Category Archives: queries

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Successful queries to learn from, and a prize!

As you all know by now, I’m a huge fan of writersdigest.com. I think they offer such great resources to writers. And now I think I’ve found the most useful series yet, and not just because it’s edited by the very entertaining Chuck Sambuchino, with whom I broke bread at the recent Writers’ League of Texas conference.

Successful Queries, of which there are already 63 installments, offers readers an actual query letter followed by a critique from the agent who agreed to represent it. These are all books that have gone on to be published by major publishers so there is a ton of great information here to take away.  The letters themselves would be reason enough to spend some time checking it out, but the agent critiques are also extremely valuable to learn what agents are looking for and what stood out in a particular query.

What I’ve noted as a general rule is that the queries that work best are sometimes the simplest and most concise. Good writers with strong stories can pitch their books in just a few sentences, as flap copy does for published books. It doesn’t have to be long to be good.

Take a look and see if you agree with my assessment that this is a useful exercise, not to mention it’s free and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. And if you’re so inclined, tell us which query is your favorite and why, and I will pick at random a winner to receive a DGLM umbrella!

3

Query letters that worked

As anyone who’s even been to a writers’ conference can attest, query letters cause no end of consternation and angst. That’s totally understandable, by the way—as the first introduction of a writer to an agent, it gets assigned a huge amount of importance. Plus, for a lot of writers, it’s a completely unnatural way of writing.

Going further, I think some of the frustration with queries comes from the lack of practical models—the generic queries you find in writers manuals tend to be so flat that they don’t offer much inspiration. And because the recommended query format is so basic—it’s really just intro, summary, and credits–writers often fall into the trap of thinking they need to fancy it up, and without concrete examples for guidance, the results tend not to work. On the other hand, cautionary examples typically are so laughably bad that they’re not really useful either, except for getting a rise out of a writers’ workshop.

So I was very excited to find this post on GalleyCat of actual query letters that landed authors representation. It’s a fantastic resource, and there’s a lot here that writers can learn, borrow or just plain steal. Better yet, the queries span a comprehensive range of categories—no matter what you’re writing, there should be a model here for you. At the same time, it’s worth looking at all of them, because reading them en masse reveals just how closely these successful authors hew to the basic query format, regardless of genre.  Finally, if you really want to get technical about them, several are even broken down and annotated.

And in terms of querying me: I’ll side with my fellow agents from GalleyCat that short, straightforward, and on-format works best, and for author/illustrators, always include either art samples or a link to a portfolio.

Happy querying!

4

The Synopsis Snare

 

 

A friend at Random House sent me a galley of the forthcoming Margaret Atwood novel (happy Mother’s Day to me). It is the third in her Maddadam trilogy that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans have succumbed to a plague. Those who remain are not having such a good time of it.

I loved the first two novels; the second more than the first. I read them out of order because when the first book, Oryx and Crake, was published (despite my admiration for the Atwood oeuvre, and despite my adoration of The Handmaid’s Tale) I did not think that a dystopian novel would be my cup of tea. As a grown-up, it seems that I’m more inclined toward bleak cautionary tales with real-world settings. Of course I was wrong, as I often am, about my teacup. The Year of the Flood won me over and sent me to the library the next day in search of the previously passed-over Oryx and Crake, and I’ve been waiting for book three ever since.

Even so, I nearly did not make it past the second page of Maddadam. Upon opening the book, I found a detailed, multi-page synopsis of the first two books—ostensibly provided as a service to get first time readers up to speed. I dutifully started on my refresher course and found it such hard-going that I began to doubt that I’d ever liked volumes 1 and 2 in the first place. Eventually I gave up and just started the novel—which had me spellbound in no time. But even the august and somewhat offbeat Margaret Atwood is not especially good at crafting a compelling plot summary.

I relate this as a cautionary tale of the non-apocalyptic variety. Authors, do not attempt a comprehensive summary of your project in your query letters, especially if your book involves genetically modified beasts like wolvogs or pigoons or fantastical names/kingdoms of any stripe. Instead, think about hooking your agent, hooking your editor—and then include a terrific first chapter. I guess there are agents out there who don’t want a sample chapters along with the query, but rest assured that I (and my DGLM colleagues) do.

 


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Where are all the guys in YA?

Following up on Miriam’s recent post about writers’ groups being comprised of mostly women, I came upon this piece in The Atlantic about female authors dominating the YA market. It discusses how NPR Books this summer had fans choose the 100 Best-Ever Teen Books and of the 235 books being considered for the list, 147 (63%) were written by women.

Certainly there are many bestselling male authors across all categories, but I think it’s fair to say that the YA market is dominated by female authors. We all know that many of the biggest books and series of the past decade were written by women, including, as the piece points out: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and the Twilight books. Each of these series went on to attract a large fan base that included boys and girls, and women and men, one of the reasons they were able to achieve such huge success. The movies didn’t hurt either.

In our own DGLM stable, we have a handful of male YA authors, including the bestselling James Dashner, Geoff Herbach, Andrew Smith, Danny Marks, and Shandy Lawson, but collectively the majority of our other YA authors are women (all of mine are), which confirms the theory based at least on our small sampling. And when I think about the queries I receive for YA, they are usually from women.

So I’m curious why this is. Is it that women read more YA fiction? Is there, as some suggest, the element of nostalgia for women remembering their teen years? Would you like to see more YA fiction from men? Or does it not make a difference who’s writing the books you read? Share your thoughts, and I’d love to start seeing more YA queries from men! (ps-this is my last post until after Labor Day, so enjoy the last few days of summer!)