It's impossible to be a writer and NOT have heard the phrase 'This business is so subjective'. And having been the recipient of numerous form rejections accompanied with this well-meaning advice, I feel qualified in saying I found it annoying. To me it translated to: 'Your book sucks, but to soften the blow and also to discourage you from sending me hateful emails, I offer you this piece of advice, which is just vague enough to seem encouraging while simultaneously not being so encouraging as to outright say I think your work has merit. Which it doesn't. Now screw off.'
Yeah, I'm jaded. And over-analytical. What of it? (Now that's a phrase that just doesn't get used enough).
Note: as annoying and I found/find this phrase, I'd be lying if I said I haven't doled it out before. Don't know what to say? 'This business is so subjective' pretty much works in any given situation. Guess that means we can add hypocrite to the list!
So then Ruth Lauren Steven went and had a super fun agent-judged blog contest. The idea was that Ruth would read through all the entries and select a number to be given a 'free pass' to the top of the slush pile. These free pass winners would go on to the second round of the contest, wherein two agents would choose a winner to receive a partial critique.
Problem was, there were so many great entries that Ruth was having a hard time selecting which entries would get the free pass.
Ruth emailed me about 20 entries, which included a query letter and the first five pages of the manuscript. In addition to be HELLA FUN, the experience gave me new insight into the hated 'This business is so subjective' phrase. Countless times I'd read an entry, dislike the query but LOVE the pages...only to confer with Ruth and find she LOVED the query and disliked the pages, and vice versa.
Yeah, I was super helpful to her cause.
So while I still find the phrase annoying on the grounds that it's tossed around so frequently and for every writerly dilemma imaginable that it's lost all meaning, I can now appreciate it so much more.
Other things I learned from my very small role in Ruth Lauren Steven's recent agent-judged blog contest:
-All the query letter help sites saturating the internet must really be doing their job, because the vast majority of queries were VERY good!
-Alarmingly so. As in, at times the queries were polished to an impeccable shine, but the pages...not so much. It's important to remember that a great query will get your foot in the door, but that won't mean much if the book isn't also polished to an impeccable shine. Just throwing that out there for anyone tempted to jump into querying prior to having edited, re-edited, sat on their book, edited, got a beta-reader, edited, etc etc. I would know nothing of this, of course, being the very patient person that I am. I never rush. Nope, not me! Just not in my nature...
-You authors are CREATIVE! No two plots were alike, which I found amazing. It was awe and jealousy-inspiring to read so many great ideas.
-People likes them some agent-judged blog contests. So much so that Ruth needed my help to field the nearly 100 entries received in just an 8 hour submission window!! So because we love our readers and we love to cater to their wants/needs, together we've decided to host a larger scale agent-judged contest this summer. FUN TIMES AHEAD!
Monday, April 30, 2012
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Drowning...in...query...letters...can't...come up...for air...
Seriously though, I'm thrilled/amazed/humbled that so many people would be interested in my thoughts on their query letters! Keep 'em coming!
Original Query Letter
Emma Harris is tired of being haunted, but the ghost-girl following her is just getting started. She hurls Emma and a not-so-innocent bystander back to 19th Century America where the stalker spirit is a flesh and blood girl: Lucinda Sutton. The same Lucinda Sutton who disappeared on her wedding night, according to town legend.
Of all the people to be stuck with in the past, “innocent bystander” Daniel Wyatt was not high on Emma’s list. She wants to stay away from him, aware of his dodgy reputation and temper, but stranded in a foreign world of petticoats and pantalettes, he’s the only anchor to her time, a place she’d do anything to get back to.
After doing some digging into Lucinda’s life, Emma and Daniel believe the only way home is to help Lucinda and her lover marry. But there’s a catch: Lucinda is engaged to another man. The very man who may have made her “disappear.”
Complete at 69,000 words, BOUND is a young-adult novel with a delicious paranormal twist.
Query Letter After I Got My Grubby Paws On It
Emma Harris is tired of being haunted, but the ghost-girl following her is just getting started. She hurls Emma and a not-so-innocent bystander back to 19th Century America where the stalker spirit is a flesh and blood girl: Lucinda Sutton. The same Lucinda Sutton who disappeared on her wedding night, according to town legend. This is a great start! I confess to not seeing a clear link between being haunted by a ghost and being hurled back to 19th Century America, as I picture ghosts popping out and yelling boo more than time-hurling people, but I’m intrigued nonetheless!
Of all the people to be stuck with in the past, “innocent bystander” Daniel Wyatt was not high on Emma’s list. She wants to stay away from him<Bit of weak wording here. Is there a stronger way you can get this thought across? aware of his dodgy reputation and temper, but stranded in a foreign world of petticoats and pantalettes, he’s the only anchor to her time, a place she’d do anything to get back to. Me likey!
After doing some digging into Lucinda’s life, Emma and Daniel believe the only way home is to help Lucinda and her lover marry. There isn’t anything technically wrong with this sentence, but it feels like it doesn’t quite pack as much punch as it could/should. Something is missing. Suggestion: “After doing some digging into Lucinda’s life, Emma and Daniel uncover (adjective) information that leads to them believe the key to finding their way home lies in helping Lucinda and her lover marry.’ Feel free to hate it J ‘But there’s a catch: Lucinda is engaged to another man. The very man who may have made her “disappear.” <This is great! I LOVE the plot. My only comment here would be that the stakes are not clearly laid out. What happens if Emma and Daniel fail? What’s at risk for them? It may seem obvious (that they’ll be stuck in 19th Century America forever), but I think you’re better off not making the reader guess and just putting it their faces.
Complete at 69,000 words, BOUND is a young-adult novel with a
delicious Others may disagree with me, but I suggest resist the urge
to describe your own book with any sort of adjective. Just seems sort of amateurish
to me paranormal twist.
This is a great query, and it doesn't need a whole lot to bring it from great to outstanding. So good luck with this author, and thanks for letting me have a peek at it. I hope to hear good news from you soon J
It should also be noted that I’m continually impressed by what lands in my inbox from followers of my blog. What talented authors are out there!
Monday, April 23, 2012
Sarah LaPolla is a literary agent with Curtis Brown LTD. in New York. She represents YA fiction, among other genres, and is on the lookout for debut authors. As if that isn’t awesome enough, Sarah’s also an active member of the online writing community, a hilarious and informative twitterer (?tweeter), and the face behind the Glass Cases blog, which features works by unpublished authors. All that, AND she agreed to be interviewed by me with only minimal threats of bodily harm involved.
Welcome to the blog, Sarah! Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. My first question: What is your favorite part of the agenting biz?
Sarah: Hello Michelle! Thanks for having me.
My favorite part of agenting is working with my clients, hands down. They are so talented and dedicated, and I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of getting their stories in the hands of readers.
Michelle: What are you actively looking for right now?
Sarah: Well I represent both YA and adult, but I’ll focus on the YA here. With YA, I love a good contemporary story that has unforgettable characters. Character and voice are what I look at most in submissions, but I’m also hoping to see more plot-driven stories in my slush pile – mysteries, thrillers, horror, and non-dystopian sci-fi in particular!
I’m also looking more into Middle Grade, which isn’t something that appealed to me when I first became an agent. I think MG is on the rise though and I’d love to see a great literary, coming-of-age MG, in the style of John Green or Jenny Han, but younger (of course). I think MG readers are ready for something like that.
Michelle: Is there anything you’re sick of seeing in the slush pile?
Sarah: Paranormal romance. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it when it’s done well, but I’m just tired of it. I’m ready for the next thing.
Michelle: What are the biggest mistakes you see first-time authors making in the query process?
Sarah: Sometimes I know when someone is new to the querying process when they spend too much time talking about the inspiration for the book, how long it took to write, or the themes they hope to invoke. More seasoned queriers know that agents just want them to get to the point – what is this book about, who is the main character, what genre is it. Everything else is just extra information that usually has no bearing on whether I request the manuscript.
Michelle: How far into a manuscript (or query letter, for that matter!) are you willing to read before deciding to reject an author? First paragraph? A couple of pages? The first chapter?
Sarah: I always read the entire query letter unless it says in the first line that it’s a genre I don’t represent (i.e. picture book/children’s). With requested manuscripts, I always give it at least 50 pages, depending on how much potential I see in the story. If it’s clear that I’m just not into the narrator’s voice, then sometimes I stop at 25. If I do like the voice and the writing, but I’m editing the plot development as I go, I’ll finish the entire manuscript so that I can offer revision notes.
Michelle: I see you have an MFA in Creative Writing. Does your education make you more willing to work with an author on a project that isn’t quite there yet, if you see its potential, or does this have no bearing on your decision?
Sarah: I am pretty editorial when it comes to both requesting a revision and in working with my clients, and my education definitely contributed to that. I know the importance of revision, and I have a better eye for helping a writer envision where a project can go. They don’t have to listen to me, of course, but I always hope they do!
Michelle: What is your number one piece of advice to authors?
Sarah: Read in the genre in which you write. If you’re not a fan of what you write, how can anyone else be? Writers should also know their competition, what works in the genre, what doesn’t work, what does the market have too much of, what is something new you can bring to the table, etc. Know your field inside and out.
Michelle: What is the best way for authors to contact you?
Sarah: I prefer email queries – sl @ cbltd . com. Paste the query in the body of the email, and include the first five pages – also pasted in the email. No attachments, please!
Michelle: Thank you again, Sarah!
Sarah: Thank you!
Michelle: *Lets Sarah out of headlock*
Sarah: Phew! I can breathe again :)
Friday, April 20, 2012
Query letters arriving in droves this week!
Jumping right in...
Original Query Letter
Dear [Literary Agent],
I present to you a recipe for a 90,000 word high fantasy YA novel with
a scientific flavour named EVOLUTION: THREADS OF CONTROL.
1. One average nerd (Jimmy Ranfaz) with fantasies of superpowers and adventure.
2. Tree-descendant humans from another planet (Ulfitron) seeking new saviour.
3. One old nemesis returning to wipe out Ulfitronians.
4. One powerful native (Juvall Spelding) with utter disdain for nerd’s
1. Activate nerd’s cranial abilities and send him to Ulfitron for training.
2. Show his frustration at mastering cranial powers.
3. Throw in one near death experience for nerd and native from attack
4. Introduce one lost source of knowledge on how to beat nemesis,
closely followed by a hazardous journey to locate the source by nerd
5. Finish off with one complex deception of the Ulfitronians regarding
their beliefs and nerd’s true origins.
6. Garnish with nerd’s dilemma of saving Ulfitronians or finally
rising above mediocrity.
Caution: Calling nerd average in front of him has catastrophic results.
The complete dish is available on request. Thank you for your time and
I’m not going to go in and line-edit this one because I don’t think it’d be beneficial. The problem here is (and I have to apologize to the author in advance for my candor) bigger than that.
While I appreciate the creativity of the recipe approach, I’m afraid that straying too far from the suggested format (three paragraphs, consisting of a hook, a synopsis, and a bio) might make your query stand out from the crowd in a not so good way.
The unusual format is a bit distracting from the story you’re trying to tell, which is the purpose of the query in the first place. I also worry about what it could tell the agent, which is that your story isn’t intriguing enough in and of itself to attract attention, so that you have to resort to what may be viewed as a gimmick (Again, I apologize for the honesty. This book might be AMAZING. It’s just hard to tell in this format).
Yes, there have been instances where someone has broken ‘the rules’ and gone on to have great success, but my advice is not to bank on being the exception to the rule. Agents have seen it all.
A query letter is, in essence, a business letter. In business, you want to be taken seriously. If you want to stand out from the crowd, I would suggest focusing on writing an action-packed, high-stakes, ‘voicey’ query letter…and stick to the suggested format.
I say all this even though it’s probably majorly disheartening to the author because a) I’d want someone to tell me, b) The book might be great and it would be a shame to get rejected because of a totally fixable problem, and c) I love my readers to death and want you all to be super successful authors (Yup, that includes you, reading this right now. I love you! Tons! I want to kiss you. ON THE MOUTH! Okay, too far. But you get the point).
Best of luck, author!
And peeps, feel free to jump in with your comments or just to tell me to shut up :)
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Kerry Sparks is a literary agent with Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, Inc. in New York, having joined their team in 2008. In addition to being an agent, Kerry is the co-author (with colleague Miek Bruno Coccia) of the upcoming book Hello, My Name Is Pabst: Baby Names for Nonconformist, Indie, Geeky, DIY, Hipster, and Alterna-Parents of All Kinds which will be published by Random House in October 2012 (Hello, Random House sister!). She is also an avid film connoisseur, frequent traveler, and super fan of Powell's Books in her home state of Oregon.
And get this, readers—Kerry is looking for Young Adult and Middle-Grade fiction. She tends to shy away from werewolves, zombies, faeries, and the like, but she’ll read anything with a fresh voice and compelling characters. She is particularly keen on contemporary YA, quirky MG, books with a strong cinematic element and she loves to work with debut authors as well as seasoned veterans. And if you believe her colleague Danielle Svetcov (I do), Kerry is ‘killing it” with YA/MG. Translation: Kerry rules and you need her.
Michelle: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Kerry! My first question: How did you get your start in the literary agenting biz?
Kerry: When I was living in Los Angeles and still in college, I interned for a literary agent who then worked for Levine Greenberg (she worked remotely from her home in California). It was a very editorial internship in that it was mostly reading, writing reviews and keeping on top of her large submissions pile. It was really then that I fell in love with YA and knew that I would enjoy agenting.
A year or so after the internship ended I decided to take a trip to visit a friend in New York and thought I would set up an informational meeting with someone at the NY office. I met with the lovely Lindsay Edgecombe who then introduced me to Jim Levine and we all just clicked right away. I was flying back to California the next day but Jim asked if I would come back in before my flight and meet the whole team. I agreed, of course, and the next day when I showed up and there were ten people gathered around the conference room table, I realized that this was a real interview. It was a bit intense, but totally wonderful as my colleagues have turned into some of my favorite people. It was really about the right timing and a little bit of luck.
Michelle: Is there anything you’re sick of seeing in the slush pile right now?
Kerry: I wouldn’t say there is any one type of genre I’m sick of seeing, but it is interesting that people tend to send very similar things at the same time. A week of mermaids, a month of angels, a year of dystopian, a lifetime of vampires—but honestly, I love the slush pile and have found many of my clients that way. Like everyone, I’m always looking for stellar writing and compelling characters, so if that is within a specific world you’ve created or you’ve got a great hook too, all the better.
Michelle: What are the biggest mistakes you see first time authors making?
Kerry: Though I’m not sure it’s a mistake I see first time authors always doing, I think authors really have to do so much for their own books these days so it’s certainly a mistake to completely depend on your publisher for all book promotion. Publishing can be a very disappointing business so having a tough skin is necessary but I do think that having a basic understanding of publishing (and a good agent to have your back!) will keep first time authors from making big mistakes.
It’s been a great experience being an author myself because I’ve had the chance to be on the other side of things. I now totally get that feeling of “My agent/editor hasn’t responded to my email for 24 hours, she/he must hate me and all my ideas!” because when you share your writing with someone, you really feel like you are putting yourself out there. While I have the good fortune to sit next to my agent every day (the amazing Monika Verma) I do realize how nerve wracking it is for authors when they have something on submission!
Michelle: How do you decide whether or not to offer representation to an author?
Kerry: If I love the writing, think I can sell it, and know that I’ll enjoy reading the book at least three times, I’ll take it on. I put a lot of work into each project that I represent so there might be several months of back and forth editing between an author and me before we submit to publishers. Sometimes submissions are in really great shape when they come in and we’ll just clean up the manuscript a bit, but often times I sign something up because I see that there is a great nugget of a book in there that just has to be developed—and this is a really fun part of the job. But it’s also the unpaid part of the job, so I really, really have to love something to take a chance on it.
Michelle: Can you give us the scoop: what are editors looking for right now? (I know, I know, writing to trend=bad. This one’s for funnies)
Kerry: I think editors are always looking for something fresh, exciting, surprising—just like readers. I know a lot of editors are sick of the dystopian, paranormal, fantasy and yet, it is still selling and selling. I think that in YA, high-concept books with a great romance will always be on the top of editor’s lists and since I represent a lot of contemporary YA, I’m hoping that that will keep selling!
Michelle: Are you working on any projects right now that you’re excited about/would like to share?
Kerry: I’m really excited about so many projects right now but a few of my debut authors have books coming out in 2012 that I’m really rooting for and which I hope you will all rush out and buy or pre-order now:
Jenny Lundquist’s fantastic magical middle grade novel SEEING CINDERELLA came out in March with Aladdin Books and is doing well.
Jenny Torres Sanchez’s YA about an ex-fat boy with a less-than-stable mother THE DOWNSIDE OF BEING CHARLIE will be published by Running Press in May.
Carrie Arcos’s YA titled OUT OF REACH about a teen girl who has to find her missing meth-addict brother will be released by Simon Pulse in October this year.
Michelle: What is the best way for authors to contact you?
Kerry: We have a great online submissions form through our website at www.levinegreenberg.com but authors are also free to email me queries directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If it’s something I’m interested in, I’ll be in touch. Best to avoid calling the agency to pitch an idea because it’s all in the writing!
Again, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Kerry. It was an absolute pleasure!
Monday, April 16, 2012
Friday, April 13, 2012
It’s that time again, folks. Another author has been kind/brave enough to offer me up her query letter for public critique. I'm not in the mood for longwinded introductions, so let's get right to it, shall we?
Original Query Letter
Dear Ms. (Agent):
When it comes to dealing with criminals, the United Federation doesn't mess around. All convicts are exiled to The Island, a desolate island prison, to duke it out for survival--all of it televised on worldwide TV.
Seventeen year-old Niko considers it a death sentence when he's sent to The Island for a murder he didn't commit. He quickly aligns with Sabra, a rugged beauty with a knack for armed robbery, and two other "newbies." Starving and battered by veteran inmates, the foursome's prospects look bleak. But all bets are off when tech-savvy Niko hacks into a prison guard's lost laptop, giving him complete control of The Island's network and the chance to plan an escape.
Back home in Delphi, Niko's best friend Landry sets out to find the real murderer and clear Niko's name. Landry's never been known for her brains or her bravery, but if she can uncover the truth within three months, the Federation will set Niko free. For Landry, who's secretly in love with Niko, the stakes couldn't be higher. But her devotion to Niko starts to unravel when she sees the televised kiss between him and fellow inmate Sabra. As her investigation leads her into the city's darkest corners, Landry must decide how far she really will go to prove Niko's innocence.
Complete at 72,000 words, THE ISLAND is a YA thriller with a romantic bent. Fans of Marie Lu's LEGEND and Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT will enjoy a similar dystopian style in THE ISLAND. I am a speech teacher by day and an avid writer by night. Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Query Letter After I Got My Grubby Paws On It
Dear Ms. (Agent):
When it comes to dealing with criminals, the United Federation doesn't mess around. All convicts are exiled to The Island, a desolate island prison, to duke it out for survival--all of it televised on worldwide TV. I make this next point because the author mentioned not getting many agent bites with this query letter: the premise sounds a bit familiar. In The Hunger Games, teens are forced to fight to the death on worldwide TV. Your actual book might share very little resemblance to The Hunger Games, but based on this query there are some pretty big similarities, in my opinion anyway.
Seventeen year-old<Hyphen between seventeen and year Niko considers it a death sentence when he's sent to The Island for a murder he didn't commit. He quickly aligns with Sabra, a rugged beauty with a knack for armed robbery, and two other "newbies." Starving and battered by veteran inmates, the foursome's prospects look bleak. But all bets are off when tech-savvy Niko hacks into a prison guard's lost laptop, giving him complete control of The Island's network and the chance to plan an escape. This is a great paragraph.
Back home in Delphi, Niko's best friend Landry sets out to find the real murderer and clear Niko's name. Landry's never been known for her brains or her bravery, but if she can uncover the truth within three months, the Federation will set Niko free. For Landry, who's secretly in love with Niko, the stakes couldn't be higher. <<Something about the last few sentences doesn’t quite strike the right chord with me. You say the stakes couldn’t be higher—can you tell us what the stakes are instead? What’s at risk for her (Niko dying and Landry losing the love of her life before she’s even had the chance to tell him how she feels, obviously, but laying it out like that packs more punch than making the reader decipher what you mean). But her devotion to Niko starts to unravel when she sees the televised kiss between him and fellow inmate Sabra. <Another similarity to The Hunger Games. Maybe not the biggest deal on its own, but combined with the other major similarity it may turn off an agent. As her investigation leads her into the city's darkest corners, Landry must decide how far she really will go to prove Niko's innocence.
Complete at 72,000 words, THE ISLAND is a YA thriller with a romantic bent. Fans of Marie Lu's LEGEND and Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT will enjoy a similar dystopian style in THE ISLAND. <Since the author mentioned not getting many bites on this query, my suggestion is to leave out the comparison. Not for the reason readers might think, though (There are differing opinions out there on whether an author should compare their book with other books in the market, and I usually stay out of the argument). The reason I say leave it out is because word around the writing community is that editors aren’t buying many dystopians anymore. Yes, some people are still getting deals, but the market is very saturated already, and so I’m thinking it might be best to just call it a thriller with a romantic bent and leave it at that. Especially since a few different sources from Bologna and other book fairs quoted editors as saying they’re looking for YA thrillers.
I am a speech teacher by day and an avid writer by night. Again, personal opinion here, but I would leave out anything that isn’t directly writing related, as well as the ‘writing at night’ line because it doesn’t really add anything to the strength of the query. Per your submission guidelines, a ten page sample of my manuscript is provided below. Thank you for your time and consideration.
This is actually one of the strongest query letters I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s well written, flows very nicely, and follows the correct format. Plus the plot sounds amazing!! In fact, if the author hadn’t asked me to take a look at it specifically because of her lack of success in querying, I might have given it the thumbs up and not even noticed the similarity to The Hunger Games at all. It’s hard to say. So really my only suggestion is to try to minimize the similarity to The Hunger Games as much as possible and not to mention dystopian. That and I guess the query letter isn’t as ‘voicey’ as it could be, but overall it’s pretty stellar.
Good luck, author, and thanks so much for giving me the chance to have at look at your wonderful query!