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 “query letters”

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.”

How Important Is a Good Query, Anyway?

Whenever my mom was upset, she cleaned the house. If I heard the vacuum when I walked up to the front door after school, I’d often head over to my friend Jamie’s house and call home to say they invited me to dinner and ask if I could stay. My mom was (is) a wonderful woman, and it’s not like I feared for my wellbeing or anything, but that sound told me she’d be grumpier than hell. It made no sense to me at the time.

Then I grew up.

The company I worked for shut down a few years ago. In the midst of job-hunting, it became inexplicably important for me to clean out my garage – as in empty all contents, scrub every shelf top-to-bottom clean the crap out of it, clean out my garage. It felt good. When I was done, I felt good. Sending resumes into the ether may be a necessary part of job-hunting, but at the end of a typical day you either have nothing to look at or you’re looking at rejection. That day, I was able to look at a garage you could perform surgery in. I had accomplished something tangible. I had control over something – maybe not my job search, but something.

Then my mom made sense.

For writers, I think honing query letters is a combination of sending out resumes and cleaning out the garage. There’s a lot we don’t have much control over. The process is daunting. It’s also intimidating. But the query – that’s something we have some control over. So we obsess on it, honing it into 247 words of absolute perfection, knowing that it is the ticket to publication. Except, it’s not.

A great manuscript is the ticket to publication. Good query letters are helpful, in that they increase the odds that an agent will look at our manuscripts. Great query letters aren’t a whole lot better than good ones, and a perfect query letter is no better than a great one. But, as I’ve said before, once an agent reads the first sentence of your manuscript, the query letter has done its job. There might be a slight hangover from a great (or bad) query, with the agent expecting, and therefore being predisposed to think, that your manuscript will be good (or bad) because of your query, but even that’s going to be gone after a couple of pages.

Former literary agent Nathan Brandsford (whose blog you should take a look at to learn all sorts of things about querying and such), held contest called “Be an Agent for a Day” a few years ago. He mixed real queries from bestselling novels in with queries people had submitted to his blog to see how many readers could pick out the “winners.” The results were interesting (which is why I linked to them), but the layer right under the results was fascinating. Here is one of the queries:

Dear Agent for a Day:

I have been seriously writing for nearly two years and am a finalist in fourteen RWA contests with twelve different books, including second place in the Daphne du Maurier Single Title category. THE COPYCAT KILLER ranked second in the Golden Opportunity contest. I’m a member of the Sacramento Valley, Kiss of Death and FF&P Chapters of RWA, and earned my PRO pin.

Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in THE COPYCAT KILLER.

Ex-FBI agent turned fiction crime writer Rowan Smith wakes up one morning to discover someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.

Her former FBI boss fears one of her past arrests is out to terrorize her and insists she hire a bodyguard, or he’ll assign two FBI agents to watch her. Rowan, who relishes her privacy and solitary life, doesn’t want a bodyguard, but reluctantly hires ex-cop Michael Flynn.

The killer systematically goes through each book and chooses a victim, sending mementoes of the crime to Rowan. Michael’s brother, freelance DEA agent John Flynn, accuses Rowan of hiding something and calls in favors to learn enough to confront her. She confesses that her father and brother killed her family. Her father is in a mental institution and her brother was killed trying to escape. They fall into bed needing a physical connection. The murderer kills Michael that night.

John and Rowan deal with their guilt over Michael’s murder as they work with the FBI to find the murderer. They discover that Rowan’s boss lied to her about her brother’s death–he’s in a Texas penitentiary. But when they go there to confront him, they discover that someone took his place.

THE COPYCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements, in the vein of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag.

In addition to THE COPYCAT KILLER, I have two additional single-title romantic suspense novels, a futuristic suspense currently under consideration at Dorchester, and a women’s fiction novel with a ghost as a main character.

A full is available upon request. Thank you for taking the time to consider my story.

Sincerely,
Author

Two key points here. First, this is the query for the novel THE PREY by Allison Brennan. Second, from a technical standpoint, it pretty much sucks. I have no problems talking about how much her query (from a technical querying standpoint) sucks, because I doubt she cares. Which is more or less my point.

The first paragraph has nothing to do with the book, and basically tells us that she has cranked out a mountain of unpublished romance novels and is proud that she belongs to a club. Then she hits us with a rhetorical question, and follows that by telling us that she just asked us a timeless question.

After boring the crap out of us with a bio and committing the cardinal sin of querying (starting with a rhetorical question) she finally gets to her hook. That’s where the query suddenly stops sucking. It’s a pretty good idea for a book. She obviously had to cut and cram to get the basic arc into the number of words she had (although she cheeted, it’s about 100 words longer than a query is supposed to be).

While plenty of agents rejected her query, few, if any, rejected it solely because it sucked. Because, let’s face it, the blurb part doesn’t. It combines two different things that sell books (FBI serial killer hunts and romance novels), covers enough plot twists and straight-up romance to easily pack 100,000 words with interesting stuff, and is written pretty well. Plus there’s sex. Yay, sex.

Being honest, I’m almost certain I would have rejected it if I’d been playing Nathan’s game. Partially because the query was so crappy and largely because, if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be that excited about this particular idea (I can recognize its marketability, but the person selling it has to be interested in the romance writer, romance, and sex angles, which I am not). The phrase “not the right fit for my list” is not (always) a polite way of saying you suck. Some books are, legitimately, not the right fit for that agent.

Even then, I’d be tempted to peek at the pages she included. There’s a reason this query led to a 20+ novel (so far) career. It’s a pretty good idea for a story.

So that’s what puts the “perfect query” dream into perspective. Nathan’s take on it is spot-on:

But more importantly, I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn’t a contest to spot the best queries.

When an agent is reading a query we’re trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We’re evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don’t reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn’t quite right or they break one of the query “rules”. I can’t afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.

A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.

Now, a strong query helps your odds and your request rate, which is why we blogging agents spend so much time talking about the “rules”. It really does help your odds to write a good one. When people are writing good queries it helps us spot the good projects. But remember: the most important thing is not writing a good query, but rather writing a good book. A strong concept is so important.

A good query will get you only so far. Specifically, it will get the first sentence of your manuscript read by an agent. That’s it. Then it’s done.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying you shouldn’t send out a perfect query. There’s no reason not to, and it certainly can’t hurt. The key thing to remember in all of this, though, is that a query is there to demonstrate how interesting your manuscript is, not how good you are at querying.

Are there agents who will stop reading if the first sentence is a rhetorical question? Sure. About half of the agents Allison Brennan queried took a pass, maybe even one or two for that reason. But about half of them didn’t pass – and that’s despite the fact that (aside from her blurb) her query was truly awful. And the fact is, with that story, she could have probably been in the 75% or better request range with a better query.

But the moral of the story is: Her premise was solid, her book was marketable, and she lived happily ever after.

For the rest of us – getting from half to three quarters or higher can be critical. More critical if having a really solid query gets us from 25% to 50% and throws a few extra agents into the mix who might be willing to spend some time working with your not-quite, but potentially, publishable manuscript.

It certainly can’t hurt.

And it beats the hell out of cleaning the garage on New Year’s Eve.

Happy New Year!

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.

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.”

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