September 15th, 2015 | Proposals | 20 Comments
I’ve had three different people ask me about query letters recently… specifically, “What does a query letter look like?” and “What goes into a good query to an agent?”
Happy to help. To query an agent or editor is to simply approach someone and introduce your book
idea. The goal of your query is to get them to read your proposal. (Let me repeat that: your goal in sending an agent a query is to get them to read your proposal. No industry professional has the time to look out the window, much less sit down and read your entire unsolicited manuscript.) So you entice them with your pitch, get them to want to see the writing, and then give them the details in a quick, industry standard proposal — then you walk away, praying they’re going to want the full manuscript. The goal of a query is not to move them from “I don’t know you” to “let me make an offer on your book.” The goal is to move them from “I don’t know you” to “hey, your book sounds interesting… I’ll have a look.”
If you are sending a query letter, it should be only three to four paragraphs long and contain your pitch, your writing bio, the manuscript status, and some comparable titles. If you are querying face-to-face at a conference, where you’ve signed up for appointments with editors and agents, your query will have these same elements, beginning with a verbal pitch lasting no longer than two or three minutes.
And, of course, before you even consider querying, you need to make sure your manuscript draft is honed and polished, including a developmental edit (i.e., has your novel’s plot or structural flaws been revised? In a nonfiction book, is your overall argument complete and logical?) and a final proofreading, preferably from a professional editor. If you are serious about publishing, you need to take yourself—and your manuscript—seriously.
Here are the elements we think you need to include in your query letter:
Try to introduce yourself in one to two sentences that will establish a connection. “I am writing to you because your client, Heidi Gray, offered to introduce us” or some such thing. Nothing over the top or hokey. Maybe “I am writing to you because you represented Secrets of a Charmed Life, by Susan Meissner, and I feel my work will have a similar audience.”
Introduce the Hook and Need, or Story, from your pitch. If a novel, be sure to include the conflict and what’s at stake for the protagonist. If this is nonfiction, you need to describe how the information is organized (i.e., “Part One describes the history, Part Two is the problem, Part Three is the solution”), and why your take is unique and worthwhile for today’s audiences.
Refer to your writing credentials, but keep it short and interesting and describing why you wrote this particular book — establishing yourself as the authority in the topic area if this is nonfiction. List credits, but not minor ones. Ditto endorsements or awards. We don’t need to know about your personal life, or even your career, unless it’s related to writing skills, your topic, or your ability to build a platform (e.g., definitely mention if you work for a morning show with a stable audience, or if you are writing about a crime and are a forensics expert). Discuss your publishing history, awards, industry connections, pertinent education or experiences, and your platform (what are some different ways you can reach people to help sell your books, like websites, professional organizations, or media you can access?).
Include the word count and manuscript completion date, the target audience, and comparable titles. Also important to include is the pertinent market information (“two out of three crime bestsellers are PI novels, similar to mine”).
Close by mentioning you are attaching your proposal and what it includes. Be thankful of their time. Make sure you’ve included your contact information, including a phone number and email address.
Does that help? What other questions about queries do you have?
This post is based on the information found in Step by Step Pitches and Proposals: A Workbook for Writers, by Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz. You can order a print or digital copy here. And if you like it, please give us a nice review on Amazon!
Someone asked, “What is an acceptable time period to wait before following up on a proposal to an agent? And how do agents feel about writers following up on a query or submission? ”
I’ve answered this question a couple of time, so let me set some ground rules. First, I’m assuming if you sent me your proposal, we met somewhere, and I asked to see it. Remember that if I didn’t actually ask for your proposal, I don’t owe you a response. (I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but look at this from my perspective: If I had to respond to every proposal that comes in cold, I’d have a full-time job just responding to proposals… and I’d never make a dime.) So if I read your query and give you a response, even if it’s a “no thanks,” I’m doing you a favor. Second, I’m going to try and get to it quickly, but there’s no guarantee it will be immediate. I have current projects and authors, that are already making me money, and those are the priority. (Again,not trying to sound hard; just offering a reality check.) I’m the type of person who hates having a bunch of stuff sitting around the desk, so I’m bound to get to the new proposals as soon as I can. But I can get busy with travel or meetings or simply working on projects for the authors I already represent — so sometimes things can slow down considerably. Third, I understand this is a business on the writing side, so if an author needs info, I want to be fair about it; if she decides she needs to go elsewhere, I’ll probably be understanding.
All right, so when an author sends me a proposal I’ve asked for at a conference or because we met through a mutual friend, I try to get back to people within four to six weeks. The fact is, I’m often much faster. I’m occasionally slower, but that depends on what my to-do list is like at the moment. And I’ll admit something: I hate having people send me short notes after three or four weeks, in order to remind me that I’ve failed them (“I sent you my proposal a month ago!”). I think perhaps they’ve forgotten that I don’t owe them a reading. If I agree to read their proposal, it’s because I choose to. Yeah, okay, I know I sound cranky, but I got one of these today, from a woman I’ve never heard of. My first reaction is to say something snarky like, “Okay, if you’re forcing me to decide, my answer is no. Now leave me alone.” (And no, I’ve never done that.) So while I realize the proposal is your baby, and I know there are websites that will encourage you to check in regularly, my preference is that you give me adequate time to get to your project.
Looked at that way, following up after several weeks in a short, polite note (maybe thanking the editor or agent for looking at it) is fine. I prefer just a quick email that reminds me I’ve got your proposal, and asking me if I need anything else. No whining, no blame, no shaming me for having to do all that crazy stuff like take care of the authors I already represent so I can pay my bills. Of course, I have heard from several authors recently about some agents who have kept things for a YEAR without a reply. I find that unconscionable. You wonder how these folks keep their jobs. Look, if the person hasn’t responded in a couple months, move on. Move on emotionally at least. If they haven’t responded in a year, I’ve got news for you: they don’t want it. Really. So stop holding out hope on that one and move on.
Most agents will tell you they try to get to your proposal within a couple of months. Let’s assume that means the norm is between 5 and 10 weeks. If you haven’t heard by that time, it’s certainly fair to check in and see where it’s at. But again, try not to sound crabby about it. Agents and editors are looking because they liked it, or they felt it sounded like it had something of value… but not because they owe it to you. So drop them a polite note, checking in, and seeing if they need anything else — a bio, or a sales history, or comparable titles. Then let them have a couple more weeks to read it and respond.
I hope that helps. This blog exists just to answer questions from writers, and I try to always be honest about the process, so if you’ve got a question about writing or publishing, feel free to send it in.
Welcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.
Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.
With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest to make your book or story stand out at a conference (or in a query letter):
That doesn’t mean that you have to change the story you have written: if you wrote a nanny-falls-in-love-with-father-of-one story, figure out what DOES set it apart from those other eight, and highlight those elements in your pitch and conference materials. Does it have a unique/unusual setting? “Katie Nana isn’t sure how she ended up providing childcare on an archeological dig in Egypt.” Memorable. Does one of the major characters have an interesting/unusual vocation or workplace? “Katie’s mom, a former soap opera star, spends her weekends reminiscing to Katie about her glory days and spends her weekdays gambling away Katie’s inheritance.” What about some quirk or characteristic on the part of a major character that adds color to the story? “Katie Nana’s photographic memory makes her a great lawyer but a lousy girlfriend– who wants to be in a relationship with a woman who can always conclusively prove that she’s right?,” or “Katie’s best friend Valerie, who’s always claimed to be psychic, says that Katie and Clint are destined to be together, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince Katie.” Mine your manuscript for pieces that stand out or that you feel add color– a talent or hobby of the protagonist, an unusual pairing, etc. If you’re having trouble determining what parts of your story are unique, take a look at what else is out there in your genre– the more you read in your genre, the more you’ll pick up on what elements stand out.
Welcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.
Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack because you’re asking for something and I don’t have it and how could I blow my big chance like that, please excuse me while I go jump off a cliff.” The lesson here is that, while some editors will never ask to see a writing sample in a 15-minute meeting at a conference, some will, and you want to be equipped with a dynamite writing sample in case that happens.
There are several advantages to having a writing sample with you at a conference. As an agent, there are several scenarios in which I’ll ask to see the writing. First, I’m trying to determine whether or not I’ll be able to sell your project, so obviously, the quality of the writing is a factor there– I can’t sell a great story if it’s terribly written. Having a writing sample to show me right away adds to the impression I’m forming of you: when I get home after the conference and look over my notes from the meeting, they say “great idea, solid writing” instead of just “great idea, dot dot dot question mark,” and you have a better chance of standing out from the crowd in my memory and in the flood of material coming in after a conference.
I also want to know whether I connect with your voice as a writer– whether the way you tell your story resonates with me, whether I think I could champion you and your work to a publisher. There have been several times that I’ve met with an author at a conference and been pitched an idea that was only so-so in terms of uniqueness or saleability, but because I loved their writing/voice so much when skimming the writing sample, I’ve requested to see more/talked more with that author after the conference. I made the decision to stay in contact with those authors on the strength of their writing more than on the strength of that one idea/project.
It’s also a possibility that I’ve asked all the questions I need to about your story or your platform and already know your project isn’t going to be a good fit for me, but there’s still 7 minutes left of our meeting– in that scenario, seeing your writing can give me something constructive and concrete to offer you in terms of feedback/suggestions, so that I don’t send you away completely empty-handed. Obviously, this isn’t the ideal result of a meeting with an editor or an agent, but if you have 15 minutes with an industry professional, by all means you should be ready to take full, blatant advantage of having that opportunity to pick their brain/get their feedback on your writing, and having a writing sample with you in this situation could mean the difference between leaving disappointed 8 minutes early, and leaving still-disappointed but with some constructive pointers or specific encouragement– something with takeaway value– because they had the chance to take a look at your writing and give you their initial thoughts/suggestions.
So, you’re going to bring a writing sample to your next conference, “just in case.” What should it look like? Remember (also from the first post in this series) that the purpose of anything you bring to a conference is to get the attention/interest of an agent or editor as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd as much as you can. With that in mind, here are some things to consider when polishing and selecting a writing sample to take to a conference or include in your proposal.
Remember (also from the first post on this series) that the purpose of anything you take to a conference is to catch the interest of the reader and stand out/make a positive impression they’ll remember. Your writing sample is no exception; don’t miss out on an opportunity to give someone more reasons to remember you and your book!
Continuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.
A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:
-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.
-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.
–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.
Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them
I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses I have known” archives:
Too long. Synopses should be comprised of two things: people, and the stuff that happens to them. The vast majority of 80,000 word books can be synopsized on ONE single-spaced page. If your book is truly non-stop action and your plot truly has dozens of twists, you may need more than one page, but we can usually meet your main players and follow the plot from beginning to end in a single page. Common culprits in a synopsis that goes longer than this are description and commentary– this is not the place to elaborate on the characters we meet or to provide extensive insight into their psychology. “JANE EYRE, a sensitive, solemn child whose parents died of typhus when she was very young, has lived all her life in the shadows of her AUNT REED’s house, starved for affection and greedy for books. Her widowed aunt resents the way Jane’s uncle seemed to love her more than he loved his own children and has hated and abused her since his death.” This is all true, but in a synopsis for “Jane Eyre,” all we NEED is “JANE EYRE, an orphan, has lived with her cruel AUNT REED since her parents’ death.” No extra adjectives, no explanation of why Aunt Reed has it out for Jane– just introduce important characters and lay out the plot of the book logically and clearly.
Too confusing. A common method for creating your synopsis is to write a brief summary of each scene in your book, in order. While this is a good place to start, it often results in a synopsis that switches back and forth from different points of view too often, includes an excess of information about minor characters or subplots, or include scenes which require more explanation than belongs a synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of your book– consolidate three or four scenes of one storyline that, in the book, appear spaced out in between other scenes into a single summarizing paragraph in your synopsis. This makes for a more readable and more streamlined synopsis. For example, if your book goes back and forth between a man trapped on a desert island and the woman he’s supposed to marry in a month, summarize a week in her life in one paragraph and then a week in his in another, rather than summarizing each character’s individual days in 12 paragraphs alternating between events in the man’s life and events in the woman’s. The same applies for your subplots– provide occasional summary updates rather than trying to track each subplot parallel to the main story all the way through the synopsis.
Too aimless. Like I said, a synopsis should speak to your ability to tell a whole story, and part of that ability includes demonstrating how the events of the plot are moving the story along to the climax. A common side-effect of writing strictly in action is that the events of the plot can start to read like a list of stand-alone, unrelated snippets. Though you want to be careful not to add too much length to a synopsis with too much commentary/framing, it is okay to use a little of your space to identify the growing tension and point the reader toward the coming climax. For example: “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Jane learns from Mrs. Fairfax that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be courting BLANCHE INGRAM. Mr. Rochester leaves Thornfield to spend some time at a house party where Blanche is also a guest.” This list of events is fairly directionless, and I can’t tell from reading it what the point is of all these revelations– they’re just a series of facts to me, and therefore not very engaging. Without taking up too much more space, I can hint at the significance of these events and give the reader a better sense of what to expect from the story and the direction it’s headed and create some interest in finding out more. “Jane and Mr. Rochester discuss Adele and Jane learns that Mr. Rochester had a French mistress years ago. Mr. Rochester then leaves Thornfield to attend a house party where BLANCHE INGRAM is also a guest. Mrs. Fairfax confides in Jane that Blanche and Mr. Rochester are popularly supposed to be courting, and Jane is reminded of the contrast between herself and the worldly women Mr. Rochester seems to prefer.” I don’t have to delve into tons of detail about Jane’s feelings or spell anything out, but now the reader’s radar is tuned to pick up on further evidence that Jane loves Mr. Rochester and has some anticipation about where the story is heading.
Come back next week when I’ll be talking about how to choose and polish a writing sample for a conference. Thanks for reading!
This week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.
What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the writing first, but either way, before an agent or editor commit to reading a manuscript in its entirety, they usually want to find out where it’s going and what’s going to happen.
“Where it’s going,” or the way the plot develops from beginning to end, lets us glimpse your ability to construct a story arc that makes sense, that builds, and that resolves in a way that feels earned. The synopsis is the first impression we get of your storytelling ability. Your writing might be great in those first few chapters, but your ability to tell a story really can’t be proved until we’ve heard the whole story, so it’s to your advantage to tell the whole story in the synopsis. A common mistake I see in synopses created for use at a conference is when authors try to maintain suspense/keep plot twists a secret in the synopsis– this is not the place to perpetuate your aura of mystery. You know what we do when you essentially say (with a vague or teasing or nonspecific synopsis) that we’ll have to read the book if we want to find out what happens? We say, “Okey doke, thanks anyway, here’s your proposal back.” When we’re looking at your materials at a conference, we have time to read MAYBE 5 or 10 pages of your writing. While this can give us a good feel for your voice and let us know whether or not you can put a sentence together, it doesn’t tell us whether you can tell a story— whether you know how to keep the action moving, raise the stakes, develop the relationships, surprise the reader with twists or interesting developments, and tie up all the loose ends. Without knowing where the story is going, we can’t say very well whether we want to follow it there, so fill in all the blanks when writing the synopsis. Spoil the surprises.
“What’s going to happen” differs from “where it’s going” in that, while the latter refers to the overall direction and end resolution of the story arc, “what’s going to happen” refers to the specific events/scenes of a book. Agents and editors are (hopefully) going to be very familiar with the rules for the genre your book belongs to, and before they spend time reading a full manuscript, they want to make sure that you’re playing by those rules. If you pitched romantic suspense and your hook paragraph promises romantic suspense, they’re going to be looking for the “suspense” parts in your synopsis– where are the scenes of danger, the chases, the close calls, the scary parts, the climax? If you pitched Christian romance, they’re going to be checking to make sure your characters’ behavior is appropriate for those publishers’ publishing guidelines. If they personally are not interested in or not accepting certain elements/plot devices, such as teen pregnancy or cancer stories or widower-with-kids-falls-in-love-with-the-nanny stories, it’s better for you both that they are told about these elements in the synopsis as it can save you both from wasting another month waiting for them to run across them halfway into the manuscript. So, again, be specific in the synopsis about the action/events that take place in your book, especially those that really identify your book as belonging to the genre you’ve labeled it as. Be familiar with the characteristics/expectations of the genre you’re writing and make sure that your story’s “credentials” for belonging to that genre show up in the synopsis so the agent or editor doesn’t have any reason to question whether or not the project fits where you say it does.
Next week, I’ll be talking a little about synopsis formatting, as well as discussing common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them. If you have any other synopsis questions you’d like me to address, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!
I’ve had leftover questions from our “ask the agent” segment, so I thought I’d do some housecleaning. Always love it when writers send me interesting questions…
How many books does it take to not be considered a new author?
Probably two. By the time you’re releasing your third book, nobody considers you a newbie any more.
If you’re a writer who gets an award or accolade for your work, is it true that these can be used to the writer’s advantage? If so, what can we do to capitalize on the award?
Absolutely. Publishing houses tend to really like award-winners, since it reveals that the work was judged best at whatever contest it was in. So by all means include that in your cover letter, stick the info in your bio or publishing history, and if there is a logo or sticker they give you, put that somewhere in the proposal so it gets noticed. One warning: There are some contests that aren’t really contests… they will give an “award” to everyone who enters, so long as you can pay the entrance fee. These don’t count. Most agents and editors hate scam awards. But most of them love to hear about genuine award-winning writing.
I currently have three titles with a very small publisher. Is there a sense that until an author has a book with a major house, she is always “unproven”? Perhaps on a par with self-published authors?
Not with me. Some of the best writers in history have remained with small houses. But I think among authors there is more of a pecking order (“You’re with little Coffee House Press? Ah… I’m with Little Brown.”) Listen, don’t buy into the BS. Publishing is hard enough without spending your life comparing the size of your publisher to someone else. My advice? Write what you love and feel called to write, become the best you can at the business side of things, and understand that some authors will be given a chance at a large house while others may always fit best with a smaller house. That’s life.
As an agent, would you prefer an author to have a website and/or illustrations for a novel attached to his/her query? How far should I go? Should I create the page, and start getting the book a name via the internet, even if nothing is published yet? Should I place a few chapters as a sample?
For a NONFICTION book, a website is almost required, since the publisher is going to want to know that you’re already reaching out to your readership. But for a NOVEL, it doesn’t mean much if you have a website when I look at the query. If I were to take it on and land you a contract, you figure it’s going to be at least a year before there are copies of your novel on store shelves. So you’ve got plenty of time to create that website, and your publisher will probably be interested in having a say about how it looks. And no, having illustrations for your novel means nothing to me.
I’m trying to get my proposal ready for the upcoming RWA conference. My problem: Even though I’ve got some great ideas for books and have a new novel ready to pitch, I always panic right before and completely lose confidence and my train of thought. More than once, I’ve embarrassed myself with a rambling answer to an editor’s or agent’s question. I can’t seem to convey my thoughts clearly, when normally I’m very pulled together. How can I get ready for my pitch meeting at a conference? Do you have any advice for those of us who nerve out at key moments?
Sure: Practice. Out loud. Create a script of what you want to say, and get comfortable saying it, out loud, even if you have to lock yourself in your bathroom to rehearse it. (Don’t worry about your family thinking you’re crazy. You are a writer – which means they already think you’re crazy.) Then practice again while watching yourself in the mirror. Then try doing a mock pitch meeting with a writer friend. Don’t read the script to the agent or editor – just practice it enough so you know what you want to say. Many people find it helpful to create an outline of their words, and have that nearby. It keeps them from sounding “canned,” but helps them move forward in a logical progression.
Got a question you’d like to ask an agent? Send it to me at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com.
This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”
My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.
And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”
What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t really offer a satisfying ending. It’s not impossible to start your career with a series, but the bar is set higher – the publisher is going to look for outstanding writing and a very salable story.
This question was a bit out of the ordinary: “Would you please tell me how to set up a proper proposal for a gift book?”
A gift book proposal will have many of the same elements that any other nonfiction book proposal will include: title, overview of the book, a description of the takeaway, notes on the audience, author bio, an outline or table of contents, comparable titles, and some sample text. If there is artwork or some sort of high design element, you may include some thoughts on the look of the finished project, but I wouldn’t get married to any particular concept – most gift book publishers have art directors that understand the look their audience is going for. The key questions with most gift books are “what is the gift-giving occasion?” and “who is going to purchase this book?” Gift book publishers are looking for book ideas that have clear answers to those questions. A high school or college graduation is a clear gift-giving occasion. So is a wedding or the birth of a baby. “People who might need some encouragement” is not a clear gift-giving occasion, and will need to have something special for it to merit consideration.
Someone came onto the website and said this: “I see that you are not taking manuscripts from unpublished authors, which I can respect. But can you suggest a place that an unpublished author can submit work or search for an agent?”
We stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago, when it became clear that we needed a part-time editor to do nothing but respond to the hundreds of proposals being sent our way. That isn’t cost-effective – particularly when you consider very few of the over-the-transom proposals were projects we wound up representing. So most of the people I represent were recommended by someone I’m already working with. These days, the best place to connect with an agent is probably at a writing conference or an industry event. If you write romance, for example, there are dozens of agents at the RWA national conference in July each year. Do some research, figure out who might be a good fit for your work, and set up a time to meet with them.
A good friend sent me this (and gave me permission to use it on the blog): “I’d love to have a bestseller, but the reality is I’d settle for a decent living… is that still within reach?”
Sure it is. But writing is art, and it’s never been easy to make a living at art. (How many people who can dance well make a living at dance? How many people who can sing well or play the piano make a living at music?) Publishing, like every other art form, is dominated by a few who do extremely well. You can count the number of million-selling novelists over the past few years on two hands, but I think there are more writers than ever who are actually making a living with their words. Most of them are hybrid – that is, they do some traditional publishing as well as selling a bunch of copies of their self-pubbed titles – and many are doing short form writing such as essays and articles, as well as writing books. It’s hard, and if you’re one of the people who read this blog writing fiction for CBA, it’s become exceptionally hard due to the decline of the inspirational fiction market. But that’s tidal. The tide has gone out… it will come back in, given time.
I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…
What are the three most important things you look for in a query?
A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.
How important are queries to your agency?
I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very low.
What experience is worth mentioning in a query?
Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.
Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?
Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.
What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?
I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)
Which genres do you deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?
Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.
Which genres will the public never tire of?
We love romance. We love redemption stories. We love justice. We love seeing characters we like grapple with powers greater than themselves and win against long odds. We love a great, pulse-pounding thriller. We love mysteries getting solved, whether by smart amateurs or methodical types. We love people making sacrifices for something greater than themselves. We love people facing the great questions of life and making choices, then exploring the ramifications of those choices.
So when thinking about queries coming across your desk, should we follow the trends or write what we want to write?
I think authors are given stories, and must write the stories they are given. That said, I think authors who read widely, and who read great writing of others, are given more and greater stories. Following trends might get you a deal sometime, but writing what you want to write will help you create a career. My two cents.
What five things do you consider “must haves” when you are reviewing a query or manuscript?
Great, unique voice. Interesting characters that I like. A story structure I can follow. A significant plot or conflict. A great theme.
What five things guarantee a trip to the trash bin?
Grammar/spelling/punctuation errors. Guaranteeing me this will be a blockbuster, or that God told you to write to me. Weird fonts and formats. An arrogant attitude (particularly people who don’t want to listen to advice). Sending me poetry and other stuff I don’t represent. (true story: I just got an email that read, “While I know you don’t normally represent poetry, I thought you might be interested in my epic poem about…” — yeah, because making it longer will get me to love it.)
How much does a killer first line matter to you? Is it a deal breaker?
It’s not a deal breaker, but I LOVE a great opening line. I collect great opening lines. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of great writing. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It was bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (I could go on.)
What do you recommend for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft?
Write more. (I find most writers write a bit, but the best writers tend to have written a LOT.) Read more. (I find most every writer reads some, but the best writers tend to have read a LOT, and have read WIDELY and not just in their genre.) Shut up and listen to advice. Learn to mimmic others, just to see what it’s like to be someone else. (Great art tends to be derivative.) Study great writers, to see what you can glean from them.
What inner qualities do you see in your most successful authors?
What a fabulous question. Um…. a longing for truth. A willingness to work hard. A desire to improve. An attitude that listens and doesn’t get whiny every time somebody suggests an editorial change. A desire to explore the big questions. A boldness to be brave and try something new.
What attitudes are career killers for writers?
I know it all. I don’t have to listen. I can write now so I’ll wait for my muse. My work is better than all those schmucks selling books because it’s Great Art.
Do you ever tell anyone they do not possess talent for writing?
Not often. But yes, I have, and it’s always hard. And sometimes I just have to say, “There’s nothing I can really do with this. It’s not a fit for me. Sorry.” Think of this as singing — if the person really can’t carry a tune, or has no sense of rhythm, at some point they need to hear, “You can’t sing — there’s no career here. There’s not even a hobby here. Let me suggest you get off the stage and look for something else.”
Do you believe that writing skills taught are more important than raw talent?
Sure. Raw talent puts you ahead in high school. After that it won’t get you very far. You write more, you train, you improve, you develop your skills. Who wants to be 40 and still a fine high school writer?
How much does an author platform play into your decision to represent an author?
For nonfiction, it’s the first question I’ll be asked, so it matters. And now I’m starting to be asked that question of fiction authors. So platform matters to novelists as well. You have to mention it in your nonfiction query — you may or may not in a fiction query. And a “platform” is just a number — how many people read your blog? how many read your articles? your newspaper column? how many hear you speak at conferences? how many listen to you on the radio? how many are you connected to through Pinterest? through your organizations? through [fill in the blank]? Those are all numbers. Add them up, and you have your platform. (And here’s a hint: the bigger the number; the happier the publisher will be.)
If I have a growing platform and a number of 5-star Amazon reviews, how do I make the leap from a small, internet-based publisher to a larger, traditional publisher?
That’s a very fair question, but you may or may not like my response… You either sell a boatload of books and say to a publisher, “See? I can sell a lot of books!” (which may mean you don’t need the publisher anyway; that you can just self-pub and make the money you need), OR you put together a great book and proposal, get an agent who believes in you, and approach publishers with it. But, um, I have to tell you that publishers and agents tend to be less than impressed with five-star reviews on Amazon these days. Too many have been generated by the author (or the author’s best buddies), so that they aren’t genuine. They’re nice, of course, but no publisher buys your next book because your last one got a pile of five star reviews. They need THIS book to be great. (And, of course, the first thing they’ll ask is, “Can you tell us about that growing platform you mentioned?”)
If there are no new ideas for writers, how do we come up with original stories?
Who said there are no new ideas? For that matter, who says we need new ideas? Every romance is about two people meeting, getting pulled apart by something, but needing to be together because… geez, because we ALL want to have a magical romantic story like that. Every health book is about eating less and moving more. Every finance book is about spending less and saving more. I think chasing after the latest idea is a trap. You’ll all be better off becoming great writers, and writing the best story you have, in my view. I hope this helps.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask an agent?