In a Nutshell
- 82 fantasy (includes paranormal, historical fantasy)
- 33 sci-fi
- 68 contemporary (includes mystery, thriller, historical)
28 mentor picks
- 14 fantasy (includes historical fantasy)
- 6 sci-fi
- 8 contemporary (includes historical, magical realism)
Here are the results in pie chart form:
Bearing this in mind, we do plan on bringing in some mentors strictly interested in contemporary, as that is clearly a very popular submission category.
Basic Query Tips
- Don’t open with a rhetorical question. Or any question. Don’t open on a question!
- If your book is dual (or more) POV, make this clear in the query! Either dedicate space in the query for each POV character to illustrate their arcs, or mention it in the final paragraph (“TITLE is a YA told in dual POV”). You don’t want to surprise an agent with a dual or multi-POV book when, from the query, they were expecting a single POV book.
- Starting with character’s age (“Seventeen-year-old Kara…”) helps clue in agent reading whether this is MG, YA or adult and gives you a good starting place to focusing on your character.
- Only include the MAIN conflict in the query. Side-conflicts, while feeding into the main story, can confuse a query that should only be 200-300 words.
- Terminology salad: several queries/pages introduced way too much terminology way too quickly. Take a look at your query: do you have more than three words Capitalized For No Reason? You probably have too many.
The #1 question agents will ask themselves while reading your query:
“Why should I care?” A lot of the queries submitted had us asking this question. Your query is not a play-by-play of your plot: you should be introducing your main character, what conflict they’re facing, what the stakes are and why the reader should care. Don’t say it! That’s your stakes. And if you’ve drawn your character well and laid out the conflict aptly, the agent will be able to answer that question.
Comps are a double-edged sword, and we saw a lot of entries where plots/characters/set-ups were so close to the comped material it was off-putting. If your story is too close to a comp, the agent may go “well, I don’t need this b/c it already exists as a published book/awesome TV show/movie.” Be wary: if your story is too close to the comp, but the comp is perfect, what can you do with your characters, world or set-up to differentiate them? When a story is too close to a comp, it can read more like fanfiction than an original work that can stand on it’s own. Can you find a different comp?
Also: beware using outliers or super popular titles as comps. One: how many “the next Gone Girl/Hunger Games/The Fault in our Stars” have we all seen already? These books are super successful and exist almost in a world of their own. Two: It doesn’t inspire confidence about how well you know the market you’re writing for. Those books mentioned above are known by readers and non-readers alike; you can see them while you’re picking up bread and milk. Show how much you know by using less well-known titles in a more targeted style. An agent/reader will be more drawn in by this than you saying you’ve got the next million-selling hot thing. Because you most likely haven’t.
Always check the title you’ve chosen for your book before querying it! In many cases, titles we saw were identical to books released in the last 4-5 years, and in some cases titles were too close (or identical) to an existing TV show, movie or song, where there might be confusion, or simply that the similarity might be too jarring to the agent/reader. Always think whether you want the reader to sing the hook from a song every time they look at your title!
You can search Goodreads or Amazon to see if a book has the same or similar title. While it’s most important not to have duplication within your genre (ie: YA books vs. adult), if there is an adult/other genre book that has been published recently and has significant traction, a repeat of the title might not be wise. While titles change ALL THE TIME in publishing, by using a title that is identical to a book already out in the market, you’re tipping the agent off to the fact that you may not be as well-versed in the publishing industry as they’d like.
On a related note, think about marketing categories when choosing a title. A YA novel with a title that sounds like middle grade is going to color the agent’s reaction–they may go into your query/pages assuming your YA book is more juvenile than it is.
Lots of 1st novels/books that didn’t feel ready
Of course everyone has to start somewhere! While many first books can be and are published, authors who make it with their first novel are in the minority. For most, a first book is a place to start; the book that teaches you how to write a book. Many of our mentors took on mentees on their first book, but in the case of many submissions, the writing wasn’t quite polished enough; the plotting wasn’t quite there. You learn by writing & working, so if you submitted your first project and weren’t chosen, we recommend revising it–dig in and make real changes! Work on polishing with a focus on strengthening character arcs, cutting down on info-dumping and repetition, showing instead of telling. And, most importantly, work on a new book. Every book you write teaches you something new about writing books. You may find by working on a new project that you figure out what to do with the old one.
Multiple Points of View
We saw a lot of manuscripts with dual point-of-view or multi-POV (3+ characters), and in many cases, the additional POVs were hard to justify. If you’re getting nebulous feedback or query rejections and you have multiple POVs, consider each of them and what purpose they serve. Are each of the POV characters as well drawn as the others? What purpose do they serve–could you tell the story as well, if differently, if you cut it down to just one? Or two (if more than two)? Does each character’s opening chapter pack the same punch as the first? Very often, the first POV we read was the strongest–the character and voice jumped off the page, there wasn’t too much info dumping or navel-gazing. Second/third POVs couldn’t live up to the first. Sometimes that means a rewrite. Other times, it may mean dropping multi-POV and doing a big revision. Our advice to those writing dual/multi-POV is to be open to changing it–either rewriting/strengthening the weaker character’s POV, or dropping it.
Common Writing Level/Craft Issues:
- Tense Shifting
- Choose your POV/tense and stick to it! We saw some writing where 1st person drifted in and out of past/present tense, as well as 3rd person with a similar issue/head-hopping (choose between omniscient or close third)!
- Info Dumping
- This can lead to reader frustration and pacing issues. Watch how quickly and how you convey information such as character background, motivation, worldbuilding/world details… space out information, and watch for both a) big blocks of narrative text that’s all background/context as well as b) info-dumping through too on-the-nose dialogue exchanges. Watch for “Well you know, Bob” situations where a character doesn’t *really* have a reason to rehash something, but they do for the benefit of the reader. Instead SHOW vital information through interactions and scenes, and take your time peppering in important information and details.
- Telling instead of showing
- This is a broad and complex issue, and we saw a LOT of telling in writing samples. Too much telling can come across as info-dumpy, as white room syndrome (you’re telling us a ton but the reader can’t visualize the scene/location/what is happening), or simply as flat character development. Stories heavy with telling can kill the sense of immediacy/feeling like you know a character, which is a big issue for YA. Solving it isn’t simple, and telling isn’t, by default, a terrible way to write. It’s about balance–work as much as you can to show, rewriting and re positioning scenes to make them more dynamic, so when you do have telling, it works better.
- Starting in the wrong place
- It’s difficult to give broad advice about this because it’s a story-by-story, case by case basis. First chapters are very important–you neither want to throw your readers into action they have no context/feelings for, but nor do you want to start on something slow and uninteresting, or default to too much info-dumping. Think about your inciting incident and where it falls–your first chapter shouldn’t be your inciting incident, but it can directly lead to it. ie: the first chapter of The Hunger Games (Katniss preparing for the Reaping). Think about compelling, exciting scenes you can use to ground your reader while also carrying their interest–does your first chapter/few chapters do that? If you’re not getting requests/traction, consider your starting place.