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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Query writing - a guide for the anxious

I toyed with much fancier titles for this post, but then decided to say it straight. What you want to know is how to write a great query and the whole process worries you sick, right?

Everyone else in the industry has blogged on this topic, so there’s no shortage of great advice around, but having just faced around 350 queries on my return from vacation, I’m weighing in with a few simple pointers.

I should also say that all the photos on the post are relevant to ‘getting it right’ in different ways, and they all fill me with delight in the same way a perfectly turned query email does.

Let’s start with the perfect (French) cup of coffee. Short, strong, elegant. Served in cup and saucer, and usually with tiny square of chocolate balanced alongside. (S*bucks, with your buckets of hot milk, please note.)
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The first thing to know about queries is that they’re not nearly as hard as you think, so lower your shoulders, breathe deeply and say, “I can do this!” As soon as we demystify the process, the stress and anxiety fall away and you are in the best mental place to write a simple but strong account of yourself and your work. And that’s what we’re after. This isn’t voodoo. It isn’t brain surgery. It’s a few straightforward paragraphs.

A good query will consist of a beginning (introducing your work/yourself), a middle (your pitch), and an end (your bio and sign-off). But first – before you write a word – there is work to be done!

RESEARCH:

How will you set about querying? If your instincts are to spread yourself around like confetti at a wedding, please curb them. Contrary to what some ‘experts’ say, there is no merit whatsoever in flinging your query indiscriminately at the entire industry. If you do, you will annoy a lot of people (who don’t represent what you’re sending them), lower your own sense of value, get yourself into a right old muddle, and also waste a lot of your time – and everybody else’s.

So, think carefully what agents you want to target, and why. Read their interviews, see who they represent, check out what deals they’re doing, and study their submission guidelines. Always research via the agency’s own website, not via hard-copy guides or online databases. You want the most up to date info, and the agent’s website is the only place you can trust for that.

You could also read my blog post ‘A peach of an agent’ (find it in the website blog archives in July 2010) which gives some tips.

Get a sense of an agent’s taste, but don’t presume they will (or won’t) want to rep you entirely based on what they’ve already sold – unless they say they’re only interested in one kind of book. Greenhouse is looking for outstandingly original work across all genres, not clones of our existing authors, and we’re always looking for something unique that we’ve never seen before. Surprise us!

So, do a reasonable amount of research, make a sensibly-sized list of people to target. But don’t obsess.  If you’re a Type A personality, you can get really wound up about this kind of decision-making. It’s not a scientific process. Do the work, but then leap in with ‘joie de vivre’!

Read the agency’s submission guidelines with care and follow them.  We are all inundated and hate wasting time, so make it easy for us to fall in love with you and your work. That includes addressing your email to the correct person, spelling our names right (my favourite was the submitter who addressed her submission to ‘Julia Childs’ instead of ‘Julia Churchill’ . . . .).

NOW TO THE QUERY WRITING (but first a perfect example of a bonsai tree):
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Your opening:

I am scanning your email at speed and I want all the pertinent info ASAP, up front. Tell me the name of the work, what age group and gender it’s primarily aimed at, what genre (paranormal romance? Speculative fiction? Classic-toned middle grade? Etc), and how many words it has. The latter point is surprisingly important, because it tells me immediately if we’re in a saleable ballpark, if your word count matches your audience. For example, a 20,000-word novel aimed at YA is likely to be unsatisfyingly short. A 200,000-word novel for the same market is going to unwieldy and massive.

Do tell me in your first/second paragraph if the query is exclusive and if we’ve met – eg, at a conference. You could also tell me why you’ve decided to query me; is there a particular connection? Also useful to know where you see the potential audience for your book – can you think of any similarly pitched titles already in the marketplace?

The middle:

Here I want two paragraphs (no more) of really enticing story pitch. This should give me the bones of the plot (though not the detail), while also intriguing me and making me want to read more. I know your stress levels rise here, so I’m going to give you a perfect example - the pitch that Lindsey Leavitt sent me in Feb 2008 for her contemporary YA debut SEAN GRISWOLD’S HEAD (published 2011 by Bloomsbury):

After discovering her father’s big MS secret, Payton Gritas’s structured life crumbles. So begin her excruciating ‘chats’ with Ms Callahan, a school counselor aiming to save Payton from drowning in denial by encouraging her to write Focus Exercises on any random subject. Payton chooses Sean Griswold, her alphabetical connection since kindergarten. More specifically, she chooses his somewhat large head.

Payton’s head-centric research spawns more and more questions about Sean and his dome. Like, what’s with the scar? Why does Mr Prep hang out in the Goth hallway? And why is a 15 year old in training to be the next Lance Armstrong? She finds answers to these questions by getting inside Sean’s head, while Sean somehow finds a way into her guarded heart. But when Payton realizes her Sean obsession won’t ultimately mend her battered father/daughter relationship, Payton must shift her focus to the one person who can get her through the drama –herself.

Why did I like this? Because the romantic premise is arresting, cute and original – there’s humour, but also indications of a significantly deeper thread. We get the gist of the ‘macro’ of plot, but also the ‘micro’ of the emotional arc and where/how the tension will rise. In short, I could already see what this book could be, and how we might market it.

Does this help?

The ending:

This should be one short paragraph telling me a little about you. Any writing ‘credentials’ – published work, courses taken, etc etc. And anything else you think relevant and which might help to pick you out. Also useful to know if if this is a multiple submission and/or whether you already have interest.

And there you have it – a simple but beautifully turned query.

But wait – there are a few pitfalls for the unwary!

QUERY HORRORS TO AVOID (but first, a picture of a perfect Normandy crepe au citron):
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It can be tempting to try ‘too hard’ to embellish your query.

Don’t use fancy fonts or coloured backgrounds. Annoying to read and distracting. Keep it simple and use a professional-looking typeface.

Don’t include a pitch within your query and then ANOTHER synopsis later on. We don’t have time to wade through pages of outline.

Don’t fret and re-send if the formatting of your pasted pages goes wonky. We can see beyond formatting.

Don’t brag hugely about yourself (ie, saying how wonderful you are). Does anyone warm to a bragger?

Don’t liken yourself to JK Rowling, CS Lewis, Stephenie Meyer or Philip Pullman etc. It’s fine to point out your potential audience (titles with similarities), but if you compare yourself to the truly greats - in sales or content - we are almost certainly going to be disappointed. The best writers tend to be very modest because they’re always aware of not being as good as they long to be.

Don’t address your query to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Find out who we are (and our gender).

Don’t send attachments, when we are very clear we don’t open or read them.

Don’t think/expect we will make an exception for you. We get tons of submitters every day who require us to make them exceptions to our guidelines. It wastes a huge amount of time.

Don’t fling your work at us without a proper query, thinking, ‘What the heck, they don’t read it anyway.’ We do.

So - keep it simple, professional, honest, and realistic. And always remember that your query only points the way to your writing, which is the key to everything.

Happy query writing!

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Pix: Coffee at Cafe Versailles, Isigny sur Mer, Normandy; very old bonsai tree at National Arboretum, Washington DC; perfect crepe at Bayeux, France.

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Monday, July 04, 2011

My Life in the Spotlight: Part 2

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It’s taken me more than two and half years to return to this theme – first visited in My Life in the Spotlight: Part 1, posted on October 11, 2008. Sadly, because of the way this blog is set up, I can’t directly link to the earlier post, but you can find it easily via the Archives in the left margin. Perhaps you’d like to read it first, so you can see my context here.

Every now and then, usually at a conference, someone will ask me a question – one so terrible, so provocative, so heartfelt that it can barely be articulated. I can tell it’s coming because of the emotion and anxiety in the individual’s face as they approach me. Gently, I will guide them to a quiet spot behind the coffee urn or to a remote seat in the lobby, because this is not a discussion to be had amid crowds of laughing, chatting attendees.

The devastating question is this:  HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS TIME TO GIVE UP?

That’s right – give up. And I don’t mean, ‘When is it time to abandon one manuscript and move on to another?’ I mean GIVE UP WRITING FICTION, GIVE UP TRYING TO GET PUBLISHED, GO AND DO SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY WITH MY LIFE.

I know, it’s huge, isn’t it. And such a travesty of all we believe (we write because we must, we keep trying because determination is key, didn’t J.K.Rowling get rejected innumerable times?) that any answer is like rushing in where angels fear to tread.

But I don’t believe in taboo subjects, so I am going to offer you a story, which is my way of answering the unanswerable.

*******

It’s the 1990s, my kids are young, but I’ve been pursuing the dream for a while now – song-writing and singing, both alone and with my band. It’s a struggle doing this with a family, but I knew I had to try – to see how far I could get, because performing is what I DO, because it’s the ultimate self-expression, the ultimate adrenaline rush. Because it’s who I AM.

The wives of the band guys are getting antsy. Their husbands have got day jobs and kids too, and they don’t have as much at stake as me – or as much patience with ferrying equipment around London at midnight on a Wednesday, only to perform to a bunch of inebriated people propping up a seedy bar.

My standards and goals have risen too. We’re getting gigs, but I yearn to be better, to find a whole new level. It’s the dissatisfaction with oneself that is so hard to take.

One night, down at the Mean Fiddler Acoustic Room (where so many bands and singers have debuted), I get talking to a guy who’s got the set after me. He’s there alone with his guitar and he’s got no audience. I’m really happy all my people (lots of them) will be hanging around to hear him because it’s a bleak place alone.

I come off stage and wind down, listening to him. His voice is strange and memorable, his songs are plaintive – getting drunk on a Saturday night, losing your girl – and he’s just a guy in a scruffy grey jacket and jeans, alone with his guitar. Afterwards everyone agrees, I was better than him, and I smile bashfully because it’s probably true.

Back home, getting children ready for school, doing freelance editorial work, my dissatisfaction with my music grows. I’ve got other things on my mind – I need to make some money, I need to get serious, I need to invest my limited time wisely. And most crucially, I’m just not as good musically as I want to be.

Gradually, I drop back. I don’t even return the call when The Borderline leaves a message offering me a gig, though I’ve wanted that invitation for ages.

It hurts like hell, but it’s over. Who am I now?

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Maybe a year later, I’m in the kitchen doing the dishes, radio playing in the background. Suddenly, I am transfixed. It’s a voice I know – a strange, wailing, painful voice that I’ve heard before but can’t place. My heart is racing because this MEANS something important – but what?

And then I realize. It’s the voice of David Gray, the guy I shared an evening, a venue, with. The guy who had no audience so ‘borrowed’ mine. The guy I was widely thought to be better than.  He’s sounding amazing and he’s singing a song called ‘Babylon’. You can catch a few bars of it here: http://www.davidgray.com/music/discography/DG_AlbumDetails.aspx?albumid=14760f81-ede0-461c-910a-e9f95edaee36&Cat=Albums

I’m not jealous - I’m amazed, dumbfounded.  I laugh out loud. I’m lost in wonder that this can happen. A guy I knew in a beer-stained bar is hitting the big time.

And now David Gray becomes ‘my guy’ – whose progress I will follow obsessively over the months, as his iconic album WHITE LADDER becomes one of the biggest global sellers of the decade; as ‘Babylon’, ‘My oh my’ and ‘Sail Away’ become soundtracks of their generation, piped into every supermarket and airport in the UK and US.

The ironies and the truths are not lost on me and I quietly thought them through that day in my kitchen.

I turned away from music and back to publishing, rapidly ascending through the years and ranks to Publishing Director, and then of course over to the US to create the Greenhouse, which is the crowning achievement of my literary life. I truly found my vocation, doing what I do best. I am a far better editor and literary agent than I was musician, and I derive great satisfaction from working with writers and helping them to achieve their dreams.

David Gray continued with music, after I stopped. He went on to become an international superstar, from the grassroots up – the old-fashioned way. Managing on little money for years, he fought through huge obstacles to find his sound, his audience. I have the utmost respect for him, and will always feel a connection.

*********
And so, I return to that troubled questioner at the conference, who’s laboured for years without reaching their goal. HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS TIME TO GIVE UP?

This is all I can tell you, but it comes from the heart . . .

Sarah Davies gave up trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and found reinvention, success and fulfillment - in her true vocation.

David Gray stuck with music through the lean times and setbacks, eventually bursting through to unimagined international success – in his true vocation.

Vocation is an old-time word, but one I love. I commend it to you now - because it is the only answer I can give to the answerable question.

Wishing you all a very, very happy 4th of July.

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