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  • sophiewilliamson10

Reflections of a former AMM mentor. Or "how to take a query from "nothing wrong" to "something right

This time last year, as a first time AMM mentor, I was eagerly anticipating the opening of the inbox (this year, I’m instead sat around waiting for my baby to be born!). And while I was waiting (other than stalking #AMM party!) I came up with a plan and with a preconception.

The plan was a detailed spreadsheet, where I’d record every submission sent to me, and carefully give It a score for several factors: genre, sub-genre, concept, query, length, writing ability, and level of interest in the first page. And then I’d be able to make an easy, objective first choice. I’d be able to give everyone who wanted it quantitative, specific feedback. It was going to be great.

The preconception—based mostly on various Twitter threads from agents over the years—was that a relatively large number of submissions would be either objectively bad (loads of typos, outlandish word counts, totally wrong approach etc) or clearly not right for me.

And then I got my submissions. All 171 of them.

Assuming a query is about 400 words, that’s 68, 500 words—or a short novel—of queries alone. And a terrifying 3.4 million words of first 50 pages. As a point of comparison, the entirety of a song of Ice and Fire to date is only around 1.7 million words long!

This meant a few departures from the original plan:

· I was much, much more reliant on the queries than I’d expected to be. There were only about ten entries where I read the full 50 pages and a fairly high proportion where I either didn’t look at the pages at all or did a quick skim of the first page.

· Though I tried to keep high-level notes as I went, the detailed scoring and recording went out of the window after the first twelve subs. And though I later agonised over the longlist, shortlist and pick, a lot of my initial filtering relied heavily on snap judgements and gut instinct.

But it wasn’t just my plan that didn’t survive contact with reality. My pre-conception—that a reasonable percentage of subs would be objectively bad or clearly wrong for me—just wasn’t true. Though there were a few weird exceptions, the vast, vast majority of queries met a decent basic standard. The authors clearly knew what a query was meant to include, how it should be structured and what an acceptable word count was. Plus they’d obviously read my wishlist and stuck to my genre preferences.

Which on the one hand was a really positive outcome. But on the other hand, it made my life a lot harder. With no easy reasons to say no, I had to go to the other extreme—it was almost “no” by default unless there was a compelling reason to say yes.

It sounds like quite a subtle distinction, but I actually think it’s a really important one to bear in mind when entering competitions like AMM or querying agents. Basically, I finally understood the meaning of that infuriating agent (and sadly, editor) phrase “I just didn’t fall in love with it”.

What I found, fundamentally, was that after a while, a lot of queries blurred into one, both with each other and with the wider SFF publishing landscape. All I was really taking from the query was “yep, sounds like a fantasy/sci-fi novel”. And a lot of them sounded fine. Perhaps even like something I’d casually read, were it a published choice pick out of all those 171 submissions. Or indeed anything to make me think I’d want to spend several months working on edits on it. There was nothing to make it standout. To grab my attention or imagination. To wow me.

And whenever I landed on a query that did have that “wow factor” it was like a shot of caffeine that would make me snap to attention again and rush to the pages, praying they’d hold up.

A quick refresher on the basics

So, let’s assume you already know the basics of writing a decent query that’s not going to be an auto-reject.

You know to give a word count, age count and genre (and have some understanding of these). You know that it’s a good idea to include some comp titles, a bio, and—not relevant to AMM but helpful for agents—some personalisation. You know it should be roughly 300 to 400 words long and that the bulk of that should talk about the core plot, rather than concepts and inspirations.

You know that you’re not trying to tell the story from beginning to end (that’s for the synopsis) but rather give a taster—a bit like you’d see on the back on a book. And hopefully, you’re aware that best practice is generally to focus on one MC: who they are, what they are trying to achieve, what’s stopping them achieving it, and what do they get if they succeed/risk losing if they fail. Finally, you’ve used your best English; triple-checked spelling, grammar and punctuation; polished it up; and got a couple of extra pairs of eyes on it.

Oh, and you’ve also done enough research to be reasonably confident that’s it’s the right broad fit for the person you’re sending it to.

Congrats, you’ve got a decent, targeted query, that doesn’t have anything wrong with it and several things right with it. But how do you get from there to something that’s strong enough to stand out amongst an AMM mentor’s pile of submissions—and the even huger pile an agent has to wade through over the course of a month or a year? How do you up the odds of it being a yes?

As with everything publishing-related, different people are going to have different views, but these are the elements that really worked on me.

1) The Unique Selling Point

What’s the most interesting or unique thing about your book? What makes it different to others in the genre? A plot element? The setting? Some trait of the MC? The villain? A subversion of a trope? Whatever it is, get it really clear in your mind, then find a way to bring it out in the query.

Stick to the basic query structure, but don’t be so hidebound by it that you end up spending ages talking about a fairly generic conflict or decision and fail to mention the really unusual or compelling relationship or magic system or whatever. You don’t need to give chapter and verse. Often an extra line or two will do it, or even a couple of judiciously used adjectives when you introduce the MC or the world.

Think about those things people sometimes do on Twitter, where they list a couple of interesting elements of their MS, usually with lots of accompanying emojis. Make one. Work some of those elements in.

Two examples from two of my own queries (for different manuscripts):

· Setting—“Avreter, a place where earth’s folklore, superstition, and archetypes take physical form.”

· MC— “Sadie Sadler lives in London. Practices human rights law. Drinks fair trade coffee, reads the Guardian, and never, ever burns her enemies alive using just the power of her mind. She’s totally grown out of that sort of thing.”

Though I quickly abandoned the “detailed scoring of every manuscript in several categories” idea, I did scribble down notes on what was catching my attention and pushing things onto the longlist. Here are various examples, some more or less direct quotes from queries, others my summation:

o “villain origin”; “telepaths and toxic ex”; “crazed shapeshifting princess”; “Arthurian resurrection”; “Cornish murders and fairies”; “Edinburgh inspired second world”; “past lives and music”; “reincarnation soulmates”; “queer sci fi King Arthur”

2) Specific details

This is in large part an extension of the previous point about USP. If you don’t want your query to sound generic, be specific.

There are two aspects to this. The first is just about background detail and how the world, the MC, the antagonist etc are described. Use precise, evocative terms, ideally ones that are relevant to the setting. Make them feel real and fleshed out. Again, you want to keep your query focussed and avoid it getting over-long, but a couple of words can make a real difference here.

Secondly, this becomes even more when it comes to the really killer bits of the query: the challenge/stakes/conflict/decision. Really try to pinpoint exactly what the MC is trying to achieve, exactly what’s in their way, exactly what will happen if they fail. Chances are, aspects of it are similar to other works, so try to stay focussed on the little details that make it special and unique, rather than making general, grand statements about broken hearts, lost souls, and destroyed worlds.

3) Voice

Ah yes. Everyone’s favourite topic. Though I’ve always enjoyed a “voicey” book, I’d never understood why so many agents put so much emphasis on it until I was wading through my submission pile. Because though it’s hard to define, it’s easy to spot, and done well, it really does help a submission package stand out from the crowd. Voice is particularly relevant to the pages, but people often don’t think about the fact you can make use of it in queries too,

Before I go any further with this one, I just want to be absolutely clear that I am not suggesting you write your query in first person from the perspective of the MC or any other character. There’s a general consensus that this isn’t a good idea.

So what do I mean? Perhaps a touch of dialect from the appropriate time and place setting. Perhaps describe the set-up and conflict using the sort of tone, words and phrasing the MC would go for. Inject a bit of humour if that’s appropriate to the style of the book. You don’t need to go overboard. A little bit of this sort of thing can go a long way.

Two examples from my pitches:

· Firstly, a relatively subtle one: “The trouble is, there’s a good reason Sadie left Mannith and turned her back on magic: she bargained away her powers and her body to Gabe Miller to save her damn brother the last time Brendan got himself into trouble. If she comes home, Gabe will try to collect. But there’s no way she’s going to allow her brother to rot in jail or her family’s strength to wane.” The “damn brother” and the “rot in jail” bits are both very much the MC’s phrasing..

· And then a more overt one from the pitch for the sequel: “As far as Sadie’s concerned, vampires are all reactionary bastards, and there’s something to be said for teaching the oldest, whitest men she’s ever come across a lesson in human rights.”

4) Comps

Oh, comp titles. I could definitely write a whole blog on this topic alone. And it’d probably say the exact opposite to someone else’s blog on the subject. They’ve always been my least favourite part of writing my own queries/pitches, and something I’ve tended to struggle with, despite considering myself pretty well-read in relevant genres. As a result, I didn’t think I’d find them that useful in terms of selecting AMM entries. But to my surprise, they were a really powerful way of helping subs stand out from the crowd.

What I found was that a lot of queries just listed two books in the right sort of genre, often two that were quite similar to each other, with no further explanation. Say, The Cruel Prince and A Court of Thorns and Roses. All that’s really telling me is that your MS involves the Fae—which you’ve hopefully already mentioned in the wider query!

What worked for me was firstly, when comps were quite specific and where their relevance to individual elements of the manuscript was explained. Back to the USP point, this sometimes helped bring out a unique element that hadn’t really been explained in the main pitch.

As I say, I hate doing my own comps, but for what it’s worth, here’s an example from one of my own queries: It combines the modern vibe and British feel of Rivers of London; the magic, crime and complex family dynamics of Jade City; and the morally grey protagonists and dark love interests of works by Leigh Bardugo and Holly Black.

What I really loved though was when there were two comps that were utterly different from each other. One that’s the right genre, to show where it would sit in the market, and one that’s from another genre entirely—and perhaps another medium too, to show how it stands out from the crowd. I’ll always remember one that used a well-known sci-fi novel plus the Great British Bake-off!

5) Bio

it’s never going to be the thing that makes or breaks a query, but again, I found these surprisingly helpful in making a query stand out. And it wasn’t really writing credits that grabbed me either. The best bios were generally those that helped explain why the author was the right person to write that story. Beyond the obvious “Own Voices” angle, this included things like growing up where it’s set, a relevant degree or job etc. At the same time I also responded well to humanising, quirky details about family and hobbies. I’m still delighted that I got not one but two subs from people working at Nasa!

6) Personalisation

It wasn’t relevant in AMM as people sent the same query to four mentors, but where the query mentioned an element that directly ticked off something on my wishlist; comped something I’d listed as a favourite read; or either they or their MC had something in common with me, it always snapped me out of my reading stupor. I think that’s just human nature. So when it comes to agents, I can only imagine that a carefully targeted, genuine line or two on why you’ve chosen them can be another really powerful tool to help you stand out from the crowd.

7) Title

A bit of a controversial one, as general wisdom is that the title doesn’t matter much at this stage. But anecdotally, I’m convinced I got more agent interest when I switched from calling my manuscript Northern Souls to calling it Witch Trial. I’d never have said no to an otherwise great submission because it had a nondescript title. However, a memorable one that half helped to give an immediate sense of what the story was about and half got me wondering was definitely one more tool for stopping a query blurring into the others and persuading me to give it a second look.

A final thought

It’s worth taking the time to get your query right and make it stand out from the crowd, and I hope the tips, tricks, and reflections above help with that, both for AMM and similar competitions and for querying. Not everyone will be as ruthless as me about only really reading pages if the query has grabbed them. But in general, it’s fair to say you’ve got a much better chance of your writing being looked at and regarded favourably if you’ve made a decent stab at the query. So please do put the effort in. And remember, giving no reason for someone to say “no” isn’t enough—you need to give them a reason to say “yes”.

I'm happy to answer any questions people might have on any of this...

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