Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

The Dreaded Query

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…really shouldn’t be all that dreaded, because it’s just a formula. And, honestly, writing a query letter is   is a very beneficial exercise: it forces you to boil your novel down to it’s very heart and soul.

Participating in the fabulous #WriteMentor as a mentor has helped me, as I’ve been trying to help others. It’s also been a great way to fill my time as my debut contemporary YA novel All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) is locked away for edits. And, as I was prepping feedback for all the authors who submitted to me, I did notice a lot of common problems across entries. So, I’m launching a summer series with some tips around getting your submission materials query ready.

So, let’s start with the dreaded query letter. This is a struggle for most writers, because it is SO DIFFERENT from writing that novel, or even that synopsis. It takes a different part of your brain. Tons has already been written about query letters. I’m not going to reveal anything earth-shattering or re-write what experts have already written—I’ll provide some resources at the end. I’m just going to give you my personal thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. Because, who knows, it may work for you!

I think, first and foremost, it’s helpful to conceptualize it as what it is: basically a cover letter for your resume or CV you use when applying for a job. It’s a formal business letter, and it’s purpose is to give an agent or editor a tease about your book and leave them hungry to know more, while also revealing more mundane details like word count, genre, and a tiny bit about yourself. The ultimate purpose of the query letter is to highlight the uniqueness of your story and make the agent/editor sit up and want to read your pages. Because, the hard truth is most agents get hundreds of queries every week, and that’s in addition to all the hard work they’re putting in for their clients. Not all agents read beyond the query. So you need to make sure your query grabs their attention. It should be the unique concept of your story itself that grabs their attention, not fireworks or cheap tricks. Also, do NOT use rhetorical questions. General consensus is recent comp titles are good to have, as it helps categorize your book and is very useful in marketing and shelving it.

Your main goal in the query letter is to introduce the main character(s), central conflict, and show us what the main obstacle/barrier/antagonist. We need a strong sense of what’s at stake if they fail. Why should we care?

At the core of the query are these questions:

1)      What does the character want?

2)      Why do they want it?

3)      What obstacles are in the way?

4)      What’s at stake if they don’t get it?

It should also show how the character’s agency, their choices, will be what drives the plot. Focus only on the most essential characters and the main plot line, otherwise it gets convoluted and confusing.

A query differs from a synopsis in that it DOESN’T tell us the ending, just gives us a taste of the story. The synopsis lays out blow-by-blow what happens all the way to the end. The query shows the reader with the heart of the story, lays bare the central conflict, then teases the reader with an impossible situation, an impossible choice that must be made. The query should leave big questions in the air about what’s at stake and what’s going to happen, so the reader is desperate to know more.

In terms of the bio, it doesn’t have to be huge—just a few sentences if you’ve never published anything. Do mention any writing organizations you’re a member of, such the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Romance Writers of America, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. This shows a level of commitment to the profession of writing. If you’re not a member of some kind of writing organization, consider it. They can be great ways to learn about trainings, get critique partners, or find other professional development opportunities. If you’ve been selected as a mentee in any writing programs (like PitchWars or WriteMentor), consider mentioning that, as that shows a commitment to craft.  Other than that, otherwise just briefly state your educational and current professional experience, and perhaps if there’s anything that might even tangentially qualify you to write this book. Like I always mention I’m a school psychologist with a professional focus around supporting children who have been exposed to trauma or toxic stress, as the books I write tend to incorporate elements of both.

We DON’T need to know every training you’ve ever attended or book on craft you’ve ever read or even how many books you’ve tried to write. We DON’T need to know that you’re in a critique group. Now, if you’ve organized one, particularly a large one, that could be relevant. DO NOT advertise that you just finished this book up in NaNoWriMo a few months back; this will suggest to agents that you may not have taken the necessary time to send your novel through critique partners and properly edit it.

Then there’s there obvious stuff like grammar and typos, being consistent with capitalizations. Again, this is a professional business letter. And if you can’t get it right in the query letter, it’ll leave agents and editors wondering about the editorial quality of the rest of your work.

Really, there’s a formula for writing a query letter. Here are a few resources about that formula:

www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literaryagents/pubtips-query

www.janefriedman.com/query-letters/

www.agentquery.com

www.queryshark.blogspot.com

For me personally, my writing tribe has been critical in helping me finally master my query back in the day; query letters are definitely instances where we as writers are too close.  Having a set of objective eyes is essential. They can make sure it’s stream-lined, focused, and makes sense. As with all things writing, I think critiquing others can only help you develop your skill for your own work as well, so exchanging query letters and helping one another will always be mutually beneficial 😊

Look for another craft post on the beastly synopsis soon. Happy writing!

 

Delving deep into setting

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In my day job, I’m a school psychologist. Now school is officially out for the summer!

celebration

After weeks of scrambling to finish up special education evaluations, writing up and filing all the supports and interventions kids have gotten, trying to see as many students as possible before they leave for the summer (or too often forever) … I’ve made it through.

It always takes a bit to get my brain turned back to writing. And this year, the catalyst has been returning to my high school home town for the annual Butterfest. Which, incidentally, has never had anything butter-related from as far back as I can remember to middle school.

So why Butterfest to turn my writing brain back on?

I’ll be getting edits back from my publisher for All the Walls of Belfast (Turner Publishing, March 2019) soon, as well as my final cover design. Eeeeeeee. But still nothing to do there at the moment per say. Getting back into #WriteMentor and helping my fabulous mentor needs to be ASAP, and will be. But I need something inspiring.

So when my sister told me she was making the trip back for Butterfest, I decided to join her. As a teen, I remember the building excitement as we practiced marching in band for the Butterfest parade, watching the rides slowly go up the week before, planning when to go with friends. Then finally opening night. The Zipper and Superloop and Gravitron. Walking around with friends free of parents and supervision just as the school year ended, hoping to see boys we liked, fretting over if we picked the right outfit. And, back in that day, searching for trinkets I thought were cool in the craft fair/flea market. And it was just something to DO. In my hometown, weekend excitement was the bowling alley (which apparently closed), movie theater, playing video games or watching movies at a friend’s house. Maybe a trip to the mall in La Crosse or Olive Garden if you were lucky. For other crowds, it was parties at people’s houses or in farm fields or deer shining.

Annnnyway, back to why it was inspiring. My current WIP is set in my hometown and deals with complex issues around the overpowering desire to break free and the intense pull to stay, for family and familiarity and safety. I’ve gone back a few times to work on capturing setting, but not in a few years. As a writer, truly capturing a sense of place and culture is something I’ve discovered I LOVE doing, whether it’s somewhere relatively far flung like Belfast or close to my heart, like my high school home town. Almost making setting it’s own character, and making sure it shapes the characters and the plot. Actually diving into the setting, physically being there, helps genuinely capture things beyond the sights–it’s the sounds, smells, textures, temperature, interplay of light and shadow … the feel of a place you just can’t get by looking at Google Maps Street View or pictures. It also allows for me to gather details that would be what my Junior English teacher referred to as “specific is terrific.” The graffiti, specifics for clothing, the decals on the cars/trucks, dialect, news playing on a local radio station in the diner.

Since I’ve left that town, I’ve lived in Milwaukee, Madison, Singapore, and now the Madison area again (all much more cosmopolitan and urban). And, even though I still live in the same state, culturally it’s very different. And, over the years, it’s been really fascinating looking at this town using more of an anthropological lens like I did for Belfast, trying to appreciate the culture, language, society, norms, food, attire, etc. Even down to popular sodas—Sundrop, which doesn’t even exist 127 miles away in Madison. And also reflecting on my own experiences coming of age there as well.

So Butterfest may well be the perfect catalyst to turn on my writing brain again.

A few pictures from my adventure.

 

Memorial Day Weekend R & R, AKA a break from writing

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We planned a last minute escape to Door County, Wisconsin for the long weekend. I forced myself to take a much-needed break from planning a possible book trailer for my debut novel, All the Walls of Belfast, and preparing feedback for both my future #WriteMentor mentee and also all the people who trusted me with their submissions. Here’s a few of my favorite pictures 🙂

Feeling refreshed and ready to work.

 

Signing the publishing contract

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My mom has said on more than one occasion that when I put my mind to something, I make it happen. At the end of 7th grade, we moved from a suburb of Milwaukee to the rural town of Sparta, Wisconsin, population 9,000. I swore I’d move back to Milwaukee. I started my professional career as a school psychologist for the Milwaukee Public Schools. After I saw the movie Braveheart in like 6th grade, I swore I’d go to Scotland. I went twice; once, I even hiked to the ruins of the town my ancestors immigrated to Canada from on the Isle of Mull.

Sheeps in Shiaba

Grazing sheep on the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland near the ruins of a town that people were forced from to make room for grazing sheep.

Before my husband and I moved to Singapore during the summer of 2013, I resolved to take a group of middle school students who had worked with me for a year in a community service club to Pine Ridge Reservation to volunteer. With the help of those students and many others, I managed to get the whole trip paid for at no expense to the students and navigate the bureaucracy of my school district to make it happen.

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Our autographed school t-shirt that went on the wall of Re-Member. Mitakuye Oyasin means “all [people/things] are related” in Lakota.

From a very young age, I loved making up elaborate worlds and stories in my imagination. I’d be running around in my back yard by myself, talking to entire casts of characters that existed only in my mind. I’d often rope my four younger siblings in, too. I first realized my love of writing those stories down in 4th grade when I was selected to go to a special writing convention for all the elementary schools in the area. All our short stories were printed and bound into a book. After that were many notebooks filled with stories inspired by Stephen King and Michael Creighton. Some of them are still in a box in my parent’s attic somewhere. After that was an elaborate sci-fi story I spent many hours researching Europa and methods of faster-than-light travel and star systems with habitable planets. I finally finished a draft at some point in college. It was 240,000 words. *cringe*

After I let someone look at it, then couldn’t pay them to read the whole thing, I knew I needed to learn more. So I took critique classes at UW-Madison, went to conferences, and got involved in more critique groups and read books. Wrote several more (and better) books that I queried without luck. About five years ago, after a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, I was inspired. I started researching and learning. Then, while sitting at an Irish pub in Madison, Wisconsin, I took the first primordial steps toward writing a book that is now called All the Walls of Belfast.

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Taken by me at a bonfire in Tiger’s Bay, Belfast on Bonfire Night (July 12th, 2011).

Then I moved to Singapore for my husband’s job, found more writer friends, and really, really got serious about writing. I got involved in the fabulous Singapore Writers Group within a week of getting off the plane and focused on developing my craft, critiquing others, and taking and applying constructive feedback, even when it was hard to hear. Researching, so much researching. And re-writing—and re-writing again—while riding busses and sitting in various coffee shops in Holland Village and Robertson Quay and Buona Vista.

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Writing on the MRT in Singapore.

i heart writing

One of the many flat whites consumed at one of many coffee shops in Singapore.

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I found out about fabulous twitter-based writing contests such as Pitch Wars, Nightmare on Query Street, and #Pitchmas. other twitter pitching contests. Finally I landed an agent, Claire Anderson-Wheeler at Regal Hoffman & Associates, after she liked a tweet.

Then I moved back from Singapore and went back to work full-time as a school psychologist and had my daughter.

For the next three years, while balancing all that, I re-wrote parts of All the Walls at least twice, then basically fully re-wrote it again based on Claire’s developmental feedback and feedback from a plethora of critique partners. In the end, I’d say the whole thing ended up being re-written. Thankfully, Claire never stopped believing in Danny and Fiona and my abilities as a writer, but she challenged me over and over again to find the heart of my story and focus on that.

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Sampling of the many, MANY post-it notes that helped get me through.

It’s hard to quantify amount the support I’ve gotten over the years from Claire, and from fellow writers in Madison and Singapore and Belfast (also my far-flung crit buddies in Belgium, Turkey, and Cali), who have been essential in pushing All the Walls of Belfast to be more accurate, more authentic, more focused.

The past five years of working on this manuscript has felt like running a mentally (and sometimes physically) exhausting marathon with an ever-moving finish line. I’ve lost count of how many files I’ve naively saved with “final draft” tacked on the end.

But, like my mom has always said, when I put my mind to something, I never give up.

So, I still can’t believe I’m writing this, but….

Finally, in February 2018, the manuscript went on submission. I signed my contact with Turner Publishing (distributed by Ingram) on March 27th, 2018 while on a road trip to Colorado. After speaking with the acquisitions editor, I knew they were the perfect fit. They loved Fiona and Danny as much as I do and got All the Wall’s potential to expand the worldview of American readers and teach them something new.

I still can’t believe that soon I’ll be holding a copy of my book baby.

Persistence, perseverance, patience, and a lot (a LOT) of hard work really can make dreams come true.

Attitude is everything 2

Picture taken on a three day hike on the Routeburn Track on the South Island of New Zealand. I *may* have come a few inches from falling off a cliff.

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After 7+ Years of Querying

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Writing like six different novels (at least), then landing an agent and revising for three years, I can officially announce…

PW announcement

Still doesn’t totally feel real.

All the Walls of Belfast, March 2019!

More details to come 🙂