Character Agency

Who’s driving your plot? Does your plot move forward when things happen to your protagonist, or when they do something?

The difference might seem minimal, but it’s the difference between engaged readers and someone putting down the book. Consider active and passive voice, which is more engaging: ‘I wrote the book’ or ‘the book was written by me.’ (There’s a time for passive voice, but it’s beyond the scope of today’s post.) So it is with your characters. What I’m talking about here is agency. Agency is your character’s ability to impact her life and her world. If a character lacks agency, they seem dehumanized, an object. And it makes for a dull read when a character never actually “does” anything.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to figure out if your manuscript has this problem. The two questions at the top are all you need to diagnose a lack of agency. I find that the easiest way to fix it isn’t just to start making your character do things but to dig deep into yourself as a writer and determine why you’ve been sheltering your character! Are you afraid to make them make bad decisions or be wrong? The thing about actions is they have consequences, but reactions feel justified based on what they’re responding to somehow. What seems like such a little thing, who does what, is actually a major craft issue because from it flows not only the plot but often theme (what are you saying with your characters’ decisions) and motivation (why they’re doing it). A character who makes decisions and acts on them will have an arc based on their motivations and what the consequences of those decisions are. A character who just reacts to things that happen will not grow.

Once you figure out why you haven’t been letting your characters act, you can address it: it might be your own fears as a writer, it might be that you just need a stronger plot, or it might be that you’re too close to your character/material and need to separate yourself from them or cool off somehow. Whatever the reason, there’s a solution. When you’ve done that, THEN you can sit down and start reworking your plot for agency.

I’ll note that most often it’s female characters who lack agency so if your book has any, consider what they’re doing–even if they aren’t the main character.

Advertisements

The Query Choice That Isn’t

You’ve seen it before. You may have even written it. “Will she fight to free her people from the invading alien hordes or will she negotiate the terms of their surrender in hope of sparing the people she’s sworn to protect?” This feels gripping and full of stakes on the surface but the thing about queries is you’re talking about a book, a book that needs a plot to exist. If she doesn’t fight the alien hordes, you probably have no book. It’s a bit of a catch. But whenever you write a question in a query stop and ask yourself, “If she doesn’t do X, will the story be over?” X might be a compelling choice, but if it will probably end the story or significantly lower the stakes, your character won’t be making it, so there’s no real tension to asking the question.

How about this one: “Will she risk her heart for a chance at a love she never knew was possible?” I mean, what’s the alternative here? No story. So what do you do instead?

Show us how trying to do the thing gets complicated and makes her goal even harder to reach. If you read my How to Write a Query post, you’ll know I’m talking about escalation and stakes. Questions seem obvious because they want to be answered, and that feels like you’re drawing the reader in so they’ll read to find the answer out. In theory, this is a solid approach. But the fact you’re writing a book means sometimes the answer is obvious. Stakes are what compel us to read more, not choices.

Choices need to be rooted in stakes. But rather than ask what your character is going to lose if they try this choice, ask what will happen if they don’t. If the answer is “not much” or “they lose” then your character’s “choice” will end the story if they don’t do it. The solution, of course, is to give us the stakes, to see why they have no choice–which can be even more gripping than a Choice That Isn’t. Stakes make us care what the character does, remember, whether it’s a choice or not.

There is an exception, and it is actually a favourite “trope” of mine, and that is The Impossible Choice, where there are two options that will keep the story going but they both suck. It’s when you get your character between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, the frying pan and the fire, you get the idea. I love Impossible Choices. Margaret Roberson sets up a great one in the second half of An Enchantment of Ravens.

You can totally put a choice in your query if it’s something like, “If Jane marries her true love and procures the formula to cure her advancing cyborg degeneration, the people she’s sworn to protect will be destroyed by invading alien hordes, but if she fights back against the invading alien hordes she will lose her chance at true love and a cure.” See what I did there? I combined two non-choices into one Impossible Choice. This is a strategy I recommend. Now, the answer to this dilemma is still obvious: Jane is going to have to find a third way so she can save her people AND marry her true love, but don’t you want to know how she’ll do it? You know there’s going to be more to the story.

As with pretty much everything I talk about when I talk about queries, it’s also a way of ensuring you have a compelling, substantial plot. If you can boil your entire plot down into a single Choice That Isn’t, make sure the rest of the story has stakes and goals for your character. It could be the query just needs some punching up, since queries tend to focus on the first act anyway, and that’s fine. But you can use the query to make sure your book stacks up and this is one of those ways.

 

How To Find Comp Titles For Your Query

Sorry for taking Friday off, it was a three-day weekend AND my anniversary so I wasn’t around most of the time. And we’re back to talking about queries. Today it’s about comps. Comps is short for comparable titles. I saw a tweet just this week that apparently people thought it stood for competition? No. Advice on comps varies, but here’s the basics.

You don’t need them! You really don’t. Comps take a few forms, and you don’t need any of them. Your book should be able to stand on its own regardless of readalikes. Just like having no agent is better than having the wrong agent, not using comps is better than using the wrong comps. The two most common comps suggestions are the elevator pitch and the readalike.

The Elevator Pitch Comp

This works best for high concept: so, “THE ALICE NETWORK meets CAROL” is the comp for my historical novel about a woman who discovers her real parents are a murderer and his victim. These comps work because they tell you that, like TAN, there are two timelines that will intersect somehow, it’s historical, one character sets out to learn the truth about the earlier timeline’s events, and on. CAROL hints at the complicating aspects, the intrigue, violence, and queer content.

Readalikes

This is more common. “For fans of” or “may appeal to readers of” are the keys here. Regardless of elevator pitch or readalike, comps should have the same feel or vibe as your manuscript, not just plot elements. For example, my project in development about an autistic girl who is sexually assaulted could have any number of plot comps. But I chose SK Ali’s SAINTS & MISFITS because this book uses the sexual assault narrative to explore issues of Muslim community and identity, it’s not just “about” what happened, and that’s what I’m going for in my book as well.

Tips For Choosing Comps

  1. Read widely. WIDELY. Comps don’t have to be in your same genre, “It’s like a YA version of GONE GIRL” can be a comp. One of my favourite trunked manuscripts is “LES MISERABLES set during the American Revolution with magic.”
  2. If you can’t think of a comp, don’t push it. You want something similar, so the more you have to dig or search to come up with one, the less likely it will fit. Remember, comps set up expectations in the reader, and the wrong comp can cause a reader to be too jarred to appreciate what your book really is.
  3. This is from my post about query mistakes, but don’t use mega-bestsellers. This advice in controversial, but I stand by it. Most MBS used as comps are stand-ins for plot elements lately, not an overall similar vibe, and saying you know you’ve got the next big thing can be… egotistical? It also means you might not be widely read enough to name books that aren’t MBS. Conversely, don’t pick titles that couldn’t be described as having done solidly in their sales or reception–you want a comp that the agent will know and associate positively.
  4. Ask your readers. Presumably you have a beta reader or CP or two who read your MS before you query (if not, please to find some!) Ask them what your book reminded them of! You may be surprised, or at least get some good book recs out of it.

The thing about comps, and really about queries entirely, are that they are a holistic opportunity to show you know what you’re doing. When I do query crits, I always want the WHOLE query, not just your blurb, because everything hints at whether or not your book will be any good and if you know what you’re doing. Don’t believe me? If your blurb is quiet and introspective, but your comps are high concept, it could indicate you have a great idea that’s not executed to its potential. Or vice versa!

With comps, being able to show you know your market is important because writers who don’t read (enough at all or within their markets) are more likely to write something unpublishable, either because it’s been done before or it’s too far outside the genre to work. It’s easy to say, I just write the book, let an agent figure out all that market stuff, but again, this matters to your writing. Conversely, not having comps doesn’t signal that you don’t read or know your genre, but getting your comps wrong might.

Comp Q & A

And, for the nitty-gritty to comps, here is a Q&A, for which I thank my Magic Sprinting Squad friends, especially Alisha Erin Hillam.

How many comps should you have?
I recommend only one or two. Three only works if your blurb is sufficiently complex and your word count supports it, otherwise it’s muddy.

What makes a good comp: plot, characterization, or voice?
I suggest books that have the same overall vibe as yours, but definitely not plot. The agent can see what’s in your plot in your blurb, right? The comps can help flesh out the “feel” of the book. So voice and character. Don’t ignore plot, of course, but plots are a dime a dozen anyway, right? So if you pick a comp that has similar plot basics, hone in on the vibe through voice, approach, atmosphere, and character. This is especially important for, say, retellings.

OH GOD RETELLINGS HELP: Can a comp be TOO similar? If you’re writing a retelling, comp other retellings too, or avoid? What if your retelling is of a little less well-known story?
This is where the answer to the last question comes in. I would caution against using retellings of the SAME tale for your comps, because in this case you want to present how you stand out from those other retellings, right? Maybe you wrote about Snow White, but you comp a Little Mermaid retelling because it has the same approach to the original, you both turn the princesses into antiheroes or whatever. I think if you focus on finding books that have the same FEEL as yours you’ll do better.

Retellings are their own comp arena because there’s so many of them, and because of what they are, and definitely an area where plot is going to take a back burner to how you approach it. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we just read the original or one of the other retellings available? So in this sense, comps are still about giving us a better idea of how you approached your story and what it feels like, but for retellings it’s also about contrasting it from other retellings of the same story, by focusing on the former.

The exception to this is using an elevator pitch style comp. So if you wrote a story about Sleeping Beauty but it’s set in Persia, you could say something like, “It’s SPINDLE in Persia,” because the point is how your approach is different and this would show that, or something like, I don’t know, “ENTWINED meets AND THEN THERE WERE NONE when the twelve daughters of the local lord start dying tragically and they must figure out which one of them is the killer.” (I think I did just see a deal like this, actually, and I cannot wait because I LOVE 12DP but I digress.)

Generally speaking, can a comp be too similar? … yes, but this is more about your book than the comp. Make sure your book isn’t too derivative, and then your comps won’t be.

What if there’s a comp that could work, but had sort of a love/hate reception, but did well commercially? Risky or no?
Someone recently tweeted how Amazon’s algorithms favour books with at least a 3.5 rating and 15 reviews. You should too. That is, the book doesn’t need to be a bestseller, no, but it does need to have performed “solidly.” Love/hate controversy isn’t the same thing, if people are buzzing about the book, that’s great. It would depend on the book, specifically, but this is my general take.

What if you query an agent who sold your comp? Then what?
Then don’t write it like a readalike or an elevator pitch. I mentioned there were other ways to list comps, and this is one of those times. In this case, you put it in the personalization, “Because you represent THE ALICE NETWORK, I hope you might enjoy my historical fiction with strong female characters and an interwoven dual timeline, melded with the darker elements and queer aspects of CAROL,” for instance.

So! What have I missed? Ask your burning comp questions in the comments!

YA Has a Crazy Problem

I promise I will talk more about query issues and how to fix them, but for now, an interlude. I am what many would consider super unlucky and/or cursed. I have multiple mental illnesses, a chronic illness “with complications” and what’s currently categorized as a developmental disorder. How did I make it to adulthood?! (I honestly don’t know, I still ask this myself.) I mention this because it’s been a large part of my activism: while I will engage with all social justice, my own marginalization as a Disabled person is the one I know best.

And it is a battle. It’s exhausting. I mean, just existing is exhausting for me (true fact!), but it’s a lot harder in an ableist society. And whoa is society ableist. Y’all. You don’t even know the half of it. Let’s start small: language. I’m a writer, it’s what I know. You’re going to be surprised here but I guarantee you that you use ableist language.

Do you call things or people stupid, crazy, lame, retarded, insane, and/or an idiot or moron? I hate to tell you this but you’re contributing to the stigma around Disabled people (which includes the mentally ill). The great thing is it’s super easy to stop: use different words. Here are some: ridiculous, weird, extraordinary, “I disagree,” “I don’t like it.” Think about what you actually mean when you call something an ableist term and then be specific instead.

Part of the issue around ableist language is when people say these words they mean them to indicate “this is wrong or bad” and by association, Disabled and mentally ill people are “wrong or bad” for being Disabled or mentally ill. So this leads me to YA.

YA, we have an ableism problem. There are SO many components to it, from a lack of representation to harmful portrayals, but I’m focusing here on the language. Because ableist words are so commonplace they turn up in YA a lot. Teens are more likely to use such casual words as “stupid” and “crazy,” right? Except it’s reinforcing the stigma against people with mental illness and that’s not okay. Please, please do better. It hurts when I read books and I see that language.

I read two YA SFF books recently that were just great in soooo many ways. One casually used crazy and idiot in banter a few times, but was fairly perfect otherwise, so I’ll recommend it to everyone and just mention the language is there. I was disappointed but not surprised. The other book, though, I can’t recommend. Which is a shame because it has great queer representation and shows consent right on the page. I wish I could.

But this book has a surprise villain, and when that person is discovered, the narrative suddenly pegs this otherwise “normal”-acting character as a madman because what he was doing was wrong. The end of the book is littered with that kind of discourse. And do you know where else we see that sort of pivot? Gun violence, when a white male shooter *must* have been mentally ill to do what he did. The parallels turned my stomach, and I read the book right around when Parkland happened.

Writers, do not do this. Not only are the mentally ill more likely to be victims of abuse and violence than perpetrators but it removes accountability. I see this language used by people to mean someone was unstable and lacked reason. It prevents discussion about the actual sources of violence and crimes (typically misogyny and racism). It stigmatizes Disabled/mentally ill people and blames them. It also reinforces lies. Crazy and insane don’t even correspond with an actual diagnosis, they’re generic terms to indicate “something is wrong with you,” and frankly, that message sucks.

My heart sank when I finished that book. There was nothing “wrong” with the villain in that book. He had reasons for being the antagonist. He did bad things because of those reasons. The author wrote him off as a crazy madman instead of deal with that, because anyone who does bad things must be crazy. But you know what you’re also saying when you say that? Crazy people must do bad things. Mentally ill people do bad things, good people don’t do bad things. Mentally ill people are bad. Do you see how easily these things line up and link up when you make that your narrative?

This is not nearly as eloquent as I wanted it to be and I’ve been thinking about this post for over a month now. I entreat writers: please be more careful about how you relate to and portray Disabled and mentally ill characters. But be mindful of how you discuss things you disagree with even more.

 

How To Write A Query Letter

Finally, a post that’s not a list!

There’s plenty of advice on query writing out there and a lot of it is excellent, but I wanted to offer an easy format you can use when writing your queries that hits all the relevant bits. I’ve developed it from my own time in the query trenches and also from my time as an editor. I would help draft the “back cover” copy for my author’s titles, and a pattern emerged for what seemed to work. This is that pattern. I’ll explain it and then give two examples afterwards, one for a regular query and one for a query with multiple narrators.

Parts of a Query Letter

There are approximately four-five paragraphs to a good query:

  • Set-up
  • Conflict/Complication
  • Escalation/Stakes
  • Metadata/Personalization
  • Bio (optional)

The Set-Up

The set-up is exactly what it says. The basic premise, the introduction to the world, your main character and their goals. Many writers get this right, so I won’t spend much time on it. It’s what tends to be included in the elevator (or Twitter) pitch. How can you tell if it belongs in the set-up? It’s exposition, backstory, or context for the conflict. Typically the set-up includes the inciting incident and possibly the first turning point.

Conflict/Complication

Apologies to the handful of people I reversed the names of the complication and escalation section to when I was replying, by the way. It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you know what goes where though. This is where you introduce the antagonist and what stands in the way of your protagonist. I speak a lot of the “through-line” to your story, the backbone, and that typically means the main conflict. Paring your story down to the through-line helps keep unnecessary detail out of the query. Typically this will include the first turning point or even the B story, if you use the Save the Cat story structure.

Escalation/Stakes

This is the fun bit that is the hardest part to get right, but if you answer one question you should be able to nail it: What goes wrong when the protagonist tries to win and why does it matter? Typically if you’ve introduced an issue in paragraph one and a different or complicating issue in paragraph two, here is where you tie them together. This is important because just giving us the main conflict doesn’t make us care, and it isn’t always “meaty” enough on its own.

Metadata/Personalization

This is the standard “about the book” information you need to include. Always include a finished* word count and genre. You can add comp titles here and a personalization, though both are optional. This paragraph can go before the blurb or after, but I prefer it after so the blurb can speak for itself.

*Because your book is finished, right? You wouldn’t be querying an incomplete draft, right? Don’t let me down like that. And by finished I mean drafted *and* revised, of course.

Bio

This is optional because if you’re a newer writer you might not have anything to put here. We don’t need to know your day job, hobbies, or that you’ve been writing since you could hold a crayon. Remember that this is a professional letter: only list what’s relevant to doing business. Do you belong to any associations or writer’s groups? Have you had any short sales or awards? Is your degree relevant? The exception to the career and hobbies rule is, of course, if it’s relevant to your manuscript due to an expertise or lived experience. If your protagonist is Deaf and so are you, mention that. If you volunteer as a firefighter and your mystery features an arsonist, include it. Use common sense here.

Remember, a query should fit on one page (even in an email that doesn’t have pages) so don’t spend more space on your metadata and bio than you do on your blurb.

Example Query #1

Below is a fake query for an unwritten project. Because I have shifted my focus from spec fic and YA it may never be written, but I wanted to show you a straightforward example that progresses through the main format, and this does that neatly.

Dear Agent,

Autistic sixteen-year-old Trinity Goodwin is thrilled and terrified to be starting freshman year at elite St. Gertrude University. Thrilled because she’ll finally be able to study computer science in depth, and terrified because she’ll need to develop new routines and scripts to help her navigate. As the first in her family to go to college, she wants to make them proud.

When Trinity is sexually assaulted at a party, she has no idea how to handle something so outside her norm. Initially blaming herself, Trinity starts an anonymous online journal on St. Gertrude’s intraweb to process what happened. She realizes she has the skills to help others, turning the site into a community for those like her. Using her knowledge of computers and the Internet to post stories anonymously, Trinity is shocked when the website, Name Them, takes off–and so does the backlash.

Not everyone is happy with the website’s success, least of all Jordan Matthews, Trinity’s attacker and the first person named. He starts a counter-campaign to get the website taken down and discover who’s behind it. Trinity isn’t going down without a fight, not with the dozens of posters in the community counting on her. But putting herself out there could cost her more than her spot at St. Gertrude’s: Trinity knows Jordan isn’t above using her autism diagnosis to try to discredit her, and she’ll have to fight back on more than one front. She may not have any scripts for this, but she’s not going to let that stop her.

GIFTED BUT ANXIOUS is a 70,000-word young adult contemporary in the vein of S. K. Ali’s SAINTS AND MISFITS. It is #ownvoices; I am an autistic survivor of sexual assault. My work has been featured in anthologies from Zest Books, Broken Eye Books, and Drollerie Press.

Thank you for your time.

___

Okay! The set-up and our inciting incident is Trinity going off to college and, like any freshman, not knowing what to expect. The fact that she’s autistic adds a layer of complexity. The thing about a strong set-up is that it implies conflict. We don’t know what the conflict will be yet, but fish-out-of-water stories have inherent opportunities for conflict: in this case, an academic issue, a rival, a romance, any or all of these could happen.

Next, what our conflict through-line will be: Trinity is assaulted and has to deal with the aftermath. Now we have our conflict and we can start to see the shape of what this book will be like. It’s going to be emotional and there will be internal conflict too as Trinity processes the way society victim blames and the way autistic people doubt their coping skills. But wait! Trinity uses her agency to try and solve this problem by starting a website community for other survivors, but there’s backlash—again, the conflict is inherent. Will she have to see her attacker regularly on campus? How will she keep all the balls in the air of adjusting to a new environment, keeping up her grades, processing her assault and now the responsibility of this website? How will the backlash threaten her?

And now the stakes raise with the escalation of the conflict: Trinity’s attacker comes out swinging at being named on the site, and Trinity has to figure out either how to evade him or face him, and either option could jeopardize her goals. I tie things back to the fact that this book explores autistic identity with a reminder of her diagnosis and how it might be used in the story, linking our set-up and our conflict together. The last paragraph from the first sentence serves to raise the stakes too, because if Jordan forces Trinity to withdraw or worse, get her expelled, there’s more riding on it.

Lastly, my comp is a Morris Award-nominated title from 2017 with a similar tone and theme; it’s a novel that looks at Muslim community through the lens of a sexual assault narrative, and mine does something similar for autism. (PS it’s excellent you should read it.)

Multiple Points of View

But Jess, you say, my book has five different protagonists and each has their own story; I can’t possibly use your structure! Alas! Woe!

But wait, you still can. With more than two POV you need to treat the ensemble as a single entity and follow the through-line of their trajectory/conflict, not each individual thread. Alternatively you can pick the character whose story has the most at stake or who kicks off the main conflict and treat them as the protagonist while including the fact it’s an ensemble. However, most books will only have one or two narrators, as in a traditional romance that uses the hero and heroine, or in many historicals that may feature two generations.

The example below is from my current project, a historical novel that features two timelines. See how it still follows the pattern? The first paragraph gives us set-up, the second gives us the complication even though it’s a different timeline, and the third ties them together and why it matters.

Example Query #2

Dear Agent,

Some secrets don’t make it to the grave.

1972. Nancy Sandoval’s husband is one of the last ground troops in Vietnam when her mother, Evelyn, takes a turn for the worse. Putting Evelyn into hospice, Nancy finds letters and photographs that reveal Nancy is actually Baby May Howlett, whose father came home from WWII and killed her real mother, and supposedly, her.

1944. Gigi Howlett’s husband is at war and she’s lonely. Against her mother’s wishes, she becomes involved in the war effort by opening her home to the girls flooding the city for factory jobs. She has no idea how one of them, Evelyn, will change her life.

Despite Evelyn’s tight-lipped admonitions against doing so, Nancy contacts Albert Howlett to find out why he confessed to a murder he didn’t commit, and the consequences will unravel almost thirty years’ worth of secrets held quietly by Evelyn, the most important woman in the lives of two generations of Howletts.

Kate Quinn’s THE ALICE NETWORK meets CAROL (2015) in my 90,000-word historical novel, A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE. My work has been featured in anthologies from Zest Books, Broken Eye Books and Drollerie Press. Thank you for your time.

___

The first line is a tagline, not an elevator pitch.

We get a pretty complicated set-up that (hopefully) hooks you right away: what really happened? The next paragraph uses a mirroring technique to keep us grounded while introducing the second timeline. It acts as a complication/conflict because we know it’s going to give us the explanation for the 1972 timeline, the story of someone being murdered and how Evelyn ended up with Nancy. The last paragraph ties the two timelines together and introduces the escalation and stakes for the 1972 timeline.

My comp is a 2017 NYT bestseller with a dual timeline that comes together at the end and a recent historical movie about women having an affair, which is relevant both in theme and content. (Also TAN was one of my favourite reads of last year so please to check it out.)

Phew! I know there’s a lot in here, but I hope my examples have given you a better idea of how to structure your query.  I’m happy to answer questions in the comments about queries.

So, would you read either of these?

 

Common Query Mistakes

Thanks again to everyone who participated in this weekend’s query and 5p critique giveaway. I appreciate you sharing your materials with me so much! I did notice some themes to my comments so I’d like to spend a little time today talking about some common query mistakes. Most of these will be getting their own blog posts to elaborate on how to fix them in the near future, too, so check back.

Oh, look, another list. Maybe I will just dedicate my blog to making lists…

  1. Character agency. Often a query will be a string of events, often happening to your protagonist. As in the novel itself, the character guides the query. Show us her agency. This one is easy to fix: what does your character DO? That’s what we want to know. This will get its own post relevant to manuscripts, not queries, later.
  2. No escalation or stakes. Many queries nail the set-up. They often show the conflict. And they invariably fall short on the escalation and stakes. Pretty much everyone who participated saw me mention these three aspects of a blurb, and I’ll be doing an “anatomy of a query letter” post on Friday to demonstrate for everyone, but of those three core concepts, the landing was hardest to stick. Once you’ve introduced your character and their goal and problem, and then shown us what they’re up against, the last paragraph needs to show us how your character makes things worse and why all of it matters.
  3. Too vague. Many blurbs these days sound like movie voiceovers with lots of sizzling soundbyte action… but don’t forget the steak with that sizzle. Make sure your sentences are actually telling us what we need to know. Be specific! We need that to connect to.
  4. Alternatively, too much detail. On the flip side, it can be hard to trim an entire book down into one page. Stick to the core of the story–set-up, conflict, escalation/stakes–and pare down the rest. Ask yourself if we need to know this to want to read the story, or will the general idea still make sense without it? Remember, queries are to entice an agent to want to read, not to tell them everything. (Unless they want a synopsis, in which case, I am so sorry.)
  5. The Choice That Isn’t. This will get a blog too, but so many queries end on a question, and it’s often a choice… except it isn’t. Will Jane pursue the bad guy or not? Will they risk everything for love? I mean, they’d better or it’s going to be a very short book, no? I think writers use this in an attempt to get at the stakes I mention above and create tension, but it doesn’t work when the answer is obvious.
  6. Redundant pitch. Not going to lie, I got my first agent in the Stone Age (2010), so using the elevator pitch at the top of the query wasn’t as big a thing then, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s a great trend. It works when the pitch is high concept and hooky, but many that I have seen (not just this weekend) are vague or redundant to the blurb. Consider if you need that space taken up in that way, and what it adds.
  7. Bad comps. You don’t *need* comps, but they’re helpful… usually. Picking bad comps can do more harm than leaving them out, though. This will be a blog too because I don’t think it’s discussed enough. Don’t use mega bestsellers. Comparing yourself to Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Rick Riordan, Twilight, etc, is really overdone, and those books broke out for multiple reasons. What you’re really doing is using them as short-hand for “magical school/magical world alongside mundane,” “dystopian competition,” “features mythology,” “paranormal romance,” etc. And frankly, that’s too broad. Comps should be similar in not just general plot but in tone, theme, and audience (another reason the bestsellers make bad comps; they don’t give us these.) A book pitched as HUNGER GAMES meets RICK RIORDAN, for instance, could be a death-match competition for gods; it could be mythological heroes starting a rebellion to overthrow a government; it could be almost anything. Keep comps recent, within the past 3-5 years.
  8. Ephemera. You’d be surprised how many authors mess up on the little things. Multiple people called me by the wrong name accidentally. There were easy-to-fix typos. Word counts that were too high or too low, or books with genres listed that didn’t match what the query presented. None of these are dealbreakers, but they’re things that are easy to learn and mark you as a beginner. Since you’re querying agents it’s reasonable to assume you haven’t been around the publishing block a zillion times, but it’s part of the line between “ready to level up” and “not quite there yet”.

Do any of these surprise you? How many of these query sins have you committed? I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of them at some point. Which do you want to know more about?

When Are You Ready to Query?

I swear not all of my blogs will be lists, but I do love a good list. So! Here is a guide to query readiness.

  1. Note I didn’t say when is *your book* ready. Your book could be the next Harry Potter but if YOU can’t handle feedback (of any kind) you are not ready. Learn to listen before responding. Find whatever tricks you need to step away emotionally from your work. Writing is personal, publishing is business.
  2. We know people who hit send as soon as the first draft is done and people who tweak draft 26 before anyone can see it (if ever). Don’t be either of them. Your book is ready to query when you have had another pair of eyes tell you they can’t find anything to improve, either. You won’t necessarily know when you’re done so make it as good as you can, then get feedback.
  3. Learn the difference between change and improvement. People (including yourself!) will always want changes to a manuscript, but you have to consider if that will IMPROVE the book or just change it. To do this you need to know what you want your book to do (and preferably why.)
  4. When NOT to query: you can’t figure out what’s wrong with it; you want someone to validate you; you aren’t ready for honest feedback.

If you want help with that query, this weekend only I am offering free query & 5p critiques (now through midnight PST Sunday, March 18). If you miss the deal, you can always email corra.jessica@gmail.com for rates!