A mother stares at the screen of her phone. She has only minutes to herself before the toddler bursts through the bathroom door and needs her help, again. But she’s not scrolling down her Facebook feed, and she’s not dreaming on Pinterest. She’s scratching notes into a document on a story that she’s been slowly building up over for the last five years.
The story has her mind wandering while she washes her toddler’s hair. She listens to educational podcasts and Youtube videos instead of reality TV as she stirs a pot of dinner. She soaks in plot structures and pacing techniques, and character development so that in the last quiet hours of the night she might be able to weave it all together into something beautiful.
This is the life of a parent writer. We juggle, and dash, and work through our days so we can fulfill our divine roles as parents and wives/husbands and still fit in time to nurture this talent that brings us joy.
Writing a query letter can feel as daunting as drafting an entire book. How can you distill all the beautiful complexities of your book down into just a few sentences? Will my query sit at the bottom of a slush pile forever? How do I stand out?
I’m an acquisitions editor, which means I get to read queries and submissions daily. I’ve also been on the other side of submissions. As an author, I have received 72 rejection letters, 2 partial requests, 5 full requests and 2 book contracts from my own queries.
When I sent my first query in 2015, I remember feeling nervous at how I would handle the inevitable rejection letters. Someone told me to expect 100 “no’s” before I got a “yes”. I told myself that I wasn't going to quit querying my manuscript until I got 100+ no's. So, each time I got a rejection, I took a tally and felt excited that I was getting closer to my "yes".
I’ll admit, rejection still hurts even with a good perspective. But, querying is a numbers game. Perfectly publishable manuscripts are rejected every day. Don’t give up on your book before it reaches the right hands. Agents and editors are rooting for you to become their next favorite author!
As I honed my own query over the years, I realized that there was definitely a recipe to crafting a submission. I found a wonderful book called "From the Query to the Call" by Elana Johnson. If you are in the querying trenches, this e-book is a must-have. It taught me what editors and agents are looking for and how to simplify your novel into just two paragraphs.
Now that I’ve read so many different voices in a variety of query formats, it’s easier than ever for me to see what makes a query letter stand out in the slush pile. In this article, I'll give you formatting and content advice, then I have a few wonderful volunteers who submitted queries for critique. I'll go through these (already solidly written) critiques and point out what they did right and how they could make it even stronger.
Let's get started.
This week, we're hearing from author Molly Fennig about how parents can best help their children who aspire to publish their writing:
How have your parents supported you as a young author?
I wrote and (self-) published my first book my senior year of high school. My mom didn’t know about it until I was most of the way done and my dad didn’t know until I was right about to publish.
Although I did most of the writing on my own, there were things my parents did to help me as a writer (and others that I would recommend for parents of young writers).
For one, they read a lot to me growing and bought me books (including attaching their credit card to my kindle—amazing). We went to the bookstore together—some Saturdays we would go to this cafe called Bread and Chocolate (to get chocolate croissants) and then go to the bookstore next door.
My mom read all of my papers (if I asked her) for school, so I felt comfortable having her read my creative writing. The key is to give positive feedback to start and end, give negative feedback that is helpful, and know what your child wants from you (likely its support and encouragement at first and then help with edits or more technical issues rather than just praise).
I live in a college town, so I’m neighbors and friends with a few students. One of them learned I’m a writer and told me she was enrolled in a class that anyone was free to audit. Thanks to her, I’ve been taking a class from Brandon Sanderson. Yes, THE Brandon Sanderson. If you’re not sure who he is, it’s about time you got your hands on one of his books. Even if they’re not your cup of tea, you’ll still be appreciate the level of detail that goes into his worldbuilding.
Anyway, for most of the semester, Sanderson taught about worldbuilding, plot, and character, which are all well and good. But the last couple of weeks were focused on the business of writing--who the Big 5 are, things you should look out for in a publishing contract, royalty rates, and how to get an agent--or if you even should. This business info was exactly what I needed, and since I’m looking to get myself an agent this year, I was especially grateful to hear the facts about them. As a #1 New York Times Bestselling author with a handful of different series in the works at any given time, Sanderson knows a thing or two about the industry and what it takes to navigate a book deal, so I took furious notes on the topic.
Why get an agent at all? They’re supposed to give authors a leg up on their way to traditional publishing, but a writer can approach acquisitions editors and make it through the slush pile without one, and they do it all the time nowadays! Our writing group has been just fine without them thus far: Rachel Huffmire got her foot in the door, traditionally publishing “Shattered Snow” without an agent by pitching it at a writing conference. Bree Moore, the president of our writing group, is self-published (and doing a marvelous job of it, by the way), so she doesn’t need an agent to represent her interests to a third party.
If you can go without an agent, shouldn’t you?
The time comes with every manuscript when you need to share it with someone else before publishing it. That someone could be your spouse, best friend, writing group, beta reader, a pitch with an editor or agent, or a first chapter contest judge. There will be times when one of these critique partners makes a suggestion that doesn't sit well with you. You'll be left with a bucket of insecurity, wondering whether to make changes based on the suggestions or to keep the manuscript as-is. It can be especially crippling when the person commenting is close to you, like a family member, or someone you perceive as having authority in the writing profession, like an editor or already-published author.
Receiving critiques is difficult. No one enjoys hearing they have more work to do, especially after doing something that took a lot of work. But we all have something to learn and improve on, whether it's our first manuscript or our fifteenth, whether we are published or not.
We don't improve when we ignore everything our critique partners tell us. They can be incredibly valuable, teaching us more than we could ever learn otherwise. Even unhelpful comments can teach us things like who isn't our niche reader, or if a part of the story is not quite right (even if their wrong about why). Get multiple critique partners (or, better yet, a writing group), and take their comments with a fat grain of salt.
This article will discuss what makes a critique “wrong” or unhelpful, what to do when you realize a critique isn't right for you, how to respond to a critique partner who frequently gives unhelpful feedback, and how know when to follow a critique.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.