Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What makes a successful query? Not always what you'd think.

My last post focused on the Like a Virgin pitchcontest, where I entered my query letter and first 250 words. This is what my entry looks like:


YA fantasy
90,000 K

Birds terrify Devora Alton. Her twin brother Rafe has always protected her—both from her winged terrors and from people who don’t understand her weakness. But now Rafe has been sent to the opposite side of the kingdom to fight for his life, in the one place where his extraordinary sword skills won’t be enough. And a falcon has bonded itself to Devora’s soul.

TRAITOR’S CHILDREN will appeal to readers of Megan Whalen Turner and Sarah J. Maas. It is a standalone adventure with series potential.

First 250 words

Only an idiot would sail so close to the rocks with a storm brewing, Rafe Alton thought, balancing on top of a sea-worn boulder. He squinted through the spyglass at the frigate bearing toward his island, mentally comparing the intelligence of its captain to that of his least favorite goat. “Furl your sails, you fool,” he muttered. Overhead, ragged clouds writhed in the grip of a fierce wind that could blow even experienced sailors onto the shoals. In the sixteen years Rafe had spent growing up on this island, he had seen more than one fatal wreck against those rocks.
“Squire, we’re ready to light the warning beacon,” a voice called from below.
Rafe tucked his spyglass into his belt and jumped down onto the beach. “Thank you, Mr. Grimes.” The grizzled harbormaster offered Rafe one of two slender torches.  Their ends were dipped in pitch and would burn despite the storm winds.
Situated far from the shipping lanes, the tiny island of Windhaven didn’t have a proper lighthouse. In emergencies Rafe used the warning beacon—an iron cage set atop a rocky spire, its bars filled with thick, bubbled panes of red glass. It had to be lit by hand, and the two paths to the top, one hacked into either side of the spire, were treacherously steep. Two paths, two torches, two chances to save a ship from destruction.
“Wait!” His twin ran up the beach, her dark curls blown into a wild halo. “Let me carry the second torch.”


This query was partly inspired by a conversation with my critique partner Rose Garcia (author of FINAL LIFE, FML Books, 2012) and by Mary Lindsey’s pitch for SHATTERED SOULS (Philomel, 2012), which went something like “Sixteen-year-old Lenzi can see dead people. She is pursued by a mysterious boy from her past, who wants to help her, and a hot guy who just wants her.” It was worded more elegantly, but that was the gist. At the Houston YA/MG meeting where I heard Mary speak, she said that query had achieved something like an 80% request rate.

So far, two people have commented on my contest entry – one, a fellow participant, and the other, a judge. The participant said that my query letter was not really the proper format and needed to give more information about the characters and plot. The judge, after some very kind words about my 250, said basically the same thing, although with more detail. (And so clearly that I’m pretty sure she’s either a writing teacher or ought to become one!)

This is where it gets interesting. The query I entered in the contest is actually my second query for TRAITOR’S CHILDREN. The first looked like this:

As you can see, this query provides the information lacking in my second, the information my contest critiquers asked for.

Here’s the track record (so far) for both queries:

Query #1:

Query start date: 28 May 2013
Agents submitted to: 10
Positive responses: 0
Negative responses: 4
Closed due to no reply: 4ish (need to double check agency websites)

Query #2

Query start date: 5 July 2013
Agents submitted to: 9
Positive responses: 3
Negative responses: 2

Now, there are other factors in play here. Most significantly, my agent list for the second query was much smarter. My first list included a lot of Big Author agents and notoriously slow responders.

But the agents who have asked me for sample pages based on Query #2 are no slouches – one is on Writer’s Digest “Top Agents of 2012” and the other two are among Query Tracker’s “Top Ten Most Queried Agents.” I have no connection whatsoever to any of them.

So what’s going on?

Do I think my contest critiquers gave me bad advice? Absolutely not. It was sound, and had I not written that contest entry myself, I might have given its author similar suggestions.

But this letter is working for at least some agents, and they are agents with huge slush piles. I haven’t actually been able to ask them WHY this query prompted them to request pages. So here are my best guesses in no particular order:

Genre: Fantasy is notoriously hard to query. The worlds are unfamiliar and the plots are complicated. My own novel has dual points of view, as well as a political plot, personal growth plot, and love plot that all carry equal weight and entwine into a single ending. It is next to impossible to explain in the standard two paragraphs, so I gave up trying to create a mini-picture of the book. Instead, I picked a couple of very important details, that gave a tiny taste of the plot, and avoided shooting myself in the foot by boring or confusing the agent with TMI that was still not enough to really explain the book's mechanics.

High concept detail: I honed the query down to details considered “high concept” (explained in a single sentence). The details I chose were a) Devora has a cute animal companion, but she’s terrified of it and b) Rafe is the expected fantasy swordsman, but he has to fight in a place where his sword skills won’t cut it. Both are details that turn a genre convention on its head, and they are a major reason I love this book (thanks again, Rose, for making me figure out why I loved it!). I connected the details by explaining the relationship between the siblings. In a very real way, these three things are the heart of my book, so it’s a legitimate representation, despite its brevity.

Length: It’s short. You can read my query in five seconds. When an agent is reading 100 queries a day, one that can be absorbed in its entirety with no extra effort will generate goodwill.

I guess the (not new) moral of the story is that there is no one way to write a query. You have to write the query that best expresses your particular book. Plus, it’s yet more evidence that writing and reading are utterly subjective—a query that is successful with one reader will fall pancake-flat with another.

I doubt I’ll make it to the next round of the contest, but that’s ok. What I really wanted was critique of my writing, and thanks to the feedback from my judge, I know how to significantly improve my opening paragraph. All in all, a successful experience.