Query Tips

Titling Your Manuscript For Submission: An Agent Weighs In

Artwork by Marcus Connor at Brainless Tales

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.

Freelance Editors: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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.

*On my manuscript wish list is historical fiction about any/all of these female outlaws!

**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.

Genre Breakdown: Epic Fantasy

middle earth map

Welcome to the second post in the genre breakdown series. (The first tackled the ever-so-vague genre, Magical Realism).

I recently tweeted for MSWL day my wish for epic fantasy:

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.

Game Of Thrones Houses

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.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 18: Portrait of English fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett, photographed to promote the 40th novel in his Discworld series, Raising Steam, on September 18, 2013. (Photo by Kevin Nixon/SFX Magazine via Getty Images)

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!

Write Tip: Character Eye Color

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.

Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her “violet” eyes. Is your character as fabulous as Liz Taylor?

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:

  • brown 55%
  • blue 8%
  • hazel 8%
  • green 2%
  • silver (rare)
  • 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!)

Love to hear opinions on this, agree, disagree?

The Author Website: Do You Need One Before Publishing?

Author Website by Mary C. Moore

Remember those days when you so naively believed to be an author all you had to do was write? How I long for that innocence. In the current market, whether traditionally or indie published, authors are expected to be self-promoters, indeed have to be to survive. You hear a lot of buzz at conferences or online around the term “author platform”  and a quick online search will find many great posts explaining what that is from Jane Friedman’s Blog to Writer’s Digest to The Book Designer and so on. However, all that information can be somewhat overwhelming, especially if you are just starting out and/or have a bit of a social media phobia. It’s also a bit of a catch-22; how can you have an online presence if you’ve never been published, but how can you get published without an online presence?

bogus

As I represent mainly fiction, an author’s platform doesn’t make or break my decision when I’m considering a submission. Nonfiction is a different story, more on that here from Rachelle Gardner who does represent a lot of nonfiction and here from Brooke Warner who works with a lot of nonfiction writers. However, I do like to see if the author is online savvy, which means they have the potential to build a good platform in the future. This will help my judgment whether I want to take the time to request and read their full manuscript or even offer them representation. The best way to show you have the chops to make it in this crazy online world? A solid author website. What constitutes a solid author website previous to publication? Basically it’s an online resume for agents, editors, and future readers.

  • A home page that is either an introduction to you and your writing or a blog. If you are a terrible blogger and can’t sustain blogging regularly, do not have a blog. A dead blog is worse than no blog. If you can blog, try to blog about things of interest. Try not to blog about writing, there are millions of those blogs out there. Post about something related to your WIP, e.g. if you’re writing cozy mysteries themed around knitting, blog about knitting. For example, my client Lori Bentley Law blogs about women riding motorcycles and vintage cars, which features a lot in her writing and will pick up fans that might actually read her books. Some good advice about blogging here from Chuck Sambuchino at The Write Life.
  • A visual theme that relates to the type of writer you are. If you write high fantasy, then the website should reflect this. Not that you have to have unicorns farting rainbows over wizards, but the site shouldn’t be hot pink with kisses all over it. Now if you’re writing YA romance, that’s a different story. My client Laura Palmer writes epic fantasy with artistic themes and the artwork on her site brings you straight into that world.
  • Publications page. Any publications, i.e. short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, that fall under your author brand should be listed and linked either on your home page or on a separate page. If you have short stories published, congratulations! This is important information for potential editors/agents.
  • Your work-in-progress page. This is where you have a pitch/summary of all your WIPs (that you consider ready or soon-to-be ready for submission). Gives the agent an idea of what more you’ve got under the hood. This isn’t an absolute must, but it’s nice to see. My client Rachelle E. Morrison has two pages dedicated to this and it definitely piqued my interest when I was researching her before our initial phone conversation.
  • A bio page. If you don’t have any writing credentials, than this should have what inspires you to write, who your favorite authors are, why you write in the genre you write, and any real world experience that relates to your writing. My client Stacey Berg has a great example of simple but interesting bio.
  • A professional bio photo next to your bio. No cartoons, avatars, cropped shots, just a simple and clear headshot of you. Does not have to be professionally done, just professionally appearing. See my client Sean Danker’s smirk. Also, this bio photo should be used on all your platforms that are linked to your online author presence.
  • If you are on social media or participate in forums or have any other links relating to your writing and genre of choice these should all be clearly linked to your page. My client G.C. Nash is extremely active online outside just social media. However, most authors aren’t this active, and that’s okay.
  • Should be easy to navigate. These days you have seconds to catch a browser’s attention. If your site is too full of stuff in the navigation bar, side bars, cluttered up pages, it can be distracting and turn the viewer off.

A great example of a simple but effective author website is my client Rati Mehrotra’s at ratiwrites.com. Although it’s not a professionally designed website, it straightforwardly gives all of her information as an author. Her bio, her credentials, her WIP, and a consistent blog, all linked to her other author online presences. And there is a subtle but clear theme that directly relates to her writing. I like to direct new authors there, because her site, in particular, helped me make my decision to represent her, and it’s not a hard site to replicate.

In the end although you don’t need an author website, it does make a difference, at least when I’m considering your submission.

How to Format Your Fiction Submission

owl
When the sample is formatted poorly, it does not motivate us to read it.

Digging through the slushpile is hard work. For every query an agent answers, two more come in. We must get through them quickly or risk drowning, so as horrifying as it may be, often those that are formatted poorly go straight to the rejection pile. In the interest of giving your submission a fighting chance out above the hundreds of others, your best bet is to have a clean concise query letter and a well-formatted writing sample.

This particular post focuses on how to format your sample writing. First, remember that your sample/partial or full manuscript is a draft, not a published piece, so you are looking to create pages that are stripped down to just the writing. You want the quickest and cleanest read for the reader without all the fancy parts. (And yes this is true of picture books too!) Here are some tips on how to format your sample correctly.

First page:

  • Top left hand corner has your name, contact information (address, phone, email, and website)
  • Top right hand corner has the word count of the ENTIRE novel, not of the sample
  • A few spaces down has the title
  • Directly following is the opening line of your manuscript
  • Do not include a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, quotes, title page, or any other front matter. It is unnecessary and simply takes the reader longer to reach that important first line.

Body:

  • Double spaced
  • First line of each paragraph should have a 0.5 indentation
  • Simple font, (Times New Roman or Arial are safest), black, 12pt, you may use italics or bold for emphasis, but avoid using colors, different fonts etc.
  • Page number, title, your last name in the top right header
  • Do not include images, fancy headers, or blank pages between chapters. Do not use underline for italics or double spaces after a period (these are outdated).

There are reasons for these formatting requirements, if you don’t know them ask in the comments. Samples of a front page and body page below.

Clean Manuscript Format Front Page

Clean Manuscript Format Body Page

A Career as an Author: The Reality

sparkly eyes

As a literary agent, I see the starry eyes of newbie writers everywhere, their idea of what it means to be a writer skewed from the famous tales of authors who have made it big.

  • Did you know Stephenie Meyer had a dream about sparkling vampires and Twilight was published 6 months later?
  • Amanda Hocking made 2 million dollars self-publishing her series.
  • JK Rowling went from sleeping in her car to becoming a billionaire.

You hear these recycled lines everywhere on forums and in writing groups. The stuff of legends. The writers who did it. These anecdotes give hope with each rejection, fuel the fire, keep the dream alive. It’s like the waiters in Hollywood dreaming of becoming the next Brad Pitt or Halle Berry without the star-studded veneer. We need these stories to inspire us in this highly competitive industry.

The other side of the coin though, is these anecdotes give rise to high expectations. I’ve met so many writers who believe by self-publishing they’ll be the next Amanda Hocking, or by finding a literary agent their series will be the next franchise. It creates an unrealistic perception of what it means to be a career author. And when a literary agent sees that idealism shining through a newbie writer’s pitch, they become wary (and weary). Because, writing is a career. And like any other career it takes time. On average it takes about 10 years to get your first book published. And that’s probably not the first book you’ve written. Following that, it takes about six successfully published books for you to start earning a living as an author. That’s potentially a few decades. Which requires a lot of patience and dedication. An author who doesn’t understand this, will put a lot of unnecessary pressure and unrealistic demands on themselves and their agent, and that is not the type of business relationship we want.

For every legend, there are thousands of writers who haven’t made it, whose rejections litter the pathway, whose debut novel was a dud, who gave up, because the dream was taking too long and was too much work. My favorite response to those who ask how long it takes to become a successful writer is to ask, “if you started a job tomorrow at an entry level position, would you expect to be the CEO within the year?” Not to say that it hasn’t or won’t happen. Just be ready to fight to keep the dream alive for more than a few years. So before you approach your next literary agent or editor or consider self-publishing, ask yourself, are you willing to do the time? Once you know and accept the reality of becoming a career author, the more likely you are to succeed.

And don’t forget to submit to me when you do have it figured out.

Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

Welcome to the first post in the genre breakdown series. One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important in both worlds of self publishing or the traditional route. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested, whether it be readers or agents or editors.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but I’ve noticed the genre authors tend to get the most mixed up is magical realism.

Birds of America – At the Beach – Kevin Sloan

As an agent that represents both fantasy and magical realism, I find a lot of fantasy authors will submit under the genre magical realism, believing, falsely, it gives their fantasy novel more literary cred or makes it more unique. Or, they simply do not understand what magical realism actually is. I don’t blame them. Search the term, and a plethora of definitions pop up that don’t exactly make it clear. As Webster’s Dictionary puts it, “A literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” So does that mean Twilight is magical realism? No. Urban and paranormal still fall under the fantasy umbrella because even though they are set in modern time the reader is brought into a world that is indeed different than our own.

The Sun Sets Sail – Rob Gonsalves

What you do need to know is magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, than it is most likely fantasy. A boy from our world who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school to have all kinds of magical adventures, that’s fantasy. A boy from our world who believes he’s a wizard but whose story takes place in reality, that is potentially magical realism. Notice I said “potentially.” Magical realism is an elusive genre, not for the inexperienced or crowd-pleaser. The best way to get familiar with the genre is to read some of the classics, Like Water For ChocolateOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children, and House of Spirits. You’ll find that even though there is a touch of magic, a bit of the fantastic, a sprinkling of the otherworld, these books are completely grounded in reality and the culture they stem from. Magical realism treats magic as if it were rational, just another aspect of our world, not as something otherworldly. Once you understand it, it will become obvious.

Self Portrait With Necklace of Thorns – Frida Kahlo

Why is this important? Because the average fantasy reader is different than the average magical realism reader. The audience is different, thus the people you submit to will be different, the shelf in the bookstore will be different, the Amazon Bestseller category will be different.

I hope this post has helped a little to understand that difference.

Reasons For Rules: An Agent’s Perspective

Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be. Each agent has different submission guidelines and there are so many RULES. It seems as if you break any of these sacred RULES your query will go right in the physical and metaphorical trash, never to be seen again and you as an author will be laughed out of any possible opportunity to be signed. And when those rejections start rolling in, you question yourself and your writing. What RULE did you break? Then you get angry and frustrated. Why are the RULES so dang important anyway? Isn’t it about the writing? Shouldn’t they see you for the amazing talent you are and brush all that other stuff away? You start reading about authors who have broken the rules and been hugely successful and you  lurk on online forums to commiserate with other writers that are feeling as bruised as you are. Pretty soon you are convinced that agents have too much power and that their RULES are just petty ways of making authors jump through silly hoops for their own amusement.

Now, being on the other side of the fence, I find myself spouting off RULES to hopefuls at writer conferences, online forums, on Twitter, and everywhere in-between. I have unintentionally become a gatekeeper, because on this side, the RULES have REASONS. Oh. So for your sanity and mine, I am going to explain the REASONS behind the seemingly random RULES. I’m sticking to fiction literary agent RULES to keep it short.
Rule #1: Follow each agent’s individual submission guidelines down to the letter.
Reason: Every agent has a different system for shifting through submissions. Their guidelines are based on what will help them get through the slushpile in the most efficient manner. By not following the guidelines, you are causing a disruption in the system, which means it will take longer for the agent to consider your submission and respond to you, in effect wasting their time and yours.
Rule #2: Word count, 55k-75k for YA, 80k-90k for most adult, up to 125k for historical or fantasy.
Reason: Word counts are a throwback from traditional printing. There was a standard specification for print book sizes, which meant if your book fell outside those specifications, it was less likely to be picked up. Because of this, readers got used to a standard book length. And although publishing mediums have since evolved, the standard has yet to change. Thus, your book is easier to sell if it falls within the word count parameters.
Rule #3: Classify your work as only 1-2 genres, plus age group.
Reason: We want to know what genre your book falls into, so we know which editors we would place it with. Do not say “it’s a unique new genre,” not only is this not true (trust me, after slogging through the slush, I can say with confidence, you are not the first to come up with whatever concept you have come up with) it shows us you do not read within your genre, and do not understand it. We are looking for experienced authors who grasp who their reader audience is.
Rule #4: Address the query to the agent you are sending it to.
Reason: Not only is this courteous, but it shows you’ve at least done a bit of research before querying us, which means you think we would be a good fit for your manuscript.
Rule #5: Only query agents who represent your genre.
Reason: We as agents, develop relationships with editors and publishing houses. If we specialize in a genre, that means we are experienced both in reading/selling said genre, but we also know exactly which editors would be right for it. That being said, there is no harm in querying an agent you are not clear on, especially those who list “commercial fiction” as one of their genres. Just try to avoid querying an agent who only represents thrillers and mysteries with your inspirational memoir.
Rule #6: Have your manuscript finished, edited, and polished before querying.
Reason: Although a lot of agents will do edits before shopping your manuscript, their time is limited. They are not going to be willing to do extensive edits on a project, so if you send out a manuscript before it is finished, you are essentially setting yourself up for rejection.
Rule #7: Do not mention how well the book will do, or what great writing it is, or how you plan to be the next JK Rowling.
Reason: The reality of publishing is much harsher than the success stories of JK Rowling and EL James. Most authors don’t start making a living off their writing until after their fifth or sixth successfully published book (this is true for self-published authors as well) and even then you’re probably not going to be able to buy that island. On average it takes years/decades to become financially successful as an author. We are looking for clients that understand that and are willing to put in the time and energy toward that goal.
Rule #8: Keep your bio to simply your experience as a writer as well as any relevant experience to your novel (i.e. if you’re writing legal thrillers and are a lawyer, mention this). Leave out the names of your pets, your dreams of stardom, your inner demons, and any other personal/professional background.
Reason: Agents are professionals, and they are looking for professional clients. Your query letter should have the same information that a cover letter for a job resume would have. Relevant experience only. Of course once we’ve signed you, then the relationship may evolve to a more personal level, but there will always be a professional line.
Rule #9: Keep the query short.
Reason: The slushpile is no joke. There are hundreds of submissions that an agent or agent’s assistant have to read on a monthly basis. If a query is too long, out of necessity, we will skip most of it.
Rule #10: Only nudge an agent if you have an offer of representation or they have not responded past their posted response time.
Reason: Again, the inbox is flooded already. If you nudge, odds are we won’t read the email until after we’ve seen your original query, (unless in the subject line are the words: OFFER OF REP), so you are just adding to the pile and possibly being annoying. However, things do slip through the cracks. Usually in the submission guidelines, an agent has posted their normal response time. If it is past this date, go ahead and nudge. If it’s a full manuscript, nudging after six months is reasonable.
I hope this post has helped you make sense of a seemingly random set of parameters and given you more confidence to keep going. It is good to remember that most agents are hopeful that authors will follow these RULES, but we are also human and understanding. We may reject you because you didn’t follow one of our RULES, but that doesn’t mean you are blacklisted and we never want to see your face (or pen) again. In all honesty, we are so inundated with queries, we probably won’t remember your particular RULE-breaking query in the first place. So don’t be nervous, just do the best you can. There are many more RULES that crop up in all aspects of publishing: formatting, grammar, design, editing, writing, contracts etc, even self-publishing, and I’m happy to give REASONS for these in the comments below. As for the RULE-breakers out there. You know what they say…

Query Prickles: How To Write Your Novel Blurb

You’ve finished your book. Now what?
It’s the dreaded query letter time.
But how could I possibly cram the multi-layered plot, complex characters, 80k worth of words into one tiny paragraph?
Answer: You don’t.
Whaaaaatttt??

Now it’s like this Little Britches: Authors seem to get the most hung up on the details of their novel when crafting the blurb/pitch. I see it all the time at conferences, the author attempts to fill me in on every aspect of the story, i.e. “this is written in two different POV to emphasize this,” or “Character A did that because of her history with Character B, who is traumatized from Occurrence A,” or “Background XYZ is important to the story because it explains how Event X came to pass.” It’s even worse in the slushpile. At a conference, an author knows their time is limited, so they keep it brief, but in email, it’s wide open. This week I received a 3-page query letter. I didn’t read it. I did however read some of the sample work they sent. It was a no for me, but the writing was not half as dense as the query letter. If I had been an agent who only accepted query letters, there would have not even been a second look.

What would garner a second look? That’s a good question, and one you should actually ask yourself. When you pick a book, or a movie, what is the reason you choose to experience that particular story? Is ever because “this book is written with a narrative from two POV”? No. It’s because the blurb catches your interest. How? As it’s better to teach by example, I’m using Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, because most of you have read/seen it, and those who haven’t, have heard enough about it to have an idea of what it’s about and who the major players are.

Now, before you read further, think about the different layers of the story. Dystopian world as a result of environmental pollution, oppression of the poor by the rich, unequal caste systems, what is real love, feminism, the dissociation of humanity through reality TV, family, post traumatic stress, morality in the face of survival, body image issues, love triangle, and the layers go on and on. Start listing the major characters, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Primrose, Rue etc. What are the major plot points; district with Gale, train to capital, presentation of the candidates, Peeta’s in love, Hunger Games begins, and so on.

Okay, having all those details swarming in your head, here’s the blurb:

  • In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

How many details made it into the blurb? Notice not even Peeta is mentioned, nor is the fact that Katniss is an amazing hunter. The mockingjay is missing, as is President Snow and Haymitch. Nothing indicates the multi-layered complexity of Collins’ world. It simply offers a taste of the story with the hope that you will order the whole dish.

So learn by example. Find and read twenty-plus back-covers of books that fall in the same genre as yours. (Browsing Goodreads or your local bookstore is great for this.) Choose your favorites, the ones that really intrigued you, and mimic their style. Remember, your blurb is not your synopsis, so next time beware, don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick the pear, try to use the claw.

Have I given you a clue?

Forget about your worries and your DETAILS. Just use the bare necessities…