Query Tips from an Agent

 

Very few, if any, authors look forward to writing the dreaded query letter. And honestly, who can blame them? After spending countless hours alone and staring at a computer screen crafting what will eventually become your novel, your baby, you have to condense all of that hard work into just 3-5 paragraphs. You have just ONE PAGE to get an editor interested enough in your novel to want to read it.  Just thinking about it is enough to give any author a headache. However, if you are reading this you can thank Agile Writers and David H. Morgan for making a tough task just a little bit easier.  David was graciousness enough to spend some time with members of Agile Writers, critiquing letters and giving some very informative advice on the ins and outs of writing a successful query.

 

FOCUS ON THE DRAMA

drama-clipart

When an agent is reading a query letter the worst thing that can happen is that they get bored and toss it to the side. You only have a limited amount of time to gain the editor’s interest and in order to gain that interest you must do two things: focus on the drama and establish an emotional connection.

First, what is drama? Many are under the misconception that drama comes from the situation. Wrong. Drama comes from the character. Take two people being stuck an elevator for example. Not very dramatic right? Now let’s say this elevator is at a court house and the two people stuck in it is a father whose daughter has been murdered and the defendant accused of the crime. This situation is highly unlikely to come about, but the point is, the situation is made more dramatic because of the characters that are placed in it.

Alongside drama there must also be an emotional connection to the character. The editor must care about the character or else why would they want to read past the query letter? If there is no emotional involvement there is no character. The above situation for example, most people would feel sympathy for a father whose daughter had been murdered. And they would care enough to want to know how the story ends. Does the father find peace after confronting the defendant? Does he attack the defendant in the elevator? Or does he find out that the man accused is innocent? The editor would want to read more because they are emotionally invested into the situation.

Remember, without emotional involvement there is no drama and without drama there is no keeping the editor’s attention.

 

DO YOUR RESEARCH        research-clip-art

Before you can begin writing a query letter you need to research the agency and agent that you are going to send your query to. During your research you need to find out the following information:

  • Who are you sending the letter to? Always address the agent or editor you are writing to. Take the time to find out the name of the person who will be reading your query letter. A query addressed to the agency tells the editor that you were either too lazy or just didn’t care enough to find out their name.
  • What does the editor require you send along with the query? Do they want the first chapter, first three chapters, or just a synopsis?
  • Double check that the particular editor you are writing still works at that company.
  • Call and see how the agent prefers to be address. Do they prefer to be called Mr., Mrs., Dear, or do they prefer to just be address by their full name?
  • Make sure you are pitching your work to the right agent or editor. You don’t want to send your query to an editor that only publishes mysteries and your novel is a historical romance.

DON’T TELL THE EDITOR WHAT HE OR SHE ALREADY KNOWS

  • “I am pitching my 60,000 word YA-“The editor has stopped reading because you are telling them something they already know. The fact that you sent them a query letter has already told them that you are pitching a novel so just leave out the word pitch altogether.
  • “I am hoping to pique your interest-“of course you are hoping to pique their interest or else you wouldn’t be writing a query.
  • When describing your novel do not say that you have written a murder mystery fiction novel. The word fiction is redundant, it is already known that your novel is a work of fiction.

SELL THE BOOK, NOT YOURSELF

One thing David Morgan said that really stood out was, “The editor do not have to like you but they do have to like your book.” The main purpose of a query letter is to SELL YOUR BOOK. You may want to point out every writing accomplishment you have to your name, but don’t. Include your writing career at the end of the letter. Remember we want to focus on the drama, your writing career is not drama.

You should avoid:sell-clip-art

  • Biographies. The editor does not need to know about your childhood.
  • “I recently read…” They do not care what you have read or are reading.
  • Comparisons. Yes you need to sell your book but do so by avoiding comparing your novel to already successful novels. An editor does not like being told what to think. If your novel is the next Lord of the Rings Trilogy, then let the editor come to that conclusion themselves.
  • Pitching trilogies. Pitching a trilogy may make the editor feel as if he or she must take a package deal. And they may not want to take that chance, especially if you are an unknown author

Stay Focused

When writing a query letter remember to stay on topic. Do not begin writing about the novel and then jump to what your inspiration was or when you and that particular editor met. Start with introducing your novel and then continue to write about your novel. Anything else will give the editor the impression that you jump around and cannot stay on subject. They will assume that your novel will be like your query letter.

Don’t spend too much time on other characters. The main character should be the focus of the letter at all times. The editor or agent that reads your query needs to get to know the main character and come to care about what happens to the main character. If not, they have no reason to read past the query. Your main character needs to remain in the spotlight at all times.

A FEW MORE TIPS FROM DAVID

  • Get the word count, genre, and title of your novel out ASAP. Don’t make the editor read an entire paragraph before getting this information.
  • “I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a long relationship….” WRONG. Do not write this. Try: “I look forward to your response” and even more desirable would be, “I hope you will find (title of your novel) to be an appropriate book for your list.”
  • If you have previously met the editor or agent whether or not to mention it depends on the context of the meeting. If you met him or her at a writer’s conference they will most likely not remember you. They meet a lot of people at numerous conferences every year and they are required to be nice at these events. But, if you have met in a more private setting then you may include it. Do Not take up an entire paragraph on how you met. Just a sentence or two will do.
  • MAKE SURE YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR NOVEL BEFORE QUERYING!!!!

When writing a query letter don’t be nervous, take a deep breath and remember that in the end agents need authors. You just have to get them interested.

 

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Authorpreneur

imagesConfession time. Half of this word really scares me. Also, it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not so sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. I don’t have the answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.

Agile Writers, what do you think? Are you as ambivalent about the term “authorpreneur” as I am?

TIP: Simply Publish It

If you want to get your work out in the simplest possible way at the lowest possible cost, consider Smashwords.com. You put your lightly-formatted Microsoft Word document into their engine and it converts it to Apple iBook, Barnes&Noble Nook, Kobe, Sony, and many other formats. Then Smashwords will distribute the eBook to all the different publishers AND take in all your royalties and display it in a convenient dashboard.

It’s simply the easiest way to reach the non-Kindle marketplace! Be sure to read their guides for formatting (no tables and no fancy fonts). And get published right away!

Literary vs. Genre: Do I Have to Choose?

literary-vs-genre1So, just how wide is the gap between Literary and Genre Fiction? I found two relevant recent articles that helped me think about this topic:

Firstly, “Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction” by Steve Petite, in The Huffington Post. This article concludes,

“In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”

And “A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate” by Joshua Rothman, in The New Yorker. In it, Rothman contends,

“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”

Rothman goes on to make a case for such a system already existing in Northrop Frye’s work, and applying this system to a modern novel that seems to straddle the Literary and Genre divide—“Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel.

The Agile Writer Method is, ostensibly, for genre fiction—crime, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, sci-fi, western and a newer variety known as inspirational. It is very well-suited to the somewhat formulaic nature of these works.

But I find nothing in the method that precludes its use for crafting Literary Fiction.

I came to Agile Writers nearly one year ago with very little idea of what I wanted to write, but a clear understanding of what I like to read. When it comes to novels, I prefer Literary Fiction. I just wasn’t exposed to much Genre Fiction, aside from one aunt who reads Romances, and a period of time in which my then-teenage brother read a lot of Westerns. My parents are both non-fiction lovers. The books I was assigned in school were mostly Literary Fiction, apart from a few classics predecessors of the contemporary Genre world. I simply never learned to enjoy Genre Fiction.

So, naively, I assumed that the Agile Writer Method, which is based in large part on the most universal story ever told—The Hero’s Journey—as it was traced by Joseph Campbell, would pertain to whatever kind of story I had to tell.

When forced to consider choosing a genre for my book in the Storyboarding Process (the planning stage at Agile Writers), I settled on ‘Inspirational’ by default—my story didn’t fit any of the other genres. And yet, most of Inspirational Fiction is actually Christian Inspirational Fiction. My story didn’t fit that distinction either. From a marketing standpoint, I’d probably be a fool to label my book Buddhist Inspirational Fiction, though it does have “Buddhist themes,” since self-identifying Buddhists make up less than 1% of Americans. (Never mind the longstanding affinity for Buddhist ideas among literary circles—The Transcendentalists and The Beatniks were both heavily influenced by Eastern Wisdom Traditions.) I feel more comfortable calling it Literary Fiction than Non-Christian Inspirational Fiction, though I have utilized every element of the Agile Writers methodology and theory.

But I don’t think it matters what label I ultimately choose. I, like my fellow Agile Writers, aim to write a hero’s tale. We want to tell the story of someone who gets a call to action, overcomes their fears, and emerges transformed at the end of the story by the trials they have endured.

In order to do that we need a strong protagonist—a hero with agency. The Agile Writer method helps us to arrange the plot in such a way that the reader is taken on the full journey of our hero. We must set the right obstacles in his/her path in order to make his/her transformation believable.

But, to me, the story is about the transformation of the hero. It’s not about the obstacle course it takes to get there. And if that isn’t the essence of Literary Fiction, I don’t know what is.

How the reader chooses to utilize the book—as an escape from reality or an emotional journey—as Petite sets up the divide, is really up to him or her. I, as the writer, can only write what I feel needs to be written. I think any hero’s journey—whether Literary or Genre—is equipped for entertainment or elucidation, whatever the reader is open to receive.

A Dragon Named ‘Publishing’

DDP_logoThe journey of writing a novel, or other lengthy work, is a bit of a hero’s journey unto itself.

For months or even years you keep your head down, diligently doing your work, the daily effort of writing. Maybe you get feedback from a few trusted others, you make changes, you cycle through edits and polish paragraphs.

Then the day comes—the exultant, terrifying day—when you are finished. The novel is complete. And homeless, you suddenly realize. This thing that you have labored over tirelessly must be set out into the world in some fashion. After all, writing—for all of its innate fulfillment through the process—is an act of communication.

Writers in the modern era face a choice that is totally unprecedented in literary history. We can choose to go it alone all the way to the finish line. Self-publishing has a growing share of the market. With that comes self-designing and self-marketing.

If you, like me, have always dreamed of that pristine white letter coming in the mail,

Dear Ms. Hill,

We are pleased to inform you that we at Random House loved your manuscript and are prepared to offer you a publishing contract complete with a handsome advance to get you through writing your next book. . .

It would seem that those days have passed. More often than not, those sorts of publisher-writer relationships are becoming relics. And, the common wisdom among many of today’s fiction writers is that traditional publishing can still leave you doing all the work of marketing and somehow getting only a swiss cheese version of your book’s sales.

I will venture to say that the skills that make you a good writer do not necessarily translate into the skills that make you an effective editor, graphic designer, marketer, and sales director.

New skill sets aside, these things require a Teflon belief in yourself and your book. Who better to advocate for the work you are so intimately and passionately connected to than yourself, though?

I think you need bravery to write honestly. I think you need bravery to put what you have written into the world. I think you need bravery to declare that your work is worthy of an audience.

This need for bravery is one way the writing process acts upon the writer, refining our humanity, if we are willing to do the work it takes to invest totally in our books and then separate from them when the time comes: sending them out of the nest like our mind’s grown children.

The merits of traditional or self-publishing must be carefully weighed by each author when the time comes. The proliferation of the written word, and the democratizing effect of the internet, surely levels the playing field. There are more published authors than ever before, but there are also more potential readers.  I will not pretend to know which kind of publishing is “better.”

What I do know is that writers need the expert advice of those who speak a different first language, and can act as interpreters and translators from the unknown lands of publishing. Agile Writers provides just such opportunities through our “Beyond Agile Writers” series, to comb the minds of expert graphic designers, book sellers, editors and publishers.

You must slay that final dragon called Publishing for yourself. But, don’t leave your Armor of Knowledge at home.