The importance of reading in your genre

You’ve probably heard this advice a thousand times. Read in your genre. If you’re writing middle grad fantasy, you need to read middle grad fantasy. If you’re reading adult mystery novels, you need to read adult mystery novels. If you’re writing young adult historical fiction, you need to read young adult historical fiction. You get the idea.

Unless you read in your genre, you will be unfamiliar with the tropes and conventions, and every genre and age group has it’s own tropes, clichés, and conventions. Not knowing your genre is a great way to write a really unoriginal story.

Also, it will negatively impact the quality of your voice. I see this most poignantly is middle grade but also in young adult. You can always spot a middle grade writer who’s unfamiliar with the age group because the writing feels like it’s talking down to the reader rather than engaging them.

Now that we’ve established that it’s important, I want to talk a little bit about just how much reading is required to be well-read in your genre.

While I read a little of everything (except erotica), I only feel comfortable saying I know YA really well. Last year I read 45 YA titles across all genres. That’s almost a book a week.

I know MG moderately well. I’m familiar with the major titles and some of the trends. I read adult (at least one book a month). But I wouldn’t say I know enough to really talk about the major trends.

The moral of this post is that reading one or two of the lead titles in your genre and category isn’t going to be enough. The more you can immerse yourself, the better off your writing is going to be. This will also help tremendously when you try to think of comp titles.

So get thee to a library!

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Query Critique 64

Dear Agent:

I would like to present you with SUITS, a young adult novel complete at 72,000 words.

When Alice Gray gets busted stealing a bike, she’s sure it’s off to juvie this time, but minutes before her court hearing, a woman named Lindsay shows up to whisk her away in a car that costs more than Foster Mama Twelve’s house. Love the voice. I think “Foster Mama Twelve” is great.

Alice is off to the Headquarters of Special Agents where she’ll train alongside other recruits pursing careers in espionage. After fourteen different schools, Alice knows how to handle being the “new girl,” but this place has a whole new set of social parameters. There aren’t jocks, preps, and nerds here. Instead there are Suits, Grunts, Wizards, and Beakers, all who have developed very distinct opinions of the other divisions during their months of training.

But that’s not the only surprise the Lindsay has: Their parents were special agents too, killed by a terrorist organization that’s looking to snatch Alice up at the earliest opportunity. The reason: classified. So is Lindsay Alice’s sister? Make this a little more clear. Also, how much older than Alice is Lindsay? From the first paragraph, I got the impression she was quite a bit older.

Oh, and by the way, their parents were their parents. Turns out foster brother fifteen was wrong when he told Alice her whole family probably offed themselves to be rid of her. This paragraph is a little less clear than the others.

Lindsay uses every available resource to ensure Alice lands in her division—the staunch Suits—but Alice is drawn to the adrenalin-junkie Grunts. She’ll have to twist the rules and strain her new relationship with her sister if she wants to get in with the Grunts and avoid a life of serious robotery with the Suits. Forget the terrorists trying to hunt her down. If she’s stuck with the Suits every day, Alice will turn herself in. I like this closer. Overall, very good. Lots of good conflict and stakes. Also voice!

SUITS is the first in a planned series that brings the espionage of the TV show Alias together with the intense training ofDivergent’s Dauntless faction.

Like my protagonist Alice, I don’t like coffee, people with superiority complexes, or girls who can be described as “wispy.” Unlike Alice, I have my English degree from the University of Northwestern—St. Paul where I held position as editor of the school’s literary magazine.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Private I

How long should your query letter be?

This is a question I think a lot of people have. I’ve been asked a lot and I have a hard time answering because I don’t count the number of words in the queries I read. I don’t even have a good sense of how much room it should take up on the screen because that varies widely based on font and such. I just know that some queries feel too long, some too short, and some just right.

Recently, though, I took a class where we were learning statistics. For my end of semester projects, I analyzed sample of 140 query letters (34 which resulted in requests and 106 which received form rejections from our agency).

I found that the average word count for the successful query letters was 357 and the average word count for unsuccessful letters was 407. The results were different enough to suspect that the differences are statistically significant.*

Furthermore, the standard variation for the rejected letters was much higher than for the successful letters. In simple terms, this means that the successful letters were very consistent in their length. All but two were within 75 words of the average. On the other hand, the rejected letters varied drastically in length. A couple were over a 1,000 words long, while several were barely 100 words.

What this all goes to show is that there is a fairly standard word length for queries. Based on my studies, I would suggest trying to keep your queries between 275 and 375 words in length.

 

 

*The p-value was actually .06, which is slightly above the .05 standard for significance. However, it’s close enough that I’m comfortable assuming the data is significant.

Updates: Free critiques and an intern chat

There’s lots of exciting things happening this week. Here are all the details you need to know.

Tomorrow I’m opening up slots for 10 free query critiques. Slots open at 8:00 a.m. EST. I expect they’ll go fast, so get yours in as soon as possible. Please send the query in the body of an email to thoughtsfromtheagentdesk @ gmail dot com with FREE CRITIQUE in the subject line.

The free queries will be posted on the blog. If you don’t want your query posted, consider purchasing a paid private critique. The queries will be posted to the blog starting November 2nd, but I will send the authors a copy about 2-3 weeks after receiving the submission. Please note that I will not look at queries for erotica.

Also, I’ve very excited to announce that I’ll be hosting a live chat with two of the other interns from A+B Works on Saturday July 25th at 3:00 p.m. EST. During our live chat, we will answer questions from audience members. You can submit questions before or during the chat to Twitter or the above email. You can also leave questions in the video comments.

We will also be doing a live query critique, so if you miss the one of the 10 slots you can have your query entered into a random drawing to be critiqued during the live chat.

Hope to see you all there on Saturday!

Query Critique 63

Dear __________,

While following your (webpage/twitter/etc) I have noticed that you are interested ______ and _______. I feel that A DREAM AWOKEN would be a good fit for both of these.

Valeria West is a girl trapped in between two nightmares.

By day, the nightmare is her time at Bellowes Charter School, where her choice of friendships has Valeria caught in the crossfire of a school popularity war.  At night, Valeria is plagued by dreams of hot sand, spilled blood, and a sword that somehow knows her name. 

After a particularly vicious attack by her schoolyard nemesis, Valeria finds herself overwhelmed by despair. While contemplating her final escape, she is drawn into the dream world instead, and finds herself being forced to serve the whims of a girl who shares her same face. Morning brings with it the uncomfortable realization that the other world was as real as the blood on Valeria’s hands. I would like a hint earlier on that this is speculative fiction. Try to weave in the fantasy elements sooner.

As she struggles to come to terms with the new reality, Valeria discovers things about herself, love, and her best friend Keiko that she never imagined. However, Valeria has little time to explore any new possibilities, for she brought home one other souvenir from the other world – a blood curse that is killing her from within. THIS. This is the big conflict. This is the main idea. And it’s only getting one sentence! Play this element up more because it’s the most exciting part of the query.

In the end, Valeria will be given a choice – to take up a sword once more to save the soul of an empire as well as her own, or let both be consumed by madness. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a little confused by what “both” in this sentence is supposed to be referring to. Also, I think you could try to be just a little more specific about the stakes.

A DREAM AWOKEN is a completed 150,000 work epic fantasy that is my first novel, and can be either a stand-alone novel or part of a series. Is this YA? MG? Tell me who your audience is!   The manuscript is available, in part or full, upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration!

U. Been Cursed

Establishing Stakes

I like writing a draft of my query letter while I’m in the middle of writing my novel. It helps get me excited about the project when I hit those middle-of-the-draft blues. It can also help me notice some big picture problems before I get to them. As I was writing the query for my Camp NaNoWriMo project, I realized something important. I had no idea what the stakes for the book were.

I’ve also been noticing in a lot of the queries I’ve been reading that other authors are struggling with establishing stakes. A lot of these queries have great conflict throughout the letter and then the end is a little anticlimactic.

You always want to end your query letter with a big bang.You want the agent to leave the agent thinking “I need to read this right now.”

If you’re having trouble, try this formula:

Main character must do [really hard thing] or else [really bad thing] will happen.

Here’s an example from one of my query letters:

“Caught in the midst of a court as deadly as it is elegant, Livia is left with no choice but to outsmart Emery to save her new kingdom and the husband she’s only just begun to fall for.”

Query Critique 62

For twenty-two-year-old Phoebe Lawrence, life has always resembled a project managed by her parents.

Although she’s been over parented, Phoebe is content with life that she has. Her world suddenly collapses when, due to huge debts, her parents can no longer afford her college fees, sell their fancy house and get divorced, not to mention her boyfriend leaves her without a word of explanation. This sentence has a lot of good conflict in it, but is worded very awkwardly. No more plans, fixed arrangements or busy schedules, and, most of all, the chance to take charge of her own life.

As a victim of overprotective parents, it’s hard for Phoebe to find herself in a new reality full of risks, confrontations and decision making. She’s lost and insecure. To pull herself together she takes part in the 100 Happy Days challenge – the social media experiment aimed at reaching long term happiness. For the next three months, each day Phoebe is supposed to take a picture of something that makes her content. Along the way she meets Chris, her neighbor and son of her employers in one person. The “in one person” bit is a bit awkward sounding. He’s the type of a guy whom she can’t stand – an emotionally flat, careless playboy. Initially, Phoebe gets irritated whenever Chris is around, and consistently blows him off. Nevertheless, the more time she spends with him, the more she’s made sure he’s more complex than she expected. This sentence also could be reworded to sound a little smoother. Chris is the total opposite of Phoebe, he emanates rebelliousness and courage, and has never abandoned himself to please anybody. With the help of Chris and the challenge, Phoebe comes to realize that the life which she used to have was like imprisonment. Yet, it’s hard for someone whose level of trust and confidence in the world are critical, to start taking risks and making steps towards a fulfilled, free life. Further complicating matters is the fact that Phoebe clearly has a crush on Chris, but at the same time is haunted by the feelings for her ex-boyfriend, whom she accidentally runs into one day. Phoebe’s terrified because she has to, as never before, make a lot of groundbreaking decisions that will have a bearing on her life. I think this would be stronger if it ended with a stronger sense of the stakes. What does Phoebe stand to lose? Also, this paragraph is way long. I’d split it up. Don’t underestimate the power of white space.

Complete at 150,000 words, 100 Happy Days is a New-Adult fiction novel set in New York. Fiction novel is redundant, as novels are by definition fictional. I would call it a New Adult contemporary novel.

Thank you,
2 Many Choices