Category Archives: queries

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.

14

Right Behind You

Yesterday I had an interesting–and rather bracing–exchange with a writer whose work I read, admired, and ultimately, after much time and consideration, decided not to represent. I’d sent her a note that was well-meaning but bland; I wrote that I’d not “fallen in love” with the material, and without the ability to be a wholehearted champion for the work, that I didn’t feel I could represent it. I got a civil but pointed note back, urging me to reconsider–not my decision–but the very pat “didn’t fall in love” phrase that has become the book world’s answer to “it’s not you, it’ s me.” This writer pointed out that it’s patronizing and more or less reviled by authors. I agreed that it is an easy shorthand, the catch-all diagnosis of the publishing business. But perhaps we who work with words have a certain responsibility to be a little less lazy when stringing them together.

Still, turning people talented people down is never easy, and we agents are often wrong. I’m at a writer’s conference now, and every editor and agent here has a tale of the book that got away—or more precisely, the book we failed to see.

Taste is apallingly subjective, and sometimes it’s hard to put a fine point on exactly what drives my reservations. More often than not, it’s a combination of factors; undeveloped storyline, characters with whom I’d rather not pass 350 pages, utter lack of editorial vision for how to place it. Sometimes I read the testaments of lives of people far braver and more extraordinary than I will ever be, but I worry that the telling does not match the tale, or the story is suited to a smaller circle of readers than most publishers would wish to reach.

I grumble and occasionally rail at the rejection letters I receive as well, but is there a way to soften the blow? Many notes I send are form rejections. We try hard to craft one that is professional and respectful, though it is by definition impersonal. It would be impossible to respond to all the mail that we receive. But know that despite all the maladroit notes and form letters, the late responses and the missed chances, most agents really do get it. We get the frustration, the disappointment, we respect your efforts and exist to support them. True, the works in question are not our own, but they are our livelihood, a reflection of our taste, our ideals, and often long collaborative efforts. It would be absurd to imagine that my emotional stake in a book is as great as that of its creator, but we agents are right behind you.

2

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

Creating a captivating pitch is arguably one of the hardest parts about getting an agent. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, agents are busy and read unfathomable amounts of queries every year. It’s difficult to stand out amongst the masses, but you would be surprised how easily a carefully crafted pitch can hold our attention.

Throughout my time reading queries, the ones that have stood out always followed these simple rules:

– Be reflective of what your book is and use a similar tone.

  • If you’re writing a middle grade novel about a blundering superhero, it’s okay to use goofy words (though, don’t go overboard and remember you’re querying an adult). If you’re writing an adult thriller, you shouldn’t use infantile language.

– Be concise.

  • You should be able to tell the summary of your story in 100-200 words. Any longer is likely to bore the agent, any shorter and you’re probably leaving out necessary information.

– Be clear.

  • Give the agent enough information so they’re not led on to think your book is something that it’s not. This will work against you when they read your manuscript or proposal. If they think they’re getting one thing and they actually get another, it will turn them off to whatever they’re reading. It’s similar to the idea of someone making you close your eyes, saying they’re going to feed you candy and then actually feeding you steak. You’re going to be repulsed. You may even seriously love steak, but because you were expecting candy, your tastes are off.

– Be exciting.

  • What makes your book interesting? That should be the center of your pitch. Don’t say in plain form, “My book is different because…” Make sure the distinctiveness of your novel is portrayed in your summary. If your character is a going to a magical school in a unique setting, make sure the characteristics of the school are mentioned in a way that makes it stand out from every other magical school out there.

 

I hope these tips help you make the best of your queries. I look forward to reading your captivating pitches!

0

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.

 

2

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.

1

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.

7

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, verbsubject 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?

 

2

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