As many of you know, I closed to submissions back in September. Thank you everyone for your kind words of support. Happy to report all is well. For those of you wondering when I will reopen, I did have plans to open again in the new year. However, due to an unexpected surge of client work, I’m going to remain closed to submissions for the immediate future.
Hope to be back mid-year! Keep an eye on this space for updates.
Mary C. MooreNovember 30, 2017
The versatile and talented editor Sangeeta Mehta hosted a Q&A on powerhouse Jane Friedman‘s blog. Myself and literary agent DongWon Song answered her provocative questions as honestly as we could! Check out the interview here. If you post a comment or question there, I will try to answer it.
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
In general, publishing moves slowly (we’re talking molasses). You can be out on submission for months, even years, first with literary agents and then again with publishers. So it can be incredibly frustrating to hear stories of authors getting signed by an agent after two weeks or being picked up by a publisher after three days. You’ve spent years honing your craft, learning the market, and researching industry professionals, while newer, younger authors are celebrating on Twitter or shouting with glee on their blogs about their astonishing and seemingly-instant success, causing you to feel like you’ve been too long in the query trenches, that you’ll never get published.
This is not true. The timing of when/if your manuscript gets picked up depends on many different factors, far too many to fit into one blog post. But a main factor is what kind of appeal your manuscript has. I like to break it down into three types: *note, these categories are assigned given that the manuscripts are well-written, evenly-paced, and tightly-plotted
Market Hot 🔥🔥🔥
These are the stories that happen to hit the right note on the market. They are timely, they are polished, and the author has managed to leverage it to be visible to multiple agents and editors at one time, i.e. on Twitter pitch sessions (#PitMad, #DVpit, etc.), at a conference/contest, Pitch Wars, and so on. These are the authors with multiple agent offers after only a week on submission. The reason these get snatched up so quickly is agents know they are hot. There is a distinct advantage to being the first to make an offer, and if that’s not possible, someone else will offer soon, and so an agent has to read it fast or risk being left in the dust when the fight is over. And when the dust clears, often that same manuscript ends up selling at auction with publishers not long after, while those agents that lost out quietly weep over ice cream.
The odds of your submission falling in this category are slim. There are only a few a year. But given the excitement they generate, these are the stories you hear the loudest. Try not to compare yourself to this. Dream big always, but be kind to yourself as the path to publication is long and hard for most.
Heart Novel ❤️❤️❤️
These are the manuscripts that land smack in the middle of an agent’s MSWL (manuscript wish list) but aren’t necessarily market hot. These stories are the reason most of us got into the business. For example, I’m dying for an adult upmarket expansive historical romance set in a Mexican hacienda, with thoughtful social commentary layered into it, written by a latina/indigenous author. Or a northern California fantasy full of local magic, cryptozoology, weed, and redwoods. This is super specific to me and my tastes, not to the market. If one of these landed in my inbox, you bet I would read it quickly and if it was good make an offer pretty damn fast. Not because I know competition will be tight, not because I have a list of editors the length of my arm to send it to, but because it’s a story I believe in, a story that touches my heart.
These are also rare (I’ve signed one in three years) and may not hit the publishers the same way. Maybe the heart novel gets an agent quickly, but could be on submission to publishers for months/years. Maybe the agent sells the client’s next work, waiting until the client makes a name before selling the heart novel. That your ms will hit exactly what the agent is looking for is far-fetched, although your odds increase exponentially with the more research you do on each agent. At least if your project comes close, it will definitely make us pay attention.
Dark Horse 🌚🌚🌚
Finally this category is probably where your manuscript lands. The unknowns. The slushpile. The surprise. Most agents after a drink or two will tell you they didn’t know they wanted that particular submission until it landed on their desk. Of course you want to aim for the right genre and reader age range that the agent represents, but within that the potential is vast and varied. I had no idea I wanted a cozy mystery series starring a veterinarian or a military space adventure with an unreliable narrator. I fell in love after they were submitted to me . The response times on these can be weeks, to months to even a year or so depending on the agent’s workload, the ever-changing market, and available space on their client list. There may be R&Rs (revise and resubmit) and phone conversations without an offer. It could even end with the heart-breaking “this is good but I didn’t fall in love,” rejection. The potential to be a Dark Horse is why your query is so important. You have to convince the agent that yours is the manuscript they never knew they wanted, that you are a writer who will win the race. You don’t have that bit of leeway that the market hot and heart novels have. Just by circumstance, they’ve already gotten the agent to read with an open heart and willing mind. We do not do this by default. The slushpile has made us into cynics. Your manuscript must be impressively polished. Because the agent is still skeptical. Your query intrigued us, but we go into it expecting it to not be ready. Please, surprise us.
And, if your writing impresses us, then worst case scenario we can’t sell this manuscript, we know we can develop your next one together and it will have a much higher chance of being at least a little market hot. The largest percentage of my clients are Dark Horses. One was even two years from initial submission to my actual offer!
So keep on writing and keep on submitting. Everyone has space on their list for the Dark Horse, even if their path to publication is molasses slow.
I realized, as I often do during Q&A sessions with authors, how much information I take for granted as a literary agent. I have learned so much on the other side of the desk, and it’s easy to forget how mysterious it all seemed once upon a time. One particular question that appeared to cause a lot of anxiety was whether or not a manuscript fell into the “crossover genre.” Writers were unsure what crossover meant, yet they had heard it was important that their manuscript achieved that status. I’d be pretty anxious too!
So, to clarify. Crossover isn’t a genre, it’s an adjunct of the genre, and it’s used as a label in publishing mainly for marketing purposes. In a literal sense, your manuscript is crossover when it “crosses over” from one genre to the next, e.g. a thriller in an urban fantasy setting. Publishers love crossovers because they can potentially be bought by fans of both genres, i.e. it “crosses over” to different audiences, which means…
Crossover can also pertain to the type of writing, e.g. you’ve written a romance but the language is so elevated it could be considered upmarket or even literary. In these cases the term crossover is often dropped and occasionally the commercial genre label is dropped as well, and instead it’s referred to “upmarket” or “bookclub” fiction.
The most common use of the term crossover (and where the most confusion seems to happen) is referring to the age range of the reader. In particular YA (young adult) novels are considered crossover when the publisher is hoping to reach not only teenage readers, but adult readers as well. For example, The Hunger Games was read widely by both kids and adults, and its crossover appeal is what drove a lot of its popularity. In the technical sense the reverse is possible, i.e. adult books can crossover to kids, but this is far less common, and not used in marketing. When pitching a crossover in age range, it’s always in terms of aging up, e.g. a middle grade that can appeal to young adults, YA to adults, etc.
So what does this all mean for you the author? Knowing if your manuscript is crossover or not, shows a better understanding of the market, which can only further help your submission. Unsure? Then stick to your main genre and reader age. An agent can spot a crossover even if it’s not stated as such. But if you do claim it’s a crossover and it’s not, then that may cause the agent to believe that you don’t understand the market you’re writing for or that you are trying to overcompensate for something lacking in the writing itself. This won’t kill your submission necessarily, but it won’t help.
I’ve donated a query letter and first 10 pages critique. Literary agents often ask for your first 10 pages when you submit your query. This is why the beginning of your novel is so important. Get in-depth and personalized feedback on your query and first 10 pages if you win this item. It’s already gotten 38 bids! There’s still 24 hours left to bid and donate to this wonderful cause. Visit the SFWC auction page for more information.
Comparable titles, agents love ’em, writers hate ’em.
They are a required part of my submission form, so I’ve seen the gambit of writers attempting to get out of answering the question. Multiple “n/a,” several “I don’t know,” and more than I care to count of “my manuscript has no comparable.” Even had annoyed emails asking why agents ask writers to jump through so many hoops.
There is a staggering amount of advice on how to query agents online, including how to choose your comparable titles. Search “comparable titles query” and multiple posts by successful writers and legitimate agents pop up.
#QueryTip = great comparable titles are: published in the past 2-3 years by major publishing houses and have a clear relation to your story.
Rather than regurgitate this easily accessible information, I’ll focus on what comps mean to me when considering a submission.
Whittling down submissions is like any other job application process, first the applicant has to meet the bottom line. I developed my submission form to ensure those that queried me already fit the mold of clients I’m looking for. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for the most part. I do have the occasional chuckle at some of the gaffes I’ve seen especially, as mentioned above, with the answers to the comparable titles section. Don’t worry though, there is only one answer to this section that will actually get you an auto-reject. To win this distinction you have to be an author who claims there is no comparable to your book, i.e. your manuscript is totally unique.
Not only is this not true, it’s incredibly egotistical on the part of the author, and that kind of ego is not one I want to work with. Close behind these “one of a kind” types are writers who say they are the next big franchise series, e.g. “My book is the next Harry Potter.” Perhaps it’s not their ego, but they might have the expectation that they will make the kind of money JK Rowlings does. And their agent will be expected to fulfill this dream or die trying under a mountain of anxious and demanding emails.
For instance, if you compare your book to #FSOG, agents may wonder if it’s a real comp, or if you just think your books is BIG #querytip
Answers such as “n/a” or “I don’t know” may not win you any points, but I won’t toss your sub. I will assume however that you are either lazy (not a great first impression) or unknowledgeable about the publishing industry (which makes me wary as I’m looking for long-term clients i.e. understand the time it takes to get published and the professional demands of being an author).
Moving on to authors who actually come up with comp book titles. First, thank you for trying. It is appreciated.
Those of you who use my clients’ work as comps. Clever idea, however be aware that I know these works more intimately than almost anything else on the shelves. I’ve helped edit, revise, flesh out characters, even out pacing, catch plot holes, develop marketing copy, title it and so on and so on. If you’re using one of them as a comp, be damn sure you’ve read it and your manuscript really does compare. Because I sure as hell will. . . and kudos for having the cajones.
Then there’s the chart-toppers like Divergent and Game of Thrones. These are over-used, and will not give your sub any distinction. I guarantee the past five fantasy submissions used GoT as a comp, so I’ll just glaze over these. Or there’s the old, even out-dated comps like Wicked or The Hobbit. I don’t mind these as much as many agents seem to, it at least shows me the author knows vaguely who their target audience is. What prevents old comps from adding to your submission package is that the odds that I know the editor are slim, and the imprint that first published these books may not be publishing similar books currently or may even be defunct.
Because that’s really why agents want to see comparable titles. If they are good, nay great, comps, then they will give us an instant idea of who and where to send it to. Recent books like The Star-Touched Queen and Certain Dark Things have both been mentioned or reviewed by me online. I know the editors of these books and I know the imprints that published them. If your book is comparable, then you have honed in on the right agent.
Not that I’m expecting you to stalk my social media or have perfect knowledge of what I’ve read recently. But if you write in the genre I represent and you choose comps that are moderately successful titles from the past year or two in that genre, chances are I’ve read them or at least heard of them and so know who published them. (If not, that’s on me.)
In closing, if you use recently published successful books as comps, they can really make your submission stand out of the pile. But if you don’t manage that, it’s okay. I’ll still consider your submission.
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.
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.
**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.