Monday, July 26, 2010

A Must Read

I read for pleasure for an hour every evening (I don't watch tv except for Top Chef, so I have time to do this) and right now I am rereading Michael Korda's ANOTHER LIFE, published in 1999. Korda, a really lovely and gracious man and a terrific writer, wrote the memoir about his life in publishing, and I am not surprised to be enjoying it as much as I did the first time and realizing that it is still relevant ten years later. For a terrific education in publishing, this really is a must read, and I want to hear reports from all of you when you have done so. Or if you've read it already, please tell me about it: nothing is more fun than sharing the enjoyment of a great read.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

And now a word from...Intern X

Two postings ago I promised a guestblog from Intern X, one of my fabulous query-reading interns, talking about how your querying chances are better than you think, based on the fact that many queriers disqualify themselves. So, without further ado, here is her take on the topic:

When I first heard that Jenny was looking for a few good interns, I was -so- excited to finally get to see how real authors write their queries and communicate in the uber professional writing world.

Boy was I in for a big surprise.

Before I was an intern, I had read that something like 90% of authors disqualified themselves without us even reading their query. I felt for sure that all those previous query-reading interns must have been wrong. I was going to blaze in there and find all these fab books and spend my time happily reading future bestsellers.

That’s not what happened.

Here’s what did:

That first time I logged into Jenny’s queries inbox I found it full to bursting.

About thirty percent of those queries didn’t match what Jenny was looking for (posted in her easy to find submissions guidelines). Instant rejections.

Another five percent of spam. (yes, agents get spam too) This included junk mail blasts of book promotions, invites to social media, etc. Instant deletions.

Half of those remaining didn’t include the requested ten pages (also posted in her submissions guidelines). If we didn’t like the query, we didn’t bother to ask for the ten pages. If we did like the query, we had to write back asking for them. Their query then went back to the bottom of the pile.

Another chunk, say fifteen percent of those remaining, were thank you letters for Jenny rejecting them so nicely. Jenny writes an amazing rejection letter.

When all is accounted for, that’s only about 20% of queries that come in that are formatted correctly.

And that’s not counting the ones we have to decline because of off-the-wall and copycat plots…or those that aren’t ready to be querying agents yet because they don’t have a good grasp of spelling or punctuation or grammar.

But every once in a while, a query would stand out. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but they nearly always follow Jenny’s guidelines to a T. Those stellar books were worth hours of slogging through the queries pile. They made me rush to the “Fwd:” button and zip a copy off to Jenny with glee and then I’d wait by my inbox salivating, hoping I’d get a chance to read the novel in question.

My own query went from 0 out of 10 requests for more to 7 out 10 requests for more after joining Jenny’s query reading team. Every author should intern.

So how can you be one of those precious few that stand out? Here’s a few of the most common mistakes that we see. You can bet that those standout queries didn’t make these mistakes. Make sure your query doesn’t either.

Ten Common Query Mistakes

Spelling: You’ve proofed your MS to within an inch of it’s life (right? RIGHT?) so why would you rush through your query? Take a moment and make sure all your words are correctly spelled. You’d be amazed if I told you how many times someone has spelled query ‘queery’ or ‘querry’ or ‘quury’ (one out of every ten, usually).

Not knowing who you’re soliciting: If you query an editor, don’t say ‘Dear Agent’ because they are not an agent. Likewise, don’t address a query to a lady agent by saying ‘Dear Sirs.’ Giving us a choice (‘I am seeking a publisher or a literary agent’) means that you haven’t given the proper thought to who you’re sending the query to. Along that line, don’t say that you’re looking for a publishing house to represent you. Agents represent, not houses. There’s no need to say that you’re looking for an agent to represent you either. We know that any emails sent to the query address are queries. Just get to the point, *your book*

Not having the cajones: Don’t spend two paragraphs apologizing for ‘wasting’ our time by sending us your letter. If you don’t think you and your book are the bees knees, then how’re you going to convince us?

Using cliché/vague phrases: ‘Then a manipulated act sets a chain reaction of grim events into motion,’ could be said about anything; The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, Prada & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, etc. What sets YOUR book apart?

Oopsie: If you make a mistake, don’t send another email. The only time this is appropriate is if by some strange reason, your cat jumped on your mouse and clicked ‘send’ before you had a chance to paste in the appropriate amount of sample writing. In that case, immediately send the same query with the right guidelines followed. A good way to avoid this is to put the email address in last. An email cannot be sent if it doesn’t have anywhere to go. Don’t send an email apologizing for the misspelled word in paragraph three. Change it in your master query and don’t make the same mistake twice.

Not being passionate: Don’t say that the only reason you’ve written this book is because you were laid off last year/your wife left you/you found yourself with some free time. If you’re not serious about writing, why even bother? Are you just looking for a quick million? ‘Cause that ain’t gonna happen. If writing is just a hobby and you’re not willing to put your all into it, why not just use a print-on-demand service instead and save a lot of time?

Email: if your email has a different name attached to it than the one in the email, that sometimes triggers spam filters. Make a new email address with your name on it and use it solely for queries. Be sure to disable any ‘pingback’ emails that say that you don’t allow unapproved email and that we need to fill out a form.

Telling: ‘This novel is a story about the destructiveness of war and hatred, and the redemptive power of love’ is a waste of space. Let your book do the talking.

Anything other than a query: Don’t email and ask us how to query. That’s what Google is for. That’s what submissions guidelines are for. That’s what agent websites and blogs and query help blogs are for. Use them. Queries inboxes are for queries.

Sample pages: If the sub guidelines ask you for ten pages embedded, it means ten pages embedded. It doesn’t mean the whole manuscript attached. It doesn’t mean seventeen pages because the first chapter was only nine pages long and you didn’t want to cut the second chapter off. If we write to ask for those ten pages, it is NOT a partial request. It’s us giving you a second chance to follow the guidelines.

BONUS – Comparisons: It’s one thing to say that your book is a cross between Watership Down and The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy (Funny bunnies in space? Heck yes!) but it’s quite another to say that you’re the next JK Rowling or Stephen King. They already exist. Be the next YOU, not a copycat.

Seriously, by following the submissions guidelines for each query you write and double-checking that all is professional and spelled correctly, you’ll be ahead of 85% of all other queries.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Breaking All the Rules

This is going to be a reassuring, although perhaps confusing, post. I was reading queries tonight and someone mentioned that they were, as per my instructions from another post, querying me with a finished manuscript. And that reminded me that I had recently signed up a client who had queried me with only part of her manuscript complete. And that reminded me that I had within the last few years signed and sold two new writers based on queries that were not very strong, technically speaking, and didn't have the elements I like to see, like comp titles, but just had *something* about them that appealed to me; in one case a fun, confident voice, and in the other, good sample pages.

Now, don't misunderstand: I am not saying that you should deliberately set out to not follow instructions, as it were. But this is a confusing industry, and there's lots of conflicting information out there, and you probably have lots of on-line writer friends weighing in as well, and this is a really stressful experience anyway because you are following your dream, afterall, so I would say it's probably pretty near impossible to get everything right, for every agent, all of the time. I always compare the process to writing your college essay. When I was working on mine, far too many years ago to remember (except that I do), I had far too much input on mine, and I completely over thought the entire thing, with the result that I wrote a pretty flat, lack-luster little essay which didn't do much to tell college admissions counselors what kind of person I was. I played it safe and that hurt me in the end.

Better, I think, to be a little loosey-goosey with this stuff. If you be yourself, a little quirky, a little original, yes, you might turn somebody off. But you have a far better chance of attracting a kindred agent spirit I think, the one that loves your letter and then loves your work. Again, please don't take this as carte blanche to ignore all the advice you've ever heard when it comes to query letters. But do take it as permission to relax a little, have some fun, and yes, let your query freak flag fly.