October 10, 2019 § 5 Comments
Definitely with a plot summary. For queries, that’s a 1-2 paragraph description of the protagonist, their major problem, their biggest obstacle, and a couple of key events. For an elevator pitch, that’s 1-2 sentences like “In SITUATION, CHARACTER must ACTION against OBSTACLE towards GOAL or else STAKES.”
Queries thrive on comps—”My book will appeal to readers of Not-Super-Famous-But-Widely-Recognized-Book and Medium-Notable-Book.” With comps, don’t aim too high (Eat Pray Love is a phenomenon, not a comp), too low (a book that sold poorly is not a selling point), or overly aspirational (no Nobel-Prize winners).
Genre describes a book’s content, by what the label on the bookshelf says. Romance. Thriller. Fantasy. Genre is much less specific than Amazon listings with subrankings like “#3 in Memoir-Women Writers-Zookeepers-Penguin Specialists.” Memoir is a genre, but it will be shelved with Biography, or based on the written experiences, somewhere like Travel or Addiction and Recovery.
Tricky but useful, category helps us pick the right agents to query, and entice those agents to read our manuscript. Category is not content; it’s who will read this book. Young Adult is a category containing the genres YA Mystery, YA Romance, etc.
For memoirists and novelists, the most relevant categories are commercial, high-concept, book-club, upmarket and literary.
- Commercial means the book is not too hard to read—usually 7th-10th-grade level—and appeals to a wide range of readers. The DaVinci Code is commercial. Commercial books sell in grocery stores and airports as well as bookstores.
- High-concept books can be summed up in one fresh, intriguing sentence: “A man’s wife frames him for her own murder” (Gone Girl). “An autistic boy solves the murder of a dog, told in his own voice” (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime). Gone Girl is high-concept commercial domestic suspense; Curious Incident is high-concept book-club fiction. High-concept books often top libraries’ reserved lists, and have front-facing displays in bookstores.
- Book-club books are commercially accessible, but showcase deep issues. The book’s themes or plot tie into a larger cultural question. The blurb for Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light (crisis in an abortion clinic from multiple conflicting perspectives) sums this up well: “…a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel.” Enough meaty ideas for a club to wrestle with; not slanted too far to one side; a compelling plot readers don’t need an MFA to understand. These books show up in Oprah and Reese Witherspoon and Emma Watson’s lists, and as community-reading books.
- Upmarket means smarter-than-average, but with wider appeal and more action than full-on literary fiction. Upmarket books are less likely to depend on a twist ending and are read for the quality of writing as much as for the story. Wolf Hall is upmarket historical fiction. H is for Hawk is upmarket memoir. These books show up in Booker Prize and National Book Award lists.
- Literary is a quality of the writer’s voice rather than a genre or category. Sometimes literary means “written really well, but it’s hard to sum up the plot.” Literary novels tend to be “quiet” and character-driven with emphasis on theme and mood, but there are also literary mysteries and historical fiction. For querying, it can sound arrogant to call one’s own work “literary,” (and it begs judgement of your writing craft) so instead use literary comps, mention your literary previous publications, and in your personalization to the agent, stress your attraction to literary books they represent.
Upmarket, book club and literary works are usually shelved together in Fiction or Nonfiction unless they are specifically another genre; high-concept and commercial books are out on display tables. If you’re unsure how to classify your book, walk into a bookstore and notice where your book might be shelved. What else is on that shelf, and does your work fit in? If someone reads the most popular book on the same shelf, and they pick up your book next, will they feel like they’ve discovered something amazing in a realm they already love?
Write your book first, with no regard for how it will be classified or sold. Use your creative spirit to get your story on the page before worrying about labels. But once you’re ready to query, locate your book’s place in the world. Chances are it has some friends—and those book-companions will help you reach the readers who need your words.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her stable of work-in-progress includes one nonfiction writing reference, one commercial thriller, one YA book-club fiction, one YA literary thriller and a probably misplaced optimism about her ability to sell them all. On Instagram she writes book-club memoir—follow her @guerillamemoir.
August 6, 2019 § 14 Comments
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.
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)
November 29, 2018 § 11 Comments
The first time I queried a book, I made a list of 100 agents and queried 35. Most were cold pitches: I found the agent online, researched what they represented and how to query them, and sent off my query+five pages. Or query+ten pages. Or +first three chapters pasted below. Or +fifty pages as a docx attachment and a synopsis of up to 500 words using only serif font and be standing in Virabhadrasana II when you hit send.
I jumped through all the hoops I was told to jump through. Most sent form rejections, or slightly personal rejections, or didn’t respond at all. Two agents asked for the full manuscript, and both of those agents were referrals.
A referral is:
A personal recommendation
From someone who has read your work
Preferably the work you’re querying right now
And knows the agent or editor well enough that their word is trusted.
Sometimes an agent who rejects your query suggests you try another agent, but most referrals come from fellow writers with a business or personal relationship with the editor or agent.
Referrals are little golden tickets to the head of the line. You may not make it out of the chocolate factory, but referred queries get read sooner and more carefully. The agent is more likely to ask for pages even if they don’t love the query, but they do love your mutual connection.
What isn’t a referral? Posting to Facebook:
I wrote a memoir about X can anyone tell me what agents might be interested in that subject matter?
This is largely futile. No-one wants to offer up a name and then the writer emails with Violet Beauregarde referred me because giving a name isn’t a referral. Plus, agents’ wishlists change. The agent seeking travel memoirs six months ago just got five good proposals in her inbox and doesn’t need more. For current subject- and genre-specific information, use the agent’s own website, Manuscript Wishlist and #MSWL on Twitter.
Just how many metaphorical chocolate bars are you going to have to eat to get your golden ticket? Maybe none—maybe you’re already close with someone whose agent is looking for exactly what you wrote. But most writers need to start unwrapping those Wonka Bars even before they’ve finished their manuscript.
1) Start making your agent list now. What writers do they represent, and do you know any? Look up writers you know or have studied with—who are their agents?
If you know someone connected to an agent you’d like to query, buy and review that person’s books. Does the writer teach? Attend their workshops and ask intelligent questions. Join their mailing list. Tweet about their work and retweet (with a positive comment) events and books they promote. If you know them in person and they aren’t your teacher, offer to read their work. You don’t have to be at the same place in your writing careers—it’s OK for newbies to say, “If you’re ever looking for a reader, I’d love to practice giving feedback.”
2) Finish your book. Your work reflects on the person who referred you. This is time for your best final-draft work, proofread and polished. Write your query, get feedback and make revisions.
3) Make it easy to say No. Your writer-acquaintance truly may not have time, or maybe Violet already referred three people to her agent this month. Phrases like “I understand you may not have time” or “if you think this might be a fit for Agent Gloop” or “I’m querying widely but if you’re able” let them off the hook. Even if Violet’s true feeling is, This is a dreadful book no way am I referring it, she might like the next one, so give her a gracious escape. But do ask outright: it takes more time to read between the lines than respond to a clear request.
4) Make it easy to say Yes. Paste your query and first 5 pages (or whatever the desired agent’s guidelines specify) below your email signature. If Violet’s feeling it, she can hit forward and it’s done. This also lets her skim your work to remember you’re a fantastic writer and she’ll look good by recommending you. If Violet would rather introduce you in a new email, she knows you’re ready to go while the referral is fresh in the agent’s mind.
5) Thank you note. Referring connects the other writer’s reputation to you, and it takes time from their writing day. Send an email or write a quick note. No gifts that cost, because that feels like pay-to-play. Write the email in a way that requires no additional response: your goal throughout this process is to take as little of the referring writer’s time and attention as possible.
Referrals are a golden gift. But they aren’t the only way to get attention. Steps 1 and 2 are basic literary citizenship, and we can all do them whether we’re querying soon or not. Sure, some of this feels like literary nepotism, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s part of being a writer, so get started—those WonkaBars aren’t going to eat themselves.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and currently in the query trenches again.
July 6, 2017 § 10 Comments
I’ve been querying a book and it has not been going well. I had a few requests from conference meetings and Twitter pitchfests, but in the actual emailing-agents-I’ve-never-met process, I was just not getting the response I hoped for.
This was deeply puzzling.
I definitely workshopped the heck out of the actual book. It’s a Young Adult novel so I had kids read it (they showed up 40 minutes early for school to discuss it, perhaps the best compliment my work has ever received). Good adult readers read it and gave feedback I used.
And I workshopped the heck out of the query. I read all of Query Shark (highly recommended!). I participated in Twitter pitchfests. I ran the query by query workshop leaders.
But not too many nibbles.
A couple of weeks ago, two of my writer buddies and I were sitting in a curtained-off cafe. It was Ramadan, so pretty much only restaurants in hotels were open, and they had to make sure food and eating weren’t visible from outside, hence the huge swath of decorator-beige separating us from the lobby of the Sheraton. I said, “I gotta run this query by you guys,” and I read it out loud.
Writer Buddy #1: Huh. I’ve heard you describe your book and that doesn’t sound like it at all.
Writer Buddy #2: I’ve read your book, and it’s not about Controversial and Off-Putting Thing in Your Query at all. Sure, that’s a theme, but it’s really about More Topical and Less Alienating Thing.
Me: Wait, what?
A lightbulb went on over my head, and it was a good thing because that curtain made the cafe really dark. After the waitress was done with the lamp, I leaned in to my friends and said, “I just realized…people have read the book, and people have read the query, but I don’t think anyone’s read both of them.” There wasn’t anyone to tell me the book wasn’t represented by the query, because I had missed the vital step of having someone read them together.
Midway through the query rewrite, I noticed I’d avoided the word “bully,” because in my generation it was a little bit cheesy and silly (a bully was someone in an Afterschool Special that adults would solemnly warn you against and had nothing to do with the actual daily torment of people picking on you). I called another friend twenty years younger than me, and he said, actually, bully was now a very powerful word with a lot of impact and meant something pretty serious and real. I had been wrong about that, too.
Whether writing fiction or memoir, essays or books, when we’re writing we’re in the trees. We’re shaping and trimming and generating at a level where our brain fills in gaps on the page, too close to get real perspective. We see the leaves closest to us until we ask someone else to walk around to the other side. Words may not mean to everyone what they mean to us, or to our generation, so ask both older and younger readers to take a look. Make sure someone sees both the book and the query, and ask your early readers (before you even write the query), what they think your book is about.
The answer may surprise even you.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at VCFA’s Postgraduate Writing Conference August 7-13 and the Writers Digest Conference in New York August 18-20. Holler if you’ll be there, too–maybe you can tell her what the next book is really about.
October 27, 2016 § 5 Comments
I wish I was a 25-year-old wunderkind. I wish I was writing literary fiction, getting short stories in the New Yorker while still at my elite NYC high school. I wish writing was my first career instead of my fourth. I wish I was a protege, a shooting star, a member of a Buzzfeed list.
But I’m not.
I’m sure there’s something very meaningful to write about how life experience has given me more material and perspective and everything happens at the right time blah blah blah, but it doesn’t really take away the sting of not being famous already. Not being anointed, not being someone’s critical darling, not going viral or even being quietly respected among a cadre of independent bookstore owners who shove my book into their shoppers’ hands, “You must read this.”*
What takes away the sting is work. Putting my head down, tapping out words, showing up to the blog, showing up to the page. Showing up for the writers I edit/advise/coach, reminding them it really does take time and their personal timeline is OK, telling them the steps I’m trying to take myself.
Sharon Van Epps has a handle on the steps. Her recent series of blog posts are invaluable to writers at any stage, but especially to those of us who feel like we’re running a little behind on this whole “get-published” game.
In “On Being A Late Bloomer: AKA ‘I Finally Got A Literary Agent”,” Ms. Van Epps shares her long journey, from fiction to memoir, formal classes to private coaching, unsuccessful publisher meeting to successful querying. She gives shout-outs to our first two Brevity Podcast guests, Dani Shapiro and Andre Dubus III, and also details one of the sickest grad-school power plays I’ve ever heard of.
In another post, Ms. Van Epps covers the process of making a list of literary agents to query–where to find them, how to judge their quality, ways to end-run the blind query process–and stresses how important it is to make your list gradually over several months so that it’s not totally overwhelming (hear, hear!).
Her two most recent posts cover how to structure and personalize a query letter, including a great tip about linking relevant essays directly from the query email–one of those things I hadn’t yet heard of but is an incredibly smart and useful move!–and the actual rhythm of the query process, with great insights about her logic for timing it the way she did.
If you’re already in the query process, these blog posts can reassure you, you’re doing it correctly, or help you adjust your rhythm. If you’re not there yet, it’s pretty awesome to see another long slow timeline and how it played out to success.
It’s OK to do this getting-published thing slow. And doing it slow is still doing it right.
*If you’re a New Yorker subscriber, the article The Science of the Sleeper is available with better formatting in the New Yorker archives.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better.