Overthinking the Query

Shannon asked a question on my post about the second person and rhetorical questions in queries a few days ago, and I wanted to do a quick post in response:

Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this query business is intimidating.

I may completely misread your point here, but I do it intentionally, so stick with me. “Marketing” implies gimmicks to me, especially this early in the game. When you’ve got an actual published book out, then you can market your butt off (and should) to try and get people to buy it. At the querying phase, it’s not about selling and hustling at all.

Getting an agent means entering into a relationship because two people believe in a project and want to have a long working partnership. The author places a lot of trust in the agent and the agent works hard without any immediate gain. The choice to work together doesn’t originate from any flashy whiz-bang query letter shenanigans. You aren’t trying to trick an agent or use fancy misdirection in your query. You don’t try to “market” your way into a long-term romantic relationship, right? It’s the same thing here. The query exchange, to me, should come from a place of authenticity, as stripped free of gimmick as possible.

If you’re getting intimidated by a query letter, that might be a sign that you’re overthinking it. It’s very simple. Tell me about your idea and make me care. The query is just a way to attract interest in your writing sample, which is the heart of the matter anyway. Once I start reading your manuscript and love it, the query letter is completely forgotten. If you want an easy suggestion for writing an appealing letter, you can read a previous post about the kind of query I like to see here: Writing a simple, compelling query.

And if you are still iffy on what makes a good query and want to see some examples, go ahead and scroll back to the query contest I had, using the Contest tag. I’ve had a Novel Beginnings contest, too, so you’ll see some writing samples. Or you can swim on over to Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark.

It might seem hypocritical for me to say: “Don’t worry about your query, you’re overthinking it! It’s easy!” while, at the same time, writing so much about queries, but that’s what people ask me about. A query is a writer’s first step into the agent search and, understandably, they want to get it right. So, while I have and will continue to dispense a lot of advice about queries, they’re really a much smaller deal — big picture-wise — than the manuscript that follows.

Querying With a Series and Series in General

This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

Send a Manuscript Sample Anyway

You will see many a frustrated agent harping over and over again that a writer should always follow submission guidelines. I will be the first to add my voice to the chorus: you should always follow submission guidelines!

But…you should always follow our submission guidelines. At ABLit, we request the first 10 pages sent along with the query. I’m here to say something a little controversial that might raise some hackles. I say, send the first 10 pages to all the agents you’re querying, even if they don’t ask for them. (Sorry, guys!)

Before we proceed, I will write one note of warning here — this advice is for Advanced Users Only. Your first 10 pages have to be solid gold, or you shouldn’t bother with this strategy. Try to take an objective look. Try to determine whether or not you’ve got Conference Polish Syndrome. If your first 10 are a marvel and the rest of the manuscript is even better, send them regardless of the guidelines.

Here’s why. When I read a query that catches my eye, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the writing is any good. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. If I was judging a submission on query only, I’d have a very high chance of requesting something that ended up being totally off-base. Query writing does not equal manuscript writing, the two are completely different by nature. Or I’d request something and wait to receive it and forget what I liked about the query in the first place and so the sample would make no sense and I would’ve lost interest in the meantime or gotten busy with something else, etc. etc. etc.

If I do have some sample pages to examine along with the query, I can look at the writing  right away. There’s much less room for error in terms of requesting something that ends up a hot mess, and I have instant gratification. A query intrigues me and I can keep reading immediately. No wait, no chance to lose any enthusiasm. Sometimes, it’s a total let-down. Other times, I like the sample and get even more excited and request the full on the spot.

Before I joined the agency, I was an agented writer myself. My third manuscript and, hence, my third round of querying, landed me an agent (full disclosure: I am not longer with that agent, as that would present a conflict of interest). When I sent out only queries for my first two manuscripts, I got a lukewarm response and it took forever. With my third try, I decided to send 10 pages to everyone, whether requested or not. I think Sarah Palin might’ve called that a “mavericky” move. Almost everyone responded right away, the whole process took two weeks and I got offers from six agents. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but this strategy made it easy for an agent to a) read me right away, b) like me right away, c) get really excited. (Note to writers: I did mention above that this was my third try at getting an agent…that means I’d tried and failed several times. It takes a lot of practice to write a novel that agents consider publishable enough to offer on.)

That’s why I’m so happy the first 10 pages are part of our submission guidelines at ABLit. And I think there’s a good case for making it your submission strategy, regardless of guidelines elsewhere. Just make sure you paste the text in the body of an email if you e-query. Also, the “No attachments” part of many submission guidelines is one you really shouldn’t ignore.

Writing in Multiple Genres or for Multiple Audiences

I got a great question the other week from Gisele:

I had a random thought this morning–do agents typically prefer to represent writers who write in a lot of different genres (like YA, MG, picture books, etc.) or authors that focus on one or two? Are there advantages or disadvantages to either? Or, does the issue depend on the agent?

As an agent, considering a client’s career trajectory is part of the job. We make sure the author has the kind of career they want, we help them choose their next projects, we position them in carefully chosen ways to editors and houses.

I know that a lot of writers want to write in multiple genres or for more than one audience within the juvenile market. Luckily, kidlit lends itself well to this. In adult publishing, it’s harder to go from a hard-boiled mystery, say, to nonfiction investing “how to.” In children’s, it’s a bit easier to transition from middle-grade to picture book to YA, if your voice is flexible enough and you’re familiar with the particulars of each audience.

There are about as many different answers to Gisele’s question, however, as there are agents. Some people believe that a writer should stay with one market audience and establish themselves with a few books before switching. This type of agent will argue that John Green, for example, who has published four contemporary/realistic YA novels, can now switch to another market. There’s a lot of good rationale here. A writer should consider writing at least two books in a row for one audience before switching markets. The benefit of this is that you’ll establish a readership and build a reputation. Once you’ve got a foundation in one market, you’ll start getting a sales record, too, and it will be easier to attract a publisher for that picture book you’ve always wanted to write.

Others don’t see the harm in diversifying. Some suggest market-hopping openly, others might suggest a pseudonym. The conventional wisdom is that you don’t spread yourself thin over too many houses and that you don’t compete with yourself. That means, you shouldn’t sell two fantasy MG novels to two publishers and have them both come out the same season, for example, or any other countless permutation of this scenario. As long as your publishers are happy with your schedule and the variety of projects you’re doing, you’ll be okay.

Personally, I’m happy to work with someone who wants to diversify. At the point where we’re planning career strategy, it really will go on a case by case basis. It’s very difficult to generalize about this. The one constant with everyone who writes across markets, though, is the talent and aptitude to do so. If a writer has a truly excellent picture book and an amazing YA that they want to bring to market, what could possibly be stopping them? Surely not me.

It will be a bit more challenging to sell to multiple publishers for multiple markets right from the beginning, sure. Even if you have sold one or two books already, those books aren’t out yet and you haven’t established a sales record for prospective future publishers to consider. And each time you pick a new market, you’re basically starting from scratch in terms of the money they’ll offer, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career. But such are the growing pains at the start of every journey.

If you want to start diversifying right from square one or establish yourself and then branch out, I will personally welcome the adventure of charting the exact career path you want. For every published writer, though, their career path and the markets they break into will be on a case by case basis between them and their agent.

Inside the Agent/Client Revision Process

Last week, Christa asked the following question (edited slightly):

What are revisions are usually like between agent and writer? Are there common mistakes you see with each client, or does it vary? What is most revised, usually, or is it all over the board? And what kind of turn around time do most agents appreciate (I’m sure it all depends on the amount of revision–but maybe an approximation or something) for the revisions to be completed?

Great question. I love doing editorial work with clients and I think most agents feel similarly. A lot of writers also appreciate the chance to work on their manuscripts before going out on submission. My thought is… if we can strengthen a project and give it the best chance of attracting an editor, why the heck not?

The process of working on revisions with a client really does depend on the manuscript. Here’s how it usually goes, though:

First things first: I read your book, I love your book, I float a few revision ideas by you before offering representation, you like my thoughts and you sign up with me.

The second read and giving notes: I read your manuscript again. I do some light line-editing, honing in on small nitpicky details and areas where the writing or voice could be smoothed in the manuscript. More importantly, I look for character, plot, structure and pacing issues on a macro level. These are things that affect more than just a paragraph or a page. Do two similar best friend characters need to be combined into one? Is the tension of the subplot low throughout the piece? Can we strengthen a character’s relationship with her mother? Etc. etc. etc. These are the bigger changes that I think will make the manuscript stronger and help the storytelling become more compelling.

Genius at work: The writer gets my notes, crafts a voodoo doll in my image and eats some ice cream. Several days pass and they realize a) I’m on their team and b) I’m freaking brilliant (and humble!). If there are any questions or disagreements, I invite my client to talk to me, argue, discuss, vent. We brainstorm together and often surprise each other with unexpected solutions. Then the writer works on revisions. These really do take as long as they take, and each project is different. I’ve seen them take a weekend, I’ve seen them take months. For me, I want them done in a timely manner but quality is much more important. My big pet peeve is seeing a revision that’s been expedited but is incomplete. Revision is a complicated process… you think, you stew, you gnash your teeth, you get ideas, you work and rework… it can’t be rushed.

Now it’s my turn again, and I’m faced with a decision: I read the revision ASAP. My challenge is to try and see it with fresh eyes, forget the last draft, and evaluate whether or not it’s “editor ready.” That last bit can be a difficult decision. Do I want to push the writer into another revision and make it perfect perfect, or is the potential clearly evident, even if I still see a few small tweaks that could be made? I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards. I realize I can’t hold every manuscript to the standard that’s in my head. So at this point, it’s really my call whether or not to go back to the writer. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the manuscript looks great or only has a few tiny issues remaining, I go out on submission. If it needs another revision, it’s lather, rinse, repeat, only there should be much less work to do on the second pass.

There are all sorts of situations that can arise, though. The writer can totally go off in a different direction and it turns out they’ve made the manuscript worse. This is a situation that’s happened to every agent and it is an icky, horrible one. Everyone has different skills when it comes to writing. Some people are good at revision, others aren’t. You never know how strong your client’s skills are in this department until you go through a round. Luckily, though, once writers are at the level where they’re working with an agent, they’re usually revision professionals.

A lot of Christa’s questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with “It depends on the client and the manuscript.” However, I just want to hammer home that the most common revision mistake I see is rushing through the work. Some writers see notes and take them very literally. They only fix those notes — as if checking them off a To Do list — and spend no time thinking and imagining how else they might refine, finesse, deepen. They go through page by page but never stop to consider how to take their manuscript to the next level. My expectation is that there’s always some creative evolution, above and beyond the things I mention in my notes. I can always tell when a writer has rushed through revision, because it comes back with changes that have only been made at the surface level.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear. I only sign a client and work on revision in-depth when I absolutely love the project and am confident I can sell it. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to me and the writer. I can’t pitch something I’m not crazy passionate about and every writer deserves nothing less in their advocate. So when I give revision notes — even if they seem like a lot of work — it’s because I believe in the project and the author with all my heart. And there is very little that’s more satisfying and gratifying to me than reading a revision that has been absolutely, positively hit out of the ballpark.

Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent

Elizabeth asked this great question yesterday and I wanted to tackle it for everyone:

I am unpublished and unagented, but I have a picture book manuscript under serious consideration at a great publishing house. If I am offered a contract, can I (without annoying the publisher) try to find an agent before accepting the contract? Would this take too much time from the publisher’s point of view? Would agents be likely to take me on at this stage? I have heard that many agents are not interested in picture book authors. Is it better to try to find a literary contract lawyer and pursue an agent after I have a published book under my belt? Such a raft of questions! I am obviously in a stew.

Most of the advice I can give Elizabeth will apply to all creators who have received an offer for their work and want to find an agent, so read on. First of all, congratulations! Even though there’s no firm offer yet, you’re in a good place. I’d advise you to take the time — once you receive a firm offer — to find an agent. IMPORTANT: Tell the editor “Thank you so much for your offer. Before I get back to you, I’m going to try and partner with a literary agent.” They’ll be fine with this, it happens all the time. But make sure you don’t agree to the terms of the offer just yet (I know that can be hard and anxiety-making. Don’t worry, they won’t withdraw it.) When you query, put something like this in your subject line: “Picture book Query — OFFER RECEIVED.” Believe me, you’ll catch a few eyes because it’s good news for both you and the prospective agent.

Since you have an offer on the table, the agent search won’t take too long. Agents tend to read things that have offers quickly, and picture books are easy to evaluate fast. I’d say that, if getting an agent is your eventual goal and you’re sure you’ll have one sooner or later, do it now while you can seem more attractive to them and rope them in from the first contract, not after it. There’s really not much reason not to.

Now, the agents I know are still taking picture books on but it’s tougher to attract an agent with a picture book than with a fiction manuscript, that’s true. Make sure you query people who deal in picture books or have in the past. When I’m evaluating a picture book author, I always ask them what else they have. Before I take one on, I like to know that this author has other manuscripts. I’d be less interested to take an author on who only has one or two picture book ideas in them. I want someone who has potential for a long and lucrative career, of course.

As for the deal itself, I do want to tell you that a) if you get an agent before you sign your contract, they will take 15% of the money you’ll earn and b) there will be a very limited number of things they’ll actually be able to do for you with this contract. Especially if you’ve already accepted, verbally or in writing, the offer. They might not be able to get you a better advance, but they probably will be able to negotiate better terms for you, like rights, options, royalties, etc than you would’ve gotten on your own. So you will lose some money in the short term but will most likely fare better in the long run with this particular book when you bring an agent aboard.

All that said, an offer in hand isn’t a magic bullet. The agent will still have to love you and your work enough to be your long-term advocate, for this deal and for those in the future. I wouldn’t take someone on automatically just because they have an offer. Overall, a good situation to be in. I’m obvious in favor of writers getting agents, but I’m also very much in favor of this particular scenario, since this is exactly how I got my first picture book author/illustrator client, who I love!

Polish the Entire Manuscript

Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

There’s only so much a person can tell from a query. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart.

Why? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices for the rest. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into every other page of the project. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the rest. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

Rejection Follow-Up

I hope this post will lift the veil a bit and let writing hopefuls see some of my thought process as an agent. There’s some truth here about rejection that might not be fun to hear. Sensitive souls might want to turn back now.

An issue that some writers wonder about is rejection follow-up, aka., what to do once you get a rejection in your inbox? Tread carefully, writers! A rejection is, by its very nature, unpleasant. There are many different types of rejection — something I’ll post on very soon — and some rejections are better than others, but at the end of the day, it’s still a “no” when you want to hear a “yes.” Here are two frequent rejection follow-up responses agents get:

The Salesman: “Oh, you don’t like this particular manuscript? Well, I’ve got something else here in my Bag o’ Tricks that might just fit the bill instead.”

Here’s the ugly truth, writers: when we reject something, it is because we don’t believe we can sell it to a publishing house. About 90% of the time, this is because the manuscript is just not ready to be shown for possible publication. The writing is weak. There’s no voice. The idea doesn’t have any spark. (The other 10%, of course, is reserved for people who are rejected because they’re just plain crazy…) I try to give some constructive feedback if I see the opportunity. But most of the time, it’s simply because the writing is not ready. (The good thing about that, of course, is that every day is a new opportunity to improve your craft and get it ready!)

This problem is not going to be fixed by trotting out another manuscript. Or two. Or three. I used to let people show me a few things if they so insisted but the results were always the same and now I dread this situation.

Whatever you have in your stable, chances are, it still has the same general writing issues as the thing I just rejected. It’s already a less-than-pleasant part of my job to reject you. Don’t force me to do it again.

Please don’t start going through your roster of manuscripts and offering up everything else you’ve ever written unless you can categorically say that the quality is a huge improvement (and if it is, why not just send that in the first place?). Instead, hone your craft, get opinions from readers you trust and query around after some time has passed and you’re confident that your work is stronger.

The Rage: “You are the stupidest/most incompetent/ugliest/smelliest person in the world and you are missing out on MILLIONS, LITERALLY MILLIONS of dollars by rejecting my genius opus. I thought you were one of the smart ones and could recognize brilliance when you saw it. Well I guess I was wrong.”

Nothing needs to be said about this other than: email makes it easy to respond, no matter what emotional state you happen to be in. That doesn’t mean you should.

Long story short? Don’t take a rejection to mean that the door’s wide open for everything you’ve ever written and don’t be a psycho.

What are the two preferred responses to a rejection?

  • “Thanks for reading!”
  • Nothing

Simple as that.

References in your Manuscript

Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a manuscript:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990’s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.
Jac

While Jac is writing for a younger audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picturebook to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that hearkening back to the 90’s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like MG and YA, have lots of opportunities. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

If you use references from our world, you can make your story seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, we have hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references is that they either seem tacked on to a story, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80’s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90’s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.