still needs work (some lowly office worker emails you a letter that begins “Dear Author, thank you but…”). If you bomb on the first tier, make adjustments and try again. With a little polish, you might get to choose your agent after all.

Pull a BP…

…and always have something in the pipeline (rimshot). Um, okay, anyway…always be working on the next thing, because the reality is you can polish a rusty tin can all day and it’s still going to be a rusty tin can. That was a metaphor. For your book. Which may not be as good as you think. I’m not trying to diss you, but sometimes the project just isn’t solid and you’re not doing yourself any favors by obsessing over it for six years (like I once did). Always keep writing. Crank out your ideas faster while improving at the same time. Sounds like a lot of work, but think about it, that’s exactly what you’re going to have to do when you do get the call you’ve waited all your life for. Might as well start practicing now.

That’s all for now. Next time, I’ll talk about training your mind to generate original ideas…it may help those of you who are currently working on your YA romance about a girl who’s torn between a vampire, and a werewolf, and derivatives. (I know, I know…yours is DIFFERENT. The girl has a peg leg. I get it. Really.)


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