Don’t Go Crazy with Your Comps

Comps, or comparable titles, are a valuable way to help slush readers immediately situate your work in the marketplace. Find one or two solid comps for your query letter. Maybe three. More than that, and you’ve over-salted your stew.

I am currently seeking representation for the first book of my Middle Grade fantasy Awesome Book Title, 50,000 words.

First, don’t capitalize genres. Middle Grade should be middle grade. Moving on.

I am hopeful this series will interest you due to its unique fantasy hooks and quick pace, its mystery plot and comical, underrepresented characters, and its always-current themes of the environment, pre-adolescent romance, and juvenile bullying. If you enjoy stories with a timeless quality and vibrant characters, this series should be just right for your list.

You’re telling me what you think is good and exciting about your book. What you should be doing is pitching your story. Pitch. Your. Story. Character. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Moving on.

The charming tale is a whimsical throwback to Author One’s Comp Title One, Author Two’s Comp Title Two, and more recently, Author Three’s Comp Title Three, all still popular today.  Much like the spirit of Title of Timeless Classic, it is a timeless tale, yet renewed so that it can resonate in our current, fast-paced technological world.  Likewise, I have already plotted an additional three more books to the serialized story.

That was four—count ’em, four—comps. Yet still no pitch. I’m dying here.

Consistent with other environmental works of this nature, most recently Comp Title Five by Author Five, published by Publisher, and Comp Title Six by Author Six, published by Publisher, what is unique about my series is that the stories hang together as a continuous testament to the sanctity and majesty of the wilderness and the hope and heroism of youth in the face of adult domination, dishonesty, and greed. The story is offered as a model to our youth for the need to preserve our fading woodlands and countryside. It is a theme our children are daily tested by in our evolving global world where the line between ethics and profit is fast dissolving.

And now I’m lying on the floor killed dead. Did you count along? We are now up to six comps. SIX. COMPS. Followed by a laundry list of themes and reasons “our youth need” this book. But still no fluffernutting story pitch.

Giving a slush reader a veritable avalanche of comps and expecting us to cobble your story together in our own imaginations is like telling us you don’t have a story at all. And that’s the last message you want to send.

By all means, do your market research and support your pitch with a meaningful comp or two. But don’t forget that your story pitch is the whole reason your query letter exists. Put it front and center.

A Sticky Contract Situation

Here’s a sticky publishing-contract situation you writers might want to be aware of:

A publisher just mailed us our agency and author copies of a fully executed contract. (The finalized contracts were first signed by our author, who then mailed them to the publisher for countersignatures, who then retained their copies and mailed the remaining copies to us. We then retain our copies and send the author copies to the author.)

I took the staples out of the contracts and was flipping through the pages before slipping them into the scanner when I saw that the publisher had made several handwritten changes…AFTER the author had signed.

UM. NOPE.

I called this to Agent K’s attention. Because Agent K keeps extremely detailed and meticulous notes at every stage of every contract negotiation she does (and plenty of these negotiations take weeks, if not months, to finalize), she was able to quickly reference that these changes had not been mutually agreed upon.

Now in the grand scheme, these were not egregious, earth-shattering changes and would in any way hurt the author. But on principle, this is super sketch on the publisher’s part, and we’re going to call them out on it.

Takeaways for you contract-signing authors out there:

1. If you’re the first signer, scan a copy of what you’re signing.

2. When you get your countersigned copies back, make sure all the pages match the copy you scanned.

Hopefully your agent is watching out for you on this stuff, but add your own eyeballs to the mix, and things like this will be a lot less likely to slip by you.

Ease Off the Facts and Stats

I read a query this morning that was 367 words long. A fine length. And no, I don’t count all the words in all the queries. But this particular query had a problem I thought was worth discussing: Only 161 words (44%) were story pitch; the other 206 words (56%) were facts and statistics related to ADHD, which was the issue presented in the story.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with issue fiction. In every genre, for readers of every age, authors have meaningfully confronted issues like ADHD, autism, eating disorders, addiction, sexuality, gender identity, race, abuses of power, rape, bullying, infidelity, suicide, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, terminal illness, the deaths of loved ones, and countless other challenges that make being human hard. Write issue fiction, if that’s what you want to write. It certainly sells.

But in your query for issue fiction, pitch your fiction, not your issue. For my more visual learners (like me!), here’s what this morning’s 44%/56% query looked like:

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 1.37.07 PM

When you devote more real estate to your issue than you do to your story pitch, you come off as worried that your story can’t support itself. It’s like you’re worried it needs facts and figures and emotional appeals to prop it up.

In other words, you’re whispering here’s my story but shouting HERE’S WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW SO THAT YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHY MY STORY IS SO TIMELY AND IMPORTANT!!!

Keep in mind that agents and editors looking for stories that stand on their own. They’re looking for stories that shout. Craft your query accordingly.

There Are No Shortcuts

So. Agent Kristin recently updated her bio on our Nelson Literary Agency website. It now opens with “My goal as an agent is simple: I want every client of mine to make a living solely from writing.”

Guess what this means for the query inbox?

It means dozens of queries each week that say, “Awesome! I’ve always wanted to be a Published Writer—I mean a Published Author—and I can’t wait to quit my day job! I want to make a living solely as a writer! And you want to make that happen for me! Woo-hoo! This is my first novel ever and it’s not even done yet, but sign me up! Let’s do this!”

*Ahem.*

Your ability to make a living solely as a writer depends on you:

  • How much do you write?
  • How well do you write?
  • How consistently well do you write?
  • How many books can you write in a year?
  • How long have you been honing your craft, asking people who aren’t related to you for feedback, and really, truly, honestly, open-mindedly listening when they offer it…and then revising your work accordingly?
  • How much have you read/do you read in your genre?
  • How much have you read/do you read in other genres?
  • How solid is your grasp on grammar, syntax, mechanics, description, dialogue, point-of-view, structure, plotting, character development, emotion, scene craft, and pacing?
  • How confident are you in your ability to deliver on the expectations of readers of your genre?
  • How willing are you to bend and shift in the ever-changing publishing marketplace? To rebrand yourself once in a while? To keep writing when your reviews are bad and your publisher cancels the second book on your contract or your agent drops you?
  • Can you point at the hardest working writer or creative professional you know and honestly say, “I work even longer and harder than they do” or “I want this more than they do and I’m willing to sacrifice my time, sleep, social life, and ego to get it”?

Where an agent comes in is getting you the best possible deal, for the most money; protecting your legal interests so you don’t have to worry about who might be taking advantage of you, thereby freeing you up to write more; retaining and selling subsidiary rights that you didn’t even know existed; and positioning and guiding your career based on your individual strengths as a writer in relation to shifts in the publishing marketplace.

But making a living as a writer starts with actually BEING a writer. And being a writer is damn hard work.

Do the work.

Avoid Soft, Squishy Words, i.e., Your Prose-Craft Matters

Welcome back! Today, let’s look at a query for a work of historical fiction:

Before: Philip Williams is an English mercenary fighting for France. The only family he has ever known has been the army. He loses that family at the Spanish Siege of Calais in 1595.

Read those three sentences out loud. Don’t they all kinda share the same cadence? Would you want to read 106,000 words of that same rise-and-fall, or would it lull you into a dreamless slumber after a couple of pages? Remember: Your query letter is your audition. Even thought it’s sell copy, it’s still your opportunity to demonstrate that you have a solid command of prose-craft. Vary. Your. Sentences.

Okay. Back to the content.

I dig that a character is introduced right off the bat. Nice. But heckuva lot of backstory-ish-like stuff there that could be condensed thusly:

After: After the Spanish Siege of Calais in 1595, Philip Williams, an Englishman fighting for France, discovers he is his regiment’s sole survivor.

I’d suggest getting rid of the whole family thing. Not only is it a bit precious, but it also takes up valuable real estate by developing backstory when what I really want to read is your pitch for this story. Let’s keep going:

Before: Healing from his wounds and mourning the death of his friends in Antwerp, he receives a second chance at life when he hears Queen Elizabeth I needs soldiers in Northern Ireland.

There’s a little grammatical ambiguity going on here. Is he healing in Antwerp, or is he mourning the death of his friends [who were killed] in Antwerp? (Is Antwerp even important to the pitch?) Now, I’m pretty sure his friends were killed in Calais. But again, when I’m reading your query, I’m paying close attention to your prose-craft. Grammatical tics, no matter how small, start raising my little red flag.

In addition, this feels passive. He’s healing. He’s mourning. He receives a second chance. He hears the news. Not only are these passives, but say these words out loud. They’re soft and squishy, with soothing long-vowel sounds. This whole section is a lull in story action that hasn’t even started yet. Can we make this section more active? Can we punch up our nouns and verbs and plant some imagery here? Let’s try:

After: Now, though broken in body and spirit, Philip is desperate to return to the front. When Queen Elizabeth I begins conscripting officers to train an army in Northern Ireland, Philip volunteers.

Now, Philip has agency. He wants something so badly as to be desperate. He makes a decision to volunteer. Let’s keep going.

Before: Bound to recreate his family by starting his own company of soldiers, Philip is bewildered by the divisions in Irish society, the armies’ lack of discipline, and the English commander’s blatant racism.

Blatant racism is a contemporary phrase that snatched me right out of 1595. It broke the spell. I suggest cruelty, a strong synonym with harsh sounds. We know the English abhorred the Irish. We know the feeling was mutual. We can put the pieces together. Avoid anachronism. How about:

After: But Ireland isn’t Calais. His soldiers’ lack of discipline, divisions in Irish society, and an English commander’s cruelty…etc.

Another thing: I’m not so interested in the fact that your protagonist is bewildered. He’s allowed to be, sure. But what does he do about it? That’s story.

Let’s keep going.

Before: While the army marches north into Ulster, Philip must also contend with two women. One he is honor bound to protect, the other he desperately wants. Tormented by a mad commander bent on revenge and desperate to prepare his men, Philip feels the weight of his decisions as the great rebel, Solomon Red Beard O’Donnell, comes closer to setting Ireland on fire.

What does it mean to “contend” with two women? That’s vague and kind of cliché. Who are these women, and why are they marching north with the Irish army?

Is the mad commander the same as the racist/cruel English commander you mentioned in the previous section, or is this guy someone different? If the former, can you combine these mentions into one for clarity?

Bent on revenge is vague and cliché. What does Mad Commander want revenge for, and against whom, and what’s it got to do with Philip?

Feels the weight of his decisions… What decisions? That’s also vague. The situations you put him in and the decisions he makes as a result…that’s the story you should be pitching! Yet you’ve omitted some much-needed particulars here and lapsed into vague clichés. Goal. Motivation. Conflict. Stakes. Stakes. STAKES!

Anyway. This last section feels super rushed. I think maybe you expanded where you should have contracted (setup, backstory) and contracted where you should have expanded (the actual story events that occur on your 106,000-word “page stage” to test and temper your protagonist, changing him in unexpected, enlightening ways).

Make sense?

Thanks for reading. See you all next time!

Fun Query Math + Time Is Setting Too

Writers know they’re supposed to ground readers in setting. But don’t forget that time is part of setting, too. Consider:

Before: Seventeen-year-old Cassius is a born concealer. He hid is heartbreak when his father died and left his family bankrupt. He hid how scared and confused he was when his family’s villa went to auction and sold to the rich and snobby Quinctilius family, who made a great show out of letting Cassius’ family stay on until they could find a place of their own to rent. But when Laelia—the younger half-sister of the matriarch of the Quinctilius family—arrives from Rome, Cas is captivated and more than a little terrified that marrying Laelia might be the only chance he has to save his family from destitution.

First, what the heck is a concealer?

Remember that most slush readers are consuming 50-100 queries a day, and that in the current literary climate, many of those are for fantasy projects. We read a lot of made-up words and regular words with made-up meanings, so please for the love of all that is good and righteous in this world BE CLEAR. Here, I didn’t know if a concealer was someone with special, magical powers, or if it was just a fancy way to say he’s just a regular guy who hides his feelings.

Turns out it’s the latter. Don’t be fancy. Be clear.

Let’s do some fun query math. This query’s pitch paragraphs contained 234 words. The first 66 words of the first paragraph (given above) are about Cassius being a concealer. That’s 28.2% of the total query letter.

That’s right. Almost 30% of this query was focused on introducing the protagonist’s flaw to set up what I assume will be his internal story arc. If your query letter’s job is to hook me (hint: it is) and get me excited about your story (let me repeat that: YOUR STORY), then this is not good use of your query letter’s real estate.

Second, when are we?

OK. Now for the time issue. I have no idea when this story takes place. Names like Cassius, Quinctilius, and Laelia could be fantasy names, present-day names, or ancient names, so no hints there. Same with words like villa. Rome tells me something, but are we in present-day Rome, ancient Rome, or some fantastical alternate history or possible future of Rome?

No clue.

Unfortunately, the second half of the query did nothing to clear this up for me. Rather, it was a pitch for the romance between Cassius and Laelia: He loves her, she loves him, will their love destroy their families and stations in life, yada, yada, yada…

It was a YA romance in a white room called Rome. Heh.

If this is a love story, then pitch it as a love story. Here’s a possible start:

After: When seventeen-year-old Cassius meets the Laelia, a daughter of House Quinctilius of Rome, he is captivated. He can think of nothing else. The problem is, he is destitute, his family bankrupt in the wake of his father’s death, and House Quinctilius now holds the deed to everything Cassius ever held dear…

Shoot right for the heart of the story and nail the conflict that’s going to hook me. Story and conflict. Get there.

See you next time!

The Deep-Thoughts Query

Sometimes authors feel the need to wrap their pitch inside pretty philosophical paper. Consider:

Like a butterfly, we all undergo change. Not as extreme as metamorphosis like the butterfly, but change of physical maturity, mental maturity, and spiritual thinking. Jane and her friends…

What’s all this deep-thoughts stuff about butterflies and metamorphosis? Is there a story pitch in our future? The appearance of “Jane and her friends” gives me hope, so I’ll keep reading.

…have graduated from one milestone of elementary school, as stage one of their completion. The second stage of change will be starting middle school…

Whoa. This is a book about middle-schoolers? Here’s the ten-dollar question: How confident would you be—given the vague, new-agey phrasing here—that the manuscript is written in a style that will capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of middle-school-aged readers?

Me? Not very. But I’ll keep reading to see if this query gets a little more grounded.

…a stage of uncertainty, and independence of having more control over their educational and social involvements. This new experience spurs Jane’s thinking, and will test she and her friends in all that they know and don’t. After will be high school, and then the real journey of life into the world to find who she is, what her purpose is and try out her wings to fly like never before.

OK. There’s no story here. I. Need. To. Know. What. Your. Story. Is. Turns out, this is a pitch for a series of twelve books about Jane and her friends; in each book, the girls are in a different grade.

This query doesn’t work. Two reasons why:

  1. If you have a series (complete or planned), limit your query pitch to your first book. Readers (like publishers!) won’t buy all twelve books in your series at one time. They buy your first book. Book one is your audition. Nail your audition.
  2. Ditch the deep thoughts and philosophical framework. If you want to write commercial fiction, then keep your query grounded in story:

Character wants (goal) because (motivation). When (inciting incident), Character realizes s/he can’t have (goal) because (conflict). Now, if Character doesn’t overcome (conflict), then (big, tension-packed stakes!).

See you next time!

Elevated Diction + the Importance of “When” and “But” in Your Query

Let’s talk about elevated diction. Elevated diction means using fancypants words or phrases when simpler, more easily recognizable synonyms will do.

Elevated diction usually pops up in queries when authors assume slush readers are pipe-smoking, tweed-jacket-wearing septuagenarians with PhD’s in comparative literature who still hold sway over their life’s imaginary GPA. Thus, “I wrote a book” becomes “I have penned a manuscript,” or “my book is complete at 100,000 words” becomes “one-hundred-thousand words comprise my now-completed tome.”

This is commercial fiction, not your dissertation. Bring it down a notch, there, Sparky.

However, what if you’ve written a novel in an elevated style—a literary work or a sweeping historical novel or an epic fantasy? Readers of these genres accept (and expect) elevated diction. It’s a genre trope that you, the author, are expected to deliver. So shouldn’t your query’s style echo your novel’s style?

Sure. But.

Elevated diction—or, in the case of this partial query below, too great a focus on nailing the epic-fantasy voice—becomes a problem when it obscures a reader’s ability to clearly understand your story:

Before: The Emperor’s missives have been rarer of late, but they’ve never been blank before. Tim, a loyal but disillusioned veteran, sees this letter as a portent of the Empire’s demise. The village council agrees and sends him and his brother Chuck to the Imperial capital to investigate. Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation. Seeing this mission as an escape from the outmoded confines of his village, Chuck accepts his role as protégé and begins plotting how to turn the journey to his advantage.

Here are the questions I have so far:

  1. Why does the Emperor send Tim missives in the first place? What is their relationship or arrangement?
  2. Why is Tim disillusioned? Is “disillusioned” meant to imply that his loyalty is precarious?
  3. What is Tim a veteran of? If it’s a war, is the war over, or is it still raging?

If the answers to these questions aren’t germane to your query, then ask yourself why you’re raising them in a slush reader’s mind. If they are, then develop/explain. I’m going to attempt a revision, but keep in mind I’ll have to make some assumptions about the story:

After: Ten years ago, during the Big Bad Imperial Wars, Tim Commoner served as a trusted lieutenant under Commander Bob. Now Bob is Emperor, and Tim lives a quiet life in Boring Village.

Two brief sentences of setup, establishing that Tim and Bob share a history and trust each other, and, more importantly, that the Emperor would have a reason to reach out to Tim when trouble is nigh. Moving on.

After (continued): When Tim receives a cryptic message from Emperor Bob, he suspects the Empire is in trouble. The village council agrees and sends Tim to the Imperial capital to investigate. But they insist that Tim’s brother Chuck—cynical, aloof, and desperate to escape the tedium of Boring Village—accompany him.

Two important words I want you to notice here: WHEN and BUT. Learn them. Love them. Use them! No query or pitch is complete without them.

  • WHEN signals change. (Hint: Your novel’s inciting incident)
  • BUT signals complication or conflict. (Hint: A major obstacle your hero will face)

The original query does include “but”: Tim is a natural choice for this venture, but his brother is as cynical and aloof as all young men of his generation.

However, note that this but only serves to tell me that the brothers are nothing alike. It’s an expository but. The but I’m looking for is one that delivers complication or conflict. The but in my suggested revision implies (a) that the village council has some plot-related reason (which your plot will have to circle back to at some point) for sending both Tim and Chuck to the capital, and (b) that Tim’s not amenable to this arrangement. Conflict! Yay! Now I understand that the brothers are likely to clash on their shared mission, and that Tim is really just a puppet of the village council—which may or may not have nefarious intentions.

One last thing before I sign off on this one:

Note how the original query shifts its focus to Chuck’s goal (to get out of Boring Village) and Chuck’s plan (to turn the journey to his advantage). This was confusing. When you lead with the Emperor and Tim and the village council and the mission, then when I get to Chuck, I’m like, who the heck is this guy all of a sudden?

According to the rest of the query (not given here), the brothers are of equal importance in the manuscript, each becoming entangled in opposing interests once they arrive in the capital. Knowing this now, I’d recommend that this author lead his query with something like…

When two brothers are sent by their village council to the Imperial capital to investigate rumors of a dark rebellion, one remains loyal the emperor while the other is seduced by the demonic forces rising to destroy the empire.

If your story is about two brothers, then lead with two brothers.

See you next time!

Real World or Fantasy World?

Welcome back! Let’s dive into another query-pitch snippet that could benefit from a little strategic tightening. I’ll break this one down into a couple parts.

Before: Fake Book Title follows Tim Brown and his two best friends as they are spending the last days of their summer vacation at Blue Lake before they start high school in the city of Laramie, WY, where they live. During a visit to the only convenience store by Blue Lake, they come across a renowned giant and town drunk who turns on them and violently assaults Tim’s friend Skip. Tim finds himself uncharacteristically defending his friend by knocking out the great bully. With two unconscious bodies at their sides, Tim’s other friend, Chuck, tries to convince Tim he has superpowers as they wait for help, because who, or what, else could have knocked out the giant?

Commentary: 1. “Follows” (like “finds”) is another one of those throwaway words that signal an opportunity to tighten.

2. There’s a lot of exposition packed into that opening. While some framing details might be useful, think hard about how much background information you really need here. (Hint: Not much.) For instance:

  • Do I need to know they’re about to “start high school in the city of Laramie, Wyoming, where they live”? Not really. Giving me “fourteen-year-olds” and “last days of summer” is a much lighter touch. It’s all I need to know. Get to the pitch.
  • Do I need to know that there’s only one convenience story by Blue Lake? Nope.

Remember: Your goal in a query letter is to wallop us with your hook/conflict/story problem/action. Get there.

3. “Renowned giant” threw me for a loop. Keep in mind that your average slush reader is consuming 50-100 queries per day. In today’s climate, many queries include magic or supernatural/paranormal/fantasy elements. Since you didn’t lead with your genre, I don’t know if “giant” is literal and we’re in an urban-fantasy-type setting, or if “giant” just means big, mean bully. So I had to guess.

4. “Violently assaults”? Aren’t all assaults violent? Tighten, please.

5. Ack! There’s that word “finds” again! Edit that out.

6. Why is defending his friend uncharacteristic of Tim? This is ambiguous. Are you trying to imply that Tim is meek and wimpy, or is he simply uncaring—an MTV’s Jackass type of kid who stands by and laughs when others get hurt? Since Tim is your protagonist, I’m going to assume the former.

7. The mention of “superpowers” here reinforces my confusion about “giant.” What kind of world is this?

8. Why is Chuck mentioned here? Is the story going to be about Chuck trying to convince Tim he has superpowers? Or will it be about Tim coming to terms with his newfound abilities?

After: Fake Book Title is a contemporary young-adult novel, complete at 70,000 words.

Fourteen-year-olds Tim Brown and his two best friends, Skip and Chuck, are spending the last days of summer at Blue Lake, Wyoming. When the town drunk, three-hundred pounds of malicious muscle, assaults Skip outside a convenience store, Tim leaps into action. With an astonishing burst of strength and speed, he knocks the man out.

Now, baffled by what appears to be sudden-onset superpowers, Tim must…[keep pitching your story from here.]

Hook Me! Lead with Your Inciting Incident.

Welcome back. Here’s a query pitch for a suspense trilogy. By the way, DON’T QUERY A TRILOGY. You have to sell book #1 before you can sell subsequent titles, so use all your query letter’s valuable real estate to sell the agent on your lead title. Mention in your query’s closing that books two and three are complete, but don’t elaborate. If you pique an agent’s interest enough that she reaches out, that’s when you chat about your plans for a series. But for now, one query, one book. Which is why I’m only going to break down the pitch for the first book.

OK. Let’s get started:

Before: We’d like to introduce you to Jane Smith, the heroine of an exciting new suspense trilogy.

Fake Book Title (88K words) finds Jane at the peak of her career as an FBI agent who made a name for herself taking down the notorious psychopath, Tim Brown. Jane is now in New Orleans investigating a series of child abductions. When one of those children turns up deceased, wrapped in the skin of an exotic snake, Jane realizes her case may be spiraling into an unfathomable darkness. Meanwhile she’s also dealing with a troubled adolescent daughter she barely knows and the reemergence of buried memories from her final, traumatic encounter with Brown. As a clash of cultures, religions and personalities drive Jane to the breaking point, she determines one final, unthinkable course of action: she must leave the FBI forever in order to survive.

After: When a child’s body is discovered near New Orleans wrapped in the skin of an exotic snake, FBI agent Jane Smith must take on the most harrowing case of her career.

X years ago, Jane made a name for herself in the Bureau by taking down notorious psychopath Tim Brown. She thought she’d put the Brown case behind her. But as she tracks a child killer through the swamps of Louisiana, memories of her final encounter with Brown drive her to her breaking point. Now, to confront her past, protect her troubled teen daughter, and stop the killer, she’ll do the one thing she never thought she’d do: leave the FBI.

Fake Book Title is a thriller complete at 88,000 words. It is the first in a planned trilogy; books two and three are also complete.

Cautions:

1. Don’t tell me you’d like to introduce me to your character. That’s a waste of your words and my time. Just get on with pitching your book already.

2. Please don’t tell me your book is exciting. It’s suspense. It had better damn well be exciting, because if it’s not, you’re not ready to query.

3. That word “finds” again… Stories always seem to be finding their characters doing stuff. Characters always seem to find themselves in certain situations. find such phrasing to be awkward. Such phrasing is awkward. And wordy.

4. Be careful about introducing your character with a snippet of backstory. While this pitch does circle back to the notorious psychopath she took down earlier in her career, you’ll be better off leading with the conflict at the center of this novel—the New Orleans child killer.

Suggestions:

1. Sometimes it’s most powerful to lead with your novel’s inciting incident. Which in this case is also your most evocative image—your hook. A dead kid wrapped in an exotic snakeskin? Damn, Kids, that’s a hell of an image. How can you lead with anything else?

2. As written, I’m confused about the connection between the Brown case (backstory) and the current case (the child killer). Without diving too much farther into backstory, can you make that connect for me in a phrase or sentence? If, in the novel, the Brown case exists solely to give your protagonist a little complicating PTSD, then, plot wise, that seems a little weak. If the connection is important enough to mention in your query, then I’m guessing there’s a stronger connection in the manuscript.

3. Overall, the original query is both vague and overwritten. “Spiraling into unfathomable darkness” is too much. “The reemergence of buried memories from her final, traumatic encounter with Brown” can simply become “memories of her final encounter with Brown.” And “a clash of cultures, religions and personalities” is vague—it’s a missed opportunity to evoke your story’s milieu. Is the culture clash related to the fact that Jane is from the north and this is her first time in the deep South? What religions are we talking about? Voodoo? Catholicism? Southern Baptist? Satanism? Each would evoke a different type of story in my mind. Finally, personality clashes with whom? The only non-criminal you mention is her daughter, and you’ve already implied with “troubled” that we’re going to witness some clashing between them. So is the mention of personality clashes redundant?

4. Finally, sometimes it’s OK to put the project summary (title, genre, word count) at the bottom of your query instead of the top. This one just felt better at the bottom. Play with it.

That’s it, Folks! Join me next time.