Pub Rants

Category: queries

If the first three months of 2022 are any indicator, the pandemic is still informing what creators are writing about, and the proof is in the inbox. Here are the two very clear directions writers are pursuing:

  1. The world is dire.
  2. Time to escape. 

Big trends showing up in our query inbox

  • WWII is back with a vengeance—although it’s perennial as a historical subgenre and, therefore, never really goes away. But there seems to be a yearning for a time when the world united against a great evil and prevailed. I do appreciate wishful thinking, and with all that is unfolding in the Ukraine, WWII stories are not a hearkening to a time that was simpler, but to a time when the moral compass seemed clear.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction is surging, especially climate-based stories.
  • Dystopian fiction featuring evil dictators. (Ahem: Putin anyone?)
  • Demons, demons, so many demons. We think this might be a way to personify an evil that, at least in some stories, can always be defeated, and in other stories, turned to good or leveraged for the protagonist’s benefit. There is catharsis in the ability to create on the page that which might not be happening in the world.
  • Horror. This is super hot in Hollywood, so it’s not a surprise to see so many horror projects in our query inbox. What we’re seeing most in the horror space? Contemporary stories with some horror edge.
  • Gods-based fantasies in which the protagonist is a god, must become a god, is descended from a god, or must defeat one or more gods. Perhaps this is another way of creating a palatable world to be in.
  • RomComs! The heartwarming, engaging beach read. Yes, bring it on! All of us can use this type of escape, and I know editors are looking, which means we’re looking too.
  • Intrigue in historical settings. Anything set in the past is an escape of sorts—although I imagine writers don’t necessarily think of it that way. 

Other interesting trends

  • Middle-grade stories in verse. Poetry is having a cultural moment. It’s no surprise that’s currently mirrored in current storytelling.
  • LGBTQ everything. There is always room for great stories. Take that, Texas and Florida.

Photo by Jan van der Wolf from Pexels

Zeroing in on Comps: Part II

Last month, in Part I of this article, we explored comps (comparable titles and authors) and how crucial they are not only to getting an agent’s attention, but also to getting your query letter’s pitch read through the right lens. This month, we’ll dive deeper into how you can choose the best possible comps for your manuscript.

First, let’s revisit the idea that your comps have one job, which is to identify an existing audience for your book by filling in the blank in the following sentence:

  • “My book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ___.”

That’s the simplest wording, and it’s perfectly fine, but you can certainly mention more than one comp. Something concise like this is also perfectly fine:

  • “My book will appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah and Jodi Picoult.”

You could take it up a notch by giving a little teaser about how or why each comp is relevant to your manuscript:

  • “My book will appeal to readers who love the richly imagined worlds of N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.”
  • “With the wry voice and deep science of The Martian by Andy Weir and the fast pace and crime-thriller elements of Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, my sci-fi novel…”
  • “This WWII-set novel will speak to fans of the heartfelt poignancy of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and the heart wrenching friendship story of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.”

The key is to keep it brief: two or three comps and, if you choose, one or two elements of each that that are relevant to your novel. Think snapshot, not photo album. Avoid the temptation to waste valuable space in your query letter pontificating about your comps.

Another pitfall is listing too many comps. More than three muddies the waters, and the slush reader will struggle to understand the thread you think connects them all. And more than three means more potentially wasted query-letter space you could have devoted to your pitch.

Yet another pitfall is comping books that have become canon. The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter… These series loom so large they blot out the sun, and, as such, will do little to cast light on a more easily identified targeted audience. The fandoms of canonized works are so vast that they spill over and spread out across marketing and genre categories used by the book industry (publishers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, booksellers, librarians) to get the most books into the most hands of their most interested readers. It would be great if every book transcended categorization to become part of the literary canon! But canonization happens years or decades after the book is on the shelf; it most definitely does not happen at the query stage. So comping canonized titles or series is often a missed opportunity.

Let’s look at some other examples. One thing we see often and that works well is a comp mashup. That’s when a writer positions their manuscript at the intersection of two comparables:

  • “It’s X-Men meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
  • “Think Killing Eve meets Outlander.” (Or: “The sexy international intrigue of Killing Eve meets the epic scale and time-traveling cast reminiscent of Outlander.”)
  • “Imagine Ferris Bueller­ as the protagonist of an Agatha Christie–style murder mystery written for middle-grade readers.”

I’m making these examples up as I go along, and it’s kind of fun to imagine how such mashups might work in a completed novel. But I hope they’re helping you think of ways to comp your own manuscripts!

The Importance of the Reading Experience in Choosing Comps

The point of all of this—and I mentioned this in Part I—is that comps should cast a spotlight on your audience. Comps are reader focused, which means they are market focused. Therefore, strive to comp the experience of your book.

Think of your top-ten, all-time favorite books. What is it you remember most about them? Why did they make it onto your list? Because you experienced something. A revelation. A connection to a character who came to feel like a real person to you. A sense of joy or surprise or satisfaction or wonder or exhilaration or even sorrow or fear. The experience of a story is why readers return to their favorite authors and series time and again.

So if you’re writing a work of upmarket women’s fiction about a divorcée who works in a museum and finds herself talking through her problems to the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex that towers over the museum’s foyer, are you going to comp Jurassic Park? No! Please don’t! Why? Because for an audience, the experience of this novel is not going to be anywhere near the experience of Jurassic Park—the novel or the movie. The two stories are simply not going to appeal to the same audience.

When you’re choosing your comps, think first about what experience your novel will deliver to its readers. Be able to articulate that experience. Write it down on a sticky note. From there, it will be easier to think of other books or authors that have already provided a similar experience, hopefully with some degree of visibility or success in its genre’s market.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Philippe Put

Zeroing in on Comps: Part I

When you’re pitching or querying, comps are critical. But poorly chosen comps can work against you. How can you make sure you’re picking comps that increase your chances of getting your manuscript requested? Here are a few tips.

What are comps and what should they do?

“Comps” is industry speak for comparable titles or authors. Your two or three (but not more) comps should work together to do one job and one job only, which is fill in the blank in the following sentence:

“My book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ____.”

Your wording might be different, and that’s fine. We’ll come back to that next month, in Part II. For now, look at that sentence and pay attention to what it does: It identifies an existing audience who will enjoy your book.

  • It doesn’t say, “I write like Bestselling Author X.”
  • It doesn’t say, “My book is about themes of love and loss, like Bestselling Title Y.”
  • It doesn’t say, “My book features dinosaurs, like Big Blockbuster Movie Z.”

All it does is say, “There is an existing audience who loved something, and my book will appeal to that existing audience.” As such, well-chosen comps are more about the market than they are about your book’s literary merit.

Now, if your comps speak to your book’s literary merit, that’s better than not having comps at all. So don’t go ditching them yet! Furthermore, the best comps pack a one-two punch, speaking to both merit and market. That’s another thing we’ll come back to next month.

As a slush reader, I like to say that good comps give me the right lens through which to read your pitch. I can’t even guess at how many query pitches I’ve read over the years that left me completely befuddled, scratching my head and asking myself, “What is the author trying to do here and who is the intended audience?”—until I got to the author’s comps and the light went on. Suddenly, I got that the author was reaching out to the existing readership of Christopher Moore or Arundhati Roy or the Dublin Murder Squad series. And suddenly I could see the connection, and that I (having likely just read twenty consecutive YA fantasy queries) had been reading this particular pitch through the wrong lens.

What can you comp?

In the world of novels, comps are most often books, series, and authors. But they don’t have to be. You can also comp movies or movie franchises; TV shows; comic books, manga, or anime; and documentaries or docuseries. Anything that has captured the hearts, the minds, or even the voyeuristic fascination of a large group of people can be a useful comp.

Comps should be recent and relevant.

How recent? There’s no useful way to stamp an expiration date on a comp. Some books (movies, TV shows, etc.) simply live longer in the Zeitgeist than others. So if you’re going to choose an older comp, make sure it’s one that’s still exerting considerable influence on today’s story consumers—at least those within your particular niche or genre.

Relevance has more to do with why and how your book will appeal to your comp’s existing audience. I mentioned above that comping writing style, themes, or story features (like dinosaurs) might be a wasted opportunity. Why? Because those alone are not generally the building blocks of audience, and comps should be all about audience. I’m going to go deeper into what I mean here next month in Part II of this article, so stay tuned.

For now, let me leave you with this image. Think of readers’ tastes as the globs of goo inside a lava lamp. They’re constantly on the move, floating around, rising falling, speeding up, slowing down, splitting apart, merging with other globs. It’s difficult to predict what those goo globs are going to do next or how long they’re going to stay a particular size or remain on a particular course. Yet that is exactly what career writers, agents, editors, and publishers are constantly trying to do, albeit with varying levels of success and sometimes by accident. A well-chosen comp tells industry folks, “Hey, look at that glob! It exists right now! And the reason it’s a glob is because all its particles enjoyed Only Murders in the Building. I’m telling you, that glob is going to love my book, too.”

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ged Carroll

6 Writing Tips From My 6 Years in Publishing

I’ve worked for Nelson Literary Agency for the past 6 years, all stemming from my certain declaration that I wanted to own a publishing company. I knew nothing of what the process entailed, but I knew I loved books and wanted to be a part of putting more out into the world. I’ve thankfully had the most encouraging and admirable mentors to teach me the ins and outs. Though queries have not been my main job, I have accumulated these few writing tips up my sleeve. 

Consume what you create. “Write what you know” absolutely applies to fiction. Consuming the genre that you write in aids in your understanding of your manuscript and how to pitch it. A fast way to tell an agent you don’t understand your own manuscript is to pitch it as the wrong genre. Utilize the existing books in your writing genre.

Publishing means new coworkers. Preparing yourself to work with others and consider their constructive criticism needs to be part of your transition to being query ready. Know that every published author you know has a rough draft that needed work. 

Rejection doesn’t define you or your work. Be careful how you react in moments of rejection as it may impact your potential for moments of success. Don’t silence your story because you haven’t found the team fit for you. 

Find your identifier. Agents read an impressive number of manuscripts in a very short span of time. To maintain order in their brain, they’ll often rely on an identifier. This identifier can be as simple as “that middle grade with a diary structure” or “the thriller with the unsettlingly charming voice.” This identifier may also be recognized and utilized by your consumers, so you’ll want to know what it is.

Advice for your manuscript is not always advice for your query. Advice for writing craft can be applied in three ways: relevant for your manuscript, relevant for your query, and relevant for both. Relevant for both can be seen in the advice “show, don’t tell.” For example, in your query, you’ll want to show, but not tell the voice of your story. If your manuscript is humorous, show that humor in your query. 

Your reputation proceeds you. The publishing world has many moving parts to produce a book and then get that book to its audience. These moving parts are made up of many hardworking people who cross paths more often than you think. You gain your credentials through more than just writing.

Photo by Natasha on Unsplash

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception and there is one positive note in the number of manuscripts requested that also received offers of representation. This is good news for writers! Find out what else was positive for writers in 2021 (hint: across the pond). 

13,932 : Queries read and responded to. Up 371 queries from 2020 [which had a total of 13,561]. This looks like a close match…but it’s not. The agents of NLA, collectively, were closed to queries about 47% of 2021, as opposed to in 2020, when we were collectively closed to queries for only 27% of the year. So our average number of queries received per month actually increased 29% in 2021 over 2020.

353 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (down from 430 in 2020): 95 requests for Kristin, 161 requests for Joanna, and although no longer with the agency, 97 requests for the other agents. 

111 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (up from 106 in 2020). This is good news for writers in the query trenches. 

22 : Number of referred manuscripts KN read and considered during the times she was closed to general submissions but open to referrals only. The total for number of referrals read is 34 when including the other agents. 

3 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (0 for Kristin—which is first in her career; 3 for Joanna)

37 : Books released in 2021 (down slightly from 41 in 2020).

2 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Joanna. Extra congrats to her client Kate Baer!

51 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 48 in 2020). Marie Lu hit the list again this year, while Stacey Lee and Richard Chizmar made it for the first time.

5 : TV and major motion picture deals (almost on par with the 6 from previous year)

1 : TV show in production (Wool Saga coming on Apple+ in 2023) 

126 : Foreign-rights deals done (up from 70 in 2020). Wowza. This is great news for writers, as foreign markets are another great source of income. 

0 : Physical conferences attended. Thanks again, Covid. 

2 : Virtual conferences attended by Kristin (Story Brook Children’s Lit Fellows, Virtual Stoker Con). 

103 : Physical holiday cards sent (up one from 102 in 2020—we still only sent to clients during this Covid year).

736 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down from 837 in 2020 as a lot of editors left and we did a much needed cleanup of the list).

0 : Eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because Starbucks didn’t offer. Huge sad face.

Lots : Of wonderful days reading and appreciating creators. 

Photo by Black ice from Pexels

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

Pitch Language vs. Book-Review Language

There’s pitch language and there’s book-review language, and each has a unique vocabulary. Pitch language sells, but book-review language tells. If you’re working on your query letter, here’s a quick tip to help you keep the tone on track: Avoid using book-review language in your pitch.

Here’s a quick list of book-review vocabulary:

  • Absorbing
  • Action-packed
  • Addictive
  • Ambitious
  • Awe-inspiring
  • Breathtaking
  • Captivating
  • Dazzling
  • Dynamic
  • Engaging
  • Enjoyable
  • Gripping
  • Haunting
  • Heart-wrenching
  • Juicy
  • Memorable
  • Moving
  • Page-turning
  • Poignant
  • Powerful
  • Scrumptious
  • Spellbinding
  • Suspenseful
  • Tear-jerking
  • Tense
  • Thought-provoking
  • Thrilling
  • Touching
  • Yummy

These descriptors and others like them, while wholly appropriate for book reviews and cover blurbs, should be avoided in your query letter. Why? There are two reasons.

First, when you tell an agent in your query letter that your manuscript is “a breathtaking page-turner full of juicy, spell-binding prose” and that your beta readers told you how “haunting and moving and tear-jerking” it was, the agent has no idea what your story is about. Your query letter’s pitch should be 100-percent focused on your story.

Can’t you do both? That is, why not pitch the story and also say a few glowing things about it?

Because (and this is the second reason) your query letter should be no longer than one printed page. It’s the equivalent of an old-school, ink-on-paper business letter. That’s not very long, which makes every line valuable real estate. The more lines you put to work immersing the agent in your story’s premise, characters, conflict, stakes, plot, and the like, the greater the likelihood they’ll be interested in reading your sample pages or requesting your full.

Your pitch is not a review you write about your own book. Once more for the back row, pitch language is sell copy, but book-review language is tell copy. The query letter, like back-cover copy, exists to sell. So keep that pitch focused on your story’s Five W’s to increase your chances of selling:

  • Who is your character?
  • What do they want? (Goal)
  • Why do they want it? (Motivation)
  • Why can’t they have it? (Conflict)
  • What happens if they don’t get it? (Stakes)

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

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New Year, New #MSWL

Oh, what a year. In the spirit of taking a (small) step forward, I’m not going to summarize the ways in which we’ve all been impacted by everything that happened in 2020, but as we approach the anniversary of, what I’ll kindly call, the big shut down, I’ve been re-thinking what types of projects I’d like to see in my inbox and what types of books I think editors will be looking to acquire in 2021. While thrillers will continue to be in demand, I do think both agents and editors will be on the lookout for diverse stories that build and fuel community as well as those that really dissect identity, family, and our place in the world.

The Dark Side of Homecoming. And the secrets it reveals.  I’m not talking about a big city corporate lawyer who inherits her great aunt’s estate and finds love along the way (although I have a soft spot for those stories, too). I’m interested in the tension that arises from being forced to confront your decisions to leave the place you were born and the desperate acts that come from being forced to return. I’m fascinated by the dark side and tension of identity building. What does it look like when you have to come back to a place to lay something to rest – especially if that place has a hold over you? What about when you have to confront the darker side of your cultural identity – be it myths or legends that turn out, somehow, to be real or the xenophobia you were raised with that you now have to confront?

Epic Sister/Friendship Stories.  I devoured Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and have been hiding from my family binging Firefly Lane.  There’s something about the bond of friendship and sisterhood that continues to fascinate me.  Friends have been a lifeline during these quarantine months and since I don’t have a sister, I’m always intrigued by what that would be like.  I am drawn to the extremes of these relationships – the dark corners that break our hearts and the love that mends them. Female friendships are one of the most important and often overlooked relationships out there, so I’m particularly interested in what happens when they end. The loss of a dear friend is a kind of orphaning and it is an area that again drives people to interesting extremes.  I’d love to find a Reconstructing Amelia among friends or sisters.

Food as a road to identity and community.  2020 had me thinking about food a lot. As I tried to control my reality by preparing heartening food for my family, I was also conscious that many didn’t have that same privilege. So much about food is tied to one’s sense of identity, feeling of home and sense of community. I would love to find a story about a community brought together by a local chef or restaurant – be it the community at large or the community a place like that creates for its patrons and staff. I’m also interested in stories about how food creates a home for someone. Whether it’s someone coming back to their roots, learning traditional recipes to reconnect to or learn about their history, or a kitchen of women who find solace and escape in the food they prepare and the restaurant they run, I’m interested in how people come to connect to food and how food connects us to who we are.

Thrillers. I am still in search of twisty stories where secrets are revealed and relationships are tested.  If it happens to be set on a creepy island or in a closed community a la The Guest List, all the better.  Stories where all things buried finally bubble over are deeply engrossing – especially when they involve giving a big middle finger to systems of oppression along the way. I’m thinking of The Other Black Girl or The Other Me as examples.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dan Zen