Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Ask an Agent - with Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn, from the Bent Agency



Are you looking for a query critique from those in the know? Or do you have a question you've always wanted to ask an agent? Each month, agents Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn from The Bent Agency are offering just that.

This month, they critique two queries sent in to us by our readers.


Original Query One:

Dear AGENT NAME,
 

The Unusual Education of Ellie Anderson is a contemporary YA novel about a Scottish seventeen year-old’s adjustment to life as an exchange student at a Chicago high school. Complete at 78,000 words, I am currently sending it out to a few carefully selected agents in hope of representation. 


It is the start of a new academic year, and while her friends and boyfriend are starting university fifty miles from home, Ellie is following her own dream four thousand miles away. Her expectations are based on the glamorous sets and storylines of shows like Gossip Girl, but Ellie quickly discovers that the reality is entirely more gritty. Placed with a family that is even harder work than her own, and socially rejected despite her best efforts to fit in, Ellie is plotting the fastest route home when she makes a friend and things start to change.


My novel follows Ellie through the first two months of her ten-month stay in America as she deals with heartbreak, betrayal and culture shock. Through social blunders, sexual mishaps, the negotiation of school politics and new friendships, Ellie is about to learn a lot more from her extra-curricular activities than she will in Health class.


Although a work of fiction, my story was inspired by a year I spent as an exchange student in the US, touching on the issues I was running from, the dreams that I was running towards and the many, many humiliations I experienced in the process.


I am a cognitive psychologist with a love of words that led me to a Masters in Psycholinguistics. With work experience in adolescent psychiatry and Disney entertainment, I hope that I am well placed to write for teens in a way that understands while it entertains.


I see this as the first in a three-book series, and am currently working on the second.


With many thanks for your time and consideration,



Here's what Gemma and Molly said:


Dear AGENT NAME, The Unusual Education of Ellie Anderson is a contemporary YA novel about a Scottish seventeen year-old’s adjustment to life as an exchange student at a Chicago high school. Complete at 78,000 words, I am currently sending it out to a few carefully selected agents in hope of representation. You don’t need to tell me it’s a multiple submission—I always assume submissions aren’t exclusive

It is the start of a new academic year, and While her friends and boyfriend are starting university fifty miles from back home, Ellie is following her own dream four thousand miles away. Her expectations are based on the glamorous sets and storylines of shows like She’s expecting her new life to be as glamorous as Gossip Girl, but Ellie quickly discovers that the reality is entirely more gritty. placed with a family who are that is even harder work than her own, and socially rejected despite her best efforts to fit in, Ellie is plotting the fastest route home when she makes a friend and things start to change. 

My novel follows Ellie through the first two months of her ten-month stay in America as she deals with heartbreak, betrayal and culture shock. Through social blunders, sexual mishaps, the negotiation of school politics and new friendships, Ellie is about to learn a lot more from her extra-curricular activities than she will in Health class. 

This is really vague. What’s the central conflict? Who’s this friend that she makes? What does Ellie want? Most importantly – where’s the hook? 

Although a work of fiction, my story was inspired by a year I spent as an exchange student in the US, touching on the issues I was running from, the dreams that I was running towards and the many, many humiliations I experienced in the process. 

Nice! This shows me why your personal experience makes you the person to write this book. 

I am a cognitive psychologist with a love of words that led me to a Masters in Psycholinguistics. With work experience in adolescent psychiatry and Disney entertainment, I hope that I am well placed to write for teens in a way that understands while it entertains. Not needed.  

I see this as the first in a three-book series, and am currently working on the second. 

THE UNUSUAL EDUCATION OF ELLIE ANDERSON is complete at 78,000 words and is a stand-alone novel, though it could also begin a series. 

I’m seeing a lot of series fatigue from editors. In my experience, it’s easier to sell a novel if it can work as a stand-alone or as the first volume in a series. 

With many thanks for your time and consideration, 

This sounds like it might be an interesting project, but the query is wordy and vague. A great query usually has one or more of the following: 

  • A great logline: A catchy sentence or two that tells me what your book is about. 

  • A fabulous hook: A fresh, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea that shows the reader makes this project different, like “Boy decides to eat himself to death live on the internet” (that’s BUTTER, by Erin Lange), or “Girl drowns on her 16th birthday, then shows up at school three months later as if nothing happened” (that’s BLACKFIN SKY, my client Kat Ellis’s forthcoming YA novel).

  • Spot-on comp titles: Successful books, movies or television shows your project could be compared to, e.g., “In the tradition of A MONSTER CALLS and SKELLIG…” or “SKINS meets GAME OF THRONES” (gosh, can you imagine?). 

This query starts with a logline, but it would be more successful if it were punchier. I’ve been a seventeen-year-old exchange student myself — I know there’s drama to be found in this situation! Show me some of that drama in your logline and it’ll be impossible for me to stop reading. 

It can be hard to find a really good hook for a contemporary YA novel, I know. But unless you can get close, your book runs the risk of being “too quiet” to catch an agent or editor’s attention. Try to convey some conflict in your query so that we get a sense of how high the emotional stakes are for your main character. 

Comp titles can be a pain in the neck to research, but they can make all the difference in nabbing that request for a full manuscript. Sometimes, when I’m writing pitches, I canvass the TBA agents for help with comp titles so I can be sure I’m not overlooking something perfect – so ask around your beta readers or critique group (or hey, Twitter works too) if you’re having trouble coming up with comp titles on your own. 

Above all – avoid clutter in your query. Keep it snappy and to the point. I usually comb through 30-50 queries at a time, so anything you can do to make yours stand out will raise your odds of catching my eye. 



Original Query Two:


Dear Molly and Gemma,



EVIVRUS – the other evolution.



I am seeking representation for my upper middle grade novel complete at 41,000 words. It is a hybrid fantasy/SF novel, a kind of Narnia meets Primeval. It is intended as a series but is written as a stand alone book.



After a top secret experiment, super scientist Nain disappears.



Intelligent, slightly insular Win, who prefers animals to people, is persuaded by his clever, rebellious older brother (Stan) to break into the old research lab, follow the clues, recreate the experiment and find Nain.



They create a pathway to Evivrus, a distorted mirror image of Iron Age Earth populated by creatures of strange evolution, and suppressed by the illusive and powerful Sifr. They meet Nain's apprentice, Gefn, who helps them to survive this dangerous world and guides them to Nain's last known hiding place, a cave in the territory of the evolved wolf people, the Lycans. They arrive at Nain's cave, but they too are captured. Win tries to persuade the leader, Asena, not to feed them to the pack, but to help them find Nain. Asena agrees, but it is a trap.


Separated from Stan and Gefn, Win is taken to the Cave of Swords, Sifr's lair. There he finds Nain, bound and gagged. Win is used as a bargaining chip by Sifr to persuade Nain to release the codes so that he can carry out his plan that could end both worlds. But Win learns a terrible truth about his own identity. He must show courage if he is to stand up to Sifr and believe that the future is not yet set.



In accordance with your guidelines I have included the first ten pages at the end of this email.



I had the first draft of this novel critiqued by Cornerstones. I found the experience very helpful and knew I had issues with the book and was desperate to overcome them. I re-wrote the novel with the suggested change of direction and have since been re-drafting and working with the on-line critique group SCBWI Muddle Graders.



Last year I completed my MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University. I am a teacher by profession and a mum to three ace kids. I am a part time freelancer mostly writing the content for on line training.



Thank you for your time.



Best regards,


Here's what Gemma and Molly said:

Dear Molly and Gemma, 

EVIVRUS – the other evolution. 

I am seeking representation for my upper middle grade novel, EVIVRUS, complete at 41,000 words. It is a hybrid fantasy/SF novel, a kind of Narnia meets Primeval. It is intended as a series but is written as a stand alone book. 

After a top secret experiment, super scientist Nain disappears. 

As the first line to hook us, this is too vague as we don’t know who Nain is and why that’s important. Start with your main character. 

Intelligent, slightly insular Win, who prefers animals to people, slightly insular and preferring animals to people are sort of saying the same thing – your main character is shy. You have limited word count, so don’t say the same thing twice is persuaded by his clever, rebellious older brother (Stan) Don’t overload your query with names – stick to one or two, otherwise the reader will lose the thread. to break into the old research lab, follow the clues, recreate the experiment and find Nain.

I’m confused about how these kids know about the experiment if it’s top secret. Who is Nain to them? Teacher? Employer? Family? 

They create a pathway to Evivrus, a distorted mirror image of Iron Age Earth populated by creatures of strange evolution, and suppressed by the illusive and powerful Sifr. They meet Nain's apprentice, Gefn, who helps them to survive this dangerous world and guides them to Nain's last known hiding place, a cave in the territory of the evolved wolf people, the Lycans. 

At this point I am confused, and too overloaded with names to keep track of the plot. I would stop reading.  

They arrive at Nain's cave, but they too are captured. 

We don’t need to know every step they take to get from A to B – just the key plot points. 

Win tries to persuade the leader, Asena, not to feed them to the pack, but to help them find Nain. Asena agrees, but it is a trap. Separated from Stan and Gefn, Win is taken to the Cave of Swords, Sifr's lair. There he finds Nain, bound and gagged. 

Again, we don’t need a play-by-play of exactly what happens or the name of the lair. 

Win is used as a bargaining chip by Sifr to persuade Nain to release the codes so that he can carry out his plan that could end both worlds. But Win learns a terrible truth about his own identity. He must show courage if he is to stand up to Sifr and believe that the future is not yet set. 

This hints that there is some sort of destiny element here, but it’s not coming over that Win is special in the rest of the query

In accordance with your guidelines I have included the first ten pages at the end of this email. 

I had the first draft of this novel critiqued by Cornerstones. I found the experience very helpful and knew I had issues with the book and was desperate to overcome them. I re-wrote the novel with the suggested change of direction and have since been re-drafting and worked with the online critique group, SCBWI Muddle Graders. 

Last year I completed my MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University. I am a teacher by profession and a mum to three ace kids. I am a part time freelancer mostly writing the content for on line training. 

This line doesn’t make sense to me – if you are writing content online, explain what it is, and the frequency. 

Thank you for your time. 

Best regards, 

I think you might need to strip this back and start again. Introduce your main character. What does he want? What’s preventing him from achieving those goals? And what are the stakes if he doesn’t achieve them? 

I know it’s harder with a fantasy world, as you feel you need to explain everything, but you don’t have enough words to do this, and trying to will ultimately confuse the reader. 

Introduce your main character. Win is a science nerd? Or a relation of a scientist? Age? 
What does he want? To rescue/save Nain. 
What’s preventing his achieving those goals? Being captured by an evil overlord. 
And what are the stakes if he doesn’t achieve them? The end of both worlds. 

Keep it short and just focus on the main plot point. So a rough idea—without having read the story— might be: 

When fourteen-year old science nerd Win recreates a failed experiment to solve the mystery of his science teacher’s disappearance, he is transported to Evivrus, a distorted mirror image of Iron Age Earth populated by creatures of strange evolution. 

Win plans to rescue his mentor, but is captured by an evil overload who knows a secret about Win’s past and plans to use this to end both worlds. Does Win have enough courage to outrun his destiny?  



Gemma and Molly have recently updated their submission wishlists. Check out what they are looking for here:


They will be back next month answering more questions and critiquing your queries. If you have a question you'd like to ask them, or are ready to start querying and would like some feedback from the professionals before you start submitting, email us at writers@britishscbwi.org 




@gemma_cooper 
@mollykh.
Gemma Cooper and  Molly Ker Hawn represent authors of books for children and young adults. For more information about Gemma and Molly see The Bent Agency website and blog. 



9 comments:

  1. Many thanks Gemma and Molly. A wonderful insight into what is often the scariest and most difficult part of submitting! I shall be printing this off for reference.

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  2. Great stuff as ever :-) Only trouble is that Susan Hawk at Bent keeps closing down for me to actually SEND my submission haha! Greedy Fish waits with baited breath... (get it?!). Thank you as ever, looking forward for the next round of advice already.

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  3. Thanks once again for such clear advice. There soon won't be any excuse left for a bad Scooby query.

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  4. Thanks, that was really helpful. Getting this stuff right takes a lot of practice!

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  5. Thank you so much. Writing the query letter for Evivrus has been painful and scary. Every time I take it down to the basics, I pile it back up again with confusing detail. Separating yourself from your beloved characters and novel is so hard. Each time I write that one of my key themes is loyalty it seems too vague, so I put in how and why, which spirals. The same with learning how to be brave and testing yourself - how? why? I get myself into a mess - must put this in, can't leave that out! I then edit it down, leaving leaping assumptions that are confusing. Writing query letters is hard! However, your advice here has been hugely helpful, so thank you for your time and trying to unpick my ramblings! What would we do without Scoobie, Gemma and Molly? Big thanks.

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    1. Thank you very much Louise for being brave enough to send in your query for critique! BIG GOLD STAR for that:)

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    2. Louise - sorry for missing this response while I was in NYC. Like Jan said, well done for being brave and sharing your query. They are are so hard to get right, and I feel your pain as I have to write pitch letters to editors, which are very similar. Best of luck in the future with it and I'm glad we helped in some way!

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  6. Thank you again Gemma and Molly for another brilliant hunk of advice!
    Also 'specially interesting to read your wish lists:)

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  7. It is the begin of another scholastic year, keeping in mind her companions and beau are beginning college fifty miles from home, Ellie is tailing her own particular dream four thousand miles away. Her desires depend on the charming sets

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