Category Archives: queries

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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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#AgentsDay

Yesterday was #AgentsDay, one of those fun faux festivals that spring up to give people a theme for their tweets. It made for an encouraging Monday here at the office as many of our amazing clients were inspired by the hashtag to share what they appreciate most about Team @DGLM.

Browse through the hashtag and watch for a familiar name…and don’t forget to follow all our agents on Twitter while you’re over there!

If you’re still querying, #AgentsDay is also a helpful resource for finding agents to follow – many happy authors tagged their agents in their tweets, so click on over to their Twitter profile to start getting to know their lists and personality.

There are a lot of benefits to following a bunch of agents on Twitter! For one, it helps you jumpstart your agent research, which is an important part of the query process. Agents often tweet about new releases from their lists or genres they’re particularly eager to see, so you can narrow down the best match for your manuscript. Sending materials to an agent who doesn’t represent your category wastes your time and theirs! An agent’s Twitter feed is also a good sneak peek of what an agent’s personality is like; if you find someone who seems like the perfect fit for you, you can put extra time and energy into crafting the perfect personalized query to catch their attention, or even find out about opportunities to meet them in person at conferences or workshops. And a lot of agents tweet editing tips and query feedback, from general dos and don’ts to specific feedback on (anonymous) queries as they go through their inbox.

So get to following! We won’t even be mad if you follow agents other than #TeamDGLM. (Just remember: when it comes time to query an agent or follow-up with them, keep it professional and do it through email! )

 

Who are your favorite agents to follow on Twitter? What’s the best writing/querying tip you’ve gotten on Twitter?

Some Things I’m Looking for:

While developing my list, I keep having these desires for books I’m not seeing. Although my interests aren’t limited to this list, I wanted to give a few examples of the things I’d like to see:

  • YA/MG where the character is growing up in a foreign country, whether he or she just moved or lived there all his or her life. I’m particular interested in settings where the character lives in a rural village or town. I’d love to know how difficult it is to milk cows or use an outhouse every day of your life while simultaneously trying to understand the ins and outs of a new country.
  • YA/MG fantasy with human characters set in rich worlds not anything like Earth. I’m very fascinated when an author can create an understandable world with its own physical rules and composition. Think Dune and some of the worlds described in His Dark Materials. I grew up reading these books and would love to see more of them on my bookshelf!
  • Mystery novels with atypical detectives. I want characters that by all means should not be a detective, but against all odds they’re actually really great at the job. When I was younger, I loved The Cat Who… series. I thought it was hilarious that the cats did all the work. Whether it’s adult, YA, or MG, I’m all in.
  • Women’s fiction where the conflict lies outside of marriage or kids. I’d love the family unit to be the crutch the wife/mother relies on. Perhaps this is because I’m newly married and want to believe in all the good of it!

If you have a book like any of the above, please query me. You’ll have my full attention.

Reaching out

For most of the time that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve found clients in one of four ways: the slush pile, referrals from clients, seeking out authors for ideas I’ve come up with, or convincing a person I’ve come across to write a book. I’ve long been reflexively skeptical of supposed innovations on the query system—everything I tried for a long time turned out to be a huge waste of time that generated no better results than just letting the slush come to my inbox.

But four or so years ago, I looked at my list and my slush pile and realized how heavily they both skewed toward a narrow range of voices. And as I looked for ways to fix this problem I listened to a lot of wise people (including the fine folks at We Need Diverse Books) on the perils of any system in which gatekeepers simply wait for things to come their way.  So now I try to actively participate in things happening outside my inbox, making sure that writers know that my door is open (and my list inclusive).

Authors looking for an agent have a lot of great opportunities now not just to seek an agent, but to reach out to the best possible fit for them and their work. Many wonderful agents participate in these new ways to find clients (and quite a lot of them were on the bandwagon before I got my head out of the sand). And for me, they’re a good way to proactively seek submissions from a diverse pool of authors so I can make sure that my client list supports a wide array of voices.

TwitterLogo_#55aceeTwitter pitch parties like Brenda Drake’s PitMad still involve authors querying agents, but it means I get to find those projects that seem like a good fit for my list and invite the authors to send their queries my way.  And resources like Manuscript Wish List, co-created by Jessica Sinsheimer and KK Hendin, allow me to highlight book concepts that I’d love to see, which gives me a chance to proactively seek a broader and more balanced list, both via the Twitter hashtag and their fantastic website (for which you can find my profile here).  And I’m really excited about the upcoming Twitter event #DVPit, which Beth Phelan created to “showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”  If you’re a writer from a marginalized community looking for an agent, I strongly encourage you to check out that link before Tuesday, because it looks like it’ll be a great event!

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails in my Weekend Reading folder, many of which come from sources like the above. I look at my To Read list right now and tremble in fear. But I love knowing that the chances that I’ll find a gem that I have a vision for among those projects is far higher, since I’ve already done some of the work in getting authors who have written the kinds of books I’m looking for to reach my way.

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Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.

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First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.

 

will ferrell glass case of emotion

 

  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?

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What I’m Looking For

I’m always on the hunt for new and exciting projects, but what I’m looking for does shift and change a bit based on what I already rep, the market, and whatever I’m personally ruminating at the moment. Right now, that’s:

  • YA and MG novels that deal with faith, loss of faith, and other “big questions” kinds of books. I remember my teen years being about questioning and figuring out exactly what I believed in. I’d also love to see a novel about a kid exploring political issues, and perhaps how one’s political identity contrasts with one’s parents’.
  • I’d love to see some more ghosts. Ghost stories have always been a favorite of mine, and while there have been so many, I’d love to see something new and original. MG, YA, adult—it’s all good!
  • I’m still eager to find a great tennis novel. I’ve seen some good books over the years, but nothing that I connected with enough to take it on.
  • On the nonfiction side, I’m still very eager to find more pop science. I’d love a Sixth Extinction or a What If? I’d really love a book about the space program, particularly women involved with it.

That’s just a brief list of the things I’m most interested in at the moment, but as usual, if you’ve got something brilliant, I’d love to see it!

Successful query breakdown via an author and her agent

kristi-belcamino-author-writer

I was recently asked by my talented client Kristi Belcamino to join her in a guest post for Writer’s Digest in Chuck Sambuchino’s “Successful Queries” series to share her query letter and my response. I shared why I was drawn to it and ultimately went on to represent and sell the book. I love this kind of thing because it feels so simple and yet I know for prospective authors looking for advice this kind of feedback, which includes a real life example, can be really useful.

Book publishing is obviously an inherently subjective business so what appeals to me is not necessarily what appeals to others. However, when I look at a successful query letter, I find there are certain things that are generally done well.

In Kristi’s case, she introduces herself and her background in a way that is intriguing. An actual female crime reporter? Bring it on!
Then we see a first line that sucks you right in: Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than a murder. I’m beyond interested to know more about this character.

She goes on to CLEARLY and CONCISELY pitch the book in a way that makes you want to read more. My best advice for writers looking to pitch their books in a query letter is to try to write the jacket copy of the book. You can go into greater detail about the story and characters in a synopsis or follow-up email, but for me (and again, this is subjective), I want to see the elevator pitch because if you can describe your work in a clear, concise and compelling way, then I can too when I speak with editors on your behalf.

Finally, she offers additional information about her writing background which shows me that not only has she received good feedback from industry professionals for her work, but that she also has worked hard on her book and takes her writing seriously.

Take a look at our post and let us know what you think and if there’s anything else you see in Kristi’s query or my response that’s worth targeting. Happy querying!

blessed-are-those-who-mourn-book-cover

#Persistence

wedding 2I spent my summer vacation this year in Michigan celebrating my sister’s wedding, and I got to hear a lot of behind-the-scenes stories of how she and her fiancé met and fell in love. They’ve known each other for years because she is good friends with his sisters, and he was interested in her for a looooong time before she returned his affection. His sisters told me all the hilarious stories of him talking about her dreamy-eyed at the dinner table, looking for excuses to go to the bagel shop where she worked, treating everyone to baseball games and movies just so she’d come along and he could spend time with her. He was undiscouragable! And eventually, his persistence drew her attention to his kindness and funniness…and he won her heart.

I’m not just gossiping about my little family excitement – these stories about my new brother-in-law reminded me of the road a lot of writers travel on their way to finding an agent. When you’re an aspiring author, you want to be published so badly. It’s all you can think about. Your loved ones get tired of you talking about it morning, noon, and night – maybe they even tease you about how obsessed you are, or how outrageous your dream is. You write, revise, and revise again, go to workshops and writing groups, send your manuscript out to agent after agent after agent. You get a few requests, then heartbreaking “not for me”s. It’s so discouraging.

Don’t give up! Visit the How-I-Got-My-Agent stories on any blog or writing forum and you’ll find that many represented writers went through months or years of disappointing responses before finding the agent that was right for them. Many writers got their agent with the second or third (or more!) manuscript that made the rounds. For example, my client Rena Olsen wrote very frankly about the years of self-doubt and disappointment before she signed with me. And a writer pal of hers pulled together this informal poll on when authors got published – the numbers are fairly evenly split, with only 16% debuting with the first MS they wrote.

So keep at it! Keep writing, keep reading, keep researching, keep querying – that’s what it takes. And it will be a great story to tell when you finally win an agent’s heart.

What success stories inspire you when you get discouraged about your writing? What are your best #persistence tips? 

How fast can you read?

There is SO much out there that I want to read and so little time to read it all. It’s one of the universe’s sick jokes. I thought Ken Kalfus summarized it perfectly in the beginning of this piece for the New Yorker.

So wouldn’t it be great if we could squeeze all that reading into our schedules? If we could read a page by just glancing at it? There’s no shortage of speed reading books and websites that claim to be able to drill this skill into you. And of course there are apps that help you speed read too.

A lot of these sources relay a lot of the same information. Focus and block out all distractions. Don’t read sentences more than once. User your peripheries and track your place with a finger or pointer. Don’t vocalize the words in your head, which I am pretty sure is impossible NOT to do.

These are all good tips, but do any of these sites offer any substantial improvement? While I can’t answer that definitively, I can point you to this Slate speed reading piece about the plausibility of speed reading and information retention rates.

So what do our readers think? Any tips you’d like to share?

Take the test here to see how you stack up. I got 567 wpm (and 3/3 answers). Challenge extended.