While we wait for the clock to chime 10am on May 4th (wherein we can all go running over to Tiffany Hoffman's site to see the full list, potentially crashing her server) we should distract ourselves by writing the next story. Or revising our synopsis. Or getting the next round of queries ready.
Yea, you're right. That's crazy talk. Let's all go back to refreshing our browsers in the hope that more mentor hints will be dropped.
No but really, what we should be doing - whether waiting for the reveal or an email from our dream agent - is working on a new story. OR, if like me you can't get your current WIP out of your head, then spend time polish polish polishing your work. Something easy-ish that you can easily spiff up? Your query.
Hey! No groaning, I could've said your synopsis.
Some mentors have been tweeting excellent query advice based on #FicFest submissions, and there are so many more tips out there. Check out #pubtips, #querylunch, #querytip, and #querytips to absorb a bit of that knowledge.
The issues we've noticed?
Missing Voice - it's that elusive unicorn that gets the reader to feel for your protags. Voice cannot be defined, it just is, which makes it that much harder to help you fix. I found my voice by sitting myself squarely in my character's heads with snacks and soda. If you haven't done the same, then that's should be your first step.
Missing Stakes - "How is this possible?" you ask. Well, we noticed that they were often buried by innocuous background information. Eliminate the noise people! What is your protag's goal? What stands in their way? What happens if they don't overcome the obstacle? STAKES
Wrong Wordcount - Know what your genre requires of you! Maybe you're the next Tolkien or RR Martin or Rowling, but chances are you won't be given the chance to prove it (and even Rowling followed the rules with her first book). If you follow the rules there's a better chance that your work will be read, and if the agent/publisher wants more words after that? Guess what: you'll already have them.
YOU, the author, are all up in the body of the query - Seems silly to even say this as it's a pretty prevalent lesson, but if you're writing Fiction, keep your pitch to the characters. If the story draws from your own experience, put that in your bio. I did, and it's kinda worked for me.
Not in the Third Person - because your story is written in 1st, you think the query should also be written in 1st. You'd be wrong. It's confusing, it's distracting, and it's a disservice to your characters. It detracts from their story, their experience. So stick to that rule as well.
MY QUERY LETTER
If you scour the internet, you'll find a ton of resources - and differing opinions - on how to format the query letter. I can't speak for anybody else's method, but here's the one that has so far worked for me.
It happened last August at the Writer's Digest Conference. I'd gotten up early to polish my story blurb which I'd be reciting to as many of the 50 agents as I could within the 3-minute an agent time frame. I was in the 10am slot, the first slot no less, and my nerves screamed in terror. Better my nerves than me! Since my venti Americano wasn't helping me settle, I sat in on a talk on "The Effective Query Letter" given by the QueryShark herself, Janet Reid, and it changed my whole outlook on my blurb to the point that I was reworking my blurb as I waited in line for the doors to the pitch room to open.
In order of composition:
1) Use a hook, one killer sentence to start you off. AKA the logline.
I know, I know! There are so many differing opinions on this, but here's the thing - if you do it right, then you've already hooked the Agent into reading further. In that case, the break from tradition worked in your favor.
I started with the formula: When [INCITING INCIDENT OCCURS], a [SPECIFIC PROTAGONIST] must [OBJECTIVE], or else [STAKES]. But I don't like the outright "when" and "or else", so I built two really long sentences with these formulas and now start my query with just the Protag's objective.
Twenty-two year old Asha Modi is in Mumbai to punish the people who ripped her childhood to shreds.
2) Don't try to cram in details about every plot, subplot, and sub-subplot into the query. There's not enough time for it. Save it for the synopsis.
I know it's tempting to give everything away in the cover letter, but you have to approach the cover letter like you would a resume. You wouldn't tell a potential employer exactly HOW you saved your current employer XX hundreds of dollars by recommending cloud storage should replace some racks in your DC thereby lightening cost to the company.
No, no you would not. And sorry for going geekish on you. The above scenario doesn't actually apply to my IT way of life. :D
Essentially, you want to provide high level bullet points of your story, but make them enticing. As a UF writer, this was a hard one to accept, but JR's talk pretty much solidified that I was WAY over-sharing the not-pertinent details of my story.In the end, I alloted three sentences to my subplots:
Romantic interest - The enigmatic Devin Archer becomes her irritating, unbidden shadow.
Internal conflict - The dragon spirit inside her threatens her cover and sanity.
External conflict - The people who killed her parents [will imprison her if they figure out who she is]**
If you write romance, perform this exercise twice.
3) Remember the last part of the above formula? Yea, close with that. It's a nice bookend to everything in the middle and underscores your stakes.
Asha races to save [her]** future as [an old plot threatens]** life once more.
4) I prefer to save my bio for the next to last paragraph. As an unpubbed author, it wouldn't behoove me to open a query with my inexperience.
HOWEVER, this is the place to incorporate how your experience (upbringing, illnesses, diverse background, myths) affect the theme of your story. Narrow it down to a sentence or two. You don't need to talk about every decision that led you to writing as you did, only the one or two most pertinent details.
5) A short closing statement. I prefer "Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you." That's it. Short, sweet, and nothing more needs to be said.
I'll admit that my formula doesn't have the highest response rate BUT I'm alsonot complaining about the number of responses I've recieved.
Chew on that one :D
**Some details of my story changed for the sake of this post.