Query letter advice, query letter samples, and how to write a query letter advice for the children’s book marketplace. From query letter length to how to start a query letter to how to reply to a query letter. All of your query letter questions for the children’s book market are answered in these articles.
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!
The two questions here are:
Should I send two projects to the same agent?
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? Multiple queries to the same agent? Multiple queries to multiple agents? Or none of the above?
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 another literary agent 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 melodramatic take on querying multiple projects, 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 okay with you having another literary agent submission floating around out there. 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 how submitting multiple queries to multiple agents could turn into a mess very, very quickly. (Check out my post on having more than one literary agent for more on this topic.)
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 literary agent submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.
Revising your novel takes time. Revision is where the story really takes shape, after all. Not everyone understands that revising a book is just as important as writing it, though.
Revising a Book: An Anecdote
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 for revising a book, 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.
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 finish revising your novel? 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.
Revising Your Novel: Expect to Put in the Work
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 actually revising a book. 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 say, “I wrote a book, now what?” They 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 revising your novel. 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!
Revising a book? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll challenge you to make your manuscript the best it can be before you send it off to agents.
There’s not a single new book premise in the world. I’m sorry, but there really isn’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.
What Do You Do When Your Book Premise is Overdone?
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 book premise, 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?”
When you’re considering book ideas to write, remember that 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.
The Devil is in the Details
So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter with a familiar book premise? 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 considering book ideas to write 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 worldbuilding) 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.
Put A Spin On It!
This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a book premise that puts 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 book premise? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what worldbuilding 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 that particular book premise 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 for the fantasy premise. 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 a familiar book premise.
Are you struggling with coming up with fresh book ideas to write? Hire my developmental editing services and I’ll help you shape a premise that’s unique.
A lot of writers hear the well-meaning advice that, in order to break in more easily, they should have some writing clips and publishing 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.
Collecting Writing Clips
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 in terms of collecting publishing credits.
Agents Love to See Writing Credits, Right?
Whether you try to gather writing 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.
What’s Your Ultimate Goal?
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 writing 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 publishing credits if your primary goal is to publish a book can be expressed in this recent post about publishing a novel excerpt. 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.
Chasing Clips Takes Time Away from Honing Your Novel
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 writing 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 best sales piece to generate excitement isn’t publishing credits; it’s a strong manuscript. Plain and simple. Hire me as your novel editor and I can help you get there without resorting to gimmicks.
Many of you who are familiar with my writing have heard me express surprise and frustration at the idea that writers are so obsessed with the elevator 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 sales hook 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!
Why the Focus on the Elevator Pitch?
But people still love to talk about that elevator 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 elevator pitch, if you have a great query and a snappy logline, 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 elevator pitch is what opens the door, so it does deserve its fair share of focus. But once you have someone on the hook with that snappy logline, 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.
What an Elevator Pitch Needs to Do
To even get people to look, though, you need the elevator pitch to be solid. The more I think about it, the more I see that an elevator pitch needs to:
Be targeted (audience-focused)
Answer the question, “Why does my audience need this?”
The good and bad news is that an elevator 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 elevator 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 elevator pitch and logline, 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 Ineffective Elevator Pitch
The worst elevator 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?
What, Who, and Why?
Back to Shark Tank. The entrepreneurs that make it hook the Sharks with an elevator pitch and logline that answer 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 our logline is something like, “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”).
The Effective Elevator Pitch
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.
Figure out Your “Why”
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 that doesn’t translate into a logline and pitch that’ll hook publishers. 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 elevator pitch becomes very easy to assemble.
If you have a sparkling manuscript that’s ready to submit, hire my query editing services to make sure your pitch is hitting the what, the who, and the why.
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.
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.
If you are an artist, I highly recommend having an online children’s book illustrator portfolio. 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. Well, almost.
If you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance to build your illustrator website. This is a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past. You could also ask someone 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.
Building An Online Children’s Book Illustrator Portfolio
I see a lot of artists gravitating to Wix and SquareSpace for building their online children’s book illustrator portfolio. 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!
An Easy Way To Get Started
If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start your online children’s book illustrator portfolio with a free Flickr account that showcases 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.
A Necessary Part of Querying
Many people overthink the process of building an illustrator website. Sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a children’s book illustrator portfolio. If you’re illustrating your own children’s book, having an online presence has become quite necessary these days. 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.
When I talk about how to write a logline, I mean crafting 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.
Most Writers Struggle With How to Write a Logline
If you think queries and synopses are hard, fiction 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.
How to Write a Great Fiction Logline
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!”
Putting Your Novel Pitch Together
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).
Fiction Loglines in Character-Driven Novels
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.
Want help with how to write a logline? Hire me as your query letter editor and we’ll work on it together.
Writers, one of the most valuable query letter tips I can give you is not to put the cart before the horse in terms of what you’re pitching. When I was a literary agent, sometimes I’d see writers who’d say, “I have such and such project that would make a great app. And then this other project just screams to be developed into a touring ice show. Finally, I can just see the face of my third protagonist plastered on everything from stuffed animals to t-shirts.”
Query Letter Tips
There’s a lot to be said about focusing on your project as a book idea rather than a multiplatform publishing idea. I saw enough of this type of pitch that I want to drive home one of my query letter tips: it’s okay to simply have a book that’s going to make a good book. In fact, that’s the point of trying to query a book.
1. It’s About the Story, Not the Ancillary Rights
And let me just add to what I’ve already said by emphasizing that nowhere is it stated that every single book idea will get every single ancillary product/right/option in the world. When you look at the sheer number of things that get published every year, a much smaller percentage goes on to merchandising opportunities, movie options, video game licenses, and all of the other things that some aspiring writers dream about.
I think that all this talk of apps really got people’s imaginations going. “It’s going to be a book AND an app, guaranteed,” one thinks, “because everyone is talking about apps!”Then that “and…” mentality spread to theme parks and licensed coffee tumblers and international editions. I get it. But it’s very important to remember that most books don’t get apps, or foreign sales, or entertainment deals.
2. Avoid Requirements
That’s the danger of REQUIRING anything on your publishing journey, whether it’s a trilogy of books in order to tell your story or a read-and-play app that plugs into your premise. The more you require, especially as a debut, the fewer incentives you’re giving a house to take a chance on you. Your “and” turns into their “but,” ie: “We really see the potential for this book idea BUT they’re pushing us for a trilogy and I’m just not sure that we can make that kind of investment.”
3. Tone Down Expectations
Require less, open your mind to telling your story in the simplest way possible, and celebrate the ancillary rights that roll in. It’s often a fun and happy surprise when Hollywood calls or a comic book edition is picked up, and it can pay a month or more of your rent. Yay! But it’s not guaranteed and it’s also not the end all and be all. Keep it in perspective. That’s the best way to establish market savvy and tone down your expectations, thereby becoming a writer that many more people would be willing and excited to work with.
Hire me for query editing and I’ll help you nail the tone and content of your letter.
Describing plot in a query letter can be tricky. Many writers stumble over the “meat” of the pitch. One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” You need to think about premise vs plot, and make sure you’re describing you story’s plot in your query.
(Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.)
This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.
Are You Listing or Are You Describing Plot in a Query Letter?
Here’s an example of what not to do when describing plot in a query letter:
Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.
Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…
Sell the Reader on Your Query Letter
This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot pitch in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.”
When you’re describing plot in a query letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.
Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.
Structure the Pitch, Don’t Ask the Agent to Do the Work
That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot pitch shines, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. A successful example of describing plot in a query letter would go like this:
Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.
Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the plot pitch is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.
I spent five years as a literary agent, and I saw tens of thousands of queries. Hire me be your query letter editor, and I’ll help you avoid common traps and rise above the slush.