Query 101 (or many more)

August 6, 2019 § 14 Comments

An agent realizing she knows EXACTLY which editor will want your book

In publishing, August is vacation month. Not that agents and editors are literally out-of-office all month (who can afford the Hamptons anymore?), but the pace slows. Agents catch up on reading requested manuscripts, editors gear up for Christmas releases. Writers come home from workshops and retreats, or send the kids to camp, and dive into another draft.

September is query season. If you’re on your hopefully-final draft, get ready. I’ve done the query process three times—twice successfully—and here’s 7 ways to kickstart your querying.

1) Start an agent spreadsheet, no matter how far you are from “done.” Note what each agent represents, whether they’re open for submissions, tidbits from their bio/social media/interviews, what query material they want to receive and how, and their response timeline. This takes 15-30 minutes per agent. Start adding 3-5 agents a week to your list now and you won’t have hours of agent research all at once later. Add agents who aren’t right for you, either color-coded or on another page, so you don’t look them up twice by accident. Plus, you’ll have names to share when your friend writing a different genre starts her query process. (Remember to double-check agent details immediately before actually querying.)

2) Subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (for a month, if cash is an issue). Look up what agents have recently sold, and whether or not those books are in your genre. Not all agents looking for X are actually selling X. Focus your time on the agents selling books like yours.

3) Read Query Shark. This blog, run by literary agent Janet Reid, critiques novel queries. Authors often revise their query several times, evolving from ‘meh’ to ‘send your book!’ You’re not writing a novel? Read it anyway. Seeing the mistakes writers make in summarizing their stories and trying to pique an agent’s interest is valuable for memoirists and narrative nonfiction writers, too. You’ll also absorb the format and flow of a typical query.

4) If you are writing memoir or nonfiction, write a proposal. Some memoirs sell on proposal and sample chapters. Some nonfiction sells on platform alone. You may despise “platform” as a fake thing that isn’t “real writing” or “real connection.” Assembling a proposal isn’t a joyful literary romp, but it is identifying your readership and how, specifically, your book will reach those people. Want to publish traditionally? The publisher wants to know who’s going to buy your book. Want to self-publish? You want to know who’s going to buy your book. You have a soul above social media and filthy lucre? Your readers want to be able to find your powerful, personal, necessary story that will change their lives.

5) Write a synopsis. Many agents want one. A book proposal will need an outline, synopsis and/or chapter summaries. Summarizing your story in 1-3 pages (750 words or less) is a great way to see if your plot—or the part of your life you’ve focused on—is compelling. If it feels unexciting in the synopsis, write a better synopsis…or a better book.

6) Agents all have personal submissions procedures. Attach the first 25 pages. Paste the first 10 pages into the body of the email. Send the first three chapters in 12-point serif font. Attach a synopsis, paste your bio into the body of the email followed by the first 5 pages and stand on your head while pressing Send. You’ll save time later if you prep the most-requested materials in advance. Make a folder on your desktop and save the first 5, 10, 25 and 50 pages as docs. Paste them into a email and reformat because the email will kill your formatting. Save the emails in your draft folder. Now you can easily copy-paste from email to email or attach the requested pages.

7) Plan to query in stages. You get one chance per agent, per book. Blasting 100 queries without testing the waters spends your chances poorly.

– First, query 5-10 agents who aren’t your first choice. Getting requests? Keep querying. No requests for pages or fulls? Sorry, your query sucks. Revise. Get an outside opinion if you can afford it. Listen to podcasts that analyze queries. Read #10queries / #tenqueries Twitter threads.

 – Requested pages rejected? Something is wrong with your voice, style, pace, or where the story starts. Same deal: pause your querying & find the problem. If you want the help of a professional editor or query consultant, it’s much less expensive to pay for a look at your first 10-25 pages and synopsis. Apply those notes to whole manuscript.

 – Getting requests for full manuscripts? Start querying your A-list.

 – More than 3 requested full manuscripts rejected with no feedback beyond “I can’t sell this”? Something is wrong with your storytelling/structure. Pause your querying and undertake whatever editing plan works for you, whether that’s an online course, a book, a workshop or a pro editor. (If you’re getting useful feedback that you agree with, revise accordingly. If you’re getting encouraging “great but not for me” feedback, keep querying until you have 10 rejected fulls, then edit.)

Finally, query with energy but without hope. Treat it like a trip to the mall. You’d like to find a great new jacket, but you’re not devastated if your favorite store doesn’t have one. The “dream” agent is the one who loves your book and thinks she can sell it. Rejections are agents self-selecting out of the pool of “people who can sell your book.” Will rejections hurt your feelings? Absolutely. But you’re not going to get an agent (or get published) without them. Planning in advance and setting up systems for information tracking and submissions helps you approach querying as a shopper. You need a jacket; they need your business. It’s a mutual relationship built on trust and the desire to sell a beautiful thing to the people who need it most. Set yourself up for success, even before you start.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir and in person at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference August 22-25. Exciting retreat news coming soon…(hint: beautiful beaches, up-close wildlife, and leaders whose names rhyme with Minty and Pallison)

 

Things to Do While Waiting for Literary Agents and Editors to Read Your Manuscript

February 26, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz-goudarziBy Sara Goudarzi

  • Support other writers. Go to Jenny’s book launch. Instead of listening to her read, think about how the big five will outbid one another at auction for your debut novel. Make sure to thank Reese Witherspoon for turning it into an HBO mini-series at your launch.
  • Paint an accent wall to distract from the gnawing doubt in your gut. Did you know green enhances creativity? That should help you start a second novel. Carve your new work in tiny letters on the wet wall with the tip of a mechanical pencil. Pull your couch against the wall and place a chair on it. Steady yourself on the chair and write. Write like no one is watching. No one is watching. Creativity is a balancing act.
  • Watch the paint on your accent wall dry. Fall asleep while doing this. When you wake up, look around frantically. Who drew those seven penguins on the wall? It’s a sign: Penguin Random House it is. Kiss each of the penguins for good measure.
  • Detach yourself from the outcome. Stop fixating on rejections and learn to be more Zen. Gin is a sure way to help you agoniZe less ABOUT what’s not in your controLlllll. Stock up. Or is it stick up? You can’t tell, but that sure is making you laugh uncontrollably.
  • Resist the urge to turn up unannounced at agents’ offices. Limit yourself to Instagram and Twitter stalking. Physically showing up is a bad idea. Unless you wear a hat. Hats are good. And big sunglasses. Always stand behind a tree. But don’t pee. Never pee on a tree outside an agent or editor’s workplace and never let the intern see you on his way back from grabbing coffee. If your eyes meet, smile at him but pull your pants up first.
  • Ask wall penguins about aggravated stalking jail time and criminal trespassing. If they can’t help you, browse the Internet.
  • Use Jenny’s paperback launch to introduce yourself to the industry pros. While Jenny is reading yell: “Book. Book. Mine.” When everyone turns around to look at you, point at the elderly woman sitting next to you and shake your head in dismay.
  • Write crime novel. Forget writing another literary masterpiece. Use Jenny’s book as a roadmap to write genre fiction. Pull pages apart to understand how the story fits together. Or, tape the pages on your body in the shape of a dress. Ask wall penguins if you look nice.
  • Paint accent wall again. Ask your mom for paint money. Go with a blue this time. It’s soothing.
  • Write, but don’t send, letters. Cut and paste individual letters from your rejections to create ransom notes for agents and editors that you imagine kidnapping. Don’t send the notes—this form of therapy is just to help you cope with your feelings.
  • Watch blue wall dry. Make yourself pants with Jenny’s book pages this time and cry a little because you wish you hadn’t painted over your bird friends. Or are they mammals? World’s mysteries are endless.
  • Ask Mom to start a publishing company. Of course you know she already has a job as a dental assistant but how long does she want to work for the man? Yes, you do realize the dentist is your father. But what about filling the cavities in literature? Stop yelling at your mom.
  • Contact lawyer. No you didn’t really mean to kidnap (that’s like two words “kid” and “nap”) anyone. You don’t even remember dropping those in the mail. You were sending out a post card for a free snack box, the ransom notes must have slipped through. Whoops!
  • Get ready for a chance of a lifetime. You’ll see your favorite agents on the 13thand 27th. Make yourself a nice suit for the court dates. How you present yourself is everything.

___

Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her work has appeared in National Geographic News, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review and Drunken Boat and featured in a poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc., recipient of a 2017 Writers in Paradise Les Standiford fellowship and a Tin House Writers Workshop attendee. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.

That’s Not How Any of This Works

January 16, 2018 § 13 Comments

Vintage black and white photo of man and woman in Victorian dress on penny farthing bicycle with square wheels.

Pedal harder, I think we’re going somewhere!

What do we mean by “literary citizenship”? At Salon, Becky Tuch sums it up nicely:

…most agree that good Literary Citizenship entails buying from local bookstores, attending readings, subscribing to literary magazines, interviewing writers, reviewing books, reading a friend’s manuscript, blurbing books, and so on.

And while Tuch (and I) agree with the spirit of these activities, she questions their hidden purpose. Why must we be literary citizens? Because publishers barely market mid-list and literary authors. Because Amazon has radically changed the bookstore and Wattpad has disrupted the publishing pipeline. But as Tuch points out,

the burden to ameliorate the negative effects of these industry changes falls not upon those responsible for said changes, but upon writers.

We must market. We must build platform. We must generate enough profit that the publisher will ask us to make more money for them. Writers are urged to spend hard cash on publicity and countless hours making deposits into the bank of goodwill so they can withdraw favors when the time comes. Or we can self-publish, working even harder but keeping the profit–if there is any.

Literary citizenship works when it builds community. When it feeds the writer, and contributes to, as Jane Friedman writes,

…an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.

I enjoy the abundance mindset, and I feel good helping others. Not just virtuous, or morally superior, but genuinely good.

I didn’t always feel that way. You know that sharp sting of envy when a writer you know gets a prize or a publication, and a little part of your heart yells, “Hey! That should have been mine!”? I get that too. But after deliberately practicing feeling positive about other people’s success, the sting is shorter. An unsung benefit of literary citizenship is when envy is drowned by pride:

I helped with that draft.

I told her about that residency.

I encouraged him to submit that essay.

So when I found in my inbox [subjects changed to protect the ignorant]: “I finished my history of barrel-making and a book of lyric poetry about mysticism. Do you know any agents or publishers I could send them to?” my reaction surprised me.

Um, no.

I remonstrated: Come on, Allison, this is a perfectly nice person you met at a party. You’ve passed on recommendations to lots of other writers you barely know. Why not this one?

Because that’s not how any of this works.

  1. Do your own damn homework. Basic googling brings up lists of agents. Manuscript Wishlist gets even more specific. Ask writer friends about particular matches. It’s the difference between “I’m naked, tell me what clothes I can buy” and “Red shirt or green blouse with these pants?”
  2. Seriously, do the homework. Two different genres, two different subjects–pick one for now. When you’re famous and well-published, then bring out your wildly different book. Agents want debut authors focused on one topic or genre.
  3. I’ve never read this person’s work. Useful recommendations come from knowing your work and the craft level you’ve reached. Classes, workshops and conferences are great places to get professionals to read your work, and you can buy that benefit with tuition. Local writing groups (try Meetup) get you fellow readers for free.
  4. Be part of the community you want favors from. This author has never read my work (that I know of), bought my book, retweeted something I linked, written a review of the Brevity Podcast or even commented on a personal Facebook status. I do not feel connected in a favor-asking way. 4/5 of those ways to connect are free of charge.
  5. Know how big the ask is. Personally recommending an agent or a publisher is a fairly big deal. If you don’t have a close connection, join a Facebook group for authors in your genre, spend some time being helpful in the group, then ask for recommendations in a post. Plenty of people will weigh in with information also benefiting the whole group. On a personal level, my friend of twenty years recommended me to his agent…after reading my whole manuscript and concluding he wouldn’t be embarrassed. If a teacher mentions they’ll connect you with their agent, take an honest look at whether the agent is a good match, then send your best draft, hopefully making your teacher look like a gifted talent-spotter.

(My most-recommended source for a good grounding in basic publishing info and etiquette is literary agent Janet Reid’s blog. Start with the links halfway down on the right headed Rules For Writers.)

It’s not fair that writers are obliged to labor considerably more than they used to to generate sales, or that “self-publicist” is practically a full-time job. But it’s reality. So learn how it works, do it slow, and do it right.

__________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and not usually this cranky.

 

Beyond AWP: The Benefits of Attending A Smaller Writing Conference

April 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

Creative Nonfiction magazine’s marketing associate Jennifer Stewart guest blogs on the merits of smaller, more intimate, more accessible conferences, now that the annual AWP Extravaganza packs in upwards of 13,000 writers. (Jennifer makes a more specific pitch for CNF’s own smaller conference, just a little over a month from now, on the CNF website, in an article entitled “Ten Reasons Why You Should Attend CNF’s Writers’ Conference.”)

AWP Bookfair Madness

AWP Bookfair Madness

You have bills to pay.  You have a job demanding your attention.  You have writing, of course, and never enough time to do it. Bottom line – why should you spend good money to travel somewhere else to listen to other people talk about writing?

Despite the financial cost and the travel time, going to conferences is a vital part of being a writer.  This probably isn’t new information to you, so we won’t even need to mention the usual things people say about conferences, the networking and the panels and the (occasional) open bars and the stories resulting from that open bar that you will wittily deliver to friends back home. And while you can get plenty of those experiences at a big conference like the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, which can be a delightful (if somewhat overwhelming) experience, there are myriad other writing conferences around the country, many of which can offer a more intimate and focused experience.

I would also argue that you can get more out of a smaller conference, which provides more intimacy and more face time with attendees and presenters. Likewise, smaller conferences, because of the intimacy they breed, invite more honesty, more guard-down talk about publishing, and what’s really going on.  It’s a rapidly changing environment and the role of the author in the process is expanding.  Smaller conferences are a good way to get a feel for this fluidity, and perhaps some inspiration for how you can make this dynamic work for you.

Some of these smaller conferences can be considered half conference, half writing retreat; some focus on what’s trending in publishing.  The best ones, perhaps, offer a little something of everything. Here are four good reasons to invest in a conference this year:

  1. Inspiration — Because conferences take us out of our daily lives and plunk us down in unfamiliar territory, they can be energizing, even if (sometimes perhaps especially if) you have a disagreement with a presenter, writer, or speaker.  This is energy you can translate to the page.  Some conferences even help people along by offering workshops, boot camps, or individual writing sessions.  These sessions force you to get words out, because, well, people are watching.  Writer’s block disappears when you realize you might be THAT writer, the one who couldn’t start the assignment. Which leads us to the next point:
  1. Accountability — If you go to even a few conferences, you’ll realize that this writing world, this literary world … it’s small.  That brunette you talked to at AWP last year, whose name you couldn’t remember even if a firing squad was involved?  You’re going to run into her again.  And when you do, you want to be able to say, “Yes!  I’ve written the essay I told you I was working on.”  So just in case she’s at the conference, you’ll draft that essay, so help you, you will.
  1. Camaraderie — Social media is great; of course it is. And who could live without email?  But electronics can’t compete with face-to-face interaction.  Suppose that brunette tells you about submitting to this new trendy literary magazine she found out about on Twitter.  They rejected her.  You tell her about how you submitted to a different trendy new literary magazine and your work was also rejected.  Maybe you go on to tell each other about a contest or a call for work and eventually you both get published and it would never have happened if not for (insert conference name here).  This sounds like networking, but really, that’s just a fancy way of saying, “make friends who work in your industry.”  It happens quite naturally at a conference.  And this can, perhaps, be most helpful in the agent arena.
  1. Access — You can, of course, meet agents at bigger conferences, but at a smaller conference you often get more face time with them, and you can even arrange this in advance.  Some conferences offer manuscript critiques with agents and editors, which means they read your work before they ever see you.  You are automatically off the slush pile, and you are likely to get a more thoughtful and detailed response, even if it’s still a rejection. In other words, smaller conferences offer meetings with agents that have the potential to speed up the publishing process.

We should stop thinking of attending a conference as a luxury, or as penance for being a writer.  Writing conferences do good.  They can be fun.  And perhaps most importantly, they help writers be writers.  And we need all the help we can get.

Jennifer Stewart is the founder and director of Burlesque Press, which hosts the annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball in New Orleans, and publishes The Burlesque Press Variety Show.  Jennifer was also the winner of the 2010 Faulkner Wisdom prize for Novel in Progress for her novel Wanton Women.

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