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Comparable titles, agents love ’em, writers hate ’em.
They are a required part of my submission form, so I’ve seen the gambit of writers attempting to get out of answering the question. Multiple “n/a,” several “I don’t know,” and more than I care to count of “my manuscript has no comparable.” Even had annoyed emails asking why agents ask writers to jump through so many hoops.
There is a staggering amount of advice on how to query agents online, including how to choose your comparable titles. Search “comparable titles query” and multiple posts by successful writers and legitimate agents pop up.
#QueryTip = great comparable titles are: published in the past 2-3 years by major publishing houses and have a clear relation to your story.
Rather than regurgitate this easily accessible information, I’ll focus on what comps mean to me when considering a submission.
Whittling down submissions is like any other job application process, first the applicant has to meet the bottom line. I developed my submission form to ensure those that queried me already fit the mold of clients I’m looking for. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for the most part. I do have the occasional chuckle at some of the gaffes I’ve seen especially, as mentioned above, with the answers to the comparable titles section. Don’t worry though, there is only one answer to this section that will actually get you an auto-reject. To win this distinction you have to be an author who claims there is no comparable to your book, i.e. your manuscript is totally unique.
Not only is this not true, it’s incredibly egotistical on the part of the author, and that kind of ego is not one I want to work with. Close behind these “one of a kind” types are writers who say they are the next big franchise series, e.g. “My book is the next Harry Potter.” Perhaps it’s not their ego, but they might have the expectation that they will make the kind of money JK Rowlings does. And their agent will be expected to fulfill this dream or die trying under a mountain of anxious and demanding emails.
For instance, if you compare your book to #FSOG, agents may wonder if it’s a real comp, or if you just think your books is BIG #querytip
Answers such as “n/a” or “I don’t know” may not win you any points, but I won’t toss your sub. I will assume however that you are either lazy (not a great first impression) or unknowledgeable about the publishing industry (which makes me wary as I’m looking for long-term clients i.e. understand the time it takes to get published and the professional demands of being an author).
Moving on to authors who actually come up with comp book titles. First, thank you for trying. It is appreciated.
Those of you who use my clients’ work as comps. Clever idea, however be aware that I know these works more intimately than almost anything else on the shelves. I’ve helped edit, revise, flesh out characters, even out pacing, catch plot holes, develop marketing copy, title it and so on and so on. If you’re using one of them as a comp, be damn sure you’ve read it and your manuscript really does compare. Because I sure as hell will. . . and kudos for having the cajones.
Then there’s the chart-toppers like Divergent and Game of Thrones. These are over-used, and will not give your sub any distinction. I guarantee the past five fantasy submissions used GoT as a comp, so I’ll just glaze over these. Or there’s the old, even out-dated comps like Wicked or The Hobbit. I don’t mind these as much as many agents seem to, it at least shows me the author knows vaguely who their target audience is. What prevents old comps from adding to your submission package is that the odds that I know the editor are slim, and the imprint that first published these books may not be publishing similar books currently or may even be defunct.
Because that’s really why agents want to see comparable titles. If they are good, nay great, comps, then they will give us an instant idea of who and where to send it to. Recent books like The Star-Touched Queen and Certain Dark Things have both been mentioned or reviewed by me online. I know the editors of these books and I know the imprints that published them. If your book is comparable, then you have honed in on the right agent.
Not that I’m expecting you to stalk my social media or have perfect knowledge of what I’ve read recently. But if you write in the genre I represent and you choose comps that are moderately successful titles from the past year or two in that genre, chances are I’ve read them or at least heard of them and so know who published them. (If not, that’s on me.)
In closing, if you use recently published successful books as comps, they can really make your submission stand out of the pile. But if you don’t manage that, it’s okay. I’ll still consider your submission.
You will get 4 hours over the course of two days to ask any and all questions to the literary agents of Kimberley Cameron & Associates (including me!). Once you’ve asked all the questions, you will craft a query letter and opening 10 pages of a submission, and a KC&A literary agent will critique it for you. A great way to polish your submission package. I’ve had two writers secure an agent after taking this boot camp, so I like to think it’s useful.
A quick Google search will bring up a host of useful articles with tips on how to title your novel. Rather than regurgitate the information already easily available, this post will dig into my own personal (and I like to think professional) point of view and focus on those books that are in the manuscript phase, i.e. soon to be out on submission or wallowing in the slushpile.
As I evolve and grow into my occupation, I am surprised by how much I am continually learning and changing. Writing rules that I believed were absolutes in my first year are now not as important to me as writers who have clear longterm career goals. Genres/writing styles that I once thought to be marketable fall behind as marketing trends point me in a different direction. And the amount of time I spend on each submission, has dramatically fallen. Before you get indignant, hear me out. I know, more than ever before, what type of client I’m looking for and what kinds of projects I want. Eighty-five percent of the time I can tell from the query alone that we are not a good match. The other fifteen? Those will eventually get a closer look. They will queue in my inbox (hopefully not too long), waiting for the day I can muster up a few hours to examine them. When that day comes, first I have to recall why the submission is sitting there. Perhaps the author’s website or bio impressed me. Maybe their opening pages caught my interest or their particular writing style intrigued me. But if I have difficulty pinning down why I kept it, odds are I will pass. If it didn’t stick with me after percolating awhile, then I move on to those that did.
One of the biggest aspects of a submission that will help it stick in my memory is the title. If I remember the title, most likely I’ll remember the query, the writing, and the reason I’ve kept it around. And I’m going to boldly make the conjecture that most agents and editors would agree with me.
Titles that tend not to stick are those that are hard to pronounce or have made-up words (here’s looking at you SFF writers!). Long titles will be a problem as well, unless it’s a catchy phrase. In general if people give you a “huh” expression when you tell them the name of your book, time to rethink it.
The takeaway from this? Your title shouldn’t be a half-fast decision nor a personal choice (most titles will change a few times through the publishing process anyway, so you don’t want to get attached), rather it should be considered another tool to market your book, a piece of the submission whole package. Research the craft of titling your book as carefully as you are researching the agents you choose to query (operating under the assumption that if you are reading this, you are researching literary agents) and hopefully you will come up with a title will make your submission stand out in the slush.
And, given my baby girl has let me sleep that night, I’ll remember your submission.
It’s harder than ever for debut books to break into traditional publishing. The struggle is real. And it prompts authors to seek out any and every avenue that will boost their chances. Conferences, webinars, classes, critique partners are all in a writer’s potential arsenal. One of the biggest weapons, and the most dangerous, is the freelance editor. “Will hiring an editor make a difference, and if we did should we mention it in the query?” is a question often posed to agents; which is difficult for us to answer on the spot. One because there are different types of editorial and we aren’t sure what your manuscript needs:
Developmental? An examination of the overall structure/plot/characters/pace etc. Helps a writer find plot holes, fill out flat characters, remove unnecessary tangents, and ensure the story arc is complete. This is the most common type of editorial that agents already do, but if there’s more than a few of these types of issues, it will be rejected.
Copy-editing? An examination of the structure of the prose itself. Helps a writer enhance their prose line by line, streamlining sentences and fleshing out the narrative. If a submission desperately needs this, an agent will pass (unless the project is something they are very specifically seeking or it’s nonfiction). All manuscripts will go through a copy-editing phase before publication, but a basic sound narrative should already be there when submitting.
Proofreading? An examination of grammar and spelling. Helps a writer catch any grammatical or spelling errors. This is the last edit on a manuscript and the first issue noticed by a reader. An agent will not take on a manuscript littered with errors, as they would have to spend valuable time correcting them before submitting it to editors.
Two because, with the internet, the self-publishing revolution, and the economic recession that squeezed the traditional houses, there has been an explosion of freelance editors hanging out their shingle and not all are right for your work. We don’t want to be the one to tell you that you may have wasted your money (if a traditional deal is your goal).
If the author decides to hire an editor, they should tread lightly and do their research.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Although the movie that inspired this title has some gorgeous cinematography, stellar story arc, and an awesome theme song, due to its casual racism and utter lack of female characters, here the Good, Bad, and Ugly have been replaced by real-life badass female wild westerners.*
The Good.Mary Fields, often called “Stagecoach Mary,” was born into slavery around 1832, and after being emancipated at the age of 30, made her way west to Montana. Fields, who was very tall and extremely strong, worked as a general handyman and laborer at a school for Native American girls. She had a reputation for being strong, blunt, and more than willing to get in fights with people who annoyed her. At one point the local medical examiner claimed, she had “broken more noses than any other person in central Montana.”
Hiring a freelance editor can absolutely help whip your manuscript into shape. With the right editor, your story will be polished until it gleams, trad-publishing-ready, thus appealing to agents. How to find these miracle workers? Look for editors who are experienced publishing professionals in your genre. They have either worked as an editor for one of the traditional houses for a few-plus years or they are a traditionally-published successful author. They may even be literary agents (but be careful, more on this under The Bad). If they do not have the prerequisite publishing experience, then they will have a resume of books that they edited which have gone on to be successfully published. These editors are costly, but they will give you the highest odds of producing a manuscript that will eventually make it to the top. Often agencies will have a list of these editors on hand that you can ask for if an agent shows interest in your work. If you work with one of these editors, then yes, definitely mention it in the query letter.
The Bad.From a young age, Laura Bullion was destined to be an outlaw. Her father was a bank robber, and while working as a prostitute in Texas she joined the Wild Bunch gang, where she ran with outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bullion helped the gang with their robberies, and came to be known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch.” Bullion would help sell the stolen items, forge checks, and is suspected to have disguised herself as a man to help with heists.
These editors you want to avoid at all costs. They are predators eager to take advantage of the vulnerable author. If an editor solicits you and/or promises you will be published at their “house” after hiring them, it’s probably a vanity press scheme. If an agent offers to edit your manuscript, claiming they will represent you after you’ve paid them for said editing, this goes against AAR’s (Association of Authors’ Representatives) Canon of Ethics. If an agent pressures you to work with a freelance editor and is insistent on a specific company, or an editor claims they can get you signed by a specific agent, be wary.** This is an old scam in which the agent gets a kickback from sending authors to said editor and visa versa. A quick online search of any suspicious person with “scam” in the search line will usually bring up red flags right away. Also be sure to check out Writer Beware on the SFWA website. They are constantly updating publishing scams to watch out for.
The Ugly.Eleanor Dumont was called Madame Moustache because of her appearance later in life. But when she was young, she was regarded as exceedingly beautiful. Dumont first made her reputation as a gambler in San Francisco in 1849, determined to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Her casino in Nevada City was a success, and led to Dumont opening a second casino with additional games of chance. After the Gold Rush subsided, Dumont bought a ranch, but lost her fortune when she fell in love with a con man named Jack McKnight. When he sold the ranch and absconded with the proceeds, Dumont tracked him down and shot him dead.
These are the editors that are perhaps qualified to edit, but have never edited in the traditional publishing world. MFA students, other writers, English teachers, librarians, etc. fall into this category. To be clear, these are not actually ugly editors (just using the name to make it fit my oh-so-clever blog structure). They are often great proofreaders and much cheaper than The Good. Because of their lower rates, hiring them for a developmental edit over the more expensive experienced editors, is tempting. However, due to their lack of traditional publishing experience, they may not steer your manuscript in the direction someone in the industry would. These editors are more of a financial gamble, and you could be better off finding a critique partner that will do the same work in exchange for a critique from you. But you also may get lucky and stumble on someone who has a natural knack for developmental editing. If you hire one of these editors, it’s not necessary to mention this in the query.
As always, your best weapon is research. Before making a decision to partner financially with anyone in the industry, do your research to determine if they are the best option for your writing career.
**I have recommended on occasion that an author work with a freelance editor because I really loved their story concept, but it needed too much editorial for me to take on. I also have a client who went to an editor on their own after I passed with notes, a year later the manuscript was in fantastic shape. I signed them immediately and sold the manuscript within three months.
It turns out it was a popular request with quite a few claiming to fit the bill. I was stoked to discover there were so many epic fantasy writers out there, as it’s one of the most difficult and time-consuming genres to master. Since I am currently closed to submissions to catch up on my slushpile, a few writers tweeted/pitched me asking if they could submit anyway. Hell yes they could, if they really did fit my MSWL! More questions rolled in as did submissions, and my enthusiasm waned. Turns out, most were not in fact epic fantasy but rather more traditional fantasy. Some landed in the high fantasy realm, but weren’t quite epic enough. I realized my tweet needed to be clearer.
I’m craving fantasy that is epic with a capital E.
The biggest difference between epic and traditional fantasy is the size of the cast and the scope of the plot. Generally, epic fantasy is a sweeping saga of a secondary magical world and its people. They run long (hundreds of pages per book) and world-building is paramount, think detailed maps in the front matter and comprehensive family trees in the back. There are multiple characters and multiple storylines and a lot of history and lore is woven in. Usually they are set in a Western European medieval type background. The most famous of this subgenre are LORD OF THE RINGS and GAME OF THRONES.
On my particular wish list is epic fantasy that is not set in the standard European-inspired world. I want matriarchy and magical beasts that are atypical. Weapons that are not swords and guerrilla warfare over bloody battles. I want the people to be colorful, and diverse. Magic that is thoughtful and wild. Jungles and deserts and tropical oceans. I want epic fantasy that chews up the tropes and spits them out again.
But I do want it to be EPIC.
Sidenote: Anxious writers should be reassured that the lines between subgenres are often blurry, and there is no harm in pitching what you think is a space opera but is actually a military scifi thriller to an agent who represents science fiction. We may mumble to correct you, but as long as you are under the main genre umbrella, we’re happy to consider. However, when it comes to #MSWL, at least in my particular case, what we are looking for is pretty focused. So a gentle reminder, when you are following up with an agent on their manuscript wish list, make sure your submission actually fits their MSWL. Otherwise you’re getting their hopes up, and then letting them down. Better off submitting through their regular channels where there are no expectations that it fall true to a subgenre. On the flip side, if you’re positive your manuscript fits, then make sure to let them know!
We all want our characters to be special, unique, stand out from the crowd. And often writers attempt to achieve this, in part, by giving them “piercing” or “soulful” or “wide” eyes of a lovely shade of blue, ice, green, violet, hazel, etc. Basically any color except that plain old brown.
But if you were given a peek into the slushpile, you would be a bit embarrassed to realize by giving your character such special eyes, you’ve actually made them quite ordinary. If we were to postulate eye color statistics based off of characters in submissions, the world would be made up of mostly green and blue-eyed persons with a good chunk of beauteous hazel/violet-eyed gals in one corner and steely, silver/amber-eyed hunks in another. (There would also be a looot of white people, but that’s a post for another day.)
I may sound like a broken record at this point, but write with awareness. Don’t default to the easy way. Your character’s uniqueness should not be shown through their eye color but rather through the situation they are in (the plot) and how they handle it. Their looks are a part of who they are, but not what makes them stand out. Their appearance should be realistic, for many reasons, number one so many different readers can relate to them.
This is not a rule, just a suggestion to consider. Unless their eye color is super important to the story (for example Alanna’s violet eyes in the Song of the Lioness series. Her magic is purple to match, and the blue-eyed prince’s magic is blue) consider defaulting to brown, especially when there are many characters in the story. Because brown eyes can still be attractive, unique, special, windows to the soul, etc. (full discloser, my eyes are brown). And because statistics.
Percentage of eye color in the world according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology:
amber (quite rare)
violet (extremely rare)
TWO PERCENT OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION HAS GREEN EYES. Something to think about. *While we are at it, two percent are red heads too. So that gorgeous green-eyed woman with the rich red hair? Reconsider. (I’m looking at you, romance writers!)
One of the more interesting aspects of our job is receiving a bulk of submissions that seem eerily similar. For instance the other day I read 3 submissions that had cell phones as main characters. I kid you not. But this post is not about the uncommon, but rather about the common.Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few novels open with a birth and although this is not a big bad thing, it didn’t work for any of these submissions.
Before launching that birth scene out into the submissionverse, pause a moment. Is it really necessary? Or is it a result of your subconscious? Three outside factors, not linked to your particular novel, may be the cause of that scene.
One, an opening scene with a birth usually means the mother dies (and very dramatically too). It’s an easy way to both begin your novel with action as well as develop the main character. Usually this main character is a hero of some sorts, and heroes often have tragic childhoods, something they have to overcome to make them stronger, wiser, better. How many famous orphaned heroes do we have in our stories? Batman, the Skywalker twins, Elsa, Potter, the list goes on and on. With so many famous orphans, has this classic storyline seeped into your novel? If so, introduce us to the hero in the beginning, not their parents who are going to die anyway.
Two, a birth signifies a beginning. Are you simply using it because you’re not sure where to start?
Three, and this is more personal, having recently given birth a month ago, I was given the forceful realization just how damn difficult labor and delivery is. It’s a crazy emotional painful rollercoaster that is completely unique. And what do we do as writers? We take life experiences and put them on paper. Write what you know and all that. So it’s not surprising if there is a deep desire to share your experience through the words of your novel. So consider whether the scene is just representing your ego, wishing to share your experience, or if it’s actually necessary to the story.
Ask yourself this. Why did you open your novel with a birth scene? Because more often that not, it’s unnecessary and actually prevents the story from moving forward. That opening scene is so important for laying the groundwork of the story and catching the reader’s interest. Make sure it’s a conscious decision. Because, just as in real life, the main character is not going to remember their birth and subsequently the reader is not going to care about it. So although it’s where their life began, it’s not where the story begins.
At the last conference that I took pitches, near the end a flustered but determined writer sat at my table. Her first words were, “I was just told my project is unmarketable, but I’m going to pitch it anyway.” My interest was piqued, not in the project, but in what she had been told and why. I’m always curious to hear the advice given to writers by other industry professionals. Usually it tends to be something I and many others agree with. But there are cases where we disagree. This business does have a subjective element to it after all. And sometimes it’s advice that I perhaps hadn’t thought of, but would agree with. On occasion it’s something I didn’t know and would want to follow up on. And sometimes, yes, it is painfully obvious bad advice which needs to be corrected immediately. (Anyone who advises a debut author to throw up their book on Amazon to “garner feedback” before taking it to agents or publishers, I’m looking at you.)
I smiled to reassure her, said go ahead, and she launched into her pitch. Then the words “my character is dreaming and living in the dreamworld,” came out, and I sat back. Ah. AH.
I stopped her there. Having a character live in a dreamworld, or dreaming a scene, is a big show stopper in a pitch. But but, what about SANDMAN or ALICE IN WONDERLAND you may cry. Here I revert to my standard, “Know the rules before you break them.”
You see, a lot of newbie writers tend to use dreams, dream realms, or dream worlds as a lazy tool, mostly unconsciously. Writer crutches we call these strategies that attempt to skirt the hard work of story development.
The most common of these is opening your story with a dream. It’s an easy way to create exciting action before you have your character gasp and sit up in bed. Unfortunately it’s also painful for the reader. Your goal in those opening pages is to draw the reader in with active prose and tension that will carry them deeper into the story. And when you expend all that energy into a dream sequence, only to bottom out with the character waking up, you risk dropping the reader’s trust and interest. Especially if your character then gets out of bed and sits down to breakfast with his mother. Sure you might say it worked for Dan Brown in ANGELS & DEMONS, but note, his opening dream sequence was 6-7 sentences long, and very obviously a dream. And he’s Dan Brown. Now if you’re determined to stick to your guns and are convinced your opening dream sequence is both necessary to your story as well as better than all the other opening scenes out there, I offer you one last argument. Agents get reading fatigue. Although we want to be perky and hopeful with every submission we open, the reality is when we see the same thing over and over again, we can’t help but shuffle it into THAT pile. And a dream as the opening scene to a submission? One of the most common things we see in the slushpile. Seriously.
The second, less common, is usually found in submissions of the fantasy genre (and science fiction on occasion). This is the dream realm or dream world. A fantasy author wants to have their ordinary modern day character thrown into a parallel fantasy world full of magic and wondrous creatures, and the easy way to do that? Have them enter the land through dreams. Which sets up the question, why bother having them dream? It’s fantasy. The worlds can just be. These are called portal fantasies. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is a classic example. Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWORLD is another. And in these, the characters find their way into the fantasy world without the need for dreaming. The entrances are a bit more complex and require more world-building, but hey they are also more interesting. My absolute favorite is the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman. A fantasy writer who understands this, is an experienced fantasy reader, which is what agents are looking for. The writer knows their genre in and out and knows how to write a portal fantasy. But a newbie author, who writes a portal fantasy under the guise of a dreamworld, will be perhaps, “unmarketable.”
After I explained this to the writer, she left with a smile on her face and a list of books to read, ready to fight to change her project’s status to marketable.
I will mention that portal fantasies are not hugely popular on the market right now, and can be a hard sell, but they are not unmarketable. They dropped off around 2009, see Annalee Newitz‘s 2010 post, Walk Through This Portal With Me Into Another World in io9. However, the market is cyclical, and a really good portal fantasy might just break out, so don’t throw yours in the trash yet!
I would love to see examples in the comments of popular books where dream openings and dream worlds have worked for the story.