Writing a Verse Novel: An Interview with Laura Shovan (Part II)

Welcome to Part II of my interview with Laura Shovan, author of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Yesterday, this interview focused on the differences between prose and verse novels and getting started. Today, we’re going to focus more on poetic tools and techniques.

What are some of your favorite poetic tools?

Studying and learning from other poets. I love using Kay Ryan’s poems as a model. Her language is so economical, smart, and funny.

How do you know how to split up the lines of your free verse?

I spend a lot of my revision time on line breaks. Reading a poem aloud helps.

I’ve heard verse novelists talk about revising the “shape” of their poems. And I didn’t understand it until I started writing in verse. How do you revise the shape of your poems? Or, how do you decide to use an actual shape poem?

This is related to your previous question. When I’m revising, I’ll often try a poem out with long lines, then short lines. I’ll see what it looks like in tercets, then unrhymed quatrains. It’s trial and error until I find a balance between form and words that feels right for the poem.

Do you feel like verse novels have a little bit more leeway with plot structures?

I feel like novels written in poems don’t have to fill every space on the page with information. When the reader finishes a poem and turns the page to read the next one, I trust that she is going to make connections between the two texts. I love this dynamic! There are discoveries hidden or suggested in the poems for the reader to find and carry forward as the story moves along.

How do you handle dialogue in a verse novel? What are some of the favorite ways you’ve seen in other verse novels?

Three common options are: Use quotation marks as you would in prose. Italicize dialogue spoken by another character (who is not the speaker of the poem). Create a right-hand column of verse text for words spoken by the other character.

Transitioning between scenes or periods of time or setting is tricky in a verse novel. What are some ways you’ve done this?

This is where the title of a poem is your friend. Let’s say there is information you have to communicate, such as a new setting or a jump in time, but putting it in the text of the poem weighs the verse down. Put that information in the title. For instance, title the poem, “At Grandma’s House” or “Vacation is Over” and go on from there.

This is a great technique for poetry in general. Titles can do so many things! Create tension, set a tone, or communicate an important piece of information.

When I first started writing verse, someone told me to make use of “the white space.” Can you talk about what that means and how you do it?

That’s a complicated question. My guess is that the person who told you this wanted you to think about the page differently – not as something to be filled up with words, but as a visual, as well as a literary experience.

When I write for children, I’m aware that one function of white space on the page is to chunk information. “Chunking” is used in the elementary school classroom to break up information, so that it’s less overwhelming for students (especially those who have visual or language based learning differences). The stanzas of the poem work in much the same way, breaking up phrases and images with white space, so a young reader can absorb the poem a piece at a time. I think this is one reason why poetry is popular with emerging readers.

In your book, you had many different characters and each had their own voice. I was so impressed by that. How is voice different in verse than in prose? How do you nail it?

Thank you, Amanda. Personally, I find it easier to create a spare voice in a poem. In prose, my middle grade characters are very chatty and tend to over-share, at least in early drafts.

In your book, you used several different kinds of poems. What makes you decide what kind of poem to use? Do you use a certain style for only certain times?

The form of the poem is intentional. My favorite example of this in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is the three sonnets. All three poems happen when one of the characters is feeling boxed in by the expectations of his or her peers. The strict rules of a sonnet reflect the constraint that the characters are feeling in those moments.

What is the importance of poetry in a child’s life?

In addition to the chunking mentioned above, I’ve seen how positively children respond to poetry’s playfulness with language. When we read and write poetry together, we’re showing children that they can be intentional with language. Poetry asks us to slow down and think carefully about what we say. The words we choose to use matter, not only in writing, but in how we speak to others as well.

Poetry is also a safe place to express hurt, grief, and love. I wrote about the importance of poetry in children’s emotional lives for the Baltimore Sun this spring. You can find the op-ed here: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-pocket-poem-20160421-story.html


Thank you so much to Laura Shovan for answering all my questions. If you want to win a copy of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary then comment with a line from your favorite poem to enter the drawing. And be sure to comment on yesterday’s post to be entered twice!

Writing a Verse Novel: An Interview with Laura Shovan

Back in October of last year, I began drafting a verse novel. It was really scary at first because there isn’t much out there about how to write a verse novel. There seem to be rules and no rules at the same time. Freedom but tools and techniques I should know. For the past year, I’ve stumbled along and learned a lot. Now I want to start a blog series to talk about “how” to write a verse novel.

Laura-Shovan1-209x300  last fifth grade

For my first post, I was able to interview the amazing Laura Shovan, author of the MG verse novel The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. I asked A LOT  of questions, so I’ll be splitting her interview up into two posts. Today we’ll be focusing on the idea of writing in verse and how it differs from writing in prose. Tomorrow we’ll focus on verse tools and techniques.

I hope you find Laura’s answers as helpful and insightful as I did.

Do you only write in verse?

I write in a variety of forms. When there’s something I feel compelled to write about, often the subject itself defines the form. A reaction to a news item might fill the small space of a poem, instead of developing into a short story (an example is my poem “Rattlesnake Bites Man in Walmart Garden Center” here: https://qarrtsiluni.com/2013/05/13/rattlesnake-bites-man-in-walmart-garden-center/). My current work-in-progress began as a series of poems and sketches. It has developed into a middle grade novel written in prose.

What makes you decide to write a story in verse rather than prose?

I don’t think I could have written THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY in prose. Poetry allowed me to differentiate the voices of the 18 characters. I used line breaks and white space in the poems to help readers hear the cadence and rhythm of each character’s style of speaking. Kwame Alexander’s book THE CROSSOVER, is a great example of this technique. He creates his main character’s voice not only in the words used, but also in the way they flow across the page.

What are the differences in drafting a verse novel rather than a prose novel?

In THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, developing a plot through the voices of Ms. Hill’s class was like putting together a jig-saw puzzle with moving pieces. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Each character has many poems that didn’t make it into the book. Once I put everything together, I found holes in the story and character arcs, went back and filled them in with more poems. My CPs and my editor gave me wonderful guidance in this process.

My struggle with writing a prose novel is training myself to write from beginning to end. I want to focus on important scenes and set-pieces, put them in a loose order, and fill in the holes. I’m learning that this isn’t an efficient way to write fiction.

There aren’t any real “rules” for free verse. But do you have any personal rules or way of doing things when you write in verse?

When I visit students as a poet-in-the-schools, we talk about form poems and free verse. Children like playing with traditional forms, but they also like the idea that, in a free verse poem, it is the individual poet who makes the rules. Free verse poems do have structure and can use rhyme (often internal). That’s up to the poet.

One of my revision techniques for poetry is to rewrite a free verse poem in a traditional form, such as a triolet. Sometimes this helps me see extraneous phrases, or opportunities for rhythm that I’d missed.

Do you have a verse style? What is it?

I’m still uncovering my style as a poet an author. One of my favorite forms is the persona poem, where a character speaks in a poetic monologue. THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is a book of persona poems.

What sort of stories do you think are best served by verse?

My favorite novels in verse are voice-driven. LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech, THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander, and THE LANGUAGE INSIDE by Holly Thompson each take us inside the experiences and emotions of the main character. The model for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is a 1915 verse novel, SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, by Edgar Lee Masters.


Where did the idea for THE LAST FIFTH GRADE come from?

When my son was in fifth grade, I was struck by all of the in-jokes, traditions, and shared interests of his class. With their teacher, Jason Schoenhut, the children built a true community. One of my favorite books about how communities function is SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, which is a series of persona poems spoken by the people who live in small town outside of Chicago. My inspiration came from the intersection of these two things.


Do you want to get your hands on a copy of Laura’s fabulous book? (It’s amazing!) She’s giving away a signed copy to a reader of this blog. Leave a comment with a haiku about writing in the comments to enter the drawing. You’ll get another chance to enter tomorrow with part 2 of the interview. Comment on both posts and double your chances!

Make Me FEEL It: Connection

Welcome to Part 2 of this blog series on making your reader feel something.

Part 1 is here.

Today we’re going to talk about the need for connection in making your reader feel something. This encompasses a few different facets. So let’s talk about them.

The reader must feel connected to the character. This is why you hear so much about the need for “likable” or “sympathetic” characters. If your character is just plain flat annoying or a huge jerk with no redeeming qualities, chances are your reader isn’t going to care if something horrible happens to them. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an “unlikable” character, it just means that there has to be something that connects me to that character and makes me want what they want or at least want to go along the ride with them.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

1.  Voice! A great, strong voice can overcome a lot of character flaws.

2.  Save the cat! I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase. It’s the title a really popular book for screenwriters that authors also love. The idea is that you can have an unlikable/very flawed character, but at the beginning you need to show us that there is something good in them. Have them “save the cat” or do something small yet noble. Just something so we can see they are redeemable and worth rooting for.

3. Give them some room on the page to breathe. I struggle with this one. But let us see that your character is a person outside of their big story problem. Help us see what’s special about them and connect to them like someone we want to be friends with for one reason or another.


Okay, so let’s talk about another facet of connection.

In order to create an emotional response in the reader to a certain event, you need to begin by showing us the opposite. That probably sounds confusing. Let me explain. If you want me to feel surprised because something totally unexpected or out of the ordinary happened, then you need to begin by showing me what is expected and what is ordinary. I see many writers try to clear this hurdle by just giving me backstory when the unexpected event happens, explaining why it’s such a surprise. But when you do that, I don’t feel surprised. I just sort of shrug and say, “Well, okay. I guess it’s surprising.”

If you want me to feel the shock and confusion of a natural disaster or bombing or something huge and tragic like that, you have to give me at least a few pages of peace, of the character going about their business. when you allow me to settle into that, then I will truly have a WTH? moment when you bring the world crashing down.


You need to connect me to the relationships in your book. This is something I learned in writing/revising my Pitch Wars book last year. I have a friendship fall apart very early on in the book. But nobody cared enough until I took a couple chapters to show why that friendship was special to begin with. This is important with any relationship but especially friendships. If you going to strain the relationship and want me to long for it to be repaired, you have to first help me connect to and invest in the relationship. When you just tell me that so and so are best friends, but my first real time seeing it on the page is when it’s fizzling out, I’m apt to just think the best friend is a brat and actually root for the character to move on. And that drains your strained relationship of tension.

This idea of connecting me to relationships also works in kind of the opposite way too. If your MC is working on building a relationship with someone, then you need to first let me see what they are missing without that relationship. You need me to connect to the character’s motivations for wanting that relationship. Show me that “dysfunctional” normal. Then I’ll root for you all the way through the book. Then when your inciting incident happens that puts further strain on making that relationship or improved relationship possible, I will feel the fear and discouragement right along with your MC. But don’t just show the inciting incident happen and then say, “Now I’ll never win the approval of so and so.” That doesn’t make me care. That doesn’t make me feel. Connect me to the need and the fear first, then start the dumpster fire.

There are some things that don’t need a lot of build up to connect to. The loss of a parent or a child, divorce, moving. There are just some experiences that we all understand and connect with instantaneously. I don’t need to see your MC interact with their dad to connect to the pain they feel when he’s gone. I immediately understand and connect to that pain, because I can imagine it in my own life. So sometimes you CAN jump right into the inciting incident without connecting me to “before” as much as usual. But please don’t just assume you’re the exception. Get a beta reader. Make sure they are feeling what they’re supposed to.

I hope that helps with the idea of laying a groundwork for connection to pave the way for helping your reader FEEL it.

Make Me FEEL It: Internalization

So the votes are in and most of you wanted me to talk about internalization first.

Of course.

Because that’s the one I have the hardest time with.

Internalization is hard. It’s definitely a balancing act. Because if you give too much internalization, your book reads more like a Faulkner novel/stream of consciousness thing. And no offense to Faulkner, but…that’s not what we want.

But if you don’t give enough internalization, there is the constant feeling of being kept at arm’s length from the character and their emotions.

And if you don’t do internalization well, then your book becomes boring. Have you ever read about left brain/right brain sort of things? Of course you have. Well, I read this super interesting book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It talked about how in order to draw life-like, realistic pictures, you have to train your brain to turn off the “left” side of it. This is the part of your brain that thinks in terms of symbols and numbers and letters. It’s the math side. The process side. When you are drawing with the left side of your brain, and someone says draw a tree, you just draw a straight trunk and a bushy top that’s supposed to “represent” leaves. You don’t bring out the shading of the bark, the shadows on the bottom of the leaves, the light at the top of the tree. You said tree, your brain gave you a representation of a tree that anyone could recognize. But it’s not art.

I feel like internalization done wrong works kind of the same way. If you are being too blunt with it. If you are telling your reader exactly what the MC is feeling and thinking in these terms we use all the time, “happy,” “sad,” “confused,” “heart fluttered,” “stomach felt sick.” Then our brains automatically give us this shallow version of the feeling. The representative version. The short hand. But we don’t really feel it.

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Make your reader’s brain work! Make their feelings have to dig in!

It’s hard. Honestly, the best thing you can do is hand off your manuscript to someone and tell them to be merciless and mark every place where they feel like they don’t know how the MC is feeling. Every spot where they feel held back. This will help you see where you need more internalization.

There are several different ways to do internalization. We’re going to talk about a few and give examples from published books. Okay? Okay.

So let’s start with a Pitch Wars mentor’s book for the first kind of internalization. Physical reactions and feelings. Brooks Benjamin is awesome at this in his debut My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. Physical responses and feelings can be hard to get just right. So many are cliches and can feel more like telling than actually letting us inside the MC’s head. The trick is to let us know how the physical reaction feels in a new/voicy/true to the character way. So here is an excerpt when the MC finally kisses the girl he’s had a crush on the whole book.

Our lips touched. And on purpose. For a second all I could think was how there was no “How to Kiss a Girl” section of my dance tutorials. But in an instant that was gone. My brain exploded, fireworks shooting out of my ears and white doves flying out of the top of my head.

Isn’t that an awesome way to describe the feeling of a first kiss? It’s voicey, it’s perfectly MG. The beginning of the paragraph is two very short sentences that set up this feeling of a stilted thought pattern. And then when he decribes how it feels, he doesn’t just say, “my heart jumped out of my chest.” or “I felt dizzy.” No, he goes above and beyond and you FEEL it. Right?

Okay, let’s move onto another type of internalization. Memories. Often you can draw out how your MC is feeling by what memory they reflect back on. Let’s be honest, when we are thinking about things, do we really sit and think, “I feel sad.” Or, “I’m angry. Really angry!” No. Our minds wander and we make connections that others might not. Make sure your MC is the same way. Allow your reader to connect the dots between what memory your MC is having, and how they are feeling. For an example of this I used the first couple chapters of Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme.

Thyme has just moved to New York and she obviously doesn’t want to be there and is missing her home, family, and friends in San Diego. But Conklin never comes out and says, “I wish I was home in San Diego.” Instead, she has Thyme narrate what’s going on, but her thoughts keep trailing back to what they would be doing for Thanksgiving dinner that very day if they were back in San Diego with her Grandma.

As the taxi bumped down the street, I tried not to think about what I was missing at home. Grandma Kay had made us an early turkey dinner, but it still didn’t seem right to leave her alone on Thanksgiving Day…….

Thanks to the time zone difference, it was already six o’clock. Which meant it was three o’clock back at home, the exact time we would have started Thanksgiving diner at Grandma’s. It had always been my job to snap the green beans.

Don’t you just feel that longing in those last words? “It had always been my job to snap the green beans.” She never says it, but the reader knows Thyme doesn’t feel like they should be there. They don’t belong there. this is how you use memories and thoughts through narration.

Internalization can also happen in just short, little asides. A sarcastic comment here. An exclamation there. Think “Holy Bagumba” in Flora and Ulysses.

Internalization also works well with metaphors. How about another example from COUNTING THYME? She’s thinking about her best friend back home and says,

“I felt like I’d left my own skin behind.”

That’s a metaphor you can feel.

Now there is a kind of internalization that I want to warn you away from and that is questions. Obviously, there is a time and a place for your character to be full of questions and thinking about these questions. But they should definitely be used sparingly. Questions usually don’t pack the kind of emotional punch you need. Whenever you start to write your character thinking a question, try to see if you can write it a different way. Nine times out of ten, it’s stronger not as a question. However, they can be used well. I want to use one from the manuscript I got an agent with. My MC is struggling with the abandonment of her dad and her crumbling relationship with her best friend. She is eating lunch with another girl who is kind of setting my MC straight on how she should let her old best friend treat her.

Jane shakes her head. “People who love you don’t need to come back around. They never leave to begin with.”

But I know that can’t be right, because what would that mean about Dad?

It’s a single question, not a whole list of them. And it’s not done to show that she’s confused or she’s looking for answers. It’s just one question that shows not only what she’s struggling to come to terms with but what she’s not willing to admit yet. It denotes hurt and denial all at once without ever saying anything close to “I’m sad.” or “I don’t like to think about my dad not coming back.”

Those are just a few ways to use internalization to bring out certain feelings in your reader. The biggest thing I want you to notice is that you never come right and tell the reader what they are supposed to be feeling. And as much as possible, you never come right and say exactly what the character is feeling. You allow us to feel it alongside them by describing their physical reactions in such a way that we feel it too. You direct us to memories and thought processes that help us see the struggle and feel that struggle along with the character. But you have to do it carefully, don’t hit your reader over the head.

Like I said before, it’s a balance and it takes practice, but hopefully this helps!

What are you favorite ways to give internalization?

Cover Reveal for Winell Road

Today is the cover reveal for Winell Road by Kate Foster. This cover reveal is organized by Lola’s Blog Tours.

Winell RoadWinell Road (Winell Road #1)
by Kate Foster
Genre: Science-fiction
Age category: Middle Grade
Release Date: 2 September 2016

Living on Winell Road is hardly fun, not when your neighbors are weirder than your own parents.
But the road has a secret that few people know.
And Jack’s about to uncover it.

Mystery, action and adventure. This award-winning sci-fi series is “highly recommended” for middle grade readers.

For fans of Men in Black and Zac Power, Winell Road is jam-packed with “loads of twists and turns” that will keep you guessing to the end.

You can find Winell Road on Goodreads

You can pre-order Winell Road here:

Winell Road wrap cover

Kate FosterAbout the Author:
Kate is an Englishwoman lapping up the sunshine on the Gold Coast in Australia with her family. She’s a freelance editor, editorial director at Lakewater Press, and a middle grade Pitch Wars mentor.

You can find and contact Kate here:
Editing website

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Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 4-Personalization and Bios

Hey folks. If you haven’t read the other part of this series yet, you can do so here.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

I was asked about how to personalize a query for an agent and what to do with your bio if you have no publishing credits. Let’s go with personalization first, shall we?

There are a few different schools of thought on this.

Janet Reid’s

Laura Zats (From an interview with Michelle Hauck here.):

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

This depends. I like query letters to be personalized, because this tells me that I’m being queried because a writer actually thinks I’d be a good fit for their book, and not because they just found me on a search engine and included me in a huge mail blast. That being said, I care much more about  the MS than what your cat’s name is (that is what Twitter is for).


I personally fall more on the side of Janet Reid. I don’t think you should ever feel required to personalize. Trust me, haring a few interests in common isn’t going to up your request rate or anything like that. I started out trying to personalize all my queries for my first book, and it wasted so much time, was usually such a huge stretch, and in the end, I actually had a higher request rate from my unpersonalized queries.

However, there is an appropriate time to personalize. And that’s when you need to get the agent’s attention to show them you are aware of the market, their tastes, and that you have something they want. You won’t be able to do this for every agent.

For example, don’t try to personalize your query by quoting their about me page on the website and saying something like, “I am querying you because you are accepting Middle Grade fiction.” Well, duh. “Or, I am querying you because you represent fantasy.” Again, duh. They’re going to figure that out from the query.

Here’s the kind of things you do need to personalize with.

  • If you attended a conference they were at.
  • If your book matches something they asked for on Mauscript Wish List (if this is the case, make sure you quote what they said and maybe even give the date they said it if it was on Twitter.)
  • If a book they represented could be a comp title for your book.
  • If an editor they have sold to recently puts out a request on manuscript wish list that matches your book.

That’s all I can really think of. Really, it has to come down to the manuscript and the manuscript alone. When I personalized this way, I got a great response.

In fact, here is the personalization I used when I queried my agent.

I’m querying you because you represented Suzanne LaFleur’s beautiful and touching novel, LOVE, AUBREY. I’m hoping you are still interested in quiet, mixed-format middle-grade contemporary stories. THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC is a written in a mixture of letters and prose. It is a heartfelt MG contemporary in the vein of THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. meets LOVE, AUBREY, and complete at 35,000 words.

See how specific it is? You represent this book (praise) here is why my book is similar. And look, it’s a comp title!

This is the kind of personalization that pays off. Specific personalization that shows you know the market, are paying attention, and can show why your book fits the list.


Now how about Bios?

When I first started writing, I was lucky enough to get a few small publishing credits with magazines and e-PB companies at the beginning before querying my novels. But I remember sending out those first things and wondering what they heck to put in my bio.

First of all, if you have zero publishing credits, DON’T PANIC. This is super, super common. Agents understand. In this case, feel free to mention writing organization that you are a part of. (SCBWI, RWA, etc.) A one sentence bio saying that is just fine. If you aren’t a member of those, maybe think about becoming one. If that isn’t an option, maybe you can mention a writing blog you contribute to. If you don’t do that either, then you have two options.

Don’t include a bio. I personally did this a few times and I don’t think it’s a big deal. Just thank the agent for their time and let the writing speak for itself.

Give a brief (and I mean VERY BRIEF. Like 2 sentences, max) bio that just lists where you live and your job and kids or something. Likewise, if you have professional experience that really does lend itself to the topic, you should mention that here.


Alright, I think that’s it for the night!


Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 3 – Hook and Internal v. External

Welcome to Part 3 of this blog series! You can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Once again, I’ll be referencing these three queries.


Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

First, let’s talk about “HOOK.”

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No, not that Hook. *sigh*

The hook for your book. Specifically, “What makes your book different?” Because, let’s face it, the basic absolute generalities of your story? It’s been done before. So you need to let us know why your book is special. You want to boil your book down to a compelling line. Something to “hook” the reader. I saw a lot of queries that I think were trying to do this, but instead of giving me a compelling log line, they gave me a paragraph, which was more like a very brief query and then launched into the actual query. It felt like reading the same thing twice. Don’t do this.

So let’s look at how the hook is conveyed in the three queries above.

Mine is in the first line: Kate’s grandma says there are three rules for Everyday Magic: Believe, Give, Trust.  This is the hook of the book. This is what makes it different. It isn’t just about reuniting with a dad or slowly losing a grandma to Alzheimer’s, it’s about believing in this Everyday Magic that you find out later “binds families and heals hearts.”

Joy’s hook is hidden a little bit more, it isn’t the first line. (See, you don’t have to start with a log line.) It comes here:  But now Natalia gets to show Winnie around, and Winnie’s not just new—she’s also blind.  See, becoming friends with the new girl at school? That’s nothing very new or different. But…what if the new girl is blind? How will that change things? HOOK!

Rebecca’s is also a little different. She slips her hook into the paragraph where she also gives the statistics of the book. coming-of-age story set in the world of 4-H steer competitions. (I’m from Minnesota–we know cows.) It begins when eighth-graders Diggy Lawson and Wayne Schley discover they have the same father. STEERING TOWARD NORMAL is the tale of how the boys go from being related to being brothers.  So the hook here is a little bit about becoming a family. Finding out somebody is actually your half brother. Wow. But the other part of the hook is that all of this is happening against the backdrop of 4-H steer competitions. Now that’s different!

So hopefully that gives you an idea of how to work your hook into your query. Remember, if you’re going to start with a log line, make sure it really is a line, not a paragraph. Don’t briefly summarize the story and then give me the whole query over again.

Now let’s talk really quick about balancing internal and external goals and stakes in your query. The majority of your query should focus on the external parts of the story. That’s what is moving the plot along. But that doesn’t mean you can’t slip in some of the internal, and if you go back to my last post about personalizing the stakes, you’ll see basically what I’m about to tell you here.

Your query should focus on external goals and stakes, but if you paint your character in the first paragraph of your query and give us insight to what they really desire (external AND internal) then when you get to the end of the query, you can once again refer back to those internal goals/stakes. But only ALONG with the external stakes/goals. Make sense? I tend to write three paragraph queries (plus two paragraphs for personalization and bio.) So for me, the second paragraph is all about external stakes, but the first and third paragraph are where you can work some of the internal part of the story in (and you should, in my opinion. It makes it more compelling!)


Okay, hope that was helpful. Remember, if you have more things you want me to cover, just leave them in the comments or @ me on Twitter. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about personalizing a query letter and writing the bio. 🙂

Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 2 – Personalizing the Stakes

Yesterday, I blogged about using specific stakes in your query. Today, I’m going to talk about making the stakes more specific by making them personal to the main character.

Once again, you’ll want these three queries pulled up for reference.


Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

Personalizing the stakes in your query is something that tends to be easier for those who write “quiet” stories, and a little harder for those who write more commercial, action-packed books. What do I mean by personalizing the stakes? I mean tying the stakes back to something the main character desperately wants or needs personally. So while the story may be about saving the world, or finding a lost treasure, or capturing the bad guy, it also fulfills something closer to the main character’s heart. Readers connect to characters, not to plot lines, so making the stakes personal is key to making your reader care.

The key to personalizing your stakes comes at the very beginning of the query. When you introduce us to the main character you give us a brief snapshot of what has shaped them, what their normal is like, and what they desire. If you do this a the beginning, then take us through the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacle, once you get to stakes, you tie it back to something emotionally powerful from the very beginning when you introduced us to the character.

Look at how Joy did it. Beginning: She’s never singled out for anything, unlike her siblings, who are all prodigies at something, even if it’s just being adorable (like two-year-old Claude) 

End: But then awful Hayden starts closing in. If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.

See how she referenced what Natalia really wanted in the beginning and then again at the end? That’s personalizing the stakes.

Now mine. Beginning: 11-year-old Kate doesn’t believe in magic, though. After all, she believed her dad when he promised to stay with Mom through happiness and sorrow. But when sorrow poured into his heart like a mudslide, he left without saying goodbye. Kate’s not going to fall for her grandma’s silly idea that magic can bind families and heal hearts.

End: But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.

Do you see how I brought back the idea of broken promises and believing that people won’t let you down? But specifically in relation to her dad and grandmother?

Personalizing the stakes is just as important in action adventure books too. Let’s think about what a query for THE HUNGER GAMES might look like.

You could just tell us that Katniss volunteers for her sister Primm and that only one person survives. Life and death are pretty compelling stakes, right? But what if you zoom in more. What if you paint a brief picture of how Katniss provides for her family and loves her sister. Then you introduce us to Peeta, the boy who saved her family from starvation. Then you give us the stakes. “If Katniss wins, the boy who saved her family will die. If Katniss loses, how will her family survive without her?” Isn’t that a lot more compelling than just life or death?


I’m choosing this book because the stakes are easier to work with. They focus squarely on Hogwarts shutting down and Hermione dying. Those are just fine stakes. But let’s zoom in again. If you tell me in the first paragraph about the boy in the cupboard under the stairs who lived with his aunt and uncle who hate him, then you give me the inciting incident, goal, obstacle, and when you come to the stakes, don’t just say, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets to save Hogwarts and his best friend.” Tell me, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets or he’ll lose the only place that’s ever truly felt like home and the only people who feel like family.” Those are personalized stakes. That is powerful.

Next, I’ll try to hit on hooks and internal vs. external goals/stakes in your query. Hope this was helpful!

Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 1 – Specific Stakes

It has been an exciting week reading all your queries and pages in my Pitch Wars inbox. I saw a lot of talent and a lot of great stories. But I also some queries that didn’t live up to the awesomeness of their pages. So with that in mind, I thought I’d write  a few blog posts on pitfalls to watch out for, especially when writing a query for a book that’s more literary and quiet (since that’s what I know and that seems to be hardest.)

Today let’s talk about stakes in your query.

First, you’re going to want to open up a couple windows in your browser so you can take a look at these three different “quiet” queries that snagged an agent. I’ll be referencing them as examples.


Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

The biggest thing I saw this year was a lack of clear stakes. “Stakes” are what your character has to gain or lose from their goal in the story. Literally, “What is at stake?” And if you want me to care about your story, the stakes need to be personal to the main character and they need to be specific.

The part of your query that focuses on stakes is usually the last line or two of your query. You’ve just spent all this time telling me about characters, their desires/motivations, the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacles. Now you have to tell me what happens if your character succeeds or fails.

In my query, the line about stakes is, “But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.” 

Stakes: Losing a special hike with her Dad. Also, losing faith in things that matter.

In Joy’s query:  “If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.”

Stakes: This is set up as a choice. Either choose to hold on to a best friend or choose to stand out like her siblings.

Rebecca’s is a little different. “Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.”  

Stakes: Do you see how she put the stakes first (relationship, state fair, girlfriend) and then the conflict? (Wayne is a brother but he feels more like an enemy and that needs to be resolved.)

These stakes are all specific. Let’s take a look at phrases that AREN’T specific.

Phrases to Stay Away From

Vague stakes usually rear their ugly head in the form of cliche phrases. Beware things that sound like the following.

“or their family will fall apart.” How? How will it fall apart? Divorce? Running away? Grief? Tell me! This also goes for “or the world will end” or “Life as we know it will cease to exist” or any of those kind of phrases. Get. More. Specific.

“[Main character] will have to learn/find out…” This is soooo tempting to do. Especially in more character driven novels. But this can not be the only way your stakes come into play, with your MC learning to trust or believe or have faith, or whatever. Your MC can’t just be learning something, they have to be acting and choosing, right? Make sure you tell me that part. Your query will be stronger if you go straight to phrasing it as your character acting rather than learning.

“Or [main character] will never love/trust again.” Again, this could be true from an internal conflict perspective, but it’s not specific enough in a query. I admit, I used something like this in my query, but if you go through and read it, you’ll also realize that I’m referencing an important part of the “hook” of my book. Even so, if that had been the only thing I’d put in for stakes, it wouldn’t be enough. The big birthday trip with her dad is also at stake. You don’t have to include both internal and external stakes in your query, but you do HAVE TO include the external stakes. That’s where you get your real specificity from.

Do you see the difference between vague and specific stakes? I have lots more to write but I’ll have to do it in another blog post. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to make your stakes more specific by making them personal to the character.


Etiquette and Survival in Pitch Wars

The submission window for Pitch Wars is coming up! It’s so exciting! I can’t wait to read all your beautiful words. Seriously, August 3rd can not get here soon enough.

I wanted to give everyone a few tips about surviving the next few weeks before picks are announced. But I can’t do too much better than Mary Ann’s post here and Mike’s post here.

However, I’m obviously still writing a blog post, so here are a few more thoughts.

Enjoy the #pitchwars thread on Twitter, but don’t live there. That leads to insanity. Make sure that you have other things to distract you or it will be an incredibly long three weeks. Plan outings, read books, write your next book. I promise, you are not going to be able to decipher any sooner than everyone else if you got into Pitch Wars or not by what you see on the hash tag. So get on there, joke around, have fun, but then get off and give your eyeballs a break.

As stated in other blogs, don’t announce your requests on the twitter feed. It’s just bad manners. I know there is a facebook group for hopefuls, and maybe you can talk about it there depending on the privacy and dynamics of the group, but your best bet is just to go and squee to a couple CP’s through email or private messages.

Don’t freak out if you don’t get requests. This could be for a number of reasons. Some mentors will choose without making requests. Or you may just have chosen the wrong mentors (which stink, but it happens.) Or you may have a perfectly good manuscript it just isn’t striking a huge chord with anyone. Or, more likely, we can just only choose one and there are so many people entering, there are going to be a lot of great manuscripts that don’t get in. But also, it may be that you need to keep working. And if that’s the case, that’s okay! It really is. Take what you learn and improve and get better. I’m still learning things about the craft of writing. Still recognizing my weaknesses and working to improve. Don’t call it a setback, use it to move forward.

Use the feed to find CP’s. If you haven’t done it yet, do it in the next few weeks, because after picks are announced, it really drops off. This way, you win no matter what.

Get used to waiting. Really. Three weeks is nothing in publishing. Heck, three weeks in publishing is like the freaking Indy 500. So this is good practice in patience. This is being a writer. You just earned another badge. 🙂

When August 25th rolls around, if your name isn’t on the list, please don’t throw a fit on the twitter feed. I’ve seen this happen each time the last two years. Somebody doesn’t get in and they start tweeting about how they are going to quit writing and this was the last straw and there’s no hope for them. Don’t do this. We understand it’s upsetting, but it really doesn’t look professional and just looks like a temper tantrum.

That being said, allow yourself to feel your feels. This is something I am working on myself and something I tried to foster in our 2015 Pitchwars mentee group during the agent round. Your feelings, whatever they are, are valid. They do not have to change because you are faring “better” or “worse” than someone else. As writers, we mourn together and celebrate together. Because even though we are at different spots on the journey, we have all been or will be, where each other are at. So don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling this way or that way. Just give yourself a little time to feel whatever emotion it is. Get it out to a friend if you need to, and then keep going.

That being said, remember that most people will not get into Pitch Wars. If you don’t get in, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.


This will not make or break you. It is an opportunity, but it is not THE ONLY opportunity. You can make it without getting into Pitch Wars.

Now breathe, relax, and just know that no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay.

Keep writing, keep working, you’ll make it.