You are currently browsing the archive for the Queries category.

If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

Tags: , ,

When I talk about a logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building. To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.” With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

Tags: ,

If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

Tags: ,

When writing your bio paragraph in your query letter, keep it short. Please. This is another quick post to answer a specific query question, and it follows on the heels of my advice to not write about yourself in the third person. For the bio paragraph, where you went to college, how many kids you have, what your pets’ names are, and even what your day job is are not important unless they are directly related to the book you’re writing.

Some of that warm-n’-fuzzy getting-to-know-you stuff will happen if and when an agent calls to offer representation. At that point, I want to know more about you as a human being. For your query bio, however, I don’t really care about personal information unless it relates to you as “the person who wrote the manuscript that’s in front of me.” That’s not me trying to sound harsh. I am sure you’re wonderful and interesting and have had a fascinating life (and you have impeccable taste, since you are one of my beloved readers, after all!). But a query is still a short cover letter, and a business letter.

In children’s books, some aspiring writers are convinced that they need to “prove” that they can write for children, specifically. So they talk about the children they have, or the children they have access to, or how they took a class on early childhood education in college, or how they worked as a birthday party clown, or whatever. The work itself is the only thing that proves whether or not you’re qualified to write for kids, honestly. In fact, the more experience with kids someone has, or the more education they’ve gotten about kids or psychology or education, the more they tend to either make their stories way too personal (only marketable to a specific kid) or too intellectual (“written by an expert” instead of just written).
So in the vein of telling me about yourself as “the person who wrote the manuscript that’s in front of me,” there are two things you should focus on in your bio: professional writing credits and information relevant to the project at hand. First of all, if you’ve published something or won an award, present it professionally. Say something like,

My book, Biographical Information in a Query (Unlikely Press, 2012), has sold briskly, and I recently won the Stupid Blog Post Example Award from the Muse Society.

If you haven’t published or won anything, don’t sweat it. Just like you don’t need to prove that you’re familiar with children (since we all were children at one point, we have experience), you don’t really need writing credits. Everyone starts somewhere. And, to be perfectly honest, most of the stuff that aspiring writers start off winning or publishing in, I haven’t heard of. It’s just nice to know that you’ve gotten yourself out there already, but if that’s not the case, don’t sweat it.

Finally, if you are, say, an archaeologist by day (or a superhero by night) and your characters either go on a dig or fight crime in Gotham, mention that your vocation or area of expertise is relevant to your story. Otherwise, knowing that you’re a middle manager at a corkscrew manufacturing corporation doesn’t really belong in the query letter. The only exception to this suggestion is if you have a really fun professional or personal fact that you think will add interest to the query (and if the tone of your query is light or quirky and matches the information). If you don’t, you shouldn’t sweat this much, either.

So, brief and relevant. That’s about it. An excessive bio is one of the biggest query issues that I see, but it’s also less important, for example, on the list of query faults, than failing to make me care, so read this post, cut your bio in half, and move on.


This isn’t going to be a meaty post, but it’s a little issue that comes up every once in a while in slush: write your queries in first person. It’s a very small tweak and, honestly, it’s not going to make or break your query letter by any stretch of the imagination, but in case you’ve been wondering, you should discuss your plot and characters, and then introduce yourself and do your breezy sign-off in the first person.

Mary is not a fan of people who talk about themselves in the third person. It’s an awkward tonal shift in the middle of a query and all she can think when reading one that introduces its author in third is about the author sitting there and writing about themselves in the third person and how weird it must’ve felt, because she herself finds it weird. See? She considers this paragraph a case in point.

So write it all in first. And, for the love of all things good, don’t write your query in your character’s POV. A very simple reminder and a question you didn’t ask, because maybe you didn’t think to, but now you know!


This question comes in from Kimberly:

I find identifying the genre to be very difficult. What if your novel is a mash-up of two different genres? Is it bad to mention this? What about saying something like, “YA suspense with paranormal elements”? Any guidance you could give would be much appreciated!

Genre isn’t rigid, and many high-concept ideas borrow from multiple genres. For example, Emily Hainsworth’s THROUGH TO YOU was pitched to me as “YA paranormal.” Then I pitched it as a “magical realism YA” because I thought that it wasn’t quite paranormal in the way that today’s YA market takes the term. Then the published decided to market it as a “YA paranormal thriller,” but emphasizing the book’s romantic and sci-fi elements as well.

While it’s very difficult to aim into the mists in between different audience categories, say, “upper MG” or “younger YA” or “tween” and I actually wouldn’t recommend it at all, genre is a completely different beast and, in today’s more evolved MG and YA markets, is more malleable.

Kimberly’s example of “YA suspense with paranormal elements” is fine, though I would choose “thriller” over “suspense,” personally. “Thriller” is more of a buzzword in today’s market. Still, as you can tell from my THROUGH TO YOU example, everyone has a slightly different way of describing genre. At the end of the day, your publisher will make the decision of how to position it, just like they will end up choosing the final title. Title and genre are both subject to change on the road to publication. Pitch them accurately and to the best of your ability, and that’s good enough for the query!


Long story short:

Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do it well, don’t do it at all.

Long story:

It’s great when you take the time to personalize your query. Think of all the time you spent writing and revising. That was months, maybe years, or your life. Put some time into researching agents and into writing queries as well. Most agents are online or beefing up their blog/Twitter/Facebook presence. Most agents have books out that you can buy and read and think about. You should want to reach out to specific agents because of what you think they can bring to your career, not just because it says “Literary Agent” on their business card and you’re grasping at straws.

So the personalization part should be a no-brainer. But there are many times when I get “personalized” queries that have tried to work around this step. “I am contacting you because of your love for books” is a lame personalization, (as is, “because you are an advocate for children’s literature” or “because you have sold some books” or “because you come from a reputable agency,” etc.) I know immediately that the same line is in every other query you send out. (With agents like me, who have almost psychotic levels of online presence, there’s almost no excuse not to personalize with something that shows me that you really do intend to reach out to me and make a connection. I don’t get offended when a query isn’t personalized — far from it, I really don’t care — but in some cases, it’s just obvious laziness on the writer’s part, which does knock them down a peg or two.)

Unless you have something real to say in the query personalization part, maybe don’t even mention why you’re contacting us specifically. It’s well understood that you’re emailing because you want to get published. And I should hope that every agent you contact loves books, is an advocate for children’s literature, has sold some projects, comes from a reputable agency, etc. That’s not personalization, that’s a waste-of-time sentence.

And, as I wrote earlier, in my query formatting post, you can put the personalization nugget either at the beginning of your query or below the “meat.”


Query Formatting

This is probably the most common question I get asked about queries at conferences, and it comes from Lyla:

I’m putting some final touches on my query and I have a question on format. Many of the agents whose blogs I subscribe to have mentioned that they prefer the ‘hook’ first and then personalization later on in the query, while as many have said that they prefer the personalization first. I’m assuming this is just a preference thing, so I was just wondering, Ms. Kole, which do YOU prefer?

As I have said before, there is a lot of undue anxiety about formatting, and even more undue anxiety about queries. As long as you have all the main building blocks of queries — query meat, bio, query personalization (if you have good stuff here, see my post on this in a few days), vital statistics (word count, whether or not it’s a simultaneous submission, contact info, etc.) — you’re fine to arrange them in whatever way you want.

The two most common formats are in Lyla’s question:

Query meat, personalization, bio, stats
Personalization, query meat, bio, stats

What I prefer is completely a matter of personal taste. I’ve seen both of the above. I’ve seen queries that lead with the bio. I’ve seen queries that lead with the stats (though this is probably the most rare). I’ve seen queries that follow no logic that I can possibly comprehend. I’d say that you should stick with one of the above and you’ll be just fine. There are as many answers to this question as there are agents…and writers.


First off, a caveat to say that this is my opinion, not necessary The End All and Be All, though I’ve heard other agents who share my thoughts.

I am not impressed by queries that come to me with too much voice. Of course you want your query to have some voice, in the same way that good advertising copy has a personality. But one type of query I often see and that tries way too hard is the query written “by” the protagonist that “introduces” me to the protagonist’s author. It goes something like this:

Hiya! I’m 12 and my name’s Mackenzie. I’m in a story about all these crazy adventures that my friends and I go on. Even though everyone says I run the show, the gal taking it all down on paper is Jane Doe, a schoolteacher from Philadelphia who has a B.A. in Child Psychology. Whatever that means, teehee! If you want to read my story…


Point is, a query is a cover letter for your writing. It’s your foot forward and your first contact with an agent. It’s also a business letter. I know I’d never apply for a job by submitting an overly playful resume that’s covered in hologram stickers unless I wanted to work at a clown college (and I’m sure that even clown colleges respect a degree of professionalism). That’s gimmicky. While gimmicks sometimes pay off, more often than not, they become the stories agents tell when they’re hanging out after hours at conferences: “Did you hear the one about the guy who showed up to the pitch slam dressed as a giant baby?” (That’s a fictional example I pulled off the top of my head but, actually, I’m sure it has really happened.)

This reminds me of that episode of Arrested Development in the third season where Tobias, a struggling actor, enlists Maeby, his daughter, who has been cutting school because she’s secretly a prominent film executive, to help him make goodie bag packages for casting directors. He stuffs them full of headshots, candy, vaguely threatening notes, and packets of glitter…all in the hope of catching their attention.

Maeby, by this point way jaded by the film biz, says, “Casting directors hate this!” Then the scene cuts to a casting director opening one of the packets, getting a shot of glitter to the face, and yelling into the phone, “The glitter queen struck again. Never hire Tobias Fünke!”

Just as I discussed in my post about social networking abuse last week, there are good ways to get attention, and there are bad ways. Glitter-filled packets? Bad. Queries that bend themselves into pretzels trying to be clever and “voicey”? Not my cuppa.

The #1 surefire super-secret can’t-fail way to impress a literary agent? Your manuscript!


I was at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference this weekend in Cleveland, and I got several questions about simultaneous submissions. Just as I was thinking of crafting a post about it to remind writers that it’s not only okay but recommended to query multiple agents at a time, I found the following excellent post from Chuck Sambuchino on Writer Unboxed. There must be something in the air!

Chuck’s points are all valid. He encourages writers to submit to batches of 6-8 agents at a time. If you get no requests at all, there’s something wrong with your query or your writing sample. If you get no good feedback or full requests after sending out writing samples or partials, your work isn’t quite there yet. Critique helps here, so will your writing partners. The one thing I’d add to this post is that exclusive submissions do have a place…but only in one or two instances.

One is if you’ve been working with an agent on a manuscript and they’ve given you several rounds of revision notes or if you’ve corresponded a lot. If an agent has invested serious time in you and your work and you feel it’s the right and professional thing to do, you can grant them an exclusive to consider the latest version of your manuscript. But do limit the exclusive — two weeks to a month is fair — so as not to leave it open-ended. The other scenario is if the agent requested the exclusive and you’ve agreed to grant it.

Agents like exclusives. They let us consider things on our own sweet time. But this is a competitive business. If you have a hot manuscript, it doesn’t behoove you to have just one person sitting on it. Honor agent relationships that you’ve already nurtured and exclusives you’ve already granted, but, beyond that, you can and should submit your queries and writing samples to well-chosen batches of multiple agents. Simultaneous submissions are just a part of the game, and anything else could be unfair to you and waste your time.


« Older entries