Successful Queries – Day 8 – Marieke Nijkamp

Hello gentle reader,

Welcome to the Successful Queries Blog Series! The idea is to share with you Queries That Worked and to find out what made them stand out in the slushpile. My hope is that it’ll help you, querying writers, to write an amazing query for your own manuscript and to find Your Agent.

Today Marieke Nijkamp, aka The Queen of Queries, is sharing her advice on how to write an outstanding query. Marieke writes YA and MG fiction and she’s represented by Jennifer Udden of Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Marieke Nijkamp

GUEST POST

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m one of Those People who loves to write queries (and occasionally, even synopses *gasp*). I love the clarity in brings when you have to sum up a story in roughly 250 words, when you have to force yourself to get to the very core of a tale. I love the structure of queries and synopses, I love writing them, and I love critiquing them. I’ve probably critiqued close to a thousand over the years.

I know. Annoying, isn’t it?

But I also love to talk about queries, so when Eve asked me to talk about advice for querying writers, I knew I couldn’t pass that opportunity up.

First of all, learn the formulas

Query formulas are amazing to understand what works, and why. Whether it’s by perusing the archives of Query Shark, subjecting yourself to AbsoluteWrite’s Query Letter Hell, or workshopping queries at a conference, you have to get an ear for queries. Know the rules, read a lot and critique more, because all those things will help you a great deal in writing your own perfect pitch.

Second, less is more

Once you’ve figured out those bare bones, the easiest step is to try to fill the out with the entire story. Far too often, I see queries that try to do and be everything. Introduce ALL the characters. Explain ALL the plot points. Mention ALL the themes. And often it’s a matter of overkill—and of the writer overthinking it.

I love specifics that make the story come to life, but if you pick up a book in the bookstore, do you want the blurb to explain everything that happens in minute detail? Stick to what entices.

Thirdly, trust your readers

The best way to know if a query still makes sense and hits the right spots? Ask a CP or beta who’s read the manuscript. The best way to know if a query entices? Ask a reader who hasn’t.

So take your time, reach out and get feedback. And revise it until it shines.

And finally, break the rules

And with that in mind… trust your own gut, too. Because formulas are amazing. But, sometimes, when we turn them into a tight set of rules, they can get very overwhelming. Use a tagline. Don’t use a tagline. Start with personalization. Don’t even bother. Use comp titles. Have a good bio. Explain the story in one paragraph, three paragraphs, two, four… When really, formulas are also just a means to an end.

In the end, your main goal is simple and very straightforward: to hook your reader. Nothing less, nothing more.

So don’t be *too* intimidated by those 250 words. It’s only one page! You’re a writer, just tell the story! After all, as a reader, I read to love a story, not to hate it. I only want to know three things:

Who is the main character?

What choice do they face?

And above all, why should I care?

GIVEAWAY (closed)

Querying Writers! Marieke is giving away a QUERY CRITIQUE to THREE lucky winners! To enter, please fill in the form below with your name and email adresss, and include the genre of your mansucript. Good luck!

The giveaway is open internationally until Sunday 16th March 2014 at 11pm BST.

Any questions? Ask below!

Querying and dealing with an R&R (Revise and Resubmit)

Hello gentle reader,

In previous posts, I have explained how to maximize your chances of success during the querying process, how to make sense of rejections and when to make the decision to shelve your manuscript.

From those posts, you might have assumed there are only two endings to the querying process: rejection (“NO”) or offer of representation (“YES”).  But there is a third option, which I shall address here: the “Revise and Resubmit” option, aka “R&R”, aka “MAYBE-NOT-YET”.

What is an R&R?

It’s a letter (these days, it’s usually an email) from an agent who has read your full manuscript. This agent sees enough potential in your story to write you a letter, but she’s not ready to offer you representation just yet. Instead, she asks you to revise (according to her helpful suggestions) and resubmit your manuscript at a later time.

Is this good news?

It might not look like it at first glance, but it IS great news. Agents are busy people. Yet one of them saw enough potential in your story to write you pages of suggestions to improve it. Not only did this agent read your whole manuscript, but she thought about it during her daily commute and then sat down at her desk to write you a 3-page email.

What do I do now?

It’s entirely up to you. You may decide to go ahead with the revisions or you may decide to ignore them and carry on querying. Here are the questions you can yourself in order to make that decision:

–          Do you agree with the agent’s suggestions?

–          Do you feel capable of doing the required revisions?

If your answer is yes to both questions, then go ahead and revise. If you’re unsure, discuss it with your Critique Partners. Take your time and think about it: you need to be fully committed to these revisions; otherwise you’re just wasting your time.

Is this a test?

In a way, yes, it is.

The agent sees a spark in your manuscript, and she’s testing you in order to see if you are able to revise it according to her comments. You’re a potential client.

And for you, this is the opportunity to find out if you like the agent’s style and editorial approach. For a few months, she’s your potential agent.

How long do I have to complete those revisions?

That’s the tricky part. You’ve got AS LONG AS YOU WANT. An R&R is a great opportunity to show yourself and your story in the best light possible. There’s no need to rush. At the same time, most agents say that taking forever doesn’t send the best message, because they start doubting you can handle revisions in a timely manner. So between 1 month and 6 months is acceptable.

What happens when I resubmit?

Hopefully this time, the agent’s reply will be an offer of representation. BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE. The agent can ask for another R&R. The agent might send you a rejection after all. But in the meantime, you’ve made your manuscript stronger, and it might just be what will help you find an(other) agent after all.

So tell me: have you had an R&R before? How did you deal with it? Do you have any questions? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Querying and the decision to shelve your manuscript

Side note: this post is not about my personal situation. It was inspired by conversations I’ve had this week with other writers. I’m not shelving Lily In The Shadows (just yet).

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about querying and rejections. I offered advice on what to do to make it out of the slushpile and get an agent’s attention – and hopefully an offer of representation. Today’s post is about the other side of the coin: what to do when, despite your best efforts, that offer of representation doesn’t come and you’re faced with the decision of shelving your manuscript.

Making the decision your Beloved Manuscript isn’t The One is hard. You’ve put so much effort into it, you love it so much, how do you know it’s time to move on? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you make your decision:

1- Is your submission the best it can be?

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you’re getting rejections because of the quality of your submission. If, deep down, you know your query could be better, your first pages could be rewritten and your manuscript could use more polishing, ask yourself if it’s not worth a little extra work. If you think it is, just walk that extra mile and make your submission outstanding.

2- Have you exhausted all your querying opportunities?

The second question you need to address is whether you have queried all the agents interested in your genre/category. If the answer is no, then keep querying. If the answer is yes and you feel you’ve burned all those bridges, it might be time to move on.

3- Is it just down to bad timing?

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with  your query or manuscript. Maybe you’re getting rejections because your timing is unfortunate. Ask yourself if you’re querying a genre that’s over-represented in the slushpile. The NewLeafLiterary Tumblr is a great source of info on that matter. Right now, Dystopian, Greek mythology, Sci-Fi, mermaids, vampires and werewolves are not what editors are looking for. Be aware of these trends when trying to decide whether or not you should give up on querying your story.

4- Am I shelving this manuscript forever?

Parting ways with a manuscript you love is hard. But knowing there’s a chance it might still hit the shelves one day can help you putting it aside for now. Maybe, once you have an agent thanks to another manuscript, you can take your beloved manuscript out of the drawer and send it out on submission.

5- Can I move on from here?

Although it may seem unthinkable at the moment, moving on is possible. Write another story. Focus on another project. It may be the one that will get you an agent. And you won’t regret shelving your Beloved Manuscript then.

Have you ever shelved a manuscript you loved? What brought you to that decision? Do share your experience below or ask questions I haven’t thought of!

Querying, making sense of rejections and finding the right agent

Hello gentle reader,

September is just around the corner, and for some of you it might mean a new step in your writing endeavours: the querying process.

For the purpose of this post, we are going to assume you’ve done your homework, finished and polished your manuscript, written a professional query letter and put together a list of agents to contact, along with their submission guidelines. You’ve read all the success stories about writers who got multiple offers one week after sending out their query and signed with an agent within 3 months. So you send out a batch of queries and you start drafting your “How I got my agent” blog post while refreshing your inbox. You’re ready for the offers of representation to roll in.

Except instead, rejections start piling up.

And you have no idea where things have gone wrong.

So here is a little 4-stage guide to help you make sense of those rejections and hopefully help you on your way to finding your perfect agent match.

Stage 1

The problem: You’re getting form rejections, with one or two random partial requests thrown in to keep you guessing.

The diagnostic: At this stage, it’s likely the issue lies with your query letter. “But,” you’ll say, “my letter follows the guidelines and doesn’t even mention Harry Potter!” Fair enough. But to compete with the hundreds of query letters that land each month in the literary agent’s inbox, your letter has to stand out and be stellar.

The solution: Revise your query letter. Post it on forums like Agent Query Connect, Absolute Write or WriteOnCon. Enter contests and giveaways offering a query letter critique. Revise again. Re-draft until your letter is concise, clear, eye-catching and true to your story. Writing an outstanding query letter might take 20 or 30 drafts, but if it gets your manuscript requested, who’s counting?

Stage 2

The problem: You’re getting partial requests, which turn into rejections with a personal comment from the agent.

The diagnostic: There’s something wrong with your first 50 pages. Whether it’s pace, characterization or plot holes, hopefully you’re getting the same feedback at least a couple times.

The solution: Revise your manuscript. Work with your Critique Partners to fix your manuscript’s issues. Once your revisions are done, send your story to beta readers who haven’t read it before and listen to their feedback. Enter contests and giveaways to win a manuscript critique from an editor, an author or even better, an agent.

Stage 3

The problem: You’re getting full requests, which turn into rejections with detailed feedback or a Revise and Resubmit (R&R) request.

The diagnostic: There’s something wrong with your manuscript, and agents highlight what it is.

The solution: Again, revise, get feedback, revise again, and resend.

Stage 4

The problem: You’re getting requests left and right, which all turn into “I like it but I’ll pass” rejections (aka the “not for me but best of luck with it” rejection, aka the “not the right fit for me at the moment” rejection, aka the “I didn’t fall in love with it” rejection).

The diagnostic: It’s the hardest one, because there’s nothing wrong with your query letter or your manuscript. Nothing the agents are telling you about anyways.

The solution: KEEP QUERYING. You’re so close to your goal, the next agent you’ll contact might be the one falling in love with your story. And this is the one agent you want, the best possible match, the one who will wholly believe in your manuscript’s potential.

So tell me: which stage of the querying process are you at now? Do you have any questions I didn’t answer in this post? Or any advice for other querying writers? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Should you really be writing that YA High Fantasy novel?

Hello gentle reader,

Recently I have been researching agents as I am getting ready to query my YA High Fantasy novel The Last Queen. And when I check out literary agents’ websites to find out what genre they represent, I often find a note along those lines: “represents YA Fantasy, all subgenres, but no high fantasy please”. And I want to bang my head on my keyboard.

When asked why they don’t represent YA High Fantasy, literary agents will often give you one of these two answers:

–          The market for YA High Fantasy is very narrow: only a handful of readers buy those books.

–          The agent herself doesn’t read this genre.

The second answer is fair enough, and I wouldn’t want to be represented by an agent who doesn’t “get” my book anyway. But the first one? I beg to differ.

I went to check the Amazon’s Best-Seller List this morning. Not 6 months ago. THIS MORNING. And in the Top 100 Books for Teens, you find authors like: J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Scott Card, Cinda Williams Chima, Rick Riordan, Christopher Paolini and Laini Taylor. Most of them appear twice in the list. All of them but one appear among the first 40 best-selling books.

Then I checked the new releases to see how the YA High fantasy books released in 2012 are ranked by Amazon (according to their sales). Here is what I found:

The Crimson Crown by Cinda Williams Chima (released October 2012): #318 in Books

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson (released September 2012): #4,778 in Books

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (released August 2012): #6,184 in Books

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (released July 2012): #1,592 in Books

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (released June 2012): #4,436 in Books

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore (released May 2012): #3,505 in Books

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (released April 2012): #10,834 in Books

NB: The books in bold are debut novels. All rankings are in Books (E-books sales are not taken into account).

You’ll notice that when the release date is further away, sales start to decrease. But even if we take this into consideration, I’d say these sales figures are quite impressive for a subgenre that’s supposedly dying. I’m especially interested in the ranking of debut novels such as Seraphina and Throne of Glass: these books sell really well considering their authors are unknown.

So is YA High Fantasy a subgenre that only a handful of readers buy? I don’t think so. Is shopping around a YA High Fantasy debut novel crazy? A little bit. But not crazier than shopping around a “regular” YA fantasy novel.

What do you think? Have you written a High Fantasy novel for Young Adults? Have you encountered agents who tell you you’ll never sell your book? Is YA High Fantasy dying, or is it the next big thing?

Feel free to leave me a comment, I’d love to hear what you have to say!

ROW80 Check-In 4 : Jay Kristoff’s Query tips

Hello gentle reader,

And it is time for another ROW80 check-in! My goals for this fourth round are as follows:

Write or edit every day DONE!

Editing – Finish my current round of editing for The Last Queen, get my manuscript critiqued and beat-read, then edit some more.

DONE: I heard back from my CPs and beta readers at the beginning of the week and I have been editing all week.

Writing – Write a short story, and continue writing the first draft of The Cursed King

I didn’t do any writing per se this week since I was focused on editing The Last Queen.

So this was again a good writing week for me and I’m still happy with my goals. However I was so focused on my editing that I neglected my inbox and blog comments. I apologise if you’re waiting to hear back from me, I’ll get to this today. I didn’t have the time for any reading either. The only thing I did manage to do this week beside editing was keeping my blog alive with a Halloween book giveaway (you can enter here to win THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman if you wish). Also my blog received the Liebster Award!

Now, on to an inspiring story to keep us going this coming week. Today I’m sharing SF/F author Jay Kristoff’s 13 Steps to Getting an Agent. Jay’s first trilogy, THE LOTUS WAR, was purchased in a three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. The first installment, STORMDANCER, is out now. It is “a dystopian Japanese-inspired Steampunk Fantasy”. I have found the following tips on the Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing blog.

“The agent search. You pick up your manuscript, nurtured from a tiny seed, and send it out into the world. It’s perfect. You love it. Surely, everyone else will too.

And then you watch agents curbstomp it, or worse, ignore it, months on end, until you look at this thing you once loved and question whether it has any redeeming features at all.

That pretty much sums up what it was like for me. Brief periods of giddy excitement. Disappointment. Intense self-doubt. Feigned apathy. Resentment. Months on end. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to representation. And nothing anybody says makes it easier. You can have your betas say your MS is the next Harry Potter, you can repeat the absolute, perfect truth “It only takes one yes” until your voice fails, but ultimately, you’re still getting rejected. And rejection is a fun as funerals.

The thing that made it easier for me was mechanizing the process. Routine and ritual. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. But I share my thirteen steps here, in the hope it might help somebody else out on that long hard road.

Step 1 – Write a book. Make it the best you can possibly make it. This is kinda the easy part, and I’m not kidding when I say that. By no means is it easy. But it’s easier than what comes after.

Step 2 – Finish the book. Really finish it. Don’t just finish your third edit and say “done!”. Scour the pages until they bleed. No truer words were ever spoken to me than this – “Your first chapter better be stonkingly awesome. Because that’s all most agents are ever gonna read.”

Step 3 – Stop finishing the book. You’re just ruining it now. There comes a time when you need to say “Enough, this thing is ready to go out”. Some people spend years polishing, and never get around to actually querying. That’s fear. Fear is the mindkiller. Say it with me and Muad’dib and send that puppy out to slaughter.

Step 4 – Do your homework – Go to Querytracker. Go to Agentquery. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. Visit agent websites, read interviews. Learn everything you can about them. Check outPreditors and Editors. Pay no money to an agent upfront, EVER. Do not let your desire to get published blind you to the realities. Do not let your hard work go to waste at the hands of a hustler. Do not be a sucker.

Do. Your. Homework.

Note – there’s a fine line between research and stalking. If you find yourself rifling through an agent’s trash or standing outside their apartment in the rain, you’re doing it wrong.

Step 5 – Prioritize your list. Who’s your dream agent? Do you put them top of list or midlist? Do you acknowledge your query is going to suck at first (because it will), or do you think it’s as awesome as it’s ever going to be (it isn’t) and blow your shots at your dream agents by using them as guinea pigs?

Step 6 – Forge a prescription for some quality painkillers, then write your query letter. There are entire websites devoted to this (writing the query, not forging a prescription). I won’t elaborate on it, but there are faaaaaaaabulous resources online, darling, and you should take advantage.

You can find my query on my blog if you’re interested. The version you’ll be reading was my third iteration. The first one blew more goat than wow I don’t even want to finish that thought…

Step 7 – Read the submission guidelines. This can’t be stressed enough. The brownie points I’m racking up by mentioning this fact will be enough to get me repped in my next seventeen lives.

Every agent is different. Some like you to send your query solo (which is why your letter needs to sing like Amanda Palmer). Some like a synopsis. Some like a sample. Some like watching episodes of House wearing only an old “Spice Girls” T-shirt and bunny slippers, but you don’t know that because you’re not standing outside her apartment in the rain, are you?

Are you?

Step 8 – Send it. Cross your fingers. Pray to whatever flavor of Flying Spaghetti Monster you prefer. Sacrifice a cat to the blood god. Seriously, cats are vermin, the less we have of them, the better.

I had around 15 queries in the air at any given moment. As soon as a rejection came in, I’d send out another. Some folks will tell you this is too many queries to run at the one time. Some will say it’s not enough. There are no absolutes here. You are stepping beyond the rim.

Step 9 – Wait.

Then wait some more.

You can choose to spend your waiting time however you wish. Writing your next book is a good way to go. Whatever you do, it had best be something you enjoy, because you’re going to doing a lot of it.

STORMDANCER is a rulebreaker –it really only took three months for me to land an agent on it, which is nothing. To put it in perspective, I waited three months for replies on some queries for my first ms. I spent five months waiting to hear back on a full (which incidentally, was a rejection).

So writing your next book while you wait? Probably a good idea.

Step 10 – Wait.

I realize I said this already, but it’s worth mentioning twice.

Step 11 – Learn from your rejections. My wife used to say to me “Stephanie Meyer got rejected nine times before Twilight got bought. J.K Rowling got canned a dozen times too”. I will say this now – those ladies had it easy. I took twenty two kicks to the baby maker on STORMDANCER. I took seventy on my previous MS. I had it easy. I know writers who got rejected over three hundred times before they got repped. Three. Hundred.

Most of your rejections will be forms. An automated, boiler-plate “thanks but no thanks”. If you’re lucky enough to receive feedback from an agent with your rejection, treat this like a nugget of gold. It’s a true rarity, and that agent is taking time out of an unimaginably busy schedule to offer it. Say “thank you” and be on your way.

When you get rejected, don’t ask why. You’ll be sorely tempted to. But sadly, it’s not the agent’s job to tell you what’s wrong with your ms. It’s your job to be telepathic. Yay!

Step 12 – Revise.

My query letter got better as I went along (hence you should consider the order in which you query your “dream picks” very seriously). If you’re getting lots of rejections, something is wrong. Of course, trying to fix it when you’re getting nothing but boiler-plate is difficult unless you have mutant powers. It’s maddening, but this is the status-quo.

Step 13 – Believe

I’ll depart from my wise-cracking, tall dark and scary routine long enough to give a little group hug now. Everyone needs a hug once in a while, especially querying writers. Here it is:

The only belief that matters in this equation is your own. It’s nice to have the support of betas or trusted friends, but it’s not necessary (the only person who had any idea that I was writing a book until I got repped was my wife). The only person who needs to believe you can do this is you. Everything else is window dressing. If you’re meant to be doing this, you can, and you will.

Believe in yourself. Keep the faith. At the end of the day, it’s all any of us have.”

How are you other ROWers doing? Here is the Linky to support each other!

GUTGAA Pitch Polish

As previously mentioned on this blog, I am taking part in the Gearing Up To Get An Agent blogfest (GUTGAA) hosted by the amazing Deana Barnhart. This week is all about Pitch Polish and you can find my query and the first 150 words of my WIP The Last Queen here. Now, if you’ve read my query or part of my WIP before, know that my manuscript has been undergoing major revisions lately. I have also worked on my query, based on the comments I received a WriteOnCon. So I would be very grateful if you could have a look at my new pitch and give me some feedback on it. I’ll return the favour if you give me a link to your query in the comment section of this post!

And since I hate asking without giving, remember that you can still enter my 100 followers giveaway here and win books!