Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Scary Art of Query Writing

Photo by Gabriella Fabbri
Let's face it, query writing can be scary. Most of us would much rather begin writing a new novel than boil down the one we just finished into a short, concise pitch. But if the rest of the world is to read that finished novel, you'll have to eventually jump off the query-writing high-dive.If you are standing on the edge, trying to muster up your courage, here's some advice to heed before you take that plunge:

1) KNOW WHAT YOUR BOOK IS - This seems obvious, right? After all you wrote the book, why wouldn't you know what it is? And yes, you know your story, but do you know what it is in the grand scheme of things, i.e. the market? You have to pull yourself back from your novel and really look at what your book is about, what type of book it is, who the audience is, what else is out there like it, how your book is different, and why people would want to read it. It is so important to figure this out before you begin the query process because if you don't know how to present what your book is in your query, you will most likely be targeting the wrong agents or editors. And if you get lucky and query the right person, she may not realize it based on your query because you haven't told her what she needs to know.

2) RESEARCH THE AGENT/EDITOR - Once you know what your book is, you can narrow down potential editors and agents who may want this type of book. Research possible matches for your genre, but don't stop there. Look at books you like and see who the agent or editor was, read blogs by agents or editors, and attend conferences. The more you know about an agent or editor, the better chance you have when writing that query. Why? Because the blanket approach to query-writing doesn't work. Just as authors prefer personalized rejections to form letter rejections, agents and editors want personalized queries. This doesn't mean you need to know the agent personally in order to query him or her. (However, if you DO have some personal connection, it is in your best interest to make that known in the first paragraph!) This simply means you need to know about that agent or editor. The more you know when you begin querying - what she likes to represent, who she represents, what she's written in her blog, her submission guidelines, etc - the better chance you have of not blowing that query.

3) TAILOR YOUR PITCH - Once you know about the agent or editor you are querying, you can tailor your pitch to him. By this I mean, highlight whatever your novel has that he wants - humor, drama, two-legged dogs, etc. Figure out what it is about your novel that will interest him. That's all the query is after all - a reason for an agent to read your first few pages.

4) STRUCTURE YOUR QUERY - Now that you have an idea of what your book is, what that agent wants, and how your novel fits what she wants, you should have a good idea of what to put in the query. You'll need to take that information and structure it into a business letter. And yes, this is a business letter. This is not the place for cutesy-cutesy gimmicks. The basic structure should go something like this:
        a) Paragraph One- This should be a very short paragraph saying why you are querying that agent, how you know of him, if you heard her at a conference, if you were referred by a client, etc. EXAMPLE: I met you at the XYZ conference in June. I am a huge fan of the Lolly Gag's series you represent and feel my humorous YA novel SHENANIGANS would be a great fit for you.
        b) Paragraph Two - This can sometimes be two paragraphs, but it must be a very tight and concise description of your novel. Here you will need to highlight the most intriguing aspects. It is a quick glimpse, so keep it short, but it must include all the important parts: genre, age-group, word count, and most importantly, the hook; what the premise is and what makes it stand apart from others in the genre.
        c) Paragraph Three - This should be a very short paragraph about yourself. DO NOT say you have written a ton of other novels unless they have been published; DO NOT say your kids or students or grandma loved this book; DO NOT say this is the first version of the book (if it is, you should not be querying yet). DO say if you have an expertise that is pertinent to your novel (i.e. you are a former astronaut and the book takes place on a shuttle headed into space). DO mention any awards the novel won if it is a well-known organization giving the award (like Writer's Digest or SCBWI). DO include your education or professional background if it is important to your profession as a writer (MFA; former journalist, etc.)

Hope that helps you take the plunge! If you are still sitting on the edge afraid to get your feet wet though, try this link to my awesome agent, Jill Corcoran's website where she shares a ton of advice and other links to great query-letter info.


What if a classmate went missing right after you fought with her at a party and she was later found dead? What if you couldn't remember anything after that fight? Not even how you got home? Would you tell the police the truth? Or would you lie about what you remember until you could find out what really happened that night?

16-year-old Roswell Hart finds herself in this very predicament in Laura Ellen's YA thriller, BLIND SPOT (Fall 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

This week is query critique week! Some brave authors have volunteered their query letters for us to give them some feedback. Keep in mind this is just our opinions and not written in store or gold. The writers have the options to take it or leave it, but hopefully walk away with something to think about. 

Write on like, 




When God goes AWOL, the race for who will take over the throne has more impact on the demon Liam than just being an amused bystander. <- this is the most important sentence. Make us like Liam right away. God going AWOL is the catalyst, but why are we rooting for Liam? The lead contender is Liam's sworn enemy, the archangel Gabriel, and his tactics are far from angelic. Liam risks losing everything if Gabriel succeeds: his position, his life, and most importantly the one being he's come to love despite their differences. Hiding his centuries-old relationship with the angel Mikael just got a whole lot harder.

Liam enjoys being a demon. (<- Start here.) He gets to travel the Midwest on his motorcycle, chartering contracts for souls. He's got a right-hand man who follows his orders without question, and who is more than happy to do most of the work on their assignments, giving Liam more time to spend with Mikael. As long as Gabriel stops annoying him, he could call this life pretty good. Since this is a story about characters, what if you start with the struggle of your protagonist? This paragraph makes me think there is nothing at stake. Is Gabriel a real threat, or just a nuisance? 

Thus far, Gabriel's attacks against Liam have been weak and no real threat; more a source of mocking by Liam towards Heaven's less-than-competent solider. But now, with Heaven in disarray, Gabriel must prove himself worthy as a leader and he's going to use Liam's death to do just that. nice! So he takes a new approach to an old problem. The next soldier to go up against Liam will be trained by the best teacher in heaven—Mikael. Now the angel must decide how far he can go to protect Liam while serving Heaven, and Liam must save him from having to make the choice.

This sounds like a great adventure! That being said, each sentence is packed with so much info that I think I have to reread them to make sure I got it right. Is Liam acting on his own accord? If Heaven is in disarray, does this mean Hell is too? Keep it simple and give us the juicy bits, not just backstory. Liam seems to be the one to root for, but why? Just because he's a cool demon, or because he's got a forbidden love affair? 

THE FORCES OF HEAVEN AND HELL ALIKE is an 82,000 word completed urban fantasy which stands alone, but has series potential. [WHY THIS AGENT] 

I am a member of the Works in Progress critique group, as well as a beta for the Book Country site, and have learned valuable information from both resources. I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2001 with a double minor in Religion and Creative Writing and have always been drawn to the interrelationship of the two.

My complete manuscript is available upon request. <- This should be unstated since you shouldn't query fiction unless the novel is complete! Unless stated otherwise. I can be reached through email at [EMAIL] or by phone at [PHONE].  <-Most queries that I've gone through have the contact information in the header. I don't see a need to restate the information on the page. 

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response. 




Best of luck! 

Zoraida Córdova was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Her favorite things are sparkly like merdudes, Christmas, and New York City at night. She loves getting tweets @zlikeinzorro and making funny faces on her YouTube channel ZoraidaLand.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Query Critique: Exciting YA Sci Fi

Welcome Nightstanders! Today we're doing our first query critique. Thank you to this brave soul who is (probably unwittingly) going first!

Dear [agent]:

Tara is changing. I like this for a first line! Simple, effective, and also probably something that would play equally as well on the back cover. CRUCIAL. She's fairly certain that most sixteen year-old girls can't shoot lightning from their hands, and her newfound abilities are attracting a lot of unwanted attention. But Grammar Nerd says you shouldn't start a sentence with "but". as she finds herself on the run from a pair of government scientists I'd like a descriptor here--hot government scientists? Teenage? Evil? Sadistic? Brilliant?, Tara and her friends figure out quickly the real danger she faces is not from them - it's not from humans at all.

The Sentinels are a race of sentient androids, A.I. I wouldn't abbrieviate AI--it makes me stop reading for a second who have passed themselves off among passed themselves off AS mankind, or hidden AMONG mankind? mankind for over a hundred years. But now these feasibly immortal androids are beginning to die I'm confused by the idea of "feasibly immortal" and that they're now dying, and Tara’s power may be the only thing standing between them and total extinction. The bigger problem? Many of the surviving Sentinels have become corrupted, reprogrammed somehow to serve an enigmatic master known only as Mother, who’s intent on harnessing Tara's strange abilities as a weapon. OOOH I LOVE!

Her refusal to cooperate could condemn an entire race to death not to sound callous, but why would she care if the aliens live or die?– and put the people she loves in grave danger in the meantime. But as she learns more about her own origins, Tara realizes the Sentinels’ survival may come at a price she's not willing to pay. Okay, I want to read it!

T.A.R.A. is a YA science fiction novel, complete at 75,000 words great word count! and similar thematically to both K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series and Ronald Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Some agents LOVE comparisons like this--but you're also risking it being meaningless. I think it's personally safer to talk about YOUR themes rather than comparing to someone else's.

I have included the first [five pages and synopsis] in accordance with your guidelines. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. YAY! You checked the guidelines.

Best Regards,


This sounds like a fun, action packed story and you've done a really great job of presenting that gripping, "back cover copy" style synopsis that makes me want to flip to the opening pages. However, I would like to hear a line about the emotional conflicts of the book--is Tara in love with an alien? Fighting against that outsider feeling? Lonely because she's always on the run?

Otherwise, GREAT JOB!


AC Gaughen is the author of Scarlet, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend that reimagines Will Scarlet as a butt-kicking girl. Check it out February 14th, 2012 from Bloomsbury|Walker. Or just come visit her website. Or come stalk her on Twitter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanks to You!

There are many things I'm thankful for, writing-related and otherwise. But the most pleasant surprise of 2011, bar none, has been discovering the larger community of writers, readers and bloggers out there. You are ridiculously, amazingly, shockingly generous people. I'm just bummed that it took me this long to meet you.

Having a book about to be published is stressful—the good kind of stress, but stressful nonetheless. There are so many firsts and unknowns on this whole path to publication and I feel so lucky to be swathed in the comfort of other people who have been there, get it, are going through it, or just want to help.

At the risk of getting all verklempt, I just want to let you know how grateful I am for having that camaraderie. I really couldn't imagine wanting to do this any other way. Thank you thank you thank you!


My debut young adult novel PRETTY CROOKED (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins) will be released in March 2012. Even though I had to extensively research pickpocketing techniques to write it, I remain a law-abiding citizen. I live in Philadelphia with my husband Jesse and cat Beau a.k.a. Bread. When I'm not writing for teens, I'm cooking and/or writing about food for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. I'm a proud member of The Apocalypsies.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

DARKER STILL... A Playlist

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Leanna Renee Hieber here, author of DARKER STILL: A Novel of Magic Most Foul and this is X-Posted from my personal blog, but I thought it makes for great discussion here!

I was asked by an awesome girl with awesome pink streaks in her hair who has an awesome name (Airaseem) at my Anderson's Bookshop signing outside Chicago what music I listened to while writing; if DARKER STILL had a playlist. It does, in fact, and I'd meant to share it publicly.

Now while I'm writing, I can't listen to music with lyrics, so I listen to 19th Century classical music and movie soundtracks. Classical music puts me in the historical mindset of the time-period and soundtracks (like Harry Potter) give a sense of movement and magic in the background. But that doesn't mean that's the only influential music.

Any writer will tell you that half the time spent writing a novel is daydreaming about said novel. I live in New York City, I daydream A LOT on the subway, with my iPod in my ears, listening to evocative music that plays like a movie trailer to scenes from my book that I play in my mind's eye and mull over. THAT process has a soundtrack, and here are the top songs I've listened to while daydreaming MAGIC MOST FOUL saga, songs that on some level have some sort of material or thematic connection to my work. Some of the tracks here are from famous bands, some not, so I hope you'll check them all out. Specifically, Over The Rhine is my favorite hometown indy band from Cincinnati, their music ranges from indy rock to blues to folk, and what I love about them is their versatility and their gorgeous songwriting. Across the spectrum is my favorite Goth / Darkwave / Electronica band, VNV Nation. (VNV = Victory Not Vengeance). I love VNV because it's killer club/dance music (I'm a Goth girl and have been since way back in the day) and the melodies and lyrics are poetic and oh-so-gorgeous. All this stuff is available on iTunes, or you can also support the bands directly from their websites. Happy listening!

Beloved - VNV Nation
Hush Now - Over The Rhine
I Will Follow You Into The Dark - Deathcab for Cutie
Jar Of Hearts - Christina Perri
I Go To Sleep - Sia
Bridge - Lucy Wainwright Roche
In This Shirt - The Irrepressibles
Rhapsodie - Over The Rhine
Illusion - VNV Nation
Standing - VNV Nation

What's your writing and reading soundtrack?
Happy writing, happy reading, happy listening!
Leanna Renee Hieber - Leanna's Twitter - Leanna's FB

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

This year, I am thankful for:

Cate — my stubborn, brave, flawed little witch. I have never heard a character’s voice so strongly before. Plot knots, worldbuilding questions — I struggle with those sometimes. But Cate has been gloriously Cate from the very beginning.

The book deal that enabled me to become a full-time writer, to work from home in my pajamas with The Playwright and Monkey and my own giant mugs of tea. That let me call myself an author. That made a childhood dream into something real, tangible, stressful, glorious, mine.

My Amazing Editor, Ari Lewin, who is brilliant and generous and makes me laugh. I can’t wait to send her this new draft. I hope she will love it, but I know she will help me make it better. I am almost past that stomach-dropping fear when I see her number on my phone, that tiny bit of worry that maybe this is all a mad dream, because she almost always actually has good news.

My husband, The Playwright, who is really just unfailingly generous. Also fun. Which is good, because we spend an awful lot of time together these days. I am pretty certain I would murder anyone else.

My friends, who have encouraged me and celebrated with me and answered my flailmails and understood when I canceled plans to stay in and write.

Monkey. I know cats don’t live forever, and he’s fifteen. I cherish all of our naptime cuddles.

Twitter. Really. It makes working from home much less lonely.

Tea. I am no longer sure I can function, much less write, without Earl Grey.
  • Jessica Spotswood is the author of BORN WICKED, the first book in the Cahill Witch Chronicles, coming Feb. 7, 2012 from Putnam. She likes reading stories about independent girls who still get in a fair amount of swoony kissing, so that's what she tries to write. She lives in Washington, DC with her playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey.

    Currently on her nightstand: THE NEAR WITCH by Victoria Schwab

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Internet Serendipity

I don’t want you to think that I’m not taking this whole “week of thanks” theme very seriously (I’m thankful! I swear!) but I’m Canadian. Thanksgiving was so last month ago.*

So I decided my thanks-themed post would be on something slightly light and fluffy:


From Mirriam-Webster:

ser•en•dip•i•ty: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

From The Urban Dictionary:

Internet: 1) The greatest waste of time ever devised by man. 2) One huge therapy session.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had two instances where I found incredible things that I quite needed (without, of course, realizing that I needed them).

The first came to me via Amanda Johnson (@AC_Johnson89) on Twitter. While discussing Studio Ghibli films, I confessed that I had never read Howl’s Moving Castle. Her response:

O.O you don't even know what you're missing! The movie just picked out like one plot line.

A few days later, I picked up a copy of the book because I thought it might be nice to read in those snatched moments while waiting for the bus or grabbing a quick bite to eat (or too tired to revise but not tired enough to sleep).

As it turned out, it was the EXACT book I needed right now. With the first draft of book two due in six weeks and ARCs of book one hitting the world, my stress level has been appropriately high. Howl’s Moving Castle was just enchanting and magical enough to provide me with blissful bursts of happy that lasted hours after I set the book aside. It even renewed my interest in the movie (though I do conceded that book Howl is more crush-worthy.)

The second thing I needed was a song. I’m ridiculously obsessive about listening to certain music when working on certain scenes, and the scene I was working on had originally been drafted to a song from book one’s playlist (when I get stuck, I’ll listen to songs from book one, but I never find it as satisfying).

Before settling in to work, I decided to watch an episode of Drop Dead Diva. That episode just happened to end with the perfect song for the scene in question: “Soldier” by Ingrid Michaelson (which I tracked down through the glory of YouTube).

So, this week, that's what I'm thankful for: random acts of internet serendipity.

* Yes. We celebrate Thanksgiving in October.


Kathleen Peacock is a semi-reformed vampire addict and unapologetic geek who has taken to writing about werewolves and who wants to marry the Wizard Howl. Her debut, HEMLOCK, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on May 8, 2012. Visit her website at

Monday, November 21, 2011

What I'm Thankful For

It sucked.

I know as adults with property taxes, layoffs, bills, and all our grownup drama, we sometimes roll our eyes when we hear a teen grumble, "My life sucks."

Because how bad could their lives be, right?

Well, as an adult, I can say that my teenage years were the worst years of my life. Seriously. When I was seventeen, I was kicked out of the house by The Stepdad who then took all my stuff (everything from my clothes to my bed, my bed) and burned it all in one glorious bonfire.

I had a part-time job at Arby's, so dinner was pretty easy to come by. As far as those other two meals a day, meh. Who needs 'em when you have cigarettes? I was allowed to take showers and do my homework at my boyfriend's house. But his parents didn't want me spending the night. So when the sun went down, I would find a dirt road somewhere in the country (usually a cornfield), park my car, and hope that no one (i.e. cops or other teenagers) would bother me until morning.

So what's a girl to do when she's all alone in a cornfield? Well, library cards were free and book light batteries were cheap. So I would fill up my backseat with books and spend my nights reading until I eventually fell asleep. And the best thing about a good book is, when I was reading, I wasn't alone in a cornfield waiting for the sun to come up, but I was with my friends in magical places and going on adventures that took my mind off of my own problems.

That's when I realized how magical books were. And that's why I wanted so badly to be a writer for young adults. If there's a homeless teen somewhere that picks up my book and, even for a moment, can forget where they are, then I've accomplished what I set out to do.

When people picture a homeless person, the image that comes to mind is the old man on the street corner peddling for change. They don't realize that the kid waiting at the bus stop or even working the fast food counter at Arby's might not have anything to go home to but the back seat of a VW Jetta.

My house isn't big enough to house all of those kids. But if they can fall inside of a book, even for just a moment, isn't that something to be thankful for?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
When Cole Gibsen isn't writing books for young adults, she can be found rocking out with her band, sewing crazy costumes for the fun of it, picking off her nail polish, or drinking straight from the jug--provided no one is looking.

Her debut novel, KATANA, will be available March 8th, 2012. For more information about Cole you can check out her

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Giving Thanks

In Minnesota, November descends like a gray veil. The lawn is made of silver prickly things. The pond wears an icy skin. The cold feels colder without the snow, which I know is lurking just beyond the cloud bank.

In short, it’s a tough month to give thanks. Which is probably all the more reason to do so.

So this morning I am looking back on "The Best Year of My Life" and giving thanks for the things that made it so.

1. “The Call.” You know the one. The one where you're minding your own business, alphabetizing your rejection letters when your agent calls and says, "Are you sitting down?"

2. Crazy ideas and the courage to ask, “What if?” Then, critique partners who know the difference between crazy genius and just plain crazy.

3. Small literary magazines that give emerging writers a place to show what they can do, and build credits to put in a query letter.

4. My agent and editor and the opportunity to finally meet them in person in a far away land called New York.

5. The “delete” button and the wisdom to know when to use it.

6. My husband and three kids, who give me time and space to write because they know it makes me happier than doing dishes.

7. Steve Jobs for his genius.

8. YA Authors who make me say, “I wish I wrote that!”

9. Stephenie Meyer for making YA so hugely, insanely popular and doubling the size of the reader demographic

10. YA Readers everywhere. You know who you are. xxxooo


Anne Greenwood Brown


Random House/ Delacorte Press

June 12, 2012

From the Book Flap: "Calder's out for revenge--just as his mermaid sisters are. But when he meets the girl he's supposed to use as bait, everything changes."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hari-Query: A Query Letter Smackdown

So you want to submit for a query critique here at The Nightstand. Here's a brutally honest primer not for the faint of heart!

Questions? Comments? Air Sickness Bags?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Live Query Critique!

From Tuesday November 29th to December 5th we will be doing live query critiques a-la Miss Snark. SEVEN query letter chosen at random will be workshopped by The Nighstand members.

As of now we are taking query submissions to the following e-mail address: 

Here are some ground rules: 

* One submission per person
* Include your name and address. We will not reveal it on the blog at all. This is precautionary to keep one submission per person. 
* All submissions must be sent in by wednesday November 23rd

Why are we doing this? 
Because not long ago we were in the same position, scrambling to write the perfect query letter. Some of us might have more help than others. So spread the word! 

Below is a tweet you can copy and paste!

@thenightstand hosts live query critique! Visit and submit! Please RT #novels #writers #queryletters