Things You Didn’t Do

Writers who are ready to query can be overzealous sometimes. In their excitement and in their quest to have the “perfect” query, sometimes it’s the simplest things that make an agent scratch his or her head. While these things are rarely make-or-break for the query itself, you might want to re-think saying you did the following:

1) Enclose a SASE with your e-query. I’m sure you read all over the internet that agents won’t even respond to queries that don’t have a SASE enclosed. Going down your check list of what you need in a query, it makes perfect sense to remember your SASE – but remember which method you’re sending the query.

2) Write “(sign)” after your name as if you wrote your signature. You didn’t do this. We can see that you didn’t do this.

3) Write a fictional novel. Well, maybe you did. I mean, who hasn’t mapped out an entire novel in their minds? But you really shouldn’t query unless you put that idea down on paper.

4) Write a non-fiction novel. “Novel,” by definition, is a work of fiction.

5) Write a 10,000 word novel. This does not work in any genre or age group.

6) Write a 200,000 word MG. If you did, then chances are it’s actually a four-book series that you combined into one. Or you’re George R.R. Martin trying to mess with people.

7) Send a query letter to “Mr. Curtis Brown.” This one is specific to my agency, I know. But I see it all the time. Yes, there was a real Curtis Brown. No, he is not still alive. No, I am not “Mrs. Brown,” let alone Curtis himself.

Have any of you ever made any “common sense” mistakes you care to share?

When Do You Write?

I’ve noticed something in my query inbox lately that I find interesting. In the past two or three weeks, my request rate has dropped dramatically. Or, I should say, it’s dropped back down to normal. I didn’t even realize I had been requesting fewer manuscripts until I saw that from June 9 to June 21, I received 0 material due to lack to requests. This lag between requests isn’t uncommon, especially after I compared it to other months. The reason it felt so wrong to me, though, is because for the entire month of May, and the first week in June, I had requested at least one manuscript (sometimes more) almost every single day.

This means that a) my reading pile for May was massive – yes, I am still getting through it; and b) the quality of the queries, and the writing, that month was noticeably higher. Most of what I received were from people who clearly did their homework, knew what I was looking for, what I might like, and delivered. I can only assume they spent an entire winter researching only me; that’s how well-matched many of these queries were to my personal tastes.

The bulk of June hasn’t been like that, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s a summer slump. (Note: There were, of course, some gems, regardless of whether I had requested or passed on them.) Does the slowness of June mean writers are taking a break from querying? Was that request-rush in May just a fluke that may or may not happen again?

Or, have writers toiled away all winter to finish their masterpieces so that queries could be good and sent by the time summer hit? Alternatively, have they all left for an exotic writer’s retreat on the beach, where they will spend every day of the summer simultaneously working on tans and new novels to query by winter?

I’m not sure, and the reason is more likely that this was simply a slow month that will pick up again by July. But, it’s made me wonder when writers write. Are there better times than others? Are certain seasons more inspiring, depending on the project? Or is it a less exciting matter of simply when you find the time?

You tell me, writers. When do you get your best work done? And when do you decide it’s time to query that work?

(Blogger’s note: Speaking of summer, I’ll be on vacation beginning mid-week, so there won’t a publication this Wednesday, and no regular posts until July 6. Enjoy your 4th of July weekend, everyone!)

What I Talk About When I Talk About Revisions

Like many agents, I will ask for a revision of a manuscript before I make an offer of representation. I don’t do this with every manuscript I request. Sometimes I know that a particular novel either isn’t working plot-wise, the writer’s style differs from what I’m looking for, or the main character isn’t engaging enough to me. In these cases, it’s obvious that I’m just not the agent for them. I would never request a revision based on something that came down to personal preference. There are other agents, after all.

Sometimes, though, there are manuscripts that scream potential. I can’t speak for all agents, but the first things I look for in a manuscript are plot development and the main character – if those two things are done well, then we’re in business. Well, almost in business. Even if you have the idea, the writing ability, and the awesome main character that readers of all ages will fall in love with, there are still other factors to consider. These other factors are what I take into consideration when I ask for revisions.

What are these other factors, you ask? More often than not, in my request pile anyway, it comes down to supporting characters, pacing, and general marketability. Other agents may come across different factors. A writer can nail the larger issues at hand, but the rest of the novel, when not written with the same quality, can make the entire project suffer – no matter how amazing everything else was by itself.

If you’re a writer who’s been in this situation, I’m sure this is frustrating. (Even after you have an agent, you will still hear this from editors too. Then it’s frustrating for both of us!) When an agent comes back to you after weeks (if not months) of making you wait for a response, only to tell you they want you to go through it all over again, you probably think (after cursing a bit), But if you love the project so much, why not offer representation and then we can work on revisions together??? Sorry, but it’s not that easy.

Agents aren’t just taking on your project; they’re taking on you. When I ask for a revision, it means I’m incredibly interested in offering representation (I would not be willing to read the same manuscript over again otherwise). But, in my own way, I’m also testing writers. Most writers are willing to revise, so that’s rarely an issue. What I need to know is are they able to revise. Before I take on a new client, I have to ask myself, Can they effectively revise? Do they understand what I’m asking? Is this going to be a pleasant working relationship?

I’m thinking about revisions lately because I’ve had not one, but three, heartbreaking experiences this past month, and each were over those “other factors” I mentioned above:

1. Supporting Characters.
I surprised myself by loving a particular manuscript as much as I did. I requested it based on the premise, and it ended up having everything else I was looking for. I couldn’t stop reading – until! I was taken out of the narrative completely for about 50 pages. That’s a lot of pages to lose interest in a manuscript, but I had faith in it, so I pushed through. As I suspected, it picked up where it left off and I loved it again, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that chunk where I didn’t love it and how it effected other areas of the novel. I isolated the problem and realized it was one character’s fault. If only he was introduced later instead of earlier, then the problem could have been avoided and the novel as a whole would have become that much stronger. Something that seems minor never really is. Every piece of a novel matters, and sometimes that one thing is enough to make an agent wary of its ability to sell. If I was taken out of the story, an editor probably will be too. And they are usually less forgiving in terms of asking for revisions.

2. Pacing.
Sometimes I fear my clients think I nitpick about minor issues – sentence structure, wordy language, rearranging of paragraphs. Sure, compared to character development and the actual plot, these things seem less important. But they all contribute to the pacing of the novel. Does your writing style hold the reader’s interest? Are you being slowed down by unnecessary dialogue? Where does the action begin and how are you sustaining that tension while advancing the plot? Will an overuse of adjectives and adverbs make editors’ heads explode? (Yes.) Again, everything matters. Pacing was the issue with Heartbreaking Manuscript #2. Sometimes when a novel moves too slowly, it makes the characters themselves appear boring. I knew that this was not the case with this particular manuscript, yet I kept wondering why they were doing certain things or when they would do certain things. There was a lot of leg shaking. When pacing is the only thing preventing the novel from being truly great, and I see potential in the writer’s ability to improve it, I absolutely ask for a revision.

3. Marketability.
I think this is the concept that most writers dread, so if it makes any of you feel any better, I never request anything unless I think it has market potential. I mean, none of us are reading in our leisure time here. This is our job. However, sometimes – as in the case of Heartbreaking Manuscript #3 – the writing just doesn’t match the idea. When I received the query, I practically jumped up and did a fist pump (but I didn’t, I swear!). It was literary while still appreciating genre. It combined different styles that I am particularly fond of. It had an amazing hook. The query itself was well-written, clear, and professional. Basically I wanted to hug it. I requested the full and perhaps I had gotten my hopes up a bit, but when I sat down to read it, my heart sank. As imaginative as the story was, the writing fell flat in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the writing was good. It just wasn’t especially clever or vivid, and the characters, while possessing a few redeeming qualities, didn’t jump off the page. In other words, it just wasn’t good enough. And that’s what I mean by marketability. Many writers have ideas that the market supports, but if the writing doesn’t make that idea stand out in the crowd, the novel won’t sell. Which means editors can’t buy. Which means I can’t offer representation. Sadly, it’s a lot harder to ask for a revision in this case because someone either has exceptional talent or they don’t. Usually I won’t ask for a revision in this case. But in the rare instances where I’ll continue to think about the initial query and see its potential, the best I can offer is a few examples of what direction I’d like the writing to take, and hope the writer sees a larger picture.

In the same way you want an agent who understands your work, agents want a client who understands their needs. The power of revision is strong. We don’t just request them for fun or “to be nice.” We request them because we see potential in your work that’s not being realized yet. In fact, the majority of my client list is the result of spot-on resubmissions. In their cases, I had no doubt about their writing ability and loved their ideas. When I went back and suggested how to fix areas that were holding them back, they came back to me with a complete understanding of the task, and went well beyond a standard quick fix. That’s how I knew we’d live happily ever after as Agent and Author, but I wouldn’t have had that confidence if they didn’t send me their revision. Likewise, they wouldn’t have chosen me as their agent if they didn’t agree with my suggestions, or understand that I had their projects’ best interests in mind.

I understand that some writers are not going to agree with my revision suggestions, and this is always sad for me because I wouldn’t have taken the time to make those suggestions unless I was serious about the project. But, agents get rejected all the time – just like writers. Rejection is the largest part of this business, and I hope that just because I’ve shown interest in a project doesn’t mean the writer feels compelled to do whatever I say. They have every right to reject me. Plus, I wouldn’t want a client who sends me work knowing I’ll just tell them how to “fix” it. To me, that just means they didn’t write what they’re passionate about in the first place. Yes, I’m an editorially hands-on agent, but I have no interest in being someone’s beta reader. I want someone to send me something they are proud of, something they think is finished, but who is also willing to see a larger “business side” of the project when that time comes, and revise with that in mind.

Writers shouldn’t be dismayed over revision requests. They can either do them or not do them, but it’s usually in their best interest to consider the agent’s perspective. Revision requests aren’t our sadistic way of giving writers the runaround. Revisions are a part of writing, and requests should be viewed as extensions of the query process. We all want the same thing, and that’s to see your book published.

Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time…)

This morning, after a fairly Internet-free weekend, I opened my Google Reader to 1000+ unread items. After “reading” everything on The Huffington Post without actually opening anything, my Reader was boiled down to all the publishing news/blog posts I missed (OK, and some Cute Overload pictures). Since you also follow these agent, editor, and writer blogs (probably way more intently than I do), I don’t have to tell you that we publishing folk love to give advice. Like, a lot of it. Today was no different.

I searched on Twitter and in my Reader for “query tips” and the number of posts featuring those words were so many that there was no way I could link them all here. We all know there are tons of them. So much so that some writers have taken to mocking people who still don’t know the “rules.”

For sanity’s sake, I will focus on the two items I clicked today back-to-back – one from BookEnds and one from Rachelle Gardner. (By the way, both of these blogs are must-reads. Go follow them right now if you aren’t already.) Both posts offer query tips. Both posts are absolutely correct. And both posts should be largely ignored.

Explanation:

Every blog post or tweet offering query tips is useful. I do this on a regular basis via Twitter and offered a few blog posts myself in the past (here and here). However, every post you read about query tips, no matter who writes it, can be boiled down to one sentence: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT.

Maybe it’s not in all-caps, since we’re all professionals here, but that is basically the sentiment. All agents ever want are a few succinct sentences that give a plot overview and an interesting character detail. No need to over-share or be overly coy. Just give us something that won’t make us ask any question other than “what happens next?”

The reason agents sometimes need to write posts detailing the more specific “don’ts” of querying are because sometimes writers need to be reminded that the story is 99% of what matters. We do not write them so you can analyze each one individually and obsess over whether you’ve committed that particular crime. We want you to stay sane! We just want to let you know when we keep seeing the same mistakes and try to prevent them.

Remember the one and only real query rule, which is presenting your book in an effective and direct way. Agents will always have different preferences when it comes to the “other stuff” in queries (grammar, personal info, novel comparisons, etc.), so take what we have to say and put it through your individual filter. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on. If it does, then take it under consideration. Note I said “largely” ignore us, but don’t discount us completely. We never open a query thinking “I can’t wait to reject this.” And if it becomes too hard to see why we shouldn’t, then we’ll write a blog post for you.

Rejecting the Rejections

I mentioned via The Twitter today that I wished my standard form rejection could read “Sorry, but your agent is in another castle.” Obviously, I was joking (even though that would be sweet), but a number of followers responded that it would certainly soften the blow. This got me wondering about form rejections in general.

They are designed to be as impartial, encouraging, and non-threatening as possible, despite the fact that they are completely impersonal. As writers who are publishing-savvy, you are no doubt aware that no agent likes giving such a reply, but the sheer volume of queries we receive sometimes make it impossible to personally respond to those we need to pass on.

So, a bit of a project for all of you who have either experienced the dreaded form rejection or are still living in fear of it. How can we agents “soften the blow” without resorting to lines from late ’80s video games?

Welcome to the fake-agenting world, writers! Leave your one-to-two sentence professional form rejection in the comments. Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two.

You Are Not Original (and that’s OK)

We want to believe we are unique little snowflakes. As writers, we create, and we want to believe that what we create is the most original concept that readers will ever see. Nine times out of ten, this just won’t happen. We are not snowflakes. We are barely a box of multi-colored pencils. And for writers, that’s just fine. In most fiction, genre fiction especially, the same premises get repeated. It’s not plagiarism; it’s just normal. In fact, it’s how some sub-genres form in the first place. That said, most of these books use this basic, universal premise as simply a guide. How the writer chooses to enrich that structure is what separates good writing from the forgettable, regrettable wannabes.

I don’t know what it is about January so far, but it seems as if everyone’s New Year’s resolution was to finish their novel and start querying agents right away. While I appreciate the motivation, this is more damaging than good. To put it another way, the number of queries I’m getting per day this month are almost double that of what I was getting in December. The number of manuscripts I’m requesting, however, has more than halved. This is in part because of what I’m talking about above. People seem to be so quick to get out their manuscripts that they’ve forgotten to enrich their basic plot to make it stand out.

Before you send out your query to agents, make sure that when you sum up your book in those few, precious sentences, there is more to it than what’s implied.

Paranormal Romance & Non-romance: I recently tweeted, “In a severely crowded paranormal market, your plot needs to be more complex than ‘MC becomes/is/loves a non-human & must deal.'” I can’t stress this enough, especially since I get more queries for paranormal than any other genre. Agents and editors only want “the next Twilight” in terms of wanting another massively successful series that will make boatloads of cash for everyone involved. This does not mean we’re asking for “girl falls in love with a vampire and is conflicted about it.” It’s been done to death (undeath?)! It’s also not a twist if the person who falls in love with the non-human is a boy, nor does the female character become “strong” simply by being a vamp, wolf, zombie, etc. Sorry.

Literary fiction: People in the suburbs are not what they appear to be. Marriages that are seemingly perfect are actually rooted in resentment and possible adultery. Professor at a liberal arts college has an affair with a student. People living in Brooklyn do things that are seemingly more meaningful than what you’re doing (yep, looking at you, 90% of literary fiction authors!). Sure, these premises continue to work in literary fiction (hey, I still buy them), but unless your last name is, in fact, Franzen, you will need to give your mournful suburbanites a little more depth.

Mystery/Horror: While these two genres are not the same thing, I’ve been getting a lot of cross-genre queries lately that read like tag lines from teen scary movies from the ’90s. A group of people win a trip to a haunted house. A person who believes in ghosts begins seeing them for real. A killer runs rampant in a small town and is more often than not, the main character’s boyfriend/best friend/long-lost relative. Usually all of these premises are offered with a wink. They’ll provide a character who speaks for the audience by his or her cynicism and references to classic movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. It’s fun to write and it’s fun for the reader. But try not to rely solely on formula here. It’s harder to resist the temptation to do so in these genres, so make sure to add a little twist here and there that strays from the expected. What’s even more difficult is that in these particular genres, the “unexpected” is now what’s expected. (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!)

Contemporary YA:Your main character’s parents are dead or otherwise absent, so he or she grows up too fast by either a) being overly responsible, mature, and “good” or b) drinks and parties, but is still wiser & wittier beyond his or her years. Then they meet or come across a catalyst for their path to self-actualization. Congratulations, you have a character portrait! But, this is not an engaging story by itself.

Science fiction: A boy (usually a boy) who is an orphan (usually an orphan) must defend his planet/galaxy/race/family because he is The One. A quest is involved. He also has some personal connection to the Force of Evil. This is called Every Sci-fi and Fantasy Novel You’ve Ever Read or Movie You’ve Ever Seen. Luke, Harry, Ender, Frodo, Jesus, Perseus – all of our heroes have the same story when it’s boiled down to one sentence. Think of how these stories stand out from each other before starting your next project. (To my fellow nerds, please refrain from yelling at me about why I’m wrong to compare Frodo to Perseus.)

Dystopian: The world as we know it has been destroyed by a virus! The world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change! The world as we know it has been destroyed by economic turmoil! The novel has been destroyed by Find & Replace! Writers, no matter how the world as we know it ends and no matter what the world you’re writing about is like, make what happens in that world worth caring about. Romance? Adventure? Mystery subplot completely unrelated to how the world has changed? All examples of how to bring your dystopian (another insanely crowded market) to the next level.

I could go on to give the basic formula for “chick lit,” but I’ll save you all some time and say that no one should use that phrase anymore and please don’t write it anyway. Thanks 🙂

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

Lately I’ve noticed a trend in query letters that does not involve overused supernatural beings or the dreaded rhetorical question. This trend is new to me, but maybe other agents have experienced it. In several letters, the authors, those who happen to be teenagers, are apologizing for their ages. 

As far as query trends go, this is probably the least annoying, but writers – young writers – don’t do this! Apologizing for yourself not only weakens you right out of the gate, but it’s also completely unnecessary. I mean, did Mozart ever say “Sorry guys, I know I’m only six years old, but I’m about to blow your mind?” No. All he did was blow people’s minds! No apology offered or needed.

Evidence of amazing teen writers is everywhere. S.E. Hinton, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, Nick McDonell, and Christopher Paolini were all successful teen authors. And the new class featuring the likes of Steph Bowe (GIRL SAVES BOY) and Kody Keplinger (THE DUFF) looks pretty impressive too! (Both writers were highlighted during the Glass Cases “Teen Writers Week” back in April – see Steph’s profile and Kody’s profile for more info on them!) I doubt today’s young writers feel as if they don’t deserve recognition for their work just because they never had to write it on a typewriter. Just as I’m sure the former teen all-stars don’t feel guilty or ashamed of their early successes.

When I am reading queries, I never wonder how old the writer is. Honestly, I don’t care at all until they tell me, and even then I just say “hm.. that seemed unnecessary.” If you want to stick in at the end of your pitch that you are a freshman in high school (well, only if this is true), then go ahead. It might catch my eye ONLY if the novel is of any interest to me. And if you are a freshman in high school and researching agents at all, I think that’s pretty impressive, so please don’t apologize for it!

Likewise, I’ve received queries from people in their sixties and seventies who have also felt the need to tell me their ages. This, I understand even less. As with their younger counterparts, these writers also ask for forgiveness for being “so old,” especially if they do not have previous writing credentials. But when they’re not apologizing for things they cannot control, they are attributing various obstacles involved in completing their novels to their ages, as if being sixty-eight years old is somehow akin to having no legs, arms, or eyes.

If I reject a ninety-year-old, it’s because the novel wasn’t for me, not because the writer is ninety. And if I make an offer to a twelve-year-old, it’s because I loved his or her work, not because I love the idea of exploiting their wunderkind-ness to my advantage. The writing is what matters, and good writing transcends age. Always. 

Sure, I might be impressed if I read what I think is the next Gatsby, only to find out the writer is eleven, but age will never be a deal-breaker, whether positive or negative. On the flip side of that, sometimes it is obvious that a writer is not quite mature enough to tell the story he or she is trying to tell, but again, it has nothing to do with their actual age. In the same way a memoirist requires distance and perspective to create a truly effective piece, young writers need time and space and, more often, practice to create an objectively “good” story. Just like the rest of us.

So whether you were born in the Clinton administration or the Hoover,  please stop being so sorry and let your writing speak for itself.

Dear Sir or Madam

And so begins The Beatles’ writer’s anthem, “Paperback Writer,” whose lyrics are quite possibly the best example of what not to do in a query letter. (You may also remember my former colleague’s brilliant dramatic interpretation of these lyrics, here.) Generally, if you begin your query with the above-mentioned salutation, the agent you are querying will either a) groan, b) make fun of you via Twitter, or c) delete your query unread (this is a worst-case-scenario). 
There was a really great blog post today on Write It Sideways called Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter? that I think basically every writer who’s querying needs to read. Among their reasons why YOUR query might be getting deleted without even being read are:
  1. The manuscript is incomplete (if fiction)
  2. The agent doesn’t represent the author’s genre
  3. The letter isn’t personalized, but is part of a mass query (Dear agent…)
  4. The author hasn’t taken the time to research how to write a proper query letter
  5. The author hasn’t followed that agent’s submission guidelines
  6. The query or sample pages (if requested in the guidelines) are sent as an attachment
As a newer agent, and a writer myself, the term “instantly deleted” is terrifying, even if I’m the one doing the deleting. I try to be fair and give writers the benefit of the doubt. I’m aware that querying is hard. That said, agents, myself included, get easily frustrated when people don’t query “correctly” because there are a bazillion resources online on how to write a proper query, not to mention the agent-specific guidelines. (I’ve also heard writers complain that “it’s confusing because every agent has different guidelines.” This is true, but the differences aren’t usually that vast. If a writer can’t take the time to make minor adjustments, it’s not that unfair of a stretch to think, “Geesh, what’ll it be like if I ask for a revision?”)

Of the above examples of “potential instant deletion,” I’m guilty of #3 and #6. I delete mass queries and queries sent as attachments for what I hope are obvious reasons. (This includes “click this link for my query” emails.) I assume it is spam, and therefore it is dead to me. 

I also instantly delete “pre-queries” because they are so incredibly stupid. In case you don’t know (which I hope you, dear blog readers, don’t), pre-queries are emails that basically just ask if the writer can send a query. The answer is always, “YES! JUST SEND IT! WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME WITH SUCH A DUMB QUESTION!?” So, instead of getting an all-caps rant, they just get deleted.

There are agents out there, usually the more seasoned ones, who will delete your query for lesser reasons than the ones I mentioned above. You don’t want to fall victim to an instant deletion, so while it is a lot to remember and can be frustrating to accommodate to, pay attention to agent-specific guidelines and pet peeves; read articles and blog posts like the one on Write It Sideways; and stop sending things as attachments. Almost NO agent ever accepts attachments unless he or she asks for it. It might be the one guideline every agent agrees on. 

One last note: there is no such person as Curtis Brown. I am not Mr. or Ms. Brown. Thanks 🙂