Query Tips

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.

Magical Realism

Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important if you’re querying agents or self-publishing. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but the one that gets the most mixed up is magical realism.

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.

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 books like Twilight are magical realism? No. These types of stories are called Urban or Paranormal, and they still fall under the fantasy genre umbrella. Although they are set in modern time, the world is still very much a fantasy world with vampires and the like running around. Or 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.

The best way to get familiar with the actual magical realism 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.

And most importantly, you need to understand the cultural significance behind the magical realism movement. It has deep Latinx roots and is used as a way to highlight the oppression of marginalized and indigenous people, bringing the beautiful and fantastic to their real stories.  

Magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. 

Please do not culturally appropriate this wonderful genre. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, it is most likely fantasy, contemporary or urban. 

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 Submission Pitch

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??
Understandably, authors get hung up on cramming all the details of their manuscript in their pitch, and at the same time throwing in vague cliche turns of phrase to make it sound more “exciting.” This usually results in a bloated and confusing blurb that reads more like a badly written synopsis. Try to let go of all that and focus on the sole reason for your pitch: you want to compel someone to read your pages.

How? Well, when you pick a book, or a movie, what is the reason you choose to experience that particular story? Because the blurb/trailer/pitch caught your interest.

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, think about all the themes 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 on and on. List 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, with all those details swarming in your head, here’s the blurb on the back cover of the book:

  • 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 pitch? 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. Practice.

This will hone your eye. The more you mimic, the more natural pitch-writing will feel. And just as all the other aspects of your story evolved and became better with time, so will your pitching.

Rejection and Publishing

Rejection, it’s a word all writers loathe and fear. I myself have been rejected as an author by zines, agents, editors, workshops, and readings. It’s a difficult road, and I feel for the thousands of writers that pass through our slushpile everyday. It’s hard not to take each rejection like an arrow to the heart and I’ve seen writers who have become bitter, angry, sad, and then broadcast it online. They vent their frustration, believing they have been wronged, calling publishers, editors, agents alike nasty names and blaming them personally for the rejections.

One of the most important things I have learned since entering the other side of publishing is that rejection is not personal. Publishing is first and foremost, a business. The people within publishing love books (they have to, for it is rarely a lucrative career), but they are not artists per say, so they are looking at each submission with a practical eye. For example, as beautiful as your prose may be, if the book is hundreds of thousands of words long, an agent knows that a publisher will not probably not pick it up because to publish a book that large costs more money. No one is saying the writer is a bad writer for having a long book, it just means the writer probably doesn’t understand the business side of publishing and is likely inexperienced.

So if you are like the average writer and wish to have a financially successful career, do your research, know the business and understand that it’s similar to any other job. Your first project is your entry-level resume. You’re going to have to submit it to as many places as you can, be rejected or ignored, and even if you do get hired, you won’t be the CEO within the year. But if you keep honing your craft by going to school or workshops or conferences, doing online research, critical reading and practicing writing, just as you would invest in another career, your odds of success become much higher.

And you will see that rejection is just business as usual.