Query Letter Submission Opportunity

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!

Are you currently working on a query letter? Have you successfully used a query letter to get literary agent representation or a publishing deal?

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Help me help other writers, and submit your query letter examples!

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:

  • Picture book query
  • Nonfiction picture book query
  • Early reader query
  • Chapter book query
  • Middle grade query
  • Young adult query
  • General fiction query
  • Literary fiction query
  • Genre query query (fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, romance, etc.)
  • Memoir or creative nonfiction query (for any audience)
  • Nonfiction query (in any category, eg, business, reference, parenting, etc.)
  • Self-published project query

The queries will be used for a paywall-protected teaching resource only, they will not be published or distributed widely on the blog.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:

mary@kidlit.com

The deadline for submissions is November 16th, 2018. I will respond to every submission. I will ask for a 30-day turnaround on query annotations, so, unfortunately, the query critique opportunity is not for queries you’re planning to go on submission with, like, tomorrow

Query Letter Format

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.

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Click this image to download my query letter format and query letter example PDF!

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!)

Now I’m making that handout (only spiffier) available to you, no conference attendance required. Click this link to download the PDF.

Query Letter Template

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.

The handout includes a query letter template on the second page. Click this link to download the PDF.

Successful Queries

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!

How to Write a Novel Synopsis

The novel synopsis is a source of great consternation for many writers, and I completely understand why. To be honest, I hate writing them, I hate reading them, and I know I’m not alone. They are, usually, both crime and punishment. But they are a necessary evil for several reasons, which I’ll mention. Read on to find out how to take the sting out of this basic publishing skill.

synopsis writing, novel synopsis, how to write a synopsis
“Do I really have to read this thing? You read the synopsis! You read it and I’ll get you coffee for a week…”

What a Novel Synopsis Is and What It Does

A novel synopsis is, in very basic terms, a one-to-four-page document that explains every major plot point and character development moment. That’s it and that’s all. For such a short and simple document, it sure seems to stir up a lot of angst.

Okay, so maybe my perspective is biased. I’m sure not everyone hates the novel synopsis. I’m sure there are writers out there who write amazing synopses, and agents/editors who gobble them up. Don’t get me wrong, they serve an important purpose.

A synopsis demonstrates how you think about story, how you plot, and how you wrap everything up. These are very important skills. Wonderful pitches fall apart all the time in the execution.

Agents and publishers are curious to know:

  • that you have a lively cast of characters
  • that you are working with enough plot and subplot, or whether it’s too little or too much
  • that you’re building appropriate stakes and tension as the story progresses
  • how you plan on landing this thing once it’s going, whether everything will be resolved or you’re leaving some threads open for potential future stories
  • if you have any big red flags or fatal flaws in your story, which usually happen in the second half (see “Fair Warning”, below)

Some agents and publishers pay a lot of attention to the synopsis. Some glance at it. Others don’t even request one. No matter what, it would behoove you to have this document available in at least two lengths, to deploy when necessary.

How to Write a Strong Novel Synopsis

The best way to write a strong novel synopsis is to sit down and do it. Sorry! That’s it! There’s no secret magic dust that I can give you in this case.

Open a blank document and jot down all of the major plot events of your story. You can start in bullet points, if that helps, but eventually you’ll want to write them out in narrative format. Don’t worry about making it cute, pitchy, or voice-y. Your writing should be clear and tight. Just the facts, ma’am.  Be sure to fold in the three or four biggest character turning points, too. These are the changes your character goes through as they get where they’re going. My strong belief is that a synopsis will involve character somehow, to give a sense of how plot and protagonist play together.

For plot, at minimum, you want to hit your opening (the inciting incident that launches your story), a handful of strong points in the middle as things go wrong and obstacles arise, your climax, and your resolution.

Mention only those details that are necessary for clarity and understanding. If the mom’s job is important to the plot, include it. If the dog and cute neighbor factor into the story but not in a big way, you may want to leave them out. For the purposes of this document, you are running lean.

For all of my surprise and reveal fans: Sorry. I’m about to crush your dreams. But you have to reveal your twists and turns, and your ending. I know you want to tease, tease, tease an agent into reading the whole manuscript. You think that if you just withhold the major twist ending, they will fall over themselves to request and sink five hours of reading into your novel because the suspense will kill them otherwise. Well, catch-22, the odds that they’ll request the full and then get all the way to the end are slim if you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing first and that your twist is worth it. (There are people who vehemently disagree and will fight me on this. You’re not changing my mind, but I fully expect to hear from you!)

Tips for Novel Synopsis Writing

The most common lengths for a novel synopsis are: one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages (roughly the same as one single-spaced page), two single-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages. The reason for this wishy-washiness is that different agents/publishers will request different things in different formats. I recommend having three synopses available to send when you start submitting: a tight one single-spaced page, two double-spaced pages, and four double-spaced pages (this one will not be requested that often).

So you can attack this beast in one of two ways:

Option 1: You sit down and write your entire novel in one single-spaced page (you still need normal 1″ margins and paragraph spacing, so you can’t just use every available centimeter of space). This is the more difficult approach, because I’m guessing your novel probably has more than one page of material. So whittling it down so drastically is daunting. But doing it all at once is also very helpful, because once you’ve shrunk it, you can much more easily add some substance to make a longer synopsis for a two-page and four-page option.

Option 2: You sit down and you do the painful shave. Start with four double-spaced pages. Put down more detail than necessary. Introduce the bulk of your secondary and tertiary characters. Mention events that don’t have a lot of bearing on character change or plot stakes. Save this version. Open another document. Now you’re aiming for two double-spaced pages. Shave, shave, shave. Delete everything possible that doesn’t impact the reader’s understanding of your story. Save this version. Then single-space it and realize that you’re over one page. Now the real agony begins as you distill further. Save the one-page version. And voila! This is perhaps the more scenic route, but the destination is the same.

There is one great test of a synopsis that I recommend to everyone: Show it to someone who doesn’t know your story, and then have them explain your book to you. If they kinda sorta get it and are able to hit the major points, you’ve written a successful synopsis. If they start to squirm, you’re not being clear enough. Your synopsis is either too thin or too detailed.

The only way out is through, my friends. So sit down, embrace our love/hate relationship with this document, and let’s get started.

Fair Warning: Part of the synopsis’ job is to reveal story problems. If you write a synopsis and have trouble filling it with actual plot points, it might mean that your plot is too thin. If you can’t possibly omit any plot points and your synopsis is five pages, that might mean that the scope of your novel is too broad. Be prepared to learn that you might have bigger issues as you write this summary document. It definitely happens.

I had a client recently come to me for a 30-minute discussion of his query and opening pages. My big piece of feedback was, “I don’t know if this is a query problem or a novel problem, but I’m not seeing any plot here. Something should be kicking into gear in these opening pages, and the query should be covering more development than I’m seeing.” We moved on to a complete manuscript service and, guess what? There is very little plot, and that is a big issue. Keep your eyes and ears open as you prepare your synopsis documents, you might learn more than just how to write a novel synopsis.

I include synopsis comments with every service as a manuscript editor. If you’re really struggling with yours, let’s work on it together.

Submitting to Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work

Today I’d like to talk about submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work. There are only so many literary agents to go around, so I understand resubmitting a query letter to the same agents with multiple projects, or multiple revisions of the same project. Longtime blog friend Mary puts it like this:

I’m starting my second round of submitting my novel to agents. There are some agents I submitted it to between three and four years ago. I’ve substantially revised the novel in that time. Should I submit again to agents who had no interest back then? Two years ago I submitted a second novel to them with no luck either. Will they think “GAA! Her again!”?

submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work, resubmitting a query, slush pile, should I send to an agent who has rejected me, do i send queries to the same agents
Hey, so, I know this novel might sound familiar. But it’s changed, I swear!

Barking Up The Wrong Literary Agent Tree

I’ve discussed shades of this question before. For example, do you want to send a revision of a novel to an agent currently considering that same manuscript? But I realized I’ve never tackled this question before. And it’s a tough one, I’m afraid.

Unfortunately, even though you’ve corresponded with these agents before and they’ve looked at things of yours, it doesn’t seem like they’re hot leads for you. If you haven’t gotten a project through to a particular agent with either a personalized and encouraging rejection, or a revision request… And if this particular pattern has played out with two different manuscripts…

I’m afraid resubmitting a query will not help you connect with that particular agent because it may not be a fit. I can’t say this with 100% certainty for each agent on your submission list, of course. I’m not them. But I’d say that your chances are on the slimmer side.

Remind Them of Your History When Submitting To Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work

Especially if you’re considering resubmitting a query with a new version of a manuscript they’ve already seen. You can absolutely try to submit to them. There’s nothing preventing you, unless you got a sense about any of the agents that they simply didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, your work. (It’s definitely not worth barking up their tree if that’s the case.) But do you want to submit to them again? I would be wary of this approach, honestly. You’ve identified the potential issue with it in your question.

Agents do remember people who’ve submitted to them, even a few years on. Most use email inboxes that make your previous submissions easy to find. And if you’re submitting to them and you have a history of previous submissions, you do want to mention that they’ve previously seen your work in your query. So they’ll have everything at their fingertips to remind themselves of your previous correspondence.

Now the agent receives another submission from you. And, in this case, it’s a resubmission of a project they’ve passed on. They will likely consider it. Will it be real interest, though, or politeness? That’s tough to say. Your fear isn’t completely unfounded. The agent might, realistically, wonder why you keep submitting to them if they haven’t given you any positive signals in the past. Sometimes an agent will have dozens of submissions from the same writer, even though none have hit their mark. Agents definitely remember these names.

Are you at that level of notoriety with one project, a second project, and a revision? No, but you’re getting up there. You know the old adage. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. In your case, this might not be insanity, of course. You may have turned around a phenomenal revision. And I hope you have! Focus your efforts on people who have either shown you encouragement, though, or new faces.

Know When to Keep Submitting a Project, and When to Move On

Long story short, in publishing, as in dating, it might be tempting to chase someone who doesn’t encourage your advances, but that may not be your strongest shot at success. I would advise you to freshen up your list of potential agents and submit to some new names. Let other agents see your revision for the first time! If nothing comes of that process, then you’re facing the difficult decision of whether you want to revise again, or chalk this manuscript up as a learning experience. Submitting to literary agents who have already rejected your work can be tricky and risky. It may be worth a shot, though.

Do I love giving this advice? Absolutely not. But I respect you too much to sugarcoat a reply. I wish you the best of luck!

Are you getting nowhere with your manuscript? Wondering if you should keep revising or focus on a new project? Give yourself the strongest shot at success by working with me as your book editor. I can help you with questions of career strategy as well.

Submitting Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents

Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question about submitting multiple queries to multiple agents:

Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.

This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts!

multiple queries to multiple agents, submitting multiple queries, sending more than one query at a time, querying multiple agents
Thinking of lighting up New York City with your submissions? Think very hard before querying multiple projects to the same agent, or multiple projects to multiple agents…

The two questions here are:

  1. Should I send two projects to the same agent?
  2. Should I query multiple projects at a time?

If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed?

Submitting Multiple Queries to the Same Agent at Once

Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent them another submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances.

Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a bit melodramatic, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.

Querying More Than One Project at a Time

Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be. Keep that in mind.

Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see that it’d turn into a mess very, very quickly.

Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents is Too Much

FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.

Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”

Not only do I do manuscript editing, but I am also a publishing strategy consultant. If you’d like to talk your submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

How Do I Make My Familiar Premise Fresh?

There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

The Importance of Writing Clips

A lot of writers hear the well-meaning advice that, in order to break in more easily, they should have some writing clips and credits to their resume. It’s good advice, and I especially don’t want to disenfranchise the many writers who have been actively pursuing this strategy with my answer, because it is a very worthwhile strategy.

In case you haven’t thought about this issue before, I’ll summarize here: When you’re an aspiring writer, you have a lot of ambition to write, but not a lot of platform. People aren’t buying what you want to sell, basically. Or, if they are, they aren’t really paying you for it. You’re probably getting opportunities to showcase your work on blogs and at other web-based venues that don’t have a budget to compensate contributors. Or maybe you start your own blog, like this ol’ hack did! This is how a lot of people get going.

Then you think that there has to be more out there that’s, well, more noteworthy to a potential publishing gatekeeper. So maybe you explore other avenues to showcase your work. Whether it’s in the children’s writing realm, say, Highlights Magazine, or in an unrelated area, like an op-ed for the local newspaper, or a poem in a general fiction literary journal, you start to set your sights higher.

Whether you try to gather clips in print journalism, the literary community, scientific or medical magazines (a lot of writers have done a lot of technical writing for their day jobs), etc., you’re basically writing and racking up pieces that someone else has vetted and decided are good enough to publish.

This all makes a lot of sense, right? If you want to write, write, and maybe the momentum of all your writing will speed up your efforts on the book publishing front. Being published is being published, no matter what you’re publishing. And writing professionals love to see writing credits. Right? Weeeeeeeeeell…

It’s not often that clear-cut. Publishing an op-ed in your local paper in Portland is not the magic ticket to calling attention to yourself with a children’s book editor in New York, unless, of course, your op-ed or Huffpo article causes such a stir that it goes “viral” and attracts a lot of attention or controversy. In fact, under my original name (a much longer version of “Kole”), I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which is a notable newspaper that people have heard of. And I thought, for sure, this was my golden ticket. The day it ran, I waited for the phone to ring. Aaaaand…my mother was very proud of me. Then one man from Idaho took offense at my sense of humor. That’s about it.

The fact of the matter is, if you can say in your query that you’ve published with a top-tier publication that most casual readers have heard of, that’s going to be an amazing feather in your cap. And agents and editors might take notice. But it’s likely not going to get you a book publishing contract.

And outside of that, if you’re publishing on blogs, or in smaller literary magazines, or in venues that have nothing whatsoever to do with publishing novels, then your clips are going to tell a potential agent or editor one positive thing, but one positive thing only: That you’ve hustled a little and know a little bit about the process. And that’s a positive thing, because that might indicate that you’re at least somewhat easy to work with during the publishing process. But it’s not a guarantee of anything.

My main objection to splitting your focus and concentrating on amassing clips if your primary goal is to publish a book can be expressed in this recent post. The truth of the matter is, some journalists spend years trying to crack the New York Times for their own resumes. It’s an entirely new skillset. First, there’s learning how to write well enough that the Times would take interest. Then it’s cultivating contacts and editor relationships that will get you prime consideration. Then it’s learning the culture of the publication (and every publication has one, no matter how small they are) and learning how to work within it successfully. After a lot of effort, you may finally get published in the Times. But then you’re published in the Times, not in the book realm.

What’s missing from this picture of all the effort you’ve put in? Oh yeah, honing your novel craft, which is why you’re doing any of this to begin with. So gathering clips is phenomenal, but it doesn’t help you accomplish your primary goal directly. And there’s no guarantee that it will help you accomplish your primary goal indirectly, either. You may sink a few years into pitching freelance articles to magazines, distract yourself, and maybe emerge with one well-regarded piece in Real Simple…that has nothing to do with your novel.

Is that payoff worth it? Only you can decide. This strategy only seems to work well when you’re a journalist in your day job, and a novelist by night. Then you possess both skillsets already, and you can jump back and forth more easily. Otherwise, it’s like going through all the work and trouble of growing a new arm, just so you can give your primary hands better manicures. It seems like a lot more effort than it’s worth.

The Product and the Pitch, Part Two

Many of you who are familiar with my writing have heard me express surprise and frustration at the idea that so many writers are obsessed with the pitch that the product (in our case, the manuscript) seems almost an afterthought. Back when I would speak at conferences, I would get maybe 8 questions out of ten about the query letter, with only 2 about craft. Once the pitch is over (one page, or about three minutes in a conference session), the burden of proof falls squarely on the product. And in the end, the product is what matters!

But people still love to talk about that pitch. I think I know why. It’s what you present, so IT feels like the “make or break” point, not the manuscript that follows. It’s also shorter and more formulaic, so it’s easier to control. You can’t really control whether someone falls in love with your manuscript right from the get-go: Tastes vary, manuscripts are of various quality, and your style comes into play a lot more. But with the pitch, if you have a great query, it’s pretty easy to feel confident. There are fewer moving parts to gamble with.

So that’s where the attention goes. Good? Bad? I say it’s understandable.

The pitch is what opens the door, so it does deserve its fair share of focus. But once you have someone on the hook, you still have to reel them in, and that’s where all attention goes back to the manuscript. So you can’t escape that nasty product part, no matter how hard you try.

To even get people to look, though, you need the pitch to be solid. The more I think about it, the more I see that a pitch needs to:

  • Be specific
  • Be targeted (audience-focused)
  • Answer the question, “Why does my audience need this?”

The good and bad news is that a pitch can’t change your product. It can spin it, sure, and a certain amount of spin is desirable, but if you aren’t already thinking about these questions as you write your project, your pitch won’t superimpose them onto your manuscript in a satisfying way. You can say that your product is all sorts of things in the pitch, but if that doesn’t come across when someone reads it, the pitch is going to get thrown out as inaccurate. So if you’ve never thought about what your book really is, or who it’s for, or why it’s necessary in a crowded publishing marketplace, you’re likely going to struggle mightily with the query letter, which basically asks you to talk about all of these things.

The worst pitch in the world is pretty much along the following lines:

This is a really great coming of age story about a character who goes through a lot of stuff and comes out the other side. It’s for everyone from zero to 100, and I wrote it because I’ve had this story in my head for thirty years, simply begging to be told, and it wouldn’t let me go until I got it all down on paper.

It’s not specific (every story that involves character change can be seen as a “coming of age”), it spits in the face of the old adage about trying to be everything to everyone and brazenly disregards the reality that there are very specific audiences out in Publishingland, and it doesn’t justify its own existence in the larger scheme of things. You know how baby pictures are always adorable to the parents? And that’s great? But not everyone wants to look at other people’s baby pictures past the first couple unless there’s something personal and notable about them? Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Back to Shark Tank. The entrepreneurs that make it hook the Sharks with a pitch that answers the above questions. What’s the product? It’s not just a doohickey. The world has enough of those. It’s a doohickey that’s for…the kitchen, the garage, taking great baby pictures, whatever. In publishing terms, let’s say it’s a dystopian romance.

It’s not for everyone, because if you say it’s for everyone, the savvy Shark is going to know full well that you can’t market a product to everyone. For exaggeration’s sake, that would cost trillions of dollars and you’d have to get your message to the outer reaches of Mongolia. Not possible, nor desirable, even. Because the savvy Shark knows that 7.9999 billion of our 8 billion marketing recipients are probably not going to like or need whatever the product is. There’s only one thing that’s for everyone, and that’s oxygen. (Except anaerobic bacteria don’t like it. See? You can’t please everyone.) And maybe vanilla ice cream. But are you really going to try going up against the clout of vanilla ice cream?! Everyone is different, and we all like different things. This is GOOD. In publishing terms, our example is a dark YA fantasy for today’s troubled world.

Finally, we get to the big “why.” And this is the hardest question to tackle. I am often left with this idea after I finish reading a manuscript. And? So? Why? Why does this need to be a story? “Well,” the writer stammers, “it’s a story I really want to tell about a kid who goes on an adventure.” So what? Everyone goes on adventures every single day. We all have incredible stories that make up our lives. Why do I need to give you hours of my time and dollars of my paycheck to read your story? (Especially since it’s one you just made up?) Well, that’s where the question of theme comes in. What about your story is going to dovetail with my story and bring about a new or different understanding of the bigger picture? How is it going to elevate my life? In our publishing example, let’s say that heavy identity and survival themes are explored against the backdrop of a troubled world, which uneasily mirrors our own. To think about this as you write, to mention this in the query shows that you’ve seriously thought about the “why” and that your product has a raison d’etre (reason for being, I don’t know how to do the little hat accent on the first “e”).

Let’s tie our doohickey example all together and hit all three points:

The Doohickey 3000 is a revolutionary tool for new and exhausted parents that guarantees you’ll never take a bad baby picture. Baby will be so mesmerized by the Doohickey 3000 that they won’t blink, drool, cry, or vomit, and it will coax a gummy smile out of even the fussiest youngsters. Whether it’s to finally get your family and friends to “like” your damn baby pictures, or to take the world by storm by landing your baby on one of those terrible clickbait viral websites, the Doohickey 3000 will help you foist your bundle of joy on the world with ease!

Now let’s circle back to our publishing example:

DOOHICKEY is a dark YA dystopian romance that pits two teenagers against a scary and uncertain world that closely resembles our own. By deeply exploring themes of identity and survival, it will give contemporary teen readers an outlet to explore some of the fear and uncertainty of growing up in a world where there’s a public shooting every week and we have somehow turned into our own worst enemies.

If you don’t know how to answer some of these questions about your own manuscript, maybe it’s time to go back and really dig into that third question, the “why.” Why are you writing it? Why is it a good project to work on now? Why might the world embrace this story?

“Because I wanna write it, I just wanna,” is fine, and that passion is what’s going to keep you going through revisions, but it’s not enough when you start to think about the reality of publishing, which is that publishers want to put products (books) out that will sell to customers (a reading audience). They don’t just exist to make your childhood dreams come true, or so you can print business cards that say “Author.”

Once you know what it is, who it’s for, and why they’d probably like it, then the pitch becomes very easy to assemble.

Picture Book Author Notes and Backmatter

I received a question the other day (thanks, Kate!) about picture book author notes and backmatter, and an author notes example in manuscripts. Great stuff. Let me give you some information on the topic so that you can move more confidently forward with your picture book submissions.

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When you want to add extra information to your manuscript, use an author note.

When and Why to Use Picture Book Author Notes in Nonfiction

First of all, you see author notes more frequently in nonfiction work. After the topic is covered in the manuscript, it’s widely accepted to hear from the author (limited to about a page, with text that’s not too dense). The purpose is to add a few interesting tidbits that maybe didn’t fit into the actual narrative (maybe you’re covering a certain period in history with the text, and want to add some “footnotes” of what we’ve learned about that period since), or to personalize the subject.

Authors will often speak to why they gravitated to a particular subject or why they find it particularly fascinating. You shouldn’t style it as a diary entry, but as long as you can keep up the same tone and level of interesting content, you can take a more personal approach. The tone is friendly and engaging.

Author Notes in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction

For nonfiction/fiction hybrid and straight-up fiction manuscripts, where there’s a nonfiction subject but it’s fictionalized or the project deals with a nonfiction principle applied to a more artistic main text, the author note switches function. (More advice if you’re blending fiction and nonfiction picture books.)

If your project, is, for example, a fictionalized account of a historical figure or a purely fiction story whose plot has a lot to do with the life-cycle of Monarch butterflies, for example, you want to use the author note as a teaching tool, to provide concrete information. The text is all about Bonnie observing the Monarch life-cycle, but the author note sums it up with additional facts that would’ve weighed down the text itself. In this picture book author notes example, the tone is more academic.

How Long Should Your Picture Book Author Notes Be

So what kind of author note do you have on your hands? Are you “softening” a nonfiction text or are you adding factual scaffolding to a fiction or fictionalized text? For the former, you’ll want to keep your author note brief. If your text is 2,000 words, 250 additional words wouldn’t be uncalled for, or an eighth of your manuscript length. This word count is a good author notes example. (Do note that nonfiction picture book texts tend to run longer than fiction, because it’s understood that there’s more information to communicate and the audience is on the older end of the spectrum.)

If you are working with the former “scaffolding” style of note, 500 additional words, or a quarter of your main text, would be your upper limit.

These are not hard-and-fast guidelines, but more of an exploration of the issue. Use the author note to say enough, but don’t write a second manuscript. If you find there’s a whole lot you want to add in your postscript, maybe there’s a way to revise the main text? Remember, the note shouldn’t do the heavy lifting. The main text has to be the star.

How to Mention Picture Book Author Notes In Your Query Letter

As for mentioning the author note in your submission, that’s easy-peasy lemon-squeezy: “The main text of TITLE is X,000 words, with an author note of X words at the end.” Ta-da!

I’ve discussed picture books primarily in this post, but MG and YA novels also have tons of room for an author note. A good author notes example, say, is if your YA is largely inspired by the historical character of Lizzie Borden, feel free to spend even 2,000 words or so on some of the bloody facts of the case, and why your twisted little mind ( 😉 ) decided to use it as inspiration. Word count limits apply less to novel author notes, though you still want to keep them engaging and quick.

Working on picture book nonfiction or fiction with a real world subject? Let me help you hit the appropriate tone, voice, and level of information as your picture book editor.