The Query Contest Advice Part II (aka Stand Out!)

Confession: I'm about to give advice that is much easier to say than to do.

Here it is:
Your query has to grab an agent. Which means you have to show them how your book will stand out in a tough marketplace and sometimes an overcrowded genre.

This is the number one reason I passed on queries. I didn't count how many times I said this, but it was a lot. And I mean ALOT!

I understand that's tough to take. It would be a lot easier if my comments were "hey, I was turned off by this inaccuracy in paragraph 2" or even "you didn't tell me anything about our book" or something else.

Saying, "Eh, I'm just not grabbed" is similar to that terrible, "I liked it but I didn't love it" response. There's not much that's constructive. If I were a writer, I would read that and think Great, what do I DO with that response.

So here's what you do.

Start your query over. As a draft it's obviously not terrible, but it's not working. And I'm recommending starting over rather than revising because it's only a page and it's hard to revise a spark into something.

Once you've committed to starting over, think about your main character. What are the things that you love about your character? What aspects of your character are unique and special? What makes your character stand out in a sea of main characters from a similar genre?

Now, maybe your character is unique and awesome because she's a strong kickass female protagonist who's dealing with complex moral and philosophical issues and she's going to stand out in the sea of Bella Swan's because she's different. She's not going to rely on a guy to solve her problems! That's awesome. But you can't tell us that in your query. You have to show it.

So think about some books you like that have characters like this and how you knew right from the beginning that you were willing to follow this character. In this case you'd think of Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games or Beatrice Prior from Divergent.

Let me give you an example. In honor of its sequel Wild Thing which comes out 2/8/2011, let me bring up Beat the Reaper. This is a dark and gritty crime novel. It's actually not my typical read. I'd heard a lot about it--all good things!--so I was excited to read, but also a little skeptical. But right away, I was hooked by Dr. Peter Brown!

And by right away, I mean by the first line:
"So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a right in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!"

This is not your typical doctor, and he's got personality. There's more and it's awesome, of course, but right with that line, I found him interesting. Which is what you want--someone to be interested in your character.

So how does this translate to a query? It's hard. It's really hard. My best advice is to look at good examples.
I was grabbed by Emilia Plater's main character Riley because when she was faced with getting texts from her dead boyfriend's phone number, she wanted to find out who was doing it so she could "punch that creep in the face."

I was super intrigued by PREMEDITATED's main character Dinah when I saw the query on Queryshark--not because of anything explicitly stated, but because what kind of girl drastically changes her appearance and changes schools and sets out to ruin a boy? One I want to know more about.

Then think about your plot. You already have that old query you wrote, so you know how to explain your plot concisely. Now think of your hook. What is it that's going to make this plot seem new and different.

This summer I told myself I needed a break from paranormal YA. I wasn't going to request anymore paranormal. And then I got a query for an awesome paranormal with a mystery and I had to find out more. And the key here was that it was a mystery, complete with a murder and clues to catch the killer, which was different for YA paranormal.

Once you've thought about it and looked at examples, open up a new document and rewrite your query. Try to make your character come off the page. Try to make your plot cause your read to slide to the edge of their seat and wail for more. It's possible, I promise.

After you've drafted it, revise. Have some writer friends look at it. Make tweaks. Perfect it.

And then query again.

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Marsha Sigman said...

I don't think you need a break from paranormal YA. Not at all. Really.

Thanks for the advice!

Jaz said...

This is actually pretty helpful. It's now about taking the query to the next level -- "to infinity and beyond" -- once the basics are down.

Unknown said...

Wow, what great advice. I really enjoyed this post.

Rachael Harrie said...

This is awesome advice Suzie, and so valuable to hear you narrow down that elusive "meh" into something concrete we can work with.

*grins* I read Mary Kole's Alot post when it came out. I wonder whether my husband would mind if I bought him one of those little critters for Christmas - it's so cute ;D

Keisha Martin Romance Writer said...

I have been waiting for this for a agent to level with me and tell me straight. There is no way I cannot get it now and I adore how gracious you are making an aspiring writer like myself feel good about opening a new document and try again, I love the HUNGER GAMES I want all my MC to be fierce, I actually rewrote my first novel (yes its a PR) so my girl can kick some ass; the bad guys. So a BIG thank you again, Suzie now I will breathe and rewrite my query. =0)
finally team TEMPEST, Julie is going to explode I love the premise and it inspired me to write a time travel novel.

Kristy Shen said...

Excellent advice, Suzie.

We did exactly as you said. The first version of our query was rejected by you in August. Right after that, we stopped querying, obsessed over Query Shark, and started a new query from scratch. To our absolute shock, the new query actually got a partial request from you! Now, we know the query works and the next big obstacle is perfecting the manuscript.

We are so grateful to you for hosting this query contest. Thank you.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

I'm so taking this advice! I was just about to send the query out again to new agents... but I'm rewriting it first. The moment you mentioned starting from the character, I just KNEW what I needed to do.

Thanks so much!