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Plot Mash Up: The Four Act Structure, The Twelve Point Outline & the Quest

During a discussion with a client, I decided to take a stand and say something that might be unpopular.

Do not use a screenplay formula to write a novel.

While the general plot points of a screenplay are extremely useful, the page numbers and pacing of a movie are inherently different than a novel.

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The Modern Query Letter

The publishing industry shifts and changes constantly. What worked for a query letter even ten years ago isn’t what agents currently prefer. I’ve hosted many query webinars, worked with hundreds of agents, and there’s a standard method for queries in the industry today that gets the most important information to the agent first.

It’s simple, clean, and requires you to be a minimalist.

They don’t want to scroll the email down. That’s one of the reasons the title has changed as well, so it pops out in the all caps. The following is a conglomeration of what I’ve learned over the years.

I’ll try to keep this updated as things change. There are still a few agents out there who might want a different format. You can easily research them and see at the following haunts…

Publisher’s Marketplace | Manuscript Wishlist | Twitter Lists like this one… | Writer’s Digest New Agent Alerts

 

GENERAL ADVICE…

Send what’s asked for and only what’s asked for. Only the number of pages, only the first pages, a synopsis if they ask for it, not your favorite chapter, etc.

Send to the query email. Do not use the agent’s business or contact email unless it’s the incredibly rare occasion that they are the same. But make sure.

Use at least a medium size font in the email. If snail mail, 12 pt, Times New Roman. Business letter format. The last thing they need is to go blind.

You don’t have to tell them what their submission requirements are. (i.e. As per your submission requirements, I’ve included the first ten pages below.) They know and will assume you followed their instructions.

Do not ever send cc’d or bcc’d emails to agents. They have filters that will bounce you into their spam.

Keep the word count as low as possible. 300 words max.

 

THE SUBJECT LINE…

Most agencies will have a specific format for the subject line. Follow it.

If there isn’t one, put in, “Query MANUSCRIPT TITLE”

EXAMPLE:

Query BEST BOOK EVER

If you don’t follow the guidelines they’ve set up, they most likely have filters that will send your email to spam. Just like they have filters that send your email to their inbox if they include the word ‘Query.’ And spell it right. Just double check. We’re human.

 

ADDRESS THE AGENT…

Use ‘Dear’ and their name. Keep it simple. Their eyes will skip over this quickly if it’s the correct spelling, and they’ll be glad you didn’t try anything fancy.

If you misspell their name, it’ll most likely be a pass.

Use their first name or last name. If using the last name, use Mr., Ms. for women unless you are sure they’re married, and be sensitive of agents who identify with the gender pronoun ‘they.’

If you don’t know their name, you shouldn’t be querying them. NEVER put any general address, such as ‘To Whom it May Concern,’ or ‘Dear Agent.’

EXAMPLE:
Dear Heather,

 

PERSONALIZE AND INTRODUCE YOUR BOOK…

This is the title paragraph. The first sentence (or two if you have space) should contain why you’re querying this agent. Something as personal as possible without being creepy. Do not be proud of stalking them. Agents know it happens, but be sensitive to their personal space and be professional. This sentence is quite possibly the beginning of a lifelong, professional relationship. Don’t bullshit your way there.

Some good examples to use are:
~ they represent an author your work is similar to
~ they represent a novel close enough, yet varied enough, to your novel
~ they requested your work at a conference or workshop or webinar (In this case, there is usually also something they’ve asked you to include in the subject line of the email. Don’t forget these. They’ll lift you out of the slush.)

If you have had personal contact with the agent, it’s good to mention it.

When discussing your book, don’t say you hope or you might. Be confident. I think you’ll like…

The second part of this paragraph should be your book, the title in all caps, the genre, age category, word count.

EXAMPLE:
Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Caveat…if your word count is very high, don’t include it. (But they might know…)

 

THE HOOK…

There’s an option here to set apart a hook or tagline, strapline, endline, whatever you want to call it. If you have a great one you think will catch agents’ attention, let it stand out as its own paragraph here. Use caution doing this. If the tagline is outstanding, sometimes it’ll get an agent to just skip down to the pages and start to read. This could also be the last sentence of the title paragraph, especially if you’re short on space or you know the agent doesn’t want to scroll the email down.

EXAMPLE:

Best friends make the deadliest enemies.

Winning will make you famous. Losing will earn you certain death. (Hunger Games)

Some people have started using comparable titles here instead. If you do decide to use comps, make sure you’re being specific and realistic. The comps should be recent, published within the last two years. They should add clarity to a comparable setting, style, or fan base.

 

INTRODUCE THE MAIN CHARACTER AND INCITING INCIDENT…

Make sure this section is from the MC’s perspective. Don’t talk about what their father or sister or best friend did that made them this way. Keep it centered on the MC. If this is a middle grade or young adult query, it’s helpful to state their age. Not an absolute though. Nothing in writing ever is.

Tell us about the main character’s unique yet normal-for-them daily life. DO NOT include backstory. Then give us the inciting incident and how the balance is upset. (They’ll try to maintain the status quo but will be unable, which will have a domino effect as they try to rectify their life and only make things snowball to the key incident.)

THE KEY INCIDENT THAT FORCES THE HERO TO MAKE A CHOICE, WITH STAKES EITHER WAY…

This paragraph should mention some of the dominoes that fall as a result of the inciting incident, but not more than a sentence here. What we need is the thing that happens that sends the hero on their journey, and what is going to happen if they decide not to go–stakes!

If your novel is a dual POV, you can make the second paragraph from the other main character’s perspective, so the query shifts in the same way the novel does. This would be a second paragraph that would introduce the second MC and their inciting incident, then wrap up with a third paragraph that brings the two story lines together. Or you can just have a brief intro of MC number two and then a weaving of the story lines to get the stakes for everyone.

For some examples of these paragraphs, see my post here. It says it’s about pitches, because that’s what your query is. Just take the pitch and add relevant details until you reach your word count. Not the other way around.

 

YOUR BIOGRAPHICAL PARAGRAPH…

If you don’t have anything writing related to share, agents will tell you over and over to just skip this part.

If you’re part of a writing group, if you have education that influences your work, if your day job informs your writing, then include it.

Most agents will indulge your for one sentence, but if you include information not relevant over one sentence, you’re risking rejection. This is a professional, business letter. If you were sending a proposal to a bank asking for a loan to start a new business, would you discuss your puppy and your nice home in the hills of Montana where you raise chickens? I hope not.

Every word you make them read that’s not vital to your story or specific to a writing career is another word that keeps them from your sample pages.

And if they like those sample pages, they’re going to use your links that you’ve provided in the signature to turn the tables and check you out. They’ll find out from your website or Twitter or Facebook links that you love to weave bracelets and are obsessive about retweeting cat pictures.

MY OWN EXAMPLE…

I’m the Managing Director of Pitch Wars and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit and intern for Secret Agent at The Amazing Agency. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

 

NOW PUT IT ALL TOGETHER, ADD YOUR INFORMATION, AND END GRACIOUSLY…

Dear Heather,

Thank you for the wonderful class you gave for us at Random Writing Event. While my manuscript isn’t straight from  your wishlist, it does include some fringe sci-fi I think you’ll enjoy. BEST BOOK TITLE EVER is a(n) Age Category Genre, complete at ??,000 words.

Maxwell Jarvis,works at a children’s hospital and does research in his spare time. He’s hoping to cure all disease with his revolutionary formula. He’s sabotaged by the pharmaceutical company who makes their billions from the sick kids.

What nobody else knows…Max is dying, too. Unless he stops them and finishes his work within the week, his funding will run out, and the living producers of his cures will die–only weeks before himself.

I’m the Managing Director of Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, and #PitMad. Previously an editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, US, I now freelance edit and intern for Secret Agent at The Amazing Agency. I have a BS in Biochemistry, am a member of SCBWI, and teach regularly at writing conferences as well as attend them to continue improving my craft.

Thank you for taking the time to read!

Heather

Heather Cashman
@HeatherCashman
www.heathercashman.com
heathercashman@email.com
add your phone number

 

Thank you for taking the time to read, and I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.

Happy querying!

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ASSASSIN OF TRUTHS by Brenda Drake…Happy Release Day and Giveaway!

Assassins of Truth_500

Assassin of Truths (Library Jumper’s #3)
By Brenda Drake
Published by: Entangled Teen
Publication date: February 6th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

The gateways linking the great libraries of the world don’t require a library card, but they do harbor incredible dangers.

And it’s not your normal bump-in-the- night kind. The threats Gia Kearns faces are the kind with sharp teeth and knifelike claws. The kind that include an evil wizard hell-bent on taking her down.

Gia can end his devious plan, but only if she recovers seven keys hidden throughout the world’s most beautiful libraries. And then figures out exactly what to do with them.

The last thing she needs is a distraction in the form of falling in love. But when an impossible evil is unleashed, love might be the only thing left to help Gia save the world.

Goodreads / Amazon / Barnes & Noble

I didn’t want to kill the girl, so I hesitated to throw another globe at her. Squaring my shoulders, I got ready for her attack. When the girl got close enough, I threw a kick to her gut and slammed my fist against her jaw. She stumbled back against the frozen railing. It broke free, and she fell over the side, landing on a table below. Her body was half on and half off the table, her neck bent at an odd angle and the bones underneath pushed against her skin.

Is she dead?

A shimmery light left the girl’s body and flew to me, smacking my chest. I took a step back, expecting to turn into a human Popsicle, but nothing happened, only a chill that rushed across my skin and quickly ended.

“You killed her,” Veronique yelled as she stepped up on a chair and onto a table. She charged the length of it, heading for me.

I dropped to my knees and flipped through the pages of the gateway book. My heart galloped like a thousand racehorses on steroids. I needed to escape.

Where do I go? I can’t lead her to the others. I stopped on the photograph of the Boston Athenæum. Home? To Nana. Afton. No. Veronique knew where Nana Kearns lived. I couldn’t risk going there. I tossed over more pages.

Just then, Veronique pulled herself up onto the balcony and let loose another fire globe. The flames licked the air and smoke trailed it like a comet. The fire grazed my cheek, pulling a sharp gasp from my chest.

Her breaths were loud—panting. The sound of a siren drew nearer. We’d have company soon.

A feral look on her face, Veronique plucked a dagger from her shoulder sheath. A velvet bag, weighed down by something heavy inside, was tied around her waist.

The other Chiavi? I had to get them. I grasped the strap of my messenger bag.

“You can’t win, Gia. You’re weak. Unskilled. A sniveling child.”

“I beat your ass, and I took care of your friends.” Meaning the three Sentinels lying dead on the floor below us. I forced my eyes to stay on hers, acting brave, though their deaths were like an overweight barbell on my conscience.

Her step forward caused me to step back. “That was dumb luck,” she said. “This will take skill.”

She ran for me. I drew my sword and swung at her. She ducked, the blade barely missing her. Before I could get another swing in, she tackled me, our bodies smacking into the bookcase, my sword knocked from my hand.

A satisfied look crossed Veronique’s face right before she stabbed my upper arm with her dagger, her blade cutting across my cheek. A horrified scream rattled my throat. My knees buckled and thudded against the floor.

“Shit!” The pain shocked me. I wanted to roll into a ball on the floor, to have this end.

She’s going to kill me. I’m going to die.

Fear gripped me.

Then anger.

Fight, Gia! The voice in my head was strong and forceful. It pushed me. Pushed me to my feet.

Pushed me to take action.

About Brenda Drake…

Brenda Drake is a New York Times bestselling author of young adult fiction. She grew up the youngest of three children, an Air Force brat, and the continual new kid at school. Her fondest memories growing up is of her eccentric, Irish grandmother’s animated tales, which gave her a strong love for storytelling. So it was only fitting that she would choose to write stories with a bend toward the fantastical. When she’s not writing or hanging out with her family, she haunts libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops, or reads someplace quiet and not at all exotic (much to her disappointment).

Website / Goodreads / Facebook / Twitter

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