Querying your book: tips and a glossary of terms.

If you haven’t yet entered the query trenches (or hopped on the query treadmill), you may not be familiar with the terms that get used on literary agents’ websites and places like Twitter to describe the things a writer might be asked to provide. (From what I’ve seen, these terms are also used by publishers, but my experience is primarily with agents so your mileage may vary.)

Here’s a quick breakdown of the ones I’ve encountered:

Query. This is a short letter (no more than one page in Word, single spaced), that contains two to three paragraphs about your story, as well as the title, genre and word count rounded to the nearest thousand. It also has a paragraph detailing any previous publishing credits or other experience that you may have. Some agents say that if you don’t have any publishing credits, you can also talk here about your passion for the genre, why you’ve written that particular story—that sort of thing.

Don’t include how long it took you to write the novel. If the timeframe is too short it flags a lack of editing; if it’s too long the book looks overcooked.

The story paragraphs should read like a blurb on the back of a book; they should showcase your manuscript’s voice and tell the agent who the main character is, their age if it’s a middle grade or young adult book, and the conflict or challenges they face. The goal is to hook the agent, make them want to read more. The paragraphs shouldn’t provide an outline of the story—that’s what the synopsis is for. But make sure you write them in the third person, even if your story is in the first person; I’ve seen a lot of agents talk on Twitter about not liking first person queries from the main character’s point of view. (Save your first person for the other paragraphs of the query.)

You can see Jay Kristoff’s successful query letter here. And for a great guide to writing the story paragraphs, check out this blog.

Pages. Some agents ask for the first few pages of your manuscript with the query, or after receiving the query and liking it. The magic number is usually five or ten pages. I always assume they mean double spaced unless they say otherwise.

Synopsis. This is a document that actually outlines the story. Most agents give you one to two pages (here I assume single spaced unless they say otherwise), but I’ve seen some ask for three paragraphs or 300 words. It’s a good idea to prepare a longer version and a shorter one so you’re ready for either.

Partial. This is a certain number of chapters or pages (50 pages, usually double spaced, seems to be common)—it’s what an agent usually asks for if they’ve read your pages, query and/or synopsis and want to see more.

Full.  Unsurprisingly, this is when the agent asks to see the full manuscript. If you get to this stage, high five! Even if they don’t offer to represent you in the end, you’ve still got some game. Double spaced is definitely the go here, unless they say otherwise.

R&R. This is a “revise and resubmit”—the phrase they use to describe the fact they like it, but have ideas for changes to the manuscript they’d like to see before they offer to represent you. You don’t have to do the changes, obviously, but if you don’t then you’re still looking for an agent. It’s your call.

Some basic rules of thumb for querying include:

Always check the agent’s website and follow their submission guidelines. In multi-agent agencies, make sure you pick the agent who is looking for your genre and otherwise seems to be the best fit. Many have blogs and Twitter accounts where you can investigate further. You only get one shot at each agency with each manuscript, so choosing the right agent is vital.

Don’t send unrequested attachments. Almost all agents want the requested materials at the query stage to be pasted into the body of an email to avoid viruses. If you send an attachment without being specifically asked to, you’ll almost certainly have your email deleted unread.

Be professional. You’re asking someone to represent you in what is, at the end of the day (and as much as we writers hate to admit it), a business endeavour. If they like your work but you come across as rude, pushy or precious, they won’t want to take a chance on you. If they say they don’t want to represent you, don’t do your nut at them. The best response is to not reply at all, but if you do, be polite and professional. Their rejection of your work is never personal.

Happy querying, and good luck!

I wrote a stunt letter…

I said a fortnight ago that I wasn’t willing to share my query letter because I wasn’t confident that it was actually going to provide a good template, given its lack of success to date.

I forgot that the divine Agent Sydney had offered to do query crits last year, and that I’d sent mine in on a whim. So, um, you can read my query letter as it stood back then, and her feedback on it, here. She said nice things, which was sweet of her.

Except my Jedi mind trick in the last paragraph—this is not the lack of publishing credits you’re looking for—didn’t work. I guess I’d better deal with that. :p

I’ve actually changed the query quite a bit since I sent it to Agent Sydney, tightening it up even further (I hope!). Queries evolve. Like amoebas.

(Also, the word count on the manuscript is now down to about 76k. I’m an editing machine.)

At the risk of this sounding like an Oscar speech, especially since I haven’t won anything, I need to give big ups to Lori, Stacey L, Stacey N, Lauren and Katie for helping me with the query at different times. 😀

How do I find a literary agent? (Reblog)

I’ve made comments in passing about how there are heaps of resources on the net, telling you the nitty gritty of how to query a literary agent. Here is one that is a great summary. It’s written by a literary agent’s intern, so she knows what she’s talking about. Read it. Send cookies. 🙂

Querying agents. Stiff upper lip and all that…

I’ve been querying agents on Isla’s Inheritance since mid-to-late 2012. When I started I thought I was ready: the query and synopsis were drafted and proofread. The manuscript had been drafted and edited several times, by me and my beta readers.

Then I discovered Twitter and competitions that involved feedback on my query letter and first pages, and suddenly I didn’t feel ready anymore. (Apologies to those first agents that got my work. Please excuse me if I don’t make eye contact with you if we ever meet! The shame—it burns!)

After taking a break over Christmas, I’m back on the querying treadmill. I was going to write “querying bandwagon”, but a bandwagon sounds like fun—maybe coming with an impromptu jam session—and a treadmill, well, isn’t.

There are a ton of good blogs out there about what to do when you query (do your research, be patient and businesslike, etc) and how to write a query letter. I’d share my query letter with you, but until or unless I actually woo secure the representation of an agent, I don’t feel qualified to provide advice!

So this blog post is about how to maintain the momentum when querying. Because those polite little form rejections can wear away your enthusiasm like the ocean eating a headland. (Or, on a bad day, like a hammer smashing glass.)

#1 Exclusives stink

This was probably Miss Snark’s top catchphrase. A famous blogging agent from last decade, she advised that if an agent asked for exclusive rights to consider your query, you just skip them and move on. You might have to send dozens of queries before you get a nibble; do you really want to waste time on one agent who may take six to eight weeks to even look at your query and first few pages? (Some agents will ask for an exclusive on a full request; you could do this, but they ought to respond in a reasonable time.)

I send out my queries in batches of ten (give or take). When I get one rejection, I send out one more query, to keep the number in the field steady. If I get any feedback, I revise before I send any more out. This has one massive advantage in terms of my fragile writer’s ego—if I get a rejection, I shrug and look at the list of other agents who haven’t said no yet. If I’d only had one query out there, the rejection would be far more devastating.

#2 Accept that you will get rejections

Before he got his first book deal (Carrie), Stephen King had a railroad spike on the wall in his room. He’d spike all his rejection letters on it; he learned to treasure the rejections that had even a hint of personal feedback (such as the idea that you should always cut at least 10% from your first draft when editing—apparently he still follows that advice decades later).

It’s a bit hard to spike an emailed rejection, or plaster it on the wall, unless you want to print it off (think of the trees!). I use an email folder instead. Less dramatic, but we can’t all be Stephen King.

I read a blog not long ago that suggested these early rejections are actually a good thing: they help you develop a thick skin. Because even if you get your agent and a publishing deal on your first go, humans are fickle beasts and some readers WILL reject you. It’s much easier to stay calm in the face of a one-star review on Amazon or Goodreads if you have already developed the hide of a rhino.

#3 Follow agent (and intern) accounts on Twitter

Many agents and literary interns will tweet comments about some of the bad queries they see. I like the #playnicewiththeintern hashtag for query rants. Here’s one from this morning:



It makes me feel better that I don’t make those kinds of mistakes. And if I did… well, it’d be a kick in the pants to check, wouldn’t it?

#4 Do other things

Don’t sit and pine, waiting for agents to love you. Do other things. Write something new. Work on establishing your social media presence: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, PinTumbG+, whatever.

Read some of the books you missed while focusing on your own, especially new releases in the genre in which you’re writing. If you’re on top of the current trends you may not be able to predict the next one (I don’t think even agents and publishing houses can do that with any reliability), but you’ll at least be able to avoid looking like a clone.

Go on holiday or, if you can’t afford that, to the library. If you’re going to write what you know, know more!

Exercise: see if you can lose the weight you put on sitting in a chair and eating chocolate. (Ok, maybe that one was just me.)

I hope this advice is helpful to you. Now I’ve procrastinated enough, I should get back to that treadmill. Good luck to everyone that’s in the query trenches too!

Miss Snark’s First Victim’s entrant number 14…

I realise that blog title is cryptic if you don’t know what I’m talking about, but I love it. The multiple possessive apostrophes! The abstract poetry! It’s like a line of random gibberish being used as a secret password in a dusty basement somewhere.

Ok, maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, as previously mentioned I got chosen by the random number generator gods as an entrant in the Miss Snark’s First Victim Secret Agent contest for January. The main goal is to get feedback on the first 250 words of my manuscript. The other is for the Secret Agent (whoever he or she is) to come past, fall in love, and ask to see MOAR WORDZ! But, you know, feedback is good too. :p

The entries went up today; you can find mine here. Feel free to check it out.

To tweet or not to tweet! *chirps*

A noob twitter hatchling, uh, hatches.

A noob twitter hatchling, uh, hatches.

The days of authors being able to isolate themselves from their readers and concentrate on their craft are well and truly gone. There may be some fabulously rich bestsellers that don’t need to bother with social media, but they are few and far between. Even successful authors have a Facebook page, or Twitter, or a blog—or all of the above. (I know, because I follow some of them.) Apparently “word of mouth” is the newest craze in book marketing. That’s code for “the author maintains a social media presence”. It has the benefit of being cheaper than paid advertisements.

And it works too. I only discovered about Jacqueline Carey’s new urban fantasy, Dark Currents, via her Facebook page. I then went on to buy it—in hardcover, no less—and loved it. (And now I’m blogging about it. I should be on retainer!)

And if it’s important for them—the ones that have made it past the gauntlet of interns, agents, acquiring editors and whatever other publishing industry professionals exist (hey, I don’t know; I’ve never dealt with them!)—how much more important is it for self-published indie authors? And wannabes like me? Many agents say that if they are interested in a writer’s work, they will look them up on social media. I expect it’s mostly to determine whether the writer is crazy, arrogant or otherwise likely to be hard to work with, but part of it is also to see whether the author has a significant platform, like thousands of followers on Twitter or a crazy-popular blog.

All of these are reasons to engage with social media, whether you want to or not. But there are others.

I’ve been a Facebook person for years now: a personal profile only accessible to family and friends. I mostly post photos and cute updates about my son (as I was drafting this he asked me if I was king of our house; damn straight!). I haven’t actually created a public profile for my writing … mostly because it feels strange to create a regular Facebook account for it (one where I become Facebook friends with people), and to create a “fan” page when I have nothing for anyone to be a “fan” of feels like tempting fate.

But in November I decided to join Twitter. I’m sending my first book out to agents, and thought it was time I gave the social-media-as-writer thing a whirl. I had no idea what I was doing, but it’s easy to get the hang of. I’ve had non-Twitter friends ask me what I tweet about, and I tell them the truth: mostly I just chat to people. It’s not about posting the cleverest or most insightful thing (at least, not for me—I’m not that clever and am definitely not insightful!). It’s just about being friendly. Sometimes I’m funny but it’s usually by accident.

I got lucky, too—within a few weeks one of the people I was following tweeted about a contest called Pitchwars. Even better, I heard about it in time to actually enter. I chose three mentors to submit my query letter and the first few pages of my manuscript to, and sat back to wait. I also befriended other entrants and a few of the mentors; the competition had a super-supportive atmosphere that I found surprising, but also a huge relief. I don’t deal well with overly hostile alpha types.

I didn’t win, or even get picked for the final three by my mentors—although apparently I made some shortlists. It turned out that my query letter—which I’d already sent to a dozen or so agents by then—blew chunks. Several kinds, in new and interesting colours. Disheartening, much? I did get some lovely compliments back on my writing, though, as well as some specific and constructive feedback on the query and opening pages. The query in particular is, oh, a thousand times better now. If I ever meet the agents who got the original version, I plan to studiously avoid eye contact.

I also got invited to collaborate on a new blog (more on that next month)—which consequently encouraged me to start my own, personal blog (hi!). And I found myself a new beta reader for my book (the aforementioned Chynna-Blue). AND I’ve started following the tweets of a bunch of agents and agent interns, which is educational and occasionally alarming.

All this in less than two months.

So what’s my point?

I got onto Twitter with the misguided notion that it might be a good idea to build up some sort of following so that when I published my book (either traditionally or as an indie author) more people would know about it than my boyfriend and my mother. But I’ve found a brilliant, supportive community of writers who share opportunities, provide feedback and are a willing cheer squad. And many of them comment about the fact they’re writing, which I for one find an excellent motivator.

If you’re a writer trying to decide whether to bother with Twitter—if you can’t imagine what worth there could be in 140 characters—then DO IT! Be friendly and polite, and see how far it gets you.

Also, you never know. Maybe when that agent googles you they’ll like what they see.

What to do after you finish your manuscript.

I finished my second manuscript last night. I’ve still got to incorporate a couple of things: nuances I missed in the mad rush for the finish. But once that’s done, the drafting stage of the unnamed book I’ve been calling Book Two (yes, I’m a creative genius) will be complete.

You may be thinking—especially seeing I’m an editor by trade—that I’d be jumping straight into editing it. And I’m keen, believe me. I have all the crazy momentum of the last few weeks of writing, the urge to be doing, boiling away in my brain. But that would be a really, really bad idea. So if you’re in the same boat as me, this is my advice to you (imagine me shouting this through a megaphone in a hostage situation):

Put the manuscript down. Back AWAY from the manuscript!

When you first finish writing anything—novel, short story, article, shopping list—you are too close to see it objectively. There are a few tricks to let you review it more impartially. Some people suggest changing the font so you’re looking at it differently to how you saw it during drafting—this works for me when I preview the final version of a blog post, so it ought to work for a novel too. (It probably won’t work for a shopping list, unless you draft those electronically.)

I personally like to print my manuscript and edit in hard copy. Transcribing edits back into the soft copy is a bitch, but it’s worth it.

However, the best thing you can give yourself is time.

When I finished Book One (now called ISLA’S INHERITANCE), I made myself wait a full month before I opened it again. The only thing I let myself do was a spellcheck and some formatting. That’s it. But I didn’t waste that intervening period.

I read an agent’s blog. There are quite a few out there, but the one I chose was Miss Snark. The blog has been dark since 2007, but the archives are available and they are pure gold, my friend. They stopped me from making rookie mistakes when I eventually started querying agents. No, my mistakes (and I have made them) have been unique and individual ones!

This time, I’m thinking about pulling out Stephen King’s On Writing, which is one of the best books on the subject out there. I’ll reread it, see what lazy habits I developed in the drafting stage so I’m ready to go when I start editing. Also, while Book Two was a sequel to ISLA’S INHERITANCE—and I do have the beginnings of Book Three bubbling away in my subconscious (I’d always planned a trilogy)—I’ve also got an idea for a completely different book, which requires world-building and research. So I’ll work on that too.

As you can see, I won’t be wasting all that energy and forward momentum. I’ll just be using it in different ways.