Carrie and I are thrilled to have been asked to be mentors for the upcoming Nightmare on Query Street contest. We really love all contests, but Nightmare on Query Street has a special place in our hearts.
Last year our YA Paranormal was chosen to be among Michelle’s Minions. We received a few awesome agent requests and met some wonderful people before we decided to…. shelve that manuscript and completely start over. It turns out paranormal is a very hard sell. Who knew? (um, everyone else in publishing).
However, it’s all about the journey. It’s now less than a year later, and we have written a whole new manuscript, won Query Kombat, and landed a dream agent. So yeah, we know a little bit about the ups and downs of contests.
Here are our tips for polishing your query and getting it contest ready, based on a whole heck of a lot of drafts of our own.
1. Come up with a great hook. Grab us with your first line. Fill it with voice and conflict and character. Easy, right? I didn’t think so. It may take 10 drafts or more to get it right.
2. Read winning queries from other contests to get an idea of what goes into a great query. Also take a look at the way your favorite books are described.
3. Keep it short and streamlined. 250-300 words is about right, but aim for closer to 250. We like to think the first paragraph is the set up: what has just happened to set the story in motion and who your character is and what they want. Then focus on the conflict. What is stopping them from achieving their goals? The third paragraph is the choice. What do they need to do? What are the stakes?
4. Focus on the specifics. Avoid general stakes or conflicts. i.e. “is in mortal danger” is far less interesting than “will be dropped into the middle of a shark tank.”
5. Highlight the character’s motivation, flaws, and strengths. It’s hard to do in such a small amount of space, but show us who your character is and what they need.
6. Don’t tell us the ending. We want to know the choice the character must make and what’s at stake, but you don’t want to give it all away in a query.
7. Voice, voice, voice. It’s hard because you are writing in third person present while your book may be first person past tense, but try to insert some of your character’s voice to give us a sense of what they are like.
8. Make sure the tone of the query matches your manuscript. If you’ve written a funny middle grade manuscript, your query shouldn’t sound like a piece of historical fiction and vice versa.
9. Don’t blow off the Halloween themed question. Treat it with the same care as the query. It’s another chance to show off your character’s voice.
10. Relax. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get into the contest. It’s very subjective, but hopefully your query is now ready for the next contest or for whatever agent you’ve been politely staking on Twitter.
Good luck! We look forward to helping our mentees polish their work. For contest details, click here.