August 23, 2022 § 17 Comments
Except writers. Writers love prologues.
By Allison K Williams
I’ve heard from agent after agent: Don’t send the prologue. When you query, start with Chapter One. Memoirs, novels, narrative nonfiction–skip the intro and get us into the story you’re telling. Yet, plenty of great books have prologues. So why can’t we?
In a published book, the first pages have gone through a much longer process with writer, agent and editor, to make sure they suitably set up the story or the subject. In early-stage manuscripts, the prologue is the tonsils of the book: we only notice it because it’s bothering us.
Often (and especially in novels), a prologue sets up characters or action that are peripheral to the book. As one reader says: I tend not to like prologues, because I read them and get excited, and then the “real” action with the “real” characters starts in the first chapter. The prologue is a bait-and-switch. (This is also why it’s generally a bad idea to open with a dream or vision).
In memoir in particular, we are already at a disadvantage in the drama & tension department. The reader knows you survived, and thrived enough to write a book about it. Your own writing skill is already letting the reader know you made it through the adventure. Too often, a memoir’s “Introduction” spells out the story to come, fills in backstory, or reassures the reader it’s going to be all right. (We’ve got a map and we’re gonna follow it exactly! No tension or drama to worry about here!)
Sellable memoirs are often those that intersect with current cultural issues or larger world concerns. The temptation is to write an introduction that explains or explores that connection, that tells the reader, “You’re about to read something really meaningful, here’s why it matters! Trust me! It’s totally going to matter!”
On the flip side, some memoir introductions say, “Yes, I’ll tell you a very traumatic story and I’m sorry to tell you nothing in the larger world has changed, so please don’t bother reading with hope or anticipation of something better.”
Even if your prologue is amazing, it can still be better to leave it out of your query and send an agent or publisher pages starting with chapter one. After a long day of weeding through an inbox full of bad prologues, it’s harder for yours to be considered on its own merits.
So when is a Prologue or Introduction to your memoir a great idea?
Larger cultural relevance…as told by SOMEONE ELSE. Using your agent or publisher, or your own chutzpah and persistence, recruit a leading expert or prominent figure in the field you’re writing about to write an Introduction. They don’t have to be A-level famous–just important in their particular niche. Their job is to assert your work’s place in the zeitgeist, and their endorsement is the “show.” The fact that they agreed to do it is proof your book matters.
Needed context or information about your method. For example, Teri Ott’s Necessary Risks: Challenges Privileged People Need to Face discusses the ways she’s protected the privacy of those she’s writing about, how she’s capitalizing races (Black, Brown) and why, and why she’s using “marginalized” instead of “minority” as a descriptor. These are all practices that are being defined and refined as the book comes into the world, and it’s important for readers to know she’s made specific choices and why.
For a more story-driven book, a prologue can show a promise of larger importance or change of character, as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. When Cheryl’s boot accidentally flies off a cliff, she’s shocked; then throws the other boot over the cliff. The person she is in that moment is a person in action, a person who’s going to change. We’re ready then for backstory showing “how the heck did this sad, marriage-destroying addict become someone who’s strong enough to keep hiking without boots?” The opening scene promises the reader, Stay with me through this sadness and death…hope is coming, and it won’t be sappy and easy when it gets here.
In personal essays, humor and satire, a strong prologue can recognize the reader’s interaction with the book, encourage them to bond with the author on the journey they’re about to take together. In Baratunde Thurston’s How To Be Black, he writes:
Welcome to How to Be Black, a book I hope will serve as a thrust of blackness in your general direction.
First, let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. This book is not How to Become a Black Person If You Are Not Already Black. You cannot use this book as a magic potion. You cannot digest the printed copy and expect some supernatural physical transformation beyond painful indigestion. If you purchased the book with the intention of changing your race, I thank you for your money, but there will be no refunds. None.
Thurston clearly establishes he relationship with the reader: I’m going to call you on your shit. But you’ll like it.
Take a look at your own Prologue or Introduction. What does it actually do? Are you explaining the story, or establishing a relationship? Telling us your work matters, or letting someone else prove that it does? If you’re writing shorter work, what function is that first paragraph serving? Your first words to the reader set the tone for their relationship to your work. Make them a meaningful moment.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Want to write a better beginning? Join her tomorrow for Beautiful Beginnings, Brilliant Endings, a webinar with Creative Nonfiction Magazine (yes, there’s a replay!) Register now.
April 21, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Di Brown
I’m querying a memoir.
Is there any single sentence in a writer’s life that is as debilitating, exhilarating, and soul-crushing?
Got a gut-wrenching story that took a decade to live, two to recover from, and five years to write? Summarize it in two to three paragraphs. Synopsis. Outline. Show the arc. Outline your platform. Demonstrate the market. Do it really well and an agent might glance at the first ten pages. Or not.
In most cases, I’ll never know. Because agents don’t write back. I’ve sent out ten queries this month, and I’ll be lucky if I get a response to even one of them. Is there a silence more deafening than a four, six, eight, twelve week wait that ends in…nothing?
“If I handled my mail the way agents do,” I whined to another writer, “I’d get fired in a heartbeat. Months-long waits? No status updates? Don’t bother to respond at all? Not a chance.”
“But…you do the same thing.”
“Are you KIDDING me? I most certainly do not!” I work in IT. I have the stats to prove how quickly and consistently I reply.
“You answer every person, every message?”
“I’m sure I occasionally miss a few but overall, yes.”
“Every network management company, training provider, security vendor…”
“Well, not all the cold-call sales spam, unless it’s something we have a need for, but all the people…”
And that’s when it hit me: In that agent’s inbox, I’m the spam.
I see my queries as a business communication: Dear Agent, let’s chat about this project and see whether we can team up to get it off the ground. I can’t conceive how they could simply ignore it, disregard the courtesy of even the most perfunctory reply.
But to the agent, I’m not “people.” I’m one of a hundred cold-call messages they received yesterday. A hundred messages they need to dispose of to make room for the hundred that will arrive today. The people in their mailbox are clients, publishers, editors, media outlets, reviewers, lawyers, and book club reps. I’m the sales spam. And that agent is managing their day the same way that I manage mine.
But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.
A lifetime ago, I worked for a telemarketing company—in the office, not on the phones. I was not cut out for sales. I worked with some amazing sales reps, and even the best loathed cold-calling. The success rate was awful, no matter how talented you were. Cold calls didn’t convert to sales often enough for the commissions to pay the rent.
And here I am, thirty years later, cold-calling agents in batches of ten. One of a hundred voices invading their inbox and demanding “check out my product.”
If I was not cut out for sales, am I not cut out for this? Would I be better off just self-publishing, and avoiding the endless black hole of querying? Tempting, but the reality is that if I self-publish, my success would still depend on my ability to market and sell my book.
Maybe I should just give it up altogether.
Or maybe I should climb out of the center of that black hole and get a different perspective. Embrace the silence.
I am the spam. I send cold-call emails to agents, calling out to them to look at MY product.
Choose me! Choose me!
The majority of my queries get deleted. The handful of agents who want to know “what happened next” often decide it’s not topical enough, it’s too similar to something they already represent, my platform is insufficient. With or without regret, they click the delete button just as fast as I do for the vendors who email me each day.
And it doesn’t mean anything. Not when I do it, not when they do it.
Some days I am still tempted to mass-mail every agent on Publishers Marketplace a link to my how-to videos, and suggest they set up some automated rules for their email accounts so I will get a darn kiss-off note when they categorize my query as “decline”. (I’d get a lot of agent attention, but probably not the kind I’m looking for.)
But I’m staying in the game.
I have something to say. I believe it matters enough, can matter enough to enough readers that it’s worth the effort to find an agent and a publisher to partner with. I think about how many times those telemarketers—the really talented ones—would get hung up on before finally making a sale. They needed continuous sales to pay the rent. I only need one to turn a dream into reality.
When I send my next ten queries, I won’t expect any of those agents to answer me, because I know I am the spam. I will shout into the void, “who wants a memoir about a girl who runs away from home to become James Bond!” and I will be greeted, over and over, with silence. A silence that isn’t rude, dismissive, insulting, unprofessional, or a cosmic chorus of “no”. Just the absence of “yes”.
I don’t need those ten people to take time out of their day to tell me that I’m the spam. I only need to hear from the one who wants to know what happened next.
Di Brown can’t decide what to do when she grows up, so she’s put off growing up until she has a plan. In the interim, she’s been a Cold War spy, learned to knit (badly), program computers (well), and had stories and essays published in anthologies on three continents. Find her on the web at www.dianabrown.net, or stop by her YouTube channel for technology tips (including how to “Automate Your Inbox”).
April 12, 2022 § 14 Comments
Last week, literary agent Lauren Spieller tweeted:
Ms. Spieller also said she’d answered 206 already. A writer acquaintance huffily responded this must be why he wasn’t connecting with an agent: Most queries probably aren’t even read.
I can empathize with the throes of discouragement when a creation you’ve spent years on isn’t finding a match…but that’s not accurate.
First, some context. Ms. Spieller had reopened to queries after closing for four months. She updated her Manuscript Wish List and announced that on Twitter, creating immediate interest. Some of the volume was pent-up demand—authors actively waiting for her to open, queries ready for “send.” More typically, agents get anywhere from 20-200 queries a day.
Can they truly read them all?
Think about something you are very, very good at. A subject you’re an expert in; a skill you’ve truly mastered; a product or craft you make or repair.
For me, it’s casting street theatre performers. Super niche, right? Here’s how that works:
Performers fill out an online form with basic details and their promo video link. I only get 400-500 submissions a year (it’s a small festival). Most videos are 90 seconds-5 minutes long. Sometimes they send their whole 45-minute show.
How long does it take me to assess a fire-eater or a trapeze artist or a juggler and know whether I want to hire them?
After years of experience I can tell, in the first 15 seconds:
- Are they good enough to be in my Pick From Among These Performers pile?
- Are they appropriate for a family-friendly, daylight, outdoor show?
- Do they excite me and make me want to watch more?
I do not need longer. In fact, I can tell in under five seconds that the solo aerialist in theatrical lighting can’t rig her trapeze at our street festival. That the acrobats in flesh-colored bodysuits with toothy mouths painted on their groins (NOT MAKING THAT UP) aren’t right for our family festival. That the juggler on the ground with three clubs is less entertaining than the juggler on the unicycle playing bagpipes on fire (not making that up, either). I can immediately see which performers are beginners with boring costumes and hack public-domain jokes, and who’s invested time and money in looking like—and being—seasoned professionals.
Think again about that thing you’re great at: how long does it take you to know that tennis serve is off or that calligraphy looks terrible or that garden is a hot mess?
I bet it’s under 15 seconds.
You might take longer to figure out why, and longer still to assess what needs fixing and how. But is it any good, and is it right for you? You know that right away.
Reading queries—and submissions—is EXACTLY like that.
Every editor, publisher and agent I have ever spoken to says this ratio is true (or nearly so) for every submissions inbox:
- 50% are wrong (regardless of quality). A novel sent to a poetry publisher. Picture book queries to adult crime fiction agents.
- 25% are terrible. Poorly spelled, first-draft writing, vast misconceptions about publishing or openly rude and dismissive (yes, insulting the agent/agenting process in the first line really happens.)
- 20% are good, but not good enough, timed poorly for the market, the story doesn’t grab the agent, or they already have a book like that on their roster.
- 5% call for reading closely and responding carefully.
Agents can dismiss the first three categories in 15-60 seconds each. From the last category, agents assess:
- Is the writing good enough?
- Does the story captivate me and make me want to read more?
- Is this concept marketable right now?
An agent needs a “yes” to all three to ask for more pages, which they read with care and consideration and yes, taking more time. Authors can work on their craft and get a sense of the publishing market through self-education (getting an agent may not even be your best path!). But we cannot control whether our story excites an agent based on their personal taste and depth of knowledge—and understanding how quickly an agent can assess our work and move on is a hard pill to swallow.
Most agents truly do read every query. Most agents open every submission with hope, thinking, Maybe this one will be glorious literature that entertains millions and makes us both rich! Their No’s are 95% fast, gut-level decisions based on years of expertise and market knowledge. A rejection may or may not be based on the quality of your book. But if an agent is good enough that you hope to entrust them with your precious creation, they’re good enough to know what they want.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
August 4, 2020 § 20 Comments
“Eeeeee! Eeeeee! Eeeeee!” were my measured and intelligent words upon scheduling The Call. An agent wanted to work with ME? Wanted to talk about my book? An agent who had rejected two previous books, whose work and advice I’d followed for years?
Reader, I signed with her.
Two weeks after a wonderful call with an agent I respected and admired, and who respected me and liked my work, we actually said “I do,” and two weeks after that we signed a contract and got down to business.
Why so coy?
When you finally get the hallelujah! email saying, “I really enjoyed reading your manuscript, could we schedule a call?” it’s tempting to proceed immediately to your temple of choice to give offerings, then send you-missed-out emails while singing “Let’s call the whole thing off!” to all those other agents who didn’t move fast enough to snap you up, who made you wait.
Resist that impulse. I mean, sure, sing anything you like, and ritual is always reassuring, but an author’s first step after scheduling an agent call is far simpler and more frustrating:
Maybe do a little more research—you of course researched this agent before submitting—but it’s worth revisiting her website and Twitter feed, and browsing the websites of authors she represents. This reminds you why you like this agent, and if she says on your call, “I’ve been working on Author X’s new release,” you can respond with “I adore animal-friendship memoirs!” or even just “I love that cover!” which makes you look savvy and shows you care about her work, too.
Your next step? Send more queries.
You heard me.
Look at your list of agents and send 5-10 more queries to agents you’d like to work with, but haven’t gotten to yet. Maybe you were waiting to see if this query got good responses before sending to your A-list.
Send those queries NOW. Time is of the essence.
Enjoy your agent call. Ask lots of questions, like:
- What readers do you see as ideal for this book?
- Do you see this as a Big-Five book or a medium or smaller press?
- What revisions would you suggest?
- How hands-on are you with your authors? How often would we communicate?
- How much editing do you do?
It’s like hiring a babysitter. Great babysitters are worth their weight in gold, and you must entice them with your well-behaved children, plentiful snacks and Netflix. But they still work for you, and you can’t trust just anyone with the beautiful baby that is your book. When talking to a potential agent, you are not a desperate supplicant grateful for attention. You are a creator of something lovely that you both think is worth selling, and you’re both envisioning that process playing out.
Maybe the call is terrific. You adore this agent, you love her plans for your book, her revision suggestions were enlightening. You are thrilled—THRILLED—someone wants you. You’re ready to blow off all those other agents. That new-agent smell is already making your whole life better.
You still don’t sign yet.
You say something like, “I have a few other queries/pages requests/fulls out, let me follow up on those and get back to you.” You and the agent set a deadline for accepting her offer of representation, usually in 10-14 days.
Now follow up with everyone else you’ve queried who hasn’t sent a rejection (including the queries you just sent after scheduling the call, remember those?). Forward your original query, adding 1-2 sentences at the top along the lines of, “Following up on the below—I have an offer of rep and will be deciding by [date]. Will you let me know if I should still keep you in mind?” Before the “re:” in the email subject line, write in all caps, OFFER OF REP RECEIVED.
Most of them still won’t get back to you. So why do this?
1) It’s polite. Another agent may in fact be 50 pages in and loving your manuscript more every minute. They’ve put in time. Give them an opportunity to also ask, “Can we schedule a call?”
2) They may not have seen your query yet, but with this urgent deadline, they find it, love it, read your book overnight, and email you the next day to schedule a call.
You may have more options. And even if you have six more calls and realize nope, happy with my choice, your first agent may not be your agent forever. They may retire, or not be able to sell your book after all, or not love your next book. You want those other agents to remember “That author I wanted so bad and didn’t get.” Or to think, “This polite, professional author whose last book wasn’t right for me seems like she’d be great to work with.”
Once you decide, you need a few more days to carefully read the agency contract and ask questions. Only then have you achieved the meeting of two minds.
As writers, we spend a lot of time slogging through the rejection trenches, hoping someone will want us. It’s easy to be blown away by the first person who cares, who is invested in our work. Revel in that feeling. Wallow in happiness. But don’t let joy and gratitude stop you from doing business.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
October 10, 2019 § 6 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 and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
August 6, 2019 § 16 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 and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List! Find her on Instagram @guerillamemoir
November 29, 2018 § 12 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.
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.
October 27, 2016 § 6 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.