Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Query Letters - Part II - The Perfect Pitch

Query Letters-Part II - the perfect pitch

(This is a reprint of a four part series from 2009)

Now that you know what your book is about, where it will be shelved, and who you are querying, (See Part I on query letters.) it's time to craft the Pitch.
You have to think of your query letter as a five minute pitch session. (The very words "pitch session" turn most writers into a quivering mass of sweat and nerve. Relax we'll take it one step at a time.)
It is at this point that you have to really think like a marketing guru- or better yet an advertising executive. (Not like Darin from the old TV show "Bewitched." More like why they do on the show "Mad Men," and yes, sometimes copious amounts of drinking might be necessary--just kidding.)
To get into the right frame of mind, watch ten minutes of advertising on television, thumb through magazines and newspapers, play on facebook and google and --this is the important part-- pay attention to the ads. What are they selling? How are they selling it?
The key here is to use a tag line. Think about the NY Times Bestseller list- each book on it has a tag line.
THE HOST, by Stephenie Meyer. (Little, Brown, $25.99.) One woman won’t surrender to the aliens who have taken control.
MALICE, by Lisa Jackson. (Kensington, $24.) A New Orleans detective is stalked by his dead first wife.
Your first task in marketing your book is to write this tag line. The rules are simple. Write a fifteen word or less sentence that tells your story premise. Use descriptors instead of names.
Here is the tag line for- If The Shoe Fits, by Nancy J. Parra.
A convention services manager discovers a fairy godfather who complicates her happy ever after.
You can tell from all three examples what the basic book premise is and what market it belongs to... read them over and think about it. Is it a romance? A mystery? Does it have paranormal elements? How do you know this?
Take your time- write out two or three of these for your books-tweak them. (Mine usually start out at 17 to 20 words and I cut and tweak to under 15.)
Save this info because you can use this as a simple pitch when you are at conferences, book signings and interviews. If someone asks you what you are writing- give them this statement. I bet they will ask to know more... versus holding them hostage by telling your entire story in twenty minutes while their eyes glaze over.
DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. Write the tag line! Do it. It's good practice because when you sell your book- 9 times out of 10 you will be the one writing the tag line and the back blurb. When your editor asks for it, you'll already have it done.
The next step to writing your query is to write what amounts to a selling cover blurb. Think of the back blurb of your book. This part is intended to be an eye catcher with a hook. This is not a synopsis, but a marketing piece meant to encourage the agent/editor to ask to read your synopsis.
How do you do this?
Write three simple sentences that give your hero/heroine's goal, motivation and conflict. Then add a sizzling hook.
Following are some examples:
From C.J. Cherryh's Fortress of Eagles, EOS, 1998-
Tristen is both more and less than a man. A summoning, a shaping, he was brought to life by a wizard, to serve a king yet to be crowned.
Cefwyn had a dream: a united Ylesuin, and a peace this land had never known. Cefwyn needs his only friend, this young man of mysterious origins who is more brother than vassal.
He relies on Tristen, and trusts him though he knows not why, as he plans the war that will bring his dreams to pass...or bring ruin upon them all.

From Mary Margret Daughtridge's Sealed with a Kiss, Sourcebooks, 2008-
HE CAN HANDLE JUST ABOUT ANYTHING, EXCEPT THIS... Jax Graham is a member of an elite military team, but when it comes to taking care of his four-year-old son, he's completely clueless.
ONE PERSON CAN HELP HIM, IF HE'LL LET HER...Family therapist Pickett Sessoms knows just how to help a rough, tough Navy SEAL deal with a scared and lonely little boy, but not if he insists on going it alone.
When an outing turns deadly, Picket discovers what it means to be a SEAL, and Jax discovers that even a hero needs help sometimes...

From Nancy J. Parra's, If The Shoe Fits-
AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN… Joella St. John vows to be successful on her own to prove to herself and her family that she is not a failure. The last thing she wants is a fairy godfather telling her he can magically make everything all right.
A MAN ON A MISSION…R.J. Sinclair has only one job and that is to protect the Bennet family at all costs. When Wade Bennet decides he wants to marry Joella, R.J. does everything in his power to convince her the match is right-even though his heart is demanding that he keep this one for himself.
A FAIRYTALE GONE AWRY…There’s a fairy godfather, a handsome prince, a ball and a crystal shoe. But what happens when it’s not the prince who captures your heart?

Writing the tag line and pitch are probably two of the toughest things you'll do for your book. Trust me. I know how hard it is to take a 100,000 word story and create a compelling fifteen word sentence. But once you do this a couple of times, you'll start to get a solid feel for what your book is about. Why you are writing it and why you want people to buy it.
A good pitch can be written at the beginning of a book or the end of a book- depending on what works for you. Never skip this step. By having a tag line and a selling back blurb you show editors and agents that you are a professional, serious about selling your work and you give them something strong to take into meetings and help them sell your work.

Next week- Part III- Putting the letter together

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to write a Query Letter - part 1 Finding Your Market

Fair warning this is a repeat post from 2009. But some things need repeating. So here goes:
Let's begin at the beginning.

Know What Your Book is All About.

1) What are you writing? That's easy, you think-it's a (insert genre here) romance, sff, mystery, thriller, women's fiction, graphic novel. Good. But, you ask...what if you are writing a women's fiction with some romance and a murderous twist? Or a thriller with a sff/paranormal element? Or what if the story could be a romance, sff, mystery, thriller, women's fiction, graphic novel?
TIP: In these tough times-cross genre is harder to sell then simple genre. Remember, you need to make it easy for an agent/editor to sell you work to a publisher/marketing/book seller. If they don't know how to shelf a book, they won't order it. Don't pull out your hair if you have a cross genre book done- For the purposes of a query letter-Pick One Genre. Think about your book-what genre is is most like? Where in the bookstore would it be shelved? (Beside the dream of right up front in it's own kiosk like all the best sellers...)

2) How many words is it? If you don't know how to figure the word count-check you word processing program. Most have word count in the tools. Or you can do it the old fashioned way and set your pages up for exactly 25lines per page-at 25 lines per page, 12 pt. type in courier new- you average 250 words per pages. 250 pages equals roughly 50,000 words-yes, ugh...math.
Knowing the word count is important to the market place. Some publishers only want books that are 50,000-60,000 words while others may want 90,000 words. Rarely will a publisher look at a book over 125,000 words.

3) Now- this is very important-What publisher is most likely to publish your story? (Yes-even if you are querying agents alone you need to know this information. A strong query letter will tell the agent who you are and what your market is.) So-how do you know? Research. Go to the library and your local bookstore. Look for who is publishing books in your genre. Who has recently published an author who writes similar to you?
Example: If your friend or critique partner says you write like Stephen King. Go to your local bookstore. Find out where Stephen King is shelved. Now- here's the interesting part- don't look at Stephen King's books. (He is a well known bestseller and doesn't have the same restrictions as a new author.) Find several books that are similar to Stephen King but relatively new authors-look at the spine and write down the publisher. Tip: Open the book and look at the copy right page. Ensure that the book was published in the last month or two. This will give you an idea of who is publishing your type of story right now. Keep in mind that books released today were bought two years ago. Trends change. But this will give you the most current idea.

4) Target your editor/agent. There are several ways to do this.
a) go to the library resource center and ask to read a copy of the Literary Market Place. This book is an annual listing of all agents and editors-their addresses, websites, what they are looking for, what they are buying and if they charge a fee. NEVER PAY A FEE FOR SOMEONE TO READ YOUR WORK.
b) go on-line to the websites of the publishers you targeted- look for the link to author guidelines. Make sure your book-word count and genre-fit the publisher's author guidelines. Example: If you have a book you believe is a techno thriller, but the author guidelines of a publisher says techno thrillers happen overseas or on submarines. Then you better ensure you have overseas or sub elements- OR- you will sell your book as a straight up thriller. TIP: Make the story what they are asking for.
c) Go to great websites like Editors and Preditors that rate agents based on word of mouth from others who have worked with them.
d) Go to the agent/publisher websites- look at what they want to see in a query letter- do they want an e-mail letter? or snail mail? Do they want pages? Are they taking submissions? Know and follow their rules.

5) Create a list of who you are contacting.
TIP: Choose if you are going to query agents or editors. No- you don't NEED an agent to sell. Again- do some research-publishers like Harlequin/Silhouette and Sourcebooks take unagented work. While other publishers like Pocket or Grand Central do not take unagented work. Who is your target? Know and follow their rules. Most agents don't want to look at a manuscript that has already been rejected by publishing houses-so if your target is a house that wants agented work-START with agents.
a) You can write your list on a piece of paper. Or you can fill out a spreadsheet program like Excel. Or you can use on-line programs. I put my list in a Word table.
b) Order your list as to priority. Pick the top five agents-then the next, then the next.
c) Write down the editor/agent name, the address. Then write down the type of submission required. Then the date you submitted and leave two columns for when you hear-accept or reject and further action taken.
Example: column one: Editor name,Harlequin Intrigue, address. Column two: sent Query letter with first three chapters and synopsis on X date. Column three: received request for full. Column four: Full sent on X date. Column Five: sold or reject.
Now that you know what you write-how long it is-what market and publishers you are targeting-if your work fits their guidelines-if you are querying agents or editors-names of who you are querying-what their submission requests are- and created a file to track your work, you are now ready to write your query letter.

Oh, I need to add a disclaimer- that as Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean said, "These aren't rules, exactly, more like guidelines."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March Book Review by Ted

I like to read biographies and am also interested in autobiographies. If you can find both about the same person, it is always interesting to see how many differences there are between how the person sees him- or her- self, and how others see him/her.
I am also good at finding books with JUMP OUT titles. That's why they have JUMP OUT titles....they grab you and hold your attention while you check out what the book is about. That said, I have a question: Do you know who Alison Arnold is?? I didn't know either, but if I asked you if you know Nellie Oleson, I'll bet a light went on.
CONFESSIONS of a PRAIRIE BITCH is an autobiography of Alison Arnold probably better known as Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie (the TV series). I found it interesting reading, comical in places, sad in places and downright infuriating in others. Not a bad combination for holding the readers attention. Alison began life as the daughter of two Canadian actors, both not too successful in the beginning. Not an unusual start for most actors. Her dad was a homosexual who was not "out" because it was not heard of at that time. Her mother was consumed with career ambitions and really made the big time as cartoon voices for many including Casper the Friendly Ghost and Gumby.
I don't want to get bogged down in her story---read it for yourself, I think you will find it interesting. Let me just say that she has had a very unusual life from being a physically and sexually abused child ( age 6 ) to becoming an advocate for many causes such as Aids ( the actor who played Nellie's husband died of the disease ), battered women, abused children, the list is lengthy.
I leave it to you if it was well-spent money for the book ( don't think many libraries will have it ) and this quote from one of the shows ( also used at Michael Landon's funeral):
"Remember me with smiles and laughter,
Because that's how I'll remember you all.
If you can remember me only with tears,
Then don't remember me at all."
Alison, I'll remember you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

Let's talk about the painful part of writing. You know it if you write. Even if you don't send queries, if you show anyone your work and they come back with a criticism that is vague or one that "feels" like a pounce, you know pain. As a friend recently wrote on Facebook, it seems that just as you learn something, someone sees something in your work and is so proud of themselves that they "found" some little flaw, they pounce on you. Their "aha!" Turns into "you fail, stupid." Whether they mean it or not. These are artistic losses we all suffer.
"Perhaps the most damaging form of artistic loss has to do with criticism. The artist within, like the child within, is seldom hurt by truth. I will say it again that true criticism liberates the artist it is aimed at. We are childlike, not childish. Ah-hah! is often the accompanying inner sound when a well placed, accurate critical arrow makes it's mark. The artist thinks, "Yes! I can see that! That's right! I can change that!
The criticism that damages an artist is the criticism-well intentioned or ill- that contains no saving kernel of truth yet has a certain damning plausibility or an unassailable blanket judgement that cannot be rationally refuted." ~ Julie Cameron, The Artist Way, pg 130
All these things Hurt- I'll say it again. They HURT. The only way to move on and be free to create work is to acknowledge these hurts- to write about them-to talk about them- to feel them and move on.
I told a dear friend a week or so ago that I'm a huge drama queen (I've said this before on this blog.) When I get a rejection or a damning criticism, I feel it. I cry. I whine. I may even take to my bed, or a hot bathtub of bubbles. I go on and on about it for at least three days. Then I set it aside and move on- The point is I get it out of my system and move on.
Now, I've had friends say- oh, buck up. Stop whining. Grow a thick skin. There is a prevailing sense in this business that if you feel hurt, then you won't make it. You must suffer all these hurts big and small in silence, sweep them under a rug, ignore them in order to be professional. I'm here to tell you, that if you do that, you will kill the joy in your writing. (The person who told me to buck up- Grow a skin...they got one revision letter from an editor and never sent another book out.)
Allow yourself to grieve and move on. I have countless rejection letters. I still have people today who point out my flaws, my typos, etc. I take a bow, acknowledge my imperfections and if there is artistic truth, I thank them. If it is petty I think, really? What did that gain you? Allow yourself to feel these slights- these slings and arrows- acknowledge them, look them in the eye, rob them of their power.
The Journey is tough and random. Some people make millions while other talented artists get ignored. One bad review can set you back years. I often describe the writing life like this. There is a giant room full of boxes. A writer must take a risk and reach their hand blindly into a box. Some pullout a contract. Some get bit by a snake. Some pull out a winning lotto ticket, while others find only razor blades.
When you're feeling blue- remember. It's not a race. The outcomes and opinions of others do not effect your journey. Only you effect your journey. They don't give away prizes for who ever bucks up best. Whoever has the thickest skin. - nope, no award show for that. If you begin to feel as I often do that everyone else knows more of the grammar rules and that I will never be a "good enough" at craft, here is a quote from Julia that I completely agree with: "For an artist to become overly cerebral is to become crippled (artistically.)"
So, grieve your injuries and let them go. Celebrate your imperfections as part of taking artistic risks. Find the joy in the journey while dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Cheers~

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Art of World Building

Every genre story builds a world your characters live in. Some genre's worlds are easier. They are placed in our time and in places people can visit and relate to. Other genre's are tougher. The characters' worlds are set in the future or the past. The characters live in alternate worlds of magick and myth or off world planets. When we think of world building we think of paranormal or scifi first. But all stories must have proper world building. You don't want mountains in Indiana. You don't want icebergs in the Gulf of Mexico. You don't want flying cars in present day New York City, or camel caravans on the Kansas Turnpike unless you have built a world where the reader excepts these things.
How do you build a rich world regardless of genre?
1) Ground your characters. Tell the reader what their feet are touching - cement, mulched path, gravel, brick, asphalt. Give the reader an idea of what the air smells like, what the place looks like. Ensure you have the five senses. You don't have to be Michener with chapters of description. But if your characters are in a national park with wind and snow, tell me more. Are there trees? What kind? Are they on top of a mountain? Are their rocks at their feet? Campers nearby? Are they on a hiking path or in a meadow?
2) Clue the reader in on what is important to the characters. Why does she have an herb packet in her pocket. Why is she giving it to a little girl? Why are her dreams important. Who is the person they are chasing? Why are they worried what the council thinks? who is the council?
3) Remember that the hero's journey begins in the ordinary world. If you push them into the call to action too soon, the reader has no sense as to how that is different. What is at stake. Why the character would go on the journey.
World building involves setting, the five senses and character motivation. Without proper world building, it doesn't matter how colorful or magical your characters are, the reader will be lost and pages will not be turned.
My favorite story is when my New York Editors didn't understand the world of a midwest city. What is common place to me had to be explained in my story so that those who don't live in that area of the country can understand.
Have you ever been told you didn't world build enough?