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 “querying”

Using Genre to Land an Agent (Or: Direct Marketing Your Unique Novel)

Genres are, first and foremost, screening devices. Everyone from a prospective reader in a bookstore or browsing online to an agent (or screener) slogging through the slush uses genre for one purpose – to quickly weed out the overwhelming majority of books they don’t want to bother with.

Even if you have a difficult time embracing that as a writer, on the business side of this writing thing, it’s crucial to acknowledge it. Screening devices are where the initial sorting (which usually means “sorting out,” complete with a form rejection) occurs, and genre is a key screening device.

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It’s when, not if, you need to worry about genre

Some authors write very good books and make quite a nice living writing to genre. Others write what they feel compelled to write, without regard to genre. But one way or the other, genre matters.

For someone writing to genre, it’s smart to know that heading in. Genre romances have happy endings, genre westerns are set west of the Mississippi and before 1900, and so forth. A very nice book may be set in the west, and occur a long time ago, but if it gets screened “in” by someone looking for a genre western, it’s going to get screened right “out” again as soon as it becomes clear it is not that.

For the rest of us, though, genre is something that either vaguely sat in our minds as we wrote or (in my case) is a gnarly, weird issue that presents itself after we’re done. Either way, though, genre matters. It matters a lot, and the words we use to describe genre directly impact response rate and agent interest. Unless you are intentionally writing to genre, the issue here is about marketing your novel, not writing it. In our case, that means marketing to agents. But agents need to market to publishers, and publishers want to buy things they can sell to readers. So, when querying, your genre description answers two important questions from a prospective agent:

  1. Is this the kind of book I know how to represent?
  2. Can I sell the fucker?

The point behind genre designations in queries is to truthfully let the agent know the answers to both of those questions is “hell yes.”

Categories that are not genre (YA, MG, NA, etc.)

My next post will go into this issue in detail, trying to line out as cleanly as possible where the line is between MG and upper MG, where upper MG turns into YA, and so forth. For now, it is just important to understand that agents are increasingly identifying what they are looking for according to these categories. Sometimes, and, again, increasingly, more so than by traditional genre. These designations matter, and have a lot to do with the two questions I stated above.

Why putting yourself in the right genre matters

Correctly identifying the genre you are pitching is important, beyond just the sorting function. For one thing, it demonstrates a certain amount of knowledge on your part, which brings with it some professional credibility. Or, conversely, if you don’t even know what 99% of the publishing industry would classify your book as, you are essentially adding a post script to your query that says “I don’t really know what the hell I’m doing here, so being my agent will be a lot of work.

Also, that designation lets a good agent know at a glance whether she has the relationships she needs to sell your book. If she sold four MG fantasy chapter books last year, three of them to the same acquisitions editor, who she knows is looking for more, your MG fantasy manuscript will pique her interest because of it. Conversely, if she’s struck out with the last fourteen MG fantasies she’s tried to rep, it will do the opposite. And that is not entirely a bad thing. If what you wrote is a MG fantasy, there may be an agent six floors down in the same building with those relationships, the form reject from six floors up may just be saving both you and the wrong agent a lot of wasted time and frustration. The end goal is to have thousands of people paying cash to read your book, not to land an agent. Accurately classifying your book is a step toward landing the right agent for that book.

How do you designate genre?

This can be tricky (or not, depending on your situation). If you wrote that MG fantasy, it’s fairly easy. If you’re like me, writing something that straddles about five genres, without being any one of them much more than any of the others, it’s a totally fucked up vin diagram without much else in the middle. takes a little more effort. In either event, I think it helps to go through a backward looking process —

  • Start with your end-game. Don’t think about what you wrote, think about who will pay hard cash for your book. Ultimately, every decision from the initial slush pile screener to Barnes & Noble’s purchasing agent will be based on one question: who is going to whip out a debit card for this book.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your prototypical reader. View your manuscript from the point of view of the person who decides to start a fan fic page based on your novel. What motivates her to love it? Find the key elements that would stick out to that person, and you’ve found the thing you should focus on when defining genre.
  • Dig deeper. The more you can imagine a third-party’s review, the things that stuck out to that reader, the better you will understand your genre What are the key elements of your story she would focus on? Is it the setting? Characters? Story arc? If your steampunk novel has more leather corsets than steam, or most of the steam in the novel is a product of said corsets, suddenly the steampunk element is more a setting for a steamy romance than an accurate genre designation.
  • Look at comps. There are comps for marketing purposes – current or recent titles that have sold well that demonstrate a likelihood your book will sell well. Those are fine for a query, but they are not what I’m talking about here. The question here is: what are your real comps, the other books, whatever they are, that are truly most like yours? Those are your guide to genre. I have had four agents (out of sixteen total queries sent) and two of my three ABC Partnerstm  tell me my writing reminds them of the same author. He is dead, and his last book was published fourteen years ago, so that’s useless information for a query. When it comes to defining my own genre, however, it is a guiding principle.
  • Look at your specific audience. Not the book-buying audience of the future, the specific agent you are querying. If your research shows you an agent who you think is a good fit (and if you pick agents the way I suggest on this blog, you will know), allow that to inform your genre statement in any particular query. It’s important that your query be accurate and honest, but if your book is 50% sci fi and 50% romance, there is nothing wrong with telling the romance agent it’s a romance novel with sci fi elements and telling the sci fi agent it’s sci fi with romance elements. Each agent will judge from your pages whether the book is a good fit, and either or both will be prerequisites to selling to an acquisitions editor, so there is nothing wrong with focusing on that agent’s interest. As long as the core of the book is, truly, what you’re representing it to be.
  • Know genre rules. As mentioned above, particularly in things deemed “genre fiction,” the use of a genre designation creates some (often surprisingly specific) expectations. Regency romances take place in a certain setting during a single historical decade, for example. Know exactly what is expected of a book in the genre you say you fit. Even if your noel strays from the specifics for the closest genre fit, you gain, instead of lose, credibility by knowing and acknowledging the difference in your query.  
  • Think about the future. If what you want in your heart is to be a romance novelist, embrace that. Your romance/mystery should not be touted as a mystery, if the next three books you plan to write keep the romance, but cross into different subgenres.

More than anything, I think It’s important to realize that genre designations begin and end as marketing tools. That is not as anti-literary or mercenary as it sounds. That is simply the reason they exist. Nobody walks into a bookstore or library planning to start with the first book on the top shelf to the left, reading blurbs until she finds something she likes. Genres point readers (and agents) toward groupings of books they are more interested in than others. There’s an appropriate grouping for any book, from small engine repair to a collection of love poems. The point behind genre designations in querying is to let the agent (who you have already researched and know will be a good fit) know that you have written what she wants to read and rep.

Next up, sorting through the age-based designations.

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Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 1: Query Letter Format.

I’m a little bit tardy posting this. I have the best excuse a writer can have — I was writing my ass off. I gutted (by which I mean deleted to start from scratch) a third of my manuscript. It took a over a month, but there is a new, much better third now in there. The past week has been a writing frenzy, and it’s been awesome. But that’s a story for another post (and one that will come quite shortly, possibly even today).

But, as promised, this series is about formatting your query (and the shit that goes with your query). To the extent I can put anything on paper without being a little bit of a smartass, I will. This needs to be a reference post that you can refer to conveniently. In fact, to make this as convenient as possible, I boiled the entire post into a simple chart:

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OK, the don’t be a smartass thing might not be working out as well as I’d hoped. But there’s a reason to joke around here. This shit is simple. So lets get to it.

A Quick Overview of the Types of Materials Requested.

  • Your query letter (obviously)
  • Pages (usually, and everyone asks for a different number of pages or chapters, so pay attention)
  • Synopsis (sometimes)
  • Outline (different from a synopsis and less often requested, more on this later)

That’s it. Until, that is, an agent requests your partial of full manuscript. Also, sometimes one of the items identified above, which was not requested in the agent’s submission guidelines, is also requested. For example, an outline is requested along with your manuscript. Plus, you need to send another letter (cover letter) with your requested materials. That one’s easy, though, once you know the basic query/business letter format.

The overwhelming majority of agents take submissions by e-mail, which is more convenient and easier for everybody. Some agents still require snail mail submissions, though, and an e-mail sub will be deleted — probably without ever being seen by a human. Because of that, I’ll run down the formatting requirements for each. Today, we’re starting with the delivery system for all of it.

Snail Mail Query Letter Format

A query letter should follow standard business letter formatting. That is because it’s a freaking business letter. If you don’t know what that means, Google it, because someone has probably dedicated an entire blog to the ins and outs of business letter formatting. It’s not rocket surgery, though.

Before going straight to the formatting thing, I want to reiterate one point: It’s a freaking business letter. Remember that. You are trying to establish a business relationship, not a friendship. You are not looking for someone to share your love for a book like it’s your child. You are looking for someone to place your book like it’s the most expensive prostitute on the planet. If there’s love involved, it’s mercenary love. Be professional.

In terms of format, it’s easiest to start with a snail mail letter, because it’s, well, a letter. It should look something like this:

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If you can’t read all the shit in the middle, don’t worry. It’s what every other post I’ve done about querying covers.

Just make sure to put (normally right justified) your name (your real, big-girl name, not a nickname or something stupid) address, phone number, and e-mail address (again, if you need to set up a gmail not to have a stupid e-mail, do, but don’t be SparklyUnicorn6@mylittlepony.org or freak_on_a_leash@whipme.net or anything). Then a blank line. Next, the Agent’s name, then agency name, street address, city state, zip. Hard return, centered date, Hard return, RE: TITLE OF YOUR BOOK (in all caps), and the salutation.

The salutation is “Mr. ________” or “Ms. __________,” and I’m serious about getting this right. I cannot count the number of times agents have said they’re tired of people calling them by the wrong gender. And I’m not talking about people named Pat here, either. If the agent’s name is Janet, it’s probably a woman. More to the point, if you honestly don’t know whether the person your querying is a man or a woman, you probably aren’t paying much attention to who you’re querying, period. Pay attention, know who you’re querying, and get it right.

As an aside, I queried an agent whose assistant responded on his behalf with a request for a manuscript. The assistant had a name that is usually a men’s name, but can also sometimes be a woman’s name. I scoured the interwebz for a picture of this person or something, and came up empty. My guess is s/he is in the witness protection program. Anyhow, in that situation, I defaulted to sending my requested materials to Dear [First Name] [Last Name].

Next, spell the name correctly. I’ll be honest here, there are agents out there with some pretty fucked up names. When in doubt, cut and paste from her website into your letter. Seriously.

Then comes the body of the text, i.e., the part every other post about querying has discussed in nauseating detail.

if you want, you can include a closing  salutation (“sincerely,”) above your name. No matter what, you need a line where you sign and your printed name. Then you sign on the line. Easy.

E-mail Query Letter Format

This is even easier:

1) Wait to type the agent’s name into the To: box until you have done everything else. It will keep you from accidentally sending it, which CAN HAPPEN. I just started a list of things to do by telling you not to do something. That’s because it’s really important that you DON’T DO THAT.

2) The subject line in the e-mail should be identical to the subject line in the snail mail version. RE: QUERY [TITLE]. The only time to putanything different in your subject line is if you do those contests and festivals and whatever on twitter or a blog. Sometimes you will receive specific instructions relating to that contest. Generally, those instructions relate to adding one or two words to the standard subject line.

You can skip your information (for now) and the agent’s address, etc., and get right to

Ms. Agent:

Here is the body of my query.

You don’t need the formal formatting and address because the date and stuff is built into e-mail.

3) BUT, (he says, with a bold, italicized, all-caps conjunction, because it’s that freaking important) You do need to include your full name, phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of the query (not the bottom of the whole package you send).

So, after 200-300 words of pure brilliance, the query letter portion of your submission should end with:

  • Your Name, which is not a douchey nickname
  • Your Phone Number (including area code and country code if you’re in Queriers Without Borders).
  • Your e-mail address (that involves your name and an ISP or reasonably good e-mail service and doesn’t make you look like an idiot).

For the query letter part, that’s it!

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:

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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.”

Scary Agent Vetting Test (in real time)

Someone who has been around the block a time or two recently told me about an agent who sent him the dreaded:

“Your submission is intriguing, but your manuscript needs professional editing. I could refer you to a colleague of mine…” 

The incident occurred without any red flags (to him, anyway), which was discouraging, because this garbage (a) scares the crap out of me; and (b) pisses me off. But I thought it would allow for an interesting opportunity to test out the vetting process I’ve outlined before.

The catch? I’m going to do it as I write this post. Good or bad, I’m just going to go through the vetting process with this agent and agency’s name and post what I find. So, here goes:

Step 1: Google is your friend

Google result for [Agent Name] at [Agency Name]:

  • First result is AbsoluteWrite, which I’ll be going to in Step 2 anyway, so I’m disregarding for now.
  • Second result is his listing in the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. Not bad. It’s no indicia of quality, but there is a listing (which is better than no listing) showing two agents at the agency. Using the “look inside” feature, I discover:
    • Warning flag 1, they accept queries through e-mail (normal), but their e-mail address is a Gmail account (normal if your business is run out of a school bus).
    • Warning flag 2, they list 10 clients, 5 are new/unpublished. It says they’ve been around since 2009, with 2 agents, so (assuming this is true) they’re making around one sale per year between two agents.
    • Warning flag 3, which is related to the Gmail account for queries – they don’t appear to have a web page.
  • And that’s basically it. Which is not a good sign.

Google result for [Agency Name]:

  • OK, this is a weird one. I get a web page saying:

 In 1999 I inherited the literary agency you were referred from, [then it lists another agency I’ve never heard of] and while I no longer work in that business, I do still refer the occasional book to some of my friends at major publishing houses. I have helped secure a few major book deals over the years through my referrals, so it can’t hurt to get your book information to me. I do not charge any fees unless I am able to sell your book.

  •  We’ve had some warning flags prior to this, but this is our first full-on WTF moment
  • This web page listed under (and the letter is ostensibly from) the guy whose name is on the agency name (it’s his last name), but none of this information is the same as the agency information in the guide Google found us. Nor does he mention any other agents – like, for example, the two freaking agents operating out of the agency that bears his name.
  • Then it gets weirder, with his detailed instructions about how to contact him through his LinkedIn account, and he just asks you to “submit your book.”
  • This isn’t the dude I’m looking for, but I’m still trying to figure out this agency that closed, agency soliciting submissions, dude who wants books sent to his LinkedIn account thing, so I click on “Books,” on his web page. It will be interesting to see what books he’s repped, if nothing else.
    • OMFG. I am literally laughing as I type this. The dude has a pile of books by him on this page, ranging from a cookbook to spiritual self-help stuff to a freaking rhyming dictionary he wrote.
    • So, I just clicked on one and tried to look up the publisher. Never heard of it, so I tried AW and Google and still can’t find anything but the publisher’s web page, which is literally a static web page with the name on it. No tabs, no books for sale, no address or phone number, no links – nothing. Just “Publisher Name.”
    • I clicked his cookbook (because I’m hungry), but it isn’t finished yet. It literally just says that (and lists some tasty smoothie recipes).
    • OK, so here’ a Chicken Soup for the Soul book (the Magic of Mothers and Daughters). Don’t those CSS books have the same publisher? He can’t rep all of them, can he? So I click that, and nope. Doesn’t look like he did it. I just Googled around a little and he seems (or at least claims) to have an essay in one of the CSS books.
    • If you tell me you’ve repped bestsellers in major deals, you’d better have some books to back it up. I don’t really care if you have a heartwarming story about your Nana.
  • I seriously sidetracked myself, since I still don’t know what the relationship between this dude and the agency in question even is, but I got a smoothie and two sandwich recipes to show for it. Because you need a fucking recipe to make a sandwich.

Back on the hunt

Google result for [Agent Name Literary Agent]:

  • I get the same guide to literary agents, and a Writers’ Market for novels and short stories (produced by the same company) that list him. So basically the same listing.
  • OK, I’m feeling pretty good about our process, now. There’s a listing on the Writer Beware blog. OK, it’s just in the comments, so I’m not holding that too, too much against him at this point. No specific allegation of wrongdoing (may not even be the same dude).
  • But that’s all I’m getting (outside the sites we’ll specifically go to below, the hits all seem to be a literary agency with an author who has his last name or another combination that isn’t referring me to the right guy – except white pages listings and stuff like that.
  • We already know this isn’t looking very good from a quality standpoint, even if there isn’t an ethical issue. If your agent’s name doesn’t show up in some kind of agenting related context when you Google it, you’re probably not looking a superstar agent (or minor a league player with potential, for that matter).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

1.     Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but says “No valid sales to commercial publishers yet.” At this point, I’m done. Ignoring all the shenanigans and smoothie recipes and everything else, I’m not looking to be the first book some dude (not from New York, not in New York, and, as far as I can tell, not coming out of an agency or publishing house to start this agency up) sells. Editing conflict/scam/garbage aside, I’m not chasing this bait just based on quality of potential representation.
2.     AbsoluteWrite should be interesting. I just clicked on his entry and the only thing I’ve read so far is someone saying s/he received a request for a partial and wonders if anyone knows about the agency (the post is from March 2011).Before I go any further, are you serious here? You got that request for a partial because you sent a query. Why, in God’s name, would you be sending out queries to agents with no idea whether they are legit, and then start asking about them on message boards when you’ve received a partial request? In this querier’s defense, from later posts it appears he did look at the writing on the wall and run. I just don’t see why you’d wait to do due diligence until after you queried.
Interesting development – they have a web page. There was a link in AW.
                           i.      OMFG – they offer both literary services and in-home elder care. I shit you not.
                           ii.      Oh, wait, not really. The web page is the domain name seller, who has mocked it up to look like you are at a site at that address. Not much better, but less funny. (Sorry about that, but I promised to do this as I went through the process, not that it would be pretty).
So they had a web page once, but have taken it down, because people in the AW community are talking about their bios (which don’t include any prior experience in editing or publishing).
Oh, boy, here we go. An AW member was kind enough to include the text of a letter:

You possess good writing skills and sense of story. However, as you might know, placing fiction in today’s brutal market is extremely difficult. About the only way an unknown writer can get his or her manuscript picked up today is for the writing to be exceptional. I suggest you consider obtaining the services of an editor who can help raise your writing skills to the next level. Don’t be disappointed about my suggestion. All serious writers use editors. If you do not have any editing contacts, I will be glad to give you the name of a talented lady I’ve know for a number of years.

 

Just for the record, it’s officially –DING, DING, DING. The smoke that was too thick to see through has cleared enough to see the raging fire. Even if it weren’t for the prior misgivings, I’m running like hell now.

 
And another one, just for good measure. Same language, same offer to hook up with professional editing help. Still no sales.
 
3.     QueryTracker The dude doesn’t show up on the agent listing. Patrick at QT does quality control, and won’t list an agent with editing fees. I feel fairly confident calling this whole shady as fuck at best and possibly an outright scam at worst. Yes, I’m talking to you Jack Bollinger at the McGill Literary Agency, with no legitimate reported sales but plenty of referrals to for profit editing services.

 

At this point, we’re at least sufficiently up to speed to close the book on this agency. Sorry about the dead-ends and tangents, but they provided some good laughs. Bottom line, though, is we were able to know what the problems were going to be before we had any problems, so that part worked out well.

Happy querying.

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.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Period.

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

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

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

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

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

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

As one person tweeted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

#agentfail 

 

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