Monday, May 26, 2014

The Secret for Writing Query Letters that Garner Read Requests

Last week I shared the sad truth that even perfectly written queries usually only get the same amount of response as any other direct marketing – less than five percent. That three different agents can read the same first five pages and have three different reactions. That no matter what some writer’s website article may tell you, there is no secret formula for writing the perfect query.

But what about that five percent? What is so special about those letters that they lead to requests to read the manuscript?

Drum roll, please…

They describe stories the agent wants to read.

Yes, it’s that simple … and it’s that complicated.

Agents got into the business because they love reading, and like all book lovers, they have favorite genres and character types. And as part of being a business, they know what’s selling and what isn’t. So your query needs to hit that sweet spot – describing a story they personally want to read, and professionally think they can sell.

Unfortunately, most of the agents’ listings on websites such as Query Tracker or the Guide to Literary Agents don’t go into that kind of detail, although they will let you know if a specific agent is interested in your genre. Beyond that, if you check out their web site, follow them on Twitter, read their blog, and look for their recent deals, that should help you narrow down their interests. There’s also a hashtag on Twitter, #MSWL, where agents and editors post their current, specific wish lists (hence the abbreviation for “manuscript wish list”). And some of these tweets do get specific – agents will tweet requests as specific as “I would really love a YA Gone With the Wind with a robot from the future sent to kill Lincoln.”

The good news is, if you have a manuscript that hits an agent’s sweet spot, if you follow the standard rules about writing a good query (get the name right and no spelling mistakes), you’re almost guaranteed to get a read request. As a reader for an agent, I’m forwarded all the successful queries along with their manuscripts. While some of these letters have started with brilliant hooks, others start with “I read that you’re looking for…..” I’ve even seen grammatical errors in these queries.

It’s all about the story.

So that’s the secret to a query letter that gets requests: Send it to the right agent… and make sure you sell the hell out of your story. Emphasize how unique and compelling your main character is. Specify her goal and the roadblocks that make her take a different route. End your summary on a tantalizing question or problem.

If you target the right agents, you might even beat that five percent threshold.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Simple Formula for the Rejection-Proof Query*

For all the changes that the indie publishing revolution has wrought, the majority of new authors still hope to get an agent to help them sell their book to traditional publishers. While the success stories of a few indie authors are legendary (and the royalty splits Amazon offers indies are attractive), traditional publishing is still the main ladder leading to deals for future books, overseas sales, and movie rights.

Although I self-published my first novel, KEEPING SCORE, I still dream of that traditional publishing deal. I’m currently querying agents in the hope of getting representation for my book about a female vampire assassin for the FBI whose daughter is kidnapped by a blood-sucker. (I know… vampires…) Vampires can fall under all sorts of different categories – paranormal, horror, thriller, urban fantasy – which makes it a little complicated to sort out agents who might be interested in the novel. Agents and editors seem to have a love-it-or-hate-it reaction when it comes to vampires, and sadly the only agent who specifically mentioned vampires in her list of represented areas is closed to queries indefinitely. In order to minimize the number of rejections, I’ve decided to only query agents looking for “urban fantasy” – because when you look up “urban fantasy” on, the entry talks about vampire killer Anita Blake. (There may be some agents who list “urban fantasy” who are unaware of this.)

There’s a lot of advice out there about how to write the perfect query, but basically it boils down to this: Get the agent’s name right. Mention a specific reason why this agent is right for this project. Summarize your story in one or two gripping, well-written paragraphs. Conclude with a paragraph about your writing experience or other experiences that led you to write this story. Follow submission guidelines to the letter. Proofread carefully to make sure you don’t have any typos or misspellings.

The problem with this advice is that while following it guarantees you won’t be rejected because you referred to a male agent as “Ms” or spelled “zombie” as “zomby,” the converse is not true: Following these rules does not guarantee your manuscript will be requested. In fact, I’d bet that even these well-written queries have the same success rate as any other piece of direct marketing, which is less than five percent.

Some publishing experts recommend sending queries in batches of ten or fewer, so that if the pitch isn’t working, you can correct it before sending out the next batch. Unfortunately, the situation isn’t usually that cut and dry. Here are three responses from a recent batch I sent out:

I thought really hard about this one and I read the sample twice. I like your style but I just don't think I can push a vampire novel right now.

Thanks for sending along the opening pages of The Ties that Bleed. With regret, though, I'm afraid the material didn't draw me in as much as I had hoped. I'm pressed for time these days and, what with my reservations about the project, I suspect I wouldn't be the best fit.

Thanks for querying me. This sounds fabulous--I'd love to see more! Please email the full manuscript as a word document..

Each of these agents asked for the same thing – the first five pages of the novel. Each had a different reaction. (In case you’re wondering, the last one is my favorite. Although I'm so grateful the first agent took the time to send me that personal note.)

So what does this tell me? That even if you follow the rules about query letters, there’s a slim chance you’ll get a request. That pages one agent finds “fabulous,” another agent will have reservations about. And that even an agent who regularly tweets about The Vampire Diaries doesn’t necessarily want to take on a vampire book.

More broadly, though, it illustrates how difficult it is to make judgments about your query letter based on the responses you get. Of course if you’re getting rejected by everyone, that’s a pretty strong message; if half the agents you query ask for more pages, that’s a strong signal, too. But most writers who’ve done their homework and written and rewritten and edited and then spent weeks on the perfect query are going to end up with results like mine.

Every good writer – every great writer – is going to get rejected. There is no magic formula for writing a rejection-proof query letter, and there’s no guarantee that a query that garners requests will result in an agent wanting to represent the book. Writing, like life, offers no guarantees for anything. Keep writing. Keep querying. Be polite and thank the agents who take the time to read your pages, even if they decline to take you on. You’ll get ‘em next time.

* There is none.

Monday, May 12, 2014

What Doug Marland Taught Me

When Deb asked for writers to talk about what they learned about writing from watching soap operas, I was thrilled to participate. And then frankly I was a little surprised at how many of my fellow “chick lit” writers also raised their hands to help. I’d heard that there was little overlap between romance readers and soap opera watchers (which is worth pointing out only because it’s so unexpected), so I’d thought the same must be true for chick lit. I’m very happy to be wrong!

I fell in love with General Hospital when I was about 11 years old, in 1978. At the time, although I was also a voracious reader, I knew nothing about character development or cliff hangers or pacing. I just knew that I really, really wanted Laura Webber to be with Scotty Baldwin, for Bobbie Spencer to fall off a cliff, and for Rick Webber and Monica Quartermaine to kiss or something.

Anyone who’s followed that show for awhile knows I didn’t get what I wanted. But I remained hooked anyway, for over 20 years, until General Hospital became more about murderous mobsters than doctors in love.

During the height of my addiction, like many fans, I would write “fan fiction.” As I got older and my own writing became more important (like many teenage soap fans, I wrote my own soap opera), I began to think about what exactly it was about these characters that had me so hooked. The name that kept popping up wasn’t “Lesley” or “Jeff” or even “Luke” – it was “Doug Marland.”

Doug Marland was a soap opera legend who died way too young in 1993 due to surgical complications. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that loss started the soap opera industry down its long road downhill.

In the 1970s, he teamed up with Gloria Monty to take ratings-basement General Hospital to the number one slot in less than two years. After leaving that show (rumor is he disagreed with Monty’s decision to have Laura fall in love with her rapist, Luke… a decision that certainly changed General Hospital’s history by turning it into a phenomenon, but also opened the door for “heroes” like Sonny Corinthos and Jason Morgan), he was hired to write Guiding Light and took that series to number two. His famous Morgan/Kelly/Nola triangle was oft compared to his Laura/Scotty/Bobbie story. (I was personally more intrigued with the “Jennifer Richards is really Jane Marie Stafford” storyline, and can someone tell me why TPTB at Guiding Light found it necessary to make Alan’s father the one who really impregnated Jane Marie/Jennifer at the age of 17? Gross.) Later, he won awards for writing for As the World Turns, and with fellow soap legend Agnes Nixon created Loving.

I don’t know enough about those other shows to postulate about how Marland influenced and created characters on them (other than to note the similarities between GH’s Bobbie and GL’s Nola, both Marland creations). But as far as General Hospital was concerned, Marland was a genius at creating a very specific type – the gritty, scrappy, “born on the wrong side of the tracks” underdog who’d do just about anything for love, money, or both. Think about the characters who inhabited Port Charles in the late 1970s. Bobbie Spencer, who grew up on Elm Street with an alcoholic father who walked out the day her mother died of a burst appendix. She became a hooker to get by, and later a nurse. She dug her claws into Scotty because she was convinced that marriage to a lawyer would finally get the dirt of Elm Street off her back. Then there was her brother Luke, a low-life disco manager working for the mob, whose obsession with the troubled, upper middle-class Laura first led him to rape and then to bring down the mob in order to be, in his mind, someone worthy of her. There was Mitch Williams, son of a West Virginia coal miner, so eager to prove himself that he married a woman he didn’t love for her money and threw in with the mob he tried to bring down in order to further himself politically. And Mitch’s mistress Susan, working as a restaurant hostess and living in an SRO, who saw Mitch as her ticket to a better life. She was just as conniving as her cousin Heather, whose poor background drove her to entrap Dr. Jeff Webber into marriage via pregnancy, a marriage that disappointed her when she realized that residents work all the time and make very little money.

These characters may have been a little too similar to each other, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just fascinated. They were strivers. They were underdogs. Their actions drove story. They were characters you could understand, even if you didn’t like them.

Doug taught me the importance of character back story and motivation. Underdog characters drive plot and change story. And even minor characters – Susan Moore was never anything other than a supporting character in a B story – that have these rich back stories and strong motivations can elevate that subplot into something more than the sum of its parts. (OK, “Who Killed Susan Moore” was an A story but she was dead by that point, so it doesn’t count.)

Thank you, Doug. Not just for what you taught me as a writer, but also for the tingle of pleasure I still get when I think about how much General Hospital circa 1979 gave to me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Outlining: How to Write Your Novel in Three Pages or Less

In order to help new writers get started, I’ve been talking about the basic building blocks of the novel. I started with the three “ins” to the story – protagonist, setting/subject matter, and plot. Then there’s the list of characters who populate your fictional world, and the roles they play for your protagonist. After that, there’s distinguishing plot points from events. Now it’s time to tie all those together in the “planner” writer’s favorite document: the outline.

Many writers shy away from creating an outline. Some feel it hurts their spontaneity and creative flow to figure out the entire story beforehand. Others have no idea where the story is going and hope their characters will tell them. And others are just plain not that organized.

There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to write an outline. But for beginning writers, who want to tackle a novel but might be overwhelmed by the length it requires, getting all the major plot points down can help break the project into manageable chunks.

So let’s get started. First, what’s the plot? Remember, the main plot involves the actions your protagonist takes in order to meet her goal. (A subplot is usually something emotional that ties into the main plot.) Last week I talked about a typical chick lit plot -- a baker who’s working to open her own cupcake shop. The subplot would be something romantic… maybe the owner of the shop next door is driving her crazy. (The subplot usually addresses the protagonist’s emotional needs – maybe she needs to stand up for herself for once in her life.)

So that’s the first point on the outline: Casey decides to open a cupcake shop. Maybe she’s a cashier at McDonald’s or a sous chef at a fancy hotel. Those details don’t matter now. They can be fleshed out later. Right now, we’re just getting down the plot points.

Surprisingly, the next step isn’t figuring out Casey’s next step. The next step is figuring out the ending. There are four choices here: Casey fails at the shop and fails at love. Casey fails at the shop but finds love. Casey is successful with the shop but fails at love. Casey is successful with the shop and with love.

By looking at these choices, you can easily see which endings fit in which type of genre. The lose-lose choice is a straight drama. The two middle choices are standard women’s fiction. The last choice is chick lit. Since this story is chick lit (and since I like an empowered woman who gets what she wants), our ending is that Casey gets the shop and the guy.

So now we know some additional points for outline. She has to meet the guy. She has to do everything it takes to secure the shop – loans from a bank or the bank of Mom and Dad, finding the space, coming up with the business plan, quitting her current job, trying out new cupcake recipes, fighting with the new guy, going out on dates with the new guy, etc. And with every step forward, there’s a smaller step backward.

And even though we’ve signed on for the “win-win” ending, we need one big moment near the end – a moment where Casey thinks she’s lost the guy and the cupcake shop.

So putting it all together, we start off with something like this:

Casey has an awful day at work; decides to open a cupcake shop.
Casey tells her family and friends, who are alternatingly supportive and dismissive. Casey has second thoughts.
Casey finds a space that would be perfect for her cupcake shop. Unfortunately, the realtor representing it is kind of a jerk.
Casey whips up a batch of cupcakes for the jerk. He isn’t convinced yet, but he’s getting there. He refers her to a friend who can help her with a business plan.
Casey and the jerk’s friend write the business friend. The friend is a very nice woman and thinks Casey and the jerk would make a perfect couple.

These plot points represent the first third of the book. And notice that many of these points encompass more than one scene. They can be broken down even further, if that’s helpful. For instance, the point about Casey telling family and friends can be further described as Casey’s mom pooh-poohs the idea and tells her to concentrate on finding a boyfriend. Casey’s dad immediately whips out fifty bucks to invest.

For me, there is something about getting these points down in a clear, linear fashion that makes the resulting 75,000 or so words I have to write seem less daunting. And at this point – with a clear outline for the first several chapters – I would feel comfortable starting the writing while continuing to work on the outline.

So, there you have it. The three ways into a story, the list of characters, how to develop a plot, and how to write the outline. If you’re a beginning writer with just a kernel of an idea and no real guideline on how to get started, I hope these blog posts have helped!