Friday, November 29, 2013

Seriously, now, don't do these things

There is a lot of information 'out there' for writers, including this here website. Lots of dos, lots of don'ts, lots of advice in general. Still, though - STILL! - the same errors crop up in submissions over and over again. So here's a short list - a reminder, if you will - of what not to do.

1. Do not send out your manuscript if it's still at first-draft stage -  there will always be room to improve after that, and you need to send out the best possible version of your work.

2. Do not send out your manuscript if you know, in your gut (or your heart - whichever you prefer), that it isn't ready, even if it's had several drafts. You only have one chance to submit to agents and publishers - once you've been rejected, it is highly unlikely that the same manuscript will be looked at again. And, deep down, you know when it's still not ready - you're just trying to talk yourself out of it.

3. Do not send your submission to someone who isn't interested in the genre or category of book you're writing. Children's authors, you're the big culprits here - many of you send submissions to agents and publishers who don't represent or publish children's books. 

4. Do not ignore the submission guidelines - they're arbitrary, yes, but they're our attempt to create order out of chaos.

That's my short Friday afternoon list. If you want some more pointers, play this game.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An invitation to the dance

Some months ago I received a rejection that I thought was a bit nicer than the average bland "does not fit …". Recently I re-read it. The publishers stated that if I "significantly revised"  the manuscript I was welcome to re-submit it after six months, and that they hoped I would consider them for my next project. My question is, does this actually mean anything or is it just a polite formula, as I first understood it. And if they are suggesting I revise it, how do I know what they would like me to change (if I can)? Would it be acceptable to ask them this question, especially as there has been a time interval of a few months? (They may have totally forgotten what the manuscript was all about!)

When I reject things I certainly don't invite people to resubmit unless I mean it - for one thing, I'm not so desperate for people to like me that I'll give writers hope that one day I may reconsider my rejection of them if only they'd comply with my mysteriously absent feedback on their manuscript ...

So this publisher meant it. And they also meant they'd like to see what you write next (I make the same offer on occasion and I always mean it, but I certainly don't say it to everyone).

However, just because they asked you to revise the manuscript doesn't mean that they'll give you any pointers on how to do that. The main reason for this is that it can several hours to write a manuscript report and there's no guarantee that the writer will take any of it into account when writing the next draft. No one at a publishing company, or agency, has time for that. So this publisher likely hopes that you have your own methods of working out what to revise. Time is a good method (I'm being serious) - leaving a draft alone for a while can make it so much clearer when you return to it, and sometimes that bit of distance is all the writer needs in order to assess what should be changed. Some writers seek advice from other writers or from editors.

By all means contact them and say that you're willing to revise but you'd really appreciate any guidance they can give - just don't be surprised if they don't give it, for the reasons mentioned above. And also consider leaving this manuscript alone for quite a while as you get on with that next manuscript they have already said they'd like to see.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Living in a fantasy world

I know you don't rep fantasy but I was wondering whether you knew the answer to this through your colleagues and general involvement in the publishing business.

On the majority of the agent and publishing blogs and information sites, the word is that you won't get a look in with an agent or a publisher with a fantasy novel longer than about 100K words, maybe stretching to 120K at most. It's been a pretty consistent message for the last few years; query review websites will say agents won't even read pages if they see a word count greater than 120K. 

The thing is, I can't remember the last time I've picked up a fantasy book that wasn't at LEAST 150K. I scanned my bookshelf and can't find more than a handful that would be close to 120K. Virtually every big name in fantasy puts out books much, much longer than that, and this is true of NEW big names too, not just established authors. And as a reader, I strongly prefer longer fantasy books, as does every other fantasy reader I know. So if no-one is getting agents or publishers with long books, where are all the skinny little fantasy novels that should be coming out?

Anyway, I wondered if my viewpoint is skewed because I do read a lot of Australian fantasy but most of the blogs are American. Do you know if the Australian publishing environment also reflects this new(ish) rule about length? And if it really is a rule, even here, do you think there's a chance it will change as ebooks take a greater market share, and length doesn't cost publishers anything?

That seemed a bit long and rambly in hindsight. Anyway, would love your viewpoint if you have the time and/or inclination!

Who says I don't rep fantasy? Maybe I just want you to think I don't rep fantasy ...

I'll start this answer near the end of your question: you read a lot of Australian fantasy but most of the blogs you read are American. Australian fantasy novels are usually as long as the story takes - I've never heard of a word limit being imposed on submissions, either by an agent or by an author. Some word counts are a bit outrageous - we don't want anything that is 500 000 words in a single volume - but most writers don't come up with such word counts anyway.

However, there is another issue with Australian fantasy: we're running out of places to publish it, at least in 'legacy' (i.e. print) mode. There are two large publishing companies who handle fantasy manuscripts - Hachette (who publish the Orbit imprint) and HarperCollins (Voyager). When the Borders and Angus & Robertson stores closed, they lost a large chunk of their fantasy booksellers. Consequently, they are not looking for as much fantasy as they used to, especially as they have existing authors who are writing trilogies or who may have new novels to bring to them soon.

What this means for Australian fantasy authors is that they may well have to submit overseas first or at least simultaneously - which means they'll come up against the word count limit, if it exists. I'm not an expert on the US market so I don't know if that limit is, in fact, real. If it is real, though, it may change - and you'll be able to thank George RR Martin for that. Those books are big. The sales of those books are big. They may change publishers' minds about big fantasy books (and yes, yes, I know, they're not 'fantasy' like some books are 'fantasy' but you can bet that publishers think they're 'fantasy' and that's all that matters when it comes to submissions). 

If you wish to submit to US agents who rep fantasy, I recommend you check their submission guidelines as a first measure to see if they mention a word count limit. If they do not, you can presume that there isn't one - or, at least, an arbitrary one. That doesn't mean you can write 200 000 words just for the hell of it - your story has to work. If your story works and it takes 200 000 words to tell it, then so be it: that's as long as it takes. If an agent wants to take it on but they think publishers will say it's too long, they'll work with you to trim it down. But don't worry about it until then unless they do mention a limit.

Also: someone should start an Australian fantasy publishing house! Except for that pesky bookseller problem, there's a market there for those stories. Due to that pesky bookseller problem, however, that market is probably going to be digital from now on.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A note on submission etiquette and multiple agents

So you've sent out your submission to a few agents and more than one has asked to see a full manuscript or they have otherwise indicated that they're interested in your work. This is, obviously, a Very Nice Position to be in.

Then one of the agents who has progressed to this next stage offers representation. Obviously, that's great because representation is what you wanted. But that doesn't mean you should accept the offer without telling the other agent/s who is/are considering your work. The polite thing to do - and, as I've mentioned before, publishing is a polite industry - is to let the other agent/s know that you've been offered representation and ask them to let you know within a certain time frame if they're interested in doing the same. Keep the time frame short, like a week. 
There are a few other reasons why it's wise to do this:

1. It is the professional thing to do. If you were interested in buying a house and you'd looked at it a few times and had inspections done and talked to the real estate agent and mulled over the price you wanted to offer and talked to people about it, wouldn't you be somewhat annoyed if the agent then called you and said the house had been sold to someone else without giving you the chance to even make an offer? Wouldn't you think the sellers were a bit silly because maybe your offer would have been better than they one they accepted? Wouldn't you be upset about the time you'd wasted when you could have been looking at other houses?

2. Karma. If you behave unprofessionally right from this very first stage it can really screw up your karma for the book (I'm serious about this - I've seen it happen). 

3. How do you know you went with the right agent? By not giving another interested agent a chance to talk to you about your work and to offer to represent it, how do you know you're with the right agent for you? The agent–author relationship can last for years and, as with any such business relationship, there are several elements to making it work. It needs to be the right fit. So if you have the chance of auditioning a few suitors before making a selection, why wouldn't you?

4. If you do this, and other authors do this, agents may become more wary about submissions. It's hard enough now for agents to keep up with submissions. If enough authors do the ol' 'I've gone with someone else, sucker' routine, we may just abandon them altogether and get our weekends back. So, as a civic service to your fellow writers, please remember that your behaviour reflects on all of them. Because until we get to you know, you're one amorphous pack - just as agents clearly are to you, which is why you went with the first one to materialise as a real person.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Asking for a second date

So, it's been a while. I have been running this blog since 2007 and I've never really had time for it but try to make time because I realise that there are questions that writers have about all sorts of things to do with the publishing process. I do appreciate those of you who have been reading this blog, some of you regularly, but confess that the odd vicious commenter does make me wonder why I bother. On the interwebs everyone can hear you scream, or something like that. And while Agent Sydney is a persona, there is an actual person writing these posts. Thus, I took a break. I still don't really have time to write the blog, but there has been the odd question to answer. Finally, here's an answer to one of them.

I have a query regarding resubmitting the same book to a literary agent. Once a book has been submitted it doesn't necessarily mean it stops changing, often it is revised and revised as we make improvements. Maybe the query letter wasn't up to scratch. Or the synopsis didn't reflect the scope and variety of your novel. Or the first few chapters were the first you wrote and required major revision that you couldn't see yourself at the time until someone pointed it out.

Is it wrong to resubmit your novel again to the same agent? If not how long should you wait? And should you mention it has been submitted before?

The term 'wrong' is a bit loaded ... 'Unwise' is probably better. You can certainly submit the novel again to the same agent, but it's likely that the agent will remember or be able to check and that they'll automatically reject you again. You won't ever necessarily know why they rejected you the first time - it's not always because of the query letter, or the story. Sometimes the agent is really not the right agent for the novel. 

There are some manuscripts that I'll never take on no matter how well written they are and how good the query letter is - anything about a serial killer who attacks children, for example, or a book about snakes, because I'm never going to love snakes. I would simply not be the right agent for such a book, but there may well be an agent out there who is. Unfortunately we don't usually have time to personalise our rejection letters so we don't have the opportunity to be explicit about the reasons why we said 'no', which does mean that writers may think that they can submit the same project a second time and receive a different answer. When an author has asked to resubmit, though, I've never changed my mind. And if they don't tell me it's a resubmission I usually remember the author or the story anyway and remember why I said 'no' the first time. It's the same with publishers: I can't resubmit something to them if they've already said 'no', even if the author has made changes. Because the reasons why the publisher said 'no' to my client would be as hard to define as the reasons why I said 'yes'. 

All of this points to the necessity of making sure your novel/manuscript and your query letter are as good as they can possibly before you start submitting anywhere. You need to believe and act as though you only have one chance. Because, most of the time, you do. You may, of course, be the exception and get another opportunity, and if you're set on attempting that I'd suggest that you mention the earlier submission in your letter and state very clearly why you believe your novel should be considered anew. The more time that has passed since the first submission, the more likely it is that the agent will believe that you've made actual changes. 


Monday, February 25, 2013

Query letter #10: Mitch H

A monastic trained orphan with a talent for Sorcery, Caldan's entire world dissolves when he learns his family was murdered, almost kills his friend's brother, and is exiled from the only life he has known. Adrift and confused he begins to build a new life in a strange city, developing his Sorcerous talent while hunting for information on his parents enigmatic past. When a power hungry nation invades, for reasons both personal and nefarious, Caldan must embrace forbidden Sorcery in order to survive risking becoming the very thing he has vowed to defeat, and condemning himself in the process. In the chaos of the invasion he unearths a Sorcerous secret his parents had been hiding, with stunning implications that will change the face of Sorcery forever. [This is a very dense opening paragraph - bear in mind that people who read these letters see a lot of them. Our eyes do get tired and there is a not-yet-officially-recognised condition called Manuscript Fatigue. So break it up a bit if you can. Try reading it aloud the way it's written here - that will help you work out where the breaks should fall.]

I am seeking representation for my epic fantasy novel, A Broken Silence, which is complete at 188,000 words and the first book of a planned trilogy. [Perhaps put this first.]

Currently I am a full time freelance writer of speculative fiction living in Sydney, Australia, and a member of the NSW Writers Center. At the moment I am working on the second book of my series and developing a website. [Are you online anywhere else? If so, include the URL.]
Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Overall feedback: Again, there was no pressing reason to want to read more. You gave me a description but not a reason. We don't expect that you'll write the equivalent of a back-cover blurb (which can take weeks to perfect and are often argued over) but those blurbs are a good guide as to how to construct your query letter: you catch the reader's attention and then tell them what the story is. It's a tired old chestnut, but the 'elevator pitch' principle applies: you need to be able to tell me what your story is about and why it's great in the time it would take to ride an elevator a few floors. When readers go into a bookshop or read a description online, they're not going to give your story any more time than that either, so consider your query letter practice for that back-cover blurb that needs to impress a potential book buyer.

Query letter #9: Benjamin S

Rift is a 75,000 word thriller novel about the murder of sixteen year old girl in the Victorian coastal town of Wheeler's Cove. The novel is unique [even if it is, don't say this - a lot of authors say their story is unique, so the term has lost its power] as the protagonists simultaneously investigate the murder both before and after it happens. [interesting premise]

Jamie Webster is a struggling writer who moves to Wheeler's Cove to escape the mounting expectations on his second novel. Alice Jackson has returned to her father's house to wait out her husband's death from lung cancer in their home town. Fate brings them together over the washed up body of a sixteen year old school girl. She's been shot twice; once in the head and once in the stomach.

The next day the girl turns up at the local police station, very much alive.

Alice and Jamie figure out that the headland is a place that exists simultaneously three months apart. [Consider putting this information in the opening paragraph - it's a key element and sets the story apart] Jamie is from the past, Alice from the future. Using clues both before and after the murder, they must piece together the mystery before the past catches up to the present, and the girl dies for good.

But old towns have old secrets. As Alice and Jamie delve further into the death, they find that this may not be the first homicide in their quiet town. And, if they're not careful, it may not be the last.

Protect the past. Fear the future. [This line doesn't seem to belong to anything - if you're going to use it, put it first in the letter so it seems like a hook.]

I am an award winning and nationally televised stand-up comedian. I have an English degree and have written for newspapers and comedy festivals in the past. This is my first novel. [Contrary to what many first-time novelists think, saying it's your first novel is not a disincentive for agents or publishers to read it] Other novelists I enjoy reading in this genre are Peter Temple, for his realism, and Stephen King, for his higher concept thrillers.

I also have an Engineering Honours Degree, which I know has no credence with novel writing, but mentioning it makes me feel like I didn't waste five years of my life. [Humour is good!]

Overall feedback: This letter lacks that essential grunt - you haven't give me a reason to want to read it. Yes, you've described the story in enough detail for me to be intrigued, but what I really want to feel is that must-read-it-now sensation. Open with your hook: 'The body of a sixteen-year-old girl is washed up on a beach in Wheeler's Cove, a small Victorian coastal town. She's been shot twice - once in the head, once in the stomach. And the next day she turns up at the police station - very much alive ...' That would get anyone's attention. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Most agents' websites are useless. Half the time they are not updated. No one has heard of most of the writers on agents lists. As a writer, I want to know their current and past track records in successful placements. Who considers an IPO without doing the number crunching on a company's performance? How many agents make money? What's the average income of a mom and pop agent? What's the salary of a senior in-house agent? How much does Sophie Hamlyn [NB: this is not the name of an Australian agent but she'll be touched to learn that your spelling was close], Jenny Darling, Margaret Kennedy, Lyn Tranter or Rick Raftos make a year? I want to see the agents' association publish earnings and sales records. Individual sales and breakdown of genres. Who's the best forming agent in Australia in money terms?

Instead of a breakdown of genres, let's break down your message.

First: the 'P' part of 'IPO' stands for 'public' - the last time I checked, all Australian agencies were private companies or businesses. Which means that their business and financial information is, y'know, private. Why don't you trot off to a privately held Australian publishing company and ask if they'll show you their P&L statements before you decide to publish with them? And do let me know how you get on. While you're at it, ask the Australian Publishers' Association to give you a list of all of their members' earnings and sales records and see if they'll give them to you. Because if you're going to require this information, you should also require it of publishers. And booksellers too - so please do contact the Australian Booksellers' Association.

Second: 'mom' and 'pop' are American spellings, so I lack confidence in your ability to turn in a manuscript that suits an Australian market, given that you are clearly using an American version of Microsoft Word. Also, you should have an apostrophe (known as the s pos in this case) after 'agents' in 'agents lists'. Agents do notice that pesky punctuation stuff and a lack of it can also dent your chances. 

Third: updating websites is a matter for individual businesses. In an ideal world every business's website would be up to date. Keeping things up to date requires having someone around to do it. Most agencies are very lean operations and the agents already work long hours. That's the only explanation I have.

Fourth: if you haven't heard of most of the writers on the agents' lists, it's because you're not reading their books. This is not the agents' fault.

Fifth: I'll show you mine if you show me yours. So, unpublished writer, before I decide to take you on as a client - investing many, many hours in working on your manuscript, writing a pitch document, talking to publishers about you, talking to you, seeing you through the inevitable rejections, patiently waiting until some smart publisher realises your worth - why don't you tell me how much money you have made on your writing. What's that? Nothing? Sorry, please go away - you are not a sound investment. And if you're a published writer, please answer the same question - oh, I see, $10 000 over five years. Okay, you can go away too because you're never going to earn me the millions of dollars that someone, somewhere, must be earning in this caper - because that's what you're really interested in, right? How likely it is that having an agent is going to be your ticket to millions?

The reason why agents do not require of prospective clients the same sort of financial CV that you find essential for agents is that we take on authors on faith. We have faith in their talent. We have faith that other people will recognise it. We believe passionately in the authors' work. This behaviour is also found in people who work with musicians and actors and dancers and composers and screenwriters ... It's true of everyone in the arts. Faith and passion are not a good business plan but they're what we have. If you would like to attempt to measure their worth, then you can see our balance sheets. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Query letter #8: Luciano C

I am writing to you regarding my completed novel, The Legacy of about 101,000 words. The story is a historical fantasy based on Greek mythology. The Moirai [Who are these Moirai - a tribe? A race? Elf-like creatures hiding in Herodotus' robe?] foresee a future where the Olympian Gods will fade from immortal existence and are replaced by a single entity [watch the grammar - you mixed future and present tenses]. To prevent this from happening, the sacred relics of the Mother Goddess, whose power is supreme, must be restored [restored to where -  a temple? A town?] to avert the extinguishing power of the gods [watch the grammar here]. Poseidon's children, the Atlanteans, have been chosen to seek out the relics or face extinction.

My target audience would be readers of George R.R. Martin and Kate Mosse [whoa there, cowboy - you haven't convinced me to read your story yet, so it's a bit early to tell me whose readers you think would like it], although my story differs from the traditional telling of historical novels. My story draws on ancient history and mythology to tell a provocative yet epic tale of intrigue, betrayal, a loss of belief and the everlasting impact it has on the characters. [This is a good sentence - move it up to the first paragraph so it comes after the sentence ending 'Greek mythology' and then start a new para to tell me about the story itself.] This is my first work of fiction which is part of a series, the second book is completed and I have begun writing the third.

I'm Australian and live in Perth, city of Western Australia. I have studied Ancient History [this is an example of pertinent detail - if you're writing about Ancient Greece, I do want to read that you've studied Ancient History], completed a series of writer's workshops at the University of Western Australia and concluded a Proofreading course. I am an affiliate member of the Australian Society of Authors and member of The Katharine Susannah Pritchard's Writers Centre. [All good information.]

Please find attached a synopsis and a sample of my manuscript The Legacy. I have included my e-mail address for a reply. If the manuscript is to your liking, I'd love to send you a larger sample or the entire manuscript.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Overall feedback: You buried the best sentence of your pitch deep in the second paragraph. If you move it up to the first para, you'll see how it will change what detail you want to include after it, because the story you described in the first para didn't seem provocative, or that it contained intrigue, betrayal or a loss of belief. So either that really good sentence doesn't represent your story, or you haven't described the story in a way that fits with the pitch. 

Query letter #7: Gwendolyn C

As a time-traveler, Kale has no future. Every few days he disappears only to return to a house he doesn't like to call home. It's impossible for him to be normal. It's impossible for him to control it. But when Kale starts traveling back to World War II, fighting in a war he was never meant to be in, it becomes harder for him to have two lives when he doesn't think he belongs to either. 

Then after six years of being away, Harper moves back in next door, the girl who has haunted his past with the life he used to have. [Watch the grammar here - I needed to know that Harper was the girl who haunted his past before you told me her name.] They spent countless summers together growing up—swimming in the river and being a nuisance to the neighbors. Now, long after Kale gave up hope of seeing her again, they have their first summer together in years. Maybe not the way he would've imagined it, but more real than he could hope for.

But when everything seems to be getting better—Kale trying to figure out the secret to his time-traveling and making amends with his father who he never got along with—Harper finds something in Kale's past that might tear them apart forever. Because whether or not Kale likes to admit it, the past is Kale's future, and there's no changing it. [This pitch is a paragraph too long. Did I need to know about the summers? Probably not. Find a shorter way to tell me about Kale and Harper's reunion and why it's important to the story. Kale's father also isn't an element I need to know about here. Stick to the time travel and the romance - I'll find out about the father if I want to read the manuscript, but you have to get me to that point first.]

COLD SUMMER is a YA science fiction novel complete at 96,000 words. [The elephant in the room here is The Time-Traveler's Wife - if you have written a time-travel story involving a romance, you have to acknowledge the other novel either as influence or inspiration, otherwise I'll think you're trying to mimic it.]

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

General feedback: This letter has potential - it just needs a bit more polish and focus. It also needs to have the author in it - you told me nothing about yourself. As you are the storyteller, you are just as important as the story. The 'party pitch' mentioned in the last letter is a technique that you've no doubt heard of before - I certainly didn't invent it - and it's a valid one. Being a storyteller also means being able to convince people to hear or read your story. 

Query letter #6: Ian E

I am a 63 year old retiree, having raised a family of two boys with my wife of 30 years. [I don't need to know this - it doesn't have anything to do with your writing.] I have been carrying around this manuscript for 40 years [Saying how long it's taken to write this is not a badge of honour - it just makes me think the manuscript is overcooked], but only now realize what I was trying to say. It is a biography from my past, and all happened before I was 21 [This is actually the salient piece of information], but the ramifications have left my greater family divided all this time.
Ian is 21 [If it's your story, don't switch to third person to describe it, otherwise I'll presume you've written a novel and named the central character after yourself] and running from his past. Leaving behind his Asian girlfriend after having a baby, (not his), and anticipating the return of her husband from prison, he hitchhikes across Canada in the middle of winter [So Canada is the setting of the whole story?], barely returning alive to the family he's ostracized from. [The grammar is clumsy here - it's important to make the spelling and grammar as good as can be] As a younger lad he was in a love triangle which left, one 15 year old pregnant, and broke the family of another 14, year old, after he took nude pics of her and they were found by her father. Unwelcome, and reviled, and looking like hell, barely making the journey he is forcibly committed to a mental institution and declared a schizophrenic. The book parallels his life, as he deals with the loss of his soul and the mind numbing drugs. [Somewhere in here is a storyline - you need to say what the story is about, and 'my life' is not the right answer - if you are a stranger to all your potential readers, you have to give them a reason to want to read this - you have to find the common human thread/s that make your story relevant to others.] It takes us into a place very few people ever go, exposing the soul or the lack of it because in the end, that's what he get on his knees in the hospital chapel, and asks for. That's what, he concludes realizing after repeated attempts [attempts at ...?], made upon him by the hospital, he has nothing to say and even if he did, his tongue, 'cleaving to his mouth', won't let him. [I'm still not sure what the story is.]
30,000 words [This is too small a word count for most publishers to consider.]

General feedback: Never attempt to do too much in a query letter when telling something simply will do. You gave quite a bit of detail in that second paragraph but I still don't really know what the story is about, or why I should read it. If you are not sure how to pitch your manuscript, pretend that you are meeting someone at a party and they ask you what your story's about - and you only have half a minute to tell them before someone else comes up to talk to you. What would you say in those 3o seconds? Wouldn't you start with, 'It's a story about love, loss and redemption' (if that's what it's about)? Writing a query letter can help you work out what your story's about, but you shouldn't send said query letter to an agent or publisher until you're sure you know. Because if you don't know what your story's about, you need to go back to the manuscript and do some more work.

In contrast to the previous 'stunt letter', you should start your query by telling me what your story is called, that it's a memoir,  and that it's 30 000 words long. You can then tell me that it deals with your life before the age of 21, then go into some detail - but not too much. You still need to pitch it, though - you need to give me a compelling reason to want to read it. Agents and publishers see thousands of submissions a year - we need to be given a reason. Also bare in mind that the reasons for non-fiction are different from those for fiction. In fiction the story, when pitched right, can be the reason. In non-fiction it may be the story or it may be the subject, or both.

Query letter #5: Cassandra P

At seventeen, Isla is the most sensible of her friends—she doesn't believe in ghoulies, ghosties or long-legged beasties. Her plans are simple: finish school, get a job, decide what she wants to do with her life. She only agrees to participate in a Halloween party séance because she wants to impress Dominic, but the séance gives Isla the first hint that her family might have a secret. When they try to contact her dead mother they receive a chilling reply: she is not dead. [This is a good example of how you can start a query letter without saying what the title, the genre and the word count are - with a good pitch. This opening para is snappy, easy to read and tells me enough about the story for me to be intrigued. It is also does tell me the genre - or, at least, the age of the readership - without directly stating it.] 

Isla is reluctant to upset her father by prying into the family history he never discusses; however, events force her hand. And nothing had prepared her for the truth. Her mother is an aosidhe, part of the fae's ruling class: a race known for its arrogance and cruelty. [This gives me a further indication of what the genre is.] Isla is introduced to her mother's world by Jack, an elf-like hob who is eager to help her for his own reasons. When her father is attacked by an unknown aosidhe, Isla must overcome her self-doubt and work with Jack to save him.

ISLA'S INHERITANCE is an 83,000 word urban fantasy set in metropolitan Australia, and is aimed at a young adult audience—particularly teenage girls who enjoy paranormal fiction.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, with a professional writing specialisation and, since 2007, I have been working as a public service editor. I am a member of the Australian Society of Authors. [Compared to the polished pitch, this feels a bit light - almost like you're trying to run away as quickly as possible. Tell me why you're writing in this genre, because there's nothing in these two lines that gives me an indication that you even like fiction.]

Included below are a synopsis and the first three chapters of the manuscript. The completed document is available on request.

General feedback: This is an example of a 'stunt letter' (my term) - where the author is accomplished enough to lead with a pitch because the pitch is really polished. The author has told me pretty much everything I need to know about her story - and certainly enough for me to decide whether or not I'd like to read it - in those first two paragraphs. By the time she tells me that it's an urban fantasy aimed at a young adult audience, I barely need to read the words. However, the reason why this is a stunt letter is that it's for the brave and confident writer only - you need to feel really sure that your pitch works in order to put it first in the query letter. There is risk there - that if it doesn't work, an agent/publisher is not going to read any further and not going to find out that it's an urban fantasy etc etc. In this letter the risk has paid off. But for other non-stunt writers it is perfectly acceptable to use a more conventional structure of title/genre/word count to start your letter.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Query letter #4: Miira K

LOVE… can you count it?  D.J. does with his Mummy, all the way to the number ten. [What type of books is this? Picture book? Middle grade? If you don't tell me here, I may presume it's a novel for adults, which will make the next few lines seem a bit odd.]

"How much do you love me Mummy?" says D.J.
"I love you 1 (one)," says Mummy. "One kiss on your little button nose."
"Do you love me more than one?" asks D.J.
"Of course, I love you 2 (two)," says Mummy. "Two kisses, one for each of your lovely bright eyes."

In 'I Love You 10' [a picture book for ages what to what?], Mummy bestows kisses on D.J. from his nose right through to '10 (ten) kisses, one for each of your wiggly little toes'. 

Well, ten seems like a lot! But can love really be counted?

'…Mummy points to the millions of twinkling stars, lighting the whole of the night sky. "Even if you could count every star…you would never be able to count how much I love you."  

This picture book [aha! here is the information I needed - but are you submitting text only, or text with illustrations?] explores and strengthens positive emotional intelligence, counting basics, and naming of body parts for young children in 317 words.

My stories are based on actual conversations with my four homeschooled children, in response to their questions, observations, and wonder. [Do you have a writing background? It's okay if you haven't - you're allowed to say, 'I've never written before but was inspired to so by ...' but if you say nothing at all about it then I have very little idea about who you are and why you're writing. Have you read other picture books? Have you researched to see if there are any books like this already?]

I have enclosed a SSAE for your convenience [only send this if requested], and I thank you for your consideration.  

General feedback: You can't presume that an agent/publisher will guess what type of book this is. We all see a lot of submissions and we're usually reading them quickly - tell us straight up what sort of book it is and who it's for, because if you don't we may not make it through half the letter to find out. For a picture book you don't need to have the same length of query letter that is needed for a novel - as there's less story to describe - but picture books are a highly competitive genre (many people write them, there are few published each year) so you need to identify why yours is different to what's already available. If you have not done any research to find out what else is available, you may find that you are wasting your time if there's a similar book out there.

Query letter #3: Barry R

I'm seeking representation for my completed 35,000 word young adult novel THE STRANGER IN MY HEAD. I note that many of your clients write in this genre. [It's good - but not essential - to say something like this as then the agent knows you've done some research. Too often writers submit to agents who don't represent their genre, and that just wastes everyone's time.]

That noise in Angie's heads; [I said I wouldn't correct typos but I will point out this one - 'heads' - it perhaps sends the wrong message about your story] it's tinnitus, the doctors say, but Angie knows better. It's a voice, a man's voice. Whose is it? Where is it coming from? Those are the very questions the voice itself wants answered. It needs help and it's telling Angie to do things she's scared to do. [Otherwise this is a solid pitch - it incites curiosity.]

As if school bullies aren't enough for a shy fifteen-year-old to deal with [good to mention the age of the character in a YA sub, just so the agent/publisher is sure you've identified the right age group], not to mention friends who think she's weird, and her feelings for that cute new guy in her class, she's now expected to find the voice's owner by following the direction it comes from. And the first thing in that direction? Rookwood Cemetery. Either the voice is real or Angie is insane.She must solve the mystery if she wants her mind back. But Angie's search will reveal more than she expects and will put her life and the lives of her friends in mortal danger. Does she have the necessary courage? Well, with the cutest guy in school on her side, maybe. [The pitch is intriguing but could be tightened a little, punctuation wise. It feels a bit breathless at the moment.]

Each chapter of THE STRANGER IN MY HEAD has been thoroughly critiqued by the long-established writing group the ... ... Writers [that's nice but it's actually more pertinent to tell me the next bit -->]It has been through many edits and is as ready as I can make it. It's my first young adult novel but I've had several short stories and articles published, won competition and completed a fantasy trilogy. I'm working on my next novel. [All good pieces of information as they tell me that you've been writing for a while and that you're still writing. However, I'd like to know why you're now writing YA when you haven't before.]

I've attached a short synopsis, author bio and the first three chapters for your consideration.Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you. 

General feedback: A good letter. You might want to slip in something about who you think the reader is - 'for every teenager who's ever thought the only sane person they know', or something like that (not exactly that, obviously). Young adult fiction is now a very broad church that also takes in adults, so writers need to start identifying which YA audience they're writing for. In the olden days it was more simple: there was one type of teenager and it was the type who read The Outsiders.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Query letter #2: Marlana A

Genre:  YA science fiction
Word Count: 66,000 words

[I quite like this way of providing title, genre and word length - it means you don't have to work it into the letter. But just be aware that some agents may not be so fond.]

Sixteen-year old Paxton Mills freaking hates living in space. [Good opening line - I know straightaway the age and name of your character and something key about them.]  The station is freezing cold, her berth is barely bigger than a port-a-potty and her fear of heights doesn't lend itself to a comfortable intergalactic experience.  She's one of several hundred teenagers saved from the fires that ravaged Earth. [Great hook.] Handpicked for their ability to acclimate to celestial living, they were taken to ensure humanity's survival.  However, Paxton isn't grateful to her rescuers for whisking her into space and educating her in hydroponics and uniform maintenance.  Why should she give a damn about hanging squash or pride herself on having a wrinkle-free jumper, when she's haunted by memories of her loved ones being left behind to burn to death? [Good - suggests that there is humour in the story. Unless there isn't - in which case, don't make the letter humorous.]

But her days of sulking end when she realizes her teachers aren't humans, but aliens called the Nephilim.  Knowing she needs proof, Paxton breaks into the forbidden Red Block and finds curled and crusty teens barely clinging to life.  That's when she discovers she and the other kids were never taken to ensure humanity's survival.  They were taken to ensure the survival of the Nephilim.  

Unwilling to end up resembling an oversized fetus, Paxton rallies her friends so together they can find an escape.  As they unravel the mystery of the station and their captors, Paxton's boyfriend is murdered.  If Paxton wants to save her friends from this same fate, she must trust an annoyingly perfect hybrid named Kendal and accept that good and evil don't always run skin deep. [In the previous letter I said not much detail is needed in the letter - and that's when the letter reads like a synopsis. This reads like a pitch, so I wanted to keep reading - therefore, this much detail is okay.]

THE CHILDREN OF THE NEPHILIM is complete at approximately 66,000 words.  I've been an active member of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators since 2009 and am the group leader for the SCBWI Osceola County Critique Group. [You can possibly include a bit more personal detail - why you love this genre, for example.]

General feedback: A well-constructed letter with a great pitch. You need just a bit more information about you before the end, so the agent/publisher gets a sense of who you are. It's okay to not have writing 'credits' but that doesn't mean you should just not say anything - instead of including credits, include some information about how you came to write this genre and why you love it.  

Query letter #1 - Kirsty A

[This is the first in a series of query letters sent by readers for me to review. I'm including just the body of the letter. There will be no correcting of typos.]

Dragons'Nests and Fire Birds is a 76,000 word fantasy aimed at 12+ readers. It is intended to be the first in a series. [It's more important to tell me what the story is here than tell me it's the first in a series - the series won't happen at all if you can't grab someone's attention with the story first.]

When Nell and her sisters inherit a box of jewels and an old Emporium, Nell hopes to make her dream come true and open a spice shop. However the Emporium has its own scruffy (and condescending)'guardian'- Brendan, and Nell keeps seeing dragons. Overhearing her Mum and Brendan arguing about a vengeful Merchant, Nell covertly follows Brendan. She finds herself in the magical Lands of Lost Lore. Nell realizes her childhood fantasies of dragons flying and mermaids singing are truly her earliest memories.
[This would be a better opening paragraph.]

Returning to Earth, Nell confronts her Mum.
Nell learns that her dad, a werewolf from the Lands, was killed in a pack dispute. Nell's step-dad was killed saving dragon nestlings from the evil Merchant.
Nell and her sisters decide to explore the Lands with disastrous consequences. When they are all captured by the Merchant only Nell manages to escape.
In return for Nell's sisters the Merchant demands a mermaid's tear, a griffin's claw and a phoenixes' feather. Nell and Brendan embark on the arduous quest.
[Condense this second paragraph - we don't need that much detail about the story in the letter, as there is usually a synopsis to read if we want detail.]

I have had two young adult fantasy novels published, Kingdoms of the Seventh Pool (Holy Angels, 1998) and Lumi's War (Holy Angels, 2001) [This information can come earlier. In your opening paragraph, you could instead say, 'I am the author of two published young adult fantasy novels. Dragons' Nests and Fire Birds is my third. It is a 76 000 word story aimed readers aged 12 and over.' This would get an agent/publisher's attention more quickly. Is there anything more you can tell us about you - how long you've been writing? Why you love YA fantasy?]

General feedback: You could sound a bit more confident. Blow your trumpet early - about your previous books, and about this story. There's no sense here that you really want to encourage me to read this manuscript. What's so good about this story? Why should I want to read it over all others? Describing the storyline isn't enough. Tell me why it's great. If you don't believe it's great, no one else is likely to ...