Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lessons from Backspace: Titles, Queries, and Pages

I did not get to attend as much of Backspace Writers Conference as I originally planned, but one extremely useful seminar I went to was called “Midtown Idol,” featuring agents Jeff Kleinman, Kristin Nelson, and Joanna Stampfel-Volpe.

The seminar was divided into a few rounds. In the first one, the woman at the microphone (who had a GREAT reading-out-loud voice, something I hope to develop someday) read queries. The agents would then indicate whether they would request sample pages based on those queries, or they would request to hear the logline (that one sentence “this is why my book is awesome! Read it!” thing), or they would stop her in the middle of the query and say “nope!” and give a reason.

In round two, Captain Expert Reader would read sample pages from the “maybe”s and “yes”s from round one for exactly one minute. The agents would then raise their hands to indicate at which point they would stop reading the pages. Then we all voted on our favorites.

I listened to over thirty queries, and after awhile, you start to notice patterns, even if you aren’t a query expert. But all the same, I thought I would list the Mistakes Made at Midtown Idol (That Even I Noticed).

Mistake One: The Crazy Title

This is probably the only time I will ever say this, but: better bland than ridiculous, when it comes to titles. At one point in round one, Captain ER said the title of the book and all the agents laughed and said they would pass. This wasn’t a moment of cruelty, or anything. It’s just that if the title makes your book sound crazy, ludicrous, or impossible to love, you set up whoever is reading it to hate it from the getgo. In our attempts to find THE title that will sell a million, jillion books, we sometimes forget that we have to be prepared to toss our first titles out the window when the book sells. So, the moral of the story: your wacky title may get you attention. But it’ll be the wrong kind of attention, probably.

Mistake Two: The Rambling Query

Several times, the judges asked Captain ER to stop reading because the query ran on or wasn’t concise or was just too darn confusing. The last thing you want is for someone to have to read your query several times to figure out what your book is about. It should be, above all else, clear.

The judges usually asked for Captain ER to read the logline instead of the query, when the query was unclear. The logline is just a hook. It conveys what your book is about (without conveying EVERYTHING the book is about) and also screams “YOU MUST READ ME!”, that is, if it’s doing what it’s supposed to. Here’s the kicker: MANY people’s loglines were ten times better than their queries. Their loglines were crisp, easy to understand, and interesting.

Therefore I have some thoughts about how to improve The Rambling Query:

A. Read it out loud. To other people. That way, they can tell you if they’re confused. If they can’t understand it without seeing it on paper, it’s probably not clear enough.

B. Don’t write a query. Write a hook. Most people’s hooks will be too long to be hooks, but just long enough to be queries. I think trying to restrict your query to a single sentence could be extremely helpful. Not that your pitch paragraph should be a single sentence long (although I suppose that could work, in some cases), but if you strive for a sentence, you'll probably end up with three sentences. And you may feel that those three sentences aren't enough, but you might be wrong. All your query needs to do is make someone want to read your book. It doesn't need to explain everything.

Mistake Three: The Flowery First Pages

This was a problem in a lot of the sample pages we heard. Basically, you hear that your first pages should showcase your best writing. So you try to pack in as much “good writing” as possible. What generally happens at that point is that the writing is saturated with adjectives. My thought is: less is more. Your first pages shouldn’t say “LOOK AT MY WRITING.” They should say “get sucked into my story.” If your voice is engaging, it will lead whoever is reading it along just fine.

Also, I think we could all benefit from reading the first pages (or, heck, all the pages) out loud. I know it helped me to hear writing that probably looked all right on paper read out loud without any pages to guide me. I noticed a lot more mistakes, and I definitely noticed when things got boring. So, maybe read your first pages out loud to someone, or have them read the pages out loud to you, if you can find a willing volunteer. If your volunteer stumbles or gets confused, so will your unfamiliar reader, in all likelihood.

So there you have it. Tips I put together in my head while observing Midtown Idol. Happy writing, everyone!


Nomes said...

Oh, I'm loving and laughing at all this tips :)

Thanks, great stuff

Bidisha said...

I agree with Nomes, this is great stuff! Thanks :))

Hmath said...

Loved this - one of these days, I'll go to a conference.

Pam Harris said...

Ooh, thanks for the tips! Wish I could've been there, but this was just as good. :)

Tahereh said...

brilliant! fabulous as usual!

Martina Boone said...

Completely awesome summary--and not the same sort of information you get in the usual how-to-write-a-query-letter advice. Genius.

We are doing a rejection post tomorrow with some links on how-to-avoid. I hope you don't mind if we include this?!

Thanks so much!


Stina said...

Great tips! I wish the LA SCBWI conference would do something like this for one of the smaller sessions.

Bridgid Gallagher said...

Wow, great info. Thanks for sharing!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Terrific tips and thanks for sharing them with us. Great post, very useful. :)

roh morgon said...

Awesome post!

It's really helpful to hear what turns agents off. Thanks for summarizing the conference so well.

As for reading your stuff out loud - I say yes, and do it often (I recently blogged about this very thing).

I've even attended a poetry reading and read an excerpt from my WIP. The practice beforehand really helped me tighten the piece. I recommend every writer try this at least once.

Janet Johnson said...

Great tips! Sounds like a good session.

Annie McElfresh said...

Awesome post V!

Karla Calalang said...

Fantastic post, Vee! I hope to attend a writing conference like that one day! :D

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing these tips with us. They are very useful!

J.S. Wood said...

Awesome tips! Thanks for sharing!

Debra Driza said...

Awesome post, Vee! They did something like this at the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop, and yes, it was very, very interesting and useful. (In fact, I kinda wish I'd recorded everything so I could listen to it again at a later date).

Terri Nixon said...

This is great, thanks! I recently put my query up on the Query Test site, and got a 'no' because the person said it read more like a teaser than a query ... according to this advice, I'd say I got that right then! What this Query-Tester was looking for was a synopsis, not a query!

Great post, full of useful tips.