Questions about comp titles in a query are common, because book comps can either be a powerful part of your pitch, or a bit potential pitfall. Here are some more thoughts on whether to use them, or not, and how. (My original article on comparative titles is here.)
Comp Titles in a Query and How to Use Them
The conventional wisdom about book comps is that, if you have good ones, use them. If you have outlandish ones that communicate your delusions of grandeur (I’m Rick Riordan meets Suzanne Collins!), skip them.
The purpose of strong book comps is to make a realistic comparison between your work and someone else’s. Ideally, the author or book you’re choosing is thoughtful, rather than just a runaway bestseller. It’s always best to give reasoning for your choices, if you can. For example:
Both of these comps are older than I’d use (see below), but they came easily to the top of my head because they’re both so very specific. Here are some more considerations, gleaned from questions asked over the years:
Age of Book Comps
It’s best if your comp titles are recent, published within the last three years or so. This does double-duty and communicates to the literary agent or publisher not only your comparison, but that you’re keeping up with the marketplace.
But don’t despair if your perfect comparable title (an alternate term for “comparative title” that you’ll sometimes see used) is older. If you simply must weave The Giver by Lois Lowry into your pitch, pair it with a more recent comp and ta-da! The best of both worlds.
Relevance of Comp Titles in a Query
Per the “reasoning” point, above, your comp titles should be relevant to your current pitch. It’s okay to compare your middle grade historical to a young adult dystopian comp onlyThe Hate U Give if you give a specific rationale. For example, The Sun is Also a Star by Angie Thomas and by Celina Yoon don’t have a lot in common in terms of premise. But they both explore societal pressures and race in different ways, and those are connections you can draw for an unlikely “meets” comparison.
As long as you’re thoughtful about it and guide the literary agent or publisher on why you made the choices you did, and the choices make sense, you can do whatever you want here.
Similarity to Your Book
You can get away with book comps that aren’t really similar to your book, except for an element or two. But what if your comp titles are too The War That Saved My Lifesimilar? This is a fine line. If you’re pitching a story about a disfigured girl whose mother hides her away during World War II and using by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley as a comparative title … uhhhhhh … you’re maybe calling too much attention to the fact that your idea already exists. And then you may have to justify how yours is different or better. It’s a better idea to pick books that are similar but not eerily so.
Picking Comp Titles from the Agent or Publisher’s List
Some smart writers customize their comp titles in a query to reflect books represented by the literary agent they’re querying, or the publisher they’re submitting to. This can be an effective strategy. Keep in mind, however, that agents and publishers won’t want to cannibalize their own lists. So if the book you’re pitching is too close to one the agent represents or the publisher has published, this might actually be a liability for you. Their loyalty will always be to the author and project that already exists in their portfolio.
Number of Comp Titles
The ideal number of comp titles in a query is two or three. I recently read a query with six book comps mentioned. That writer had clearly done their research, but they need to tone it down. Two strong comps are better than four lukewarm comps and way better than six comps that just all happen to be in the same category. The more specific the better, so you don’t want to dilute your pitch by citing too many other books.
How to Find Book Comps
This is a quick answer: Read! (Here’s my argument that reading not only exposes you to your market, but helps develop great writing voice, which every writer should care about.) Read in your category. Read outside your category. I will never, ever, ever understand writers who refuse read because it pollutes their process. Spinning in your own echo chamber is fine, but it also tends to produce (ironically) derivative fiction because the writer doesn’t know enough about what’s out there to realize that they’re repeating common tropes, using cliché language, or not exposing themselves adequately to what’s possible.
Reading is a delightful way to get to know the publishing landscape, discover new voices, add fresh ideas to your own writing toolbox and, yes, discover book comps that you can use in your pitch.
As a freelance manuscript editor, I not only work on your book, but I help every client with their pitch, query letter, and book comps, too. Let me set you up for success in submission!
This is a quick reminder that I have two upcoming webinars in the month of December, Writing Irresistible First Pages and Rock Your Writing Goals. In January, I’m launching a Submission Blueprint with Writing Blueprints, so I’ll be doing a webinar to support that. In February, I’m participating in WriteOnCon. So I’m skipping my own webinars those months, until a planned webinar on interiority in March. That means these December webinars are it for the near future. Join me!
Very informative, I learned a LOT about what the first pages should accomplish. – Dena Pawling
Mary is an approachable expert. She turns a daunting task into something I can do with confidence. – Shelley G.
Saturday, December 8th, 11 a.m. CST: Writing Irresistible First Pages WITH CRITIQUE
A paid webinar that includes comprehensive notes on the first two pages of your novel. This webinar is geared to novel writers of all categories, from middle grade to fantasy. Not only will you hear a wealth of information about how to write successful, eye-catching first pages, but your novel opening will be privately critiqued with helpful feedback. The cost of this webinar with the included critique is $99. The webinar will last one hour and thirty minutes.
Mary’s webinar on Writing Irresistible First Pages was incredibly helpful. Mary is very versed in the subject matter and presents lot of terrific useful information at a good pace. Thank you, Mary! – Charlotte Hebert
You have one month to submit your pages after the webinar date. The submission will be up to two double-spaced pages with 12 pt font and standard 1″ margins. Notes will be returned within three weeks of receipt.
I found this webinar extremely helpful and packed with valuable info. Thank you so much! I feel much more confident to proceed with revising my first chapter. – Amy G.
Saturday, December 29th, 11 a.m. CST: Rock Your Writing Goals Webinar
A fun and motivational free webinar just in time for those New Year’s Resolutions. Let’s spend an hour together this last weekend of December and do some creative brainstorming for the year to come. The webinar will last one hour.
This webinar is for all writers, at all skill levels. I’ll discuss creativity, actionable steps for achieving your writing or publishing goals this year, and send you off into 2019 with a bang!
Today, on what would’ve been her first birthday, I’m remembering my daughter Nora Pepper. For those of you who don’t know, Nora was born with a very rare birth defect on this date, November 30th, in 2017. It was a complete surprise to us because her condition didn’t show up on prenatal imaging or testing. Unfortunately, hers was a terminal diagnosis. She died on December 16th, 2017.
The Taboo of Baby Loss
We had a little more than two weeks to create memories as a family, and include our son, Theo, then 21 months, in Nora’s short life. During that time, we hired a professional photographer, the wonderful Sarah Wroblewski of Sarah Ann Photography, to come take pictures in our home. Now that Nora is gone, these pictures have become touchstones for our family that we will treasure forever. That sounds like such a cliché, but in this case, they really are all we will ever have. They mean everything to us.
We had our favorites made into a photo album. (In the blur of grief, I just sent a big batch to Shutterfly and used their “I don’t care, just make me an album” service. It actually worked out better than expected!) Our photographer gifted us with an absolutely stunning album as well. This morning, we sat together as a family and showed both off to Theo, then talked about his sister and how much we love and miss her. The photos will be part of our tradition on her birthday for the rest of our lives.
The last year has been difficult but, ultimately triumphant. Theo is an utter joy to us, now a wild and rambunctious 2.5-year-old. We savor even the most mundane moments with him in ways that we didn’t before. My relationship with Todd, my husband, is stronger than ever. I’ve done a huge amount of inner digging, and grown into a person I never would’ve been without this experience. The editorial business is thriving and I get to do what I love every single day.
Another facet of the last year has been connecting with other loss parents. The “Dead Baby Club,” as I jokingly call it, is a club nobody ever wanted to be in, but we are. After I posted about Nora’s death, I heard from so many of you who’ve lost pregnancies, babies, or children. Nobody talks about this kind of shattering loss. Children aren’t supposed to die. It breaks the natural order.
But they do. Sadly, so sadly, they do.
When this tragedy happens, parents sometimes feel alone because it’s too terrible, too impossible to talk about. The world wants to shield its eyes and pretend. There’s a cultural taboo surrounding the topic. So, all too often, we suffer in silence, except when we meet another family in our shoes.
This has gotten me thinking about community, and reaching out to other loss families who have experienced the unimaginable. I remember what it was like to be broken open in the most vulnerable moment of my life, sitting there in the hospital that Monday evening, and learning that Nora would absolutelydie. There’s just not a lot of support for a family on that horrible day.
As the anniversary of Nora’s birth and death rolls around, and I’m thrust back into these memories, I want to tell you about a cause that means a lot to me, if you’ll listen. This year, my family has made a donation in Nora’s honor. I’d love for you to join us, if you feel at all compelled. While I can’t personally be there to support families facing baby loss as it’s happening to them, there’s an organization that does just that.
And it does something else incredible. It provides them with tangible memories of a life gone too soon: those same kinds of photographs that mean the world to us now.
A Request in Nora’s Honor
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a nonprofit organization that you may never have heard of. I hope that’s because you’ve never needed them. They service any parents in a hospital setting who are facing stillbirth or neonatal death. They provide a network of photographers who will come at no charge to the family, at all hours of the day and night, and take pictures of the baby and family. These pictures are usually heart-wrenching. But beautiful. And oh-so-significant to families who may only get to spend a few precious moments with their babies.
My family didn’t personally use their services. We brought Nora home initially, because we didn’t know exactly what was wrong. We had photographs taken there. But if we’d spotted her condition earlier, we probably never would’ve left the hospital. From experience, I know how amazing it is to have pictures of my baby. I never thought I’d lose a child. But families experience it every day. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep serves them in their time of most desperate need. It supports photographers who volunteer their time and talent to step into the worst moment of a person’s life. Think about walking into that room for a moment.
Please excuse me for using my platform for a cause. But I want to help Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and enable them to do their very important work, if I can. If you feel so compelled, please make a donation to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in Nora Pepper Macdonald’s name, or the name of any other child who survives only in your heart.
We’re thinking about you today and every day, baby girl!
Picture book manuscript format flummoxes a lot of aspiring children’s book writers because there is so much potential variety. In my career, I have seen hundreds of examples of picture book format. To help you stand out in the slush as polished and professional, I’ve developed a picture book manuscript template handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Picture Book Format
Picture book manuscript format tends to vary WIDELY. Some writers have it down. Others think they’re paginating correctly if they allocate a separate manuscript page to each line, resulting in a 32-page Word document that contains 300 words. What if a picture book manuscript template existed? It would certainly streamline things. As is, some writers include illustration notes, others stay far away. How do you paginate a children’s book? How do you format illustration notes correctly? This resources answers those questions (and here are more thoughts on illustration notes in your children’s book manuscript).
Remember that picture book format is just one small component of a successful children’s book submission. You also have your picture book query letter, and, well, the most important thing: an awesome manuscript! Don’t focus so much on picture book manuscript format that you lose sight of character, plot, and writing style. Those are going to take you a lot further than a nice-looking, polished file … but the latter certainly doesn’t hurt.
As a picture book editor, I work with writers on all aspects of the picture book craft, from creating a compelling children’s book manuscript (in proper picture book format, of course!) to nailing the query letter. Contact me for personal, actionable advice on your project.
It’s my pleasure today to feature a picture book self publishing case study for a change of pace. Full disclosure: Shelby Wilde is an editorial client of mine from earlier this year. We worked on this picture book manuscript together and discussed her career next steps. She decided to self-publish her project, and did, in my opinion, a wonderful job with it.
I don’t often feature client work on the blog or do interviews, but I chose this project because I think it’s extremely well done and I think Shelby has some great insights that will be useful to other writers considering self publishing, especially picture book self publishing. (For any writers in this boat, I highly recommend the Self-Publishing Blueprint from Writing Bluerpints. It’s a comprehensive online class on the ins and outs of becoming an indie publisher. I watched the whole thing with great interest.)
Here, she shares her experience with deciding to “go indie,” the unexpected things she learned, and her lovely book. A long article, but a must-read. Hear about it directly from Shelby, below. I will pop in occasionally to comment with takeaways over the course of the interview!
Deciding to Self Publish
When I decided to self-publish SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND, I spent months researching the process. I knew I would have to pull out all the stops in order for the book to compete with the quality of traditionally published books on the market. I chose to have hard cover books printed in China, which I would then sell through Amazon. Hard cover format is the preferred format for children’s picture books.
There is another self-publishing path called Print on Demand (POD). I did not choose that option because there are very few POD options for hard cover books and the quality is not where it needs to be, in my opinion. Traditional publishers have set the bar high when it comes to the quality of children’s books and self-publishers need to meet and exceed consumers’ expectations.
Kidlit Takeaways: Picture book writers have the self-publishing options of choosing to print physical books in softcover, hardcover, or both (a big investment upfront as you have to buy a print run of expensive books), POD (no upfront investment but quality control can be an issue), or ebook (despite being easily suited to illustrated content, ebooks do not offer the same reading experience for parents/children as physical copies).
Shelby’s point about competing with traditionally published books is spot on. I tell this to my clients all the time: You can do whatever you want when you self-publish. But you are selling to customers who are used to spending money on traditionally published books, and standards are high as a result. You need to offer them something equal or better in order to convince their dollars to come over to the indie side!
Self Publishing Case Study Interview: The Decision to Go Indie
What is this book’s “origin story”?
SCAVENGER SCOUT: ROCK HOUND was inspired by my daughter, who is a rock hound—she loves hunting for rocks. One day she sat me down and started telling me stories about how she acquired each of the rocks in her collection. In her stories, she debated with dragons, haggled with mermaids and convinced aliens so she could take home her treasured rocks. The combination of fantasy and reality inspired me, and I know it is something that captivates kids.
How did you make the decision to self-publish and why?
Early on, I considered the traditional publishing path for SCAVENGER SCOUT, but soon after the manuscript was completed, I realized I felt a strong connection to the main character. I wanted to guide her story through the publishing process myself, overseeing every aspect. Another reason I decided to self-publish is that I wanted to select the illustrator. If you choose the traditional publishing path and sell your book to a publisher, they will select the illustrator. Because I was so connected to the character of Scout, I wanted to be able to choose the style of illustration that would bring her to life.
Kidlit Takeaway: Choosing to self-publish gives you ultimate control over your project. Control you would lose with traditional publishing because the publisher does have final say on issues like title, format, illustrator, etc. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it behoves you to do your due diligence and make strong, marketable decisions.
Self Publishing Logistics
Describe the process of preparing the book for publication. What was unexpected? What did you learn?
When it comes to preparing the book for publication, selecting the illustrator is only the tippy top of a very large iceberg. The most important thing I learned is something that should have been obvious to me: When you decide to self-publish, you will need to wear all of the hats that a traditional publishing house does. You will need to hire an editor (or editors—did you know there are different kinds?), an illustrator, a book designer (or your illustrator may be able to provide this service), a printer, a shipping company, storage space (if you are having your books printed and shipped to you, instead of ebook or POD). The difference is that the publisher has a team of people who are specialists in their areas and you have just … you. A writer. The learning curve is steep, but it is doable as long as you’re willing to put the time in.
One unexpected challenge was dealing with long timelines. Traditional publishing cycles are long: it typically takes two years to bring a book to market. Self-publishing is a little bit faster—mine took 11 months from start to finish, but still not quick. You have to have a lot of patience. If you have ever created something to sell, the last thing you have is patience. You can’t wait to get it out there. And even though you are a small, nimble company (yep, you need to get a business license if you want to self-publish), you are stuck with a lot of timelines that you don’t own. It takes weeks to months for the illustrator to complete their illustrations, months to print and ship the books, months to promote the book before launch.
Another unexpected challenge: Advertising budget: I didn’t think much about funds for advertising when I was in the planning stages. It’s just a fact that if you want a product to sell, you have to advertise it. Advertising is a skill and it costs money. It’s also relentless. If you stop advertising, you will see an immediate drop in sales. While it’s true that even if you sell your book to a traditional publisher you will still have to market it, at least you’ll have some support from the publisher.
Kidlit Takeaway: The leap from writer to publisher can be a rude awakening. Self-publishing isn’t just a shortcut to making your work available. You are responsible for many things you’ve thought of–and haven’t yet! Shelby also brings up a great point: budget. Do you have one? Picture books are especially expensive to self-publish (as opposed to a novel made available on Kindle, for example) because the biggest expense is the illustrator. To hire a good one, you have to pay thousands of dollars (five figures isn’t unusual). Otherwise, it will show. Unfortunately, readers do judge a book by its cover. Layout costs more money. Then, if you’re creating a physical book, you have to pay for expensive full color printing on a bigger trim size product. Shipping. Storage. Shipping to the consumer. And that’s before you even think about marketing. Picture book self publishing comes with sticker shock!
Describe the process of launching the book. Any lessons there?
This is another area where you have to understand that publishing is a business and you have to do all of the same things that traditional publishing houses are doing in order to compete. Among the activities you will want to put on your launch list: blog tour, social media ads, frequent social media posts, giveaways, partnerships, cross promotion with coordinating products, press release, media interviews, email blasts. Just like the production of the book, launching the book involves skill sets that writers don’t often have: public relations, media relations and marketing. The most important thing I learned when I launched my book is that you have to start months in advance.
Kidlit Takeaway: Marketing is a skill in and of itself. But all writers, whether indie or traditional, have to learn it at some point. The good news is, you are allowed to take small bites. That’s why I like the tip about starting months in advance–you’ll want to give yourself plenty of runway to learn.
Self Publishing Marketing and Career Path
What’s life after independent publication like? How are you currently involved in marketing the project?
I have completed my launch communication plan and have now moved into the “Keep the momentum going” phase. Frequent social media posts, cross promotion, blog tours, book reviews, giveaways, email blasts, etc. Once you self-publish a book, you are now on the hook for marketing the book forever. That sounds daunting, but you have to think of it like any other product. Products don’t sell themselves. You have to put yourself out there as the author, put the book out there through ads, all to keep the stream of people flowing to your book. I enjoy the marketing aspect so it’s fun for me, but it is also time consuming.
Kidlit Takeaway: Ah, the old “art vs. business” debate! A great reminder that any book, even a traditionally published one, becomes a product. And then you sell it forever. The good news is that every positive review, blog post, interview, etc. gives you additional traction, but you always have to be proactive about creating opportunities. Unfortunately, “if you build it, they will come” is not a realistic adage in the age when hundreds of thousands of books are being traditionally and independently published per year.
What’s on the horizon for you? Would you self-publish again? Why or why not?
When I wrote SCAVENGER SCOUT, I also wrote a sequel so I have committed myself to self-publishing that book as well. I anticipate launching in Q2 of 2019. Once SCAVENGER SCOUT Part 2 is out, I will definitely have my hands full managing the printing, shipping and inventory that will come with both books. I am just one person and I’m not interested in becoming a small publisher. I have three other completed manuscripts that I’ve decided to pitch to agents in hopes of getting a contract from a traditional publisher. Choosing the self-publishing path means you are choosing to focus on the business side more than you will focus on the creative side. I want to have more time to spend on writing so I’m happy to let a publisher handle the logistics, even if it means lower profits for me.
Kidlit Takeaway: The takeaway I hear from clients all day every day is that writers are very surprised that they have to become publishers/marketers/businesspeople when they self-publish. They are not just writers. In fact, writing often falls to the bottom of their To Do list. Shelby’s point here is a great one to remember. It’s echoed in Teresa Funke’s excellent and very in-depth online class on self-publishing via Writing Blueprints: each project has its own life and potential. For some projects, self-publishing is the way to go. For other projects, you can always try traditional. Having these options means you can learn about them and choose the ones that are right for you on a project basis, and on a career basis! The bigger message is this: Successful, tenacious writers have more than one project in the pipeline!
Looking to make the jump into self-publishing? My editing services are perfectly suited to writers preparing to go indie. Get professional eyes on your work so you create the strongest product possible.
While I’m no longer a literary agent, I still want your query letter submission for an upcoming project! Aspiring writers are desperate for feedback on example query letters, and to see what their peers are working on. Reading real, live queries is one of the best ways to learn about query writing. But a lot of writers don’t have a venue to share their letters or read other people’s work.
I’m looking to change that. But I need your help!
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
Are you currently working on a query letter? Have you successfully used a query letter to get literary agent representation or a publishing deal?
I am seeking submissions of successful query letters AND query letters in progress to use for a teaching resource. For query letters in progress, I will provide feedback on every letter that I select for inclusion in this resource as my token of gratitude for your participation. Everyone whose query is selected will receive access to the teaching resource.
I’m especially looking for queries in the following categories:
Memoir or creative nonfiction query (for any audience)
Nonfiction query (in any category, eg, business, reference, parenting, etc.)
Short nonfiction book proposal example
Self-published project query
UPDATE: I am still looking for submissions in the nonfiction (not nonfiction picture book), adult memoir, adult literary fiction, adult fiction, and self-published categories. My children’s fiction query needs have been met! I am also looking for a short nonfiction book proposal example if anyone wants to share.
The queries will be used for a paywall-protected teaching resource only,they will not be published or distributed widely on the blog. Since this is a project in progress, I will provide more concrete information only to people who are selected. You will need to provide written/signed permission for me to reproduce your query letter and provide annotations. (If you don’t want to give permission, that’s not a problem, this post simply isn’t for you.) If your query is in a category that I have already filled, or it does not fit the needs of the project, it will not be selected and I will, unfortunately, not be able to provide the complimentary critique.
If you are submitting a successful query letter that has earned literary representation or a publishing deal, please mention that. You are welcome to crow about your agent’s name, book title, etc. I can include your name and project title in the resource, or omit identifying information. The teaching resource will be released in early 2019.
Query Letter Submission Instructions
Please send your query letter as a Word doc or docx attachment (not a PDF, because I will annotate in Word) or share via Google Docs to:
The updated submission deadline is December 14th, 2018. I will respond to every submission. I will ask until late January to turn around on query annotations, so, unfortunately, the query critique opportunity is not for queries you’re planning to go on submission with, like, tomorrow
Ladies and gentlemen, start your Scriveners for NaNoWriMo 2018! It’s officially that time of the year again, when thousands upon thousands of scribes spend the month of November pounding out 50,000 words of prose (or more) in the name of writing achievement, damn it!
Your NaNoWriMo 2018 Success Strategies
For all of this year’s National Novel Writing Month participants, here are three success strategies I’d like to plant in your heads on this, the heady first day of unbridled writing creation.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
Edit Your Novel Later
Focus on Character
Let’s unpack these tips one by one.
Don’t Sweat Your Novel Beginning
As I mention in my novel first pages webinar, first pages are so tough to write. Starting a novel can be very intimidating because there’s so much pressure on a novel beginning. That’s why I’m able to speak for over an hour about it, and many books have been written on the topic. (If you missed the webinar, I’ll give it again. See my Webinars and Events page!)
For National Novel Writing Month purposes, don’t sweat your beginning. Besides, you won’t know what your novel opening truly needs to be until you reach the end of the manuscript (on approximately the 30th of this month!). So you can–and should–always go back to the start and revise.
So do your best today and lay some groundwork. Remember to start in action, a compelling scene that introduces the character and kicks things off without immediately sliding into an info-dump of backstory. The balance of action and information is crucial in a novel beginning.
Then leave it. Seriously. Leave it be. It’s going to change. You aren’t going to nail it on the first try. Nobody does. Move on. Because otherwise, you risk getting stuck on your opening, or obsessing about it, and then you may lose your NaNoWriMo 2018 momentum right out the gate.
Which brings me to my next point…
Edit Your Novel Later
Some writers go through an entire novel without looking back at their work once. Some writers hammer and edit and refine on a scene or chapter until it’s perfect, only then do they proceed. For National Novel Writing Month, you obviously want do more of the former and less of the latter, just in the interest of finishing your project.
Writing is writing. Revision is revision. Huh? What I mean to say is, they are two completely different skills. They live in the same neighborhood, but opposites sides of the street. Revision’s for December! (And January, February, March … honestly, it could be a while once the initial rush of creation wears off.)
Some participants psych themselves up for their writing day by reading the previous day’s work. Others barrel straight through. Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of going back further than that, at least for the time being. The first week of this exercise is the most important in terms of creating good writing habits.
If you start to read what you’ve written, you may be tempted to revise and, again, might stall out and being nitpicking or obsessing. Most of your success with this project will be created in the revision stages, and those are going to come later, using different parts of your brain and different skills.
You have my permission to step on the gas and ignore your blind spots. For November at least, don’t look back!
Focus on Character
The biggest job in front of you (other than, you know, writing 50,000 words in a single month!) is to get your character down on paper. The first chapter will change (weren’t you listening a minute ago?), the plot will change, individual scenes and descriptions will change. But once you’re able to “birth” a character during National Novel Writing Month, this really will be the anchoring element of your manuscript going forward.
Remember, readers read primarily to bond with character. A writer’s most important job is to make readers care. This comes from character. And it’s never too early to start fleshing out a strong and compelling character. As you write, you can forget the nit-picking and first chapter, but remember to add as much emotional substance to your protagonist as possible. This is where the quick work of creation can really pay off for later drafts.
Have you heard of my concept of interiority? If not, read up on it and keep it in mind on your adventures. The more you get down about your character now, the less you’ll have to develop later. If your manuscript reads like a giant character sketch at the end of the month? I wouldn’t be too upset. You can always shape the character and focus and give them stuff to do (plot) during the revision process.
What Happens After NaNoWriMo 2018?
You might laugh, but literary agents cringe at the end of National Novel Writing Month because their inboxes swell with “novels” on December 1st, nary twelve hours after well-meaning writers have finished their masterpieces. Because a novel is done once the word count gets to 50k, right?
As you’ve heard me suggest several times, the real work, unfortunately, of crafting a novel happens in the months after this one. So whatever you do, as tempting as it is, don’t rush to submit just yet.
Over the winter, I might suggest reading some writing resources. I just dove back into The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. It’s a dense read, but I came away from it with some rewarding ideas. National Novel Writing Month is all about passion and fire and speed. It’s a rush.
Revision is a slow burn. Appreciate both for what they are. You have the rest of the year to revise before this whole crazy trip happens again!
If you want personal feedback on your project, or revision proves overwhelming, hire me as your novel editor. I work on manuscripts in all stages of creation, from WIP to if-I-have-to-look-at-it-one-more-time-I’ll-cry.
This post is all about query letter format, a perennially popular topic that won’t quit! While there isn’t just one query letter format or query letter template out there, I’ve developed a handout that I’ve used over the years to really streamline and clarify the process for writers.
Query Letter Format
From my recent webinar on query letters, I’ve learned that writers continue to be fascinated with this little one-page document. It’s my most popular webinar by far, and a constant fixture of Google searches about writing.
But what makes successful queries? And can I get a query letter template? Writers are desperate for query letter examples.
When I was speaking at writer’s conferences, I always gave out a handout with a query letter example that I’d written for Twilight. Cue your eye rolls, but it’s a well-known story that everyone has at least glancing familiarity with. (My query letter example is written with Edward as the protagonist because I think Bella is such a wet blanket, ha!)
Writers are also curious to see if there is a query letter template that they should be following for formatting their query letter. Is there a set formula for writing a query and organizing the information? Not really, unfortunately. Even if I was going to call my query letter template the perfect way to write a query, many writers wouldn’t get the memo and the slush would still be filled with queries that don’t follow this flow.
But I believe very much in my query letter template, which you’ll find in the second page of the PDF. It has a nice flow to it, and is a good way to organize all of the elements of the query letter.
Here’s something to keep in mind about writing a query letter: IT’S A ONE-PAGE COVER LETTER. Your query letter length? 250 to 450 words. That’s it! Sure, it feels so much more monumental than that, but the query letter only has one job: To get the agent or publisher interested enough to move on to your writing sample or proposal. That’s it. That’s all.
Writers obsess over the query letter. It feels like their “one shot” to achieve publication. Their foot in the door. But believe me when I say that I never offered representation based solely on the query letter, and I have overlooked many crappy queries to then offer on a great manuscript. The query is a means to an end.
While I hope this query letter format tool helps you work on your query writing, I want to make sure you keep your focus where it belongs: on crafting an amazing manuscript.
As a book editor, I work on everything from queries and book proposals to complete novel and memoir manuscripts. If you’d like personal advice on your own pitch or manuscript, reach out!
There are quite a few ways to think about picture book structure. Here, I’m going to present a looser “Problem and Solution” structure, and a more specific
The Basics of Picture Book Structure
Keep in mind that you are working with 24, 32, or 40 pages for most picture books, with 32 being the hands-down favorite. Take three or four pages away because you need to accommodate front matter (like the copyright and title pages), and I’d say you have about 28 usable pages to work with.
When you are planning your picture book, imagine telling the story in individual pages (either the right or left side of the book, “profile” view) or spreads (both pages, “landscape view”).
How do you fill those pages? Spend five of them describing the character’s favorite ice cream flavor and how nice they are? NOPE. You need to dive right into story without wasting too much time. Preferably, you will jump straight into action. Here are two examples of common picture book structure that you can work with.
Picture Book Structure: Problem and Solution
When I was doing some speaking on picture books in 2012, I wrote a talk that incorporated simple Problem and Solution picture book structure. Basically, your character is introduced in terms of a problem they’re having. Then they make several attempts to solve the problem, before some kind of resolution. It looks like this, assuming that your book starts on page 4 because of front matter:
Page 4: Character introduction
Page 5 to 6: Conflict introduction
Page 7 to 8: Raise the stakes (establish why the conflict fights the character, what happens if they don’t get what they want, etc.)
Page 9 to 18: First two attempts to solve the conflict, story stakes rising
Page 19 to 26: Third and biggest attempt
Pages 27 to 29: Climax and success hanging in the balance
Pages 30 to 31 or 32: Resolution, reversal, final image (whether you go to page 32 depends on if you end the story on the right side of the page or after one more page turn)
Note: These page number prescriptions are a starting point for helping you map out your thinking, they are not a hard-and-fast rule.
Character Development in Picture Book Structure
Nobody cares what your character’s name is or what their favorite ice cream flavor is. Sorry. You do, but nobody else does. That’s not what makes them a character. Fancy Nancy was a character not because she liked poodles but because her whole driving passion in life was making ordinary things fancy. This is a characteristic that will fire up reader imaginations.
So once you’ve established a character with an objective (something they want) and motivation (why they want it), you can give them a conflict that grates against who they are. This makes the conflict more powerful, and gives them extra reason to want to solve it. Is also establishes stakes–what happens if they aren’t successful, why it matters.
Otherwise, if readers don’t understand why your specific conflict is a big deal for your specific character, your whole story won’t matter. But if you create a strong foundation that ties character to plot, their attempts to solve the conflict will be noble, and the classic Problem and Solution picture book structure will work well for you.
A Reminder About Preaching in Picture Books
But keep in mind something I mentioned above. Their attempts to solve the conflict. That means you’re writing a proactive protagonist who is going to drive the story.
This idea for picture book structure comes entirely from Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s HOW TO WRITE A CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOK: VOLUME I: STRUCTURE. Her writing on the topic of picture books is definitely worth investigating. I’ll summarize the structure here but won’t reveal several fine-point components, in fairness to their creator.
The Components of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Book Structure
This is a looser wrapper and more applicable to different types of story. It has a lot in common with the Problem and Solution structure, but there are some nuances. Here’s how it goes:
Act I: the Beginning or the set-up, about 20% of the story or 5-7 pages
Plot Twist I: a plot twist that separates the Beginning from the Middle
Act II: the Middle, or the primary action, about 60% of the story
Midpoint: a moment in the middle where the story splits into a “before” and an “after”
Plot Twist II: a plot twist that separates the Middle from the Ending
Act III: this contains the resolution or the Ending, about 20% of the story, or 5-7 pages
What I really like about this Symmetrical Paradigm is that it inspires writers to carefully consider what separates the different sections of their book, the plot twists and midpoint, which provide emotional layers to the character and story.
Examples of Symmetrical Paradigm Picture Books
Bine-Stock cites many classic examples in her book, and her explanations are worth looking into. They include:
There are exceptions to every rule. While the above are good options for narrative-style picture books, those aren’t the only ones around. Non-fiction picture books are their own animal, and need to be organized according to the narrative structure of their subject matter (for example, in a picture book biography, the subject’s life is going to provide its own flow).
Concept picture books or picture books for very young readers often have their own structure, and it tends to be very repetitive. Alphabet books are obviously organized according to … the alphabet. And concept books like DUCK RABBIT by Amy Krause Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld follow a Problem and Solution framework but only insofar as there’s a question asked, and then variations on an answer (or question) are given over and over. If you examine that example, there isn’t really a resolution at all.
Let’s dig into your own picture book project. Hire me as your picture book editor and get advice customized to your manuscript.
Writing a proactive protagonist is one of the single most important things you can do to set your novel up for success. I feel like I’ve been giving this note over and over in my freelance editorial practice lately: Your protagonist is too passive. They do not drive the plot. They are passenger, not driver. What is this problem and how can you address it? Read on!
Do You Have a Reactive or Passive Protagonist?
Novels are hampered when a “main character” takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, high stakes can be tricky.) If you have Ordinary Kid and you throw them into Extraordinary Circumstances, they are likely, a) not going to know what’s going on for quite a while, b) not going to know what to do, and c) going to rely on others for help.
You’ve perhaps made a plot that’s “too big” for your Everyman character. This thwarts them because they spend the entire novel either, a) learning the ropes, b) discovering their talents, and/or c) figuring out where the fit in.
Thematically, this makes sense, especially for a middle grade or YA novel. If every kid was self-assured at the beginning of their story, you wouldn’t have a relatable novel for tween and teen readers (who often feel incompetent or unsure). But it’s possible to make your character too impotent.
Take a look at your novel. Does your character spend a lot of time receiving instruction? Are there a lot of guide/mentor characters? Do events happen to your character, rather than your character making events happen?
You are in danger of having a passive protagonist. After a while, if the character doesn’t become “activated” and start acting with their own goals, desires, and agency, they are going to be the eternal backseat driver and their power to affect the story–and, more importantly, the reader–will evaporate.
Writing a Proactive Protagonist
No matter how unsure your protagonist is about their life, themselves, or their upcoming challenges, they still need to be a hero. For sure, this doesn’t have to happen immediately, or there’s no growth trajectory. But even better if there’s at least the hint of some confidence/ability at the beginning.
Everyone is good at something. And even if a character is not good at anything (or just believes they aren’t), they have a secret weapon that you shouldn’t hesitate to deploy: their desire or need.
Desires and needs are universally relatable and everyone has them. They come together to form your character’s objective and motivation. The objective is what they want, the motivation is why they want it. I define desires as things characters want, which can be external. Whether a physical object or an outcome. A need is something a character, well, needs on a deeper level, so it’s usually an internal conflict. They desire to win the championship but they need the validation such a coup would provide, for example.
The best thing about desires and needs? They make us brave and they make us active. I may not usually be outspoken (Ha! Obviously not speaking personally…), but if my desire is on the line, I’ll act.
Too many times, a character arrives on the page without strong desires or needs. “Ugh, I’m so ordinary. Ho hum. If only something good would happen.” This isn’t specific. Sure, everyone can relate to being bored, but boring characters are … boring. Sitting around and waiting for “something, anything” to happen is a prime set-up for a passive protagonist. This leaves them wide open to anything that comes along, but not really pursuing anything.
Instead, give your character strong goals and wants. Let’s see them chasing after something right away, even if it isn’t yet their central objective. And when the plot does kick in, solidify their objective, motivation, desire, and need. That way, even if the plot sweeps them along on a wild ride, they are always able to take proactive steps, they always have their eyes on the prize.
Better yet, the plot might threaten their objective. Then the stakes rise. They can’t lose X. They can’t sacrifice Y. They only have one shot at Z. Or else what? They go unfulfilled, because their deep need isn’t being met. If you have your character actively chasing, no matter what else happens, you give the impression of a hero.
Secondary characters and subplots help in this regard. A character can do things for others, or do things that dovetail with another plot thread. Ideally, all of these actions serve their core need (not every need should be 100% selfish, but you should always have strong personal reasons for selfless actions, too). If the primary plot puts your protagonist in a passive position for a moment, is there anything they can DO for anyone else?
Finally, too many writers hamstring their characters by not giving them enough information. Why? The misguided urge to save everything for a huge reveal at the 70% mark of the plot. Well, guess what? If readers aren’t compelled by a character or story right away, they won’t even get to the 70% mark. Too many writers withhold too much information, stalling until “the time is right” for a reveal. Instead, give your protagonist information earlier. Empower them. Allow them to act with some of the facts in hand. Otherwise, they’re sitting on their thumbs until you’ve decided to throw them a bone. This is a recipe for passive protagonist disaster.
Big Choices and Small Moments
Even if you can’t give your character a bunch of information or make them an ass-kicking hero from page one, you can let them be proactive from moment to moment. Study this article on writing active reactions. If they simply can’t participate just yet, at least let them be engaged. You’ll also want to take a few big risks and step outside of your comfort zone.
Keep training/explaining to a minimum, especially in the first 100 pages. It’s always better to have your protagonist act and pursue, even if they make a mistake doing so because they’re green or don’t have all the information yet. Really take a close look at all of these types of montages. I will bet that you can make some big cuts and redistribute key information elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest choice you can make to empower your hero is to stop giving them so much help. The best friend who only exists to support them? Give that friend some nuance and conflict, or they’re just going to be boring scaffolding for your protagonist. The older, wiser mentor who gives the trainee the lay of the land? Let the character start to discover things for themselves, make assumptions, and get out there, ready or not.
Remember, fiction is life elevated. Big stories. Big characters. Big stakes. Most of us feel like we’re just along for the ride in our daily lives. When we come to get away from it all and read fiction, we want to see protagonists who take risks, make choices, chase dreams, and grow into their power. There’s definitely an aspirational component to relating to character. Make sure your hero is someone readers can be inspired by, warts and all, and put them in the driver’s seat. What are you waiting for?
Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.