Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Query Kombat Forum

The QK Forum has returned for a second year!

With an estimated 300+ people joining in on the fun this year, we figured we needed a place to bring together our agents, editors, industry professionals, and kombatants. Not only that, but we wanted a place for entrants who don't make it into the tournament to find advice, friends, and support.

So, if you plan on entering the tournament or just rooting for your favorite entry, join us in our new forum. There's also a place to get feedback on your query and first 250! And who knows who might reply to your post!

***Remember: Forums are open to the public, Agents, contest hosts, editors, and mentors may make appearances. Please give other posters the same respect and consideration you’d want them to give you***

Final note: Sincerest apologies for the lack of non-typical gender options when creating a profile in our forum. Proboards hasn't quite gotten with the times. After creating your profile, to hide the gender from your posts, go to Profile; Edit Profile; Privacy; Gender Visibility.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Building Blocks of a Query Letter

With Query Kombat coming soon, I thought I'd take a quick run at writing query letters. For those who don't know Query Kombat is a battle-style contest where 64 query letters and the accompanying first 250 words go head-to-head against each other until only one is left. It's not a contest for the faint of heart. You're faced with a lot of feedback from ten to twelve critical judges, and that's just the start to get to the agent round. Half of all writers in each round will see the votes go against them and lose. But the reward is a huge variety of opinions from experienced writers.

To win you're going to need a well-crafted query letter. But what does that look like?

No successful queries are going to be alike, but there is a formula you can follow--just like if you're baking a cake--to get you started. I call it the basic building blocks.

The "meat" of a query, or the part that details the story, is usually three paragraphs long. (Some cut that to two, but I like three to make sure everything is covered.) Each paragraph should have a specific function and goal. Keep in mind that the details of every query letter will be different, but the basic buildings blocks are all going to be similar. These are the parts agents look for. The parts that show you have all the aspects of a story and nothing is missing from your writing. It will look something like this:

The "first" paragraph of your query is the basic setup. Note: I call it the first paragraph here for simplicity, but it may be the second or third, depending on where you place it. Some writers choose to put a paragraph about comps, their bio, and genre ahead of this paragraph. It's really subjective to decide what goes where and probably isn't that important. Some prefer to start with the meat of their story and others prefer to ease into it by putting general information first. (If you have something really striking in your bio like solid publishing credits or are ownvoices, I suggest going with that first.)

So the setup paragraph. Here, you're setting up the basic personality of your main character and giving a sketchy version of the world (whether that's set in our world or an imaginary world, the past or the present or even the future). A key component of this paragraph is motivation. What does your character want at the beginning of the story? The setup can be two or three sentences, made up of details about your character that shows their personality and what they want. Then the last component of this paragraph (probably where you should end it) is the obstacle. What (or who) happens to either (a) block the main character from their motivation or that (b) changes their motivation.

To sum it up, the first paragraph of the "meat" of your story should set up the main character and setting, provide the character motivation, and introduce the obstacle. Note: If you're writing a dual POV story (commonly romance), you'll write two of these setup paragraphs. One for each main character. 

My Pitchwars mentee from 2017 has agreed to share his query letter as an example.  Here is the first paragraph of Ian Barnes' successful query. Notice it has every building block mentioned above. 

Forty years ago, Kastien slew a god. He lashed out in rage and grief with a sharpened hunk of fulgurite, piercing Divine flesh and proving humanity’s bastard overlords could die. Together with his wife, Val, he freed half the continent using the fulgurite’s power to walk through walls and defy gravity. The new Commonwealth hailed Kastien as Godbreaker, but now the only title he gives a damn about is Husband. His knees ache every Void-damned time it rains, and he longs to retire with Val. But when a plague sweeps the nation, boiling blood and burning eyes to ash, protecting the home they forged means embracing the violent legacy he’s tried to bury.

Next is the middle paragraph. This paragraph can be the most difficult to nail down because there are fewer rules for the middle paragraph. There's a variety of things that can go into this paragraph, but I'm going to stick with the building blocks first. You've just introduced the obstacle, now you get to expand on that obstacle and give us more details. Basically show us how bad the situation is, and also how does the main character react. Their emotional and actual plot response to the obstacle. By providing their response you highlight their character arc and personality and thus give the reader more ways to identify with the main character. Another component to this paragraph for some stories is to introduce the love interest character or other major character that helps the MC along (often needed for middle grade).

The last component to the middle paragraph is somewhat optional, meaning it can go here or in the third paragraph. Agents will want to see how the story escalates. What comes up to make the situation worse? The problems deeper? The situation more dire? The main character more fragile? This is extremely important because it shows your story has depth and the status quo changes before reaching a conclusion. It's probably the most often forgotten component of a query. And a good place to include it is right at the end of the middle paragraph.

A sum up of the middle paragraph is expand on the obstacle, how does the MC attempt to fight it, who helps them, how does it get worse?

Here is that paragraph from Ian's query:

As traditional cures fail, the Commonwealth’s leaders suspect this disease isn’t a pathogen but a weapon—one unleashed by the Divines. Now, husband and wife must return to the birthplace they did their best to burn to the ground, risking a second war to attempt the impossible: abduct a god and force them to produce a cure. The catch: Kastien and Val will need all their powers, but overusing the fulgurite’s unstable magic will turn them to stone. 

And we've reached the third and final "meat" paragraph. The place in a query letter where things most often go wrong, sometimes because a writer fears giving away too much. Everyone says this is the stakes paragraph. But that's not the whole story. Or where you want the query to end. I think this last paragraph should be about the choice facing the main character. What choice you might ask. Let's dig in.

Often the third paragraph will begin by shedding light on more escalation of plot and expand on intensifying the situation. It's about putting the main character in the most painful place possible and showing them at their most desperate. That's step one. Then it should move into the stakes: what happens if the main character fails? What bad thing is going to happen? The stakes can be entirely personal to the character or may involve a group of people, or go bigger and affect the entire world for an epic fantasy. The size of the stakes depends entirely on your story line and your genre. Just be sure to include them. 

Sometimes writers will end the query there. But a stronger query goes a step further. It will take in the choice facing the main character. That's what the whole story pivots upon. The choice is the hinge that decides success or failure. Whether the MC falls or is uplifted. An example might make this easier to follow. Remember Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings: her choice is the place where she decides whether to (a) take the ring from Frodo and seize power or (b) reject the temptation and remain herself. 

A lot of writers fear to include this information because they believe it is giving away the ending. Here's the key: you don't want to conceal the options of the choice (the a or b), you want to conceal how the main character decides. So a query about Galadriel would end with does she grab the power to stop the dark lord or stay true to herself and find another way. But it wouldn't tell us which option she picks. 

There are all kinds of choices a main character will face. As many different choices as there are stories. Sometimes the main character must decide whether they will fight or lay down and die. Like the stakes, the choice may be small or large.  Here in Ian's query, it's a choice between putting aside hatred and the past in order to work with old foes. The last sentence provides the choice and the stakes and sums everything up nicely. 

Their plan goes to the Void when they discover plague ravaging the gods’ cities, weaponizing the infected against their Divine masters. Worse, the gods combating the sickness are being hunted and murdered in manners reminiscent of Kastien’s kills during the war. To stop this mysterious new godbreaker and obtain a cure, Kastien must set hatred aside and protect the last Divine healer. If he can’t quiet the old rage and find space for trust, Val and everything they’ve spent their lives building will fall to dust and shadow.

I've always enjoyed writing and shaping queries, and if you think of them as a recipe or a formula, it becomes much easier. I also like to tackle queries in different passes or layers that focus on separate aspects of building a successful query. First draft of a query, for example, might nail down the story, character, and plot. Get that straight and then do more passes to add voice and personality. Final passes will help you to upgrade to more active verbs and more interesting word choices. Practicing writing flash fiction is a great way to build your query skills because flash fiction requires some of the same expertise. And remember to get people to read over your query. The Query Kombat forum is a great place to find readers. 

I 'll leave you with another successful query from Jason Hines, another Pitchwars 2017 mentee. I think you'll find he hit all the building blocks. Happy query writing! 

Not even the devil himself wants Wayne’s soul. Wayne is a curse magnet, a hexjammer. World-class jinxes stick to him like wet dog shit to the sole of a boot, screwing up his life instead of their intended target. Because of these sorcerous lumps of joy, he’s spent the past three hundred years avoiding entanglements with humans and the extranatural—mostly. His daughter Jenna, stuck in a coma because of his curses, is the one relationship he can’t cut loose. Then out of the clear Arizona sky comes the Brighteyes, Heaven’s own wetworks pro. It hires Wayne to kill a witch and offers him a miracle to do the deed.    
Miracles aren’t something angels pass out like candy—or if they do, it’s the flavor of candy sweaty guys offer to children from the back of an unmarked white van. But Wayne can’t say no with Jenna lying in a hospital bed. What’s the life of one Las Vegas witch compared to his daughter? Except the witch, Fionna, reminds Wayne a whole lot of Jenna, and bears a cursed tattoo that will latch on to Wayne if she dies. Complications are a bitch.
Fionna’s tattoo is a gateway for nightmare creatures to visit their wrath on earth and her curse is popping out evil like a Kardashian fresh out of birth control. Naturally, the demon overlord of Vegas wants to claim Fionna for himself. With the Brighteyes breathing down his neck, Wayne seeks help from a holy-blade wielding Sikh and a failed Korean demon-turned-arms dealer. They have two days in Sin City to send Fionna’s nightmare ink back where it belongs before it’s lights out on the Strip, and the world. But dispatching Fionna’s curse means no miracle for Jenna. Wayne must weigh risking his world and betraying his conscience against saving his daughter.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Query Kombat 2018 Judges and Chat

Time for our AMAZING lineup of judges for this year's Query Kombat tournament. Many of them were contestants in prior contests. We've worked hard to find authors that form a diverse group of opinions, talents, and specialties from all categories and genres.

Query Kombat would not be possible without the wonderful people who donate their time to help. For this month-long contest, we've recruited over thirty industry professionals to critique entries and vote for a winner of each matchup. Each and every one of these judges is participating out of the kindness of their heart, so please join the QK Crew in thanking them for volunteering.


Remember that the best way to thank judges for their time is to buy their books. We've created a list on Goodreads of their books so you can see all of them. Also be sure to follow the judges on Twitter. 

On Monday, May 14th, we'll be hosting a Twitter party where writers can reach out to the judges and ask questions about their entries, writing, querying, etc. Join us at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. EST. The hashtag will be #QKChat. 

We'll have another round of chats to calm raw nerves on Saturday, May 19th at 3:00 pm  and 7:00 pm EST. 

There are so many judges this year, we're breaking the bios down across all three host blogs. Go here to see them all: Mike, Kara, and Michelle. For a rule refresher, click here.

Now, without further ado, I'd like to introduce one set of judges for Query Kombat 2018.

Chad Randall 

Chad Randall is a speculative fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. He has a B.A. in History from the University of Oregon and currently works for lawyers.

His unremarkable origin story involves scribbling adventures where Princess Leia and Han Solo got into all sorts of trouble, and a school project about dogs who got trapped in the mall on the way to dog prom. Now he writes about cowboys and people living on space colonies. He loves fiction where people are constantly running away from things – whether emotional trauma or monsters foaming at the mouth.

Elizabeth Roderick

ELIZABETH RODERICK is the author of the LGBT romantic suspense novel, Love or Money; the neurodivergent magical realism The Other Place Series; and has several stories in the 13 Horror Anthologies and a romance short in the upcoming Crave: One Night anthology. 

She built a tiny house, and homesteads in Eastern Washington where she grows much of her own food. She is a musician and songwriter, and has played in many bands—mostly guitar, bass and keyboards. She has two albums of original music which you can find at pimentointhehole.com.

Elizabeth’s stories are about love, death, gang warfare, and madness. Her characters tend to be of the type that society generally shuns: addicts, convicts, and the neurodivergent. She is a neurodivergent person and a disability rights activist.

Elizabeth believes if people get to know those who live on the fringes of society, both in stories and in real life, they'll find them more likeable than they originally thought.

Jamie Olin

Jaime Olin writes YA contemporary novels, and she’s represented by Jordan Hamessley of New Leaf Literary. She blogs weekly about writing and the publication process at the Operation Awesome website, and has acted as a mentor in the last two rounds of Author Mentor Match. Jaime grew up in South Florida, found her Xanadu in San Diego, then somehow ended up in Dallas instead, where she continually borrows from Texas geography and culture for her books’ settings and characters. Jaime is also a lawyer, an animal welfare advocate, a New York Times crossword puzzle aficionado, and a die-hard proponent of the Oxford comma. Beware: She’s never met a pun she didn’t like.

Kat Hinkel

Kat Hinkel writes adult and young adult Sci Fi and Fantasy. She lives in Philadelphia. Stories are an essential part of our lives. I aim to tell my own stories in various ways. Primarily, I write thrillers with speculative twists. Literary themes I love to explore include: friendship, travel, museums, synesthesia, betrayal, neural coupling, witty banter, time, old things, magic, and love. I'm currently working on a choose-your-own adventure immersive play. Stay tuned for workshop invites!
I am an active singer-songwriter, and you can find me performing around Philadelphia, or occasionally singing with my classically-trained-soprano voice at weddings in France or Italy (please contact me if you have any such opportunities available. No, really. As soon as possible.) 

Kim Long 

Kim Long is an attorney in the Chicagoland area, where she spends her days expressing her clients’ (always true) stories to judges and juries. She writes MG fantasy that contains a sprinkle of science and is represented by Natascha Morris at BookEnds Literary. When not managing her fantasy baseball and football teams, she can be found biking, watching Star Wars for the zillionth time, or teaching her nieces about the importance of choosing the correct racer (Toad) and vehicle (standard bike) to obtain success in Mario Kart.

Mike Mammay

Michael Mammay is a science fiction writer, an English teacher, and a former soldier. His first novel PLANETSIDE is due out from Harper Voyager on July 31st, 2018.

Farah Heron
Farah Heron writes romantic women’s fiction with humour and heart. When she’s not locked in her office writing, Farah can be found searching for water for boating, fishing or kayaking, or baking bread in her kitchen. She lives in a small house in Toronto with one husband, two children, two gerbils, one rabbit, and a fish named Sylvia. She is represented by Rachel Brooks at Bookends Literary Agency.

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagra
m: FarahHeronAuthor

Rick Wheeler

Rick Wheeler lives in Northern California with his wife Angela, their three kids, and two granddaughters in a multi-generational household. When he is not writing middle grade fiction, he works with at-risk youth as a Deputy Probation Officer. He enjoys listening to classic rock, hanging out with his dog, and having tea parties with his granddaughters, not necessarily in that order. He is fluent in dad jokes and bad puns. He is rep'd by Lauren Galit from LKG Agency.

Teresa Richards

Teresa Richards writes speculative and contemporary YA. She is the author of Emerald Bound and Topaz Reign, dark fairy tale twists revolving around cursed gemstones. When Teresa's not writing, she can be found chasing after one of her elementary-aged kids, driving one of her teens around, or hiding in the house with a treat she'd not planning to share. She's a member of SCBWI and the LDStorymakers Guild.

Emily Victoria

Emily Victoria is a Canadian prairie girl and a writer of both young adult fantasy and science fiction. She has a deep love of the written word which is why, when she's not wordslinging, she can often be found at her local library connecting others to stories. She has a dog who is named after Peter Pan and she spends far too much time crocheting amigurumi dolls from various fandoms.   

Her work is represented by Rebecca Strauss.

Gail Villanueva

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipina author based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a self-professed dog and duck whisperer. Her writing is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. Gail’s debut middle grade novel, MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY, will be published in 2019 by Scholastic.

Goodreads | WebsiteTwitter | Pinterest | FacebookInstagram: @gaildvillanueva

Jessica Rubinkowski

Jessica Rubinkowski is a young adult fantasy writer who graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies with an emphasis on Creative Writing. She lives in rural Illinois with her family and far too many pets to keep track of. When not writing, she can be found baking, hiking, or playing video games. Her debut novel, THE BRIGHT AND THE PALE, which is inspired by Russian folklore will be released by HarperTeen in 2020. She is represented by Sarah Landis of Sterling Lord. 

Aden Polydoros

Aden Polydoros is the author of the Assassin Fall series. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, haunting antique stores, and getting lost down Google rabbit holes while researching his current works in progress. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Picture Book Party Agent Round 2018

Once again I really enjoyed this contest. As always the entries just blew Sharon and I away. They are beyond adorable, heart touching, hilarious, sweet and informative. And Picture Book authors are by far the kindest and most polite people! I don't know about Sharon, but I felt like I was in the middle of a group love hug on twitter all week. Something we all need in these difficult times.

Commenting on entries is for agents only. If you'd like to cheer or rave about a favorite, please hop over to twitter at the hashtag #PBParty. The party continues there as we celebrate and support our fellow writers.

Something totally new this year!

To see the entries you must go to my new website. Hopefully this will give the contest a more professional shine.

Here is the link to the 23 entries

Notice once you get there, there is a link to the left in the sidebar (Picture Book Party Spring 2018) which will take you back to the entry start at any time. 

Thanks to everyone who entered. Stay tuned to the blog or sign up for my newsletter for future contests. 

Note: If you want your entry taken down after the agent round, I'll need a reminder. Please email the contest address or ask me on twitter.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Picture Book Party Finalists 2018

Here we go. Sharon and I tried to give this much thought and pick a good variety of entries. We kept an eye out for diversity, but also for unique concepts or interesting methods. We found entries that made us laugh and those that made us cry.

Just like every year there were way more fantastic entries than there are spots. We had just as many entries left in the maybe as entries that ended up as finalists, and even more that we starred as standouts. 

A writer's life in video: Happy, sad, Happy, sad

Before the reveal, I just want to remind everyone that contests are for fun and meeting other writers, building contacts. In no way are they a reflection on a story. There are only 23 picks out of 329 entries. Maybe people have entered contests and gotten no love, only to get an agent from the query slush--like me. For one thing, we are limited to the number of picks we can showcase, while an agent is not. So keep querying, keep writing those adorable picture and chapter books.

It's very tough. I know the disappointment. Hugs. Use it to keep going.

Please if your title is on the list, watch my blog early on Wednesday and check your entry for typos or formatting problems. Let me know as soon as possible what needs fixed in this post or on twitter. 

So here are the picks, listed in no particular order and color coded just for fun.

The Chipmunks of S.T.E.M.

Tippy Taxi
Magic in Mexico
We Walked
Hilton the Shark
One Big Catch
Venetian Lullaby
Dance Like a Leaf
A Blanket in the Snow: Quatie Ross and the Trail of Tears
Sofia, Soccer Star
Hunting for Micrometeorites
Frida's Journey
Ninja Chef: The Way of the Cake
Author vs. Illustrator
Alfred, the Exploding Poodle
Smile! The Story of the Man Who Created the Smiley Face
Don't Do That
Mommy's Little Monkeys
My Magic Tree
Moose and the Pudgy Fudgy Cookies
Old King Cole is Not a Merry Old Soul
Daisy Did It Anyway

Congrats to the finalists! Hugs to those who will be watching! See you Wednesday for the agent round. It does last three days. Nobody is promised requests, but our fingers are crossed.