Category Archives: queries

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Making Your Queries Professional

After reading my fair share of queries, I’ve begun to see a few simple mistakes writers are making when sending out their work to agents. The query letter should be very professional. It should stand only as a means to stage your pitch. While adding personal touches can make them stand out, being too familiar can ruin the true purpose of the letter. Agents want only to know what your book is about and why you’re capable of writing it. They’re also assessing your ability to write and pay attention to detail. So here are a few tips to make sure you’re being meticulous and making your query as professional as possible.

  • Make sure the name attached to your email address matches the name you’re signing with.
    • It looks unprofessional when your email address is a common nickname your friends use—or even worse, a nickname that implies your private hobbies like Mr. Buzzed or Romantic Janet. Remember that whatever name you’ve entered for your email address will be visible to the agent you query.
  • Don’t ramble on about yourself.
    • A good query will include a bio about what you’ve achieved as a writer, but leave out the fact that you have two kids, a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and a goldfish. Giving any more information than necessary distracts from your pitch.
  • Check your signature line.
    • A quote or tag line that may be cute or inspirational to you may come off as unprofessional or rude to an agent. It’s best to leave out quotes, sayings, pictures, or anything else that may appear beneath your name.
  • Proofread everything.
    • If there’s a grammatical or spelling mistake in your subject line, there’s a chance the agent won’t read much further. That goes for your pitch, too.

While most of these tips may seem self explanatory, I can say from experience that a lot less people follow them than you would think. It can never hurt to send your query to a friend or an alternate email so you can see what it looks like to the agent. Never underestimate the power of a professionally written query letter.

 

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A call for more sports literature

As some of you may know, I’m a little into sports, and as a fan of the Mets, Nets, and Jets, things are looking surprisingly good. The New York Mets own the best record in baseball, at least for now (probably won’t last…or will it?). The Brooklyn Nets beat the Atlanta Hawks last night to tie up the series at 2 games apiece against the best team in the Eastern Conference (though their chances of advancing are still small). And with the offseason moves the Jets have made, they are, in my opinion, just a decent quarterback away from being potential playoff contenders (a tall order, I know).

So, with that said, I’d like to request/plead for sports-related queries. If you have a novel or nonfiction work on sports, I would love to take a look at your material.

Fair warning: books about sports are tough to sell for a very simple reason: the market. Publishers won’t buy a book that they cannot definitively say will appear to X number of readers or Y demographic. It’s no secret that women tend to read more than men, and it also isn’t a secret that men tend to be more interested in sports than women. Except that—and this is a secret—neither are true. Well okay, maybe the former is, but I have male friends who read voraciously and female friends who bleed red and blue (NY Giants, NY Rangers).

Sports are universal. There is a market. And when books about sports work, they really, really work. In fact, they often work themselves onto the big screen. Yeah, I’m looking at you FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS by H.G. Bissinger, MONEYBALL and THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis, and SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand. Oh, and novels can work too—case in point: THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach’s wildly successful debut and one of my favorite novels in recent years.

Notice any commonalities between any of those books mentioned above? They’re great sports stories, told beautifully, and aren’t really about sports. Query me if you think your book fits the bill.

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What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Pitches

Hello Readers,

I’m excited to be posting my first blog entry! I recently joined Dystel and Goderich as the assistant to Michael Bourret here in Los Angeles. It’s been everything I dreamed of when I wanted to get into publishing—except, I realized that everything I thought I knew was wrong.

Before these past few months, I was simply an aspiring writer near the end of my MFA program. I finally felt like I could string together a decent story, and I was sure that was all you needed. However, after having worked for a literary agency—even for a relatively short time—I realize how naïve I’d been about actually selling my work. I learn something new every day, something crucial to becoming or being a published author that I never learned in my MFA program. And I’d like to share that knowledge with our readers in a series of blog posts.

So here’s the most basic and essential thing I learned: the importance of being able to pitch your novel.

No one ever taught me how to write a pitch, and from what I can tell after reading my fair share of queries, it doesn’t seem like MFA programs are teaching this aspect of the process at all. This is probably because the programs are taught by authors, who only write a few pitches in their lives (if they’re lucky), not agents, who read well over a two thousand pitches a year and know the true impact of a well-written one.

But why are pitches so important anyway?

It’s the first contact anyone will have with your novel. Before you can get an agent to read your book, you have to sell them with your pitch. And given the number of pitches they read every year, this isn’t an easy task. Time is money to an agent, and they’re not going to waste time reading your sample pages if your pitch isn’t good.

A messy pitch is seen as a sign that your writing abilities are subpar. A boring pitch that your novel is boring. An overwritten pitch that your novel is a bunch of fluff. Get the trend?

Being that your pitch is the query equivalent of a novel’s cover, and knowing that people most certainly judge a book based on its cover, it makes sense that you should spend a significant amount of time writing and editing your pitch—soliciting feedback from knowledgeable friends and critique partners.

So remember, if you’re in the process of sending out your novel to agents, take your time to make sure your pitch properly represents your novel. In my next blog entry, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned that will help your pitch catch the eye of the right agent.

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Beware of Homophones

 

Faithful readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to grammar/spelling errors in a query. Some agents don’t mind but it’s a big distraction for me. And one of the mistakes I see most often is the dreaded homophone! Homophone.com (a delightful, enthralling website if you ask me) defines its namesake as “words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled.”

I think a lot of homophones sneak into queries, manuscripts, and even occasionally (gasp) printed books because spellcheck cannot catch them. So it’s up to you to be alert! Today’s blog post is devoted to raising awareness of a few of the most tricky homophone errors…because the first step in getting help is realizing you have a problem.

Discrete ≠ discreet

Is your character very good at handling a scandalous piece of info? She is discreet!
Is your character an individual unlike anyone else in all of fiction? He is discrete!

Faze ≠ phase

If your protagonist is handles an unexpected event with aplomb, it did not faze him. He is unfazed!
If your protagonist is planning each step of an espionage investigation, she is in charge of every phase. Phase Two: TOP SECRET.

Peak ≠ pique ≠ peek

Did you just reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? You peaked!
Did you read a teaser from your new manuscript that left everyone on the edge of their seats? You piqued their interest!
Did you sneak into your mom’s closet where she always hides the holiday gifts? You peeked!

I’m sure anyone who reads this blog is past master of the dreaded to/two/too pitfall, or the slightly more challenging they’re/there/their trilogy. What homophone mistakes always trip you up? 

 

7

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?

 

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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!

 

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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.