General Writing, Queries, Reviews and Analysis

Better Queries Through Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurbs

December isn’t the time to query a novel, so I am finding an outlet for my impatience by tweaking my query. By coincidence, yesterday I came across Olivia Atwater’s Better Blurb Writing for Authors, and immediately downloaded it. I’m glad I did, because it vastly improved my query letter.

Atwater’s book is a short read. Although she is mostly talking about blurbs on the back of a book, almost all that she says is valid for query letters, too. She begins with a point so obvious that many writers overlook it: a query letter is a marketing tool, and should be written accordingly. Atwater suggests that you begin by creating a list of features of your book that would encourage readers to take a closer look, including the genre and the comps – what she calls a one-click list, meaning what will make an online reader click for a closer look. From the one click list, you should then write an opening paragraph for your query that includes at least three items on the list, and a hook. Follow the opening with the pitch itself, telling the high points of the story and mentioning as many other items as possible on the list, if possible, giving a sense of the tone of the book. Only then should you descend into the comps, the length, and other materials, ending with one last pitch. Atwater gives much more detail, but that the gist.

As soon as I started reading, I started seeing the flaws in my query. To start with, I hadn’t figured out my selling points. Actually, I had overlooked the selling points altogether, giving a mediocre query:

Talson Ravenpiper’s ancestors were heroes, but he is doomed to become a clerk. Overnight, tht changes as he becomes his mother’s heir and the keeper of the family tradition – to say nothing of unwillingly betrothed, accused of murder, and on the run from his sister and her pet monster. Worse, in his struggle to survive, his only ally is a hereditary enemy. Before long, he is questioning not only everything he believes, but whether the family tradition should be preserved at all. And what if enemies become lovers?

Not the worst query I’ve seen floating around the internet, but not a good one, either.
Following Atwood’s advice, I started my revision with my list of selling points:

  • heroic fantasy
  • mis-matched lovers
  • pursuit
  • post-colonialism
  • the nature of heroes and heroism
  • comps: Merciful Crow, Realm of Ash

Technically, Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow is Young Adult, and Atwater suggests never to comp a genre other than your own, but I would argue that Merciful Crow is a cross-over book, and popular with adults as well. At any rate, it is better than Patricia Finney’s Robert Carey mysteries, which were an influence, but less likely to work in a pitch for a heroic fantasy like mine.

Armed with my list, I wrote:

Not long ago, Talson Ravenpiper’s greatest worry was how to live up to his family’s heroic reputation. That was before he met Kosky of the GreaseMakers and her sarcastic tongue.

Talson learned early to honor the deeds of his ancestors and to shun its traditional enemies the hill-clans. But that was before his sister Skulae framed him for murder and started hunting him with her pet monster. Now, Kosky, a woman of the hill-clans, is the only person he can depend on. Yet amid their struggle to survive, Kosky forces Talson question everything he once believed – even whom he should love.

If this is heroism, it does not feel like it. And unless he finds answers to his questions, the best that his family stands for could be swept away by war.

The improvements are many. My query now has a hook: Talson’s life has changed, and with luck readers will want to know how. The names, and the obvious importance of heroism signal that the book is a heroic fantasy, and the mis-matched lover trope is introduced, as well as both main characters, instead of just the one mentioned in the original draft. Also, mention of Kosky’s “sarcastic tongue” provides just a hint of the occasional flippancy in the book. Just mentioning her “sarcasm” wouldn’t have quite the same effect.

The next paragraphs develops the list points first, with luck giving just enough additional detail that readers want to learn more. For example, they suggest that the novel is not just a heroic fantasy, but one that explores the idea of the hero, and make the mis-matched lover theme explicit. In addition, they add the pursuit theme. Perhaps most important of all, Talson’s dilemmas are no longer played out in his head, but among Talson and two other characters. Now, the stakes are clearer; the first draft query might summarize a philosophical study of heroism.

My last two paragraphs needed only the change in comps that I mentioned. Otherwise, they were more or less in keeping with Atwater’s suggestions. However, for anyone who might be interested in the whole query, here they are:

The Bone Ransom is a 102,000 word adult fantasy with series potential about a young man and woman thrown into the great events of their times and learning to overcome their cultural divide. Like Margaret Owen’s Merciful Crow, it is a story of pursuit and mis-matched lovers, but with a post-colonial background like Tash Suris’s Realm of Ash.

A recovering academic, I have written two books on open source software and a third on fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, as well as over 2200 articles on open source computing. Although my family is English-Canadian, I am a long-time supporter of emerging First Nations artists, and I offer a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Carving. Sitting in the workshops of First Nations teachers and students at the school has been a major influence on The Bone Ransom’s characters and settings, although I write strictly from an outsider’s point of view.

Besides my choice of blurbs, the only way in which I did not follow her advice was to end with an action item, such as “Buy this book!” While I believe in looking your best, an blatant hard sell is distasteful to me, and seems unnecessary. After all, a query is all about offering something for sale, and everybody knows that. Still, I was glad to compare my efforts to a more expert opinion, and perhaps I will reconsider my position later on. As Atwater says, a blurb should be revisited from time to time after you’ve got a satisfactory one.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait to try my fortune with my new blurb.

Queries

My First Lessons From Querying

Your first queries, I’ve been told, are for practice. Your first choices of an agent or publishers should wait until you’ve made mistakes and learned from them. Usually, I’m skeptical about conventional wisdom, but I followed this advice, and I’m glad I did. After half a dozen queries, I have not received any personal rejections I could learn from, but I have learned a lesson or two about querying, and found reason to revise the start of my novel.

The first lesson should have been obvious: the smaller the sample of the manuscript requested, the quicker the response. This tendency matters, because for all everyone knows about the importance of a hook, a small sample and quick response may mean that a submission was not taken seriously. I worry that, rather than looking for quality or a story that will seller, agents with such criteria are most interesting in clearing their desks. So, unless someone proves otherwise, such agents will go to the bottom of my preferences.

My second lesson is more of a suspicion. My manuscript contains snippets of four to twelve lines of poetry. I believe that those snippets are a useful way to convey backstory and atmosphere. However, when I stop to think, mentioning poetry in my query might cause agents to believe I was offering an overly literary manuscript. What agents want, of course, is a saleable manuscript, and seventy years after Tolkien, many readers shy away from poetry. Because of this likelihood, I revised my query letter to omit any mention of poetry. Let the agents actually encounter my scattered bits of poetry, and I believe they will find that it works. At the very least, my manuscript will not risk being rejected out of a blind preference or prejudice.

However, it was when I looked at my novel from the perspective of trying to sell it that my first queries helped me the most. The story begins with a pivotal event in the past, and how it effects the protagonist, his mother, and his sister. I have always worried about the prologue, mainly because it starts with the mother, which might make readers think she is the main character. But I kept it because a professional writer who was a trusted friend suggested I keep it. But it was only when I started to query that I decided to change it. The prologue wasn’t the best sample I could offer, and meant less of the much stronger opening chapters could be included. At first, I wondered if there was a way to start with the main character, but, I was unable to find a way to give the necessary backstory.

Then a revelation struck: why mention his mother and sister at all in the prologue? Both are introduced later, so their inclusion in the prologue is unnecessary. I re-wrote the prologue entirely from the main character’s perspective, and the result is a much stronger story, and one which shows my writing to greater perspective, since I use the limited understanding of a child to reveal things of which he is not wholly aware. And, as an added bonus, I cut two thousand words. As a result, I believe that the manuscript now presents me much more strongly.

These improvements are largely assumption, but they show how querying can focus your mind and give you a new perspective on your own work. I look forward to further insights, both into querying and my writing as I plunge back into the maelstrom of submission.

General Writing, Queries

Debunking Three Fallacies About Querying

I’ve barely started to query. Yet already, I have found three cases where the conventional wisdom of aspiring writers is incorrect, or a half truth at best.

For instance, the popular assumption is that an agent is a necessity. This belief is so ingrained that several people say they will sign with an agent no matter what. Considering that your agent is important to your career, that is a rash position. However, more to the point, that belief is not true. No doubt an agent, with a knowledge of publishing that you lack, can ease a new writer’s way. Yet early in my planning, I discovered that both DAW Books and Tor accept submissions without an agent. Almost certainly, others do as well. Of course, if a publisher does make you an offer, the first thing you might do is find an agent, although you might get along with the SFWA’s model contract as a guide to negotiation. But going directly to the publisher does have the advantage of removing one obstacle in your journey towards publication.

Another common fallacy is that 95 thousand words is the required length for an adult work of fantasy or science fiction. It seems a good average and target to aim at, yet requirements vary. To use the same examples, DAW Books has only a minimum length of 80 thousand, while Tor will consider works of up to 130 thousand. Unless you have a work in progress whose hardcopy would break your big toe if dropped on it, there is far more flexibility than new writers believe – in which case, you can try the more difficult task of pitching a series instead of a single book.

A third mistaken assumption is that your manuscript must be in MS Word format (.doc or .docx). That may have been true a decade or two ago. Yet today many agents and publishers are a lot more flexible, especially if they use Submittable. .Pdf, .doc, .docx, .txt, .rtf, .wpf, .odt (LibreOffice and Open Office), and .wpd may all be acceptable. Personally, I prefer .pdf, because it sidesteps the problem of font substitution, assuring that people will see your work as you intended. However, you may not have a choice, because, to avoid the possibility of viruses, many agents and publishers require the manuscript be added to an email in plain text, which is a nuisance if you use styles and have to find a simple way to add spaces between paragraphs (Using LibreOffice, I used the Alternative Find and Replace extension, saving myself hours of dull manual labor).

I expect to find even more to debunk as I get deeper into querying. For now, one thing is clear: don’t make any assumptions – especially about issues that everybody thinks they know. Each agent and publisher posts their submission guidelines, which can usually be found quickly. The lack of uniformity may sometimes seem like a form of literary hazing, but you are hopping to be accepted into a fraternity of sorts, and the first step to acceptance is to follow the guidelines.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

Queries

10 Ground Rules for Comping

Comping is the comparison of your submitted novel to similar ones in a query. Personally, I have doubts about comping — is everything a hybrid of existing works? — but comps are a quick way to give a sense of your work. In fact, many agents and publishers insist on them. Not being in a position to set the rules, I am dutifully selecting comps for when I begin to query. The process is harder than it looks — much harder, I find, than writing a blurb. So far, while I’ve made some progress, what I have most learned is how not to comp.

Here are the basic ground rules I’ve set for myself:

Favorites may not make the best comp

The point is not to gush over the books I love, but to start the process of selling my book. A basic honesty is required, since I am hoping to start a long-term business relationship (and, knowing me, I would probably get caught if I pretended that I had read a book that I hadn’t), but the goal is to attract attention, to suggest I write in a certain tradition, or have a unique juxtaposition of ideas. Some of my old favorites simply would not fit with the book I’m querying.

Avoid Mentioning Other Media

I have seen some queries reference films, games, or graphic novels. While these references may work with some recipients, I plan to avoid them myself. After all, I am pitching a book, not a film or a game. Moreover, I have noticed that the more aspiring writers reference other media, the less polished their writing is usually is. Possibly, I am overrthinking things, but I want to show my competence with the written word, not with other media.

Comps should be in the genre

Sometimes, genre crossovers work. My favorite example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, which could accurately be described as Space Opera Meets Pride and Prejudice in a Shakespearean Comedy. However, I doubt that such a juxtaposition would be well-received from a first-time writer. While some recipients might be delighted by it, I suspect more would find it too off the wall, and conclude that I have tried something too ambitious for my level of skill that would be difficult to market.

Comps May Be About More Than Style

Most writers I’ve talked to select comps in terms of plots and themes. However, they can also be marketing potential. For example, my critique partner Jessica, who lived for years in China and is married to Chinese man, is writing a novel set in a fantasy version of China. She is thinking of comping S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, partly because Chakraborty is an American writing about the Muslims and married to Muslim. The implication is if Chakraborty’s background makes her novel acceptable in the age of diversity, then so is hers.

Avoid Blockbusters

It used to be that all fantasies were described as “in the tradition of Tolkien.” You won’t find that on recent releases, though. Tolkien has become so ubiquitous in our culture that the phrase has lost all meaning. If anything, using would suggest a superficial knowledge of fantasy. The same goes for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter.

Watch for hidden pitfalls

Selecting some books would simply send the wrong message. For instance, while I generally admire Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, early in the book there are some anti-Muslim comments that are ignoant and hard to stomach. The last thing I would want is for an agent or publisher to think I approve of bigotry — especially if I submitted to someone who promotes diversity. On the whole, I think it’s a good idea to re-read a potential comp, just in case it has some passages that would sabotage me.

A comp can be misinterpreted

I briefly considered Patrick Rothfuss as a comp. What I had in mind was the fact that he tells a long, varied story. However, as my critiquing partner pointed out, most people associate Rothfuss with poetic prose. If I did use Rothfuss, I would have to make clear what aspect of his writing I referred to.

A comp should be comparatively recent

I have read fantasy for decades, and accumulated influences the way a ship hull accumulates barnacles. However, can I trust an agent or publisher to recognize an older reference? Could they take the comp as a sign I am out of touch with the market? At least one of the comps should have been published in the last few years.

Mentioning a major writer stakes too large a claim

I have been genuinely influenced by Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet if I use either as a comp, my choice can be read as a claim that I write as well as those famous authors. I’d like to think I do, being as egotistical as any writer, but the danger is that instead of intriguing an agent or publisher, I may encourage skepticism. “Oh yeah?” they might imply. “Prove it!” And I would probably have the same reaction.

Tailor comps to the recipient

Typically, a query names two comps, or at the most three. However, before I start to query, I plan to have at least half a dozen ready to swap in and out of my queries. Being a recovering academic, I am researching agents and publishers and producing a short list before I begin to query. I fully expect that different comps will appeal to different recipients. If I can anticipate which comps appeal to which, maybe I can increase my chances.

The Question Continues

Am I asking too much of myself? Will I be able to navigate around all these complications? Probably not in a day, or maybe even a week. Yet if I can finish a manuscript and survive critiques and revisions, then I should be able to generate a few comps. Maybe when I have my list of comps, I’ll blog again and explain how I chose them.