The pleasures of emotional abandonment ~ A zombie book returns ~ The structure of a great query letter ~ Ongoing announcements ~ New books edited by moi ~ Five links ~ And my most handsome cat. 
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Furiouser and Furiouser

This month finally brought a long-awaited event full of family drama, global implications, poetry in motion, and cold Coronas. I am speaking, of course, of the release of The Fate of the Furious, the eighth movie in the Fast and the Furious franchise, starring an impressively diverse array of bald men, beautiful women, and really fast cars. I went to see it on opening night — the best night to see a dumb movie like this, with an audience who’s equally pumped. And I enjoyed it immensely, because the makers of these movies possess absolutely zero shame about shaping the films to please their audience. Have the Rock break a cast by flexing his bicep? Awesome.* Bring in Dame Helen Mirren for a minor role? Damn straight. Let a Lamborghini race a nuclear submarine across a frozen sea? WHY THE HELL NOT. Logic, nuance, irony, subtlety:  If these get in the way of drama or excitement, some chance to make the audience cheer, swear, or gasp, forget it. The Fast and the Furious movies want you to mainline pure emotion, and they will bodyslam anything that stands in their way.

But that utter lack of abashment isn’t the only reason I love this series. At a crucial moment in Fate, a single tear ran down Vin Diesel’s face, and the audience in my Brooklyn theater exploded with laughter, because the poor quality of his acting combined with the manufactured nature of the situation made it impossible to take his grief seriously. (Also, we Brooklynites are ironic jerks.) But he took his grief seriously, and in an ironic age, such sincerity is endearing, even if I can’t help laughing at its ridiculousness. That doubled pleasure lets me be both an insider and an outsider, a person who enjoys the force of the emotion and analyzes it at the same time, and so this series unites my heart and mind in a way more respectable movies rarely achieve. 

Of course, “a person who enjoys the force of the emotion and analyzes it at the same time” is also the job description of an editor. This month, in honor of Vin and the Rock, I encourage you to set aside your inner editor for a few days and max out the emotional content of your work. You’re going to write a first kiss? Then what would be the most romantic scene possible? A major character is going to die? What’s the BIGGEST way you can make him go? Another one is getting fired? Peter Finch should have nothing on her. If you actually love logic, nuance, irony, and subtlety, more power to you, and I’m with you 90% of the time. But unbridled, shameless, heartfelt emotion drove Twilight; it created Celine Dion; and it’s powered Fate of the Furious to more than $1 billion in global box office in less than a month of release. Audiences love to be swept up in it; we love the release of it. Try it, if just for a scene or two, and see what it might do for you. 

Wishing you good luck with your writing this month,


Like Dracula, a zombie, or a villain in The Fast and the Furious movies, my 2011 book Second Sight has come back to life after a brief period of deadness, and it will remain alive until it is no longer narratively expedient. 

It is in many ways the first draft of The Magic Words, especially in everything I have to say about novels. But it also contains the Annotated Query Letter from Hell and an Annotated Query Letter That Does It Right, my talk on writing picture books, “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter,” and undiluted versions of some of my favorite talks I’ve ever written. Extremely limited quantities are available; if you’re interested, you can find it on Amazon here

Q. &. A of the Month: "How can I improve my query letter?"

At the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference this past weekend, we editors and agents met with individual writers and reviewed their query letters. This got me thinking about the art of the query, and I ended up writing this guide. 

A good query should be no more than one page, with standard business-letter formatting, and it should pitch only one project at a time. Such a letter generally runs:

  • [Greeting]
  • [Optional: Introduction, possibly with Keynote and/or Personalization]
  • [One to three paragraphs of Descriptive Material; two is usually just right.]
  • [Optional:  Keynote and/or Comp Titles and/or Personalization]
  • [Biography as relevant]
  • [Closing] 

Greeting:  This is business correspondence, so it’s probably best to go with “Dear Mr/s. ______” unless you have met this person, s/he would remember you, and/pt you’re on a first-name basis already. 

Introduction: If you’re submitting to an agent or editor who publishes books in multiple genres or age bands, it’s useful to add a line or two establishing the genre and age band of your project before you dive into the descriptive material, especially if the book switches genres (it starts out sounding like a realistic contemporary, but then you introduce a magical portal halfway through, say). Such early identification lets the publishing pro tailor their expectations to the material. If you don’t do a switch like that or the age band of the project is clear from the Descriptive Material, you can just start with said material. This Introduction is also a place you could include comp titles or word count, if you like. 

Keynote:  The one-line summary of this book; a “meets” phrase or a pithy line that sums up the action. (If you’ve read The Magic Words, this is another term for what I call a saleable premise.) “Kids run away to hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art”; “a tall-ship sailing adventure for the twenty-first century”; “a chilling examination of mass incarceration on one family through multiple generations.” If you don’t have a good Keynote, skip it and let your Descriptive Material do the work. 

Personalization:  This is where you say why you are reaching out to this particular editor or agent about this particular project — previous books they’ve represented or their online presence or whatever. Do not be creepy about it; it’s a little bit weird when someone says they’re approaching me because of a random personal tweet from three months ago (which has happened), because then you're paying way more attention than my Twitter account deserves. But I love it when writers say they love another book I’ve published and why, because that indicates they’ve gone to the trouble of researching what I actually publish and we have similar tastes, and that makes it more likely I will like their manuscript. 

Descriptive Material:  This should sound like flap or jacket copy for the finished book, setting up the protagonist, the central conflict/mystery/lack, and the stakes. It should also offer some sense of the arc of the book’s action (particularly some action the protagonist takes, and a sentence or two about subplots) and perhaps the thematic questions the text is engaging. Really good queries will also be written in the book’s voice, whether snarky or lyrical or muscular, and thus create a sense of the emotional atmosphere of the project as a whole. If you get stuck while writing this material, ask your beta readers to identify some of the elements above for you, or to tell you everything they like about the book, and work from their ideas. (This old blog post on writing flap copy might also be useful.) Do try to work the word count in here or in the next paragraph if you haven't covered it already. If you have a Keynote down here, that serves as the summary for and crowning touch on everything you’ve just said. 

Comp Titles:  “Comparison titles” are books to which your book might rationally be compared, because of similarities in their action, promise, or overall spirit. They’re often expressed in “meets” formulae, like "Friday Night Lights meets Jane Austen’s Emma" (Kay Honeyman’s Interference) or "Ella Enchanted meets Harry Potter" (Megan Morrison’s Grounded:  The Adventures of Rapunzel), and they're very useful for positioning a project in the reader's mind.  

Biography as relevant:  A summation of your previous publishing history, with specific recent titles in the same category as this book called out; any specific and factual personal connection to the material (it’s about an ecological breakdown and you’re a climate scientist, say). If it’s an #ownvoices project, that is worth mentioning for agents or editors who care about such things. 

Closing:  “May I send you the project?” and a method of contact for a response (either a SASE or an e-mail address). If it’s a simultaneous submission, that is good to say here. (Actually, exclusive submissions are more rare these days, and thus more worthy of remark; but the simultaneous admission is what publishing pros are used to.)  

Writing all of this is damnably hard, I know! (I whine all the time when I’m writing flap copy.) But it must be done, and you can do it. And when you do it well, your copy can not only get your manuscript read, but you’ll see it show up again in your agent’s pitch letter, your editor’s catalog copy, and every blogger’s descriptive review as long as the book exists. For more thoughts on query letters, check out this terrific example and this episode of the Narrative Breakdown

As an aside for conference organizers, I LOVED these query sessions with writers for all of the following reasons:  They didn’t require any prep work before the conference (unlike critiques); they’re a form of pitching that allows me to get a sense of the writer’s skill on the page (unlike verbal pitches); they let me talk with writers about the concept, arc, and marketability of the book as a whole (which can be hard to discern from either pitches OR critiques); the writers simply brought their letters in and I read them right there (which was surely easier to organize than regular critiques); and the sessions were concretely useful to the writers, as they left with specific ideas on how to improve their query letters. If you’re planning a conference, keep it in mind as an option. 

Announcements Ongoing & Otherwise

If you like the content of this newsletter, check out my book The Magic Words!

If your writing group or class reads The Magic Words and would like to talk about it with me, I'm happy to do a Skype session as time permits. Contact me at

My speaking schedule is fairly open for this fall and next spring, so I'd love to visit your writers' conference. Again, reach out to me at 

The Lee & Low New Voices and New Visions Awards for unpublished writers of color will be opening up soon. Watch the Lee & Low website for more details.


Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg is the companion book/sequel to Openly Straight. The easy headline is that it's about Ben being torn between two people, a boy and a girl, who both attract and encourage him in different ways. But the deeper truth is that it's about being honest: about what (or who) you really want; about personality and history, even when it doesn't fit a narrative; with other people and, hardest of all sometimes, with yourself. (The book is a significant writing accomplishment for Bill, too, as it challenged him to move beyond his natural voice and write repressed.) If you like the work of Tim Federle, Becky Albertalli, or John Green, you shouldn't miss this. It is funny and full of difficult choices, with real characters and a little hard-won romance, and its excellence has earned it three starred reviews. Please check it out!


Braced by Alyson Gerber literally started for me on Twitter. I was musing there about my experience in a back brace for scoliosis, and how I'd love to get a middle-grade novel about the disorder, and agent Kate McKean Landon replied that she had a project for me. What she had was Braced. When I'd thought about trying to write a scoliosis novel myself years ago, I couldn't get over the fact that scoliosis is a situation, not a plot -- that is, as I saw it, there isn't much action or conflict in having a brace pushing against a spine for months and months. But Aly was smart enough to see the real action and conflict lay in the mind and heart of her protagonist, Rachel, if she built Rachel right -- as someone who was vulnerable to the social pressures of middle school, and to a family dynamic that made it hard for her to get the support she needed. Rachel's brace then becomes the catalyst for her to find new confidence and communication skills both at school and at home. It's a small story that packs a surprising wallop as Rachel's mind AND spine shift, and it has two starred reviews -- all the more impressive for a debut! Please pick it up too.


Ariel Levy’s profile of the adult novelist Elizabeth Strout (Amy and Isabelle, Olive Kittredge) in The New Yorker is an interesting meditation on the links between a writer and her place. 

Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen is incisive about the politics of writing workshops.

This interview with poet Tony Hoagland in The Writer’s Almanac is lovely and insightful for all creative writers: "The practice of language ironically draws you into contact with the world. It teaches you how to see, and it also makes your seeing more inventive."

More on poetry:  I was feeling troubled recently about some miscommunications in my life. Then I reread “A Ritual to Read to One Another,” by William Stafford, and it was calming and bracing in reminding me of what I needed to do and why. Explore his whole archive. 

When I mentioned Celine Dion above, I was thinking of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” which Jeremy Jordan just KILLS here. Experience the flesh and the fantasy for yourself. 

Here's Marley in the morning light, doing his own take on the cover of Fred Marcellino's Puss in Boots. He's my favorite swashbuckling adventurer.
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