Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Which I Introduce Team Krista and Share Some Thoughts About the Entries

First off, allow me to introduce my awesome team (in alphabetical order)!

Anna-Marie and THE COIN DIVER (#35)
Ben Spendlove and DRIVERS (#149)
Carla Cullen and THE FALLEN PRINCESS (#152)
Erin Petti and THELMA BEE (#117)
Jennie Bailey and SILO (#64)
Lisa Koosis and THE ROAD OF THE DEAD (#45)
Michelle Mason and DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLINIST (#75)
Noelle Henry and FACE THE MUSIC (#50)
Ryan Hancock and AN UNCOMMON BLUE (#122)
Sarah Henson and PLAYING WITH FIRE (#146)

with Lori Eastep and CHRONICITY (#101) as my alternate

That gives me two MG projects, six YA projects, and two adult (sci-fi) projects, with an MG alternate. I like the balance of my team, and the truth is, most of it evolved on its own. I did go in thinking that I needed to have more YA projects than anything, just because it’s the most represented category among the participating agents, but these really were the projects I loved most.

As I was building my team, I originally divided the entries that caught my interest into two groups--“Contenders” and “Strong Contenders”--then realized that I was going to have enough strong contenders as it was and that I didn’t need to keep two lists. I ended up with thirty-nine strong contenders total, and of those, eleven ended up on my team (obviously), at least five or six on someone else’s, and another withdrew just yesterday after receiving an offer of representation. (Congratulations, Andrea Berthot!)

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I am in NO WAY an expert on queries, the market, or publishing in general, so please take all these thoughts for what they are--my thoughts. These are just a few of the things I noticed as I whittled down my list, and they say a lot more about me than they do about any of the entries.

A few thoughts I had along the way:

1. After reading through a batch of entries (say, twenty or thirty), I sat back and asked myself, “Now which ones do I remember?” And the truth was, not many. Quite a few of them sounded like something I’d read--or heard of--before.

2. And speaking of things I’d read or heard of before, I’ll admit that words like “guardian,” “demon,” and “angel” immediately made me pull back. In all of those cases, the writing really had to stand out to make me take a closer look. Angels and demons are the new vampires--a lot of agents have blogged/tweeted about how they’re overwhelmed with those creatures--so you might be facing an uphill battle when it comes to querying a manuscript with those elements.

3. When I did remember an entry, it was almost always because the concept had captured my attention.

4. At least in my opinion, writing followed concept. If the concept stuck out to me, the writing usually did, too. (I’m still trying to decide if that’s because I was giving the high-concept folks the benefit of the doubt or because the people who did the best job explaining their storylines were also the best writers.)

5. I passed on several entries--including several great entries--simply because I knew the writers had been querying them for a while and worried that our agents might have seen them before. In a few cases, I knew the writers and their querying histories, but in a few others, the writers specified in their introductions that they thought the manuscript was on its last legs. I wouldn’t do this. You want every agent to think that she’s the first agent you’re querying, so I’d keep your manuscript’s battle scars to yourself.

6. So many entries seemed to have a good story buried in there somewhere, but I had a hard time picking it out from all the subplots/extraneous words in the query. I thought a lot of the queries were trying to do too much. (“Then this happened, then THIS happened, then THIS happened, and now here’s a list of all the other interesting elements that I couldn’t work into the summary.”) If you don’t think your main plot is strong enough to hook an agent, then your problem isn’t your query or first page--it’s your manuscript.

7. I noticed a lot of huge stakes without much explanation. Almost every other query ended with some line about how the world was on the brink. You can dangle the fate of this world and every other on a string, but if I can’t tell how exactly the world is in jeopardy--and more importantly, if I can’t tell why the characters care that the world is in jeopardy--then I’m probably not going to care, either. As I learned back in high school debate class, you can link pretty much every story to nuclear holocaust, so huge stakes for huge stakes’ sake might not hook an agent.

8. I sat up a little straighter every time I stumbled across an entry for a YA or MG contemporary, and to be perfectly honest, quite a few of these impressed me. However, I worried that the agents would find most of them too quiet. Quiet novels are the opposite of high-concept ones, so if your YA contemporary doesn’t have a strong hook (think French boarding schools for ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS or backpacking for WANDERLOVE), then even if you do land an agent, he or she is going to have a hard time selling it.

All right, I think that’s all for now. This post is already way too long:) What stood out to you as you read through the entries, and which ones would you have picked?


Ben Spendlove said...

(Oops. I did number 5.)

Betsy said...

Am I a number 7? Loved this breakdown - thank you, Krista! It's great to know the thinking process behind your pics, and I agree with all of them, especially #2 - which makes me feel terrible because so many of them were great! Thelma Bee is one of my all time favorites - so glad you chose her. #95 really stood out to me as a top entry - would have loved to see that one get picked. And of course mine, #197 (MG Sci-Fi - Aliens!) :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I noticed that, Ben. Happily, I didn't care--I love DRIVERS that much:)

Betsy, #197 was one of my strong contenders! I'll leave a comment on your blog post with a few more thoughts sometime within the next few weeks.

Tracey J said...

Hi Krista. Thanks so much for writing this post. It's really interesting to know why you passed on certain projects. I have to admit because I write contemporary MG and YA I was really rooting for us, and I'm glad that a few of my favorites like Thump by Valerie Cole did make the cut.

There were so many good entries though, some by writers I admire. I also really liked One by Leigh Ann Kopans, Thelma Bee, and Mad As a Hatter. Stories like those really inspire me. I'm pretty sure that if I were a judge I definitely would have chosen those three. It's really amazing the ideas we writers come up with.

This contest was truly amazing. I'm looking forward to see which projects impress the agents the most. Good luck team Krista, Monica, Brenda, and Cupid. You guys rock. :D

Carrie-Anne said...

This was a really good breakdown of your thought process in selecting entries. I write historical, which is always a tiny minority in these contests and blogfests, so I felt the entries closest to mine were the contemporaries. In spite of the different eras, they're still about real people in real situations.

To be honest, a lot of paranormal, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, and fantasy pitches (not just in this contest) have started to sound all the same to me, because they have such similar stakes and concepts. Though I did find a few fantasy entries in the contest that I really liked, since they had original concepts. I also liked a few of the sci-fi entries, since I dabble in sci-fi myself, albeit soft sci-fi.

I have to agree with you about the quieter manuscripts' appeal to agents, though I tend to prefer quieter stories myself. Maybe it's because I grew up reading books like that, where coming-of-age stories were more about growth, change, and development over a longer period instead of so plot-centric and set over a very short period.

Dahlia said...

Thanks for this post; it was really interesting! I definitely found this to be a learning experience in terms of what I do and don't like in queries and what other people are writing.

I found that in general, my eyes glazed over at multi-POV queries. It sounds silly, but it felt like getting to the second perspective pulled me out of the "quick read" style of the query and made me feel like I was starting at the beginning of something new. I was also surprised to see how common concepts of guardians, "the fallen," ancient orders etc. That said, one of my favorite entries that didn't make it, #28, included a guardian, but the way the story was obviously going to read largely contemporary really drew me in.

I also noticed numbers 6 and 7 a LOT, but then again, I was pretty obviously a number 8, so we all have our things ;)

Kimberly Gabriel said...

Thank you for the insight behind your picks Krista! I read through so many strong entries that I would love to see on the I can read them. ;) That being said, I think you ladies all did a nice job picking your teams. It will be fun to watch as the contest continues.

@Dahlia...Thank you so much for the encouraging compliment and the little boost it just gave me. It made my day. ;)

-Kimberly WVC #28

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

I've been told that my voice-driven YA Contemp isn't high-concept enough and that it'd be hard to sell. So, you're pretty spot-on with that one. What helps is that agents have said the writing is strong. For me, that's step one. Step two is finding the really good idea that incorporates my style.
Thanks SO MUCH for posting your insights into the contest. xx

click said...

It has only been recently that I've really been working on my query--without the help of a critique partner or even someone to bounce my ideas off of--and a post like this is EXTREMELY helpful. I had to learn these things the hard way: trial and error--and subsequent rejection.

I think the other thing that could be added is simply to find and study any and all successful queries that you can find, notice their structures, what they've included, what is only hinted at, and consider what the author must have left out of a 90,000 manuscript. All the query critiques from Query Shark and the other various agents out there are also ridiculously helpful, as long as you have the patience to study them. That was the first thing I had to learn: patience. This isn't a race; it's creation, and unless you can speak a world into existence, it takes time.

(Sorry this has gotten so long, as it's really a long-winded version of "Excellent post.")

As for my favorite, I agree with Betsy, #95, Rin Chupeco, had some of the most gorgeous writing I saw in this contest. Perhaps ghosts are falling in with the demons and angels and such, but, man, those were some mighty-finely-spun sentences.
-C.W. Smith (#150)

Suzi said...

Great breakdown, thanks Krista.

T.L. Bodine said...

I love to see the thought process behind selections. I went through and chose my favorites as well, though with an eye toward my personal tastes much more than the market. I quickly realized that I have very specific, well-defined tastes in stories: nearly every single entry I chose was a "portal" story or a time travel story. (this is why it's a good thing I'm neither an agent nor a judge!) Four of my top 10 got chosen. The two I was really surprised didn't get picked up were #83 and #11. They both had such stellar writing!

Jenn said...

Thanks for hosting this contest and for your invaluable feedback on the queries! You rock. It's been a fun, slightly stressful, eye-opening contest that I have truly enjoyed! :)

Jeff Chen said...

Thanks for the commentary - very helpful!

Betsy said...

Krista, I would appreciate that so much. Thank you, thank you! This has been such a great experience. I'm looking forward to watching it play out. Have fun, and good luck to Team Krista!

Ryan said...

I just read your Query for the Regenerated Man and Me, and I realized I'd read it in the Pitch Madness competition (and loved it!) Is that when you got your Agent? I'm scouring your sidebar for the story, but maybe I'm just doopid.
Go Team Krista!

Kimberly said...

Congratulations to you and your team. There were so many great entries.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Tracey, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! Interestingly, I really liked ONE and MAD AS A HATTER, too, but both of those fell under the category I mentioned in my fifth point. Just because I know both of those writers and have seen their projects around, I know that they've been querying them for a while, so I was worried that several of our agents might have already seen them.

Carrie-Anne, you're #168, right? That one made my short short list, too! I'll leave a comment on your entry sometime within the next few weeks.

Dahlia, I found this exercise really instructive, too. You definitely get a sense of what kinds of plot elements and character descriptions agents must see over and over again.

Kimberly, Dahlia's comment about your entry is a perfect example of how subjective this business really is:)

Sarah, great attitude! It took me two, maybe three, manuscripts to start writing things that were both marketable and non-derivative, so as long as you keep going, I'm sure you'll find your sweet spot:)

Click, that's one of the things I've liked best about this contest so far--the sheer amount of queries it's made me read:) There really is no substitute for looking at gobs and gobs of examples and figuring out what works (and what doesn't). As for the future of ghost stories in the market, I know Monica said that she had to learn the hard way that ghosts are tough to sell. (She was on submission last year with a ghost story that never sold.) So that might have had something to do with it.

You're welcome, Suzi! (And I believe congratulations are in order! FROSTY made it to the next round, right?)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

T.L., while the balance across the categories came easily for me, the balance within them was trickier. For instance, I had two YA historicals on my short short list, Anna-Marie's and Carrie-Anne's (does one have to write YA historicals if one's name is hyphenated? :) ), but I knew that I couldn't put both of them on a ten-member team without skewing it a bit.

Jenn, I'd say "The Writer's Voice" has been a fun, VERY stressful, eye-opening contest so far:)

You're welcome, Jeff!

Betsy, thank you for your well wishes! I look forward to revisiting your entry in a few. In the meantime, good luck with your other queries and requests!

Ryan, you probably saw my query in Cupid's Blind Speed Dating event in February! (Yes, I'm a Cupid success story, sort of...) Actually, though, the offer I ended up taking just grew out of a normal query. Kate was at the very top of my to-query list; I can honestly say that the first query I sent for this project turned into an offer:) (I gushed about it quite a bit when I came back from my blogging break in April. If you'd like to, you can read more about it by checking out the blog archive at the bottom of the sidebar.)

Thanks, Other Kimberly! And good luck with your other queries and requests!

Tim said...

It would be good to get feedback, though I wouldn't expect feedback on 160 entries. I've already found Brenda's query sample interesting.

Elizabeth Briggs said...

Go Team Krista! You have some awesome picks here.

Brenda McKenna said...

I wish I'd made a list of all the ones I loved most, but I didn't have to--so I was lazy, and I didn't! I did leave comments on ones that particularly impressed me, though.

Thanks for this contest--I actually haven't started querying yet, but I got more comments on my query in QLH (I think due to the contest). Plus all these tips are helping me get near submission phase. You rock!

:), #23

ferris robinson said...

This whole contest has been incredible! Even though I didn't win, I have learned sooo much and found so many incredible blogs! The Writer's Voice and the Agent's In-Box both stand out as a win-win for the writer; the feedback from other contestents and the encouragement have been incredible! Thank you Krista Van Dolzer!!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Tim, I will leave feedback on all the entries that made my short short list, but yeah, it would be tough to leave feedback on all 160. (Also, if you'd like another example of a coach's query, you can check mine out at the top of the page under "THE REGENERATED MAN AND ME" tab.)

Thanks, Liz! Oh, and I have a solution for your who-to-cheer-for conundrum: You can cheer for your favorites on Team Cupid, but you can cheer for mine to get the most votes overall:)

Brenda, I think it's very wise to put your query through the paces on a site like Absolute Write. Queries are hard to write in large part because we're so close to our own stories and can't separate the essential parts from the nonessential ones, so it's nice to get some feedback about that. Good luck with your manuscript!

Ferris, yes, it is nice that everybody gets a little feedback and encouragement through contests like these. Good luck to you!

Tim said...

Thanks Krista

ferris robinson said...

just thought i'd share this link - it's a new critique thing and thought 139 of us might want to check it out! good luck to the four teams, and i can't wait to watch it all!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for sharing that link, Ferris! I'll have to check it out.