Agency Lessons: Query Feedback Results

A few weeks ago, I opened up the inbox and offered to give query feedback to anyone who wanted it. You guys are awesome. Not only did you take me up on the offer, but you were unanimously gracious with your responses. I didn't get a single negative response to any feedback I gave. I'm not sure when, but I'll definitely do this again some time in the future.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share some thoughts on the most common feedback notes I sent. Hopefully, this can be useful to anyone in the query trenches.

The Non-Query Query
I'll admit that this one puzzles me. Usually, it comes in the form of a tag line followed by a line that includes genre and word count. And that's it.

There are lots of contests out there that include tag lines and maybe that's where the confusion is coming in. I don't know. What I do know is that a tag line is not a query. 

A tag line is a short one liner more suited to movie posters than books. "One choice can transform you" is the tagline for the Divergent series. That's a great attention getter, but it doesn't tell us much about the book. A query needs to be closer to what you find on the back cover.

Generic Phrases are Generic
Your query needs to be as specific as possible without spelling out the entire plot line. Why? We've all heard that there are no new stories, just different version of old ones. This is never more evident than when you read a query with generic phrase. It takes what can be an interesting and original story and turn it into something that sounds like everything else already on the market.

A few common generic phrases are "Finds her inner strength", "Discover the true meaning of brave", "Overcome life changing obstacles". While these may apply to your novel, they could easily be applied to hundreds of others. In today's crowded YA market it's even more important than ever to stand out. Generic phrases do the exact opposite.

Where's the Stakes
The most common issue in this latest batch of queries is a lack of stakes in the query. I often find myself asking "So what?" What happens if your main character doesn't achieve their goal?

For example, if you're writing a police procedural, what are the personal consequences if your detective doesn't solve the case? Is his job on the line? His family in danger? Maybe he is worried about disappointing his retired detective father. There needs to be something at stake if he doesn't achieve the goal (catching the criminal) that is personal to the MC.

Stakes are what keep me reading. I want to know that things can go wrong and, if they do, your character will suffer. Maybe that makes me sadistic, but it's also what makes a story interesting. If your character can't find solve the mystery, what happens? Do they go back home and try again later? Boring! Does the unsolved mystery threaten their mom's mental stability and puts a favorite uncle in danger? Hey there, interesting. 

So there you have it. If you're querying now, or about to send your fresh and shiny query out into the world, check to make sure you aren't sabotaging yourself with one of these common issues. And keep an eye out for another round of query feedback opportunities.

Lessons from Disney Storybooks

Every afternoon, my daughter and I have a special reading time. We curl up in my big over-sized armchair and read several books together. Lately, she's been on a kick of reading the little books that are basically condensed versions of Disney movies.

Set of The Princess and the Frog books

While these aren't the most exciting stories for me to read, they do offer up some great tips when it comes to writing. Yesterday, we read three stories from Princess and the Frog. Each one was only a few pages and told the story from the POV of a different character: Tiana, Naveen, and Louis.

This is a great exercise for all of us in developing full characters. For each of the three, they had a goal, a plan, and a lesson learned at the end of the story. That goes for both the main characters and Louis the trumpet playing alligator. 

Do your minor characters have goals? Are they working toward their own path or merely there for window dressing?

I'm not saying you need to rewrite your manuscript in six different POVs, but if you had to, could you? If one of your minor characters was telling the story, would it simply be an account of your main character's actions or would they have their own story to tell. If a character doesn't have their own story, they are going to read as a cardboard cutout.

Another lesson from these books is the distilling of a two hour movie down into only a few pages.

I suggest picking up a few of these, even if you don't  have kids at home. You can see where the author has stripped away non-essential characters and plot lines to cut right to the heart of the story. With these mini-synopsis lessons it's easy to see where the key plot points remain, but the filling that really brings the story to life is left out. 

Next time you need to write a synopsis, I suggest hitting up your kids' book shelf first.

I'm sure there are all kinds of lessons we can learn from children's books. Do you have any tips or tricks you've picked up from story time? Share them in the comments.

Agency Lessons: YA vs MG

Queries are hard and they stink like three-day-old baby poop. There, we got that out of the way. Because I understand this, I try to be flexible when it comes to queries that miss the mark. But I've seen a lot of something lately that makes it hard for me to move forward.
"This is my MG/YA novel about ..."

Yes, I represent MG & YA. And I'm happy to rep writers who write for both age groups. However, your story is either MG or YA. Not both. And not knowing the difference is a problem.

Again, this isn't me being picky (see baby poop reference above). This is about you, as a writer, knowing your audience. There is a big difference between a book that will appeal to a 7th grader and one that will appeal to a high school senior. Even though they are only 5 years apart in age, they are completely separate on the scales of emotional maturity, world view and self-image. Three areas that are crucial in both age groups.

Sometimes, I'll hear people say, "Well, you're the agent. You figure out how to sell it. I don't know who my audience is." To which I say, "WRONG!"

Without identifying your audience how do you know what voice to use, what thought processes to give your main character, what subject matters are appropriate? The answer is, you can't. This is a big red flag that say, there are probably a lot of problems with this manuscript.

When a writer fails to identify their audience before starting a project, the result is usually a mixed bag of awkwardness. We'll get a ten-year-old protagonist, who has the voice of a Sophomore. She's solving a ghost mystery to save her dad, while dealing with a friend who has a drinking issue. It's just all over the board.

If you aren't sure what the differences are between MG and YA, the first step should be to read widely in both age groups. In my town's library, MG books are actually shelved in the children's library, so don't forget to check there. Then read this great post from Middle Grade Minded. Writers and agents weighed in on the differences between the two age groups and how to write them both better.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What are the biggest differences between YA and MG?

No Glitz Marketing

You've heard of the show Toddlers and Tiaras. If you've seen the show, then you know what I mean by "glitz". These are the pageants where kids get self-tanners, false teeth (known as flippers) and generally contain more glitter than a Barbie doll factory. The mantra "Go big or go home" is pretty common.

When some authors start to think about marketing, they get overwhelmed with the full-glitz version. Hearts palpitate with the thought of banner ads, video trailers, glossy bookmarks, and swag. Their palms get sweaty contemplating book signings, twitter chat parties, and 50-stop blog tours. With so many options, and many of them costing in the hundreds (or thousands), no wonder so many authors throw their hands up.

But marketing doesn't have to be about flashing countdown widgets and your book covers slapped on tote bags. Here are a few simple (and inexpensive) tips to get you started on a No-Glitz marketing plan.

Donate your book to the library

Books are a library's bread and butter, so free books are like free bread and butter. Who doesn't love free food? Not sure if your library will take your book? Ask them. I promise librarians are super nice and they are even nicer to people who want to help them. Only have an ebook? More libraries are cultivating e-catalogs all the time. See if you can get yours added.

If your library doesn't accept donations, that's not the end of the road. Check out this great article from ALA (American Library Association) about ways you can donate your books. And don't stop with your public library. If it's appropriate, make donations to locals schools or nursing homes.

Offer to teach a workshop for the library or local writer's group

I'll admit that this one is going to take a bit more effort than walking your book down to the library. But here's the deal: You wrote a book. A whole book, with words and chapters, and more words. Do you have any idea how many people want to write a book and never get past page five? Whether you realize it or not, you have a lot of knowledge to offer others.

Not only is teaching a workshop a great way to build connections, you can potentially make some sales. At the minimum, bring a half-sheet flyer that tells people who you are and where they can buy your book. You might ask if you can bring copies for attendees to buy (which you will sign). Also, ask attendees to sign up for your newsletter so they can get access to even more of your knowledge.

Use your local media

This can be difficult if you live in Los Angeles, but most of us don't. I happen to live in a town that is happy to cover any news you throw at them. And they send reporters to everything. Everything. So if you're going to all the trouble of teaching a workshop, don't forget to tell the paper about it. A one page press release about the workshop should do the trick. If you're lucky, they'll add your event to the calendar. If you're really lucky, they'll write a small article about it. If you're super lucky, they'll reach out to you and want to do a feature about you and your books.

But here's the deal, they'll have no idea you or your workshop exist if you don't tell them. Even if you aren't doing a workshop, send them a press release about your book. Maybe they ignore you; it could happen. But maybe it's a slow news week and you get a feature column with your picture and your shiny new book showing up in everyone's homes.

Love on your books stores

If you're lucky enough to have your book sold in a local bookstore, you need to take advantage. Contact the manager and ask if there's a good time you can come in to sign stock. You don't even have to talk to anyone while you're there. Just go in and sign stock. Who knows. They may just pull your fancy new author signed copies out to display on a special table.

And while you're there, ask the owner/manager if there is anything you can do to help them sell more copies. Remember, you have a mutual goal here. Selling copies of your book makes both of you money. They might have some ideas or invite you to come up with something. Either way, you've started the conversation and left the door open for continued mutual profits.

Reach out to one new person a week

Blog tours can be amazingly effective if done the right way, but I get that they can be a lot of work. I understand that for some authors, the idea of broadcasting themselves gives them nightmares. If this is you, don't do a blog tour. Seriously. Don't do it.

But that doesn't mean you can sit back either. Instead of contacting 50 bloggers to ask for a review, once a week, reach out to someone you don't know and start a conversation. Maybe reach out to a book blogger you respect and thank them for a review you found helpful. And then tell them about your book and why you think they might enjoy it. Make a new friend on twitter or facebook. Don't open with a pitch, just get to know them. Thank a reader who left you a super nice review on Goodreads. Ask if you can post a snippet of it on your site and link back to their own site/review.

You don't need to walk about like a broken record of Please Buy My Book by The Desperate Authors Club. Just make a new friend once per week. Reach out into the vast interwebs and (virtually) touch someone else. You never know when your new friend will be the perfect contact to get your book more exposure.

Don't stop there

These are just a few ideas, but I bet you could come up with twice this many if you sat down and really thought about it. Marketing your books doesn't mean turning into an extroverted, money-bagged, word monger. Find your comfort level, wipe the glitter out of your eye, and market your book.

Do you have other "No Glitz" marketing ideas? What's the easiest, most successful way you've marketing  your book? Tell us about it in the comments.

Is Marketing Optional?

This is probably a silly question (and I'm sure you can guess my answer). But no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, there are still writers out there who don't think they need to market.

Before I get into specifics, let me start by saying there is a difference between "I'm not going to market my book" and "I'm done marketing my book". The former suggests a clueless author while the latter can be the result of a lot of different things. You may be out of resources, you might have a new project it's time to promote, or you may have decided that despite your best efforts this book isn't going to happen and it's time to move on.

Those are all perfectly acceptable reasons to stop actively promoting your work. Of course, you're still going to have it listed on your site and reference it in your posts on occasion, right?

I hear lots of reasons why authors choose not to market their work, but here are the top three I've seen recently and why they are lame excuses we all need to get over.

I don't have time to market

Marketing your book will require two commodities from you: Time and Money. They are an indirect correlation to each other (Oooh, math terms). The more time you devote, the less money you need to spend and vice versa. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you need to be prepared to fork over the bucks needed to have someone else do it for you.

If you can't pay someone else, then you absolutely must make the time. No excuses. And honestly, while the behind the scenes work of marketing your book can be tedious it isn't the time suck that most of us think it is.

To test this theory, I went on a book review hunt for a client this weekend. I was specifically looking for bloggers that specialize in reviewing YA speculative fiction. To make the search even harder, I limited my results to those bloggers who accept indie published novels. Despite the constant lamenting that no good reviewers will even look at a self-published work, I was able to put together a list of 70+ reviewers in just over an hour.

Now, more time will be needed to narrow down the list (you probably wouldn't send review requests to 70 reviewers), verify submission requirements, and send out requests. We're probably talking about another couple of hours of work here. It will be tedious, require multiple spreadsheets and probably a lot of coffee, but in about 3 or 4 hours you could send out a large number of review requests to get your book much needed publicity. Split up over a few days, you could have a schedule for tons of exposure in less than a week.

*If even this feels like it's outside your schedule, consider pairing up with another author in your genre with a release around the same time as yours. You can split up the work of researching reviewers and get the work done in half the time.

I don't know how to market

This might have been an okay excuse back in 1994, but it doesn't fly today. My favorite thing about the writing community is everyone's willingness to share their knowledge. Tons of authors have opened their books to talk about what worked and what didn't work. With a little bit of time and efforts, you can find all the answers you need. And if you can't find something, a quick shout for help on Twitter will often yield exactly what you need.

But don't limit yourself to authors. There are so many great individuals out there blogging about small business marketing. Even if you have a traditional publishing deal, you should still try to think about your books from a business standpoint. Some marketing knowledge is universal, no matter what you are selling. I suggest adding a few of these gurus to your regular blog roll and engage in some free education.

Need a place to start? Try taking a look at Danny from Firepole Marketing and Marisa at Live Your Message.

I shouldn't have to market

This excuse is born out of some strange idea that if your book is any good, you don't need to market. Readers will flock to you because of the quality of your work. I'm here to tell you this idea stinks worse than a two-week-old sippy cup of chocolate milk lost under my bed.

You might be the next Suzanne Collins, but if readers don't know you exist, they can't flock to you. Not marketing your book is like holding a garage sale at the end of a cul-de-sac without putting a sign on the street corner. You might have the best prices in town and a lost Van Gogh hidden behind a paint-by-number of a unicorn. It doesn't matter, because no one knows you're there.

Yes, you are a writer, and your primary job is to write. And if you could care less about sales, making money or reaching your readers, then, by all means, refuse to lower yourself to the world of writers who market. But don't be surprised when gobs of glowing reviews aren't showing up and Newbery doesn't call.

Get over it

Marketing isn't easy. It can make us awkward and self-conscious, because we aren't already awkward enough. That's tough cookies. Take some comfort that no one wants to spend multiple hours each week on marketing. We'd all rather be writing (or watching cat videos on YouTube). But we do it, because in order for our words to mean something to a reader, they have to know the words exist.

Agency Lesson: Contests

Here in Texas, the end of summer means only one thing: Friday Night Football. But in the writing community it's contest time. Here's the good, the bad and the cautionary.
The Good
I love contests. They are a great introduction to putting your work out there and a wonderful way to meet other writers and get involved in our happy little community. You don't have to look long to find a contest posted along with gleeful lists of past winners and their current successes (signing with agents, getting deals, meeting Oprah...okay maybe not that last one).

Another great aspect of contests is the mass effect. Here you have a chance to "send" one query and get it reviewed by a fair number of agents. The exact number will depend on the contest, but there is definitely a "more bang for your buck" situation here. Not only that, but occasionally agents who are closed to submissions will participate in contests, giving writers a chance to send their query to someone they might not otherwise have a chance to work with.

The Bad
Contests can be a bit of a dice roll. You have tons of entrants with maybe only a handful of agents making requests or picking winners. When the contest you enter has six participating agents, this is the odds equivalent to sending six blind queries. You don't get to hand-pick the agents or tailor your entry to their style or preferences. There's not anything inherently bad about that, but it's hard to keep that in perspective when you're in the midst of the contest frenzy. They are exciting and fun, and when you're having fun, you aren't really thinking about the logistics that only a few of the participating agents are even looking for your genre. So don't let a non-win make you think you aren't going to make it or that you're a bad writer. Contests are a bit like slot machines. You can hit it big with one pull of the handle, but this is not where most writers will find their agent.

The Cautionary
Some of the best contests, in my opinion, are those that allow entrants to get feedback on their submission. And not just from agents, but also from the writing community. There's nothing like having 20 people all say "this opening page is too slow" to show you exactly why your aren't getting manuscript requests. But be careful here. Remember that the people commenting can be anyone. I've never run across a case of a commenter being intentionally misleading, but just because someone doesn't mean to lead you astray doesn't mean that they aren't. Make sure you don't make sweeping changes to your manuscript based off a single person's feedback. And trust your gut. If you get some feedback or advice that doesn't sit right with you, either ignore it or reach out and ask others.

So are contests worth it? Yes and No. It all depends on where you are in your writing journey, what you hope to get out of the contest, and your own maturity as a writer. Overall, I think most contests are awesome and the amazing writers who give up their time each year to organize them are heroes of our industry. If you're willing to go in with realistic expectations and a healthy dose of consideration, a contest can be the magical unicorn you've been waiting for.

Because let's be honest...we all want a magical unicorn.

Have you entered any contests lately? What has your experience been like? Any advice you'd give to a writer considering their first contest?

End of the week blathering

This has been one of those weird weeks where I'm not really sure if I was productive or not. So Wednesday night I threw up my hands and grabbed a book. There is nothing like a good book to pull me out of weirdness. Since it was purely a fiction 'for the fun of it' book, I shook things up on Thursday and read a non-fiction industry book. This way I was able to read for two days and not feel like I was skipping out on my obligations. That said, this weekend will be totally dedicated to the inbox.

Speaking of the inbox, I was blown away with the responses to my query feedback offer. You guys rock with your amazingly positive attitudes. I've responded to a few so far and, already, the responses have been great. I hope to get to all of them in the next week.

In other related news, I have a few new interviews up. First, I've got all my wish list goodness up over at YAtopia, a great site for fans of teen fiction. I also have an interview over on my client, Michelle Hauck's, page. These are great places to check out if you are planning to query me or if you are at all curious at how strange I am.

Just for fun, do you have a go to book or genre for turning a ho-hum week into a stellar one?

No Link Promotion

First things first, today is the last day to get your query in if you would like to get specific feedback. See all the details here.

Second, I want to say thank you for your positive responses to last week's challenge to stop posting buy links in Twitter. I really appreciate that I'm not alone in wanting to encourage a better way for writers to promote their work.

And that leads me into today's post. If we aren't posting links to our work, how do we stay relevant in a fast moving feed of 140 character sound bytes?

Here are a few ideas to get you started in your no-link promotion.

1.  Hashtags
The beauty of hashtags is that they are way less offensive than a buy link and work harder for you. A hashtag lets you identify your book with each relevant tweet without the used car salesman feel. In addition to creating consistency in your message, that magical little # promotes your book even when you aren't.

The key to that is to encourage retweets. When people see an amazon link they know exactly what it is, but a hashtag could be anything. Get it visible enough and people will be curious. It goes back to the theory that people want to be included. If they think everyone else already knows about something, they will look into it.

How do you get retweets?

The best way is to post relevant posts that people want to share. Think about politicians. Most of their speeches are nothing more than a mosaic of 30 second sound bytes. They know that news organizations aren't going to air the whole speech, so they use that to their advantage by loading their speech with short snippets that pack a punch and don't take up much air time.

Another way is to host time sensitive contests. By narrowing down a short window of participation, you increase the chances that your hashtag will trend which expands your exposure to people who might never have heard of you.

2. Be a conversation hijacker
In real life, it can be awkward to jump into a conversation midstream. With Twitter it's expected. If you see folks chatting about something that interests you or is related to your work, go ahead and jump in. Don't forget that the point of social networking is to be social. Just make sure you don't jump into the conversation with a "Interesting point. I just wrote a book about this." That's not joining a conversation, it's interrupting one with an advertisement.

The way this helps you is that people are curious. If I run across part of an interesting conversation in my feed, I'm likely to open it up and see who's talking and what's being said. If there's an interesting person in the conversation that I'm not following, I'm probably going to add them. So while that conversation didn't sell me their book, it now opens me up to their other more promotional posts that can expose me to a book I might not have found otherwise.

3. The power of private
One of the great things about twitter is the ability to contact someone privately so long as you follow each other. This means you can reach out to someone you've formed a relationship with to ask for help with promotion. I probably won't respond to a public call for guest post opportunities because it's impersonal and disconnected. I am likely to respond positively to someone who I've spoken with in the past who reaches out about guest posting.

Why? Because people like to feel special. It's the same reason we personalize query letters. A private message says "I know you and I know your platform." While this certainly takes more time than a massive public plea for hosts, it is going to be infinitely more successful.

That's it for me today, but I'd love to hear other ideas you've got for promoting your work without links. Share your game plan in the comments and let's start a "no link" revolution.

Agency Lessons: Query Feedback

I wrote a whole post today about how being new isn't an excuse to ignore submission guidelines. It was awesome. But then I realized that you, my lovely readers, already know this. And the people who don't will never find this blog anyway, because they aren't treating writing professionally. So I scrapped it and stared at the blank page until I could come up with a better topic for your Monday morning.

And I stared...

And stared...


I got nothing.

But that's no fun, so I thought what would be fun is some query feedback. Yeah! So here's the deal. You have today to get your query as good as you can. Starting tomorrow, send me your query to with the subject line "Query for Sarah: I want feedback". If you do this, I will respond with specific query feedback, on either why this isn't working or why it is. This will be good for queries sent September 3rd and 4th only. If you don't use the right subject line, you will get the normal query response I usually send, which won't be as detailed.

Here's the deal. This needs to be an honest to goodness real query. That means it should be for MG and YA only, and only be for a completed, polished project you are ready to put out there. I'm going to be more than a little ticked if I request pages only to learn that your manuscript isn't ready and you were only "testing" your query.

A note here: it is entirely possible that I could respond with a "yes, this query works", but still not request pages. These are real submissions, so just because the query works doesn't mean it will be something I'm interested in and I still have to like the sample pages.

Okay, that's it. Pass this along to any of your querying friends. If you have questions leave them in the comments. Enjoy your Labor Day!