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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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Where book ideas are born

The story this last week of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane is everywhere and, as I write this blog, the mystery surrounding what happened is still very much a mystery.  In fact, right at the beginning of this sad occurrence I said to Miriam that it would be an incredible premise for a novel.  And then there were the other events of this week that were top of the news–the explosion in Harlem that destroyed two residential apartment buildings and the deaths at the South By Southwest Festival due do a car going out of control.  Those too, it occurred to me, as awful as they are, provide fuel for book ideas both fiction and non-fiction.

I often get my book ideas from the front pages of the newspaper; other ideas come from personal experiences or those of my friends and colleagues.  And then, of course, there are other sources as well like the Ted Talk by Steven Johnson which I ran across as I was considering all of this.

So many of my clients – especially those who write fiction come up with wonderful book ideas one right after the other and I so appreciate their creativity.  This has made me wonder more and more where all of these ideas come from.  And so, I ask you, dear reader, where do you get your book ideas—are they from unusual personal experiences or are they torn from the headlines of the news of the day?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Oh, and one more thing, it’s Miriam’s Birthday today so everyone please wish her a very happy  birthday!

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Tumblr cults

There’s a fun piece over at Huff Post about surprising Tumblr fandoms for books. When I clicked the link, I was expecting something a bit different, maybe more obscure. But I’ve read all but two of the books listed, and I can see just how they’d inspire a cult following. I think we all know about my love of Donna Tartt (despite what Miriam says, The Goldfinch is a fantastic book that’s worth the time it takes to read it!) and especially The Secret History. It’s probably good Tumblr didn’t exist when I read the book in college, or I would have most likely had multiple Tumblr pages dedicated to the book. And I can’t even look at the pages dedicated to Sideways Stories from Wayside School or I’d likely lose hours of productive work. Because when it comes down to it, I’m obsessed with obsessives.

So, dear readers, what book would you Tumbl for?
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Making it last.

I was sitting in my favorite local coffee shop this past weekend when one of my favorite local coffee shop neighborhood friends stopped by as well. She sat down next to me as I was doing the crossword and pulled out the latest book she’d started reading. I don’t remember what it was, she wasn’t too sure about it either—she’d bought it on recommendation from one of the bookstore staff members and was none too keen on placing full faith in the reliability of said recommendation.

In any case, it was as she opened it up to the title page that I stopped her. There was an adorable stamp of one of those Victorian silhouette portraits and underneath, in simple block letters, it said “FROM THE LIBRARY OF [name redacted to protect the privacy of local coffee shop neighborhood friends].” I thought it was a great idea—not only to make sure that any person who may borrow or pick up the novel in the future would know to just whom to return it, but also as a mark of character.

One of my favorite things about used books—aside from the stories themselves—are the ownership markings, inscriptions, postcards that fall out, shopping lists and notes tucked away for safe keeping or bookmarking and promptly forgotten about. I have used books that I’ve bought solely for the inscription on the title page or for the personal notes scribbled therein. I don’t mean notes on the text—though if not too intrusive to my reading, those can be very fun, too—I mean the way you can just tell this book was owned, read, used and loved by someone before you. That the sentimentality and personality of a previous owner as well as the merit of the book itself can last for generations, too.

After exclaiming at my friend’s stamp, I vowed to get one of my own. I haven’t, yet, but it’s definitely on the list. My friend noted that one of her favorite things is adding her stamp to a book’s title page that already has a previous owner’s name, a library stamp, anything like that what have you. She called it a little catalogue of all the places the book has been and the people whose lives it has touched in any way—insignificant or otherwise. I thought it was a wonderful sentiment and agree wholeheartedly.

Old, used books are great for so many things, their “book smell,” the way they’re worn in, for possibly an outdated cover, but above all, it’s the reminder that many lives, not just yours as the current book’s keeper, can be touched by such a simple thing. What say you? Are you in the same camp or do you just hate any kind of mussing or marring on your literature? Go ahead, rant or wax poetic, Romantic, I’m all ears.

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There are no rules…okay, maybe just one

Ask weary DGLMers  how I felt about The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and they will tell you about the whining, screeching, streams of invective, and endless tiresome commentary  I inflicted on them in the roughly two years it took me to finish that unfortunate doorstop of a book (spoiler alert: I didn’t like it). I won’t go into the details here.  Let’s just say, I had issues.

That unhappy reading experience, however, led me to think quite a bit about the things writers do that drive me absolutely batty—from the macro (indefensible plotting and character choices) to the petty (starting a sentence with a numeral)—and about all the rules we inflict on the process of fiction writing which, really, are mostly discretionary.

As nitpicky as I can be when I line edit a proposal or a manuscript to get it ready for submission, and as much as it annoys me to find typos or anachronisms that momentarily stop you cold during an otherwise pleasant reading experience, my one hard and fast, inviolable rule is “Don’t bore your reader.”

Ethan Hauser, writing in The Millions, seems to agree.  As many rules as everyone, from your first grade teacher to your fellow novelists or journalist colleagues, throws at you, the only real literary crime is boring your reader silly.  So, knock yourself out ending sentences with prepositions, sticking a digital clock in a 19th century drawing room, or opening your magnum opus with five pages of landscape descriptions.  Whatever!  Just don’t bore me, I mean, your reader.

What are your favorite rules to ignore when you’re writing?

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Write where you know

“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.

So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”

Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!

But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.

Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?

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Mementos

Earlier this week, my client Wayne Gladstone asked me if I still had the copy of his manuscript I’d first read.  We were talking about the release of his debut novel, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse (which you should definitely feel free to go buy right now.  I’ll wait.), and he recalled that when I’d offered representation I’d told him that I’d been sure that I wanted to sign it, so I’d started making edits as I read.  I’d been marking mistakes when I suddenly reached a pivotal moment and wrote “holy shit!” in the margin, as I’d realized all the “mistakes” were clues building up to a major revelation.  He wanted to get that piece of paper with my “holy shit” in the margin so he could frame it.

Unfortunately, he’d misremembered.  The real story was that I’d made edit notes on my e-reader and then exclaimed “holy shit!” out loud on the subway on my way home.  Somewhat less frameable, alas.  Also not recorded for posterity.

Still, it got me thinking about publishing and the trinkets we keep.  I don’t know about the author’s side of things, but I have a bulletin board covered in thank you notes, bookmarks, and various promotional items that authors have sent my way.  I also have a postcard my client Erica Ridley sent me when she visited Galway, where I went to grad school; the New York Times crossword puzzle featuring a clue about Heather Brewer’s The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod; and a copy of one of the poems that I wrote my grad school dissertation on, to remind myself of why I went into publishing. Not to mention the star of our DGLM holiday parties, an inflatable fruitcake that Richelle Mead sent me one year, now displayed prominently on my bookshelves.

I’m all about the little reminders of how far we’ve come.  Any time I’m near a bookstore or book section with my family, I show them my name in the acknowledgments of at least a few books.  I try to restrain myself when with friends, who are less obligated to indulge me, but I rarely succeed completely. I’ve also done it at both the bookstore I worked at in college (B&N 6th Ave and 8th Street, may she rest in peace) and grad school (Dubray Books in Galway), showing off to my ex-coworkers that I wasn’t just lying about where I spend my days.  So I was both completely flattered by Wayne’s request and totally understood.  I also wish I had that to frame.  If only I had been working in hard copy!

Do you have any mementos of your publishing journey?  What do you not have yet that you’re saving a special place for on your mantel?

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Climbing Out from Under

I just got back from a terrific writer’s conference in warm, sunny Florida; Sleuthfest, hosted  by the Mystery Writer’s Association, was a beautifully run event, attended by authors who obviously thrive in a genuine community of writers.  I listened to Ace Atkins deliver a luncheon speech on persistence, and Laura Lippman deliver a frank, provocative keynote challenging the present—and artificial–schism between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I served on some panels, fielded solid pitches, invited a score of submissions, and returned not only to the frozen North, but a towering to-read pile that feels equally chilling.  I am in the midst of editing several proposals, getting ready to send out several more, negotiating contracts, and attempting to keep tabs my on inbox. I say this not to elicit any sympathy, since I know everyone else in this business is just as busy, but as a preamble to a general and sincere apology for my slowness in responding.  I know how excruciating it is to wait for a response. Remember, agents also spend time cooling our heels, drumming our fingers, and (unsuccessfully) cultivating patience.  So know that my crampons are on, my ice-axe sharp, and I am steadily scaling the Everest of my inbox.   It’s not been all slog, however.  Earlier this week my stupendous client Valerie Trueblood was shortlisted for the Pen/Faulkner Award (Hurray!), and yesterday another prodigiously gifted client, Qais Akbar Omar, placed an op-ed in the New York Times.  Not to belabor the climbing metaphor, but both of these were shots of pure 02.

 

What keeps you going when you feel utterly buried by work?

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A few thoughts about writing YA

I’ve been working with a lot of authors the last few years on the adult side who are looking to publish on the children’s side. I know I’m not the only one, as the market has surged and become a destination for talented writers whose books can often cross over to the adult market. The obvious early megahits on the YA side like Twilight and The Hunger Games have made room for more recent realistic teen novels like The Fault in Our Stars and Wonder.

I thought it was worth sharing this advice column I found in Publisher’s Weekly from published author Seth Fishman. Now that I have a few young humans of my own, I love that he says: “You’re writing for young humans, people who are the most in need of answers, people who are the most curious.” And I like the way he positions his advice from a broad perspective. Rather than focusing on plot or characters, it’s about thinking and feeling and the emotion that is so critical for adults writing for teens to get right.

Take a look and see if you YA authors have anything else to add to his list. What do you do when you’re getting ready to channel your inner teen?

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March Madness

It’s started, folks. The Morning News Tournament of Books kicked off yesterday. As you may remember, at the start of the year Jim set himself the goal of reading all seventeen books on the list; never one to avoid a challenge, I jumped right on his band wagon.

Well, I won’t ask Jim to report publically on his results, but I’m proud to share my success! So far I’ve read eleven of the books and by the end of this week I will have finished two more. Additionally, three books I read at least a hundred pages of before letting myself move on to the next title on the list (life’s too short and all that – though I won’t tell you the books that just weren’t working for me). So if you’re keeping up with the math, that makes sixteen TOB candidates under my belt, with just the second half of The Luminaries standing between me and (semi)victory.

I’m glad I co-opted Jim’s challenge, because I’ve discovered a few new favorites I might never have picked up otherwise! And because the TOB is, well, a Tournament, I decided to fill out an official bracket. Well, that was harder than I expected! After much agonizing, erasing, re-writing, second-guessing, here’s my prediction:

 

Yay, I already got one right! (Don’t worry – I filled this out before the first judgment was posted yesterday.)

If you want to play along, check out the Tourney website and download your own bracket! (We can meet back up here in a few weeks to second-guess the judges’ opinions and gloat about our brilliant guesses. Maybe I’ll even tell you which ones I actually liked best!)

Do you agree with any of my choices? Which book do you think will be the ultimate winner?