Agent Tips

Agents Query Too

One of the most important and also hardest aspects of my job is getting a project past the publishers’ editorial front line. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the process: once an agent has sent a manuscript to editors, said editors will read and consider whether or not they want to take the ms to acquisitions. That means the editor has to be passionate about it enough to get their team to read it fairly quickly (all of whom are swamped with their own tbr pile), draft a profit and loss statement, convince a room full of people that the ms is worth investing in. Basically stake their reputation on it.

This excruciating process can take weeks, and it is a lot of time and energy away from current work (not taking into consideration the project going to auction). So an editor can like a project–they mostly do like the client work that I send, as I work hard to maintain a standard and appeal to individual tastes–but simply liking a project isn’t enough. So I have to do everything in my power to get them excited before they read it, which means creating a letter that indicates why they are a great fit for the project, and one that includes a powerful pitch, current successful comparative titles, and a clear author bio. Sometimes I will pitch in person or on the phone, but the power points remain the same. Sound familiar?

If it works then they go in primed to love the manuscript. Which gives it the best possible chance to make it past the front line. And ideally go further–then the editor will use those same power points when lobbying your manuscript to marketing, financial, the publisher itself. And those points will be part of the final decision, i.e. if you are going to be made an offer.

So remember, that’s the end game. Your query is not just a way of introducing yourself to an agent, but to show how your manuscript can be positioned positively in the market and that it has potential to sell. You’re clearing the road blocks, so the decision gets down to the writing itself.

Don’t be intimidated by this, we don’t expect new authors to navigate the market with years of experience and execute the perfect query letter (that is why you’re looking for a literary agent after all), but at least understanding why these concepts are important can only benefit you on your road toward publication.

And even if you do pull off everything perfectly, you will probably still get rejected. It’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking, but you’re not alone, and we feel it too. Every agent has a few of those projects that they’ve never forgotten and were stumped as to why they didn’t sell.

But you can and will navigate the process with more confidence and knowledge and eventually there will be a project that will get that yes.

Personalizing The Query: How Much Is Too Much?

With the wealth of query tips, agent advice, and submission guidelines out there, you’ve probably honed your query to the finest point. You’ve had it proofread and polished. Maybe this isn’t even your first go, maybe this is the third or fourth time you’ve drafted a query letter. You’ve researched literary agencies extensively. At this point you’re not worried about the basics, you know what you’re doing.

But the finer points still nag you. Like do you include that short story that was published six years ago? Or do you put the comp titles at the beginning or the end? And, the question that seems to come up again and again, agent personalization, how much is too much?

(For those of you new to the query trenches: Agent personalization means that you have researched said agent before querying them, and you indicate this in the query.)

In this current age of social media, it’s hard to know where the line is. Agent X is always posting pictures of her beloved cat, and you also love cats, so why not mention Mr. Whiskers? But then Agent Y is tweeting about that creepy vibe he got from the author who mentioned his dog’s name. Did you say too much? (Probably yes you did.)

To prevent yourself from getting into the creepster zone, remember this. Literary agents have online personas. We want authors to find us, to know about us AS LITERARY AGENTS. So if Agent X is posting pictures of her cat on her public agent profile, and engaging with authors about her pet, and your book happens to be about cats, then by all means, mention Mr. Whiskers. (For example, I make my love of Doctor Who widely known, because I would love to find a project that has a similar vibe.)

But if Agent Y posted pictures of his dog on his personal page, even if it’s “public” better to leave it alone. Because although we agents understand that some authors will go to extensive lengths to research us, we do have personal boundaries and want them respected. Agent Y may be a more private person than Agent X, and if you can’t find any information about him other than what genres he represents, that’s okay. All you need to personalize his query is:

“As you represent [genre], I think you will be interested in my 75k [same genre] novel entitled XXX.”

That’s it. You’ve personalized the letter. Far more than average actually.

Pssst. This personalization will work for Agent X as well.

Happy Holidays!

I know I haven’t posted much this year. I blame this adorable face. But she’s going into pre-school in the new year, which means I’ll have more time! If you have any posts you’d love to see in 2019, questions about publishing, peeks behind the agent curtain, editorial advice, comment here.

Many exciting things happened in 2018 for my clients, deals, awards, sequels, and I couldn’t be prouder.

I will be open to submissions January 1, 2019, and I hope (this may be too optimistic) to respond to all remaining queries, partials, and fulls by that date. Until then, may there be lots of joy and celebration and cozy reading time for everyone.

Happy New Year!

Mary C. MooreMay 8, 2018

 

Mark your calendars, I’m hosting a live webinar for Writer’s Digest on Thursday, June 14 at 1pm EDT. We will be discussing reader immersion, natural world-building, and polishing your writing all through a SFF lens. And bonus, there’s a 750 word critique! For more details and to sign up click the link below:

Wizards, Robots, and Ghosts: Navigating Narration Within Sci-Fi & Fantasy

 

 

 

The Evolving Client List: Notes From A Literary Agent

I can see it. A break in the deluge, a light at the end of the tunnel. A clearing of the slush. Am climbing determinedly for it. I vowed I would not reopen to submissions, until I had responded to every last sub in all of my inboxes (yes, I said inboxes plural, writers have interesting ways of worming into every contact I have). It’s down to a handful of submissions, and these are the ones that I have been hanging onto for far too long. One or two will hopefully result in an offer, at last. But I have to face the heartbreaking reality that I must let most go. I can only take on a few more clients this year, and I need to make myself available for submitting authors once again.

So why would I suddenly make an offer on something I’ve had for months and months? And why would I open to submissions when I already have a full client list, plus some great submissions on hand?

An agent’s client list, both the current and seeking, ebbs and flows. Even mine–despite the fact that I tend to keep clients for multiple projects meaning less and less room for new clients–still morphs month to month. This is in response to a few factors, the ever-changing market, the evolution of my literary tastes, and the statuses of my current clients. For example, although I love love love YA (young adult) high fantasy, it’s super saturated and hard to sell right now, plus I have a large handful of clients who write in the genre. So where I was once eagerly reading all the YA fantasy, now I’m much more selective. On the flip side, MG (middle grade) is seeing a surge, and I’ve recently read more than a few really inspiring MG stories, e.g. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, which has made me hungrier for it. I wasn’t into adult thrillers a few years ago, but then I read some of the popular ones that came out, e.g. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and found myself ready to sign one, but way after the market had peaked. Thus I’m seeking that super high-concept yet unique thriller that would be hard for a newer author to pull off. I’m a big fan of lady pirates, but a current client totally by coincidence pitched me a lady pirate fantasy and so I’m no longer looking for one. And so on and so on.

To make matters more confusing, I keep the projects that I saw potential in, because maybe in the future my client list will open up or the market will shift.

But it’s impossible for submitting authors to know any of this happening behind the scenes. Their best guess would be to check out the agent’s social media and watch the market. And agents understand this. We’re pretty happy if you’ve simply done a bit of research on us.

We wade into the slushpile, hoping for that one manuscript that fits the market and our current tastes and that we fall in love with. Not too much to ask right?

All this to say: I’m getting my waders ready. Hoping to open again to submissions this summer.

Mary C. MooreNovember 30, 2017

 

The versatile and talented editor Sangeeta Mehta hosted a Q&A on powerhouse Jane Friedman‘s blog. Myself and literary agent DongWon Song answered her provocative questions as honestly as we could! Check out the interview here. If you post a comment or question there, I will try to answer it.

Link address: https://www.janefriedman.com/ethics-and-literary-agents/

Is Your Story Unique?

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

Part of a literary agent’s job is, sadly, “crushing dreams.” With every rejection I send I know I am causing real pain to another person out there. Joey Franklin stated in his fantastic Poets & Writers article Submit That Manuscript! Why Sending Out Your Work Is So Important, “Neuroscientists have actually identified similarities between our response to rejection and our response to physical pain.” I was equally in total agreement and completely horrified. I’ve had reactions to rejections that lasted hours if not days. But I also send rejections on an almost daily basis. My submission karma is not looking good.

Franklin goes on to express why submitting is so important. It’s a part of the necessary evolution and development of your writing. You need your dreams crushed so you can pick them up again and make them stronger. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t get you published (in most cases).

In my desire to help writers, I can be harsh with my advice, as if by doing so I’m saving them from the inevitable rejection pain that comes from their ignorance. I still haven’t figured out if this approach is misguided, but sometimes I can’t help it. A few weeks ago I was on a panel and a writer asked, “How can we balance picking out comparable titles yet staying true to our story because it’s too different, unique.”

I looked her straight in the eye and replied, “Trust me. Your story is not unique.”

Woah. I knew instantly it was a bit much, a knee-jerk response. It’s because I hear that all the time, “My story doesn’t have any comparable works.” or “What I’ve written is beyond compare.” etc. It makes me angry when writers seem to ignore the magnitude of what makes up the literary canon. I have to remind myself that in their inexperience, they really do think there aren’t any stories like theirs on the shelf or in the submission pile. (Fyi, there are dozens if not hundreds of other stories with similar concepts to yours in slushpiles around the world.) Usually I try to be gentler with my advice, so they hear me and don’t shut down into defensive mode. Because the more aware a writer is of how wide and sweeping the literary world is, the better they can navigate it.

Luckily, and to my embarrassment, the agent next to me chimed in to ease the tension. She used a word which resonated with me and the room full of writers. Fresh.

Stories, by their nature, are repetitive:

But yours can be a fresh take.

Take a story about a superhero who saves the world. How many times have you read that one? I bet you’re rolling your eyes right now. Me too. So how did a movie with that same old story make over 200 million dollars world-wide opening weekend just this year? Because it was fresh. Wonder Woman was a superhero movie starring a female superhero, directed by another female. Gasp. (Sad that in 2017 this is considered fresh, but we’ll save that rant for another time. Throw in the argument that a female screenplay writer should have been involved, and my head might explode.)

So how do you know you are writing something fresh? By reading, reading, reading. Then writing, writing, writing. Then submitting, submitting, submitting. And all over again. Writing is an apprenticeship. The more you read, write, and submit, the more you learn. You learn to recognize the commonality of stories and writing. You begin to see the building blocks which all books are built on and the mythologies that have supported stories for a millennia. You come to understand what is universal truth versus lazy stereotypes. And your vision shows in your writing. You are able to take a story and make it your own, put a new spin on a tired tale.

So perhaps your story is not unique. But it can be fresh.

Do Literary Agents Reject Your Submission After Reading One Line?

I often get asked, “what makes you auto-reject a submission?” This is difficult to respond to as the answer is complicated and multi-layered. There isn’t a magical rule that will somehow make your submission “safe” from being discarded after the first glance. Anything from personal taste, to current list space, to the market can factor into a quick rejection. This is why a chorus of agents and editors and published writers are always singing “don’t take rejection personally.” Easier said than done, right?

There are many things you can do to ensure your submission has the best chance of being considered further. There are posts upon posts on how to write a decent query (including one of my own). Follow each agency’s submission rules, know your comparable titles, have an online presence, present yourself as an appealing client, and so on.

Of course none of this matters if the sample pages fail to reel us in. If your pitch does happen to snag my interest, I’m reading the sample. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve passed the query auto-rejection phase. Congratulations! But now those pages have to hold my interest. Yes, I have rejected a submission based on the first sentence and yes, it happens more often than I’d like. But how could you possibly know from the first line? you ask.

Because it’s our job to know.

Sounds arrogant, sure. Believe me, I’ve been there on the other side, thinking it wasn’t fair that agents claimed they rejected a sub based on that first line. But after years of reading the slushpile, editing manuscripts, shopping clients, etc., I’ve been trained to see the level of prose based off that first line. Other agents will tell you the same.

That opening line tells us multiple things about your manuscript. A few examples:

  1. There’s a grammar/spelling/typo mistake
    • you’re inexperienced with basic writing rules or
    • you’re lazy and don’t proofread or
    • you’re impatient and don’t proofread
  2. It’s a poorly constructed sentence
    • same as above
  3. Your character is waking up
    • This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
  4. Rhetorical question
    • You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
  5. Your character is running/fighting/breathing hard
    • We don’t know your character yet, so we don’t care what action they are doing. Shows you may not be able to create tension without using action.
  6. There’s a dead body (or another cliche)
    • It’s not shocking as we didn’t know the person before they were dead. Plus it’s been done. A lot. This tells us you may write in a lot of cliches.
  7. The weather is being described
    • I did this in my first novel! *cringes. Shows you may not be able to streamline your world-building using only important details.
  8. A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
    • Same issue as the rhetorical question.
  9. It’s dialogue
    • This one you’ll get other agents that disagree, but I’m not a fan of dialogue-heavy prose, so the first line as dialogue doesn’t go over well with me. Plus you run the risk of “floating head syndrome.”
  10. Your character sighs, purses their lips, looks at something, shrugs, grins, raises their eyebrow or some other filler action
    • I dislike these filler actions in general, but in that first line they are the biggest tension killers of all. If a filler action is used in the first sentence, no doubt the rest of the manuscript is filled with them.

I could teach an entire semester on the first line, and I’m still fairly fresh in the publishing industry. Imagine what editors and agents who have been reading for 20+ years could glean from that sentence.

Of course, the disclaimer, many writers have done all of these things in their first line and their books are hugely successful. I mean hell, the first client I signed and sold did one of them. But in general, these are a few of the reasons I pass on the first line. Before you get too frustrated, hear me out. It’s not a final judgement on your writing. If your opening line causes me to pass on your project, despite being intrigued by your pitch, it’s not that you are a bad writer, it simply means the pages aren’t ready, or that you aren’t ready.

On a sunny note–if you nail it, that first line can result in a request.

Why Submission Response Times Vary So Dramatically: A Literary Agent Breaks It Down

In general, publishing moves slowly (we’re talking molasses). You can be out on submission for months, even years, first with literary agents and then again with publishers. So it can be incredibly frustrating to hear stories of authors getting signed by an agent after two weeks or being picked up by a publisher after three days. You’ve spent years honing your craft, learning the market, and researching industry professionals, while newer, younger authors are celebrating on Twitter or shouting with glee on their blogs about their astonishing and seemingly-instant success, causing you to feel like you’ve been too long in the query trenches, that you’ll never get published.

This is not true. The timing of when/if your manuscript gets picked up depends on many different factors, far too many to fit into one blog post. But a main factor is what kind of appeal your manuscript has. I like to break it down into three types: *note, these categories are assigned given that the manuscripts are well-written, evenly-paced, and tightly-plotted

Market Hot 🔥🔥🔥

These are the stories that happen to hit the right note on the market. They are timely, they are polished, and the author has managed to leverage it to be visible to multiple agents and editors at one time, i.e. on Twitter pitch sessions (#PitMad, #DVpit, etc.), at a conference/contest, Pitch Wars, and so on. These are the authors with multiple agent offers after only a week on submission. The reason these get snatched up so quickly is agents know they are hot. There is a distinct advantage to being the first to make an offer, and if that’s not possible, someone else will offer soon, and so an agent has to read it fast or risk being left in the dust when the fight is over. And when the dust clears, often that same manuscript ends up selling at auction with publishers not long after, while those agents that lost out quietly weep over ice cream.

The odds of your submission falling in this category are slim. There are only a few a year. But given the excitement they generate, these are the stories you hear the loudest. Try not to compare yourself to this. Dream big always, but be kind to yourself as the path to publication is long and hard for most.

Heart Novel ❤️❤️❤️

These are the manuscripts that land smack in the middle of an agent’s MSWL (manuscript wish list) but aren’t necessarily market hot. These stories are the reason most of us got into the business. For example, I’m dying for an adult upmarket expansive historical romance set in a Mexican hacienda, with thoughtful social commentary layered into it, written by a latina/indigenous author. Or a northern California fantasy full of local magic, cryptozoology, weed, and redwoods. This is super specific to me and my tastes, not to the market. If one of these landed in my inbox, you bet I would read it quickly and if it was good make an offer pretty damn fast. Not because I know competition will be tight, not because I have a list of editors the length of my arm to send it to, but because it’s a story I believe in, a story that touches my heart.

These are also rare (I’ve signed one in three years) and may not hit the publishers the same way. Maybe the heart novel gets an agent quickly, but could be on submission to publishers for months/years. Maybe the agent sells the client’s next work, waiting until the client makes a name before selling the heart novel. That your ms will hit exactly what the agent is looking for is far-fetched, although your odds increase exponentially with the more research you do on each agent. At least if your project comes close, it will definitely make us pay attention.

Dark Horse 🌚🌚🌚

Finally this category is probably where your manuscript lands. The unknowns. The slushpile. The surprise. Most agents after a drink or two will tell you they didn’t know they wanted that particular submission until it landed on their desk. Of course you want to aim for the right genre and reader age range that the agent represents, but within that the potential is vast and varied. I had no idea I wanted a cozy mystery series starring a veterinarian or a military space adventure with an unreliable narrator. I fell in love after they were submitted to me . The response times on these can be weeks, to months to even a year or so depending on the agent’s workload, the ever-changing market, and available space on their client list. There may be R&Rs (revise and resubmit) and phone conversations without an offer. It could even end with the heart-breaking “this is good but I didn’t fall in love,” rejection. The potential to be a Dark Horse is why your query is so important. You have to convince the agent that yours is the manuscript they never knew they wanted, that you are a writer who will win the race. You don’t have that bit of leeway that the market hot and heart novels have. Just by circumstance, they’ve already gotten the agent to read with an open heart and willing mind. We do not do this by default. The slushpile has made us into cynics. Your manuscript must be impressively polished. Because the agent is still skeptical. Your query intrigued us, but we go into it expecting it to not be ready. Please, surprise us.

And, if your writing impresses us, then worst case scenario we can’t sell this manuscript, we know we can develop your next one together and it will have a much higher chance of being at least a little market hot. The largest percentage of my clients are Dark Horses. One was even two years from initial submission to my actual offer!

So keep on writing and keep on submitting. Everyone has space on their list for the Dark Horse, even if their path to publication is molasses slow.

Does Your Book Crossover? – Genre Breakdown

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a Q&A on Twitter for authors via the wonderful #ontheporch community. It’s a hashtag for writers about writing run by these two lovely writers:

 and 

The theme for the hour was “Writing Commercial Fiction” and the discussion was both fun and fast.

I realized, as I often do during Q&A sessions with authors, how much information I take for granted as a literary agent. I have learned so much on the other side of the desk, and it’s easy to forget how mysterious it all seemed once upon a time. One particular question that appeared to cause a lot of anxiety was whether or not a manuscript fell into the “crossover genre.” Writers were unsure what crossover meant, yet they had heard it was important that their manuscript achieved that status. I’d be pretty anxious too!

So, to clarify. Crossover isn’t a genre, it’s an adjunct of the genre, and it’s used as a label in publishing mainly for marketing purposes. In a literal sense, your manuscript is crossover when it “crosses over” from one genre to the next, e.g. a thriller in an urban fantasy setting. Publishers love crossovers because they can potentially be bought by fans of both genres, i.e. it “crosses over” to different audiences, which means…

Crossover can also pertain to the type of writing, e.g. you’ve written a romance but the language is so elevated it could be considered upmarket or even literary. In these cases the term crossover is often dropped and occasionally the commercial genre label is dropped as well, and instead it’s referred to “upmarket” or “bookclub” fiction.

The most common use of the term crossover (and where the most confusion seems to happen) is referring to the age range of the reader. In particular YA (young adult) novels are considered crossover when the publisher is hoping to reach not only teenage readers, but adult readers as well. For example, The Hunger Games was read widely by both kids and adults, and its crossover appeal is what drove a lot of its popularity. In the technical sense the reverse is possible, i.e. adult books can crossover to kids, but this is far less common, and not used in marketing. When pitching a crossover in age range, it’s always in terms of aging up, e.g. a middle grade that can appeal to young adults, YA to adults, etc.

So what does this all mean for you the author? Knowing if your manuscript is crossover or not, shows a better understanding of the market, which can only further help your submission. Unsure? Then stick to your main genre and reader age. An agent can spot a crossover even if it’s not stated as such. But if you do claim it’s a crossover and it’s not, then that may cause the agent to believe that you don’t understand the market you’re writing for or that you are trying to overcompensate for something lacking in the writing itself. This won’t kill your submission necessarily, but it won’t help.

Hope this helps and happy writing!