Query Critique and Brenda Novak Book Winners

I know I said I’d do this post yesterday, but I completely forgot this Monday was a holiday when I said that. Even so, I probably would have done it if it hadn’t been for the fact that we went camping on Friday and Saturday night, and between the cold weather (down into the 30s at night) and my mattress losing air both nights, I was just too tired to think straight!

So, without further ado (although a drumroll would be nice), the winners are:

Query Critique

  • Lara Lee
  • B.E. Sanderson

Brenda Novak’s Dead Giveaway

  • Jane

The winners can contact me by emailing jackie at jackie barbosa dot com.

And now…back to bed!

Release Day!

Cross-posted from the Manuscript Mavens blog

That’s right! Wickedly Ever After hits the shelves (figuratively, at least) at Cobblestone Press today.

If you click on over and it’s not there yet, try again later. The new releases usually get posted before noon Eastern on Fridays, but sometimes, it take a little longer! For an excerpt, hop on over to the Cobblestone Author’s blog.

And if you’re a gambling man or woman, I will be giving away one copy of the book to one lucky person who posts a comment either here or over at the Mavens. I’m also giving away two query critiques and a signed copy of Brenda Novak’s Dead Giveaway in the post below.

Have Query, Will Travel

My novella, Wickedly Ever After, will be released this Friday by Cobblestone Press and be available for purchase from them for the next six months. (Hurry and buy, lol!) After that, the rights will revert to me, and then I’ll turn them over to Kensington Books, which will publish this novella and two others in a single author anthology to be released in early summer 2009.

I’ve told my “call” story already, but one thing I didn’t talk much about is the query process. I’ve queried other projects in the past and never got past the polite, “Thanks but no thanks” form rejection. I know this is a huge frustration for a lot of writers. You have a book that you just know is worthy of publication, but you can’t get agents or editors to give you the time of day because your query is falling flat.

So, how do you get the people at the other end of your query letter to sit up and pay attention? Again, this is something a lot of agents and editors blog about (Kristen Nelson did just an extensive workshop series on her blog, in fact), so it’s hard for me to claim I have “the answer,” but I will share with you the three things that I think made my query for Wickedly successful where my past queries failed.

  1. The opening paragraph provided the agent/editor with the story’s genre (historical), heat level (erotic) and word count, and explained why I thought it would appeal to that agent/editor.
  2. My query blurb clearly identified the story’s plot catalyst (see Kristen’s blog for more on that), described the conflict between the characters (what’s going to keep them apart), and left the reader with a hook (something to hint at how the conflict will escalate).
  3. I sent my query to the right people and got lucky. You can control the first part of this one to some extent (make sure you’re not sending a genre romance to someone who only represents mysteries and thrillers, etc.), but the second half of it is just plain hitting the right person on the right day at the right time with a letter that has elements 1 and 2.

Okay, so what did my query letter actually look like? Well, I’ll show you the letter I sent to John Scognamiglio at Kensington Books. This query resulted in a request for the full within a few hours of sending it.

I am seeking publication for my erotic historical 27,500 word novella, WICKEDLY EVER AFTER, which I believe would be a perfect fit for Kensington’s Aphrodisia line. Set in the late Regency era, WICKEDLY EVER AFTER is the first in a planned three novella series tied together by characters who appear in this story and by an exclusive London bordello.

Eleanor Palmer is relieved when her fiancĂ© cries off to marry another woman, but horrified when he suggests the dissolute Marquess of Grenville as his replacement. Eleanor may claim descent from the lusty King Charles II, but this proper English lady has no interest in pleasures of the flesh–she’d rather read the Classics.

Nathaniel St. Claire is infamous for his wicked ways–drinking, gambling, and fornicating-but he’s willing to give up all but one of his vices to initiate the lovely Miss Palmer into the joys of lust. Maybe a little dirty Latin poetry will aid his cause…

I am a member of RWA and my erotic short story, CARNALLY EVER AFTER, was released by Cobblestone Press in August of 2007 under the pseudonym Jackie Barbosa. In addition, several of my manuscripts have finaled in or won RWA Chapter contests.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

In my experience, the hardest thing about getting the query letter right is the blurb. Especially if you’re writing your blurb after you’ve finished writing the whole book, it can be tough to distill all the plot elements into 250 words or less that all connect to each other. I’ve read (and written!) a lot of blurbs that were a series of disjointed sentences hitting on multiple plot points but that failed to make it clear how those points related to each other, and worse, didn’t explain how those points would cause conflict between the hero and heroine.

One trick I’ve started to employ is to write my query blurb before I actually write the whole book. Sometimes, I don’t write it before I write ANYTHING of the book, but I rarely get as far as the first 50 pages before I write the blurb. And that works in part because the hook (as opposed to the synopsis) usually doesn’t need to reveal any plot elements or conflict that occurs in the story past about the first hundred pages. What you want to do is hook the reader of your query to want to find out the answer to the question, “What happens next.” And if you reveal too much of the story in your blurb, you reduce the reader’s interest in getting the answer to that question.

In honor of my successful query and release this week, I’m giving away query critiques to two lucky blog commenters. I’ll draw the winners at random from all interested commenters next Monday. And as a bonus, I’m throwing in a free, signed copy of Brenda Novak’s Dead Giveaway to one random commenter who posts but doesn’t want a critique.

Hop on board!

The Road Not Taken

x-posted from the Manuscript Mavens blog

Earlier this week, I got a call that gave me a moment’s pause, wondering if I’d made a poor career decision last summer. You see, it was an editor calling to offer me a contract for Carnally Ever After, which I’d long-since contracted to Cobblestone Press. I submitted the story to said publisher back in April of 2006, and when I didn’t hear one way or the other for a few months, I got antsy and submitted it to Cobblestone, never dreaming I’d get a contract offer from them within hours of submission. I figured I had plenty of time to wait for BOTH publishers to get back to me. When I hadn’t heard anything from the other publisher after a full six months had elapsed, I figured the rejection dropped into my Spam folder and I’d failed to rescue it.

Anyway, my initial response to this call was to want to kick myself in the head. The publisher in question is a “big name” publisher, and there’s no doubt I could have earned more money on the story if I’d contracted with them. Why, oh why, didn’t I wait longer? Have more patience?

And then I kicked myself again because, duh, if I hadn’t contracted that story with Cobblestone, I’d never have bothered to write the sequel. I’d never have met Deanna Lee and Emma Petersen and Amie Stuart, all of whom were instrumental in my decision to submit that sequel to Kensington Books.

So, as it turns out, what was objectively a “wrong” decision (to go with a lesser-known, smaller publisher without waiting to hear from the larger one) was actually the right one. I couldn’t have known any of this back in June, though, and none of these possibilities factored into my decision. I simply decided that I’d found a reputable publisher who loved my story, and I was willing to forego the chance of hooking the “bigger fish” when I already had a solid bite on my line.

Wow, am I glad I did! If I had waited, there’s no telling what would have happened, of course. It’s possible I’d have written something instead of Wickedly Ever After that would have hooked an agent or editor. Or not. It’s impossible to know.

As writers, I think we angst a lot over our decisions. Do I write this story or that one? Should I submit to this agent or that one? Should I sign with this agent or not? And so on.

But I think maybe we worry too much. Even if you make the “wrong” decision, chances are good it’ll be a learning experience. It will probably lead you places you’d never have tried to go otherwise. And that, in the long run, it will contribute to your success in ways you can’t even dream of when you make your choice.

YOUR TURN: What was the hardest career decision you ever had to make? Did you make the “right” one or the “wrong” one? Or are you still trying to figure that out?

To Contest or Not to Contest

x-posted from the Manuscript Mavens blog

Beverley Kendall, MaveFave and Avon FanLitter, contacted me via IM a couple of weeks ago with the exciting news that she’d finaled in her first RWA chapter contest for unpublished writers. I congratulated her and said I bet it was the beginning of a trend. Well, color me clairvoyant, but within a week or so, she had finaled in two more, and one of those was a double-final. She missed finaling in a third contest by ONE position.

As we were squealing with delight over this surfeit of good news for news, we started talking a little bit about the overall value of such contests and when/if writers should enter them. One of the things we’ve both noticed is that the same authors and works tend to reach the final round over and over again. It seems that once a writer reaches a certain level of skill and polish, she (or he) can pretty much count on reaching the finals in many (though by no means all) of the contests she enters. (All bets are off, of course, for those who write stories that are outside the box. Contest judges tend to be traditional/conservative, so the odds of running into one or more judges who just don’t get your story are pretty high.)

As a consequence of this observation, we started wondering what motivated authors to continue entering the same manuscript in contests over and over again, especially when the pool of editors and agents reading in the final round is relatively small. Once a manuscript has reached the finals a certain number of times, the odds diminish that it will reach an editor or agent who hasn’t already seen it before. And if the final round judge is one who’s seen the manuscript before, but hasn’t requested it, the chances the entrant will get a request this time can’t be great.

Now, I can’t claim any particular restraint when it comes to entering contests. I don’t have an accurate count handy, but it’s certainly in the neighborhood of a dozen over an 18-month period, and more than half of those were with the same manuscript. That said, I was pretty particular in that I didn’t enter contests with the same final round judge more than once, and each time I entered the same manuscript, it was after I’d made some pretty significant changes that I wanted to “test-run.”

Still, at this point, I didn’t think there was anything that could induce me to enter another contest, at least not one for an unpublished manuscript. I just figured since I now have an agent, it’s my job to write the books and hers to get them in front of the right people.

But as luck would have it, I met with my agent this week, and we discussed a story that’s been taking up large amounts of real estate in my brain lately. The idea behind it is just far out enough that, even though everyone I’ve shared it with thinks it’s fantastically creative and cool, there is some question of marketability. Kevan shared that concern and suggested writing it to the proposal stage, at which point, we’d float it out to a few editors to see what feedback we got and decide where to go from there.

That seemed like a great idea, but then it occurred to me that maybe I could get some of that feedback we were hoping for from the first round of editors by entering the manuscript in a contest. If the manuscript didn’t make it to the final round, we’d have some feedback that might help us determine where to tweak to its marketability, and if I did make it to the finals with an editor we’d have targeted otherwise, we could get that editor’s feedback without “blowing our wad,” so to speak.

As luck would have it, I found a contest I’m eligible to enter with a due date next week with a final round editor we’d love to get the manuscript in front of. So, it looks like I will be going back on the contest circuit again, much to my chagrin.

All of this made me think harder than ever about what *I* think are valid versus invalid reasons for entering contests for unpublished manuscripts. Accordingly, here is my list of three bad reasons and three good ones (I was going to do five, but this post was getting WAY too long!):

Bad Reasons

  1. To get published

    Yes, it happens. People do occasionally get requests from editors/agents for manuscripts they entered in contests and even more rarely, they get offers for publication. But as a primary strategy for getting published, entering contests is significantly more expensive than the alternative (sending out queries, partials, and fulls) and fickle (because whether or not you get to the final round is so dependent on the subjective opinions of people who are, in many cases, just unpublished authors like you!).

    I think authors get seduced by the logic that say a contest final is better than a manuscript in the slush pile because the agent/editor has to read it. (Guilty as charged!) But honestly, that agent or editor will make up her mind about your manuscript in the same number of pages whether it’s a contest entry or something that came to her via the query route.

  2. To gain “credits” for the author bio portion of your query letter

    Contrary to what we’d all like to believe, the only unpublished contest finals that really “matter” to agents/editors are the big ones. That is to say, the Golden Heart and a possibly a few other premiere contests like the Maggie. And having a lot of contest finals can actually be a negative. It raises the question, “If this author is so great, why hasn’t she gotten an agent/sold yet?”

  3. Purely for the thrill of finaling

    Getting that phone call or email telling you you’ve made it to the final round in a contest is pretty exciting. But if that’s the only reason you’re in it, you could probably get that excitement cheaper at an amusement park.

Good Reasons

  1. To get feedback on a manuscript

    If this is your reason for entering, then you can’t summarily dismiss the criticisms you receive as authors are sometimes wont to do. They may not all be valid, but if you really want feedback, you have to be willing to listen to what you hear. That’s not always easy, especially if some of the things you hear aren’t the things you want to hear.

  2. For a chance to get the manuscript in front of an agent/editor you couldn’t otherwise query

    Most of the time, the agents and editors who judge the final round on unpublished contests are people you can query privately as well. But every once in a while, an editor or agent who isn’t “open” for submissions judges a final round. It can definitely be worth entering a contest to get a shot at that person, especially if he is your dream editor/agent.

  3. To support your chapter

    If your chapter is running a contest, then entering your manuscript(s) is a way to add money to their coffers and get something in return. Of course, you should also judge said contest (but not in the category(ies) you entered, lol).

Of course, none of these rules apply to the Golden Heart. That contest is one you enter purely for the glory of finaling. Nothing else matters.

YOUR TURN: Can you think of other good reasons for entering contests? Bad ones? Have a contest experience you’d like to share? Come on down!

Woohoo! Cover Art!

My first contemporary erotic romance, The Gospel of Love: According to Luke, is scheduled to be released by Cobblestone Press on June 13th, and boy, was I getting antsy for cover art. Yesterday, I’m happy to say, it appeared in my inbox. Done by the amazing Frauke of Croco Designs, I think it’s hawt. Totally different feel from my historical covers, but then, the story has a completely different feel, too (heck, it’s first person narration, from the guy’s perspective!).

I particularly love the skyline on the lake. Since the story’s set primarily in Chicago, it feels so right. That hot man chest isn’t bad, either, though!

Plans and Some Pimpage

No Wednesday Word today, as I’m stumped for a word I want to talk about this week. Probably because I’ve been feeling a bit at a loss for words in general.

Yesterday, I met my agent, Kevan Lyon of the Dijkstra Agency, face-to-face for the first time. She’s every bit as lovely and smart in person as on the phone and in email, and I really enjoyed getting to know her a little better. Of course, it’s pretty hard to dislike anyone who loves your work!

Last week, I sent her blurbs and the first 4,000 words of the sci-fi/futuristic series that’s been rattling loudly in my brain. I was pretty worried about her reaction to it, because while I think the idea is fresh, unique, and interesting, it’s also a little far out. She agreed it was all those things, and admitted it might be hard to find the right market for, but she still encouraged me to continue it at least to the proposal stage, at which point, she’d try to shop it and see what we got.

I obviously shouldn’t be doing anything until I finish the two unwritten novellas for my Kensington anthology, but not being sure what I’d be working on next was taking up a lot of space in my brain. Kevan didn’t really make any suggestions for a plan of attack, but after we’d discussed everything, I found I was able to come up with a prioritization schedule that looks something like this:

  1. Finish anthology by mid-August.
  2. Take a two-week break.
  3. During September, get my single-title historical ready to send to Kensington to fulfill my option clause. I can submit thirty days after acceptance of the anthology.
  4. In October, get the sci-fi/futuristic to the proposal stage.

After we get the sci-futuristic out on proposal, I’ll decide what to write next based on what happens with the option book. If Kensington contracts it (or it sells elsewhere), then I’ll write that. If not, I’ll complete my first person single-title contemporary instead.

And now, on to the pimpage! My friend and writing challenge buddy, Amie Stuart, has an erotic short story coming out with Cobblestone Press this Friday. This is the launch title in Cobblestone’s new Wicked line, and there’s a cool contest associated with it that you can enter here.

I’ve read Ropers Rule and let me say, it rocks. Amie’s a master (mistress?) of packing a lot of story into a small space. She has a spare but eloquent style, and I admire her writing immensely. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the sex scenes are inferno hot! And then there’s the gorgeous cover:

Seriously, what’s not to love?

For a chance to win a free copy of Ropers Rule or any of the other new releases this week, hop on over to the chat room on Friday starting at 8pm Eastern time. It’s always a blast and, who knows, you just might meet some new authors whose work you’ll adore!

Performance Anxiety

x-posted from the Manuscript Mavens blog

In the world of romance, heroes rarely suffer from this malady. Not only are they supremely confident gentlemen of the world, they are also so wildly attracted to their heroines that any possibility of failure to rise to the occasion is unthinkable.

Would that the writers who invent these rarefied creatures shared their immunity! Alas, I’m afraid it’s not, because I seem to have developed a pretty bad case.

You would think that the validation inherent in receiving a contract for publication would be sufficient to convince any author that her work has merit and she should simply forge ahead. But I’m not any author. I am Jackie and I am neurotic. Which means that instead of rejoicing that my editor loves my work and wants to publish it, I’m worrying about living up to his expectations. About not screwing it up.

Now, of course, I know the best way to screw it up is not to get it written. So obviously, I need to conquer my fear. I’ve still got plenty of time, but every day I fritter away angsting and biting my nails is one less day I have to meet my deadline.

So, my question for you, MaveFaves, is…how do you conquer self-doubt when it’s preventing you from writing? I’m already trying the Angie Fox “it’s only half and hour” method with some success, but I think I need more techniques in my box of tricks.