Query Tips

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Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be.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…

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.