Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Devil Of A Cause

Authors really are wonderful people! When one of the authors in the Extinct anthology proposed donating some of the proceeds to a charity, everyone jumped in with suggestions. Mind you, not one suggestion was 'No.'

Literacy and endangered animal charities quickly rose to the top as it became clear a relevant cause would make it easier for readers to see the connection between the charity and the book. So when the Australian contigency of authors quite vocally promoted the idea we put resources toward the endangered Tasmanian devil, the rest of us unanimously agreed.

Tasmanian devils are such a unique and iconic animal! Yet their population has been in rapid decline, having lost an estimated 80% in the past 15 years. A highly contagious Devil Facial Tumour Disease -- one of just a few cancers in any species that can be spread among individuals through contact such as biting -- is taking a devastating toll. Stop the disease and save a species. Here's an opportunity to prevent an extinction through proper disease management, selective breeding and the eventual rewilding of healthy insurance populations across Tasmania where the devils are needed for keeping fox populations in check.

The 19 authors of the Extinct anthology and myself hope you'll help support the work of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. From July 1 through 15 all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the devils. If you've already bought the book (thank you!), consider gifting a copy to your high school or library.

On the fence about whether to participate? Ask yourself this important question: What would Bugs do?

Art design by Kyle Aisteach, Extinct author.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Ch - ch - ch- changes

You may have noticed we’re coming up on 100 queries critted (#96 yesterday). That’s 100 original to this site. Add in all the reduxes and the re-reduxes, and it’s really been well over 200 letters I’ve had the pleasure to comment on here. Wow! Plus about 20 ssssssynopses. All-in-all, somewhere around 80,000 words.

You guys have been awesome!

Once we tip 100, though, I’m going to bow out of the critting circle. I’ll still be happy to post the occasional crit for any of the “regulars” who’d like to run a query or synopsis by. And I’ll still play over at Evil Editor’s site. Rewriting queries is an addiction I’ll still have to feed occasionally.

Here, however, I think I’m ready to move on from critting. I plan to amp up commentary on industry-related news and to continue chronicling the successes and failures of my self-pubbing efforts (or traditionally pubbed if that should happen). I’ll continue to empty my camera and post pix of my beautiful beasties because, after all, this blog is about things that are important to me. I certainly don’t want to be overly obnoxious, though, so I’ll back off of a 6-day-a-week posting schedule to a 2- or 3-day-a-week one. I won’t post if I have nothing to talk about. Plus, I’m trying to be more protective of my time. Not that I don’t procrastinate enough of it away on other things!

I certainly hope you’ll keep this little blog in your readers. And that you’ll still come by for a chat. If not, I understand – and I’ll likely see you over on the other critting sites.

As far as query help goes, agent sites are great but they'll take forever to get to your query, if they choose to crit it at all. Still, the query archives at the following sites are goldmines for learning about structure, what works/doesn’t work, etc.

Miss Snark
Query Shark 
BookEnds

For help getting your query tweaked once you’ve read and reread the archives above, go first to Evil Editor. Most of you found your way here through him, so I don’t need to elaborate on what a fabulous resource that site is -- from 900+ archived queries to just a few days turnaround for an awesome crit from Da Man Himself, as well as a cadre of minions who are quite astute in their own rights.

Once you’ve got a revision in hand, you can run it by any of the following workshopping sites. Add your other favorites in the comments and I’ll update on this post.

QueryTracker 
Nathan Bransford’s Forums
Query Goblin 
Agent Query Connect

And be sure to let me know when you’ve reached any milestones in your publishing careers: I’ll be happy to broadcast your success right here!

As I mentioned, I’ll still be posting. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about an exciting charity campaign that launches July 1. And over the weekend, I’ll come clean with monthly sales stats for June and more observations about what seems to work/not work in promoting and positioning.

Then I’ll work on getting the existing query crits tagged and archived better.

So, are you sitting on a query you’d like critted but haven’t submitted yet? There are still 4 more query slots to go before we reach 100 – and there are NONE in the queue! At this rate, it could be a very long time before I “officially” stop critting queries here :o) Will YOUR query be one of the final 4???

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Query 96

Marielle's Wish

When Marielle Iris was five, she thought her grandfather was the most awesome storyteller ever. At seventeen, she thinks he’s full of bull. But what does he expect? What with the loss of her parents and the awful way in which she lost her innocence (her ex slipped her a roofie at a party), life hasn’t been exactly kind to her. If she doesn’t believe that her inheritance is a Jinn in a bottle, can Grandpa really blame her? She’s a skeptic and her trust in all matters is, at best, scant.

Besides it’s morbid! What sensible girl wants to think that her grandfather has to die in other to get three wishes? It’s not worth it, not when grandpa’s all she’s got. But whether she wants to think about her unusual inheritance or not, life forces her.

Grandpa dies unexpectedly. With him gone, she gets her three wishes. Oh, and, by the way, a handsome jinn with a curse that only true love can break. This should take care of Little Miss Jaded.

Comments

I see a lot of potential here, but it's not *quite* there for me just yet. I think the voice attracts me most, but it isn't quite as consistent as it could be. The premise doesn't quite gel here, either. But with a little cleanup, I think the author can bring it home. Assuming word count and genre aren't off considerably since we don't have that bit to look at.

Because of where the emphasis falls in this query, my assumption is that the story is YA paranormal with romantic elements. However, if it's YA romance with paranormal elements, then really, the first two paragraphs become backstory that can be boiled down to two sentences with the rest of the query focusing on the romantic conventions.

When Marielle Iris was five, she thought her grandfather was the most awesome storyteller ever. At seventeen, she thinks he’s full of bull. But what does he expect? What with the loss of her parents and the awful way in which she lost her innocence (her ex slipped her a roofie at a party), life hasn’t been exactly kind to her. If she doesn’t believe that her inheritance is a Jinn in a bottle, can Grandpa really blame her? She’s a skeptic and her trust in all matters is, at best, scant.

This paragraph head hops from Marielle to Grandpa and it's a bit jarring for the reader. Since Gramps dies, I'd stick with Marielle's POV here. Instead of "But what does he expect," maybe give us a lead-in as to why she's changed her opinion of his storytelling skill.

Besides it’s morbid! What sensible girl wants to think that her grandfather has to die in other to get three wishes? It’s not worth it, not when grandpa’s all she’s got. But whether she wants to think about her unusual inheritance or not, life forces her.

I think this can be tightened, mainly by losing the last sentence. It's an unneeded bit of transition as it can be inferred through what comes immediately before and after.

I also think the middle two sentences can be combined.

Grandpa dies unexpectedly. With him gone, she gets her three wishes. Oh, and, by the way, a handsome jinn with a curse that only true love can break. This should take care of Little Miss Jaded.

This last bit moves very quickly -- for me, too quickly. By tightening the second paragraph, there's room to expand this final paragraph and drop a couple of more hints about some obstacles for Marielle.

The repetition of getting her three wishes would work only if that thought was expanded upon or illuminated in some way. Does her skepticism pan out about the wishes? Are her 5-yr-old dreams realized? Even if you allude to the convention of djinns being deceitful about how wishes are granted, you'll be ahead here.

"Oh, and, by the way" doesn't work for me voice-wise. It's a little too much, IMO.

I think we also need just a little better hint as to where the story's headed.

My Version

When Marielle Iris was five, she thought her grandfather was the most awesome storyteller ever. At seventeen, she thinks -- no, she knows -- he’s full of bull. Life isn't all magic and fairy tale endings. Losing her parents was the first clue. And losing her innocence when her ex slipped her a roofie at a party was the second. So that story about her inheritance being a Jinn in a bottle? Yeah, right. Next, the old man will want her to believe all that nonsense about true love conquering all.

Besides it’s morbid! What sensible girl wants to think about the person who's all she's got in the world dying in order to get three lame wishes that'll probably backfire anyway? But life screws Marielle over yet a third time when Grandpa has a sudden, fatal heart attack.

She gets her three wishes all right -- and, yeah, pretty much as expected -- along with a handsome djinn who comes with a curse that only true love can break. Of course. There's hope for her yet, though. Because even Little Miss Jaded can still learn a thing or two from fairy tales.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Query 93: Redux

The Bones of Babylon

Dear _____,

Fifteen year-old Chicago believes she is one of the last people on Earth. The skeleton she just found suggests otherwise.

The adults who run Castle Gehenna claim it’s her childhood friend Babylon, who ran away years ago, but Chicago doesn’t believe he’s dead. It turns out she’s right: that night he returns, and he tells her the secrets the adults have been keeping from her. Gehenna's walls are meant to keep Chicago and her friends isolated from what remains of the outside world, because they can control the creatures that nearly wiped out the human race.

The adults are prepared to kill to keep their secret. If the other children learn what Babylon knows, they could unleash a second wave of devastation-— one that humanity might not survive. Meanwhile Babylon sets into motion his own string of murders, determined to liberate Chicago whether she wants it or not. Chicago is sure that she can stop him, but she can't even trust herself: Babylon is using the link they share to erase her memories and alter her moods in hopes that she’ll join him against her captors. All Chicago wants is to find the good in Babylon and end the violence. If she fails, she will be forced to choose between the people she loves and the truth she can’t ignore.

THE BONES OF BABYLON is a 63,000-word post-apocalyptic fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and your consideration.

Thank you,

Comments

The changes the author made in this revision address some of the questions critters asked in the original. Kudos for that! What it doesn't quite do, IMO, is give us that clear understanding of, well, basically, what's happening. Absolutely you don't have to give it all away in a query, but I'm still not feeling as grounded here as I think I could be. And that's why objective views are crucial for everyone. So I'm going to reflect back to the author what I'm understanding -- and not understanding -- after reading this query.

Chicago is confined to a castle city. She finds a skeleton and now she thinks maybe there are others in the outside world, although she presumably found the bones within the city walls. Later we learn adults will kill to keep a secret, so maybe they've killed this person-now-skeleton. How careless of the adults not to bury or burn the dead outside the walls where their remains won't be found.

Gehenna's walls aren't very effective as Babylon seems to be able to come and go at will.

Chicago and her friends can control mysterious creatures that decimated the world's population -- but it's a secret, even from them, that they can. So they aren't. So the creatures are presumably out there still killing people because no one's controlling them.

If the children learn that they can control the creatures, then presumably the kids will of course elect to make the creatures destroy the rest of humanity -- which it seems they're doing now regardless -- rather than have the creatures turn on each other and destroy themselves.

Babylon starts killing people in order to convince Chicago -- and the other kids -- to leave Gehenna, where she seems to be safe, so she can be free to ... I don't know. (I have no clue what Babylon wants from Chicago or why.)

Babylon uses physical mind games to coerce Chicago to turn against the adults holding her captive. It seems Babylon is intent on letting the rest of the world be destroyed if the kids don't learn how to control the creatures destroying it. (Still trying to understand what Babylon's motives are.)

I'm wondering if the structure the author seems to be sticking with for this query is the most effective way to entice -- at least if some of the motivation and why's aren't going to be addressed. Maybe consider a different approach to the query? Shake things up a bit. Give the reader a better sense of what the creatures are and how the kids can control them. Put the peril of the world in at the beginning. See what happens if you write the query so that it shows the big picture first, narrows in on the story around Chicago and Babylon, then connects how the outcome of their story will affect the entire world.

Others' suggestions?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Perils Of Promotion

(This is a long post. If you don’t want to read about my book’s journey, scroll to the “Case Studies” at the end and read those. Then go read the post linked to. It should be required reading for any author with a dream. And not because it's inspirational.)

In terms of sales for an ebook-only offering, anecdotal evidence tells me Spoil of War is sitting on the hump of the bell curve, and maybe just a bit to the right of center. In the next 30-45 days, it should either break out a bit and do well or fade off the screen.

Here’s something interesting, though. I don’t know why it’s doing better than some of the other books released around the same time it was. YOU guys might be tired of my tweets and posts and Facebook promos, but you aren’t a very big group. I have 107 Twitter followers and 49 friends on Facebook. I have 91 followers on this blog, which gets about 110-120 hits a day on average. In terms of web buddies, I count myself rich! In terms of marketing, I don’t have much of a presence. Yet nearly 300 people have found – and bought – the book.

Other than some tweets and FB messages and talking about Spoil’s progress here, I’ve done one guest post where I’ve mentioned my book. A few lovely people have featured the book on their blogs and tweeted (and retweeted, thank you!) about it. A review went up this weekend on the Little Rock, Arkansas, Examiner.com site (whew, it was positive - thank you, Landra!). And just last week I had a “doh” moment when I realized I could be obnoxious and tap into Starz’ Camelot and HBO’s Game of Thrones threads on Twitter. Both series have just had their season finales. My campaign slogan for Spoil: The 99 cent cure for Camelot and Game of Thrones withdrawal. But that’s only a tweet or two a day.

In essence, up until this weekend, the book hasn’t gotten much promotion. I’ve been following the progress of authors who released debut ebooks around the same time I did who haven’t had significantly more sales – and in some cases, far fewer – for a whole lot more effort: blog tours, paid ads on review sites, gathering a couple of thousand Twitter followers, podcast radio shows, friending everyone they can on Facebook, giving away dozens of their books, holding contests for some big prizes, etc. Some authors participate in “you review my book and I’ll review yours” exchanges.

I haven’t done any of that. And I even had a couple of hiccups with Amazon over how they categorized my book where it wasn’t showing up in the general search for several days.

There are also authors who add Customer Tags and/or agree the tags already input for each other. I’ve seen pages where the tags for books selling at best a copy a day have been agreed 60 or 70 times in the hopes it will give their books more visibility in searches. No one has added tags or agreed tags on Spoil’s product pages (although I wouldn’t object if anyone did!), yet it comes up near the top – and in some cases in the #1 spot – in relevancy for many of its tags and for its most probable search terms.

Some books not gaining traction have 20+ positive reviews on their Amazon page. Spoil had 2 up until this past Friday. Now it has 3.

I’m sure the price point helped, but there are other 99 cent books struggling to sell even 100 copies in 90 days.

And Spoil is just about at the 90-day mark. I think that’s a huge milestone. Customers can search just for books released in the last 30 days or in the last 90. Once it crosses that 90-day mark, it’s no longer considered “new.” One advantage Spoil had was that it got listed as one of 60 Hot New Releases when I shifted its General Fiction category tag to Historical Fantasy (where a lot of the Arthurian titles show up). Oh that I had done that a LOT sooner! I switched the tag on June 12. Is it a coincidence that sales picked up and the book started selling consistently that same day? It worked its way up to #6 a couple of times that I saw and I had some fun when it outperformed a new Pirates of the Caribbean title (ooh, author Ann Crispin is sending swag now too - yay!). I thought it would ride that wave at least another week, but it, the Pirates book, and a host of other titles that had been on the list abruptly fell off. Basically, Amazon rearranged its front table to make room for the next new batch of hot books. Spoil went from being consistently on the first browsing page of Hot New Releases in Historical Fantasy to being on the 4th or 5th page of the Bestselling Historical Fantasy list.

I thought I would lose sales. I haven't (although it doesn’t mean I won’t!). For now, somehow, customers are still finding the book. In fact, yesterday was its best day ever, zipping up to #5723 on the charts.

Nice and average, true. But all without much promotion at all before yesterday. I attribute most of yesterday’s sales to Landra’s lovely review. I slipped a thank you to her tweet about the review into the #camelot conversation during the season finale of Camelot in the UK, but since I haven't made a sale on Amazon UK since, I don't think that helped. I do know that earlier I had slipped my own tweet into the #camelot and #gameofthrones threads and had about 15 click-throughs on the link but no buyers :o(

How do I know that? I joined Amazon Associates last week, and now I can use a special link on Twitter or Facebook or my blog that not only lets me track click-throughs, it gives me a 4% referral fee on each purchase. And that fee applies to all digital merchandise purchased during that visit, even if they don’t buy Spoil or Extinct! (So, you know, if you’re planning on buying a bunch of ebooks, if you click one of the Buy Now images over in my sidebar first, I’ll profit from it, hint hint :o) And if you’re planning on buying a Kindle, there’s a link at the bottom of the sidebar for that too.) It doesn’t cost anything to become an Amazon Associate. If you have an ebook out, either traditionally or self- pubbed, I highly recommend getting involved just so you can see the effectiveness of your social networking promotional efforts.

On July 1, I’m raising the price of Spoil to $2.99. Will sales plummet? Or will Spoil find a new audience outside of the bargain hunters? If I can rely on anecdotal evidence, it'll find that new audience of folk who don't even look at books that are 99 cents because they assume books priced that low have to be poor quality. I’ll let you know… Luckily, I’ve got a big interview scheduled for the first week in July. With Landra’s review and Jennifer’s interview, maybe it’ll be enough to ensure Amazon keeps Spoil visible and discoverable. Because when all is said and done here, despite my earlier glitches with them, it's only through Amazon's internal, automated promotional features that my book has made any appreciable sales at all.

Case Studies

Obviously self-publishing is a hard slog. But is taking the traditional route any better? Consider these two case studies of traditionally published books. Keep in mind traditionally published books have a limited shelf-life in physical stores and if they don’t move off the shelves in 3 or 4 months, they’ll wind up as returns. The first 90 days are critical (and for some category romances, you only have 30 days on the shelves to prove yourself!).
  1. In early May, a popular social networker most of you know launched his MG novel from Dial, a division of the Penguin Group. Big push, gave away an e-reader, signed a contract for a sequel. Obviously the sales model for MG novels will emphasize libraries and brick-and-mortar stores. Still, you’d think Amazon would sell a lot of hardcovers. Not so. May sales = 79, June = 27. For Kindle, May = 8, June = 13. That’s 127 total.

    That’s with ARCs and pre-release reviews and buildup. The author’s social network didn’t include the book’s primary audience – kids – but a healthy portion of the secondary audience was included: parents of kids.
  2. In March, Delacorte, a division of Random House, relegated a debut YA release to midlist treatment: no in-store promotions, no ads, nothing but some ARCs and a few reviews prior to the release. B&N elected not to carry it in its physical stores. The author waited 21 months to be published to no fanfare except two months of hard promo work she did herself, which left her exhausted and with no time for writing.

    Again, Amazon (the only place I can get numbers) probably isn’t the target retailer, but YAs do shop online. Sales for frontlist YA authors prove that (easily over 200 or 300 copies sold per month). Hardcover sales in the US and UK combined for this book are Pre-Orders = 17, Mar = 47, Apr = 24, May = 20, June = 13. For Kindle, Mar = 27, Apr = 7, May = 5, June = 6. That’s 166 total for 4 months. The book has some great reviews.

    I was gobsmacked when I read Kirsten Hubbard’s post about it all. It’s honest and tough and emotional. Everyone should read it to gain some perspective about this rollercoaster of a business.
Are traditional publishers and agents really better at predicting what might sell? Are they truly adding value worth the time and effort it takes to deal with them? Those are open questions, though I'm pretty sure the best answer for both is "It depends." I haven’t abandoned the idea of traditional publishing just yet. At least not while I still have that full out with one of those traditional publishers :o) But things are definitely getting interesting.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Amazon Sales Rankings: What? Why? Huh?

Another in my Sales VoyeurTM series: making the business of self-publishing an ebook that is doing well but isn’t a bestseller (yet!) transparent :o)

 

So you see a ranking like #8,621 on an Amazon page and want to know what it means in terms of how many copies of that book have been sold. Can you tell by the ranking?

Well, yes and no.

Is the ranking at all helpful for a reader in assessing the popularity of a book?

Well, yes and no.

I'm going to generalize here a bit -- OK, a lot -- as Amazon's algorithms are pretty closely guarded. I've seen a number of different charts and guesses across the web, but none of them seem to match up well with each other's results or my own. So I'm guessing my conclusions -- bearing in mind I've only been at this for 3 months -- come as close as anyone else's.

Note that these observations are for e-books only and only for Amazon US. Amazon UK seems to run completely separate, and it takes fewer sales to climb the ranks.

The problem with using rankings to determine if a book is popular is that you don't know if the author maybe has an ad or other placement that's generating some interest right then. A few days ago, I saw one author's book go from a ranking of 220,000 to 43,000 with the sale of 2 books within 2 hours of a blog post appearing on one of those "cheap Kindle books" sites that featured her book. Her rank dropped to 23,000 when she sold another book within another 2 hours. However, she hadn't sold any books in June prior to the post, and she's only sold one since. Her rank is around 176,000 now. So if you happened to see her book when it ranked at 23,000, you'd think it was selling a whole lot better than it actually is.

Remember, too, that the rankings are relational. Each book is judged against how all the other books out there are selling at a given point in time. So your book could zoom past someone else's that's consistently ranked about the same as yours with the sale of a single copy if the other book didn't sell at all during the same time period. Then next hour, their book sells and yours doesn't and you're back on equal ranking again.

In general, rank to sales breaks down:
  • 30,000 - 80,000 = 1 copy/day
  • 20,000 - 30,000 = 2 copies/day
  • 15,000 - 20,000 = 3 copies/day
  • 10,000 - 15,000 = 4 copies/day
  • 5,000 - 10,000 = 5-10 copies/day
  • 2,000 - 5,000 = 10-15 copies/day
  • 1,000 - 2,000 = 15-20 copies/day
Under 1,000, things start getting extremely competitive, but probably 600-1000/month. And under 100? A lot. (Anyone with more concrete data via actual sales figures over time, please chime in!)

So far, I can vouch for the number of copies sold for rankings between 8,000 and 80,000. But again, this all changes hourly and daily, so it depends on when you happen to be looking at a book's rank. A book could sell 4 copies in the morning and be ranked at, say, 12,000 by noon, then be down to 25,000 by the end of the day if no more were sold. A consistent average in rank across multiple days is your best bet for determining how well the book is doing.

Disclosure: To gain the 8,621 rank seen above on the US site, Spoil of War had been selling consistently for about 10 days (historical sales play a small part in the algorithm, it seems). And I sold 9 copies on Amazon US that day.

So how can you figure out how a book is trending?

NovelRank.com is a good site to track the fluctuations in sales rank. I've mentioned the site before, but my enthusiasm for it has cooled some because of its limited functionality. It pulls actual rank feeds so those are absolutely valid. Its conversions of those ranks to an estimate of how many actual books have sold is accurate to within about 10% for number of copies sold in a month up until about 35 copies. After that, there's a decay in whatever algorithm it's using and it begins under-reporting by 20-30% and more. Since it pulls true rank feeds from Amazon, though, you can see a pretty accurate graph and tell if a book's sales are fluctuating wildly or consistently going up or down. The flatter the waves, the more consistent the book’s sales. You want the book to flatline -- preferably at a low, low rank.

Note how the waves in the shaded area start to flatten out when a book -- Spoil of War, in this case -- starts selling a few copies a day consistently.

Here's a screen captured last night that shows US, UK and German rankings for Spoil of War. Note that the graphs are accurate, but the estimated numbers are off. For instance, it shows Spoil sold 43 copies in the US in May and 7 copies in the UK. In actuality, Spoil's sales were 49 and 8 respectively. That discrepancy isn't too bad, though.

June sales, however, are way off in the US where NovelRank estimates 79 sales and actual is 105. Since UK sales are low, the 13 estimated is close to the 14 actual. Germany (DE) is consistent only because I haven't sold a book there since last month. Unfortunately, I didn't add Germany to the rankings to watch until after the book sold, so the database has no knowledge of that sale.


Why is NovelRank useful if Amazon delivers the raw data more accurately? For your own book, NovelRank does what Amazon doesn’t and handily aggregates the US, UK, German and Canadian (print versions only for Amazon.ca) sites into one graph on a single page. That page is public for all to see. That means you can also look at the selling history of OTHER authors’ books and see not just a snapshot in time like you get on the book's product page, but how a book is trending, which can, for example, help you decide if a marketing or advertising avenue is worth your money or not.

Amazon does have an Author Central site, which provides Nielsen Bookscan reports for how well and where books are selling per site, but that feature is limited to print. Author Central also provides a graph of sales ranks, but it looks rather anemic in comparison to NovelRank’s version, and you only get rankings for one sales region.

And here's what Amazon’s report of copies sold, which updates hourly or so -- but you don’t know exactly when -- looks like. This was captured at the same time the NovelRank sales rank above matched the ranking on the Amazon product page (there can often be a time delay of an hour or two). Watching this report is like playing the slots. You never know what you’re going to find when you click the links and refresh. Win or bust? Click. Click. Click. Click. If you have compulsive tendencies, this isn’t a site for you.

US report of month-to-date unit sales. Has the number changed in the last 10 minutes? Maybe I should refresh to find out!

The UK report. The UK database of books is smaller, so even with considerably fewer sales, I've managed better sales rankings on the UK site than the US one. That's why these numbers are all relative.

Only the publisher has access to this report, so even though Amazon provides these numbers hourly-ish, an author or agent may not be aware of the actual numbers until the time the royalty statement comes due. That’s another reason why a site like NovelRank can help a traditionally published author as long as s/he pays attention to it for the rankings alone.

If anyone knows of similar tracking apps for B&N, let me know. For the record, I've only sold 9 copies of Spoil of War through B&N and just 1 copy through Smashwords this month as of yesterday, so if you have any secrets about how to boost sales in those venues, spill them, please.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk about why I think my sales suddenly took a small change for the better at Amazon a couple of weeks ago (when sales started to flatten out in the graphs above), why those sales are probably headed for a downswing in the near future, and why some books aren’t doing as well as their authors had hoped. This includes a scary story regarding a traditionally published book, so will be of interest to all.

In the meantime, I’m going to go play the slots – aka check my sales numbers – again. And you can go read this fabulous review :o)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Query Revision 95

Face-Lift 914: Home

Dear Agent,

Some violins sound magical when played by maestros, but when Home plays his violin, magic happens.

Cursed with immortality by the Faerie Queen, Home drifts about the world, never settling, returning every fifty years to repair the magical barrier that protects his hometown from the troubles of the outside world. War, plagues, famines; to his people these are mere words, but he has seen them occur many times, for as the barrier is renewed, so is his curse.

His most recent visit would have been like all the others, had a curious woman named Kasi not decided to follow him across the barrier when he left. When they are captured by soldiers, Home plays a wild song on his violin, his anger creating a dark spell that transforms the listeners, including Kasi, into animals.

Regretting what he has done, Home tries to reverse the spell, but his violin will no longer play. In order to restore both the violin and Kasi to their former selves, Home will have to revisit the dark places of his past, including the dangerous faerie realm, but he does not have much time. The barrier is already weakening, and without Home's ability to reinforce it, the war spreading across the world could destroy the town once and for all.

My fantasy novel, Home, is complete at 62,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Comments

Focusing on Home in this version helps tighten the focus of the query in general. I think that was a smart move.

You’ve also given us genre and word count here -- which you need to do. Unfortunately, now my focus is on those. 62K for an adult fantasy is extremely short. In the earlier version, I was willing to believe Kasi was a teen and Home an eternal teen and this was YA. The word count would work in that case. But with adult characters and targeted to an adult readership, I don’t think this is going to fly with agents at 62K.

Some violins sound magical when played by maestros, but when Home plays his violin, magic happens.

This is a nice opening to establish genre and character and your unique twist to magic.

Cursed with immortality by the Faerie Queen, Home drifts about the world, never settling, returning every fifty years to repair the magical barrier that protects his hometown from the troubles of the outside world.

At first, I’m thinking Home may be fae, but then he has a hometown in the mortal world, so he’s human, right? Can you add why he was cursed? We don’t know whether the Faerie Queen in this setting is good or evil, so Home could have earned that curse for all we know.

I’m also a bit torn over what Home is doing. Protecting or imprisoning? That’s a major philosophical question that doesn’t seem to be addressed.

War, plagues, famines; to his people these are mere words, but he has seen them occur many times, for as the barrier is renewed, so is his curse.

Semi-colon should be a colon.

I’m stumbling over why a curse of immortality needs to be renewed or why the curse and his renewing the barrier are connected. If he let the barrier fall, does that mean his curse would be lifted? I’m not yet convinced that what Home is doing is either smart or right.

His most recent visit would have been like all the others, had a curious woman named Kasi not decided to follow him across the barrier when he left.

No one in apparently a few hundred years has thought to leave? It sounds like the barrier is easily crossed. If the question of whether it's OK to protect a town by not allowing anyone in or out is a part of your story, Kasi being more than curious might be a good way to introduce that idea.

When they are captured by soldiers, Home plays a wild song on his violin, his anger creating a dark spell that transforms the listeners, including Kasi, into animals.

Regretting what he has done, Home tries to reverse the spell, but his violin will no longer play.

What does Home regret? That he freed himself? Or the way in which he freed himself? Or just that Kasi got caught too?

Is there a reason the violin stops playing? Sounds a bit like a plot contrivance without a reason behind it.

In order to restore both the violin and Kasi to their former selves, Home will have to revisit the dark places of his past, including the dangerous faerie realm, but he does not have much time.

By mentioning the faerie realm, I’m guessing the violin’s magic is somehow connected to the realm. But if Home is on the outs with the Queen, does he expect help there? And if not help, how does he think he can coerce a realm of magical beings to restore his magic when he has none?

The barrier is already weakening, and without Home's ability to reinforce it, the war spreading across the world could destroy the town once and for all.

So has he been looking for a way to restore his magic for 50 years? If he was leaving town when Kasi followed him, I’m assuming he’d already reinforced the magic for that cycle. Maybe this world follows the idea that time works differently in the faerie realm? A day there is like 20 years or so in the mortal world? Without validation of a time differential, then Home being short on time doesn’t make sense if the concern is about his hometown. If the concern focused on Kasi, that might be more practical depending on what kind of animal she’s been turned into and its life expectancy.

My fantasy novel, Home, is complete at 62,000 words. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

I think you can delete the “I look forward” sentence. It’s polite but not necessary.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Query 82: Redux 2

Erhistaut

Dear Mr./Mrs. AGENT NAME,

Seventeen-year-old Heiren Delaire thinks her peasant father is a fool for setting off after Erhistaut, the sword of miracles. That’s before he’s murdered by the demon Arawn.

Heiren spent her life protecting her ill father, the last living member of her family. Now she wants revenge for his death, even if it means hunting down the legendary sword, Erhistaut, to get it. Forged at the dawn of the First Age, the sword is the source of the demons’ powers. If Heiren can overcome its demonic influence, Erhistaut’s destruction will vanquish Arawn.

Arawn cares little for Heiren's quest until he realizes she is the one. The one the angels will use as their pawn and guide to the sword, ending their age-old battle. While the angels can protect Heiren from death, they can’t protect everything she loves. Arawn will torture her friends and demolish the realm of Andumir to stop her.

It’s not just about revenge anymore. The fate of a kingdom rests in Heiren’s hands. She presses onward even though she knows the moment she touches Erhistaut, the demons will come back. All of them.

ERHISTAUT is a 73,000-word fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Comments

This revision reads much better. The author has obviously put a lot of constructive thought into it and it shows!

The only quibble I have is in the last descriptive paragraph. I think maybe we need to know that she can’t defeat the demons until they’re back in this world. That she has to lure them all back in order to destroy them when she destroys the sword – if that’s the case. But if she’s the angels’ pawn, does she really know that touching the sword will bring back the demons?

You can fudge details a bit in the query to simplify things at need, of course. But her knowing and being a pawn seem to contradict each other.

Do realize that I’m reading quite closely here, though, and it may not seem such a quibble on a quick read before the agent glances at the accompanying page samples.

OK, I lied. I do have one more quibble: “the last living member of her family” isn’t quite accurate since Heiren’s alive too. Maybe “the only other living member” instead?

Aside from those small issues, I think this is ready to take out for a test drive! Good job!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Query Revision 94

Face-Lift 917: Legend of the Phoenix

Dear Agent Person:

Ethan believes he will be a hero, despite the fact that the fairy who foresaw his rise to fame was actually a drug addict on one of her usual trips. Anna, the trouble-making young princess, just wants to be the typical damsel in distress, saved by a true knight to live happily ever after or something boring like that. However, life sucks for most people, and hardly anyone actually gets the role they desire.

After learning his status as a hero was not written in stone, Ethan discovers an ancient legendary sword that he thinks will help him become a legend himself. Due to his horrendous bad luck, however, Ethan accidently breaks the sword in two while trying to save Anna from a hungry gremlin. His mistake releases the evil queen Dahlia of the nymphs. Dahlia is weak but quickly regaining strength and simply wants a happy life filled with destruction and suffering to those around her. Horrified by what he has caused, Ethan and Anna head on a dangerous journey to defeat Dahlia, that is, if they don’t get captured by the king’s guards first for stealing the sword.

Throughout their journey, Ethan and Anna encounter nymphs, fairies, not-so-wise old men, talking hippy unicorns and a king and queen baked out of their minds on drugs. Ultimately, they come face to face with the terrible queen Dahlia. However, can Ethan and Anna accept their true roles in order to stop Dahlia, or will they fail to correct Ethan’s mistake and ultimately cause world annihilation?

Legend of the Phoenix is a 95,000 word Young Adult Fantasy novel. I am an unpublished author looking for a home for my manuscript, and I feel that AGENCY would make an excellent fit for my story and me. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Comments

Humor is difficult. What's even more difficult is translating long-form, situational humor into short-form query.

This query, I think, isn't quite striking the balance between showing the reader a humorous story and a story with heart. Humor, of course, is very subjective, so I think getting lots of comments about whether a humorous piece is working is very important.

If we break down the humor aspects, I think we find:

  • The situational humor needs to be clearly defined.
  • Irony needs to be set up and then its outcome anticipated in the reader's mind.
  • Simply meeting quirky characters does not make a story funny.
  • Descriptions of humor need to be humorous.
  • Reader discovery is a better tool than out-and-out telling a reader something.
  • Fast and pacey leave a better impression about humor than longer, slower sentences.
A lot of unnecessary words are slowing the pace of the query down. Tightening it, I think, will be a good first step here. For starters, you can delete despite the fact, multiple uses of actually, that he thinks, throughout their journey, however and ultimately.

My Version

Now the voice in my version is very different from the voice you give us in your version. I think the fun factor could still be amped up quite a bit, but that might make the voice much too different from the voice in your book. But I do believe if you go for crisper, shorter sentences and spotlight the situational humor better, the query will be more appealing to a greater number of readers.

Sixteen-year-old Ethan's future as a damsel-saving hero is in the bag: It's been foreseen. Too bad that career advice came from a fairy strung out on one too many magic mushrooms.

Anna, a trouble-making young princess, has her career mapped out too: meteoric rise as damsel-in-distress followed by early retirement in the land of happily-ever-after.

What could possibly go wrong with well-grounded plans like that? Right.

Fate seems to be cooperating when Ethan stumbles across a legendary sword that comes complete with a regulation prophecy. Something about making its wielder a legend too. Check. Meanwhile, Anna cleverly gets herself assaulted by a hungry gremlin just as a cute boy with a big sword happens by. Check and check. With his first mighty blow, Ethan misses the gremlin and breaks the sword in two. Oops. Double oops when his mistake releases Dahlia, queen of the nymphs who, after a few hundred years captive in a soul-sucking dimension of hades, is ready to settle down to a happy life destroying everyone and everything around her.

Lacking any fallback career plans to fall back on, Ethan and Anna head out on a dangerous journey to defeat Dahlia. Dogged at every step by a requisite list of quirky characters -- unwise old men, talking unicorns, drugged-out royalty and a host of hippie-fied fairies -- Ethan and Anna ultimately come face-to-face with the terrible nymph queen herself.

Poor kids. Following plan is never as easy as it seems.

LEGEND OF THE PHOENIX is a 95,000 word Young Adult Fantasy novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Query 93

The Bones of Babylon

Dear fantastic agent of fantasticness,

Fifteen year-old Chicago is one of the last people on Earth. And she has found a body.

Though the adults of Castle Gehenna claim it's Babylon, her childhood friend who ran away years ago, she refuses to believe he’s dead. When her attempts to leave Gehenna to search for Babylon are thwarted, she finds him instead in her bedroom. He tells her the secrets the adults have kept all her life: that Chicago and her friends are not alone, that they are unwitting prisoners inside Gehenna’s walls, and that they possess an intoxicating power over the creatures that nearly wiped out the human race.

On one side, the adults take lethal precautions to ensure the stability of Gehenna and the survival of what remains of the human race. On the other, Babylon sets into motion a series of events that will end with the annihilation of everything Chicago has ever known. As Babylon’s only friend, Chicago is sure that she can stop him before his plans reach fruition, but everyone is suspect. Not even her mind is safe: Babylon is using the link they share to erase her memories and alter her moods, determined to make her join his side in the coming cataclysm. All Chicago wants is to find the good in Babylon and end the violence, but she is will be forced to choose between the ones she loves and the truth she can't ignore.

THE BONES OF BABYLON is a 60,000-word post-apocalyptic fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and your consideration, and I hope that we can work together.

Comments

The author’s writing shows confidence and there are some nice hints of story here. Ultimately, though, I’m not sure the hints add up enough to a good feel for the story overall. I know there’s some impending disaster looming, but I’m not clear what it is or why it’s happening.

Fifteen year-old Chicago is one of the last people on Earth. And she has found a body.

The first sentence establishes that this is a PA novel, so that’s a nice expectation. The second sentence, though, sets this up as a mystery. Yet none of the rest of the query follows through on this idea. In fact, we never come back to the body. It’s seemingly an unimportant thread so why does the query lead with this detail?

Though the adults of Castle Gehenna claim it's Babylon, her childhood friend who ran away years ago, she refuses to believe he’s dead.

Denial is one thing, but why would she try to find him? Is she simply trying to disprove the adults?

When her attempts to leave Gehenna to search for Babylon are thwarted,

Maybe make this sentence active and concrete: When she tries to leave Gehenna, the enforcers/her parents lock her in her room/ground her. I think giving us an idea as to the extent she’s being prevented from leaving would help world build. It would also give us a clue just how hard she’s trying to find Babylon.

she finds him instead in her bedroom.

Finding Babylon in her bedroom seems a bit inexplicable in the query. She thinks about him and he shows up? Are those really his bones and he’s a ghost? You can keep some mystery, I think, but I as reader want some clue here as to how and why.

He tells her the secrets the adults have kept all her life: that Chicago and her friends are not alone, that they are unwitting prisoners inside Gehenna’s walls, and that they possess an intoxicating power over the creatures that nearly wiped out the human race.

I’m not clear on the statement “are not alone.” We’re told earlier Chicago is one of the last people on earth and then right after this statement that the human race was nearly wiped out. So are there more people in the world than the query leads us to believe otherwise?

On one side, the adults take lethal precautions to ensure the stability of Gehenna and the survival of what remains of the human race.

This is pretty vague language (i.e., “lethal precautions”) and, if I’m reading correctly, I’m siding with the adults here.

On the other, Babylon sets into motion a series of events that will end with the annihilation of everything Chicago has ever known.

Again, very vague. And what’s Babylon’s motivation? Is he in league with the creatures? You don't need -- or even want -- to answer all the questions, but I think the query needs a bit more detail to entice.

As Babylon’s only friend, Chicago is sure that she can stop him before his plans reach fruition, but everyone is suspect.

I have no idea why “everyone is suspect.” Is Babylon not working alone? Is he recruiting? It would help a bit to know what kinds of events have been set in motion. Have leaders been assassinated? Is he about to trigger an worldquake? Is he sucking souls? At this point, it feels anything could be happening, and you want your query to show enough specificity to demonstrate the uniqueness of your story and world.

Not even her mind is safe: Babylon is using the link they share to erase her memories and alter her moods, determined to make her join his side in the coming cataclysm. All Chicago wants is to find the good in Babylon and end the violence, but she is will be forced to choose between the ones she loves and the truth she can't ignore.

A hint more of why Chicago remains so loyal to Babylon would help, I think. She hasn’t seen him in years, he suddenly shows up and tells her secrets about the adults then proves he has secrets of his own, then he starts a second apocalypse and she’s convinced she can stop him.

THE BONES OF BABYLON is a 60,000-word post-apocalyptic fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and your consideration, and I hope that we can work together.

I’d delete the “and I hope” clause.

I LOVE the title!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Query 74: Redux 2

The Desmona Child

Dear Agent,

Looking back, Marine Desmona might have done things differently.

She wouldn’t have danced with Duke Sinclair, let his cold hands touch her while his eyes absorbed light in that uncanny, lifeless way. She wouldn’t have gone to the stable alone, where he could ambush her and attempt to pry into her mind. And she wouldn’t have hesitated to escape into the trees framing Adara’s borders.

Now, locked in a magic closet and chained to a conjured bed, she has only half-hopes of being rescued. Her grieving father might end up a soulless slave to Duke Sinclair, who tormented her with scandalous caresses and cruel promises. The Duke might’ve thought immortality was valuable, but being the future bride of a madman was unappealing to her, especially if death couldn’t offer refuge.

All because she has magic, a throwback heritage from before Adaran kings burned witches.

Having the magic was bad enough – she’d be burned alive in front of cheering spectators if her powers were discovered by anyone other than the Duke – but he kept her family’s secret quiet because he wanted to use her. She was rare, a womb that could pass on magic to another generation.

Yes. If Marine had one more chance, she’d change everything. She’d escape, leave Adara behind, and head to Atlantis. There, she’d learn to be more powerful than Duke Sinclair. She could save her father.

Now, if rescued, she’d make up for her stupid mistakes.

THE DESMONA CHILD is a 85,000-word YA fantasy. The fall of Atlantis occurs in the sequel, THE DESMONA BRIDE.

Comments

This is another query revision where the structure has been completely re-envisioned and is now heading in the right direction, I think. Overall, this one entices me a lot more than the previous versions.

What doesn’t work for me are the negatives – the things Marine wouldn’t do – and the passives. By making those present and active, the query will be strengthened, I think. There’s also some tense shifting going on that needs to be cleaned up. And I think the query would be stronger if Marine wasn’t waiting around to be rescued throughout. That could be cleaned up by simply rephrasing the “Now, if rescued” phrase.

My Version

Looking back, 18-year-old Marine Desmona can clearly count every one of her stupid mistakes.

The first mistake was dancing with Duke Sinclair and letting his cold hands touch her while his eyes absorbed light in that uncanny, lifeless way. The second was going to the stable alone where he could ambush her and rape her mind. The third was not fleeing Adara and heading for Atlantis the moment she had the chance. But of course, she would never have left her father behind. Not then.

Now, locked in a magic closet and chained to a conjured bed, she can only dream of rescue from the madman who torments her with scandalous caresses and cruel promises. The sorcerer who means to make her his bride and condemn her father to a future as a soulless slave. All because she has magic, a throwback heritage from the days when Adaran kings hunted witches for sport.

If anyone other than the duke should discover her powers, they’d burn her alive in front of cheering spectators. The duke, however, doesn’t plan to give her up. No, he wants to use her. More to the point, he wants – needs – a womb that can pass on magic to another generation. That can grant him immortality.

Grabbing her one opportunity for escape, Marina rushes out of Adara and toward Atlantis, the City of Magic. There she intends to become more powerful than Duke Sinclair so she can make that sorcerer skank pay for ravaging her, body and mind. But mostly, so she can save her father.

THE DESMONA CHILD is a standalone 85,000-word YA fantasy. The sequel, THE DESMONA BRIDE, chronicles the fall of Atlantis and the crucial role Marina plays in its destruction.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Here's To Success!

I am quite delighted to celebrate Chelsea Pitcher getting representation for her novel, The S-Word. The lucky agent is Sandy Lu of the Perkins Agency.

You'll remember the query from Evil Editor's site and here and here. Plus the first page was workshopped here.

Chelsea was kind enough to share the query version that snagged Sandy as well as the version that garnered the most requests (they appear below). The takeaways for us, I think, are:
  • It's a subjective business as to what's going to be THE thing that works.
  • A good story well told will out no matter how it's packaged.
  • Queries don't have to be perfect -- both of Chelsea's versions are very good; don't get my intent wrong here! We can always quibble and revise till either the query never gets sent out or it's drained of all its voice.
  • Go with your gut in the end.
In other Chelsea news, her short story, "The Raven and the Razor," has been picked up for Francesca Lia Block's Love/Magick e-anthology and will be out around Valentine's Day. I had the pleasure of reading the first half of the story after Chelsea took advantage of the 5-page crit offer for buying both the Extinct Anthology and Spoil of War (thank you again to everyone who did!!). I didn't want to wait till the dang thing was published to read the rest, so I cleverly asked Chelsea if she would send the balance of the story -- and she did! So, I've read it and you haven't. Ha! But you'll be able to read it soon too. And you'll want to.

Here's the query version for The S-Word that Sandy saw (it was a "middle version"):


Seventeen-year-old Lizzie is the Prude of Verity High until a tryst with her best friend’s boyfriend transforms her into Queen of the Sluts. Suddenly the S-word shows up on everything: her notebooks, her locker, even her car. And BFF Angelina won’t look her in the face, let alone give her a chance to explain.

Then Lizzie commits suicide and Angelina is wracked with the guilt of what now seems like petty abandonment. To complicate matters, Lizzie’s tormenters appear to have moved on without remorse. Fueled by her anger, Angelina launches an investigation into their private lives, hoping to expose their secrets as a form of karmic justice. But what she discovers is that Lizzie kept more secrets than anyone, including the secret of what really happened the night she was branded a slut. Now Angelina’s not just angry, she’s fuming mad, and she’s about to exact revenge on the boy who hurt Lizzie the most. 

And the later query version that got the most requests:
When seventeen-year-old Lizzie commits suicide, her best friend Angie is devastated she wasn't able to prevent it. So what if Lizzie got a little too entangled with the prom queen's boyfriend? Her classmates had no right to brand her "Queen of the Sluts". They certainly shouldn't have painted the s-word on all her belongings. It even showed up on her car. In the span of a month, the bullies at Verity High transformed Lizzie into a pariah, and Angie felt powerless to stop them.
 
Not anymore.

Fueled by guilt and anger, Angie digs into the private lives of the people who tormented her best friend. Her goal is to expose their secrets as a form of vigilante justice. But her digging unearths something she never expected: Lizzie kept more secrets than anyone, including the secret of what really happened with the prom queen's boyfriend. Now Angie's not just angry, she's fuming mad, and she's about to exact revenge on the boy who hurt Lizzie the most. 

Go Chelsea!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Query Revision 92

Face-Lift 912: Defy Reason
[Re-titled from Camp Coyote]

Jo Redfox and her mother Spooky, a powerful, reincarnated Seer, run Camp Coyote, a summer training center for young werewolves vying for a spot in the elite pack of Cosmic Law Enforcers known as the Scythe. When Spooky is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jo takes over the camp while her mom beseeches the Constellati Court to save the life of their favored Seer. Jo’s hope runs out when her mom fails to return.

With every moment passing bringing her mom’s death closer, Jo is up shit creek and her only paddle is an old journal full of secrets Spooky never shared, and the cryptic post-its her mom scattered randomly in Jo’s path. When the signs point to the Scythe, despite their vow to protect the Redfoxes, Jo knows the stars aren’t the only ones screwing her over.

Jo reluctantly accepts help from John Casteel. The Casteels owe the Redfoxes much more than just the fortune the Seer afforded them, and John never leaves debts unpaid. His specialty is finding what doesn’t want to be found. He will do everything in his power to find Jo’s mom and win Jo’s trust because from the second he laid eyes on the down-home country girl, John wanted her for his own. But he has no idea how deadly the obstacles separating them are – shifters from the sticks don’t like outsiders much and breaking the Cosmic Law by bringing him in to the inner circle will paint a stellar target on his back.

Old enemies and dangerous secrets stream from the shadows of Spooky’s past to hunt the Redfoxes. With only a fraction of her mom’s gift, Jo is at a disadvantage in this cosmic game of deadly hide and seek. Never one to scare easy, until she finds a post-it saying, “Goodbye”, nothing will stop her. But time is running out and the last secret Spooky hid from her daughter will change Jo forever and threaten the tenuous trust between her and John.

DEFY REASON is a 120,000 word paranormal romance set in the wilds of West Virginia’s New River Gorge and my debut novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Comments

The author is worried she's lost her voice in this revision in trying to bring the query to ground. She's also over-written, trying to get all the explanations in, which is a VERY natural part of the cycle of query revision. The query is too long and it needs more focus. Taking a close look at the genres in play here will, I think, help with the focus.

Points to include for the paranormal part:

  • Shifters
  • Native American/celestial-based pack law as a unique differentiator
Points to include for the romance part:
  • Who Jo is
  • What Jo wants
  • Who John is
  • What John needs
  • The dark moment that separates them
Points to include for the suspense part:
  • Mom disappears (I'm not convinced we need to know she's dying; in the query it doesn't seem to make a difference)
  • Discovery that who Jo thought were family friends and protectors may be the enemy
Voice Attributes:
  • Blunt
  • Honest
  • A bit crude
What's unconventional about this story is that it seems neither the hero nor heroine is a shifter. That helps with the focus because it's now more romantic suspense with paranormal elements and, in the query, the paranormal bits can be relegated to secondary status.

As for the new title, DEFY REASON does nothing for me, especially given the genre. Maybe look to the celestial overtones for inspiration?

My Version

This reduces the word count by about 25% and takes the focus off of Mom and puts it more squarely on Jo and John.

When Jo Redfox's powerful, reincarnated Seer of a mother, Spooky, goes missing, Jo discovers the stars that power her less-than-perfect Sight aren't the only ones screwing her over. Cryptic clues Spooky left behind point to the very folk sworn to protect them: an elite force trained up at the camp she and Spooky run for the Scythe -- cosmic law enforcers of the werewolf kind.

Desperate, Jo calls in a marker from ex-marine John Casteel, whose family owes a blood debt to the Redfoxes. Never one to to leave debts unpaid, John agrees to put his talent for finding what doesn't want to be found to work for Jo. The only problem, after one look at the down-home country girl, John can't be sure whether it's his honor or his dick making the decisions now. And he might think differently if he knew just how lethal helping her could be -- shifters from the sticks don't much like outsiders sniffing around.

With John's honed deltoids and six-pack abs a nagging distraction, Jo follows shadowy clues from Spooky's past as the truth of who her mother really is slowly surfaces. Then the hunt for her mother takes a deadly turn. [The Scythe's pack leader figures out she and John are closing in on secrets best left buried] and the cosmic game of hide and seek escalates. Now time is running out, and there's still one last secret Spooky hid from her daughter that, when found, will change Jo forever and threaten the tenuous bond between her and John.

WOLFSIGHT/FOXLIGHT/STARFOX is a 120,000 word paranormal romance set in the wilds of West Virginia’s New River Gorge.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Query Revision 91

Face-Lift 531: A Thief's Honour

[The author assures us she hasn't been working on this book and this query only since that facelift was posted. ;o) She's simply thought of a new approach. I think most of us can relate!]

Dear Agentyperson

"A Thief's Honour" is a Fantasy novel, complete at 90,000 words.

Master thief Falcon was once the talk of Thesity. He could work his way into any house, charm his way out of any situation, and owned the country's finest collection. Then his partner-in-crime Roland betrayed him.

After twenty years hard labour, the Falcon is only Jenn, a man broken in body and mind. Unable to resume his old ways, he still carries the thief brand. Nobody will employ him, or even serve him in a shop. Those twenty years have been kinder to Roland: he's a member of the city board, with his own private army and a mansion to call home. Jenn wants to be notorious again, to hear his name spoken in the streets, to make the rich nervous and the poor smile. But most of all he wants revenge.

Yet revenge comes at a price. As Jenn builds a new life--with friends, family, and a new job--that price becomes dearer. Perhaps he should accept that his wings are clipped and settle for a safe, sensible life. Then an opportunity to strike back at Roland drops into Jenn's lap: his old friend wants Jenn to steal evidence that incriminates Roland as a thief... from the fortified house that defied Jenn when he was young and fit, and Roland is holding Jenn's daughter hostage. This is a job for the Falcon, but can Jenn bring him back?

(Some stuff about me here)

Comments

I think you're going to get critters who fall into two camps with this. The first will be perfectly happy that the writing demonstrated here coupled with the inciting incident are enough to carry the query. The other will tell you the first two paragraphs are all backstory and to reduce them to a couple of sentences and talk more about what happens in the story's present.

Is the book set up in three acts where Act 1 ends with the betrayal and Act 2 ends with Roland coercing Jenn back into the game? If so, then I think this structure will be fine. The only thing to maybe consider is adding a bit of motivation for why Roland betrays his partner to begin with.

If the main action of the story is that third paragraph, though, and the betrayal takes place in the first few pages, then I'd say more is needed to flesh out that last paragraph.

As is, it sounds like your story is character-driven rather than plot-driven. True? Is there some quirk or quality about Jenn you can bring out in the query? I know you want us to sympathize with him, but I feel he's been painted somewhat stereotypically as an old thief who yearns for the glory days.

One thing I'm not getting from the query is a good sense why this is a fantasy and not set in, say, 1930s Paris or 1970s London. It feels like a familiar "old thief coming out of retirement for one last play" type story save that it takes place in a fantasy town and time. I think a few words of world-building will help set the story apart. [Edited to add: Ah, I see that was a quibble in the original version too. Note I did my crit here before going back and reading the original.] At Sword's Point comes to mind as a fantasy that isn't really a fantasy, but the elaborateness of the games the nobles play is what helps categorize that one, I think. [Edited again after reading the comments to the original to add: Aha, Barbara also used the same book to illustrate this point. Coincidence? I think not.] Maybe something similar is going on here that could be brought out in the query?

There are a couple of contradictions you may want to address. We're told nobody will employ Jenn in P2, but then he has a new job in P3. We're told Jenn can work his way into any house in P1, then learn there is a house that defied him in P3.

Specify the what of "the country's finest collection." Jewels? Artwork? Rare coins?

I do think the last paragraph can be strengthened some.

Yet revenge comes at a price. As Jenn builds a new life--with friends, family, and a new job--that price becomes dearer. Perhaps he should accept that his wings are clipped and settle for a safe, sensible life.

At this point, since Jenn doesn't really seem to have a plan regarding revenge, I'm not sure I understand what the price is nor what he's thinking of doing. Does he want to murder Roland? Destroy his base of power? Rob him of his wealth? Does Jenn feel it must be so public that Jenn will lose everything he's built since being freed?

Then an opportunity to strike back at Roland drops into Jenn's lap: his old friend wants Jenn to steal evidence that incriminates Roland as a thief... from the fortified house that defied Jenn when he was young and fit, and Roland is holding Jenn's daughter hostage. This is a job for the Falcon, but can Jenn bring him back?

On a critical read, Roland doesn't seem to have a real reason for engaging Jenn, except for Jenn being someone Roland can coerce by threatening his family. Otherwise, Jenn is old, out of practice and wasn't able to break into the house in question in his prime. What would make Roland think Jenn is the right man for the job? I can see Jenn convincing himself that maybe he can bring back Falcon, but why would Roland think he could? After 20 years, you'd think Roland would have trained up someone in that private army of his who could take on the task.

I think using the phrase of 'an opportunity dropping into Jenn's lap' trivializes the kidnapping. Could Roland maybe force the opportunity onto Jenn instead?

As arranged in that one long sentence, holding Jenn's daughter seems more like an afterthought than a prime motivator. Maybe separate that bit out into its own sentence.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Query 89: Redux

Cry of the Witch

Dear Agent,

Callie Richards’s seventeenth birthday was definitely one to remember. Hot, dizzy and nauseated to most people would be signs of the flu. But Callie doesn't get cold medicine or a cool washcloth from her grandma but the evolving truth. She’s a witch, potentially the most powerful witch in existence. And her unfocused powers just came in.

She learns that numerous family members were slaughtered at the hands of an evil sorcerer named Bellary and he‘s coming for Callie next. Bellary has sworn to make the non-magical community his energy source and with his talent of absorbing magical powers from his victims he has become unmatched. However to obtain true invincibility he must wait until Callie’s powers over all five elements are fully mature and she can focus them at will.

Callie rises to lead a powerful coven entwined with multiple layers of magic contributed by an empathic, a necromancer and a vampire. The group uncovers a rare tribal magic running through the heart of the town. Callie and her coven may be able to control it in time with practice. However Callie has only learned to focus three of the elements and the coven’s inexperience puts them at a deadly disadvantage. Bellary’s first attack leaves Callie’s boyfriend paying the price of their immature powers with his life. It’s up to Callie to become the witch she was born to be. If she fails again both her powers and the world will be his to control.

CRY OF THE WITCH a 106,000 word YA urban fantasy.

Thank you for you time and consideration.

Comments
 
To be honest, I think this version is less clear than the original. For me, the different kinds of magic all run together. We have a witch whose craft might be elemental in nature, a sorcerer who absorbs magic (but only when those magical powers are mature -- and it seems like he can absorb all kinds?) and who can use non-magicals as energy sources, an empath, a necromancer (who I usually think of as villainous, so I'm not sure how s/he's different from the evil sorcerer), a vampire, and rare tribal magic. I can't wrap my head around that many different magics and understand how they can all work together and/or against one another.

I'm also not clear on the coven. Bring in different magics to make it strong: check. Bring together a bunch of magical folk who have yet to come into their powers and call it a powerful coven: uncheck. Are there no magical folk whose powers are mature -- like grandma -- they can recruit into the coven?

And then I'm afraid we have what seems like a contradictory plot point. First, Bellary must wait for Callie to come into her power. But he attacks before she's mastered her craft? Or before any of the others in the coven do either? How does that benefit Bellary?

I don't think we need her symptoms or the relief in the first paragraph. Or grandma if she's not integral to the story other than to serve as the family's geneologist. And is her boyfriend one of the coven members mentioned or a non-magical person?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Query 82: Redux

Erhistaut

Dear Agent,

Seventeen-year-old Heiren Delaire hates her foolish father for setting off after the legendary sword, Erhistaut. That is, until a demon-possessed captain kills him and murders their king.

Now, Heiren wants revenge. Even if it means she must hunt down Erhistaut to get it. She joins forces with a magic-wielding peasant boy and a young palace guard to find the sword that demons forged in the days before they were cast from the earth. If Heiren can find the sword, its power will destroy the demon captain.

When the demon, Arawn, realizes her quest, he sets the country aflame in his rage. The power of angels protects Heiren, but the demon will torture her friends to keep her away from the sword.

Fortunately for Arawn, the sword has an ability of which Heiren does not know; if she finds Erhistaut before she learns how to wield it, the demons will be able to come back through the sword’s power. All of them.

They’ll come back to destroy the world.

ERHISTAUT is a 71,500-word fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Comments

Another true re-envisioning of how to revise a query, so kudos for taking that step, author! The MC's goal and the stakes at hand are a lot clearer in this version. There are a couple of stumbling points for me, but this is, I think, the version to work from.

Seventeen-year-old Heiren Delaire hates her foolish father for setting off after the legendary sword, Erhistaut. That is, until a demon-possessed captain kills him and murders their king.

A good start overall, IMO.

Maybe change "That is, until" to "That's before"?

If the demon possessing the captain is Arawn, I don't think for query purposes we need to know Arawn possessed some captain before killing folk. That introduces a walking body that's just another layer of complication.

Now, Heiren wants revenge. Even if it means she must hunt down Erhistaut to get it. She joins forces with a magic-wielding peasant boy and a young palace guard to find the sword that demons forged in the days before they were cast from the earth. If Heiren can find the sword, its power will destroy the demon captain.

If the demons have been cast from the earth, how is Arawn here now? If possessing a human is a loophole there, it seems they haven't actually been cast away.

When the demon, Arawn, realizes her quest, he sets the country aflame in his rage. The power of angels protects Heiren, but the demon will torture her friends to keep her away from the sword.

This is where I start losing the thread of the demon's motivation. Daddy was seeking the sword and he was killed. OK. I assumed the king was murdered for some political type reason that didn't have anything to do with the sword, but maybe not? Still, the demon didn't go on a rampage. Why does a group of teens looking for the sword send him into such a rage?

The angels come as a bit of a surprise written this way. My bigger question here, though, is why the angels are protecting Heiren but not her friends? Is there something about Heiren that has the angels bodyguarding her and Arawn firestorming?

Fortunately for Arawn, the sword has an ability of which Heiren does not know; if she finds Erhistaut before she learns how to wield it, the demons will be able to come back through the sword’s power. All of them.

It sounds like having Heiren find the sword ASAP would be in Arawn's best interest. So that's another reason why I don't understand why he's trying to STOP her. Seems he would be trying to hurry her along so she doesn't accidentally run into someone who knows how it needs to be wielded. I'm assuming the demon doesn't know where the sword is either.

They’ll come back to destroy the world.

I like this ending.

ERHISTAUT is a 71,500-word fantasy novel for young adults. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Monday, June 13, 2011

Query 90

Face-Lift 909: Dominion

When 16-year-old Nova McDonough uproots to the one-stop-light town of Raceland, Kentucky to live with her estranged father, a crow begins stalking her everywhere she goes. Nova wants to blend in, but as her first day at school progresses, she makes sassy bully Johnda Mulroy’s hit list and then becomes weirdo numero uno when the crow enters the cafeteria, freaks everybody out, and then lands on Nova’s shoulder. Later, an ancient dragon crashes a company picnic where Nova is a guest. Being badgered by a bird seems minor in comparison. That’s when local boy, Robert Blevins, finally starts offering answers.

Robert tells Nova hers is one of six families who still wield Biblical Noah’s power of dominion over animals. He and Johnda are also in practice. The root of dominion lies inside a temple hidden within the Appalachian woods. The temple is in peril, thanks to an expansion project in the works for the local steel mill. Some, like Johnda, will kill to protect their mystical birthright, opting to wield the dragon as a weapon against the factory to squash the expansion.

The conflict worsens when Nova and Robert intervene, rescuing the dragon’s first intended victim. Together they must figure out how to protect their gift without allowing the bloodshed of innocents. Nova must also grapple with her feelings for Robert; feelings that his girlfriend wouldn’t like. Their decisions make them Johnda’s next targets and the more Nova uncovers the secret history of dominion, the more she is convinced her own father has killed for it in the past.

DOMINION is a paranormal fantasy for young adults. Complete at 70,000 words, it has the potential to become the first book in a trilogy, similar to SHIVER, by Maggie Stiefvater, and BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Comments

When 16-year-old Nova McDonough uproots to the one-stop-light town of Raceland, Kentucky to live with her estranged father, a crow begins stalking her everywhere she goes.

Query 89 started off with a teen moving to a small town, too. I wonder how many YA queries start that way since it seems to be a convention that most YA books start with the MC moving to a new town and starting a new school.

The estrangement is necessary to the story, but why does Nova wind up with him? Is it her decision to move to such a small town? A quick explanation, if it is quick, could work well here.

Nova wants to blend in, but as her first day at school progresses, she makes sassy bully Johnda Mulroy’s hit list and then becomes weirdo numero uno when the crow enters the cafeteria, freaks everybody out, and then lands on Nova’s shoulder.

A lot of this could be tightened. For example, we can assume the day progresses.

If six families in the small town have dominion too, wouldn’t the populace be getting used to animals acting strangely? Or does Nova have some different power/attraction than the others?

Later, an ancient dragon crashes a company picnic where Nova is a guest.

This tidbit seems to be dropped in rather abruptly. Aside from introducing the dragon, what is the reader supposed to understand from this? That the dragon is making contact with Nova like the crow is? If so, seems she would have some dominion over it same as Johnda does. Does the dragon interact with Nova?

“Later” makes it sound like the picnic is taking place on the first day of school too, but aren’t most company family picnics held on Saturdays? Is the company the steel mill and does her dad work there?

Being badgered by a bird seems minor in comparison.

I think this is a “duh” statement that can be deleted.

That’s when local boy, Robert Blevins, finally starts offering answers.

Robert tells Nova hers is one of six families who still wield Biblical Noah’s power of dominion over animals. He and Johnda are also in practice.

Didn’t God grant humanity in general dominion over animals, not just Noah? What does “in practice” mean? They’re still learning, or they practice dominionism?

The root of dominion lies inside a temple hidden within the Appalachian woods.

What is meant by “root?” Is it an actual object or a spiritual base of power? Is there a reason it’s in Appalachia and not hidden somewhere Noah would have accessed it? Or are there lots of these temples and they appear wherever practitioners gather? We don’t need the whole history here, just a hint why this story is set in America.

The temple is in peril, thanks to an expansion project in the works for the local steel mill.

This sentence is nice and succinct and works.

Some, like Johnda, will kill to protect their mystical birthright, opting to wield the dragon as a weapon against the factory to squash the expansion.

There are a couple of ideas here that need better separation, I think. Will the ones with dominion lose their power if the temple is destroyed? Is it “some” or Johnda who is opting to wield the dragon? Did someone get killed at the picnic?

The conflict worsens when Nova and Robert intervene, rescuing the dragon’s first intended victim.

What conflict is being referenced here? Given its placement, it should be referring to the dragon going against innocents, but I think you mean the dominion folk are split and in conflict.

Together they must figure out how to protect their gift without allowing the bloodshed of innocents.

So are Nova and Robert also working against the adults with power? I think this aspect, as it’s one of the obstacles, could be played up more in the query.

Nova must also grapple with her feelings for Robert; feelings that his girlfriend wouldn’t like.

Perhaps you can work this in a bit more organically if it's a major bit?

Their decisions make them Johnda’s next targets and the more Nova uncovers the secret history of dominion, the more she is convinced her own father has killed for it in the past.

So is she afraid that her dad will kill her and Robert for interfering? I’m not quite sure how her father killing in the past ties in with the climax otherwise.

DOMINION is a paranormal fantasy for young adults.

What makes it paranormal? Contemporary fantasy, maybe?

Complete at 70,000 words, it has the potential to become the first book in a trilogy, similar to SHIVER, by Maggie Stiefvater, and BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

I think we could name a lot of books that are first in a trilogy, not just Shiver and BC. As written, that’s what this actually says. What makes your book similar to Shiver and BC? Characters? Themes? Settings? Writing style? It’s OK to make a comparison, just be specific about what you’re comparing and make it a meaningful comparison.

My Version

Since Nova McDonough’s mom doesn’t need a 16-year-old around while she’s trying to snag a new hubby, Nova’s shipped off to live with her dad. As if the one-stoplight Kentucky town isn’t bad enough, there’s some crow stalking her everywhere she goes. Things aren’t better at school either. On the first day, she makes sassy bully Johnda Mulroy’s hit list, then that stupid crow makes a beeline through the cafeteria, freaking everyone out when it lands on her shoulder. It’s at her dad’s company picnic, though, when things get really weird: an ancient dragon crashes the party and [charbroils all the hamburgers].

Local boy Robert Blevins has some answers. Nova and her dad are one of six area families -- his and Johnda’s included -- descended from the Sons of Noah who wield power of dominion over animals. Their source of power, carried into the New World generations ago, lies inside a temple hidden in the Appalachian woods. The temple is now in peril, thanks to the local steel mill’s planned expansion project, and Johnda and the others have called the dragon here to use as a weapon against the mill.

When the dragon attacks the mill’s vice president, and Nova and Robert barely rescue him in time, it’s clear the others are willing to kill to protect their birthright. Nova’s own father may even be willing to kill her if she continues to interfere. Together, Nova and Robert must figure out how to protect their gift before innocent blood is spilled

Complete at 70,000 words, DOMINION is a YA contemporary fantasy with romantic elements and series potential. The motif of a dark mythology played out in a remote and timeless town echoes that of SHIVER, by Maggie Stiefvater, and BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.