Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Querying”

The Elusive “Showey Tell” (a language unique to query letters)

Show, don’t tell is a common mantra in writing. When it comes to our manuscripts, the distinction is easy: “She got angrier as she listened to what the person on the phone was saying” is telling. “Her hand tightened around the phone, as if to strangle it, until the plastic seams cracked,” is showing. But we don’t write specific scenes into our queries, so the “show don’t tell” mantra takes on a different meaning in query, er, PBP, writing.

In PBP writing, there are two bad types of telling (and zero good ones, if you’re keeping score):

Bad Telling No. 1: Conclusions about your book.

The classic example (which, from agent websites I read, never goes out of style) is, “This will be a bestseller.” Or “Millions of people will want to read it,” “This will make you rich,” “Should win the next Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,” or some other bullshit claim that your book will sell tons of copies and you are a blossoming literary giant. Don’t. Just, don’t. Nobody knows which books will sell millions of copies. Publishers and editors and agents who have been in the business for decades routinely guess wrong. Any statements you make in this regard will come off as unrealistic, amateurish, and idiotic.

Still, if agents and publishers are going to represent and publish our books, they need to think there is a chance at least one of those claims could be true. Nobody’s going to rep or print a book that he thinks has zero chance of being a bestseller. The trick is, we need to show them why that’s the case, instead of merely proclaiming it.

How to Show Your Book will Sell Tons of Copies. First, start with specifics. How awesome you are is not specific. How awesome your mother thinks you are is not specific. How awesome you think your book is – you guessed it – not specific. Because you are pitching an unpublished manuscript, it is unlikely that there will be anything specific you can say about it’s likelihood of success, in and of itself. Do not dispare.

Market demographics are specific. The last thing I’d advise is to chase fads, but, if your book is about a topical and controversial subject, there is a chance you can grab free publicity because of it. A smart agent will connect these dots for herself, you do not need to spell out how your controversial and topical book will do that. But you sure as shit need to work that controversy into your summary, maybe even noting that you’re directly addressing a controversial topic. Let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe your topic is so noncontroversial that people have routinely been writing books about the subject for decades or centuries. Help the agent know why yours will not drown in a sea of like books. Find your niche. The field of “teenage girl falls in love with a dangerous boy” has been plowed so many times, you’d think it would be infertile [Note: Freudian slip of the day, my fingers automatically typed the word “infernal”]. Vampire stories are a dime a dozen. Be the first to market with those two worn tropes, and you’re a trendsetter.

In other words, know your market. Claiming that your book will appeal to everyone means admitting you haven’t figured out who it will appeal to and, by implication, is basically an admission that it won’t specifically appeal to anyone. The most common approach to identifying a market is to look at comps (comparable books, readers of which, presumably, should like your books based on the similarities). I think an otherwise excellent query can be helped by good comps, but not much. Think about what taking things one step further says to an agent. Instead of saying “Readers of X will like it” tell the agent “These statistics I easily found on the interwebs show that the same demographic that purchased a billion copies of Kid Detective are also the primary audience for America’s Got Stupid Hobbies.” Coming on the heels of your blurb, which describes a mystery solved by a young contestant on a talent/variety show, the dots will connect themselves.

What did you show the agent? Assuming you’re only sending PBPs to smart, experienced agents, you showed a little bit about your book and a lot about yourself. You indicated a demographic link that could make the book easier to sell, which, by definition, makes it more attractive to the agent. But you also showed up in your “I’m not a flaky artist” pants, acknowledging that this is how we’re all hopefully paying for the next round of braces for our kids and this book has to do something in the real world. Maybe I’m too much of a flaky artist at heart, but I’m not counseling that you piece together the ideal demographic for your book and then write a book to sell them. Write the book that wants to come out of your brain. But, after you do, put some serious thought into who would be most likely to want to buy it.

Bad Telling No. 2: Telling your book instead of showing it.

This is where the tricky “showey” kind of telling comes into play. Here’s the PBP version of a bad telly tell that tells a lot:

[Editorial Note: To accomplish that end, I wrote out a 2 minute mock blurb that consisted of pairing the single most overused trope in lit fiction with my favorite uncle’s first name and a sheep, then packing it full of cliches. Last night, I received a scathing message telling me it was obvious who I was making fun of. I don’t think the complainer is aware that I was making fun of the dead-horse trope, but — screw it. I already did another bad telly blurb that tells a lot in the Star Wars Example, below.]

The “telly” problem query usually contains no shortages of clichés, discusses the protagonist’s emotional, spiritual, and/or intellectual growth as though it’s a concrete thing, and phrases everything in conclusory sentences. Even queries that should be showing exciting events frequently get bogged down in “telly” summaries. Here’s a bad, telly summary of Star Wars:

A restless dreamer of farm boy finds adventure when he embarks on an adventure with a spiritual mentor who teaches him the ways of the Force. Together with a ragtag group of misfits, he rescues a princess from the brink of death and defeats the forces of evil through his newfound powers.

It sucks, right? But it’s also a fairly accurate description of Star Wars’ narrative arc. In a bad, telly way.

 

How do you show a book in two hundred words?

This one is trickier than hell – cue the unicorns and rainbows, call in your inner flaky artist, then read Query Quagmire, the Query Shark Archives, and the billion other resources out there about querying and try to get a feel for it, because it makes little intellectual sense. The easiest way to put it is that there is a special “showy” kind of telling that makes a query blurb work. The only real test for whether you’re there is the same test Justice Potter Stewart stated as his threshold test for illegal obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio : “I know it when I see it.”

I could post 1,000 words a day for a year trying to explain this concept and it wouldn’t do the job. I’m not kidding about hitting the Query Shark Archives. Ms. Reid does a great job of breaking down why queries work and don’t work (in a constructive way, actually oriented toward helping queriers, not just trashing them for fun like some on queryfail). But the correct solution for any specific manuscript will be unique to that manuscript. I’ve even found that the right language for the same manuscript can vary by agent. Your voice as an author needs to be the driving force, balanced with the incredibly small amount of space we have to work with – maybe 200 words. For me, the test was reading through archived and criticized query letters until I got to the point that I could guest blog for the agents and nobody would have a clue I was substituting. With enough time, you’ll be able to see exactly what works and what doesn’t and know why before you even get to the agent responses. In other, geekier, words, you start beating the remote even though Obi Wan put the blast shield down on your helmet.

You can’t follow the novel-writing version of show versus tell. You have to encapsulate the main characters and key conflict from a 100,000 word novel in 200 words. There just isn’t room to have people’s knuckles turn white while they’re holding onto the telephone to show they’re angry. There isn’t even room to talk about a specific telephone call. So, step one is acceptance: you’re going to be telling. The key is telling in a way that the conclusions (Luke learns to stop whining, gets a little Force action going and blows the Death Star to shit) are obvious from the events you summarize. Taking another run at Star Wars:

Luke Skywalker had no intention of joining crazy old wizard Obi Wan on a mission to rescue a princess from the Galactic Empire, even if she is beautiful – and scheduled for execution. But when the Emperor’s henchman, Darth Vader, brutally kills the only family Luke had ever known, he joins Obi Wan and the rebellion against the Empire’s technological tyranny. Obi Wan has been guarding a secret about Luke since his birth. That secret may be the only hope for the rebels, or Luke, in their battle against the planet-killing Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon.

First, cut me some slack here. I don’t write sci-fi or fantasy, and this is a first draft blurb (meaning it’s about twenty revisions away from what I would really be willing to send someone). I can tell you right now that I wouldn’t ever send out a query that started by saying what someone did not intend to do. I can also see that a second draft would move the ultimate weapon/Death Star part up to joining the rebellion, and probably up the stakes by specifying I mean Planet Fucking Killing – billions of people at a time killed – highass stakes. But the point is, the second version has a rebellion, people being brutally killed, a scheduled execution, an evil henchman and a planet-killing Death Star that must be stopped. It hopefully has less clichés, and creates tension in the form of saying what the stakes are (although not well enough to send, yet). It also has a secret. Secrets are cool. It doesn’t say anything about resolving the conflict because, hey, that’s what the manuscript is for.

Now, if that prose were in a novel, it would be far too telly. But, for purposes of a PBP, it’s showey. Which is to say, it tells the story of the events that happens in the book. It tells the agent who the actor in the story is, what actions take place, and what the stakes are. It doesn’t say anything about personal growth or Luke’s perspective, it sticks him in the middle of a rebellion against something being driven around the galaxy by an evil henchman that kills planets. “The only hope” is cliché as hell, but I might leave it in a revised version anyway, since the name of the book is A New Hope.

Clichés have a habit of hiding in our work, even parsed work like queries. So do words signifying introspection (learns, connects, understands, grows, etc.). If you’re talking about someone’s feelings in a query, you’ve probably screwed up. You need to describe the events in such a way that the feelings are obvious. If a woman I’ve never seen before puts a knife at my throat, I’m scared and confused and probably just shit myself while simultaneously picturing every ex-girlfriend I’ve had since 4th grade and comparing the resemblance to my new acquaintance. Almost all of which can be implied by saying (depending on whether it were a crazy ex from years past) that a woman I’d never seen before put a knife there or a woman I did not, at first,  recognize put the knife there. For a query, that’s all you need to say about my thoughts.

If all else fails, make a list of the key events in your narrative arc from the beginning of the novel up to the point outlined in yesterday’s brilliant graphic. Use those events as the template for what you must convey in your query. Then pare the list down to the key events that cause conflict. What you have left is a to-do list for your query. It’s also a to-don’t list. Don’t filter any of those events through feelings or introspection or growth or anything else.

I’ll leave with an attempt at a query blurb (not the whole thing) template.

Dear Agent:

Here’s my protag. He’s up to his neck in shit, and it’s still rising. He’d better do something about that, or he’s fucked.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Michael J. McDonagh.

It Should be Called a Quarry Letter not a Query Letter (we’re hunting, not asking questions)

If you stop to think about it, “query letter” is a pretty stupid thing to call what we send out. Look at agent interviews about the things that will get them to stop reading one after the first sentence – at least half the answers are some variant of “asking a rhetorical question.” The response to, “Did you ever wonder why the Pope wears a giant hat?” is not going to be, “Gee, yes, I have always wondered that,” opening the door for the author to describe her papal alien space opera. Instead, the agent is content with saying “nope,” and sending a form reject with two mouse clicks.

The term query letter exemplifies the problem with a lot of queries – the mindset that we are asking agents for something. I prefer to think of them as quarry letters; as in “we are hunting, and agents are our quarry.” Hell I’d even prefer to think of them as quarry letters as in “I’m going to turn your brain into a pit and pull something valuable out of it.” That beats the crap out of, “I’ve got a question.”

Last time, I covered what a query letter is and isn’t, and this is the first post oriented toward explaining the nuts and bolts (and rainbows and unicorns) that go into constructing an effective query. It’s an art as much as a science, and mindset is key. Worse than literally asking questions is giving the impression that you’re the trembling little orphan from Oliver saying, “Please sir, I want some more.” Two words: Fuck that.

A good query letter isn’t asking anything, isn’t asking for anything, and sure as hell isn’t begging. Agents aren’t looking to see who can make them feel the most superior or godlike. Those godlike feelings will evaporate right after lunch, when the agent is on the phone with an acquisitions editor, trying to sell a client’s book without sounding like an orphan with an empty bowl in his hands.

What an agent is looking for is someone who shows up with a book that makes that job easy. It helps if we are not complete douchebags, too. On either end of the spectrum, from begging and pleading to being a condescending jerk, anything that comes off as being something other than a competent, pleasant, well put together person detracts. With that in mind:

The Three Elements of a Successful Query Letter Preliminary Business Proposal:

1)    It’s about my book. A good PBP (I’ll feel like a hypocrite if I call them queries through this post) is, almost entirely about your book. Even if you write nonfiction and have the greatest platform in the world, it’s more about your book than you. If you wrote a novel, it should be almost entirely about the novel – the agent doesn’t care if you’ve been writing since you were four or got into Princeton. If your book sounds good, she’ll read pages.

2)    My book is awesome. The ultimate show don’t tell moment. The second you say “my book is great,” the agent will assume (almost certainly correctly) that it is not. The goal is to make the agent think, based on what you say happens in your book, that there is a chance your book might be great.

3)    Im not a tool. I didn’t fawn over you, I didn’t kiss your ass, I didn’t include conditions or demands in my query that make it clear that I’m a jerk who you won’t enjoy working with. In short, I treated you with the professionalism and respect that I anticipate you will treat me with in our prospective professional relationship.

Plus there’s the housekeeping stuff (genre, word count, proper business letter formatting, etc.). Because it’s all part of the important initial impression, and we get about 10 seconds to make that impression a good one, I’m not saying the boring housekeeping stuff isn’t important. In fact [spoiler alert] the title of a post I have scheduled for next week is: PBPs (a/k/a Query Letters): The Boring Housekeeping Stuff. It’s not sexy, but it’s critical.

At this point, you are sending a PBP about an awesome book to the right agent. The point behind the PBP is to let the agent know those two things (your book is awesome and she is the right agent). Hopefully, your novel makes both of those things obvious on your behalf.

Most query letters get right to the awesome book part, essentially throwing out their hooks in the  first sentence of the first paragraph. I think, as a general proposition, that’s a smart way to go. I don’t think it’s the only way to go (things get moved around to improve the flow and cadence of a query, and it’s possible this can end up moving back a sentence or two). My most recent version blended the genre/word count component with a setup for the hook in the first sentence. Something I never would have mapped out on purpose, but through dozens of revisions it just flowed so well I went with it. Even if I ended up querying 10 more novels, I wouldn’t be surprised if that formula never worked again.

What you don’t want to do is make your query about you instead of your book. If you’re a firefighter with 20 years at the department and 9 citations for bravery, you should certainly mention that: (a) after you’ve given an overview of your book; and (b) if that book is about fires or firefighting. If you wrote a compelling tale of a veterinarian who communicates with animals telepathically, that’s great. And we appreciate your service to the Fire Department. But it’s not going to help us sell books about a dude who talks to gerbils with his brain.

So you’re telling the agent about the book. And this particular agent loves stories about animals and books about paranormal activity. So this is the perfect agent for this book. If that’s true, trust me on this, she’ll know it. I am not saying you can’t mention that her interest in animal books and paranormal activity are the reason you queried her. You absolutely should. But do it in one sentence saying only that. Don’t tell her it’s perfect for her, she’d be a perfect fit, you can’t think of any agent who could love it more, or anything else like that. Keep it to one sentence providing the objective evidence (“I read in your interview with Writers’ Digest that you were looking for animal books involving paranormal activity.”). She’ll draw the conclusion you want for herself (“Holly shit, look at this book about animals and paranormal activity! It’s exactly what I’m looking for.”).

Think of this as the PBP diet plan:

You get one sentence to talk about yourself. Not a run on sentence either. Just one, straightforward: “I was President of the United States for eight years and appeared on the Tonight Show five times.” I am not saying you have to throw one of those in, but, if you do, that’s how long it should be.

You get one sentence to talk about the agent. And you don’t get to use words like “perfect,” “wonderful,” “love,” or “fan.” Again, you get to state facts: “I saw the comment on your blog that you wished you saw more YA paranormal fiction involving animals.”

That leaves about 200 words to talk about your book. Which is to say 200 words to summarize (a) who the main character is; and (b) what the main sources of conflict are. Conflict can be a Death Star or an eating disorder or a mystery. Ideally, there will be disastrous consequences if the conflict can’t be resolved (the rebellion and Luke are destroyed, the emotional and physical trauma, more people will be murdered).

And then…

The hard part…

You stop.

Do not resolve the conflict. The ideal query letter is a snapshot of the moment the shit hits the fan and just before the first fleck has hit the wall. As rendered in the professional diagram I had commissioned for this, spare no expense, blog:

 

What does that picture tell you? Aside from the fact that I have mad MS Paint drawing skillz, it tells you what a query is. It is a snapshot of your story at the moment the shit has all hit the fan. All the conflict is in the air, nothing has been resolved, and something is a millisecond away from happening.

You need to tell enough about your characters and background for the conflict to matter and make sense. You need to tell everything you can about the conflict. Then you stop. Because if you did a good job doing the first two things, the agent will want to know what happens.

You want to know how the conflict gets resolved? Tough shit. Read my book. The next thing she’ll do is read the first sentence of the first page of your manuscript. In other words, your query did its job. She’s looking at your first 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever. Those pages brilliantly spell out conflict and characters in the voice she liked so much from your query, but they won’t resolve any of that conflict. In other words, tough shit. Read my book. So now you’re getting an e-mail asking for the rest of the book. You’ve been upgraded to a full MS request. So now she’s earned the right to see how the conflict gets resolved. And I’m sure you did a brilliant job resolving it, too.

The whole quarrying/querying/PBPing process boils down to enticement. Resist the urge to tell the agent how brilliantly you resolved the conflict. The price for that knowledge is reading your book. If you have a bunch of conflict and it looks interesting, the agent will be willing to pay that price to find out. That’s what gets your manuscript the best chance of being read beginning to end by an agent, which is the entire purpose behind sending a query letter in the first place.

Query letters aren’t about us asking for anything. They exist to make agents and publishers ask for pages.

Querying Overview: What a Query Letter is (and isn’t)

Being new fairly to the whole ‘I want to try to publish a novel’ world, the querying process blows my mind. I’ve said it before — There aren’t a lot of other arenas in which someone with no background or credentials of any kind can fire an e-mail off to an insider in a multi-billion dollar industry and say, “check out my awesomeness.” I can’t hotlink a YouTube video of myself singing and dancing to a Broadway agent and have even a theoretical chance of playing Frank in the next revival of Rocky Horror. But in the world of literature, I can do just that.

 

Publishing was doing American Idol before American Idol was a thing. I’m not all roses and sunshine here; the numbers are daunting. I was unable to find any source that reliably estimated the number of queries sent out in a year, but I’m willing to bet its somewhere between a buttload and a shitpile. One established, successful agent kept track of his slushpile for a year. He received around 11,000 queries, one of which resulted in an offer of representation. He was what I will call an A (or at least high B) list agent, so the numbers aren’t always that bad, but nobody goes on Idol wanting to hear Paula say she sings nice before getting voted off.

As much as people want to bitch about the process, it’s still one of the most egalitarian processes imaginable. There’s just a whole lot of competition. Worse than the real competition, there’s a whole lot of noise. Which brings us to what a query is (or needs to be): First and foremost, it is something that cuts through the noise. I said “first,” so I should probably start numbering this shit:

1.     (big surprise here) A query needs to be something that cuts through the noise. This is not as hard or tricky as it sounds. It does not mean sending your query about brutal kidnappers in a box with a candy (or real) human finger enclosed. It’s not about being kitschy or clever (your ideas need to be clever, the way you present them needs to be straightforward). Cutting through the noise starts with being concise, clear, and direct. Your query should be grammatically pristine. The first person to read your query will not (as often as not, assuming you’re querying top-shelf agents) be the agent. It will be a reader, often an unpaid intern or, at best, an underpaid assistant. This person’s primary job is to weed out the garbage. I want to believe (and for purposes of this post, need to assume) that your actual manuscript is awesome and people are going to want to publish, buy, and read it. That’s not going to happen if your query about a serial killer is scrawled in pig blood on a sheet. There are enough queries that fail to directly and effectively give an indication how good the book is, you can stand out from the noise best by doing that.

2.     A query needs to follow the rules. Not the “rules of querying” because there are no such thing. But every agent has decided what he or she wants to consider when looking at an initial submission. Some want a query and three chapters. Some want fifty pages. Some want five pages, or a given number of words. Some want one or more of the above, plus a synopsis (and usually state a maximum number of pages for that piece). Next to pig blood and fingers, few things will kill your querying chances faster than not following the agent’s submission guidelines. I have yet to look at an agent who accepts unsolicited queries without finding a web page that has a tab with information about submissions. Read them. Follow them. There is no excuse for not doing this.

3.     A query needs to be directed to the right person. I don’t mean send it to an agent, not a butcher. I mean send it to an agent who reps the type of material you wrote. If you wrote a MG fantasy, don’t send it to an agent who exclusively reps athlete memoirs. If you sent it to a butcher, and she liked it, she may give you a couple of stakes – meaning you would, literally, be better off sending it to the butcher than an agent who doesn’t rep books in (or even near) your genre. [Note: I realize MG is not a genre, although fantasy is, but it’s easiest for purposes of this discussion to ignore the distinction between marketing categories and genres and just say genre.]

4.     A query has a specific job to do, and it isn’t to tell the agent all about your book. Or about you. Your query’s job is to get the agent to look at the first sentence of your manuscript. Period (as though the period at that sentence were not enough). That’s it (Because just saying period after typing a period was not enough). I’m not just filling space here. Understanding that’s the only job your query has to do is crucial. It’s also hard to do. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into 100,000 word masterpieces. The coolest thing in the story is the intricate way three plot lines converge in a brilliantly plotted twist. Our characters are amazing; the tribal rivalries between our gnomes and trolls or the flora and fauna of our intricate world are wonders. But the reader and/or agent aren’t going to give a shit about any of that. They look at a query with one question in mind: Is there a chance this person sent me an interesting, well written story. If the query makes one of them think there’s a decent chance the answer is yes, he or she will read your first sentence. At that point, it no longer matters how good your query was. All that matters is whether the first sentence is good enough for him or her to move on to the second. Because you’ve submitted an awesome story that people will want to buy, you’re golden. The query’s job is over when the agent reads that first sentence.

5.     A query is a business letter. And it’s not. It’s a combination business letter/sales pitch, but there need to be solid reasons for straying from the business letter courtesy and professionalism before you do. If you write erotica, and you’re querying a book about a bunch of people banging the shit out of each other on a cruise ship, your query is obviously not going to read like a quarterly report. But an agent who reps erotica (which is who you’re querying because you did your research) isn’t reading your query out of prurient interest. An efficient explanation of the plot and conflict coupled with the fact (which should both be stated and obvious from your explanation) that it’s erotic fiction will get you there. If you really want the agent to get a boner, throw in a demographic breakdown on the age of purchasers of erotic fiction and how it coincides with the demographic who book cruises in a way that makes it seem reasonable you could sell 100,000 copies. He’ll need to call his doctor in four hours.

6.     A query is a business plan – a short, incomplete, and overly generalized one, but a business plan nonetheless. Agents love books, or they wouldn’t be in that business. But it’s also how they pay for their kids’ braces and their cats’ food (don’t ask me, agents really seem to dig cats). There’s a two-part inquiry, and the parts overlap: (a) is this a great book; and (b) can I sell it. If you were to send an agent a beautifully written book about a subject she and seven other people in the world hold dear, you will probably get the nicest rejection letter imaginable. Because there is no market for your book, there’s no way she’ll be able to sell it to a publisher. A critical part of writing an effective query is accurately determining what your market is. This does not mean, “I think I write just like Harper Lee, and To Kill a Mockingbird has sold a billion copies in hardback.” It means doing some honest-to-goodness analysis of who your target market is. You can do this with similar author comparisons, but – since that’s what everyone just throws out – if you can find a better market basis, it will strengthen your query enormously. Using the above-example, which do you think makes an agent see dollar signs more concretely:

“This book will appeal to readers of Danielle Steel.”
 
Or

“The largest and fastest growing segment of the destination cruise industry is thirty to fifty-five year-old women, who also happen to be the purchasers of over eighty percent of all romance and erotic fiction.

[Note: I made up every statistic in that sentence, and you need real numbers, not made up numbers for this to actually work.]

Because I come into writing and querying after decades in business, the standard comparables query makes little sense to me. It strikes me as saying, “I have an unknown, untested, and unproven product that offers the same thing as an established brand does, at the same price.” I think you are more likely to be noticed if you can: (a) identify a clear market segment who would be interested in buying your book; and (b) stating how your book fills an unmet need in that market. You don’t want to be the 30th person that day who tells Mr. Erotic Romance Agent: I’m going to be the next [whoever]. You want to be the 1st person this month the agent thinks may someday be showing up in queries from people claiming they will be the next her.

7.     A query needs accurately represent your manuscript. This is where a query that does its job (gets the agent to read the first sentence) can still be a fail. There are a number of reasons the disconnect between query and manuscript can occur, and all of them are on us. There have been times I’ve read or seen interviews with agents and thought, “That’s someone I’d love to work with,” only to discover she only represents MG and YA authors. I’m not doing either of us a favor retooling my query to make it sound more YAish than it really is. I’ve also seen this happen through well-intentioned collaborations. If a query is, well, bad, there’s still hope. Most writers’ websites have a query critique section, and a lot of extremely helpful advice is available. With enough people helping critique and polish a query, a bad query can become great. The problem is, when all people know about the manuscript comes from the query they are critiquing, they may be suggesting changes that make the query look better on its own, but take the query a few steps away from accurately representing the manuscript. Once that happens a few (or a few dozen) times, it can be like a bad game of telephone. What comes out on the end bears little resemblance to what started. Even if the agent likes the query and reads your first sentence (and your first sentence is excellent, by the way), you can still end up with a fail just because you’ve set the wrong expectations before the agent started reading. It’s like taking a sip of tea, only to discover that it’s chicken broth. You don’t stop to think about how good the broth is – it tastes disgusting because it isn’t tea. And you were expecting tea. So you spit it out, not realizing it’s probably the best chicken broth you’ve ever tasted.

8.     A query is not an ass-kissing festival. This goes back to the business letter concept. On the one hand, I didn’t query agents at random. I targeted specific agents for specific reasons, and I am perfectly happy articulating those reasons (if it works into the flow of the query I’ve tailored for that agent). For example, my manuscript is a satire that directly addresses a hugely controversial subject. One of my target agents said in an interview, “I am happiest when I’m representing books that take on controversial subject matter.” Of course I’m going to tell him I’m querying him, in part, because that’s what I’m looking for in an agent. But I’m not going to fawn on him about his bravery or his brilliant work or how much I admire the authors he represents or how hot he looks since he got that new haircut or how I friended his ex-wife on Facebook just so I could tell her off about that shitty thing she did with the kids custody in their recent divorce. Instead, I recommend approaching it from the perspective that this is a mutual selection process. The agent has to want to represent me, but I also have to want to be represented by that person. Hopefully, my criteria include something more than a pulse in that regard. Articulating the objective reason in a professional manner enhances your credibility lets the agent know this isn’t a spammy, one of 4,000 queries I sent today query. And, that is abusiness plan (between you and the agent) in a business letter, that cuts through the noise, and lets everyone know you’ve directed it to the right person.

There are many moving parts to a query, some of which I touched on in this post. I’ll get to the nuts and bolts elements of constructing a query later this week. I wrote out what is, essentially, a 2,000-word description of what a query is first, because the right query for each manuscript is going to be different. Sometimes, the right query for a particular agent on a particular manuscript is different from the right query for another agent. I wanted to start with the general concept, which boils down to this: A good query is a professional and concise sales tool that accurately describes the basic concept behind your manuscript to the right person in a way that makes her want to read the first sentence of that manuscript.

Period.

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

I was late to the #QueryFail party, which is a little bit like being late to the Jonestown Kool-Aid party. I am not bummed I missed it.

If you, too, were fortunate enough to miss the massacre, here’s what went down. A couple of agents thought it would be a good idea to post the most egregious “QueryFails” they saw – i.e., parts of horrible query letters, on Twitter. OK, no big deal. They removed names, etc., so they weren’t calling anyone out. Some people even thought it might be a good learning opportunity for writers. Nothing teaches you how to succeed like watching other people crash and burn.

As one of the agents who started the party put it:

Colleen_Lindsay: It’s about educating, not about being mean! =) #queryfail

Then it got mean. Which is to say, its primary value came from mocking the easily mockable queries that must drive agents nuts on a daily basis.

As one person tweeted:

@Colleen_Lindsay i find your #queryfail to be both mocking & mean-spirited. laughing at people’s inability to reach their dreams always is.

Then there was some back and forth, with many writers saying how “hilarious” the queryfails were (and they’re often right) a few pointing out that the agents in question were mocking others for their own amusement (and they’re right). I have to assume the lopsided numbers have a lot to do with people’s propensity to tweet “u r so awesome & smart & funny” to someone whose ass they are kissing. True as it might have been, “u didn’t really think this thru” probably is not going to score points (not that I think the ass kissing scores that many, either).

By the time I stumbled across the corpses that were left in its aftermath, I think a consensus had arisen that throwing what was essentially an online party to make fun of other people probably wasn’t a genius move.

There’s nothing to learn from doing an autopsy (nor is it time to do the autopsy yet, the hash tag is still in frequent use). As of two minutes ago, the hash tag yielded this:

“SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement”

With a link to an interesting article from a publishing veteran in the Australian Book Review. https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/109-december-2013-january-2014-no-357/1739-queryfail?utm_content=buffer84247&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=BufferShe has a frank and mature take on the subject (which is code for, “she agrees with what I was writing here when I checked the hash tag and found her article.”).

There is, however, a lot to learn from looking at the back and forth #queryfail entailed. With plenty of good and bad on both sides of the seesaw.

  • It’s About Educating People. Let’s just get this one out of the way right off the bat.

First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to laugh at something ridiculous that you wrote right before you started laughing at ridiculous things other people wrote. BWAAAAHAHAHAGWAHAHAHGAGAA –Good one.

Second, if someone is earnestly writing that s/he was divinely ordained by God to write a novel, there is a very good chance that person is mentally ill. Bitching about the query on twitter isn’t going to fix that, nor will it stop the next person who hears voices from sending you a query. There are already a billion other resources on the internet giving people this basic information. This added nothing new to the discourse. You were having fun with the most outlandish “queryfails” you could find. Period. Nobody who has ever spent an hour studying how to query would have done anything listed.

Third, what, exactly, was the purpose of providing the supposed education? Was your goal really to teach the person who believes God told him to write a book how to query you successfully? I find it somewhat difficult to believe that teaching the people in the bottom 10% of the slushpile how to query better, so you could invest more time in their manuscripts, was really your goal. “Not following our submission guidelines is a #queryfail” is educational. “My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.” AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! #queryfail” is laughing at someone who is probably naively describing a book about eating disorders among teenage girls. Laughing at her is not educating anyone.

  • So, fine, it was about being funny. Everybody needs to blow off some steam. I have no doubt that what was happening on twitter was merely an online version of what happens at your agencies’ water coolers every freaking day. I get that. I’m willing to bet you have dozens of great query stories queued up for every cocktail party/date gone wrong/ uncomfortable holiday dinner with the in-laws imaginable. The problem is, twitter is not your in-laws’ table or the water cooler. It’s instantaneous communication with millions of people. In other words, public humiliation for the people you’re talking about. Which makes it a lot less funny.

 

  • The people you were making fun of are people. Some seem young and naïve. Some may even be mentally unbalanced. I have no doubt it must suck to have to sift through 1,000 pieces of crap, looking for the next J. D. Salinger and being offered a 700,000-word first volume in a nine book series from someone who didn’t make it 200 words without spelling and grammatical errors aplenty. But that’s the freaking job you chose. By all means, send the form rejectionthe minute you see the obvious queryfail. But celebrate the fact that it made your job easier, don’t go out of your way to humiliate the person who sent you the query.

There’s a lot here for writers to learn from, too. Just not anything about the reasons the queries in question were publically humiliatedrejected.

  • Queries are business prospectuses, nothing more. We are sending a proposal to a professional in the publishing business. We are essentially requesting that they invest significant amounts of time and effort bringing our product to market, using their names and reputations to facilitate that.
  • Negative feedback is a given. Ideally, it should be provided in a professional and courteous way. I have little doubt that a clear, professional query letter that meets all of the agency’s guidelines is not going to show up as a #queryfail even if the proposal itself is rejected. Writers seriously need to stop thinking in terms of “I sent you part of my soul – you owe me something.” That may be what you sent, but what the agent received was, to her, a business proposal competing with 1,000 other proposals for the same limited resources. Your love of your book, the earnest emotion you poured into it, the years of toil you’ve invested are irrelevant. How good your book is matters.
  • We are dealing with a world where the floodgates have been opened. Everyone has a computer, everyone has e-mail, nearly everyone thinks s/he can write a novel, and more people than ever are doing it. The frustration the agents are voicing is legitimate (even if their manner of voicing it was less so). There is no good excuse for a queryfail. The web is teeming with resources on how to write a query, agency guidelines are usually quite specific, and anyone who invests a reasonable amount of time and effort should be able to create a query that will pass muster. That’s not to say the agent will request your manuscript or offer representation. Rather, your proposal will be evaluated on its merits instead of the fact that it was written in hieroglyphics painted in pig’s blood.

I am really writing this blog post for one specific person, who may not even exist. When I saw the posts by agents and sycophantic laughter from writers piling on, I couldn’t help but think of some teen-aged writer who wrote a bad query letter for an equally bad novel. A writer who, 10 years from now, may write a good query letter for a good novel, but who may not do so after being laughed at by a bunch of so-called grownups. Or the person who was deemed #queryfail because he is in prison, without mention of what his book was about or how good it was.People who may be or develop into real writers, but who were told, through public humiliation, that they shouldn’t bother to try. They were somehow deemed unworthy of having and working toward the dream of being published — under the guise of “educating” them.

#agentfail 

 

An update on the Scammers Post and a Casestudy in Shadiness

I said in the scammers post that there were a thousand ways shady agents rip people off, but a new shady agency showed up on my radar (a couple of times in a couple of ways) and I thought I’d pass on what I learned. More particularly, I want to use this agency as a case study in how to look at an agency.

This one particularly bothers me because the agency is truly “shady,” meaning they seem to have a few legitimate sales mixed in with their business practices that rip people off. This agency scares the shit out of me.

Shady Practice No. 1: I’ve already warned you about this one – they have a for-profit editing service as part of their agency. 

Shady Practice No. 2: This one is new to me – they have a $2,500 minimum commission. This is a LOT worse than it sounds. Their justification for it is even worse. Per their participation on legitimate writers’ message boards (which they run around like hotshot fire crews, trying to justify their practices), they charge that minimum because so many new novelists get low advances that they need to have a minimum to justify the six months it may take to place a book with a publisher. At first glance, this may seem reasonable. But let me rephrase that for them. Their justification is essentially:

If we can’t sell books for enough money, which happens to us a lot, we need to make sure we get ours before the author sees a dime. We aren’t willing to wait for royalties to come in to get it from our percentage, either.

Shady as fuck, right? That just scratches the surface. For starters, they might as well be saying, “We can’t make a profit using the normal commission structure that every legitimate agency on the planet uses.”

Since they are offering for-hire editing services, they clearly aren’t adverse to conflicts of interest. This scheme sets up a couple of other conflicts that just make me sick. First, let’s do a little math. If they manage to sell your book for a $2,500 advance, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $10,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $15,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $17,000, they get an extra fifty bucks. So, unless you have a book that is likely to sell for a lot more than the average first-time advance, these shady-ass motherfuckers have no motivation to try to sell your book for a dime over $2,500.

Also, the best route for a first-time author may involve a low advance but decent support from a legitimate publisher who is willing to spend some money promoting the book. Like, for example, the recently departed Tom freaking Clancy and his debut novel The Hunt for Red October. Since this agency doesn’t give a shit about its authors in the long run (or the medium run, or even after the very first day of the short run), those offers are just rejected without response. How do I know this? Because small and medium-sized publishers also participate on writers’ forums, and they say things like “I made an offer on manuscript X and they just responded that the offer was insulting and not worth considering, now I understand why.”

We aren’t done yet:

Shady Practice No. 3: This is old news, but still a nice little window into their shady as fuck behavior. There are all sorts of legitimate sources on the internet writers can use to learn about agents. Databases are great: AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Predators & Editors, and WriterBeware are all excellent resources with unbiased information (they drive traffic to their sites by having good information, so their motivation is to provide just that). Obviously, people who are trying to rip you off are not big fans of accurate information, which tends to inform people that they are shady as fuck.

So some genius came up with the idea of creating a fake literary association to “protect” writers from things like, well, all of the above-listed websites. Then it listed the “Top 10 Literary Agencies” according to them. Not coincidentally, most of them were also on the “20 Worst” list from Writer Beware. It appears that one of the agents from this agency was formerly among the agencies on both lists.

Shady Practice No. 4:  This one is my personal favorite. Running through the new posts on a message board, I see one saying “Hey guys, I just found a new agent who is accepting queries [e-mail link] and this awesome agent is also taking queries, too [e-mail link to another agent at the same agency]. Here is their agency website [link number three]” Then I notice this happens to be the poster’s first ever post. I wouldn’t mind if they showed up and said, “We are accepting queries,” and, since it was the first post ever from that person I knew it was them, but pretending to be “one of the guys” (pardon the latent sexism, it was their word, not mine) just giving a “heads’ up” about a new agent is shady as fuck. You might as well post: “I am going to try to mislead you into going to my website and then enter into an important relationship with you before you realize that’s what I am doing.”

So, no, if you were the only literary agent on the planet, I would still not hire you. And your chummy post on a message board is not going to help that. But thank you for an opportunity to use you and your scummy-ass agency as a case study to help readers on my blog. We are starting at the end, knowing this is a shady-ass company that is not a clear-cut scam. They have some legitimate sales, but“even a blind pig finds an accord once in a while” is not a business model. So this one is technically a legitimate agency that I would never even think of using. Let’s to a walkthrough of how to vet an agency to see if we would get sucked in. In other words,

Let’s Pretend We Were Considering This Agency:

Step 1: Google is your friend. Googling the agency name, alone, yields the following results on the first page:

  1. Agency Website (doesn’t mean much, but if they didn’t have one it would be a nonstarter).
  2. A Publisher’s Marketplace listing with deals (at this point, I’m thinking ‘OK this person is legit.’ I’m mostly wrong, but that’s honestly what I would be thinking).
  3. A twitter account (that’s 4 years old. Again, it doesn’t count for much but it is one more indication they are legit).
  4. Two news stories about a book deal that didn’t go through, (no deal, but I’m impressed because this agent is in the media and appears to be a player. I have never looked into an agency that turned out to be shady that had this kind of legitimacy).
  5. A thread on one of the aforementioned bulletin boards (oops, I just found out about the $2,500 minimum commission and the editing conflict and, if you want to write non-fiction, they threw in a bonus ghostwriting conflict as well).
  6. Something I’ve never seen before, called ripoffreport.com (frankly, it looks like as much like a rant as a legitimate indictment of the agency, so I’m calling this one about as important as having a website and a twitter —i.e., not very, but worth noticing).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

  1. Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but also shows that this agent had an AAR membership revoked. Now I am pretty scared.
  2. AbsoluteWrite told me what I outlined above, and I would have gone there anyway if I hadn’t found it via Google. The most damning thing on here were the posts from the agency itself, misrepresenting what was being said about it in the prior posts (as though we cannot read them for ourselves) and providing BS justifications for business practices the other legitimate agencies seem to live without.
  3. QueryTracker Not much information here, except for links to AbsoluteWrite and the agency posing as a member (for one post) and pretending to give information about agents (themselves). In other words, it is the agency’s own conduct more than anything anyone else is saying or doing that makes them look sketchy as hell.
  4. Writer Beware Lists the scary, don’t go anywhere near these people, agents. Just because an agent or agency isn’t on this list does not mean you should go with that agent, but it an agent is on this list, stay far away. They aren’t on this list, but I’m still not going for the minimum commission or overlooking two conflicts, so this agent is not even a maybe for me.

The lesson to learn here is that you should invest a little bit of effort in vetting any agent before querying him or her. It doesn’t take much effort to weed out the flat-out scammers, but you might need to go three pages into a five-page thread on a bulletin board before you find out the real problems with a questionable agent. There are over 1,000 agents out there, so there is no reason to even look at one who is questionable. If you can’t get a decent response from the first 100 agents or so, the problem probably relates more to your query or your manuscript (or both) than the availability of solid agents.

Picking an Agent, Step Two: “Hey, baby, how you doin?”

The PG-13 Adventures of Debbie Agent

Debbie Agent never goes to the club planning to hook up, or even wanting to. She is already juggling more men and women in her life than she should. People think she’s a little slutty, but that’s not it. Even if she won’t admit it to herself, she is a romantic. Debbie glances at the door every time someone walks in – feigning annoyance but secretly hoping for love.

The guy at the door catches her eye for a second, but then he shouts over the noise in the room, “Ladies, the Ricker is here and he’s open for business.” Her annoyance is no longer feigned. Eleven of his fraternity brothers pile in and start pounding Jäger Bombs.

“I’ve had it with this shit,” she says to herself, reaching for her wallet.

“I was that young once.” The voice startles Debbie; somehow, it calms her, too.

Debbie sizes up her new companion. “I have a feeling you didn’t refer to yourself in the third-person, as an adjective.” She slides the wallet back onto her lap.

“True.” A smile flashes in her companion’s eyes. “I did things far worse than that.”

That voice – what is it about that voice? Less than fifteen words and that voice is teasing her, making her crave more. “I don’t mean to sound forward,” Debbie lies, meaning to sound forward as hell, “but give me fifty pages.”

As far as I can tell, querying agents is no different from hooking up in a bar, with a willing, if somewhat jaded and leery, partner. To look at the first part of the dance, we need to leave the perspective I just gave you (third-person limited, Debbie) and start looking through the eyes of the mysterious stranger. That’s us, and we have been secretly stalking Debbie for months. Not in the creepy, restraining order way, but almost as obsessively.

How to Pick Whom You will Stalk This, like everything else, was much harder in the days before teh interwebs. Now, at least initially, it is easy to come up with a list of agents you want to hit on. Start by looking at your favorite, currently-publishing authors. Not only favorites, but also those most similar to you in terms of genre, tone, and style. This will take some work, possibly even requiring you to read several novels you did not plan on reading. Well, good. You should be doing that anyway.

Stalkers Can’t be Slackers  If you are serious about wanting to be a commercially viable, published author, you need to have a clue what is happening in the world of commercial publishing. I am not encouraging you to spend time learning about the intricacies of the industry itself, but you should have a decent idea what other people are writing about and how they are writing it. The only way to accomplish that is to read – a lot. The fact that you are writing a book is no excuse for not reading more than one. To make this work, you have to. At least some of those books should be the very best books in your area/ topic/ genre. The people who buy those books are likely to be your target audience as well.

How does this relate to Debbie? One of Debbie’s old clients happens to be an author who appeals to the same sensibilities as our mysterious stranger. Our mysterious stranger knows that for any number of reasons:

  • Simply Googling the author’s name and the phrase “literary agent” will usually get you there (agents love to brag about their successful clients)
  • AgentQuery and QueryTracker both allow you to look up agent names by author. You wrote the next Godfather? Mario Puzo’s agent is listed.
  • If Mario Puzo’s agency turns you down, you can still search by genre at either of those sites (not my favorite, because the results are not as specific).
  • Last but not least, PublishersMarketplace provides current details on deals as they go down. Knowing Penguin laid out six figures in a three-book deal for a choose-your-own-adventure erotica series is key if you happen to write choose-your-own-adventure erotica. Even though that particular agent may consider it a conflict, you can use that as a starting point to find agents with similar tastes.

[Note here, PublishersMarketplace has both free and paid access, and the free is extremely limited compared to the other sites and, being cheep, I have no idea how functional or useful the paid portion is]

The point here is: the stranger sitting next to Debbie was no accident. There may be a dozen other attractive agents in the club, but our stranger did not shout to all of them at once. Debbie finding our stranger attractive was no accident, either. The stranger knows who Debbie has gone home with before – and the stranger is her type.

What if I think half the agents in the club are my type? For starters, don’t pull a Ricker and yell to them all at once. Pay attention to Debbie’s needs. Go to her website and make sure you are giving her those 50 pages just the way she wants them. Make her feel like she is the only agent in the world – until she’s gone. Then find another agent whose needs need you can attend to, and do the same. The Ricker may have been yelling at thirty agents when he walked in, but he was not communicating with any of them. Ten may represent nonfiction, five only deal with children’s and YA and five specialize in Christian publishing, not exactly a hotbed of choose-your-own-adventure erotica. The other five could have been maybes, but going after more than one at a time killed his chances with those as well.

Query in batches. I would recommend small batches, at that. In the first place, don’t be desperate – at least not until you have thirty rejections on your wall. It takes some serious time and effort to locate agents who are good fits who have solid track records of sales and represent a number of quality clients. The websites I cited above are a good starting point, but you need to go to the agent websites as well, look at their client lists, check the notes on the bulletin boards (including absolutewrite.com, which has a very active bulletin board). Tailoring each query so the agent knows it is not a generic e-mail to a thousand agents helps immensely – nothing too ass-kissy, just “You mentioned in an interview last month that you wished you saw more choose-your-own-adventure erotica…” That is time consuming. And worth it.

So, if you’re in a hurry, think of querying in small batches as the fastest way to do it. You do not need to wait until you have a dozen agents scoped out if you are sure you know who your top one or two choices are. Send out one or two queries.

Another reason to query in batches is that you may receive some input from your first few. Five queries all received form rejections? Maybe that query needs a little work. That straggler beta finally read your manuscript three months late but found a typo everyone else missed on the third page? (Believe me, that happens) It’s nice to know that you are sending out a few with pages that do not include the typo.

The biggest reason to query in batches is something I have said before. You get one shot at each agent. If you get a fistful of personalized rejections telling you the fatal flaw in your novel, you do not get to requery those agents after you fix it (“Oh my fucking god, this isn’t even the post about revising anymore, and I am revising again.”) If you query every agent who has ever represented anything like your book on the first day, there is nobody left to send it to after you fix the problem. You may get lucky and have one of those agents tell you to redraft and resubmit, but you may not. The entire point behind this blog is to reduce the importance of luck in this process.

Double-Bonus Tuesday: Extra reasons batch querying is good. Apart from the strategic reasons for doing it, there are some psychological benefits as well.

1)    You are going to get rejections, and rejection sucks. Having a few agents queued up with the query drafted and the submission materials just the way she wants them provides a nice morale boost when they come in. I’ve got two on deck right now (and, to be honest, one of them may be a better fit for me than most of the agents I am waiting to hear from). The next rejection I get is permission for me to send that out. Within ten minutes of receiving my next rejection, I will be back to a dozen queries or manuscripts out.

2)    You are going to get MS requests, hopefully, and I would not want to try to respond to three of those on the same day, either. In the first place, it is hard to type a brief and professional cover letter to an agent you thought was an urban myth while your hands are trembling on the heels of having just shit yourself. Sometimes, they will ask for something you don’t have. For example one agent asked me for a “10 page or less outline.” I had an outline that was functional when I was writing (incomplete sentences transient thoughts, arrows, two-word memory triggers that I knew how to turn into a chapter, etc.). I did not have something another human could understand, let alone something that would look professional. Creating that outline was a full day’s work.

Because our mysterious stranger did everything right, Debbie was intrigued. Picking the right agent (and walking past the girls walking the curb outside the club, offering the same thing but asking for money), knowing why she was the right agent, and offering her just enough to make her want more (which will be the subject of its own post), lead to the inevitable outcome, “give me fifty pages.”

If our stranger does things right, the next thing Debbie will say is “I need you to give it all to me. Give me your full.”

Word-Choice Rant No. 1: “When I’m Published, I’ll be an Author”

People keep drawing a false distinction between the terms “Author” and “Writer,” and it is driving me nuts. I am tired of witnessing arguments about whether you can call yourself an “Author” if you self-publish (the answer is: Who gives a fuck?) I’m ranting right now because of some spam I just got for a webinar that promised to help me “Go from being a writer to being an author.”

Gee, should I drop $99 on a webinar so you can coach me? Maybe not, since you don’t even know what those fucking words mean.

A huge chunk of people have gotten it into their heads that, until you’re published, you are merely a writer. Once published, you magically become an “Author,” and can therefore brag about your awesome Authorliness at cocktail parties – most of which are probably going to be thrown in your honor, since you are an Author. That’s what people do – they throw cocktail parties for Authors, because Authors are awesome.

Except that’s all bullshit. Most authors are unpublished. I am currently an author (as the “about” description on this blog truthfully states). I have never had a word of fiction published anywhere, but that has nothing to do with whether I am an author.

Here’s what the word “author” means:

author (n.) 

c.1300, autor ”father,” from Old French auctoracteor ”author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Modern French auteur), from Latinauctorem (nominative auctor) “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” literally “one who causes to grow,” agent noun from auctus, past participle ofaugere ”to increase” (see augment). Meaning “one who sets forth written statements” is from late 14c. The -t- changed to -th- 16c. on mistaken assumption of Greek origin.

That’s right, author means “father” or “creator.” An author is a person who creates characters and stories. In other words, the phrase “fiction author” is as redundant as “fiction novel” since authors, by definition, are people who write fiction (and novels are, by definition, works of fiction).

What is a writer? Simple, it’s someone who writes things. Like me, right now, as I type this.

writer (n.) 

Old English writere ”one who can write, clerk; one who produces books or literary compositions,” agent noun from writan (see write (v.)). 

In other words, all authors are writers but not all writers are authors.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There is no secret ceremony in the basement of a church, where hooded Authors paddle you  by candlelight upon publication of your first novel, turning you from a writer into an Author. You became an author the minute you put down your first character’s first thought, movement, or word.

And plenty of well-known, established, rich and successful people have to make do with being writers (without seeming to care). Every great, best-selling historian, self-help guru, memoirist, or theologian you’ve ever heard of is a writer, not an authorBand of Brothers made Steven Ambrose millions and was turned into an HBO miniseries (that made him a boatload more money), but it’s history, not fiction. Steven, you are not the father. Steven Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time and his other works, including children’s books, but they are about science, not made up people from his imagination, so he has to settle for being a rich, successful writer. I seriously doubt he gives a shit. People who write memoirs are writers. Julia Child is a writer. There is nothing wrong with being a writer. Similarly, whether or not you are an “Author” doesn’t mean jack shit. It means you have typed out a mind-movie on your computer keyboard (or written it on a note pad or something). That’s it.

Is there a gray area? Maybe. Bill O’Reilly leaps to mind. He made $24 Million last year selling books that are mostly filled with unrealistic shit he made up. But he called most of them nonfiction. Being a lying sack of shit does not make you an “Author.” It makes you a douchebag. Therefore, with respect to those works, Bill O’Reilly is a writer. He is also a lying sack of shit and a douchebag, but he is not an author (or an “Author”). On the other hand, he has also written piles of drivel that he admits are fiction. With respect to those particular piles of crap, he is an author. But it had nothing to do with any of it being published.

So, if you are waiting for the magical day that your book is published and you can start calling yourself an “Author” that day is here. Not because your book is being published. There’s a 99% chance it won’t be (nothing personal, that’s statistically true of me, too). That day is here because you created a character or a circumstance and put it down in some tangible form.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty awesome thing for you to have done. 

Picking an Agent, Step One: Avoiding Scammers

This week, I’ll discuss how to choose which agents you want to approach when you are ready to start querying. Before covering how to pick good agents that you want to approach, we need to spend a little time looking atlowlife scum that you abso-fuckign-lutely do not want to go anywhere near.

A little bit of background:

What it takes to become a literary agent: I’ve covered this before, so I will try to be brief. Not a fucking thing.

There, I was brief. I will elaborate, but, if you’re willing to just take my word for the fact that what I said is true, you can just scroll down until you see bold again. Those four words fully summarize the standards, testing requirements, professional credentialing, and everything else involved in becoming a literary agent (in name). I could have done it in one word (“nothing”), but the F-bomb is mandatory.

AAR: Part of the Solution. This is a problem for legitimate agents as much as it is for us. They have set up a voluntary program (the Association of Authors’ Representatives, or “AAR”) as a clearinghouse for separating legitimate agents from bogus agents. Agents must have a certain number of sales under their belts to be members, they are required to abide by a code of conduct, and, generally, some decent professional standards and protections for authors’ best interests are required of them.  Most legitimate agents are AAR members. You can find all of the details on their websitehttp://aaronline.org/.

Yay, AAR. 

There are a few problems, though:

1.     The AAR database sucks balls. Here, for example, is a search to see if Otto Maduro is an AAR member:

image

OK, so that guy is not a member, big deal. Except Otto is a member and was the fucking president of AAR last year.

So AAR is not a place to start your search. It isn’t even a decent place to look at whether the agent you are looking at is an AAR member

2.     Not all good agents are AAR members. I’ll say right out that most good agents are AAR members. But, to become an AAR member, the agent needs to have been agenting for a certain amount of time, had a required level of sales over an eighteen month period, etc. Aside from legitimate reasons for not joining AAR, even a newer agent who wants to become an AAR agent won’t be one yet. One of the agents at the very top of my wish list right now, who is reading my full manuscript (and, I like to think, is falling in love with both it and me as I type this) is not an AAR member. I would be one of her first clients – but she is transitioning to taking on clients after being an assistant to one of the true SuperAgents. Landing her would be a coup. If she calls, I will not say, “Sorry honey, call me back in eighteen months.” On top of that, some of the best agents in the business are not AAR members (even though they have Nobel and/or Pulitzer prize winning clients). There are a thousand reasons they could choose not to be members, but I can guarantee the only reason they are not is that they have simply chosen not to.

3.     Not all AAR members are good agents. They probably aren’t scammers, but that does not mean they are particularly good at their jobs. Also, a good agent for selling cookbooks might not be a very good agent for your space opera or that choose-your-own-adventure erotica you’ve been writing. The difference between a good agent and a bad agent is what I will primarily be talking about this week, so I won’t belabor the point here.

AAR’s Bottom Line: It’s better than nothing. If you use the QueryTracker, AgentQuery, or PublishersMarketplace databases, which seem to keep track of AAR members better than AAR does, you will find that most legit agents are AAR members. If the agent is looking at you (“Saw your twitter…”) and she isn’t on AAR, you’ll need to vet the hell out of her for yourself.

A bigger part of the solution: Don’t be a dubmass. There are a lot of lists of questions to ask an agent before agreeing to representation and things to look out for when agents approach, all of which are unnecessary at this stage. To avoid the flat-out scammers, you only need to follow one piece of advice:

You pick them, they don’t pick you.

That’s it. Period. How do decide which agents you’ll approach is a huge question (that I’ll probably spend the week trying to answer). How to avoid landing with a shady agent who will rip you off, however, is a question with a very concise answer in two parts: (1) Approach legitimate agents who have solid track records selling books to real publishers; and (2) Assume anyone approaching you is shady as fuck.

There could be exceptions to this rule, but they are going to be rare enough that 99.99% of us don’t need to worry about them. If this section doesn’t apply to you (i.e., if you are a Navy SEAL with a congressional medal of honor for rescuing puppies from an Al Qaeda dog fighting ring, who does work for Doctors Without Borders removing shrapnel from Oprah’s ass while on leave) skip ahead. Schmucks like me (i.e., people who wrote good books and are looking for agents) will not be approached, out of the blue, by legitimate agents.

A good literary agent is swamped with submissions – literally thousands or tens of thousands for every one that may become a client – if she is even accepting unsolicited submissions. Hell, mediocre agents and bad agents are swamped with submissions. They don’t have time to get through their in-boxes, let alone troll Twitter, Tumblr, and WordPress looking for new clients.

Here is the normal path to legitimate agentship (yes, a made-up word). The aspiring agent goes to work for a legit agency as an assistant to a real agent. Eventually, the mentoring agent lets him take on a few of his own clients, often things the in the slushpile that the agent isn’t quite willing to take on but would have earlier in her career. After a few sales, the assistant is paying his bills with his cut of our royalties, and they both need a new assistant. Then the old agent retires or dies, the young assistant-cum-agent is the old agent, and his assistant wants to take on some clients, and everyone joins hands and sings The Circle of Life.

Notice the part that was missing. The part where the new agent trolls the internet scouring blogs and message boards for clients. That’s because that part never happens in the legitimate agent world.

Why is this post even necessary? Because, before we can even discuss finding good agents or avoiding bad agents, we need to cut away the flat-out con artists posing as agents who prey on aspiring writers. Fortunately, they are easy to spot:

Dead Giveaway 1: They want money. There is no reason an agent should ask you for money. For anything. I don’t care if it’s a cup of coffee or to borrow five bucks for cab fare home. There isn’t usually much money in this business, but what there is only flows one direction. Raise your hand and repeat after meMoney only flows to the author, never away. I could list a thousand ways money can be asked for (reading fees, agency fees, retainer fees, copy charges), it doesn’t matter. Regardless of what label they put on the money – if it is flowing from you to someone else, you are being ripped off. 

[Note: Legit agencies may charge some expenses to clients, which are deducted from royalties, but the author is not asked to pony up cash for those, they are minimal, and we’ll cover them in detail later].

Dead Giveaway 2: They want you to give someone else money. A thinly veiled version of No. 1, this con can also take many forms. A typical example is an agency saying, “Your manuscript is close, but it isn’t quite polished enough for us to consider representation.” Oh, man, I was so close. Then (in the same e-mail or sometimes a few days later or the agent’s assistant sends you a “psst, over here,” e-mail) you find out that there is a great editor who can really polish up your work just the way they like it. So you hire the editor (who is not editing it FOR FREE like your crit partner should). You spend a few hundred bucks, they run the thing through grammar check, take out half of the uses of the word “that” in the manuscript and you resubmit. Then the agent usually pretends to take you on as a client (worse than not having them as your agent) or just ignores you (which is actually the best thing that can happen to you at this point). How can you possibly avoid this scam? I’ve got an idea, Raise your hand and repeat after meMoney only flows to the author, never away. That’s it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re being told to give the money to someone else – if you’re being told to hand over money, you’re being ripped off.

[Note: There are legitimate editors who work freelance, but an agent should never refer you to one, and certainly not by name. Although an editor can even help you polish your manuscript, you will almost certainly spend more money for the editing than you will make from your book.]

[New Note: I’m updating the day after I posted this to add that a tweet from a “freelance editor” was just forwarded to me. It contained two hyphenation errors in nine words. I realize it’s twitter, but that does not excuse hyphenating after the prefix “re” or not hyphenating a compound adjective — especially if you are on there promoting your editorial skills.]

Giveaway that isn’t dead but is in intensive care: The hostage manuscript scenario. This is easy to avoid on the front end, by picking a good agent who will rep your book well (what we’ll cover in other posts this week). But there is no clear-cut line separating what a real agent legitimately asks for (exclusive permission to represent your book) and what a scammer asks for (the same thing, with no intention of really doing it). The difference is in what they do when they have that exclusive. A legit agent uses it to represent your book to publishers (yay). A scammer uses it to keep anyone, including you, from doing anything with your book until you pay some kind of “overhead” or “handling” or other charge. In other words, he uses the exclusive to hostage your manuscript until you pay the ransom. If there is a good way to avoid this after you’ve picked an agent, I don’t know what it is. There is a great way to avoid this on the front end, though. Pick a solid, legit agent who makes all of her money selling her clients’ books to publishers. How to do that is what we will cover in detail for the rest of this week.

IN SUMMARY:   Although there are no legal requirements for becoming a literary agent, two easy steps that will help you avoid being ripped off by a scammer posing as one: (1) You approach them, they don’t approach you; and (2) money always flows from the publisher toward the author, never from the author to anyone else.

Querying Literary Agents (Or: Never listen to someone with a lot of experience doing this)

Here is my general overview of querying, written from the perspective of someone who has only been involved in the process once, and not for very long, at that. The problem with getting advice about querying from writers is this:

ANYONE WHO IS GOOD AT QUERYING WILL LIKELY ONLY DO IT ONCE IN HER LIFE. ANYONE WHO HAS A LOT OF EXPERIENCE QUERYING IS EITHER BAD AT IT OR, AT BEST, WRITES MANUSCRIPTS THAT NOBODY WANTS TO REPRESENT OR PUBLISH.

As a result, we end up with a lot of bad querying advice from writers, some good querying advice from agents (who don’t understand the writers’ side of it) and not much else. Here’s what I’ve been able to glean so far:

Queries, or query letters, are letters that writers send to agents saying “look at me, look at me.”  That’s about it.  Some agency websites request nothing but a one page query.  Some ask for the query and three pages or three chapters or fifty pages or a synopsis, but nothing is getting looked at unless they like your query.

On the one hand, I don’t know jack shit about being a novelist.  And I should be in the same boat about querying, having only done it once, commencing six weeks ago.  That said, I feel like an expert on querying for a couple of reasons.  Specifically:

  • I researched the shit out of how to query.  Signed up onQueryTracker.com; read the archives at the Query Sharkhttp://queryshark.blogspot.com/ looked at about every available resource in existence about what works and what doesn’t in query letters;
  • I wrote, re-wrote, and polished my query to the point that it was the best 205 words I’ve ever seen; and
  • Last but certainly not least, the resulting query worked on four of what I would consider (most people would consider) agents in the top 1% of the literary agents in the country.

To put that into perspective, the odds of getting one of those agents to request a manuscript off a cold query, statistically, were one in 688 — about fifteen tenths of one percent.   My actual results were eighty percent — four out of five.  From a purely statistical perspective, the odds of going 4 for 5 are astronomically low (0.00000000045%).  Odds so low they literally are equivalent to dialing seven random numbers on your telephone and hoping to reach a specific person.  And having her answer on the first ring.

Does this mean I will be a hugely successful novelist?  Um, no.  Being the pragmatist that I am, I’m acutely aware that it only means one thing:

I am really fucking good at writing query letters.  

Now, that skill is not entirely unrelated to becoming a hugely successful novelist.  It is a necessary first step.  But that’s all it is.

So, what is a query letter?

That’s the tricky part, because it can be a lot of things.  One of the letters I sent was pretty smartassy, making inside jokes about stuff the agent had tweeted.  I had a pretty good idea he was a smartass himself from his tweets and blog, so I figured that would appeal to him.  Then I just said: here’s the pitch and went into my blurb.

Most of them followed this format:

Book Title, Genre, Word Count, [statement of why the topic is important], [bridge from the topic to the book]

[Two sentences explaining the two key events, how they create conflict and the protag forming the resolve to be engaged in the conflict]

[One sentence describing the market for the book].  [One sentence introducing myself]

I appreciate your time and consideration.

That’s it.  That is the template for my query letter with something like one in 200 billion results.  And I know why it worked.  It is not accidental.  It worked for several reasons.  For starters, those statistics are misleading:

  • There is a lot of crap out there.  A LOT of crap.  Starting with people who don’t know how to address a business letter, continuing through people who don’t spell check right up through people who don’t have a basic grasp of the conventions of grammar.  Those 688 queries I am competing with just got whittled down to 344.
  • People are lazy.  Even people who are capable of writing a reasonably good e-mail or letter don’t bother to learn the intricacies of query writing — more than one page = death.  Not getting right to the point = death.  Open with a rhetorical question? Only if you want to die.  Agents have screeners who have to wade through thousands of submissions a week to find the one or two they may want to look at.  Give them an excuse and they will can you as fast as possible.  We’re down to 300.
  • People are lazy, part 2: Submission Guidelines.  Each agent or agency has specific materials they request.  Might be the Q letter plus ten pages of the MS.  Might be Q letter plus a synopsis. Maybe Q letter, synopsis and three chapters.  Some agents will give people a second chance, but for most, not satisfying the guidelines = death.  So now we’re down to 250.
  • Now comes the harsh part.  Out of every 250 people who think they can write a book that stands a reasonable chance of commercial success through the traditional agent/publishing house model (which, contrary to what self-publishing pushers want you to think, is really the only reasonable path to commercial, quit your day job success), about 225 are just clearly and obviously wrong.  They haven’t read enough, they haven’t written enough, they don’t have a natural knack with language, they have no unique voice or nothing unique to say or both.  But, simply put, they just don’t have what it takes.
  • Which is why I am 4 for 5 on 5 of the top agents in the US, and a lot of my friends on writers boards are 0 for 100 or 1 MS request for 50 queries to low-level startup agents (who might do more harm than good if they represent them, anyway).

Beyond that, there are two key elements to my query that the overwhelming majority of queriers lack.  First, a really (REALLY) solid hook.  Which is to say my premise.  It has never been done before and, on reading it, I can guarantee you palms are slapping foreheads and people are saying (sometimes out loud) how can it be that nobody thought to do this before.  It is incredibly obvious and completely new and unique at the same time.  That makes for a hell of a hook.

Finally, there is a concrete way to explain the existence of a substantial market for this book in one sentence.  And, yes, market matters.  Agents are in the business of selling books to publishers.  Publishers are in the business of selling books to everyone else.  Even Thomas Paine had a projected P&L when he printed the Common Sense pamphlet that we all learned about in US History Class.  And he made a hell of a lot of money selling the idea of freedom.  That’s not crass, it’s a win/win.

So that’s my theory on querying.  Be clear, concise, professional (unless you have a specific reason to stray from the professional part).  Have a solid hook that makes people mad they didn’t think of it five years ago.  Have a solid market and be ready to explain how you fit into that market.  And then spend a week polishing the crap out of it until you are ready to mud wrestle grammar girl if she says you did something wrong.

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