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 tag “how to find a literary agent”

Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 2: How You Send It.

A couple of worthwhile SNAIL MAIL NOTES here:

1)    I’m assuming you now have a properly formatted, awesomely written query letter (if not, check the archives, because this stuff doesn’t matter yet).

2)    If you are sending it via snail-mail, you need to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). An important thing to remember, here, is that the second “S” in SASE is stamped. If you want to hear back, it’s on your dime (well, couple of quarters). If you want to score a couple of bonus points with the assistant, make it one of those envelopes you don’t have to lick. Do it out of human decency, if nothing else. Can you imaging licking 50 things complete strangers sent you in the mail every day?

3)    Because your SASE is going to be the same size as a business envelope (exactly the same size, since it is one) you don’t want to try to cram it with your letter and your pages or whatever into a business-size envelope. Send this shit by UPS Ground or Fed Ex or (the standard approach) US Postal Service Priority Mail. It’s a big cardboardish envelope that lets you send everything without folding. Your pages and letter and even your envelope show up looking all crisp and neat. On top of that, they are super easy to open and get the pages out of. Believe it or not, that makes a difference if you’re an assistant who has to open 50 or 100 envelopes a day. Not coincidentally, that’s the same assistant who, as often as not, will be the first level of screening for the agent. So why the hell wouldn’t you want to be as nice to her as you can? A nice, easy to open envelope with crisp clean pages and nothing that yells, “lick this, bitch” when she sees it – can’t hurt.

4)    Any Pages or synopsis will need to follow the standard formatting requirements (the subject of the next post). This is a key difference between e-mail and snail-mail submissions. Your first 50 pages will be the first 50 pages of a completed and formatted manuscript (including, but not counting, your cover page).

5)    If you want your pages back, you need to include the extra postage (and a proper envelope) for that. Otherwise, just give them a normal envelope with enough postage to cover a standard first-class letter telling you your pages are awesome and they are writing to confirm the telephone call you just had, in which you agreed to send your entire manuscript ASAP. Or a rejection, but let’s think positive thoughts.

6)    If the agent asks for your first 50 pages and a 3-page synopsis, you include your query on top, the first 50 pages and a 3-page synopsis. If, on the other hand, the agent requests a 3-page synopsis and your first 50 pages, you include your query on top, a 3-page synopsis, and the first 50 pages. See the difference? It’s subtle. For an assistant ripping through 65 queries in a day, just making sure people sent the right shit is a big part of the job. Making that job easier (a) is the decent thing to do; and (b) helps make a good impression.

7) THANK YOU BOWDEN for pointing out my failure to include this: Do not send things to agents that they have to sign for. No certified mail. You’re not just going to get a return receipt back, you’ll get the whole thing back, because they won’t sign for it. With tracking, you can know exactly what’s up with your package via the interwebs, anyway, so DO NOT DO THAT. It’s the snail-mail equivalent of sending an e-mail with an attachment. Either way, it’s not getting opened.

On the E-MAIL END OF THINGS:

1)    Queries are our introductions to agents. Among other things, that means that agents don’t know who the hell we are when we send them. We know we aren’t trying to infect the agent’s computer with a virus to get hold of her banking information, but she doesn’t know that. Agents will not open attachments. It’s not their fault, can you imagine randomly opening attachments on every piece of spam your computer received? It’s the computer equivalent of licking 50 things that came in the mail from strangers. Eventually, they will open attachments to e-mails. That’s when you sent your stuff, the agent liked your stuff, and the agent sent you an e-mail asking for more stuff (usually asking you to send said stuff to a different e-mail address). If you send an e-mail with an attachment, it will be deleted before anyone even opens the e-mail. It will usually be deleted without a human being involved in the process. There is no faster way to get a non-response/rejection than to send an e-mail with an attachment.

2)    That means you need to cut and paste the requested materials into the body of your e-mail. Following your query letter (including your contact information, which should be at the bottom of the query, not at the bottom of the whole submission. It also means things like headers, page numbers, and all the manuscript formatting shit I’m talking about next post will be thrown out the window (except for line spacing).

3)    Raise your hand and repeat after me: The less formatting, the better. Your words are what matter. The goal here is to stop anything from getting in their way. The industry standard is Times New Roman 12 point font. Nobody is going to reject your query because you use Cambria, and nobody is going to bother reading your query if you use Windings. If you think your stupid font is Attention getting, you’re right. It just brought attention to the fact that you look like an idiot. It also took the attention away from your words, probably permanently.

4)    E-mail can be weird. The receiving e-mail and sending e-mail don’t always get along great, and once in a while, what was sent as something that had been bolded is received as something in a tiny font or whatever. In a paranoid, belt and suspenders kind of way, to make sure I don’t have any stupid codes lurking in the middle of a document from an old version when I cut and paste into the e-mail, I cut and paste into a Notepad file. Those are bare-bones, text only files that don’t include formatting. Usually, not what you’re looking for. But in this case, they work as a great scrubber to get rid of any hidden formatting you may have forgotten about. StripMail is a great program for this as well.

5)    The same rule applies here with respect to what order you put things in. Agents decided that this would come before that on the checklist for a reason. Maybe some would rather read a few paragraphs or pages before looking at the synopsis. Others may be more interested in knowing the big-picture before worrying about your sentence structure. Either way, it’s her call. Put things in the order they were requested. If nothing else, you are easier to get right on a checklist.

6)    Because of the runon nature of e-mail (all being one big page) I like to separate things like this:

Dear Agent:

Here is my awesome query letter.

I enclosed all the shit you asked for.

My name.

Contact information.

VELVET FALLS, CHAPTERS 1-3

1.

My first awesome chapter (and then her two friends).

***End Chapter 3***

VELVET FALLS, SYNOPSIS

Here is where I synopsize my book.

***End of Synopsis***

7)    Single space your query, double space your pages, and double space your synopsis if it is over one page long. If the synopsis is one page, single space (with block paragraphs) the synopsis.

Next, we’ll get into the structure and format of your submitted materials (manuscript, outline, synopsis, and firstborn child).

Of David Lee Roth, Brown M&Ms, and Querying

I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing about how to construct an effective query. If you’ve been reading along, you probably noticed that the overriding theme in those posts, usually bolded, has been: As soon as an agent reads your first sentence, your query has done its job. Aside from containing your contact information, it has served its purpose.

“I’ll see your used-up query and raise you an irrelevant one.” I have heard (though, to be honest, I’m not sure I entirely believe) that some agents don’t even read queries. They request your first five or 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever and skip right to those. My guess is, some agents may read a paragraph or two to see if you are reasonably competent at writing. If you are, I’d be willing to bet they take a quick glance through your query to see if they are likely to be interested in what you wrote. Ignoring the query altogether would seem both incredibly inefficient (most queries get rejected in ten to thirty seconds) and prone to serious errors (Harry Potter was not playing quidditch on the first five pages, and it takes a couple of pages for a good zombie virus to spread).

What I will agree with, though, is that whether the query is read or not, it’s merely foreplay. Given the choice between sending a magnificent chapter with a mediocre query or vice verse, I’ll take the great chapter any day. Plus, all of your queries are (or are becoming) awesome, anyway, so it’s time to dim the lights, put on some romantic music (or Smack That by Eminem, if that’s how you roll) and show what we’ve got.

But, before we get to how to show them, we need to talk about what we show them.

This one is easy: You include whatever the hell they asked you to include. Meaning you go to the agent’s website and look at the submission guidelines and follow them. Odds are, if you’re following a blog on this stuff, or even got here by Googling it, you didn’t even need to be told that. Let’s just call this post a victory lap, because I’ve seen agents claim that half of all submissions are easily rejected because they didn’t follow the submission guidelines.

If you haven’t been through this stage yet, I’ll give you a preview based on my own, limited query experience. This is unscientific (to the point I’m sure it’s inaccurate as hell if you aren’t querying agents who rep upmarket contemporary) but it demonstrates the variance within this group. The various submission guidelines from my first 10 queries requested that I submit:

  • Synopsis and first three chapters.
  • First five pages
  • First chapter
  • Two chapters
  • Synopsis and first 50 pages
  • First chapter and synopsis
  • Query letter only

In other words, who the hell knows what they’re going to want. Ten queries – three wanted a query letter only, two wanted the first two chapters, and each of the remainder was unique. That’s why we read submission guidelines. That, and because of the brown M&Ms.

Which begs the question: What the hell does any of this have to do with brown M&Ms?

Remember the turbo 80’s hair band Van Halen? I do, because they actually played the dink little town I grew up in. They had a brilliant marketing strategy, based on playing shit little towns and underappreciated (which is to say, crappy) venues. They were also the poster-children for SEX, DRUGS, & ROCK & ROLL, BABY! Witnesseth:

image

Van Halen: The bad boys of rock and hairspray.

Legendary hard-core partiers, so spoiled, or addled by drugs and booze, that they actually demanded that their dressing room have a big bowl full of M&Ms waiting for them. Here’s the catch, their contract actually specified that there could not be a single brown M&M in the bowl.

Spoiled rock star prima donnas? Try freaking geniuses.

Their sets were huge – more than a dozen eighteen wheelers worth – and the technical requirements for their equipment were taxing and precise. Plus, we’re talking about electrical wiring, not something you goof around with. Every word was spelled out in the contract, but they still needed to know whether the event promoter and person running the venue were paying attention to every detail of the contract. If a brown M&M showed up in that bowl, they knew their tech guys would have to run a line-check of the entire production. A line check that would inevitably show inadequate amperage, sockets in the wrong place, not enough breakers, or some other technical error.

So that’s what our submissions have in common with M&Ms. An agent can tell a lot from the fact that you sent three chapters plus a synopsis with your query letter. If she asked for those things, she knows that you paid attention to the request, which means this is not a generic query going out to 100 agents simultaneously. She also knows you are reasonably competent as a potential business partner, or at least capable of following simple directions. Also, you can’t be too lazy, because you found out what she wanted and gave it to her. [On a side note, I think I just came full circle on that sex analogy from above].

In other words, no brown M&Ms.

On the other side of the coin, if you sent her the same thing, but she only asked for your first five pages, she knows: (a) this is a generic query you are sending to every agent with a pulse; or (b) you are not smart enough to follow simple directions; or (c) you are lazy. I doubt if she cares which of those things it is or if it’s all of the above.

Brown M&Ms – and you just took two giant steps away from being someone who would be awesome to do business with.

Well, not “you” literally because you are the kind of person who reads blogs about how not to screw this shit up. So what I have to offer you (other than a bunch of sexual innuendo and an awesome story about an 80s hair band – I mean, seriously, who else is working that shit into a blog post on querying) are two key thoughts:

1.     See the brown M&M requests for what they are. This isn’t something that should be frustrating during the query process. In fact, it should make you smile. Half the people competing for the agent’s attention are going to go home without hearing Hot for Teacher and have no clue why. It’s a secret handshake, be glad you know it.
2.     Be prepared to pick all the brown M&Ms out of another bag. Those three “query letter only” agents I queried responded with a partial request, a partial and synopsis request, and a full request. In other words, they wanted a fresh bowl of M&Ms. Even if nobody you are querying asks for a synopsis up front, you should still have one. It goes without saying, you should have a completed (and awesome) manuscript ready to go before sending out your first query. And those things should be formatted correctly.  [Spoiler alert, my next post will have the word “format” in it].

One last bit of context. If agents risked electrocution when we did things outside of spec in our submissions, they would be as picky about them as David Lee Roth was about his M&Ms. But they don’t, so they aren’t. If a chapter ends on the 51st page, go to the chapter cutoff. If a sentence or paragraph gets cut on page 5 and the agent asked for your first five, run four words over that to finish the thought. Being paranoid, I just note that I included the first half of the next page to reach a scene cutoff in my query, which also underscores the fact that I know precisely what they are looking for. In other words, “I intentionally left one brown M&M in the dish, despite Article 245 of the Contract, because I had a reason.”

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.

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.”

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