Monday, July 24, 2017

Don't Say It: 15 things that should never be in your query

Before we get down to business, let's stop for a second and celebrate. This is my 100th post at YAtopia!

So we're talking about pitching this month at YAtopia (Just in time for Pitch Wars, too!). Rae Chang and I were just chatting on twitter about what phrases in queries are giant red flags for us. Some of these may seem obvious, but I guarantee anyone who has read slush has seen them more than a few times.

If you find yourself writing any of these phrases into your query, it may be a simple matter of ... you know, not writing them. However, some of these might require some research and maybe an attitude adjustment.

1) "All the YA books out there are poorly written, but mine is different" or some variation thereof

Well. Check out the ego on this guy.

Don't write in a genre/category you don't respect. Period. This may be a matter of you not reading widely enough in your genre, which is easily fixed. Otherwise, it's a lack of respect for the genre/category itself, in which case, why are you bothering? If you believe everything on the shelves in a well-established genre/category is trash, find another genre/category.

2) Putting down literary agents, whether as a group or individuals.

We all know the agent-publisher system is slow and frustrating. However, it's the best we have and we're just all trying to work within it. Why some people think it's okay to complain about literary agents' "greed" or response time or judgement or whatever while also asking those agents to represent them - I will never understand.

3) "There's nothing like this on the market"

Yes there is and I can name ten examples off the top of my head. Again, read more widely in your chosen genre; you don't know your market well enough.

Unless this is literally true, in which case, it's probably unpublishable. Hey, a guy in my first writing group tried to convince me that not having a single piece of punctuation for 9 pages was perfectly fine in commercial fiction (yep, not even literary or experimental).

HOWEVER, every time I've seen this in a query, it's been the former, not the latter.

4) "My book will appeal to readers of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, and Jane Austen."

Sure it will, Sparky.

If you can't find comp titles that aren't mega-bestsellers, you (say it with me, I'm going to be saying it a lot) don't know your market well enough.

And you really have to love the authors who are just a little bit bolder and say things like "this book is the next Harry Potter, a guaranteed bestseller."

Listen, not even Harry Potter was the next Harry Potter when it was pitched. Nobody knows whether or not a book will take off like that. Keep your expectations reasonable.

5) "I've loved books since I was five years old when..."

This isn't a turn-off so much as it's ... boring. Loving books doesn't make you special in this industry, so saying this in a query is a waste of ink/electrons. If you don't have a lot to put in the "bio" section of the query, that really is totally fine! You can actually leave it out if you don't have anything beneficial to add there. The book is the most important thing.

6) Drop the cliches

As much as you can, eliminate cliches from your query letter. You have such a short space to show how your book is unique, why would you want to use phrases that we see all the time? Things like "so-and-so was just a normal girl until..." and "will never be the same" and "more than he bargained for" and "an incredible journey" and "falls into the wrong hands" and "to make matters worse" and "will change everything" will make experienced query readers roll their eyes.

7) Your age

It doesn't matter and all it can do is create subconscious bias.

8) That your friends/family love the book

Of course they do. My friends loved the first book I wrote. And it was absolute crap. (Not saying yours is, but I'm saying the opinions of your friends/family (or even your old English teacher) will not sway an agent/editor.)

9) Personal information about the agent

Knowing professional information (the agent's clients & the books they've sold) is great. But when you mention anything that doesn't have to do with the agent's professional career, you've crossed a line. Stalking is a real thing that many agents have to worry about, so there's no reason to raise a red flag like this.

10) "Dear Agent"

Write out their name. To the agent, lack of personalization in the greeting, means that you are mass emailing every agent for whom you could find an email address.

11) "Fictional novel"

All novels are, by definition, fictional.

12) "doesn't really fit in a genre"

If your book sells, it's going to have to go on a shelf somewhere. Pick the closest thing so I know roughly what to expect.

And tbh, most of the time this is said, the book fits perfectly into a genre, which tells me you know don't your market very well.

13) First person POV from your character.

It's often creepy, but sometimes it's just confusing and clunky. All book and character descriptions should be in 3rd person present tense, no matter what the book is in.

14) Rhetorical questions

You are not the exception to this rule. Don't do it. Just don't. Please, trust us on this. They don't work.

15) "trend" and "diversity" in the same sentence.

Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.
Diversity is not a trend.

While we're at it, you didn't write "an LGBT novel" unless you have lesbians, gay people, bisexual people, AND trans people represented in the book. You probably wrote a f/f romance or a novel featuring a trans character, etc. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Comp Titles Are Helpful

The theme of this month’s blog post is pitching. But I’m writing about Twitter pitching for my post. Like with #pitmad, #sffpit, #dvpit. Twitter pitching can be intimidating. You’re only allowed 140 characters a tweet, and it can therefore be difficult to capture the uniqueness of a 200 to 300-page manuscript. Although writers shouldn’t let the challenges of pitching stop them from participating in Twitter pitching contests. It’s important for writers to get used to putting their work out there.

Comp titles are an easy way to convey a premise. Yes.  Comp titles can be difficult because of worrying about a comp title being an outlier. And I’ll be the first to admit how I don’t usually include comp titles in query letters. I struggle with coming up with good comps even though I read current MG and YA fiction. Yet comp titles cover a lot of ground in a short amount of space. It’s also okay to use a television show or movie if it fits. I’ll even give you an example of one of my pitches I’ve used for a YA Fantasy novel that has gotten a few likes in Twitter pitching contests.

This is one pitch using a comp title: “ABC's REVENGE + Contemporary Fantasy setting. 17 yo Darren falls for the enemy's son while avenging his parents' deaths. #YA #LBGTQ #DVpit.” Using ABC’s Revenge is a good example because the novel (CROSSING DESIRES) is revenge driven. Combining the revenge premise with setting also helps. Doing so lets me quickly convey the contemporary fantasy world of CROSSING DESIRES without me worrying about explaining the complicated worldbuilding in a short pitch. My pitch is only one example, but it’s simple, which conveys something a pitch needs. Conciseness and clarity is important (even in a 140-character pitch). Vagueness doesn’t help. There needs to be some hint of conflict. Anyway, no need to stress about pitching. “Good” pitching takes practice like writing, and gets easier.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pitching your novel

So, it's just around the corner...Pitch Wars! Hurrah! This annual contest is great, so it means you have to get your pitch in order. However, Pitch Wars isn't the only contest that runs through the year. There are floods more, from Sun vs Snow, #PitMad, #KidPit, #DVPit, and so the list goes on. Because there are so many, this means that a writer needs to prepare a pitch. Actually, they'll need to do more than one, as there are various types of pitch:

1) A Twitter pitch - 140 characters or less, including the hashtags (usually including the contest hashtag, the age category, and sometimes the genre if it fits).

2) The elevator pitch - this gives a little more room to expand your pitch and add in some details.

3) Your query letter - this is where you can get into a little more meat - basically, it should read like the blurb of the back of a book.

Now, I'm not going to be greedy and talk about how to do all of these pitches myself, as I'm sure my fellow YATopia bloggers are going to have some super good advice to give you. But let's have a look at the Twitter pitch.

Lots of writers panic over a Twitter pitch. 140 characters, you shout? But hey, you took some of those away when you added the hashtags! I don't have 140 characters anymore. Good point. However, it is what it is, and we writers just have to get creative - because that's our job. When it comes to writing a Twitter pitch, most people have seen the general layout:



When CHARACTER learns/does/discovers CATALYST they must overcome OBSTACLE or STAKES.

There are plenty of other versions of these Twitter pitch formats. However, there are other ones that do well, too. For example, you can do the comp title pitch. Word of warning: Don't pitch two titles that are too similar (e.g. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS meets BEFORE I DIE). This doesn't show your market as the books are too similar. You need to show something fresh. For example: BONE GAP meets GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE (I'm not sure how that could be written, but if you have written that, it's going to catch someone's eye!). You also need to be careful of using comp titles that are too big (e.g. HARRY POTTER meets THE HUNGER GAMES). This is the equivalent of saying "my book is going to be a huge best seller and make lots of money" in a query letter. Your book may very well end up being that, but for now, keep it realistic. Otherwise, you'll make agents shy away.

The other thing to remember is to add a hint of what is unique about your book. What is the wow factor? What has your book got that everyone else's doesn't have? Now this is hard, I know that. But think of books like THE SCORPIO RACES for example - vicious sea horse races to the death? Wow. Or THE LUNAR CHRONICLES - science fiction fairytale retellings? Uh, double wow. This is super important, because you need to hook your agents trolling the contest feeds,

When it comes to pitching on Twitter, take time to think about your pitches. Don't just throw one together without much thought. Boil down your book to its essence. What is it your book is about? Not all the subplots. Not all the characters. Not all the generic "or the world will end", or "she will lose her true love". Give the agent something to catch their eye. "Children fight to the death" (we all know what that book is).

Sit down with your CPs and brainstorm. Root through your query letter for ideas. Re-read your book and pay attention to your core theme. Look through your synopsis. Do whatever it takes. Catch an agent's eye, and you're one step closer to becoming a published author!

Most importantly though...have fun!

Good luck Twitter pitch warriors!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Agentopia: Joanna MacKenzie

Welcome to the July edition of Agentopia! This month Joanna MacKenzie from Nelson Literary Agency is in the spotlight.

About Joanna:

As a Chicago-based agent, I am excited to join the Nelson Literary Agency team and to expand my list in both adult and YA. I’m looking for the epic read that, at its center, beats with a universal heart.  In particular, I’m drawn to smart and timely women’s fiction, as well as absorbing, character-driven mysteries and thrillers – both, ideally, with a little edge.  I have a weird obsession with, what I call, “child in jeopardy lit” and can’t get enough kick-ass mom heroines.  On the YA side, I’m interested in coming of age stories that possess a confident voice and characters I can’t stop thinking about.
Originally from Poland, and by way of Canada, I’m all about narratives that deal with the themes of identity and the immigrant experience as well as those that delve into all aspects of the relationships that make us who we are – parents, siblings, best friends, and first love.

What is on your wishlist?

Oh, man, I’m going to try and keep this answer short and succinct.  I’ve always been drawn to stories about the relationships that make us who we are - they don’t have to be positive or long lasting, but rather transformative.  I’m thinking about stories like I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson or Looking for Alaska by John Green.  I’d love to find a “stay up all night reading” sister story.  As someone who was born in one country, moved to another, and now makes her home in the US I’m into anything that deals with the immigrant experience and to that end I’d love to find the YA version of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I’m also a huge Veronica Mars fan, so anything with a gritty sleuth is a must for me.  Also on my #mswl is the YA version of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.


What is a personal turn-off in a query which is guaranteed to get the author rejected?

It’s always hard for me to read that the author believes their work is 100% unique - so much so that they can’t come up for a comp title.   

Do you google authors and if so, what are you looking for?

I do google authors!  I’m looking for someone who is engaged and professional.  I realize that sounds broad, but I like going to someone’s feed and seeing that they’re talking about what they’re reading, for example, as opposed to criticizing other authors.  I’m a firm believer in the importance of building a community online - one that is positive and constructive and helps to build readers.  I’m always looking to work with authors who want to be partners in their success and who are aware that how they present themselves online is part of that. 

For more info on how to query Joanna, check out her submission guidelines.
Follow Joanna @joannamackenzie