After a long hiatus, the agents of Kimberley Cameron & Associates are once again teaching a Writer’s Digest course. Sign up and you get to join an online forum where you have four hours over two days to ask me anything about publishing. I will be there in real time, and there are no stupid questions.
After the forum, I will critique your query letter and first ten pages (this does not count as a submission, it’s for you to improve your work, you can always submit to me officially at a later date after you’ve incorporated the feedback).
Even if you are not ready to query, you are welcome to join us and to get feedback on your rough draft.
*Note, although you will have access to all the KC&A discussions, whichever agent you are assigned to will be the one answering your questions on the forum and critiquing your work, so if you are looking to connect with one of us specifically, make sure you let WD know.
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.
It is universally claimed that one of the major reasons submissions get rejected is because of grammar errors. That an agent will take one look at the spotty pages and toss it out.
So those of you who have done the research and understand the submission process to the best you can, of course you comb through your pages, even futilely AFTER you send it (I see you, you anxiety-ridden worker bees). And upon re-reading you discover that you misplaced a comma, or even worse, misused a homophone! So you agonize when that rejection letter comes in, was it because you spelled the witch’s altar with an “e”? How could you have been so dumb?
I’m here to reassure you. We are human, we make mistakes. Publishers have entire departments whose soul job (see what I did there?) is to make sure their content is grammar-error free. And even then it’s not a hundred percent, we’ve all caught a random error in a published book.
Sure, there are professionals (or people in general) who will judge your pre-published work based on its grammatical precision. But before you label yourself stupid or inferior for making those mistakes, try to see the bigger picture.
“Perfect” grammar is an inherently classist concept (PrintRun Podcast has a wonderful episode about this: Grammar and Power). Someone who belittles others about grammar, had the privilege of an elite education. They are attempting to wield power–their intention is to make you feel inferior, nothing else.
And by default, agents sit in a position of power. Power creates hubris. It’s a reality we’ve all been faced with. Some deal with it better than others.
So turn the picture around. Consider what you want in a literary agent. If an agent actually rejects your submission because of specific grammar errors (potentially rules that you were not educated in) do you want to work with them? Coming from such different perspectives, will they understand or relate to the content and be able to champion it with the passion and sensitivity it deserves?
This is not to say you should toss all your grammar concerns aside. Odds are your submission isn’t getting very far because your writing is underdeveloped. Writing is first and foremost an apprenticeship. You should be continuously honing your skills, including your proof-reading abilities, so your prose reaches toward your ultimate goal, whether it be more elevated, more streamlined, easier to read, more beautiful etc.
This may seem like conflicting advice, don’t worry and do worry about grammar. To be clear, understanding why grammar is important and how to wield it, can and will strengthen your writing. This education is an attainable power, but there is no shame in your ignorance of it. Your path is different, but your work is not inferior. Anyone who tells you different, whatever position of power they hold, is the one with the complex.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
In the past 2 days I’ve read 4 opening pgs w the same 1st line: “The first time I saw/did X, I did Y.” #amwriting#amquerying
That opening line tells us multiple things about your manuscript. A few examples:
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
It’s a poorly constructed sentence
same as above
Your character is waking up
This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
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.
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.
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.
A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
Same issue as the rhetorical question.
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.”
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.
Read the first line of a partial manuscript & had to have the full. Sometimes one line is all it takes. #querytip