How to Hook an Agent: Taglines in Query Letters

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LightbulbDrawing_smToday I’d like to share some advice on an issue that comes up often in my query letter critiques. What can you do when your hook just isn’t grabbing readers? Or maybe your query is missing a hook altogether? One of my favorite solutions is to try using a tagline. It’s an easy type of hook to recognize, and it’s almost guaranteed to get attention if done well.

First, let’s clarify some vocabulary here.

Hooks, Taglines, and Intergalactic Destruction

The hook is one of the trickiest elements to get right in a query, but a good one can make the difference between ho-hum and “tell me more” in your query letter. The term hook is used to encompass a range of possibilities, but it basically means a catchy, provocative sentence or short paragraph at the beginning of your query (usually directly preceding your summary). A tag line is a specific type of hook, a one-liner that you’ll recognize from your favorite movie trailers. Here are a couple of good examples:

 

“Earth. It was great while it lasted.” –Armageddon (That one gets me every time! Humor is always a plus if your subject matter allows for it.)

“Your mind is the scene of the crime.” –Inception (It doesn’t get any more concise and punchy than that. Eight words does the trick!)

“She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.” –Erin Brockovich (A simple, elegant summary of the gist of the story.)

 

Now here’s one from the cover copy of a middle grade novel:

“Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged.” The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (So provocative! How could you not start reading this book?)

 

Finally, click here for an excellent example from an actual query. Be sure to read the entire query to see how the tagline relates to the summary.

 

So, what do all of these taglines have in common? They jolt the reader’s interest and emotions. A good tagline can also keep a query letter from sounding like nothing more than a list of events in a plot outline. Or from being just plain boring. They’re the whipped cream and chocolate drizzle that made you order that latte! After reading thousands of queries in the slush pile, I can’t tell you how refreshing this type of cleverness can be. And while they work especially well for sci fi, mysteries, and thrillers, I’ve seen them used effectively in virtually every genre.

So how do you know your tagline has what it takes? Try it out on friends. They don’t need experience or special expertise on queries—the beauty of an effective tagline is that it appeals to everyone. Watch your friend’s reaction closely—a smile, a nod, questions about your story? You’re good to go. Blank stare? Throat-clearing? Diplomatic mumbling? Time to give it another shot!

What are some of your favorite movie or novel taglines? I’d love it if you shared them here!

Need help with your query letter? My critiques are $45 and include a second pass at no charge—I’ll read your revised version and let you know if you’re ready to submit. Send me your query or questions at anitaedits(at)gmail.com.

 

From the Slush Pile to Success: An Interview with Debut Author Marcia Wells

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Happy Monday, everyone! It has been an unforgivably long time since I featured an author interview, so to make amends, I’ve got a really dynamite one for you today. I’m excited to feature debut author Marcia Wells, whom I had the honor of meeting for the first time in…you guessed it: the slush pile! Her middle grade mystery novel, EDDIE RED UNDERCOVER hooked me from page one and I read it in a single sitting. She signed with agent Kristin Nelson, who soon landed her a book deal (no surprises there!) with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s such a thrill to see the result—super-sleuth Eddie’s first adventure comes out in hardcover tomorrow, April 1st. It has been named to the American Booksellers Association’s New Voices list for Spring 2014, and Kirkus calls it “[an] effervescent debut…A sure pleaser for anyone fond of knotty, lightweight capers solved with brainpower (and a little luck).” Way to go, Marcia!

 

marcia_wells_4146_EDITAbout Marcia: Marcia Wells taught middle school students for more than a decade before becoming a full-time writer. She lives with her husband and two kids in Vermont, where she knows entirely too much about chickens, pigs, and sword fighting. Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile is her debut novel. You can read more about her work at  www.marciawellsauthor.com.

AM: Welcome to Word Cafe, Marcia! It’s wonderful to have you. And congratulations on being featured at Bologna Children’s Book Fair last week!

So, your first Eddie Red novel comes out tomorrow. You must be ecstatic! Could you tell us a little about the journey leading up to this big day? How and when did you get started writing, and what led you to choose middle grade? 

MW: I am so thrilled- it’s a dream come true! I started writing five years ago while teaching math and Spanish to middle and high school students. The kids were hilarious and provided a lot of silly inspiration. One day, I just opened my computer and began to write. My first manuscript was a YA story and quite terrible, but a great learning experience (I had never taken a writing class). Eddie was my second manuscript, but it still took three years of editing and doing online writing classes (and A LOT of rejections) until he was signed by Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency. I love MG and YA books, and Eddie’s middle grade story just popped out naturally.

 

The illustrations for Eddie Red turned out amazing! I’m so curious about this collaboration where another person brings the images from an author’s imagination to life. What’s it like, working with an illustrator? Did you choose the artist (Marcos Calo) and how much input did you have in the process?

marcia-eddie-book-coverI love the illustrations, too! The publisher chose Marcos Calo, and I wasn’t familiar with his work. I loved what I saw on his website, and was very eager to see what he’d do with Eddie. I wasn’t disappointed. He really nailed the characters the first time around. We had a few back and forths on a couple of pictures, tiny details like the length of a beard so that the picture would match the text, but all in all, a very painless and wonderful process. I can’t begin to describe how cool it was to see my characters come to life. Amazing!

There were two funny coincidences working with Marcos- the first is that he’s from Spain, one of my most favorite places in the world. I studied and worked there for over two years, and am fluent in the language. So when it came to working together, we used a mix of Spanish and English- really fun! The second coincidence is that one of the bad guys in my book is named Marco. So it got a bit confusing, talking about Marco versus Marcos. At one point, the publisher even had the name “Marco Calo” on the title page! We got it all sorted out. :)

 

In your author bio, it sounds like you do a lot of research and planning for your Eddie Red stories when you visit New York City. Could you tell us a little about how your books take shape? What does your research and planning process look like? 

I think when it comes to writing a mystery, you have to be especially careful with plot: knowing when and how you reveal clues, keeping the action going, and constantly raising the stakes. When I first thought of Eddie, I had a vague idea of the crime and museum sites where it might take place, then I interviewed relatives who live in NYC about landmarks. I studied maps, did a ton of online research, and got inside the museums that way. The research then generated a lot of funny ideas. For example, the Neue Galerie (an art museum in NYC) has a fancy staircase in its lobby- suddenly I had an idea of Eddie chasing a bad guy down those stairs. Internet research is great, but nothing is as good as visiting the actual sites. Eddie Red Two takes place in Mexico- so I took my family there over Thanksgiving. That was a lot of fun!

I mix both planning and free writing. I try to stay organized with facts and details, but it’s so important to just sit down and let the story flow. A lot of great stuff comes out when I just let myself go with it, but also a lot of not-so-great stuff that needs to be cut. It’s all part of the process.

 

It sounds like Mystery on Museum Mile is going to be the first in a series. Can you give us any hints about Eddie’s upcoming adventures? And do you have any other writing projects percolating?

Eddie’s next adventure takes place on a family trip to Mexico (my Spanish background was very useful with that one). As for more books, I’d like him to return to New York City in number 3, and then on to new places (maybe even work in Washington for the secret service!). One important aspect of the series is that the reader learns about a new place, its art, history, and culture (without it feeling like learning). So I always keep that in mind when planning new adventures.

As for other projects, I have an MG/YA fantasy being considered by my publisher right now. This time starring a 15-year-old girl protagonist. Fingers crossed!

 

I love the sound of that! My fingers are crossed, too. Thanks again, Marcia!

Editing Workshop Part 5: Too Much or Too Little?

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Tools_smLast March, I offered a workshop series in honor of National Novel Editing Month—the revisionist’s answer to NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, the folks behind NaNoEdMo have had to declare a hiatus this year, but I’m hoping many writers out there are forging ahead anyway. To cheer you on, I’ll do a couple more installments of my editing workshop series. And I have to say, now that I’ve launched my own editing career, it feels like a special treat to share some of my experiences with you.

Today, I’ll focus on two of the big-picture issues I’ve seen frequently, both as an editor and in my literary agency days.

Problem #1: Too much information. This is perhaps the most common problem in early drafts, whether you’re a seasoned writer or a novice. TMI happens when a writer over-explains or includes information not essential to world-building or moving the plot forward. It’s that thing that causes you to yawn when reading your writing partner’s first draft. Remember that in a tight, well-written novel, every single sentence serves a purpose—there is no room for extra fillers. This is also one of the most painful issues to correct, because it involves taking a pair of pruning shears to your hard-earned word count! For example, let’s say you decide to describe what your character is wearing. No problem—if it helps us understand something about her that we didn’t already know (she overdresses to cover her insecurities, she changes that low-cut top after picturing what her mother would say, etc.). It becomes a problem when we get a play-by-play of her entire make-up routine, when we already knew from earlier examples that she is fastidious. In that case, it’s best to trim the scene to a couple of well-chosen details, or cut it entirely.

How to gauge this in your writing? Consider this: a whole lot of overwriting happens when an author is trying to get to know his characters better. A helpful exercise is to sit down and free write (set a timer if it helps you stay focused), listing everything you know about your character. When you are finished, think about which behavior traits or items of description about her appearance are most essential for a reader’s understanding of who she is. Then choose a handful to weave into your story. It’s not that the rest of your material was a waste of time or words—they helped you get a clearer picture of your character so you could fine-tune her for your readers.

Problem #2: Hold on, you’ve lost me… In some ways, this issue is just the opposite of the previous one. It happens when there isn’t enough transition information for readers to orient themselves in space and time. Transitions are important whenever there is a scene change, whether the story follows a linear timeline or jumps back and forth, as in flashbacks or separate threads set in different historical periods. If you change scenes within a chapter, that has to be crystal clear to the reader. When you start a new chapter, readers need a well-placed cue to let them know whether it’s still the same day, whether the character has moved to a new location, etc. Sometimes it’s tempting to omit essential information to avoid seeming too obvious or committing the TMI mistake. But it’s better to err on the side of clarity than to leave readers scratching their heads—remember that your audience is flying blind unless you supply the radar. Here is an article that shows how to create elegant transitions that don’t call too much attention to themselves; it focuses on flashbacks but parallels can be drawn for simple scene changes as well: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/3_tips_for_writing_successful_flashbacks

Often, the best way to catch missing cues in your writing is to set your manuscript aside for a bit. Coming back to it after a few weeks will allow you to see it more like a stranger would, and then you can start filling in the gaps.

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Ready to get serious about your revisions? I can help! For more information about my editing rates and services, send me an email at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I’d look forward to hearing more about your work.