Friday, January 14, 2011

CRACKED

Today we're getting back to the bread and butter of what makes the QQQE great: Queries. And not just talking about queries in a vague, nebulous kind of way, but showing you actual real world examples of queries that worked! Huzzah.

Today's guest blogger is K.M. Walton. She will be sharing and analyzing the query that landed her an agent for her debut novel CRACKED. Before you read on, please stop by her blog and become a follower.

If you haven't seen the other entries in this series, or simply don't remember them, this is how it works. Kate's query will be in normal text. Her analysis of why it worked, and why she did things a certain way, will be in blue text. My own thoughts, or stupid jokes at my own expense, will be in red.

If you are interested in reading the other entries, a new page has been added to the top of the blog. Click on Successful Queries.

Take it away Kate!


First, thank you to Matthew for hosting my query. And before we dive in, I’d like to say that Matthew is one of those rare human beings that continuously give and truly expect nothing in return. Each of his posts shows this to be true…a genuine compliment, a bit of encouragement, a kind word – all just good stuff.

Kudos to you, Matthew and I wish you well on your writing journey.


Thank you Kate, you're too kind!

Now, onto my query that worked (or shall I say ‘finally freaking worked’)…

This query letter was like my 900th draft. I had posted this sucker on Absolute Write…Evil Editor…and put it through the “Elana Johnson treatment” – otherwise known as – From the Query to the Call (best book on query writing out there). My point is this, get serious feedback on your query letter – put it out there in reputable places and take the punches to the chin – and finally, take advice from sound experts (of which I am not) or people who have had success with their query – don’t take everything you read to heart. At the end of the day, it’s your query letter. You have to love it and feel confident that it captures your book in a captivating and professional manner.


This is great advice. I think the number one most important thing I can say about trying to perfect your query is: don't do it alone. Call on your friends, call on willing strangers, call on anyone who can give you a second pair of eyes. I for one was way too close to my project for way too long. It wan't until I got advice and help from others that my query even really began to take shape.

Dear Ms. LaPolla:

I am an active member of #YALitChat and read today that you are now an agent with Curtis Brown Ltd. Congratulations on your new job! Now on to my query…

A bit of personalization to start off with is always good, but it has to be 100% true/genuine, otherwise the agent’s first impression of you is that of a lying doofus. And that’s not good.

Very true. Some agents will tell you to get right to the story, and leave the personalization for the end. There is plenty of advice out there arguing for either side. Just try to keep in mind that each agent is a person, and has a personal preference for how they like to see query letters. Try to find out what that is if possible.

CRACKED is a contemporary young adult novel, complete at 47,200 words.

Sixteen year old Victor knows he’s weak. He’s got the most self-absorbed parents alive. His life sucks. Then his dog dies.

Sixteen year old Bull knows he’s angry. He’s sick of taking the drunken beatings from his grandfather. His life sucks too. And he likes to take out his anger on Victor.

The above two descriptions are what caused me the most trouble while writing this query. My first draft of the query had them at looooong paragraphs and sort of written in each character’s voice. Every critique I got said they just weren’t working. And not until this one critiquer said, “Write it in 3rd person – still in their voice, but about them” did I see how to tighten up and severely shorten.

Length of the query letter is absolutely crucial – your query is competing with hundreds of other query letters every single day – so if you don’t nab the agent with some solid writing in the first 1 to 3 sentences – you risk the dreaded…skip. And then form rejection. Ick. I have a ton, trust me.


This is interesting. I think this may be the first query I've featured with two main characters. Kate does an excellent job of letting us get to know them both, as briefly as possible, with just enough backstory to know where they come from. I always talk about the three C's when I talk about querying: Character, Conflict, and Choice. Kate gets plenty of character across, along with her hook, all in two short paragraphs that leave us very interested to find out more.

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
aaaaaaaaaaa. Both boys end up in the psych ward in the same room.

Now, even though I had to keep part of the above paragraph super secret (my editor advised me to keep the meat of the book under wraps) I want you to know this – that was the actual length of the real paragraph, and even more importantly, this paragraph was basically the entire book…in ONE paragraph. I can not tell you how I struggled when deciding what to reference. Asking myself: What scenes are crucial? What really matters? How the heck am I going to tell my whole book in one flipping paragraph???

You know what I did? I spent some time scrolling through the novel – re-visiting crucial moments and jotting them down. Then I went to task and crafted this paragraph (and honestly, my first draft had two paragraphs – yes, my first query for this novel was WAY too long).


This is tough for the rest of us to analyze, of course, but Kate makes an excellent point here. The query letter is kind of like a key. It's just an annoying little formality that's lets you unlock the door which is getting the agent to read your MS, or at least your pages.

It is really important, and it can be a very difficult part of the process for some, but we often make it harder than it needs to be. My own query, even though it won an award on WriteOnCon, is really still too long. At 309 words, without the personalization and housekeeping stuff like word count and genre, that's just too much.


Much to their disgust they spend the next five days together, and it gets ugly before it gets better.

Buried underneath their weakness and bravado are two sixteen-year-old boys. If they don’t realize how broken the other is and how similar their pain is, they may not survive.

The parts above are where you tell the agent what is at stake for the main character. What will happen if _______ does/doesn’t happen? A super important part of your query letter and my early drafts didn’t have it.

Excellent! We're clearly missing the main conflict in that secret paragraph, but this is a very concise summary of the choice they have to make, which essentially boils down to what are the stakes, and why should I care?

Fans of THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN and GOING BOVINE with their heartbreaking hilarity will enjoy a similar style in CRACKED. This manuscript recently won a national writing contest organized by Sourcebooks Inc. and judged by Dan Ehrenhaft.

I’d like to make a big distinction here – comparing your manuscript to published books is not only a very good idea, it also shows the agent that you are a reader and aware of the market in which you’d like to be published – and note…the wording you use in your comparison paragraph is absolutely crucial.

GOOD (and Elana Johnson approved) = Fans of _______________ and ______________ will enjoy a similar style in (your manuscript’s title).

BAD = My book is exactly like Harry Potter and The Lighting Thief and will outsell both of them combined. I just need someone to believe in it.


Personally I struggle with this, because I don't know of any books that are like mine, even if only in style, but it's probably just because I'm not well read enough. Keep in mind that you don't HAVE to compare your story to anything, but if you do, and you do it well, especially if you compare it to novels the agent enjoyed; it can make a big difference. Get advice on this part, because it's a fine line between sounding brilliant and looking pretentious. Kate's example is obviously the former.

I’m a member of SCBWI and have a long and lively background teaching middle school language arts.

According to your online submission guidelines, please find the first chapter and full synopsis below. Thank you for your time and consideration.

It is always, always, always a good idea to visit the agency’s website before your hit send on your query. Publishing changes daily and sometimes submission guidelines change, sometimes agents go on query hiatus and sometimes they even switch agencies or careers altogether. The worst thing is having your query sit somewhere where no one is reading it. It has to be read to get the requests!!

And this is just my personal opinion here, but in the age of email queries, I always put the first five pages of my manuscript below my email – even if their submission guidelines didn’t call for it. I figured if they liked my premise then, BAM, there would be a taste of the book. I know some out there are purists and would argue that I broke the rules. To that I say, “Whatever.” It’s not like you’re calling the agent Mr. when she is actually a Ms. (yeah did that) or spelling their name wrong (yeah did that) or pleading your book’s case after receiving a rejection (yeah did that). All bad, bad, bad writer behavior. Having the first 5 pages below my query = convenient. And who doesn’t appreciate convenience?


Oh man. I am the master of bad writer behavior, or at least I used to be. I completely agree about the first five pages. Unless an agent's guidelines explicitly say not to include pages in the body of the email, there is no reason not to.

~ Kate Walton
blog: http://skateorbate.blogspot.com
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect."
~ Anaïs Nin

Well, that’s it. This query landed me my agent on August 2, 2010, the brilliant Sarah LaPolla from Curtis Brown Ltd. and she sold this book to Simon Pulse ~ Simon & Schuster! It comes out Spring 2012. I’m in the line edit phase with my editor, the equally brilliant, Annette Pollert, and it is wonderfully hard work – emphasis on the wonderful.

At the risk of sounding hokey or corny - Never give up your dream of being published. Ever. It took me 2.4 years to land my agent, and I wanted to give up a handful of times, but I didn’t. Dig your heels in, roll up your sleeves and either get started or keep going.

Thanks again to Matthew!


You're very welcome Kate! Thank YOU so much for sharing all of this with us. Best of luck with your edits, and I can't wait to see your novel on the shelves.

Visit me:
Email: kmwalton1@verizon.net
Twitter: www.twitter.com/kmwalton1
The Apocalypsies: http://apocalypsies.blogspot.com/2010/10/km-walton-everythings-not-lost.html
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/kmwalton

So that's it. Readers, please feel free to thank Kate in the comments, and be sure to let us both know if you have any questions!

38 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing this Kate. I'm glad I'm not alone in struggling with my query. I swear I've spent over 40 hours on it and have over 10 pages of drafts. I also used Elana Johnson's FROM THE QUERY TO THE CALL. She and her book were so helpful. I think I may have finally gotten mine right.

Good luck with your book.

Christina Lee said...

I get a little teary reading this b/c I have the honor of being one of Kate's critique partners.

I heart that girl and her writing.

Plus we got our agents at the same time so we went through the trenches together, yet our paths are so different.

I mention that to say, this is not a race, get it done in your own way and own time. Keep reaching for the stars!

Matthew Rush said...

I completely agree Christina (and I heart you both, a lot). I have friends who have found success so fast it could make your head spin, but this is my journey, I have to live it my own way, and I'm not giving up or despairing just because it's taking me (way) longer.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I was sold on the third paragraph. :D

I know writers struggle when writing queries with two or more pov characters. This was brilliantly done.

I've heard one of the disadvantages of comparing your novel to something else is that the agent might not like the comparison books or author. If that's the case, I probably don't want that agent to rep me, especially if it's my all time favorite book.

Jen Daiker said...

I have to say that after reading this and having a whole chunk taken out of the query you have made it one of the #1 stalk worthy novels. I wanna know what's in the middle. I wanna know the meat of the book that the agent didn't want shared.

It.must.be.THAT.good.

Laura Pauling said...

Great letter! And congrats. I find that line comparing my story to another book - hard. I never want to come off as saying I'm as good as these writers. And some agents don't care for that. Congrats again! Thanks for sharing.

salarsenッ said...

Kate, you had me snagged after reading the two boys. I want to know more! Great job! Thank you for sharing your experience.

Jess said...

Kate~congratulations and thanks for sharing! I love the little details (from personalizing to the comparative titles) that show how much work you put into your query! (Thanks for hosting Matt)

Lydia K said...

That was a great query, despite the black-outs, and the story sounds magnificent. Thanks guys!

Angela Ackerman said...

Querying is tough--it's hard to get a strong rhythm going and condense the most critical and attention-grabby elements into a single paragraph, and show who the characters are, and show the enviornent the book takes place....aaaaaaaggh!

Good luck with this!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Nicely handled, and the book sounds great. I love how the conflict and tension is so easy to see, the forced confinement making it impossible to escape.

Justine Dell said...

Okay, when I first saw all the "a's", I thought it was part of the query. Seriously. And then with the catch line of the boys ending up in the pysch ward. Funny.

Thanks for sharing, Kate! Another wonderful query success story, Matt!

~JD

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Excellent analysis, and great advice, even with part of the query cut out. Thanks for posting it. It's very encouraging!

Hannah Kincade said...

What a great query. I am not close to that point but man o man am I scared. Thank you, Matthew and Kate for making it seem less scary by all your helpful tips!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like that she kept the synopsis short - some of them are so long, they lose me. If she now has an agent and a book deal, I'd have to say short works best.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Great advice here. I actually jotted down notes -- and I don't have a first draft of my own WIP completed. It's never too early to learn the next steps, so thanks so much to both Kate and Matthew. And Kate, congratulations!!!

Clarissa Draper said...

What's really sad is that I've never read one of your query posts before.

You give such good advice.

I'm lucky I've never had to write a query before but I know where to come if I have to.
CD

Matthew Rush said...

That's not sad Clarissa, it's no big deal. I've put all the old ones up there at the top right if you ever want to take a look. There are some amazing breakdowns in them (hard work and smart analysis by other writers, mostly).

Joanne Fritz said...

Thanks, Matt and Kate, for sharing such fascinating and helpful stuff. Having only recently completed a first novel, I'm now letting it marinate, so I haven't tackled querying yet. I know the book needs about a hundred more drafts.

I'm already a follower of Kate's and have had the honor of meeting her (and I promised her we'd have her launch party at Chester County Book Company!), but I hadn't yet read her query.

Love the phrase "meat of the book." As if you've given us the outer layers of the sandwich -- the bread, the lettuce, the tomato, even the condiments --and withheld the meat. Awesome! Makes me want to read it even more.

Congrats, Kate! Looking forward to 2012.

lbdiamond said...

Such an informative post!!!

Thanks and congrats! :D

Raquel Byrnes said...

This was great. Thanks for paying such close attention to and describing the thinking behind the comparison paragraph. I learned a lot. =)
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Carolyn Abiad said...

Guess I need to get back to work! Mine's 301 words. Ugh!

Lucky Press, LLC said...

Thanks, Matthew and Kate, for sharing this information. As someone who has received many really long, rambling query letters, I appreciated all the points you made in this article. Everyone (myself included) has trouble writing that one paragraph that describes the essence of their book; but it is crucial to nail that paragraph. Other than the manuscript, it is the most important thing related to your novel that you will write.

Thanks, Matthew, for sharing so graciously with other writers!

Janice

Melissa Gill said...

This sounds like a great book. I love your voice in your descriptions. I can't wait to read this. Thanks Matt!

K. M. Walton said...

Wow, thank you everyone!! I said to Matthew yesterday in an email that I hoped his readers would get something out of me sharing my query...

From everyone's comments I'm thinking it was a good thing (I hope).

Hope you all have a great weekend and thank you again to our host extraordinaire, Matthew.

E.J. Wesley said...

Hey Matthew! I've been keeping up with K.M. (via her blog) for a while, and couldn't miss the opportunity to check out her Q.

First: K.M. is awesome, and this Q proves it. So much of being a good writer is learning the game. Her process (as outlined above) really shows that. Can't wait to read her book.

Second: Matthew, this feature/blog rules! How the heck am I just now finding it/you? Now following as I simply can't resist folks who pay it forward.

Cheers,

EJ

Colene Murphy said...

Wow! Sounds amazing!! I love seeing how others do it. It is SO helpful figuring out my own query!! Thanks so much!!

Candyland said...

I remember K.M from YA Lit Chat before it cost me my monies, lol. And she roccckkksss!

Joanna St. James said...

This was really helpful, Matt it looks like I'll be stalking your QQQE page a lot.
cool stuff today!

erica and christy said...

Interesting example of a query letter and great comments by both of you. Thanks!
erica

Elana Johnson said...

Oh my flipping heck. I've read this query. It is AWESOME. You are all going to love this book.

And holy cow, the pieces of my fragmented brain are so tiny! Yay for a Simon Pulse author--and Annette is super-fantastic! How in the world did I miss the sale? (I am lame, that's how.) Congrats!

(And I'm more than a little embarrassed by my name being in this post. Glad the ebook helped!)

Summer Ross said...

I have an award for you on my blog

Jessie Harrell said...

this is awesome, KM. You've given me hope that someone like Sara will pick up client from the slush. I wish you nothing but success with your book!

Pk Hrezo said...

Thanks, Kate! Great info and gives us all hope!

thanks Matt!

Lisa Blandford said...

Very helpful and fabulous Matthew and Kate! I was glad to hear your suggestion to attach the first five pages, even if they are not requested. Convenient indeed!

JM Leotti said...

Thank you Kate and thank you Matthew! Boy, did I need to hear this bit of inspiration tonight. Wonderful query and the critique really helped. Looking forward to your book, Kate! All the best for a continued bright future!

Medeia Sharif said...

Thanks for sharing, Kate and Matthew. I'm always curious about query letters. Seeing others makes me question my own.

Lisa and Laura said...

Oh it's so cool to see a winning query--not only did you win an agent, but a book deal. We love Kate and love this! Thanks for sharing--although I'm now DYING to read what was in that paragraph! 2012 can't come fast enough!