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.

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.

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!