Queries: we hates them, Precious!
Seriously, querying my first manuscript made me completely insane. My early queries were amazingly awful, so awful that I think back to one in particular and assume it’s why a certain agent I admire never requested any of my subsequent work. I used to get SO ANGRY because I’d written an entire BOOK, darn it! How could queries possibly be so hard?
There’s an art to it, but it takes time to learn. Many writers I know (myself included) now write queries before or while they’re drafting a new manuscript. It’s incredibly helpful for identifying fundamental problems with plot, pacing, and character motivation. Janet Reid has written excellent posts on that topic.
And I did read them.
I still wanted to bang my head against a wall, and like Ramona Quimby, I got even madder when my family started slowly stepping away from the crazy. My poor husband. I’m afraid to count the emails I sent declaiming, “I’VE FINALLY GOT IT!” (I didn’t have it.)
But eventually, I caught on. And once you’ve hit the target once, it definitely gets easier.
I thought it might be interesting for #PitchWars applicants to have a look at the query that garnered me the most requests, so I’m pasting it in below.
Eleven-year-old Ada Roundtree was born and raised in Oddity, New Mexico, the strangest little town in America. She’s at the top of her class, and survives every school safety drill, but she has a zombie rabbit infestation in her yard, a ghost in her closet, and a hole in her heart.
When her twin sister wins the annual Greeley’s grocery store sweepstakes and, like all winners, disappears, Ada distracts herself by tracking down local legends to impress her hero, vlogger Malia. What Ada wants more than anything, though, is to get her sister (and her happy family) back.
When Malia foments rebellion against the powers that run the sweepstakes, Ada is eager to help, but she quickly discovers that Malia is out for revenge no matter what the consequences. With her sister’s life in peril, Ada’s fighting a two-front war– but she’s never been one to back away from a challenge. Ada Roundtree plans to have her frito pie and eat it, too.
ODDITY is a MG sci-fi, complete at 68,000 words. It will appeal to fans of Adam Rex’s THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, and M.T. Anderson’s Pals In Peril series. Think of it as Welcome to Night Vale for middle grade.
Here are the things that I think worked about this query:
Correct formula: I gave my MC, the setting, the stakes, the word count and genre, and then I got OUT. The meat of your query should be about 200-250 words.
Simplicity: I didn’t name a laundry list of characters. I stuck to two. That was a little bit tricky, because, in all honesty, the primary antagonists were a bunch of evil puppets. I focused on the conflict between Ada and her hero because it showed character growth, and showed emotional stakes in addition to the more obvious physical ones. If I’d named the individual puppets or her sister, it would only have caused “alphabet soup” confusion.
Flavor: I thought about what made my book unique, and I included some of that flavor in my query. In all honesty, that can be the trickiest bit: showcasing voice under tight word constraints without being kitschy! Jaye Robin Brown deserves a major shout-out for insisting my query for CELERITY must be voicey back in 2013. It was great advice!
Comps: I was told repeatedly during “The Call” process that my comps were smart. They haven’t always been. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series was one of my comps for my first manuscript. Now, lots of people love them some Susan Cooper–that wasn’t the issue– but you want your comps to be recent, successful, and specific enough to position you clearly in the marketplace. It doesn’t hurt that SMEKDAY became a Dreamworks movie (Home) this year. Both books differ greatly from mine in plot, but have a comparably weird vibe. Notice I pulled a fast one here, though. I gave two MG comps, then sneaked in a reference to an adult podcast. That was very deliberate. Night Vale is hugely popular. Many agents who don’t listen to it know *of* it, in part b/c it’s associated with Commonplace Books in NYC. I was inspired to write ODDITY when I saw how much my MG kids loved the podcast. I didn’t see any books that captured the fun of Night Vale on the MG market, and I was convinced that I’d eventually see “Bring me a MG Night Vale!” on #MSWL. So I really, really wanted that reference in there, and lemme tell you, it worked.
Here are my overall stats for ODDITY:
Total Queries: 65
Partials: 5 or so
Fulls: 13 (18 total after nudging)
A few more brief notes: I did include a bio paragraph at the end. I don’t have any publishing credits, so I focused on my experience with the kids in my target market:
I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Education, specializing in children with emotional disturbance. I taught in public schools for seven years, and continue to tutor students at all grade levels in a variety of subjects, from early reading to SAT preparation. I also homeschool my three children. In my spare time, I garden, knit, spin and run. I’m a founding member of a genre fiction critique group called Working Title.
After that, I always added: “Below, please find (whatever information they request with their query.)” MAKE SURE YOU CHANGE THIS EACH TIME, but again, it sets you apart because agents immediately know you’ve paid attention to their submission guidelines.
One last tip: make sure you have absolute command of the words you’re using, or don’t use them! You pique someone’s interest, you don’t peek it. You wait with bated breath. Baited breath is very different, and kinda gross. Here’s one useful article on words you don’t want to misuse.
NOW. The fun part. I know you’re all honing your queries for the 17th, and I’m sure you know by now that there will be a #PitMad event on September 10th for folks who don’t make it into Pitch Wars. Cat Scully and I want to help! (See? When she says she’s in it for the long haul with her mentees, she’s not kidding…and I definitely plan to do things the same way.)
Hit us with your best #PitMad tweet in the comments. I’ll leave the contest open until midnight on Sunday, then use Random.org to choose two winners. Each will receive a query critique…and if they don’t make it into Pitch Wars, they’ll get a twitter pitch critique in time for #PitMad!