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Crafting the Fantasy Query

When I first pitched my fantasy romance novel a thousand years ago, I made the fatal mistake I think a lot of spec writers make–foregrounding the worldbuilding beyond anything else. While it’s true that worldbuilding is the one quintessential thing that differentiates fantasy from other genres, it may not be exactly what you want to lead with in your pitch. In the whole scheme of things, worldbuilding is only one aspect of a story that will appeal to readers, and I would argue that, at its core, the query needs to center around the engaging and fascinating characters within your world.

It’s hard to connect on a deep, personal level to a magic system, but we’re hardwired, you might say, to connect with individual struggle or strife. Most of us want to connect with humans (or humanoid-esque, sentient beings), not with the magical amulet of Aerosolisia or the ancient book of Conolingua. Such things are meaningless to us at this point in the book’s life, but a character with a goal and a conflict? That will hook most readers right away, and hints at an incredible world will be the icing on that fantasy-character cake.

As I said above, when I queried my debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL, I was so proud of all my worldbuilding, I forgot this very important component. I filled my query with so much world, I’m not sure how anyone could parse out my story at all, let alone connect to my characters. In spite of the churning waves of embarrassment in my stomach, I present to you something very close to my original query, and I do so to point out some of its serious flaws. Just…be kind, guys. I was young, fresh, and very green.

Graduate student Elizabeth Tanner loved to lose herself in the musty vellum pages of the ancient Irish manuscript she studied for her MA thesis–until the pictures started shifting and the spidery script transformed to reveal a terrible secret. 

Elizabeth is no Tinkerbell, but when she discovers her lost mother is Fae, she finds herself at odds with the forces of Trinity, a secret organization composed of the magical races of Ireland. To end a centuries-long Civil War war, Trinity forces Elizabeth to take her Fae mother’s place in a marriage covenant forged a generation ago with the leader of the Dark Fae, Lord Bres.

Her only ally is Finn O’Connell, an eighteenth-century Irish rebel turned immortal warrior. Together, they unlock the mysteries of her past and explore the truth of Elizabeth’s new-found powers. She is an aisling, blessed with the ability to break magical wards, cross space and time, and even walk through dreams.

Bound to Bres by the same black magic she unearthed in her Master’s thesis, Elizabeth must stop him from gaining control of The Tree of Life, the source of all power in the universe. If she fails, Finn and everyone she loves dies and the mortal world falls to darkness.

Oh, my eyes…they bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed. Where do I even begin with this? As I’m sure you can see, it’s practically unreadable. First of all, we have way too many magical elements dropped into it that require far too much explanation for a 200 word query. There’s an ancient manuscript, a secret organization, Fae, Dark Fae, something called an aisling, a Tree of Life. You guys. As much as I love all this stuff about my book, front loading all that world was a huge, terrible mistake. Furthermore, while I’m able to establish some notion of who my characters are, neither of them have a very specific goal. Elizabeth loves books and Finn wants to help her because…? Um…because…? Yeah.

So fast forward a year or so later when my editor asked me to take a stab at writing the back copy for the book. I just about threw up on my laptop with nerves, but I wanted to prove I could do this.

I spent years teaching freshman comp, which is essentially helping students understand the rhetorical moves that make for effective essays. To do that, we have to analyze the fundamental gestures great writers make to convince others of their argument. I knew if I could apply the same mindset to studying blurbs, I could figure out the code, the code that makes one person want to throw down their hard-earned money for a book.

Now, what follows is not a formula, a wham-bam-thank-you-mam worksheet you can fill out and get a six-figure deal. But I was raised by jazz musicians, and one thing I learned is  you need to learn some basics before you can freestyle like Charlie Parker. Bear in mind, also, that back cover copy is not the same thing as a query. However, I’m using examples of back cover copy here to show how you can shape and consolidate your fantasy novel into something that might appeal to agents.

So, determined to write a good blurb, I set out studying as much back cover copy in my genre as possible. One example of back cover copy I looked at specifically was the book Darkfever, probably the closest comp to my own book. The first thing I noticed was that the copy didn’t start with the world or the conflict, but the character.

MacKayla Lane’s life is good. She has great friends, a decent job, and a car that breaks down only every other week or so. In other words, she’s your perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century woman. Or so she thinks…until something extraordinary happens.

We can argue back and forth about the likeability of MacKayla Lane’s character, but one thing is for sure, we know exactly who she is. More importantly, we know this is going to be a character who will transform, who will be forever changed by the events within this story. That is the key to good characterization.

I won’t copy and paste the whole back cover copy here, but you can see how it goes on to provide a goal:

When her sister is murdered, leaving a single clue to her death–a cryptic message on Mac’s cell phone–Mac journeys to Ireland in search of answers.

And then we have the conflict, the person (or Fae, as it were) standing in her way:

As she begins to close in on the truth, the ruthless Vlane–an alpha Fae who makes sex an addiction for human women–closes in on her.

Yikes!

Then finally, we have the stakes:

…because whoever gets to [this magical book] first holds nothing less than complete control of the very fabric of both worlds in their hands….

Essentially, if MacKayla doesn’t figure out who killed her sister and stop him, the whole fabric of the universe might implode. Awesome, right? I love this series. There’s also a really hot dude in it.

Anyway, as helpful as this analysis was, I still couldn’t quite get the organization right. Even though my character, goal, conflict, and stakes were stronger, the copy still felt muddled. So I went to Entangled’s website and started studying all the copy on my publisher’s particular imprint. Because romance tends to focus on two characters, I realized that there was a certain organization that popped up over and over again. It goes a little something like this:

Paragraph One (2-3 sentences): Who is the main character? What does she want? What is her initial conflict? What is tripping her up?

Paragraph Two (2-3 sentences): Who is the main love interest? What is his/her goal? What is his/her initial conflict? What is tripping him/her up?

Paragraph Three (1-2 sentences): What is their combined conflict? What is standing in their way? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?

Once I figured this out, the copy came a lot faster, and after several, several drafts and going back and forth with my editor, we came up with this final version:

Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.

As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.

At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.

Even if Fae Fantasy Romance isn’t your thing, this blurb not even comparable to the original version I queried with years ago. We gave the characters goals, took out a ton of the worldbuilding, and made the focus on the the essential driving forces of Elizabeth and Finn’s combined character arcs. You will notice there are a lot fewer proper nouns and we maintained the barest hint of a much more complex magical system.

“But, Colleen!” you exclaim. “I thought this was a post about fantasy, not romance!”

Right. So let’s look at some back copy of straight-up high fantasy.

I’m reading Six of Crows right now and absolutely loving it. The world is incredibly complex, and 100 pages in, I’m only just beginning to grasp the complex magic system Bardugo weaves within this engaging novel. Here is the back copy, though:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

We have setting first to establish we are in some place other than planet Earth. But then we move immediately into character…and then more characters…and then even more characters. We have a goal—“the heist”—but it becomes clear the core conflict lies within these characters themselves.

Check out the simplicity in the focus of character in the current back cover copy for The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss:

The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime- ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet’s hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.

Okay, firstly, I would definitely not describe your book to agents as a “masterpiece” (lolz), but I’m using this example to demonstrate that again, in spite of the incredible world and magic systems Rothfuss creates, the pitch to readers remains focused on the character and his journey.

So as you go forth revising your queries, take some time to read as much back cover copy as possible and start identifying where marketers place this key information:

  • Who is the main character? And I mean on a most fundamental level, who is this person?
  • What does this person want? What is their goal?
  • Who or what stands in their way? (the central conflict)
  • And what will happen if they don’t get it? (the stakes)

Keep the focus on your character’s journey and discover a way to organize this information to keep your narrative clear and uncluttered by extraneous information. It might feel like the story is the world, but think of your characters as the guides who will lead us into the magic you’ve created.

 

Discover THROUGH THE VEIL for yourself…

My debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL is now available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.

 

 

#PitMad, Creative Process, Editing, Marketing, Pitching, PitMad, Publishing, Romance, Social Media, Twitter Pitch, Uncategorized, Writing

It’s a #PitMad Party! How to Bring out Your Inner Woo-Girl and Write a Twitter Pitch that Gets Noticed

Oh, man, I love a good twitter pitch party. Since I’m out of the game, I wanted to share a few of my tips and tricks for getting noticed in the cluttered pitch party feed. Because the #pitmad event has grown so much and become so successful, Brenda Drake has implemented an update for #pitmad, which now limits participants to only three pitches. That’s it! Three! More than ever, writers need to up their game and work a pitch that will get noticed. But how?

My advice here will not work for every author, but I have learned a few things as a veteran of several twitter pitch parties. The ultimate secret (for me) of having a successful pitching day is to treat it like an actual party. It’s a party! Woooo!!! That means, have fun, enjoy yourself, be funny, keep it light.

“But Colleen,” you say, “I’m not funny and pitching is stressful!”

To which I say, change your mindset. Believe me, that twitter pitch is not going to make or break your career. Your goal on Friday is not to snag an agent. If that happens, GREAT! But your goal is to network, meet other writers, and be your awesome self. Seriously, relax, dude. Remember, it’s a party. IT’S A PARTY!

I’ll tell  you a little story from my whoring twenties. I used to have a friend. Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer was not the prettiest girl at the bar, and I say that not to be mean, just as a fact. She was cute, but no supermodel, and yet…whenever we went out the whole scene would flock to her like flies on honey. And why? Because Jennifer was hilarious. She had this high, brash voice that rang out over the music, and she had a wit that would not quit. She loved men, loved to tease them, dance with them, but she was never desperate. Sometimes she went home with a dude, sometimes not. Jennifer wasn’t in it to hit it. She was there to have a good time, and that sort of confidence was intoxicating to everyone around her.

What I found after doing dozens of twitter pitch parties is that when I really let go and started having fun with presenting my book, my favorites (are they likes now? I don’t know) went through the roof. Definitely make sure you have one pitch that presents your story clearly: protagonist, goal, conflict, stakes. Ava Jae at Writability has a great post on how to do that. Here was my basic pitch for Through the Veil:

FEVER series + LABYRINTH Elizabeth is forced to marry a Dark Fae lord, allies with 18th c Irish rebel to save herself & the world #pitmad #f

Meh.

This got some hits, but as I was pitching, I noticed my writer buddy Wren Michaels getting tons of favorites. What was her secret? If you know Wren, you’ll know she’s funny, she’s snappy, and her writing is all about the voicey voice. She’s brilliant at bringing that sharp edge to 140 characters, and it is no easy feat! I wanted to see if I could replicate what Wren was doing, so I DM’d her and asked if I could use her pitches as a sort of “formula” for developing my own. She LOL’d and said, yes (because she’s so awesome like that), and for my next pitch party, I set to work sending out pitches with my info plugged into Wren’s pitches. It worked! I snagged way more agent interest.

Here are the pitches based on Wren’s 140 character magic:

Elizabeth knew grad school would be hard. She never imagined the Irish myths of her MA thesis would come to life and try to kill her #SFFpit

Super powers? Check. Hot Irish BF? Check. If only Elizabeth’s mother hadn’t forced her into this arranged marriage with a Dark Fae #SFFpit

Falling in love with a Celtic warrior was easy. Keeping a Dark Fae lord from destroying the world will be the hard part #SFFpit #A

Her mom is MIA. Her BF is sworn to kill her. She’s forced to marry a Dark Fae Lord. Grad school doesn’t seem so bad anymore #SFFpit #A

Maybe you’ll disagree, but to me these pitches have the zip that stands out. If you see someone snagging all the likes on Friday, try to figure out what’s going right for that person. It’s not all about premise as Lara Willard so brilliantly discusses in her (*ahem* much more detailed) analysis of her own twitter pitch experience. For her, References (like comps FEVER series + LABYRINTH) and voice trumped all. She has, like, graphs and stuff. Check it out before you tweet.

So I took Lara’s advice and started playing around with comps and voice. Here’s one of those:

Wait…what is this? I have to fight this Dark Fae Lord? What am I, some sort of wizard? Well, actually… FEVER series meets IRON DRUID CHRONICLES #pitchmas #a

And then I just started getting really silly and decided since Wren’s twitter formulas worked so much, why not use really catchy pop tunes? I’m particularly proud of these:

Elizabeth’s got a blank space and she’ll write Finn’s name as long at this Dark Fae lord doesn’t get in the way FEVER series meets IRON DRUID CHRONICLES #secretshop #a

Walk into the club like what up I’m THE LAST AISLING and I can make your head explode with my mind FEVER series x LABYRINTH #secretshop #a

Elizabeth’s got 99 problems but this Dark Fae lord ain’t one. Irish myth retelling & romance. FEVER series meets IRON DRUID CHRONICLES #secretshop #a

These received tons of agent love. I know what you’re thinking. What does Taylor Swift have to do with my novel? The answer is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. But Taylor Swift writes catchy tunes. Most of the pop songs on the radio are engineered to get noticed and stick in your head…forever. Use that to your advantage. Oh, man, the things I would do with that new Adele song in a twitter pitch…

So after I got my twitter pitch sea legs, I really just started having a ball with trying out new things. You don’t have the advantage of that on Friday, but take some time to come up with some fun things that encompass maybe not the premise of your book, but the spirit of your book. One pitch I threw out there that really surprised me by how much attention it received is a pitch I just sort of wrote as a joke:

Sexy Celtic romp with GoT darkness and twists. Irish myth retelling and romance. FEVER series meets IRON DRUID CHRONICLES #SFFpit #A #NA #R

Basically it was me saying, “Hey agents! I know shit you like! I have shit you like!” It says nothing substantial about the story, but it doesn’t have to. It just has to appeal to people. I mean, who doesn’t want to read a sexy Celtic romp with GoT darkness and twists, right? Right? (*wrings hands*).

Think, too, about what appeals to your audience. My novel has a lot of fantasy elements, so I drew from a very popular Lord of the Rings meme (again, go with things that are popular, catchy. Memes are great inspiration for this). Here’s one that everyone seemed to love:

One does not *simply* walk out of the Faerie realm after becoming the Dark Fae’s most valuable weapon FEVER series x IRON DRUID CHRONICLES #secretshop #f #a

Hehe…(yeah, I laugh at my own jokes. So what?).

But then I thought I would give my romance audience a little love, so I thought about things that appeal to me, namely super hot guys with their shirts off. Here are a few of those heavy romance pitches that received tons of love:

If you think Elizabeth is going to fall for the warrior with the hot Irish accent, you’re probably right. Brains + Body = Ally #secretshop #f

I mean, yes, we *could* stop this Dark Fae Lord from using my MA thesis for evil, but we should probably make out first, right? #secretshop

Hey, you know what’s better than a hot 18th c. Irish rebel with his shirt off? Actually, never mind. Nothing’s better than that #secretshop #f #a

These tweets tell you nothing but everything about my novel, and for readers of romance, it zeroes into exactly the sort of things we like. Again, it’s not always about outlining the character, goals, stakes, etc. It’s very important to have a tweet like that in your arsenal, but what about the other two? Sometimes it’s delivering the attitude of your book and your voice, and sometimes it’s just about cracking a joke and appealing to your core audience.

But most of all, it’s about having a good time. I didn’t land an agent with twitter pitching, but ended up getting my big break on #mswl. But I’m so glad I participated in all those parties. It helped me hone my pitch and taught me a lot about marketing and what appeals to people about my book.

No matter what happens, though, just remember, if you’re not having fun with #PitMad, you’re doing it wrong.

So tell me your troubles, darlings. Let me help you with your pitches. Post yours in the comments, and I’ll see if I can give you some feedback. Also, give some love to your fellow writers and see if you can help them out. Get a comment, leave a comment, etc.

Happy Pitching!

 

 

Through the Veil

Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.

As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.

At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.

Available now at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Amazon UK, and Amazon Canada.