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Query FAQs

 

Recently I’ve done a bunch of query critiques for conferences and also did an interview on using Twitter in the query process, so I have queries on the brain! And I figured this was the perfect time to see what kinds of questions aspiring authors on Twitter are dying to have answered. I’m glad I did, as the questions I got back are smart and interesting, and a couple are even new to me! So thanks to all those who sent questions.

 

If you query a new literary agent at a reputable agency but find little about her online, any query tips to personalize your letter?

I suggest phrasing it in a way that reflects your research on the agency and your understanding of the benefits of working with a newer agent—new agents are eager to find great talent for their lists and often have more time for debuts than more experienced agents with deep lists. “I read you’re newly building your list at Tony the Tiger Literary Agency and hope that your agency’s expertise in cookbooks alongside your enthusiasm for debuts will be the perfect combination for my 68,000 book club novel, A FROSTED FLAKE LOVE STORY.

Should you start the query letter by explaining who you are or what your story is about?

My preference is for your personal details/bio to come after the story pitch. I like the query to open with the reason you’re querying me and the key info about your project: word count, category, title, comps. Then the story pitch, followed by your writing credits, associations, conferences, and any life or career experience that informed this book.

 If an agent wants trigger warnings, what’s the best way to incorporate into the query?

A good query rule-of-thumb is to keep things short and simple, so I suggest including the trigger warning in your opening, alongside your personalization to the agent and your word count, category, and comps. Perhaps something like:

“My 78,000-word psychological thriller THE GREEN LIGHT will appeal to fans of Amy Gentry and Rena Olsen. Please be aware, my manuscript includes a graphic depiction of child abuse.”

 Where do you usually stop reading in a manuscript? If you make it 75% would you finish?

It varies from manuscript to manuscript how far I get before I realize it’s not going to work for me. If I request your full after reading your query and 25 pages, that means I’m hooked on your concept and drawn in by your writing, so as I’m reading I’m hoping that that potential holds up all the way through! If the story starts to fall apart in a way that I don’t have a vision to fix, if I can’t buy in to the character’s choices, if I find my attention wandering or realize I’m just not enjoying the read, I’ll feel sad, but I’ll probably move on to the next MS. Sometimes that’s page 40, sometimes it’s page 125; once I know it’s a No, I’m not going to waste both of our time just for the sake of finishing. On the other hand, if I’m reading and editors are coming to mind who would like it, or I find myself wanting to keep reading when I get off the subway, or I get excited about how to fix plot issues, then I read looking for reasons to say Yes and position the book for success!

If you have a burning question about querying, pipe up in the comments and perhaps I’ll do another FAQ soon! And for more query advice, check out my Writer’s Bone interview here, and keep an eye on the #querytip hashtag on Twitter.

 

 

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Tolerably well, tolerably often

Mari Andrew’s Iceberg of Creative Success

I came across this infographic from the talented Mari Andrew on social media, and although her iceberg is not explicitly aimed at authors, it works pretty well for our purposes.  Most overnight successes were (quiet, lonely, arguably desperate) years in the making, and while there are a few, charmed, fairy- godmother-type-tales out there— wunderkind author commands astronomical advance and widely praised debut novel becomes instant NYT bestseller—these shimmering breaths of fairy dust are the exceptions that prove a much less sparkly rule.

Tonight was back to school night at my son’s elementary school, so I’ve got education on the brain, but it’s worth thinking of a book contract as an acceptance letter to the college of (ideally) your dreams. Which is to say, it’s a starting point, but what happens next has a great deal to do with you. As education is far from passive, so too is publishing. And a great house and even a healthy advance do not mean that you graduate with a bestseller.

Houses large and small market and promote books along broadly predictable lines. These include creating and sending out press releases, mailing out galleys/arcs to bookselling accounts and long-lead media outlets, followed by a finished copy mailing to more of the same, bloggers, big-mouth influencers, and anyone you might have listed on the jaw-droppingly voluminous author questionnaire you struggled to complete some months earlier. Publicists will pitch and follow up with a tailored list of editors, producers and gatekeepers, the house may buy ad space, an online marketing department can help generate (or more likely amplify) buzz on social media, but unless the book starts selling like mad, this all-hands-on-deck campaign is in full swing for a finite period, typically about three months.

And while it’s true that in-house publicists have carefully cultivated connections that few among us may possess, they are no stranger to rejection or wholesale lack of response. There are, after all, many publicists, many more books, and a limited number of career-altering media outlets, or outlets, period. Frustratingly, book publicity is a field in which there can be little relationship between effort and result. In-house publicists also divide their time between several projects of varying importance to the house, and they report not to author or agent, but to the publisher. So writers are well-advised to enter into even the most dazzling book contracts with their own clear-eyed plans for promotion, ideally something more concrete than here is my book—do your magic!  A publisher’s bag of tricks can be effective, but it’s limited. While publishers generally do their level best to help their books succeed (it is, after all, in their interest as well as yours) they rarely engineer do-overs when their efforts fall short.  They want your book to be a break-out success, but you want it more.

At some point, the task of promoting the book will belong mostly to its creator, and as much as I sympathize with complaints over the indignities and puzzlements of self-promotion, it makes sense that writers invest some fraction of the effort they spent writing their book in working to connect it with the audience that very likely exists, if only they could find it. Plugging away at promotion does not sound, or feel, especially glamorous, but as the infographic shows, long marches (don’t forget sad emails to mom) are a necessary precondition to spontaneous success. My advice: see how authors whom you admire promote, create a strategy, and then choose a method that you don’t loathe.  Something you can do tolerably well, tolerably often.

In a follow-up post I’ll address specific ideas I’ve picked up–some from freelance publicists, others from savvy, dogged authors (please feel free to share your own ideas) and I’ll talk about why your connections, energy and commitment matter.

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Books Aren’t and Shouldn’t Be Like Real Life

I remember the first time I attended a lecture on writing memoirs. I was expecting this lecture to tell me all the obvious things, like how to write about sad or unbelievable events and make them seem as realistic as the moment they happened. Except that wasn’t at all what I learned. Regardless of what the lecturer was actually teaching us, it all centered around the same idea—books are not real life. Who wants to read about real life? Who wants fiction mirroring exactly what they do on daily basis that they hate so much because it has no significance except to get them from point A to point B? It’s the things that are important, and the little things that snowball into the important things, that we care about.

For instance, if I told you that I woke up this morning and walked my dog, got ready for work, and then I was in horrendous car accident (I wasn’t, I’m fine), you might wonder why I even started with walking the dog. You actually don’t care about the rest of my life. That’s fine, neither do I, except maybe when my dog does something cute that I can Instagram, but otherwise, this is all just run of the mill stuff. It’s exactly what people are trying to escape when they’re reading books. Now, if I told you I went on a walk with my dog and saw a man in a red mustang staring at me, the very car that eventually comes to hit me after the memory of those creepy eyes haunted me the entire time I got ready for work, THEN the dog and the shower and the color of T-shirt I picked out can take on a whole new meaning.

A lot of you probably think this is so self-explanatory, but let’s apply it to larger things, say your male character. He falls in love with someone, gets his heart broken, and doesn’t learn anything from it. This is the same thing as me not learning anything from walking my dog (I rarely look to see if weird men are following me…though that might change now…). Why would we want to read about your male character? Most of us have had those relationships, get in, get out, some weird stuff happens, but you’re basically the same at the end, except you’re wearing sweat pants more—or less depending on your level of self-worth.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re looking at your story, your plot, your characters, your side characters, you should be asking, is this something that people are going to want to read in order to procrastinate on doing the dishes or cleaning up dog poop? Or am I just writing about a person doing something with no real significance?

I guess I can take out that scene where my character dreams about muffins in the middle of trying to kill his uncle. No, that was really a scene in one of my unfinished novels… Actually, I think it’d be funny if anyone can give me a more insignificant scene they wrote before realizing. Impress me.

The inside scoop on writing for kids

All you aspiring writers out there – don’t you sometimes wish you could sit down with an experienced editor and ask a book’s worth of questions about children’s book publishing? Well, your wish has been granted in the form of a new book written by children’s book editor and author Cheryl B. Klein.

Her site alone is full of good information for aspiring authors but it’s her new book, THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND  YOUNG ADULTS that is really going to give you the inside track.

In case you don’t know, the publisher she works for as the Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, published a little series called Harry Potter. Arthur Levine is the genius editor who recognized its market potential and bought it for the U.S. market. Their list is incredible and it’s a very small team that acquires and edits all of their books. She’s worked on a range of books, from picture books to YA, and she even worked on the last two books in the Harry Potter series.

THE MAGIC WORDS  itself has been generating good response and positive reviews. Booklist, a trade publication, gave it a starred review.  They describe it like this:  “For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein’s remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation. An editor for 15 years, Klein clearly knows her apples about the writing—and publishing—process and demonstrates an extraordinary gift for analyzing it, breaking it into its constituent parts, and reducing those parts to other parts until an essential kernel of truth is uncovered.”

Seems to me it’s more than a worthwhile investment (of under $20!) to learn about the unique craft of writing fiction for children from one of the best and brightest in the business. How she had time to write this book is beyond me, but I’m very glad she did so I can share it with all of you!

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Publishing Tuesdays

I’ve been on a book buying tear lately.  This mad shopping spree has, unfortunately, coincided with the back-to-school avalanche of proposals and manuscripts that have hit my desk with the abandon of a drunk parallel parking in New York City.  So, I’m pretty certain all those titles will end up gathering dust for months while I dig myself out enough to be able to read for pleasure again.

Thing is, a plethora of amazing authors and delectable sounding books are being published this fall.  Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Maria Semple, Ian McEwan, Colson Whitehead all had/have hotly anticipated novels coming out.  And then, of course, there’s the Springsteen memoir which will undoubtedly break sales records because, OMG, the Boss!!! (Ahem, okay, I’m done fangurling.)

What all of these books have in common, is that they are all being published (or were in Whitehead’s case) on a Tuesday.  Because, well, that’s when books are published.

Now, I’ve been in the business for roughly 150 years, give or take, and when my husband asked me why the Springsteen book was pubbing on a Tuesday, I mumbled the usual “distribution, PR, bestseller lists” blather I’ve heard over the years.  Then I thought about it and realized that I don’t really know for sure how Tuesdays  became the “new books” day.

Turns out, I’m not alone.  Laurie Hertzel goes digging for answers in this amusing piece in The Star Tribune and reaches no definitive conclusion.  Suffice it to say, books are published on Tuesday, so pre-order accordingly.

luther

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The Long Road

 

I’ve long been a fan of the sweet, smart comedian Mike Birbiglia, whose off-Broadway solo show SLEEPWALK WITH ME was a hit and wound up becoming a movie which he co-wrote, co-directed, and  starred in. His latest film is the very winning and highly praised DON’T THINK TWICE, an ensemble piece about members of a struggling New York comedy-improv group hoping to make it big.

Birbiglia knows better than anybody what it takes to succeed in putting yourself before the public. He recently wrote a piece for the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section that offers, in no uncertain terms, his prescription for success, broken down into six key points.   There’s a lot of tough love and gimlet-eyed clarity packed into this short article.

Birbiglia’s plan need not only apply to hyphenate writer-actor-director-comedians like himself.  Everything he delineates here can be applied very specifically to aspiring book writers. The rules are not all that different.

You may feel like pouring yourself a strong drink after you read Birbiglia’s piece, but take it from him: Writing is a craft, one that requires plenty of time and plenty of hard work to perfect. He’s a great example of a guy who had to fail many times before he succeeded. In his case, it was well worth the journey, as the basic big-heartedness of his art is—in my humble opinion–a gift to all of us.

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Required Reading

In high school, I usually finished out the school year by going home with a list of required reading for my English classes the following school year. Most were typical reading assignments—Catcher in the Rye, Ethan Frome (still my least favorite book to this day), Lord of the Flies —but my junior year, my English teacher surprised me with a mix of contemporary and classics for our summer reading list. I remember reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss that summer, as well as Heart of Darkness  by Joseph Conrad.
 
Eight years later (yes, I’m a baby), some of my teacher friends are puzzling over their assigned reading lists and wondering how they can introduce diverse and more contemporary books into their required reading. Given our discussions, this is a conversation I’ve been hearing a lot about and mulling over myself. Some other friends have said that required reading in high school and college turned them off to reading in general. I understand—to a degree—the importance of reading classics, but I do have to wonder about our staunch adherence to the Western canon—which tends to be primarily full of white male authors. Our society is rapidly diversifying and I wonder what it might do for teenagers and young adults and reading culture in general to also see literature taught in schools that reflects their experience or culture.
 
Nicholson Baker’s article in the New York Times Magazine was an interesting read that ties into this conversation. He writes that, “All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull.” I slogged throughEthan Fromeas a sophomore in high school, but loved the more contemporary Foer that I was assigned junior year—I had never encountered writing quite like that before. There are so many things available that could spark a love of reading past the classroom, which can help raise reading assessment scores, among other things.
 
One of my friends who works for Teach for America shared that his high school kids were reading at a way lower level than they should be, with no school library, and only the curriculum reading to really foster their reading habits. He gave one girl the first Harry Potter book and she fell in love. Since then, he’s been giving her books from his personal stash at home, and she’s been devouring them. She told him she never knew reading could be fun.
 
What benefits do you think introducing more contemporary or diverse literature into classrooms could have? What is something you wish you’d read in high school? What books are, in your opinion, integral to the high school reading list?
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Back to School!

The week after Labor Day has a bit of a back-to-school feeling in publishing. Agents and editors are settling back into their desks after the long weekend, saying goodbye to Summer Fridays and getting going on submissions again after the quiet, vacation-heavy month of August. There’s excitement in the air about all the big fall books coming out—DGLM has seven books out today alone!—and everyone is looking forward to the busy, productive three months between now and the winter holidays. My inbox is full of manuscripts from clients who’ve been busy bees over the summer!

As an aspiring Kathleen Kelly, back-to-school season also gets me hankering after new pens and pencils, new notebooks and binders. Even if I don’t strictly neeeeeeeed them, it’s fun to kick off fall with a trip to the office store—convincing myself, of course, that new post-its will be the key to staying organized and efficient during the busy weeks to come.  And DGLM is lucky enough to be located directly above a Staples, so this is an easy whim to indulge!

Anyone else find themselves picking out new office supplies long after their school days are over? What are your favorite tools for staying organized when you hit your busy season?

 

Bestselling poetry in motion

It’s not often that you hear about a poetry collection becoming a commercial bestseller, but in the case of Rupi Kaur’s MILK AND HONEY, that’s exactly what’s happened.

To me, as much as it’s categorized as poetry, I see it more as a lifestyle book, skewing  inspirational self-help, definitely has spirituality and mind/body/spirt overtones. It’s like a collection of poetic mantras for a healthy, positive way of living coming from a place of women overcoming adversity and female empowerment. She addresses dark issues like sexual abuse and survival. Here’s a Buzzfeed piece which lists a sampling of her work like:

“we all move forward when

we recognize how resilient

and striking the women

around us are”

As evidenced in this article from Publisher’s Weekly, she self-published her first book and Andrews McMeel, an independent publisher based in Kansas City primarily known for humor and gift books, took notice and signed up the author to give the book a wider distribution through its networks.

I think it illustrates that if you are able to tap into a receptive audience, no matter what category you are writing in, you can be successful. Social media really helped Rupi Kaur build a name for herself and her work, as well as visiting college campuses to share her spoken-word poetry. Her work was resonating, and the book is an extension of a platform she has worked hard to build and develop. May many others follow in her brave footsteps!

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Confessions of an Audio-Book Nut

When talking to other people in the publishing industry, I often feel I’m the only one who admits to enjoying audio books. Certainly, if a writer is a great prose stylist, it’s often better to be able to savor that style on the printed page. But a terrific narrator can often make a work come alive in an entirely different way. There are many fine New York actors with wonderfully trained speaking voices who have developed quite a sideline in recorded books. Often these are actors of the transformative kind who can slip in and out of an entire gallery of vocal characterizations. If you don’t believe me, try listening to David Pittu’s heroic reading of all 32 hours and 29 minutes of THE GOLDFINCH (for which he won an Audie award), Jefferson Mays’s superb narration of Simon Mawer’s THE GLASS ROOM; Tony Roberts’s witty version of Kurt Vonnegut’s CAT’S CRADLE–a one-man show if there ever was one.

Best of all is when an actor reads his or her own story. Hearing Diane Keaton choke up when describing the passing of her beloved mother gives one a feeling of unparalleled intimacy with this star; it is like being in a confessional with her. In his recently released memoir MASTER OF CEREMONIES, Joel Grey is everything you’d want Joel Grey to be—charming, insouciant, and a spellbinding anecdotist. One of my great favorites is Frank Langella’s DROPPED NAMES. Not only do you have that magnificent, mellifluous voice resonating in your head; the man is also an incredible mimic. Each time he quotes one of the many celebrities he knew—John Gielgud, Noel Coward, and countless others—he does a spot-on imitation. These memoirs are just the beginning. Rita Moreno, Shirley Jones, Gore Vidal, Robert Wagner, Mindy Kaling—I’ve listened to them all, and enjoyed them all, and the way they give me the illusion of being a friend to whom they are whispering secrets.

I do most of my audio-book listening while performing mindless tasks—cleaning the house, taking a long walk or drive, cooking. But most of all, I listen at the gym. It’s what keeps me going back, and enduring the boredom of the Stairmaster and the stationary bike. I’m dying to find out what happens in the next chapter of whatever I’ve been listening to.  So please don’t laugh at me if you see me at New York Sports Club on the treadmill wearing my earbuds and suddenly bursting into laughter or even tears. I hate to admit it, but I’ve done both.

Have any favorite audio-books or narrators? I’d love to know. In fact, I’d appreciate the suggestions!