The Types and Importance of Queries

Scattered Books Photo

Queries. Pitches. Synopses. Three words that strike fear into every author’s heart. And rightfully so — selling your book to an agent or editor depends on your ability to encapsulate your story’s heart into a few simple sentences. For most people, that’s a nearly impossible challenge. But perhaps if we look at why this practice is necessary, it will help you understand how to do it. So, I’m going to show you what I look for in a query. Keep in mind that these are solely my opinions, and other agents or editors may look for something else, but if you plan to follow along with #REUTSsubs in the near future (I’m currently working on resurrecting that feature), this will give you a glimpse at the thought process behind my decisions.

Let’s start by looking at the three potential ways you go about introducing your work to an agent or editor. They are:

  1. The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis
  2. Pitching in Person
  3. Elevator Pitches on Social Media

All three serve the same purpose — hooking your audience into asking for more. That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard thrown around in writing seminars, but what does it actually mean? In essence, it means you break through someone’s focus enough to grab their full, complete attention and get them to react. In other words, it’s a sales tactic.

Now, I know many of you just groaned. Sales is about as far from writing and creativity as you can possibly get. But the truth is, publishing is a business. There are bottom lines to be met, production costs to worry about, returns on investments that have to happen, etc. So when you send in a proposal (which, let’s face it, is what these things really are — sales proposals), what you’re really doing is arguing why we should become your business partner for this venture. And you’d darn well better be convincing. Don’t you think?

So, how do you achieve that? What makes a sales proposal appealing to the potential buyer? How do you turn indifference into “OMG, yes, I must read this”? Well, I look for a couple of key ingredients:

  • Interesting concept and premise
  • Unique attributes
  • Market potential

That’s it. Every time. Seriously.

Whenever I’m reviewing a pitch/query/etc, I ask myself the same three questions:

“Does this make me excited as a reader?” (This is more of a visceral reaction than a true question. Basically, I’m looking for that internal pique of interest, that “oooooo” factor.)

“What makes it different from everything else in its genre?” (The more specific the better on this front. Diverse cast? Unique twist or angle on the familiar? New setting?)

“What is it similar to/where would I put it on a shelf?” (This is ultimately the most important because it tells me A: where it fits within the REUTS catalog, and B: where it fits in the larger market and who its readership might be.)

All right, now let’s look at how you apply that insight, shall we? Because each type of pitch listed above is a slightly different opportunity to sell your work, and you shouldn’t use the same blanket strategy for each.

The Traditional Query Letter & Synopsis

First off, a query is not a synopsis and vice versa. They’re two separate entities used to achieve the same goal, but one is the lead singer, and the other is the band. You need both, but they serve completely different roles in the process.

Your query letter should be no more than 3-5 paragraphs, and its sole job is to pique the reader’s interest. It has to fit that criteria I listed above. It needs to give just enough information for me to tell whether or not it could be a fit for REUTS. So focus only on the most important aspects — the conflict and stakes that drive your story, sprinkled with a little info on the world/character and just a hint of what makes your manuscript different from the rest. Give me the heart of the tale; I don’t care about the rest yet.

Other things I need to know are genre, target audience, and comp titles (comparable books that might bear similarity to yours). Genre tells me where it fits in the bookstore and who it might appeal to, target audience tells me who I’m going to get to read it, and comp titles give me an instant snapshot of what to expect in terms of feel/tone/theme/style, etc. (One caveat on choosing comp titles: aim for ones that aren’t genre heavy-hitters, but that are prominent enough I’m likely to have heard of them. Also, the more unique the mash-up, the quicker I’ll be able to pin-point my expectations as reader.)

And that’s it. 3-4 paragraphs should easily be enough room to capture all of that, once you isolate the key things an agent/editor looks for. Your final paragraph should be about you, what you bring to the table in terms of experience, etc. Honestly though, most of the time, we kind of skim that info. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it to us, just that more weight is placed on the content of the story than your particular pedigree.

IF you’ve achieved your goal and hooked my interest, I’ll dive right into the sample pages (because a great pitch does not always mean great execution), and if those pass the quality test, I’ll check out the synopsis. A synopsis is a glorified outline. It tells me the highlights of your story in 1-3 pages. It should capture the emotions, the main conflicts, some of the character motivations, and the entire narrative arc. The details of your world, sub-plots, supporting cast, etc, aren’t as important; the structure of your overall story is.

Manage to hold my interest through all of that, and guess what? You’ve just earned a full manuscript request. (I’m pretty sure this is the process most agents/editors go through, but some of the particulars may vary a little.)

Pitching in Person

Ah, now, this is a whole different game — one part speed dating, one part American Idol audition, all rolled into a giant ball of anxiety for everyone involved. But it’s a very viable option if you have the chance. Out of 55 total pitches I heard at the Willamette Writers Conference last summer, I requested samples (and even some fulls!) of 48 manuscripts. The idea behind this is much the same as the process above, except you only have 4-10 minutes, if you’re lucky, and have to talk to an actual person. Terrifying stuff, for sure.

So what’s the key in this scenario? Be a human. Don’t stiffly recite your memorized query letter while you stare at the table. Engage with us! Take that query you wrote above and hone it even more. In a 10 minute pitch session, your pitch should take up no more than 2-3 minutes, max. Give us the bare bones, the core of your story, and then let us come to you. Think of it like baiting a wild animal; you don’t give away the whole dinner up front, you toss out some crumbs and lure us into the trap. Or, in other, less poetic words, give us time to ask questions.

A face-to-face pitch session should feel more like a conversation, and every agent/editor will hone in on something different. So leave yourself room to answer those questions. If you don’t, and you babble through all 10 minutes, you might end up not getting a request at all. Because that tidbit in the middle that you glossed over? Yeah, that was the one thing that agent/editor was looking for, and you didn’t give them time to find that out.

Your mission in an in-person pitch is simply to get that business card (See? American Idol golden ticket, right?) and a request to see more. That’s it. You’re not going to be signed on the spot, and you’re not going to give us your entire book on a silver platter. It’s simply the first step to a longer conversation.

Elevator Pitches on Social Media

Have you guessed the reason behind this order yet? It’s because they get progressively shorter and shorter. Much like pitching in person, an elevator pitch on social media should comprise the basics of your story. It should only contain the hook, the thing that is most likely to get people to stop and say “ooo, that sounds good.” You have 140 characters, so every letter has to count. Which is why you really only want two things (aside from genre/audience): the stakes/conflict, and what makes your story different. Again, you’re not trying to cram your whole book into 140 characters; that’s madness. You’re only trying to get us to want more. Which is why including that unique-factor is crucial.

To win this round, all you have to do is get a favorite from one of the stalking agents/editors, which then results in a submission of what? The first type of pitch: a traditional query letter and synopsis. It all comes back around to create a massive circle of Submission Hell.

But there you have it, a breakdown of both why pitching is necessary and my particular thought process for evaluating them. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this article originally appeared on the REUTS Publications blog, and I have syndicated it here for a couple reasons. One, I realized I have yet to actually talk about queries over here, and I hate trying to rewrite something I’ve already written. And two, I wanted to bring that blog to your attention, in case you didn’t know we had one. As the Acquisitions and Editorial Director for REUTS, it’s my sometimes job to add helpful articles and info over there too, specifically in regards to a post series titled Adventures in the Slush Pile, which will showcase the query/response process in real time. So if you’re a fan of #tenqueries on Twitter, that might be something you’re interested in. And if not, then don’t worry. I’ll syndicate some of the more helpful articles here as well, when time and permissions allow.

Until next week, happy pitching! 😉

From the Editor’s Desk: Ghosts by J.M. Frey

Welcome to the resurrected Book Review Wednesday! I have a whole slew of amazing books to review and share with you all, so rather than detract from the content I know many of you have been missing (the articles on publishing/editing/writing), I decided to add a posting day. Or, rather, to resuscitate one. So Friday will be returning to the snark-filled, sometimes-helpful articles you’ve all grown to love over the years, and Wednesday will be reserved for sharing book information, should I happen to have something to share. Sound good? Good.

Today’s offering is the newest release from J.M. Frey. Some of you may remember my review for the first book in this series, The Untold Tale, from a few months ago. Well, this is the next installment, a prequel novella that’s nothing short of fantastic.

Ghosts

by J.M. Frey

Ghosts

For seventeen years, Bevel Dom has been the author of his own story. Or, rather, he’s been the author of The Tales of Kintyre Turn, the illustrated scrolls chronicling his adventures as first the squire, then the colleague, and then finally the friend of legendary hero Kintyre Turn. But there are some stories that Bevel doesn’t write down, doesn’t tell to eager audiences of bright-eyed boys and sighing bar wenches in taverns. Some he simply folds into his heart and keeps. This is one of those tales.

In this prequel novella, fans of The Accidental Turn Series are offered a glimpse into the lives of Bevel Dom and Kintyre Turn shortly before their arrival at Turn Hall and the events that follow, further expanding upon the world and characters seen in The Untold Tale and the the upcoming sequel, The Forgotten Tale, coming Summer 2016.

First, let me just say that I adore Frey’s work. Not only is it intelligent, inclusive, and well-written, it’s also a refreshingly solid addition to the fantasy genre and a heck of a lot of fun. It’s the perfect example of fantasy written for modern times, with all the charm and appeal of its predecessors, and none of the staleness. And as a long-time fan of the fantasy genre, that trait alone is highly appealing.

But I think the thing that truly sets Frey’s work apart is the depth of emotional resonance she manages to pack into everything, be it novel or short story — or, in this case, novella. Written in the same fluid, yet classic-feeling style as the rest of the series, Ghosts gives readers a look into the inner mind of one Bevel Dom, sidekick to the infamous Kintyre Turn. Happening just before the events of The Untold Tale, Ghosts lays the groundwork for one of the novel’s “twists,” and expands upon the richly textured world of the series as a whole.

Bevel’s voice sings off the page with lively (and sometimes crass) wit, a stark contrast to the more refined notes Frey gave us in Forsyth, and the ensuing shenanigans paint a layer of the ridiculous over what is actually a rather heart-wrenching tale. Those who have read the novel will find the insight into the lives of Forsyth’s heroic brother and his lesser-known squire to be a satisfying extension of the arc seen in The Untold Tale. But you don’t have to read the novel to enjoy this small taste of the series. It can most definitely be read as a standalone, and I highly recommend that anyone looking for a new voice in fantasy give this novella a try. It packs a lot of punch for little investment and will introduce you to what is potentially one of the best new fantasy series out there. And I don’t just say that because I happened to have the honor of editing it, I truly believe that Frey’s work is not to be missed.

Book Links: Amazon | Goodreads | Barnes & Noble

 

The 2016 Conference Circuit

Happy Friday everyone! While today is, in fact, April Fool’s Day, this post isn’t a joke. Trust me, my normal MO when I see April 1st looming on the calendar is this:

april_fools_by_xkari_chan-d5q3xbb

But it’s also a Friday this year, and I promised myself I would try and get back into posting more regularly. Which means I’m going to brave the prank-laden waters and send something out into the internet void. It’s not my usual style of article, but I still think it’s pretty cool. Or at least moderately helpful. So, here goes . . .

My 2016 Conference Schedule

(aka Where to Stalk Me)

Now that I’m the acquisitions director for REUTS Publications, I find myself involved in more conferences/workshops/book fairs. I also realize that many of you follow me because of that there job title, and might actually want to know about the various places you could come stalk meet me. So I’m adding a new page where I’ll list any cool events I’ll be attending throughout the upcoming months/years. Sound good? Good.

Here are this year’s current planned appearances (that sounds so weird! Like I’m famous or something. Haha. But I guess that’s what you call it?):

lakeflywriters_logo

 

May 13-14: I’ll be there manning the REUTS Publications table in the WWA’s Bookstore and Writer Services Market, so be sure to come and say hi! REUTS Pub founder and Creative Director Ashley Ruggirello will be on site hearing pitches that day, as well, in case any of you are interested. 😉

PNWA Logo

July 28-31: I’m super excited to be attending the PNWA Summer Writers’ Conference this year. I’ve heard great things about it, and I look forward to both accepting pitches from amazing authors like you and having the opportunity to participate on a few panels (including one with my good friend, Cait Spivey)! There will be lots of chances to find me at this one, so if you’re in the Seattle area, check it out.

willamette-writers-conference-logo

August 12-14: This will be my second year attending the Willamette Writers Conference as faculty, and I’m extremely honored to have the opportunity. If you can’t make it to Seattle to see my presentation with Cait, you’ll have a chance to catch it again here. We’ll be giving you tips on what to do after you’ve received an edit letter, how you implement suggested changes into a work you thought you’d already perfected. It’s going to be (we hope) insightful, and include things you might not have heard about the author-editor relationship, so hopefully we’ll see you there! (I’ll also be accepting pitches here again, as well as providing a few Advanced Manuscript Critique opportunities, so be sure to check those out too if you’re planning on attending and want to work with me.)

Boise Bookfest

October 15: The details of this one are still being worked out, but I believe I’ll be accepting pitches, presenting on an as yet undecided topic (likely regarding fight scenes in fiction), and potentially hanging out at a REUTS Publications table to talk all things books with whoever wants to chat. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?

All right, that’s all I’ve got this week. I do hope to see some of you at these events. Remember, I don’t bite, and chocolate is not required to talk to me but is always appreciated. Oh, and I have martial arts training, so maybe keep the stalking to the non-literal type? ‘k thanks, bye.

From the Editor’s Desk: From Under the Mountain by Cait Spivey

 

Welcome to my first book review of the year! There will be lots more in the months to come, but I’m super excited that this one happens to be first. Yes, I may have some particular vested interest in it, seeing as its one I had the privilege of working on and its written by a talented author I’m lucky enough to call friend, but more than that, I just plain adored this one. Toward the end of last year, I found a string of amazing fantasy novels, including Uprooted by Naomi Novik and The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey, and Spivey’s offering fit right in.

So let’s get to all the reasons you should run out and read this book immediately, shall we?

From Under the Mountain

by Cait Spivey

From Under the Mountain by Cait Spivey

As the second child of the Aridan imperial family, nineteen-year-old Guerline knows exactly what is expected of her: be unobtrusive, be compliant, and do not fall in love with her low-born companion, Eva. She has succeeded at only two of those.

But before her feelings for Eva can become a point of contention for the royal house, Guerline’s calm and narrow life is ripped away from her—in the course of a single night—and she is abruptly cast in the role of empress.

Faced with a council that aggressively fears the four witch clans charged with protecting Arido and believes they are, in fact, waging war against the humans, Guerline struggles to maintain order. As her control over the land crumbles, she learns that the war is rooted in a conflict much older than she realized—one centuries in the making, which is now crawling from under the mountain and into the light. With the fate of Arido hanging in the balance, Guerline must decide who to trust when even her closest councilors seem to have an agenda.

Darkly cinematic, From Under the Mountain pairs the sweeping landscape of epic fantasy with the personal journey of finding one’s voice in the world, posing the question: how do you define evil, when everything society tells you is a lie?

There is so much to love about this novel that I almost don’t know where to start. But first, let me say that although Amazon and other retailers seem to be primarily classing this as f/f romance, it is not. There is romance, yes, and it does feature a beautifully rendered f/f love story, but this book is, in fact, a brilliant example of dark fantasy done well.

Spivey establishes her prowess in the genre right from the first page, where we’re introduced to protagonist Guerline standing over the decaying, yet alive, bodies of her parents. This horrifying, slightly gruesome scene is merely a harbinger for what’s to come though, as Spivey proceeds to kill off the entire Imperial family — with the exception of Guerline, of course — by the end of the first chapter.

Suddenly thrust into a role she never expected to fill, the young empress has to navigate not only the intricacies of unraveling her own identity from what others expect her to be but the nuances of running a country poised on the brink of war. Humanity is turning against the witch-lords who have guarded the empire’s borders for centuries, and Guerline finds herself dealing with radical opinions on both sides. But the rift between human and witch, magic and politics is only the beginning of Guerline’s problems, as a creature that has been sealed away from the world for a millennium is finally about to get its revenge.

Spivey’s writing sings off the page with a cinematic flair that evoked the feel of a Studio Ghibli film, but the rotating, more traditional approach to the POV and fact that no one is as safe as they seem brought up visions of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. And I have to say that the blending of those two is nothing less than stunning.

But the thing that has always resonated most for me in Spivey’s work is her ability to create a fully realized cast of diverse characters and a world so richly textured it makes you want to live there indefinitely. Arido’s plight may encompass the standard sprawling map of high fantasy, but every detail is painstakingly accounted for, and the repercussions of what seem like small acts are felt throughout in an impressive example of the butterfly effect.

All in all, this is a gorgeous debut by an author who has clearly only begun her to literary stardom, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you’re a fan of high fantasy rife with political intrigue and the classic good vs evil scenario, if you enjoy dark fantasy with a fantastically creepy edge, or if you simply wish to escape into a world that treats everyone — regardless of gender or race or sexual orientation — with respect, then this is the book for you.  Seriously, go read it. It’s amazing.

Book Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

 

 

From the Editor’s Desk: The Untold Tale by J.M. Frey

Welcome to my final post from 2015! The next time you hear from me, it’ll be January. Frightening, right? Don’t worry, though, I will be back with lots of new content, book reviews galore, and a few spiffy giveaways. Not unlike the one I introduced last week (hint, hint).

But before I go on my annual mini-hiatus, I want to introduce you to one of my favorite reads of the year. Yes, it is one I had the privilege of working on, but so much of how that happened felt guided by fate, or chance, or serendipity, or whatever name you prefer that I fully believe this book was meant to find its home at REUTS, and I was honored to be part of bringing it into the world.

So, without further (sappy) intro, I give you . . .

The Untold Tale

by J.M. Frey

The Untold Tale cover

Forsyth Turn is not a hero. Lordling of Turn Hall and Lysse Chipping, yes. Spymaster for the king, certainly. But hero? That’s his older brother’s job, and Kintyre Turn is nothing if not legendary. However, when a raid on the kingdom’s worst criminal results in the rescue of a bafflingly blunt woman, oddly named and even more oddly mannered, Forsyth finds his quaint, sedentary life is turned on its head.

Dragged reluctantly into a quest he never expected, and fighting villains that even his brother has never managed to best, Forsyth is forced to confront his own self-shame and the demons that come with always being second-best. And, more than that, when he finally realizes where Lucy came from and why she’s here, he’ll be forced to question not only his place in the world, but the very meaning of his own existence.

Smartly crafted, The Untold Tale gives agency to the unlikeliest of heroes: the silenced, the marginalized, and the overlooked. It asks what it really means to be a fan when the worlds you love don’t resemble the world you live in, celebrates the power of the written word, challenges tropes, and shows us what happens when someone stands up and refuses to remain a secondary character in their own life.

I knew from the moment I heard this book described in passing by the author’s agent that I was going to love it. I could just tell, like an instinct. And I was right. Frey’s tale is bold without being preachy, innovative while still being familiar, classic with a modern twist, and is easily among my all-time favorite reads ever.

Forsyth Turn is a swoon-worthy hero, though he is admittedly not what one pictures when they think of the leading man in an epic fantasy-adventure. Insecure, flawed, and adorably awkward, he’s real. But he’s more than just the point-of-view character, he’s the lens through which Frey paints her extremely relevant, extremely important message. Through him, we meet Pip, a woman who epitomizes what it means to be a fan, and who’s been literally pulled into her favorite fictional world. And through him, we watch as all the prejudices — intentional or otherwise — of the fantasy genre (and fiction in general) are brought to light.

The beauty in this book is that yes, it does challenge the tropes of the genre, and yes, it does give power to those who are too often overlooked, but it does so without sacrificing a single shred of expert storytelling at the altar of “message.” This isn’t a book with an agenda — it’s an example of what great literature should be: unabashedly inclusive and a reflection of reality. It is most definitely thought-provoking and an intelligent discourse on the state of literature, but at the end of the day, it’s the story of two people learning about themselves, facing down their personal demons, and falling in love.

The Untold Tale is written in a modern first-person present tense, and yet still somehow manages to evoke the spirits of literary greats (it has an Austen-like quality to me, though the author disagrees). Raw, often dark, and powerfully real, this is the kind of book that sticks with you long after you’ve read it, and I could not recommend it more.

In fact, you can enter for a chance to win a copy over at my Holiday Giveaway. And if you’d simply like to purchase it, click on the links below. 😉

Book Links: Amazon | Goodreads | Barnes & Noble