Category Archives: queries

5

Query Turn-Offs

Now that you know what I’m looking for, here’s a follow-up on what I’m NOT looking for – a quick list of my query pet peeves!

These won’t be an automatic deal-breaker for you and your project, but they will make me a little sad; more importantly, they’ll make me wonder if you’ve done your research, and if you take your writing seriously. And your pitch and sample pages will have to work that much harder to win me over.

  •  “What’s her name? Shannon? Close enough.” While no one loves “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” it’s even worse to get a query addressed to “Dear [Coworker’s Name]”; “Dear Sarah” (you’d be surprised how often it happens), or even “Dear Mr. Spelletier.” You should be doing your research to make sure you’re querying agents who will be a good fit; in addition, messing up my name makes me wonder if you’ll take your time and pay attention to detail when we work together.
  •  “Pssht, guidelines don’t apply to me.” Yes they do, and they’re right here! So please follow them; don’t ask me to click on your website or download a file from Dropbox. I won’t buy your self-published e-book or look under a rock in Central Park for your hand-penned sample pages.
  •  “My book is the next GONE GIRL meets WILD!” It’s probably not, and those comps don’t do much to help me understand your book – what’s special about it, why you were the perfect person to write it, how it fits into the market. Of course you want to highlight how your book will fit in with what’s popular right now, but be specific, and show that you’ve read widely in your genre. If you’re querying me with a thriller about a time-traveling cheerleader who kidnaps the Lindbergh baby, mention The Shining Girls and Dare Me, not Gone Girl and Twilight.
  •  “Whatever, spellcheck probably caught it all.” Now I must admit that I am a grammar zealot, and my spam filter is set to automatically delete any email that omits the second attributive comma (just kidding – that’s only a dream of mine). I’m self-aware enough not to hold minor typos against you, and I might even let it slide if you use fiancé where fiancée should be. But fundamental writing errors like homophone confusion (isle ≠ aisle, discrete ≠ discreet), dangling participles, verb-subject disagreement, etc., are a red flag. Whether you need more time to learn the basics of your craft, or whether you just didn’t bother to give your letter a second read, grammar mistakes are signs that you might not be ready to work with an agent.
  •  “You’re making a huge mistake.” And please be nice. Be professional in your query, not arrogant or demeaning, and don’t write back rudely if I decline. Even if the project you’re querying isn’t for me, who knows when and where our paths might cross again – publishing is a small town!

 

Now you know what to double-check before hitting SEND on that fantastic project that’s exactly what I’m looking for. For more query tips, check out Jessica and Mike’s great insights recently.

Do you have any suggestions for making sure your queries are good to go? Any embarrassing mistakes you didn’t catch in time?

 

0

My 2015 Wish List

Jumping on the bandwagon to tell you all what kind of projects I would love to see fly into my inbox!

(Reminder: Submission guidelines here. )

  • Historical fiction with a believable voice like Vanessa and Her Sister and Euphoria. It’s not easy to get the dialogue right when you’re setting your story in a century you never saw. Even manuscripts with every detail perfect from shoe buttons to breakfast menu have lost me the second the characters opened their mouths (visit our archives for more from Rachel on this). So if you have a fantastic historical setting and you’ve really nailed your characters’ thoughts and conversations…I want to read it!
  • Narrative nonfiction with a personal angle like Brain on Fire, Full Body Burden, and Irritable Hearts. If you are the right person to explore a little-known story, expose an injustice, or explain something fascinating, and you can blend your expertise and careful reporting with the emotion and passion of memoir-type nonfiction…send it to me!
  • A smart, edgy literary thriller that I can’t put down and can’t stop talking about like Dear Daughter and The Weight of Blood. A story that will make me scream “whaaaaaaaaat!” or “NO!!!” when I’m reading on the train.  I’m a complete sucker for unreliable narrators, and would also love some more procedural but still twisty mysteries like the work of Tana French or Brad Meltzer. (BONUS: combine bullet points 1 and 3 for an authentic historical suspense like The Paying Guests and I will love you forever.)
  • Nonfiction on any of the following topics: feminism/gender politics, contemporary religion, little-known historical figures with a BIG story.

Of course, if you have an absolutely fabulous project that you’re sure is right up my alley, send it right along even if its category is not mentioned above.  Find me at spelletier@dystel.com.

 

I can’t wait to see all of your fantastic (and carefully proofread) queries!

 

4

The Successful Query: An Example

Borrowing from Mike’ s post, I thought I’d share a successful query. 

When I received the below query letter I took note; it came with a compelling premise, excellent comp titles (the author hit on three novels I loved) solid credentials, plus an attached first chapter  so that I could waste no time and plunge right in.

I requested the full manuscript, read it with an increasing sense of delight–also with the lights on, since there are some genuinely frightening bits–and offered the author, Beth Hahn, representation soon thereafter. Because she lives in the NY area, we were able to meet in person before formalizing our partnership, but more often than not, a phone call or two must suffice. Even in this internet age and in an industry based on writing, I think it’s critical to speak with possible clients, and I think it’s just as important that my potential clients get a sense of my professional philosophy/practices in general, and my vision for their book in particular.

One pleasant by-product of this business is that I usually discover that my clients are not only gifted writers, they are lovely people. Beth (who is an amazing artist and a designer as well)  is no exception, so it’s with genuine delight that I can report THE SINGING BONE  just sold. I’m not yet at liberty to disclose the details of the deal, but it’s thrilling to move from query to contract, cognizant that the fun part is just beginning.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Jessica Papin:

In 1979, seventeen year-old Alice becomes involved with Mr. Wyck, an enigmatic con man living in an old farmhouse in upstate New York. Enticed by Mr. Wyck’s quasi-mystical philosophy and his associations with alternative 1970’s figures, his girlfriend Allegra’s interest in herbs, tarot, and yoga, and the promise of a constant party, Alice and her friends move in with Mr. Wyck, but once under his sway, they cross psychological and moral boundaries that begin to unhinge Alice’s sense of reality.

When the long con that Mr. Wyck is running goes terribly wrong, Alice’s already crumbling world falls into chaos, and she is forced to choose between two sordid truths: one that will place her in prison and one that will grant her a second chance. Twenty years later, famous for her association with Mr. Wyck’s crimes, Alice has changed her name to protect her anonymity and has become a folklorist and university professor, but the Internet, with its shadowy Wyckian Society, threatens to destroy all that Alice has worked to conceal.

Told through Mr. Wyck’s letters to his son and Alice’s parallel past and present narratives, THE SINGING BONE (120,000 words) examines guilt and innocence, the fallibility of memory, and the way in which one person’s madness impacts many lives. Woven together with 1970’s counter-culture, folklore, and the ever menacing and cult-like presence of Mr. Wyck, THE SINGING BONE is a dark and richly imagined literary mystery.THE SINGING BONE will appeal to readers who admire Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

I studied writing at The University of Pennsylvania and earned an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. I’ve attended The Bread Loaf Writers Conference and my work has appeared in The Hawaii Review, The South Carolina Review, and The Emrys Journal. As well as this novel, I have a collection of short stories. I am currently outlining the sequel to THE SINGING BONE. In my other work, I am an independent knitwear designer and illustrator. Thank you for your time and consideration. I have attached the first chapter of THE SINGING BONE. The full manuscript is available upon request.

Sincerely, Beth Hahn

1

How to query me

For my blog post today, I thought I’d share with you all the secret to querying me. Before I do, however, I’d like to provide a disclaimer: The following advice is for those who query me. What I’m about to share may or may not hold true for all agents here at DGLM and other agents at other agencies. (Click here for a refresher course on how to query DGLM agents.)

Step 1: Hook me. Right off the bat. Your first sentence should be compelling. Everyone here has a full inbox. Email never stops. For a query to shoot to the top of my reading pile it really needs to grab my attention from that very first line. What’s your story about and why should I care? Make the tagline simple but powerful.

Step 2: Keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Edit your query over and over again until you’ve removed all extraneous information and have just the juicy bits left. The end product should look something like:

Paragraph One – Hook (one to two sentences)
Paragraph Two/Three – Pitch (genre, audience, comparable books, and plot)
Last Paragraph – Your bio, any publishing/writing credentials, any other pertinent information you think I should know

Step 3: Give me 4 weeks. If I haven’t gotten back to you by then, send me a follow-up email. It’s possible your query was caught by our spam filter, was overlooked, or I have simply been busy and haven’t gotten to it yet. Whatever the case, I always appreciate a gentle reminder!

I hope the tips above helped at least a little. And as you’ve probably gathered, those steps above aren’t fixed in stone, but when you’re querying me and are having trouble, when in doubt, stick to the formula. Let your work do the talking, the persuading. A good writer with a good story to tell is more than enough to intrigue me.

I’m happy to answer any questions. Sound off in the comments.

4

Critique Part 2

Thank you all for your enthusiastic responses and interest in having the first page of your WIP critiqued. I picked at random a page to review from one of our loyal blog readers, and have now done that and am ready to share the results with you. Bear in mind this is completely subjective, and only my opinion. There is no right way to write a novel or critique one!

Regarding the material itself, I thought there were a lot of nice elements that set up the story well. I tried to be specific if there were places where I felt things could be done differently to better explain the situation or maximize the impact. Every word counts so choose each one carefully. You can click on the screen below to increase the size and take a look at my notes on the first page, or click this link for a PDF. Hope it’s helpful.

Despite some technical difficulties in figuring out the best way to share the feedback with all of you, I hope this is a valuable exercise. I certainly enjoyed hearing from so many of our readers who are eager for feedback on their work. We will definitely offer this kind of thing again since it clearly struck a chord with so many of you.

 

5

The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

Last week, Sharon cleverly used her post to invite reader feedback—the responses she received contained some good  suggestions and valuable constructive criticism.  Among other points, Lynn (who, it should be noted, has a fine editorial eye) suggested that instead of serving up generic advice about query letters, we post a letter that “blew us away… Write about it, post it as an example so we can see what a great query is!”

 I am more than happy to oblige.  I’ll  begin with nonfiction and follow up with a fiction example next week.

First, a brief disclaimer: I know that writers spend a lot of time working on and occasionally obsessing over query letters, but there is no single magic formula for how to put one together.  I generally suggest that writers craft a pitch that reads roughly like (good) back cover copy, gives a sense of the story arc, the characters and the voice in which the book is written, but leaves something to the imagination.  I’m not a fan of the exhaustive synopsis—too much detail can get unwieldy. Close with a few lines about who you are, where your book fits into the market and its actual or (for nonfiction) proposed length and that’s it, you’re done.  But enough with the general. Here is an example of a project that I ended up signing and selling, which came to me via a beautifully crafted query letter.  I’ve pasted the query here, and below I discuss why it so impressed me.

Dear Jessica,

 I appreciate your hands-on-approach and your interest in “history with a thesis.”  I am an academic with a background in character-driven narrative writing, and I’ve just finished a book about an extraordinary group of farmers who have given me hope for the future of American food. 

 Lentil Underground introduces readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” to a little-known movement in central Montana.  My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system in the belly of the beast: the American grain belt.  If we’re going to overhaul the way our food gets to our plate, we’ll have to do it here in the heartland, and people like these colorful lentil enthusiasts will need to lead the way.

I am a Montana native and have been working with this group of farmers for five years, initially as an agricultural policy staffer for United States Senator Jon Tester and more recently as an academic.  I first ran into the story when I was touring full time as a country singer, and try as I might to corral it into three-and-a-half minutes …I ended up with a book.

 Per the instructions on the Dystel and Goderich website, I am pasting a brief synopsis below and attaching my first chapter. 

 I would be very happy to send you my full proposal and/or the full manuscript – but only if you give me permission.  I know you have a lot to read, and I appreciate your attention.

 Thanks,

Liz Carlisle

This query is brief, to the point and totally successful. I am not an agent who demands short pitch letters—I don’t stop reading after 250 words. But writing with this kind of clarity and economy of language is harder than it looks.  So what did Liz do right?

First, she showed that she’d read enough about me to know the kinds of projects I represent.  She then told me that she has academic credentials but also the ability to tell a story (two things that do not always go hand in hand) and she closed her first paragraph with an intriguing line.

Like you, I am familiar with the many critiques of the American food system—well deserved and bleak as they are—but here is a book that promises something hopeful, in the “belly of the beast” no less.   Carlisle also identified her audience via the books they read. I cannot overemphasize the degree to which it is crucial that nonfiction writers are able to accurately place their books in the context of the existing market. She showed me she has a handle on the competition and then—three cheers— promised something new. Acquisitions editors are forever in search of the new and fresh, so my ears perked up yet again. “Colorful lentil enthusiasts” is also not a phrase you hear every day. Her three lines of author bio, in which I learned she was a country western singer turned congressional staffer turned academic were so deftly and succinctly written—plus  fascinating—that I knew I’d request the proposal and the full mss.

Her book, The Lentil Underground, will be published by Gotham in 2015.

0

Some tips on query letters

I will never understand sloppy query letters. It’s a familiar song and dance at this point: author writes manuscript, revises manuscript, generally pours heart and soul into manuscript, and then misspells agent’s name on query letter—or even worse, author opens with “Dear Agent.”

Why?

Your book might ooze literary genius, but a generic, lazily written query could put you at a serious disadvantage. It’s a first impression, so make it good, because agents might not give you a second chance. At the very least, show that you put some effort into the query by following some simple advice, courtesy of a couple DGLM interns.

Ashley believes that you should “try to keep your query to a neat and trim four paragraphs: the first two paragraphs being a short, concise summary of your book with a great hook at the beginning, the third paragraph being why you chose DGLM and the particular agent, and the last paragraph should be about you, your writing history, and your credentials. Be polite, be sure to check your grammar on your query (and your manuscript!), and be patient.”

Kelsey advises writers “to be original but not over-the-top.  We have to read through a lot of submissions so it’s important to keep queries simple and straightforward.  Also, do not compare your work to bestsellers and classic works of literature.  Your query is not going to be taken seriously if you compare yourself to someone like Shakespeare.  Overall, when writing your query, aim to portray your work in an honest and concise manner.”

For those interested in querying a particular agent here, please refer to our newly revised submission guidelines. You worked hard on that manuscript. Make sure your query letter reflects that.

1

When it’s okay to use bad grammar

When shuffling through query letters, bad grammar is often a loud warning bell. Literary agents tend to be wary when reading material from the prospective, unpublished author. Nothing will make an agent drop a query into the reject pile faster than poor grammar.

However, incorrect grammar can often be utilized as a literary style. Nearly every accomplished author does so—to one degree or another. Sentence fragments. Abbreviated words. Missing punctuation. Misspelled words and incomplete sentences. Literature is abundant with poor grammar.

So, how then can you determine when to ignore all those rules drilled into you by your elementary school teachers?

What is your writing for? Writing is purposeful. You don’t pick up a pen and commit words to paper accidentally. Is this a blog? An academic piece? A query letter? A creative piece? Resume? Knowing your audience is a time-tested lesson in writing, so for formal prose, always go the safe route and edit your piece to perfection to ensure perfect, “proper” grammar.

On the other hand, for creative pieces, bad grammar can help the author illustrate his or her point. The form your writing takes should match its tone.

Cormac McCarthy is known for his stark, bare prose and his distaste for commas and other forms of punctuation, such as the quotation mark. His writing not only complements the often-bleak tone of his work, but also adheres to a simplistic style for the sake of clarity and rhythm. He believes that punctuation can often disrupt the flow of a sentence and is usually superfluous.

Hope this was enlightening. I encourage those interested to read more on the topic. Here are some semi-related links to check out on the topic of grammar:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/09/a-matter-of-fashion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://grammar.about.com/od/rhetoricstyle/a/effectivefrag.htm

http://andthatswhyyouresingle.com/2013/03/12/does-bad-grammar-punctuation-turn-you-off/

5

Query quandary

We write a lot about queries on this blog.  A lot.  A query letter is the Moby Dick of the writer looking for an agent—crafting the perfect one can become an obsessive and bloody quest.  For those of us on the receiving end, query letters are both bane and blessing.  For every well-proofed, well-crafted, lucid missive that makes you want to request a manuscript or proposal and which puts you on the road to representing a work you love, there are hundreds riddled with typos, grandiose or patently false statements, endless plot summaries,  and tiny, tiny margins.

And, of course, not all queries we receive can be answered personally.  We rely on the dreaded form response to thank authors for their submission and let them know that their work is not what we are looking for right now.  Some authors take this to mean that no one read their query letter or that the evil gatekeepers don’t think enough of them, in particular, and all writers, in general, to send a personal response.  Not true.  We do read everything we receive (some things more quickly than others) and the reason most people  get a form letter back is that we simply don’t have the time or manpower to send individual responses to the thousands of queries we receive every week.

Most authors who have educated themselves about the business understand that a form letter or even a personal one simply means that you need to try someone else.  Or, if you’re getting them from everyone in town, that you should re-evaluate your query and see if you can make it better, more eye-catching.  In some cases, it may mean that you need to re-evaluate the work you’re pitching because clearly the description you are giving doesn’t appeal to anyone.  The ideal response is to try to learn from this as from all other steps in the arduous publishing process, which is why I liked this upbeat piece in  the HuffPost.

Here’s a short tip list:

  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines and only query them in areas you know they are interested in.
  • Proofread, for goodness sake.  (Don’t send it to an agent at a different agency than the one your envelope is addressed to, and make sure there are no embarrassing typos.)
  • If you have a connection to the agent you’re querying, use it.  Don’t be shy about mentioning that so-and-so asked you to submit your work, or that your aunt Mary is the agent’s husband’s former babysitter.
  • Don’t summarize the entire plot of the novel in the query letter; try to come up with a good “high concept” pitch.
  • Do tell us anything important, exciting, unusual about you or the work.
  • Don’t compare your work (or yourself, for that matter) to that of people so iconic and brilliant that you will only suffer by comparison.
  • Do know your category and what kinds of books yours might be a shelf mate to.
  • Don’t cram 500 words into one page.
  • Make sure all of your contact information is included.  (We’ve actually had instances where we have not been able to contact people who have submitted work to us because they did not provide contact information. I know, right?)

Does this help?  Do you guys feel your querying process has been satisfactory if not necessarily successful?  What bugs you most about sending out queries?

1

What you need to know about querying agents

I came across this piece from thewritelife.com by the always interesting and entertaining Chuck Sambuchino from Writer’s Digest.

I think all of the advice is meaningful and generally right on, but I must say my favorite is number 1. Can you query multiple agents at the same agency? As he suggests, and speaking at least for our agency, the answer is no. Just today I got a query referred by a colleague that was submitted to me as well. This is something that can be extremely frustrating for us when we request something that another agent in-house has requested as well. He’s absolutely right that within our agency we have a great sense of each other’s interests, and if there is something that we feel isn’t right for our list, but might be a better fit for someone else, we will share it.

The other point that jumps out at me is number 6. When should you query? When is your project ready? He goes on to talk about beta-readers and making sure you have your work read and re-read before you start the submission process. It should be clean and edited and ready to go.

Number 9 about simultaneous submissions is also helpful. We always assume it’s simultaneous unless you tell us otherwise. And that’s ok, just as long as it’s not simultaneous within our own agency J.

I have a question I’d add to this list. Should you personalize your query? The answer to this is yes. The more research you do on agents and their lists, the more likely you are to get the response you are looking for. If you can cite a book that is similar to yours that the agent you’re querying represented, that’s a small personal touch that can really make a difference.

Let us know if you have any other pieces of advice not covered in this list. There is no right or wrong answer, but there are many things you can do to make your query stand out from the others.