3 flaws in your query that shout “beginner”

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Few experiences are more instructive about what-not-to-do in your writing than working your way through the queries and proposals editors or agents receive. I can’t make my stack of reading available to you, but I can give you a peek into common errors.

I’ve  picked one submission to highlight here because it had three flaws showcased in the query. That means before I even read the first paragraph of the novel, I knew it wasn’t ready to be represented. Note: While this example is a novel, the same problems could exist in a query for a nonfiction book.

1. The writer explained that the book was targeted to young adults and adults. While adults, especially those in their 20s and 30s, are reading some YA books, the writer is telling me that she hasn’t targeted any audience. You must choose to write a book that appeals to a specific age-range. A proposal that describes the targeted readers as those between the ages of 16-90, has no audience.

What a novelist chooses to write to appeal to a teen isn’t the same as what would appeal to a 60-year-old woman. That doesn’t mean the woman wouldn’t enjoy the book, but she would approach it with a different expectation if she knew it was categorized as YA.

The same would be true for a nonfiction book written with a 30-year-old man in mind. Word choice, illustrative examples of the book’s points, and maybe even the structure of the book (length of chapters, number of chapters, length of examples) would be targeted to the core reader.

To write for everyone is to write for no one.

2. The query also mentioned that the novel was intended to be for both the Christian reader and the general market reader. Commonly called a “crossover” book, this type of manuscript is an attempt to sneak Christianity into the story in such an enticing way that the unsuspecting reader is snagged into faith before he or she realizes what’s happened. While I laud the desire to invite readers into the kingdom of heaven, this strategy is most likely not to succeed for the same reason you can’t write a book for a teen as well as for an adult. If you aim at nothing, you’re bound to hit it.

I continue to be confounded by how regularly books aimed solidly at an evangelical audience land–and stay–on the New York Times Best-seller List. No sneaky tactics were employed in either the writing of these books or in their marketing. If memory serves me, the barricades of this best-seller list were breached by the Left Behind Series. You know, the unfolding story of the rapture and the apocalypse. A nonfiction example of a title that has been on the NY Times list for years is Heaven Is for Real. No punches are pulled as the story tells about a little boy experiencing heaven, Jesus, God, the angels during a dire medical emergency.

The writers of these books weren’t expecting their stories to appeal to the unbelieving reader but instead focused on the core Christian reader. If you keep your core reader in mind, others might start to read your book out of curiosity and find themselves drawn in.

3. The writer of  the novel went on in the query letter to explain that the word count was 50,000. Since this was a historical novel, with a complex plot (war, romance, family issues), I was hard-pressed to believe that word count was sufficient to write the toothsome story necessary to fulfill all the writer wanted to achieve in exploring complex themes. Historical novels especially tend to be longer than contemporaries because the writer has to depict rich details about lifestyle, clothing, housing, vehicles, etc.

The same goes for a nonfiction book. If someone tells me that a manuscript is 90,000 words, I know that the writer is unaware that, unless the book is a biography of epic importance, no publisher can afford to produce the book. And the retail price would be so high, few readers would be willing to buy it. Know what the appropriate word count is for your audience and for your book’s category.

Don’t let the belief that everyone would enjoy your book blind you to the boundaries every writer must set for him or herself. Show yourself knowledgeable about “what the market will bear” when it comes to getting published.

What steps have you taken to figure out who your core reader is for your current writing?

How do you keep that reader in mind as you work?

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54 Comments

  • Janet, thank you for passing on this valuable information. How else would we know?

    Write for someone; aim at something.

    In my work in progress, my girls have helped me tremendously in finding my target audience … knowing what they like to read and hearing their opinions. And they’ve helped me keep the reader in mind. My 15 year old let me know that this was something she’d love to read to her 4th grade class that she works with.

    I started out writing for my youngest daughter’s age … 13 … but seeing what most kids her age are reading today, I realized that mine is for 7-12 years olds. And my daughter still loves books from that section of the bookstore. How is that age categorized? Intermediate? Middle Grade? What terms do you like to see used?

    And is there a particular reason your agency doesn’t deal with this age group? Could that ever change?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, that age category is Middle Grade. We used to have an agent, Etta Wilson, who specialized in children’s books, but she retired a few years ago.
      It’s hard for an agent to represent children’s projects (from board books up to teens) in the Christian market because there are so few publishers to sell manuscripts to. And children’s authors can complete a lot of projects in short order because of the word count yet there are few publishing slots.
      In the general market, there are many options to sell projects to, but the editors are idiosyncratic. So the agent needs to specialize in general market children’s books to effectively stay on top of what each editor’s interests are. It’s very hard work, for small advances and royalties often split between the author and the illustrator.
      From a business perspective, an agent can hardly afford to represent children’s books. Teen books tend to make more sense as the agent weighs the amount of work to place the project vs. advances and royalties paid.
      I hope that makes sense. Ultimately it’s a business decision, not a decision of what interests us. Several Books & Such agents love children’s books.

      • Thank makes perfect sense. Thank you for taking your time to help out!

        How likely would it be to use my daughter as the illustrator should the book ever get picked up? Her computer illustrations are just darling, in my opinion. I think kids would love them. I’m amazed at the time she took to draw them. The detail into them.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Shelli, I would recommend you present your project without the illustrations. When you get serious interest from an editor, you could ask if she would like to take a look at your daughter’s work to see if the editor thought they were a possibility to use. Assure the editor that you understand it’s totally her decision, and she might have another direction entirely in mind for artwork. I would advise against sending in your manuscript with the illustrations. If the editor has a different idea for art, seeing the illustrations could cause the editor to turn down the manuscript. Especially when dealing with family members, editors know some moms couldn’t accept that the editor didn’t want to go with the art.

      • Thank you, Janet. I appreciate your instruction.

  • Norma Horton says:

    Janet:

    I understand that “crossover” in the midst of your first and third concerns about the query reinforced your opinion of a newbie author. The internet offers plenty of information about word count and targeting demographics, and this author apparently didn’t do her research.

    But crossover is a category that SHOULD be growing, and to dismiss it out of hand appears short-sighted. Crossover allows a Christian author to share the Christian commitment of her or his characters in a natural, relatable, and understandable way — as a ministry preaching outside the choir that is CBA.

    From a business standpoint, my kids’ generation is the best-educated and most broadly traveled in the history of the world, immersed in a global economy and the boundless exposure of the Internet since birth. Considering they’re the future, will CBA novels appeal to enough young readers to make CBA a viable option in ten or years? Isn’t one of the big CBA concerns an older readership, and lack of younger readers? Where is the next generation of CBA readership? And is it large enough to float the CBA boat?

    From a theological standpoint, the problem I see with crossover is that it’s different. It requires publishers take a risk, just as my lovely agent did when she signed me. Everyone on a crossover project will have to think more creatively, work harder, and cut a trail.

    But in reality, doesn’t crossover best express the grafting of the vine that is Christendom? And remember that Christ was a radical who crossed over, and the Bible is the greatest piece of crossover literature ever written.

    There’s a great ministry, and a lot of money to be made, in crossover fiction.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Norma, thanks for sharing your perspective about crossover books. First, let me say that all of publishing–general market and CBA–should be worried about the stats of teen reading habits. They have so many other types of entertainment available to them that reading isn’t the significant source of satisfaction it was to past generations. I don’t see this concern as being uniquely CBA.
      My point regarding crossover books is that I’m hard-pressed to think of any title intended to entice the secularist into acceptance of a faith-laced text. Even when it’s done beautifully.
      But straight-on CBA books, written with an overtly Christian voice, have done extremely well in the general market. The only conclusion I’ve been able to draw from more than a decade of evidence is that general market readers are fine with discussions of spirituality as long as they don’t feel tricked into the conversation.
      That doesn’t mean Christians haven’t succeeded at publishing directly to the general market. Bret Lott is an example of that, as is John Grisham. But they have not succeeded well in the CBA market, hence they’ve failed to “crossover” in the other direction.
      Anne Lamott is someone who has managed to draw readers from both camps, but don’t expect to find her books in any CBA bookstore.
      The books that work in both the general market and the Christian market are those that are open about faith.
      I suspect you are attempting to write a novel that has Christian values but would appeal to a general market reader. That would mean your audience is the general market. CBA readers would be a secondary market.

      • Karen says:

        Janet,

        With respect to your comments to Norma regarding crossover books, you wrote “The books that work in both the general market and the Christian market are those that are open about faith.
        I suspect you are attempting to write a novel that has Christian values but would appeal to a general market reader. That would mean your audience is the general market. CBA readers would be a secondary market.”

        Would you recommend that the writer query both CBA and general market agents? I have been advised to choose one camp or the other, but I feel like I might be ruling out that “perfect fit” if I don’t explore both areas.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Karen, since I don’t know your work, it’s hard to give generic advice. I would say that, if the general market is your primary audience, you should look for an agent who has strong connections in that market. If CBA is your audience, then an agent with a good network in CBA is the best choice. If you’re writing with an overt faith element to the general market, then your choice of an agent is someone sympathetic to spiritual content and a knowledge of the general market.

  • I had a very, very nice, very sincere agent ask me at ACFW why I don’t gear my book as a YA.
    Umm.
    No.

    I aim my work at a woman who’s well read, who has a fair bit of Christian fiction under her belt, and enjoys a good read, and isn’t afraid of getting horse…DNA…on her boots.

    I refuse to spend my time writing something for a reader, and not give her an ‘horse at a full out gallop’ kind of experience. I aim my work to reach out and grab her, drag her through upheaval after upheaval, stop for a minute, make her laugh, then we’re off through the scary woods again.

    I want to be worn out when I finish reading a book. A happy, satisfied kind of worn out.
    That’s what I hope, and work toward, for my readers.

  • Just what I needed today, Janet. I like such helpful posts on a Monday. It puts me in the right frame of mind.

    Bullet point #1 really stuck out to me because I’ve seen some of those descriptions in published books before that drive me kind of batty. Yes, there are some books both my kids and I read, but they approach them from a totally different angle than I do.

    I have kids at home that help me keep in touch with my reader, but I also volunteer in the schools to help with market research.

    Hope everyone has a great week.

    • Christine Dorman says:

      I hope you have a good weekend too, Cheryl. :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I agree that teens will see a book very differently from how an adult will. A writer who truly understands the teen reader will be able to think like an adolescent and write like one in terms of word choice, plot, characters, etc. To try to reach both the teen audience and the adult audience would be folly.
      If we just ask ourselves how different Harry Potter would be if Rowling had two audiences in mind, I think we would realize the books would be a lot less, well, magical.

  • I try to stay with my target demographic (of which I am not a member) in the following ways:

    1- Respect – My intended readers are women 40-60; I am a male ex-paramilitary contractor. That would sound like a disparate match, but I feel that I genuinely like and respect my readers, and want to bring them stories that they will enjoy and find both emotionally and spiritually fulfilling. To that end, I try to listen and learn, and to place value on things that are important to them – even when it’s a stretch for me. Movies and television are two tools I use, along with books; movies and TV shows that fall within my audience’s sphere of interest can tell me a lot about what they like, and quickly.

    2- Cover design – Book cover are the first marketing hook a publisher has, and they frequently identify aspects of setting and characterization that are important. Look at the cover of Beth Vogt’s “Catch a Falling Star” as an example – a woman, not in the first blush of you, sitting in a Jeep, and looking into a darkening sky. It implies the combination of an outdoorsy setting, and a female protagonist who is old enough to have a good degree of self-confidence, but not too old to hope for love.

    3- Plot/character elements – The reviews on Amazon are great for these, since most of the people who took time to review are part of the target demographic, and they usually focus on one or two elements that they particularly enjoyed. The feature that allows you to see what ‘other who bought this book bought’ is also helpful here.

    4- Style – Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature allows a quick and easy overview of the preferred style of storytelling, and the vocabulary used

    By the way – I think that perhaps it was Andrew Greeley’s ‘The Cardinal Sins’ that started the crossover trend, in the early 80s. Greeley rode that wave for a decade until the ‘Left Behind’ books came out.

    Before that, there were William E. Barrett’s novels, “The Lilies of the Field’, and ‘The Left Hand of God’, both of which were bestsellers, but neither really started a trend.

    • In (2) above, it should have been “…the first blush of youth…”

      Sorry.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, thanks for your insights. I especially appreciate your #1. I think respecting your audience, whether it be mid-aged women, teens, or toddlers, is the first requisite for writing a compelling book. If an author decides to write fiction for women because fiction for men doesn’t sell, that’s a recipe for bland.
      Thanks for mention Greeley as possibly the first crossover best-seller. I hadn’t thought of him because he crossed from the general market into the Christian market.
      Left Behind paved the way, I believe, for all the titles we see on the New York Times list produced by a Christian publishing house. That series showed all of publishing money was to be made writing what we could describe as Extreme Christian books.

    • As you said Andrew, movies and TV shows give great insight into our reader. Not only current shows, but shows they may have watched as young people, because these help to better define their life in the past, where they came from, the foundations for some of their deep set opinions and preferences.
      I appreciate your mention of cover design. This first impression, more often than it should, gives me the urge to either read the back cover copy or pass. The design of the cover can heighten expectations, because when it’s done well, it shows the reader that the author and publisher know their audience.

    • Judith Robl says:

      Andrew, thank you for your input. I will be appropriating some of your techniques immediately in my audience research.

  • Janet, fabulous points and a great example of why it’s important to study the market. Drilling down to the nitty gritty of who we are, what we’re about, and what it is we write is more effective than casting a wide (and hoping for the right “catch”) net.

    Since I write Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction I envision my stories appealing to young women on the cusp of burgeoning romance striving to live a life of purity, while more seasoned–or “mature”–ladies will enjoy not only the blossoming courtship, but also the belief that true love prevails. Resilient faith and homespun values are the cornerstones of my work, and obviously I have a different demographic in mind than a horror novelist might, so of course I wouldn’t market to the average Stephen King fan. (Although he’s a master storyteller and On Writing for writers is brilliant. Ooops–sorry. Bunny trail…)

    And I loved your two book examples. Perfect illustration of keeping our core reader in mind! As I read Heaven is for Real, I wondered why an unbeliever might keep turning the pages. Easy–it’s a timeless story infused with HOPE. Something our culture today is sorely lacking.

    • Lynn Vincent is a brilliant writer. I love how she takes people’s stories and presents them. I think of Same Kind of Different As Me.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, it sounds as though you have a strong grip on who your intended reader is. That informs every writing decision you make, doesn’t it?
      I agree that Heaven Is for Real offers readers the hope of heaven and even, if you believe the story, a glimpse into what heaven is like. It appeals to a deep-seated need to have hope as well as to reader’s curiosity. Regardless what a reader believes about heaven.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    I’ll check out similar books on Amazon and Goodreads, then see who is commenting on them. My reasoning is that those who go through the trouble to write reviews are probably the core audience. For YA, twitter is also a good place. It seems the youth are leaving facebook and prefer twitter (less old people hanging around, apparently). They hashtag books they like. Good place for feedback and even ideas how to make your book better.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Ron, those are great sources to find out what’s going on in the minds of your readers. I also think it’s instructive to read reviews from people who didn’t care for a book. It helps to pinpoint what readers find annoying.

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Thank you, Janet. I am a beginner, but I definitely don’t want to look like one when I start the process of querying. Honestly, writing a query letter, a synopsis, and a proposal are, for me, the hardest and scariest part of taking the traditional publishing route. Although I’m not ready to send out queries yet, I read everything I can on them and have written several for practice. This past week, I also went through the absolute misery of writing a synopsis for my novel and sent it off to Writer’s Digest to be critiqued. Even though I did several drafts of it and tried to make it as perfect as possible, ever since I sent it off, I’ve been going over all the ways in which it is flawed.

    In regards to your questions, fairly early in writing my WIP, I felt that the best audience for my story was older teens and I began consciously focusing on teen issues, such as forming identity, dealing with the responsibilities and consequences of becoming an independent person, and the joys and challenges of becoming romantically involved with someone. I also wanted to include the optimism, idealism, and the feeling of invincibility that I experienced as a sixteen year old and that I’ve seen in the teenagers I’ve taught.

    Once I decided that I was writing for a YA audience, I began reading everything I could on the subject, and took a couple of webinars to be sure I wasn’t mistaken about my audience. To my relief, I discovered that my book fit the criteria of a YA book. Although I have read YA books for pleasure, I began haunting the YA section of the library and the bookstore, particularly studying my genre, fantasy, to see what is selling, what has already been done, how it’s been done, and how my novel fits in the market. I’m also a member of a YA group on Goodreads and have some YA writers I’ve connected with on Twitter.

    Rachelle Gardner had a very helpful blog about a year ago on word count. Blessings to her for that. I also have gone online to look at what publishers list as word counts for fantasy and YA.

    Since I don’t want to hang myself, as the query writer in your example did, let me ask this. When giving a target audience, is it best simply to say “Young Adult” or should a specific age range be given. I’m afraid giving a specific age range will be my undoing.

    Have a great week!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christine, I’d suggest the first thing you do is take a deep breath. Relax. Trust your instincts. You’ve done a lot of research to understand your audience, how to do a query, write a synopsis, etc. That research will keep you from committing the errors I listed in this blog posts.
      I would suggest simply stating your audience as “Young Adult.” No need to be more specific than that.

      • Christine Dorman says:

        Janet, thank you for the affirmation and for answering my question. Thank you also for reminding me to breathe. It’s great advice that I often forget to take. :)

  • Carrie Wible says:

    Great advice, thank you. I am one of those 42 year old women that like reading the YA, but I like to go into it knowing it’s YA!

  • Thanks for the advice, Janet. It’s beneficial to regularly be reminded of these kinds of things.

  • Paula says:

    I’ve made an “ideal reader” the way I make characters (we’re all writers here – we have practice at this!). She has a name, and a precise age, and a job, and a hobby, and a favorite charity, a collection, certain memories, and a certain outlook on the world based on her experiences… I based her loosely on several other young women I know, and I think of what she’s really looking for in a story, what would be a welcome surprise, what makes her throw the book across the room, etc. I even drew her portrait! :)
    If nothing else, I feel much more grounded in my writing and marketing efforts.
    I shall let you know if I find her real-life counterparts with my stories :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Paula, this is excellent. It reminds me of a book that was published decades ago with a title something like The Reader Over Your Shoulder, which recommended you pretend a real person is reading over your shoulder while you’re writing. And that you ask yourself what that person looks like and how is he/she responding to what you’re writing.

    • Christine Dorman says:

      Paula, I love this! What a wonderfully creative way to write to your audience. I hope her real-life counterparts love your work even more than she does.

  • Just so we’re clear what being a beginner is all about.
    be·gin·ner . . . noun

    a person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.

    synonyms:novice, newcomer, fledgling, neophyte, starter, learner, student, apprentice, trainee;

  • Thanks, Janet, for your helpful suggestions. My writing and speaking have aimed at calling Christian leaders to respond to intimate abuse and violence with God’s living word. I have been published in a book for Christian leaders: Strengthening Families and Ending Abuse, Churches and Their Leaders Look to the Future (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Interestingly, this work has attracted more victims and survivors than Christian leaders, and that has prompted a change in my focus. I recently began a project aimed at empowering victims (Stop the Silence), and the response has been overwhelming. Women of varying ages (teens-elderly) have offered their stories. As I think about publishing an edited collection, aimed at building empathy, and biblical understanding, I keep wondering about audience. When addressing a niche topic such as this, do you think there are any exceptions about age?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Amy, I think you’ve hit an important note. Yes, a niche topic can appeal to a wide range of ages. It doesn’t generally–a book for new moms will appeal to specific ages; a book on what to do after retirement appeals to a different end of the spectrum. But a book on eating healthy or abuse can cover a wide spectrum of ages.

  • Terri says:

    I’ve identified my intended audience as women who enjoy history with a touch of romance. I guess I should make that Christian women.
    How critical is it to precisely identify the genre? I wrote my first manuscript as a historical romance. A Genesis judge told me it was historical because the protagonists were not together most of the time. I rewrote it and the rest of the potential series as historical. An agent suggested I rewrite my rewritten story as a romance because that’s what it is.
    In the recent First Impression contest, which I won with my third manuscript in the Historical genre, a first-round judge questioned whether it was a romance, saying if I could take out the romance and still have a story, it’d be a historical, but if the story fell apart, it’s a historical romance.
    If you can go either way, how do you categorize it?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Terri, obviously you’ve had across-the-board opinions about your manuscript. It seems the First Impressions judge gave you a good test to determine the category. But it seems as though the story might straddle genres in light of so many varied opinions. The bigger question is, What do you want it to be? What would it take for it to clearly fit that description?

  • Lynn Hare says:

    Janet, thanks for the practical tips. I’m working on a first-time proposal for a nonfiction book on self-forgiveness. In a recent blog post, Terry Whalin said that nonfiction should be 45-50,000 words. A contact at Harvest House told me the word count should be 70-70,000 words,and that it would be a long shot to get a 50,000-word manuscript published. What have you seen?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lynn, well, far be it from me to contradict someone from a publishing house, but a 70,000-word nonfiction book is really big. I agree with Terry Whalin’s range. 60,000 words seems to be on the outer fringes for most publishers. You did have a typo, so I’m extrapolating you meant 60,000-70,000. I would definitely aim for the lower range of that in hopes that, should Harvest House pass on the project, another publisher wouldn’t be put off by the manuscript’s size. It’s all about how much does it cost to print the book since paper is a significant cost as well as how much must the publisher charge for the book when it costs so much to produce and ship it.

      • Lynn Hare says:

        Janet, thanks. Sorry for the typo. Nick Harrison of Harvest House recommends 60-75,000 words for nonfiction. It sounds like that’s uncommon within the industry, though. My friends who are avid bookworms would be more drawn to manuscripts with the lower word count you suggest.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Lynn, I often need to adjust the word count expectation when talking to Harvest House editors. They do tend to want books to be longer than other publishers, but I’ve regularly sold projects to them at lower word counts.

  • Judith Robl says:

    Janet, thank you for this valuable post. It reiterates some things we thought we knew but have simply been overlooking.

    Ready, aim, write!

  • Deborah Perkins says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you for this post, which I found through a retweet from DiAnn Mills. I have two questions for you: I have been told that blog writing should appeal to both men and women in order to be relevant. There are times when my writing may be more story-oriented or begin with a more “girly” dramatic opener, and there are times when I will stick to a factual, bullet-style approach which a male reader might prefer. Is it better to pick one and focus or is there a happy marriage that can exist within one medium without losing readership?

    The second comment is that I love your “retweetables” at the end of your posts and am wondering how you incorporated them to link to twitter? Is this a Twitter widget that can be cut and pasted into a blog? It’s great!

    Thank you,
    Deborah Perkins

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Deborah, the answer to how to focus your blog is the same answer I would give regarding what you write: It depends on your subject. A ton of women write blogs targeted to other women on a variety of issues–raising children, being a good wife, being a single woman. If your blog is a topic that would appeal to both men and women, then you need to center your writing around what adults would enjoy. That means you can’t be too girly, or the guys won’t come back. But I think women appreciate bulleted points in a blog as much as guys. I hope that helps.
      Regarding the Tweetables, you can create those through the website http://www.clicktotweet. The site walks you through how to create tweetables. (I have to give Rachelle Gardner credit for introducing all the other Books & Such agents to tweetables.)
      I’m so glad you found our blog via DiAnn Mills, who is one of my clients. I adore working with her.

  • Janet,
    Thank you very much for your reply. I appreciate your thoughts! Looking forward to learning more and will enjoy following your blog. Blessings,
    Deborah Perkins

  • Janet, when you’re looking at a target audience, is there a specific number of years expected? Like 20? I see my target audience as Christian women from 35 to 65. Is this too wide an audience?

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