Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Words That Will Kill Your Query

You’re doing your best, researching how to write a query, who to query, and when to query. You’re devouring blogposts, Twitter feeds, how-to books, and any other resource you can get your hands on. You want to cover all the bases. You want to make sure your not going to be that writer, you know, the one who blows their chances by making stupid mistakes or assumptions.

So here’s another one to watch out for: if you are a speculative fiction writer, there are certain words that will instantly doom your query.

Words such as:
Chosen One
End of the World

… and so forth. You get the gist.

Why are these words and phrases bad? Just about everyone has used or is using them. Agents and editors see these words all the time. It’s an instant turn off. Suppose you had a stack of a hundred queries and each one used one of those words. You’d start to think writers only knew one kind of plot, one kind of story.

Even if your story is truly different, even if you take one of those tropes and turn it inside out, if you use those words in your query letter, you’re sunk before your story has a chance to prove it’s different.

I don’t care what Agent So-and-So recommends in their How-To-Write-a-Query book/blog/workshop. If they’ve said to use certain key words, you can bet thousands of other writers have read/heard this same piece of advice and are using those words. Watch out for overused phrases or common clichés as well.

But what if your story is about a chosen one whose destiny it is to prevent the end of the world? Find an inventive new way to describe it. It needs to stick out from the thousands (no exaggeration here) of other queries using the same general premise.

Know of any other overused words/phrases that would doom a query letter? Please share.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Music to Write by #4: OC Remix Chrono Trigger Aqueous Transgression

This month's feature music has more of a soundtrack feel, though still high-powered for writing an action scene, or to get your blood pumping anyway. Definitely more of a sci-fi or thriller vibe, than fantasy, paranormal, or horror. Of course, I could be surprised and you might find it fits in perfectly with any genre.

Enjoy! Stay tuned for next month's selection. And happy writing!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Interview with Author Michelle Hauck - Newly Represented!

Continuing with encouraging and heart-warming journeys into the world of publishing - this week let's welcome author Michelle Hauck back to Yesternight's Voyage. Michelle recently accepted an offer of representation from an agent. Her personal experience is more varied than the usual story, and there are nuggets here to help even the most discouraged querier keep at it.

1) How long have you been writing? What are your favorite genres to write in?

I’ve been writing five or six years. Time has a tendency to slip away so I wouldn’t be surprised if that number was higher. My writing tends to involve magic or the fantastic of some kind which puts me squarely in the fantasy genre. I like to branch out with age categories. My books span the gamut with adult, YA, and now middle grade.

2) What are your favorite genres to read? Which books have had the greatest impact on you?

 When I read for pleasure I tend toward epic fantasy or urban fantasy. I’m not a great fan of paranormal or fantasy based strongly on romance. Think Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and lately, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

But I’m also a fan of biographies and non-fiction about history, especially the American Revolution and 16th century English royalty. While I guess you could say classics made up the backbone of my reading. I started with Jane Austin, Alexander Dumas, and the Bronte sisters and moved toward fantasy as I got into my late teens. Gone with the Wind and The Wheel of Time series all had an influence on my writing as I loved the involved and detailed characters of those worlds.

3) Aside from writing, what do you love to do?

Aside from writing and reading, I guess I’m a couch potato. I enjoy watching movies and TV at night with my husband. I’m a big sports fan for my local teams. Go Bears and Irish! I absolutely love football and baseball. And I like to make my yard colorful with all kinds of annuals and perennials, though I’m not so keen on the yard work. I might be a tiny bit addicted to twitter and running query contests. I’m a co-host of Query Kombat and Nightmare on Query Street. Those are my ideas of fun. Notice I didn’t say eat chocolate, but you can put that right up at the top.

4) May we see your agent-winning query letter?

This is the actual query that went to my agent, along with the personalized chit-chat I put at the beginning. Sarah used quite a bit of this query in the pitch letter she crafted. I’m kind of proud of that.

Thanks so much for volunteering to join my Agent Greeting contest. I’m looking forward to it on August 5th. I saw on Writer’s Digest that you were looking for middle grade and decided to send you my query in hopes you will find it interesting.
Tom, the classroom hamster, wants to escape from the h-e-double-hockey-sticks otherwise known as school. His military training at the pet shop didn’t include playing house or being sentenced to a boot camp of never-ending Show ‘n Tell, math facts rap, and story time. But he’s learned a lot behind the bars of his cage. For example, if you want to keep breathing, never trust a pygmy who has earned the nickname Squeezer. Somehow he has to get away before the pygmies dress him as Strawberry Shortcake again—or worse.
When a “subspatoot” teacher fills in, Tom sees his chance to put Operation Escape the Pygmies into action. He makes a run for the border, hamster style. Bad news. The principal says a rodent on the loose is a distraction to learning and better off flushed. The way out is turned into a battlefield of snapping mousetraps, sticky snares, and poisoned pellets.
Tom seems doomed until the friendless Squeezer lends an over-excited hand. She quickly goes from supervillain to super sidekick. Now, the greatest obstacle to his freedom may be Tom’s soft spot for this lonely pygmy.
A cross between Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and those cute AT&T kid commercials, PYGMY HAZARDS is a MG fantasy complete at 34,000 words. My epic fantasy, Kindar’s Cure, was recently released by Divertir Publishing. My short story, Frost and Fog, was published by The Elephant’s Bookshelf for their summer anthology, Summer’s Double Edge. I’ve worked at an elementary school as a special needs assistant for over ten years, giving me lots of experience with pygmies.
Thanks for your consideration.
5) How long did you query before finding your agent?

With Pygmy Hazards I entered a contest in April and started to query soon after. That would make it roughly five months before I got an offer. I will say that I got tons of rejections in that time period. Probably more than forty, though a good number were personalized about how cute the idea was and my very first query got a request. I got a whole lot of ‘just not for me.’ It wasn’t an overnight success by any means.

And Pygmy Hazards was my fourth manuscript to be queried. I was actually still querying for my YA dystopian, Dodge the Sun, when I started to query with my hamsters. And when my offer came, I had two partials out for Dodge that I had to notify. My journey to get an agent was a long and painful one.

My first manuscript was an epic fantasy which got three requests and over a hundred rejections. That’s about the time I began to get on the internet more and discovered critique groups. I soon found my manuscript was full of fatal flaws, not to mention a word count of double the usual length. The rejections were painful, but understandable given the writing.

My second manuscript was also an epic fantasy, but this time I did everything right. It was extensively beta read. All the writing flaws of my last manuscript had vanished. I got a grand total of THREE requests yet again. I was actually certain I was cursed. Cursed by the number three. Ask my CPs, they’ll vouch for that. Each rejection was like another stamp on my heart. When it queried out, I decided my manuscript was worth the effort and ended up getting an offer from a small press to publish. Validation! Kindar’s Cure came out in July 2013.

My third manuscript was a goldmine. I’d seen the trend in YA and lowered my main character’s age to go for the YA market. I still told my story, but I adjusted it a little for a new age category. Dodge the Sun got nearly twenty requests and most of them were fulls. I also set this story in the ‘real’ world. Agents jumped right over partials and asked to see the whole thing. But that’s when the market let me down.

Dystopian was a dead end. It was so crowded, that no publishers wanted it anymore. Full after full came back with ‘just didn’t connect.’ My last two fulls came back as rejections of, you guessed it, ‘just didn’t connect’ on THE SAME FREAKING DAY! It wasn’t that the agents found anything wrong with the story or the characters, they just couldn’t sell it. It was a heartbreaker for me. I used to stare at myself in the mirror while getting ready for bed and try not to cry it hurt that much. I wanted the big time tradition deal for this story so I put Dodge on the shelf, hoping the market would change.

While I waited on some late partial for Dodge, I had an ace in the hole. A little middle grade I’d finished that was nothing like any of my other books. The main characters are animals. There’s no magic, unless you count talking hamsters as magic. It is set in an everyday world inside a school. And it’s humorous! The whole story started as part of a short story contest started by Joyce for something with a talking animal. It was never meant to be a serious contender. I started querying without high hopes. The daily grind of querying has a way of squashing confidence and inflicting pain that makes me defensive about keep my expectations low.       

6) What can you tell us about your new agent and the process of signing on with her?

I sent a lot of my queries for Pygmy Hazards to new agents with the expectation that new agents were more interested in building their client lists. Sarah Negovetich was one of those new agents. She’d spent some time as an intern, learning the ropes, and was now accepting her own clients. She’d actually reached out to me first. I was having a small query critique contest where people could win critiques from agents and Sarah wanted to be a part of it. Shortly after, I sent her a query for my middle grade.

But the first offer I received came from another agent toward the end of August. Agent A had requested Pygmy Hazards from that very first contest I entered back in April. As you see, it took many months for her to get around to offering. After about a week of trying to find a time, we had the call on a Friday and talked for two hours. It was a great conversation, but I told her I needed to notify other agents and think her offer over. I just wasn’t sure because she didn’t rep fantasy and most of my writing involved fantasy.

I put out a nudge to all the agents with my material and any outstanding queries that were less than a month old. Things started moving very fast. I woke up Saturday morning to a request from Sarah to see the full. Another agent asked for a partial. Those with my material promised to get back to me within the week. Several polite congratulations but passes came through my inbox. I was honestly so busy deciding what to do and checking my inbox that I didn’t have time to celebrate. It didn’t really seem real.

I believe by Monday afternoon Sarah wanted to talk. I had a second Call with her on Tuesday. Her call actually caught me out on a walk with my husband and dogs. Let me tell you, we high tailed it home at double speed! We meshed well, and Sarah preferred speculative fiction! She had an answer for all my questions and they were very honest. She was a hands-on editor for her clients, and I loved that about her. I thought her ideas about an agent helping with their client’s marketing were a new and needed diversification for agents.  

My deadline passed, and I decided to go with Sarah. It was a perfect decision for me. We get along great and have the same ideas for Pygmy Hazards. She really keeps me informed on how the submission process is going.

I don’t think the whole process really hit me until about two weeks later. Sometimes I lay there in the middle of the night and get a little shiver that I have an agent after so long.

7) What advice would you give to those who are actively querying or getting ready to query?

It’s pretty cliché because everyone gives this same advice, but I’d say write another story while you query. That way you have something new ready to go if the querying doesn’t work out. Also do some networking and try to let agents get your name in their radar. Plus most importantly, don’t give up.

8) What have you learned from querying and writing that you didn't know before?

Writing pushed me to come out of my shell. I was always a very shy person and this process has given me a new confidence. Not only do I start up conversations with writer’s I don’t know, I’m not afraid to approach agents for invites to contests or interviews.  

9) How important were your beta readers/critique partners?

My critique partners were so important and not just for finding flaws in my manuscripts. CP’s are the ones you can turn too when you’re cursed on three requests and can never, never get any higher. They are the ones who understand what you’re going through. They are the people you forward your requests to and the ones who talk you off the ledge when you’re ready to quit. I do believe the q-word came up for me a few months ago.

10) What are you most excited about regarding the whole being agented experience?

Why now I can run more contests! Wait, no. That’s not it.

I’ve always been a curious person. I want to see behind everything to how the process works. Now I get to see behind the agent curtain to what happens during submission. So far it’s a lot like querying as far as the waiting—only now I have a filter. Sarah is between me and those rejection letters! It’s so wonderful to have a cheerleader in my corner!

Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your story and your wisdom with us. I know personally, I'm looking forward to reading all of Pygmy Hazards with my kids.

Michelle Hauck lives in the bustling metropolis of northern Indiana with her hubby and two teenagers. Two papillons help balance out the teenage drama. Besides working with special needs children by day, she writes all sorts of fantasy, giving her imagination free range. A book worm, she passes up the darker vices in favor of chocolate and looks for any excuse to reward herself. Bio finished? Time for a sweet snack.

She is a co-host of the yearly contest Query Kombat. Her epic fantasy, Kindar's Cure, was published by Divertir Publishing. Her short story, Frost and Fog, was published by The Elephant's Bookshelf Press in their anthology, Summer's Double Edge. She’s represented by Sarah Negovetich of Corvisiero Literary.

Goodreads: Kindar’s Cure

Kindar’s Cure at The Book Depository

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Interview with Margaret Fortune - Newly Represented!

Hi everyone. I'm really excited for the month of October. It's the sixth year anniversary for the Speculative Fiction Group on AQC and this month I'll be bringing you some great interviews with writers from that group who have found agents and publishers.

And I'm super super excited for this first interview with one of my own critique partners, Margaret Fortune. So here we go!

1) How long have you been writing? What are your favorite genres to write in?
My very first story was written in first grade. It was called "The Numbers' Birthday Party" and made a huge splash at my elementary school. I remember having to sit in the front of my class and read it to everyone while they followed along in their own copies--these lovely purple dittos, for those of you who are old enough to know what a "ditto" is. :) I think it was the most terrifying and embarrassing experience of my life!
While I wrote some in my youth, I didn't start writing seriously until the summer after I graduated college in 2003. It was that summer I started writing my very first novel. So I guess I've been writing for about 10 years now. My favorite genre is speculative fiction. Whether it's short stories for adults; books for middle grade and YA; serious or humorous; fantasy, dystopian, sci-fi; as long as it falls into speculative fiction, I'm there!
2) What are your favorite genres to read? Which books have had the greatest impact on you?
I read a lot of YA speculative fiction, as that's the main genre I write in. Aside from that, I read a variety of books including adult SF, romance, and historical fiction, as well as non-fiction including biographies and books about travel and sports. Oh, and I have this special spot in my heart for non-fiction books about how to survive extreme conditions--don't ask me why!
I've read a lot of books in my life, and rather than having a few that impacted me significantly, I think I've taken a little bit away from every book I've ever read. Even if what I took away from it was--Don't do that! However, I can say that my favorite short story of all time is Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day." I'm also very partial to Dr. Seuss's "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"
3) Aside from writing, what do you love to do?
I love to read, of course. Other hobbies include music--I play the piano and sing. I also like to hit the gym, swimming approximately 3 miles a week as well as running, walking, rowing, climbing on the stairclimber, weightlifting--whatever strikes my fancy on a given day. When I have time, I like to design and sew purses and dresses for myself.
4) What can you tell us about your new agent and the process of signing on with her?
My agent is Lindsay Ribar of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. She joined the agency in 2007, and represents YA and MG. As well as being an agent, she's also a YA author herself. So far, I've found her to be friendly and enthusiastic, as well as a good communicator. She also seems to be knowledgeable and on top of her stuff, as things are moving along nice and quickly.
I queried her on a Tuesday, she requested the full on a Friday, and on Saturday night around 11pm I had an email from her saying she wanted to represent me. Less than a week from query to offer! Her email was a writer's dream come true--she'd been unable to put the MS down, she loved every character, she knew the moment she finished she had to have it. As a writer, you dream about having an advocate with that sort of passion and enthusiasm for your book. Even though I had to give everyone else a couple weeks to request/read/make an offer, I knew from the beginning that it would be very hard for anyone else to top her passion.
So the process of signing with her was extraordinarily fast once I queried her, as I officially accepted her offer within about three weeks after querying her. As I'd already been waiting around for months on other agents, it was nice to have things finally moving.
5) May we see your agent-winning query letter?
Yes, you may.
Ohhh, you mean you actually wanted me to provide it here?? Oh, okay! Here is is:
Sixteen-year-old Lia Johansen is a genetically engineered human bomb with just one problem. She’s a dud.
Her task seems simple: to strike the next blow in an ongoing galactic war by sneaking onto New Sol Space Station with a group of released POWs and exploding. But her mission goes terribly wrong when her inner clock malfunctions, freezing her countdown with just two minutes to go.
With no Plan B, no memories of her past, and no identity besides a name stolen from a dead POW, Lia doesn’t know what to do with a life she was never meant to have. When she meets Michael, the real Lia’s childhood best friend, she learns what it means to have friends and family. She learns what it means to live. It is only when her clock begins sporadically shedding seconds that she realizes—
Even duds can be dangerous. Even duds can still blow up.
Now Lia must find a way to unearth her past and the truth behind her mission before her time—literally—runs out.
NOVA is an 84,000-word YA science fiction novel which may appeal to readers who enjoyed Beth Revis’s Across the Universe and Amy Kathleen Ryan’s Glow. My short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in multiple magazines, including Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine and Space and Time Magazine.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
6) How long did you query before finding your agent?
A looooong time.
To be more specific, I began querying my book Nova at the end of January, when I sent out 20 queries as a trial run. When I began getting requests, I sent about another 30 or so during the month of February. I got about a dozen requests out of the those queries and settled down to see what would happen. Well, August finally rolled around and everyone had rejected me with the exception of a few agents who had literally had the manuscript for anywhere from 3-6 months. That was the point where I threw up my hands and said, "This is ridiculous. This one agent has had it over 6 months!" So I decided to query everyone else in the world I wanted to query, and que será, será. So I queried another 25 agents in the last week of August and another 25 in the first week of September. I queried my agent Lindsay Ribar on the last day I sent out queries, and had an offer from her within a week. So while the process with Lindsay went very fast, overall the process was very slow.
Oh, and did I mention that Nova is the THIRD book I've queried now? So yeah, I think a looooong time covers it.
7) What advice would you give to those who are actively querying or getting ready to query?
a) Don't skimp on your query. If you have to write 50 hooks to get a good one, WRITE 50 HOOKS. Don't give up and use a crappy one because you can't think of a good one. If you have to write 100 pages of query material to get a good query, DO IT. You don't get any do-overs; once you query an agent, you can't query them again. At least, not until you write another book! So do the work and make the best query you can, so that even if you don't get requests or an agent, you know you did the absolute best you could.
b) Have a checklist for when you're sending out queries. There's nothing more embarrassing than spelling an agent's name wrong or having the wrong agent's name on your query letter. So have a checklist you go down right before sending each query: is it addressed to the right person, is their name spelled right, are the email address and subject line right, etc. So by having a checklist you go through before hitting the "send" button, you may save yourself from making dumb mistakes. And since I know everyone's probably wondering now--No, I did NOT spell anyone's name wrong or put the wrong name on a query letter. Why not? Because I had a checklist! ;)
c) Be persistent. Nova was the third book I queried, and even once I queried it, it was over seven months before I had an offer. I didn't get an agent with my first fifty queries for Nova; I had to go out and query another fifty. So it wasn't easy, it wasn't quick, and there was plenty of emotional suffering involved. Querying is tough--you go through cycles of hope and desperation and despair all in their turn, and it's hard. Yes, some people do get lucky and get an agent right off the bat or meet their agent at the first conference they attend, or get a foot in the door through a friend/family member. But for a lot of us, it's not quick and it's not easy. But if you really want it, you'll keep at it.
As you can tell from the query, Nova was an easy book to query because it's so high concept. I knew agents would read the first line and immediately be all over it or else know it's not for them. But a lot of books are not easy to query--I know because I queried two of them with little luck. Some stories just don't lend themselves well to a query. So if you're unable to get anywhere querying, you may need to be really savvy about planning your next project. I purposely chose to pursue my Nova project because I knew it would be easy to query. YA sci-fi was starting to trend in the market, and my book had such a high concept, I knew people would be interested even if YA sci-fi started to fade. Don't get me wrong--I made that project my own and I absolutely love my book. But I was savvy about the market and smart about choosing my project. So if you find yourself at the end of the query line with no requests or offers, be smart. Don't keep writing books in the same passé genre hoping things will change. Find a way to take your ideas and make them fresh and salable. Make sure you can write a great query before you spend a year writing the book. If you want to be more than a hobbyist, you have to remember writing is a business, and you need to supply something people will want. Which isn't always easy to figure out, but it's worth trying.
8) What have you learned from writing and querying that you didn't know before?
I think it's easy to get intimidated by literary agents. After all, they have the power to make or break our careers simply by saying 'yes' or 'no.' And we get radio silence or form rejects from a lot of them, and it only feeds our frustration. But honestly, a lot of these people are super-nice! They're friendly, and even when they pass they'll say kind, encouraging things. One agent who passed even encouraged me to keep in touch, even if it was just to let her know where my book finally sold or if I wanted someone to brainstorm with. I never realized agents did that! Unfortunately, radio silence and form rejects are going to remain part and parcel of the query process, but that doesn't mean that the people behind them aren't fabulous people.
9) How important were your beta readers/critique partners?
They did me absolutely no good! (Ha, ha! Just kidding! ;)
Beta readers that aren't afraid to tell you the truth are worth their weight in gold. Period. I remember getting feedback from an agent with my full. He loved my characters, concept, and writing, but hated my plot. He wanted me to rewrite the whole book! Panicked and having no idea what to do, I went to the coolest, savviest beta reader I know and begged her to read it quick and tell me if I was crazy for choosing the plot I did. Well--that beta reader who shall remain nameless (Starts with 'joy,' ends with 'ton,' and rhymes with 'Boyce Dalton') helped saved me from making the biggest mistake of my life. Enough said!
10) What are you most excited to experience in the whole being agented process?
Seriously, I have to pick just one thing? I'm excited about everything!
I think what I'm most excited about is the fact that I'm finally getting to move forward to a new point in my career. For the longest time, I've been writing and writing with very few tangible marks of success to show for it. And that can be pretty tough at times. By finally getting an agent, I'm taking huge leap forward and I'm excited for all the new things to come.
Oh, and I've cherished this long time hope of having my books published in Italy. See, I read a bit of Italian, so then I could read my books in Italian and be like, "They translated that line like that?!" I'm especially interested to see what they would do with "Nova" since "No va" literally means "It doesn't go" in Italian!
Thank you, Margaret! (And I can't wait for Nova to find a publisher next.) In all fairness, she's one of the sharpest, best critique partners I've had and as anyone who has read Margaret's work can attest, she's practically flawless in her writing. My first thoughts on finding out her good news were "It's about time!"
To connect more with Margaret: