Sunday, May 31, 2009

Query letter #7: Louise G

Dear Agent [another missed comma - tsk tsk, peoples]

What happens when the person you love asks for your help in trying to unravel the events that lead to their brother’s death, but all the while you know it was YOUR fault their brother died? Some secrets need to remain secret.
[Hmmm ... I'm not a fan of the rhetorical question at the start of a query letter. I know the author probably thinks that she's hooking me into the story, but I don't know anything about the story so I really don't care yet. Also, the last sentence looks a bit like a non sequitur because we don't know the storyline yet. Best to avoid this kind of plunging in. It would have been better to start with this second paragraph.]

Ellie Jenson has spent the last five years trying to forget the tragedy that sent her now ex-boyfriend Jack Edwards fleeing to the other side of the world. Trying to forget that Jack Edwards ever existed, trying to piece her life back together.

Now Jack is back in New Zealand
[here's the red alert - as an Australian agent, I'm duty bound to stop at any mention of the folk who regularly beat us at rugby union and write back to this author saying she has to query publishers in NZ], back in Ellie’s ER room [Que? What ER room?] and back in her heart, hoping to restart an investigation into his brother’s death and hoping to enlist Ellie’s help.

“The Doctor’s Surprise Proposal” is a 51,208 word (computer count)
[don't say this - we know it's a computer count, otherwise it wouldn't be so precise - but saying that it's a computer count makes me suspect you've only just used a computer for the first time] novel targeted at the Medical Romance Line. It is set within a backdrop of a busy ER department in North Auckland, New Zealand on the stormy west coast, at Christmastime (summer in New Zealand). [This paragraph should have come first - but I also need to say that the author is writing for a specific romance genre and sometimes the romance publishers have very specific guidelines for their query processes, so I could be giving the wrong advice - YES, IT'S POSSIBLE.]

The first five pages of “The Doctor’s Surprise Proposal” won the Romance Writers of Australia’s Hi5 contest and the complete manuscript is a Round 2 finalist in the Romance Writer’s of Australia’s Emerald Contest (currently being judged).
[Nice work, I'm paying attention.]

I have been writing seriously for the last 4 years, having had many non-fiction articles published (I am a nurse by training
[good, this goes to your bona fides to write about an ER ward]). I am a member of the Romance Writers of America, Australia and New Zealand. I have attended numerous conferences and classes to develop my craft to date.

I have enclosed the first three chapters of my novel and a synopsis for your consideration. I look forward to an opportunity to share the entire manuscript with you soon.
[I'm not a fan of lines like this last one - we presume you want to send us the entire manuscript, you don't have to say it. It would be better to end with something memorable - maybe funny. I'm more likely to pay attention that way. Query letters are usually so serious, but you'd be surprised how many manuscripts I've requested just because the query letter was funny in parts, and I've taken on quite a few of those authors.]

Kind regards
[Comma! Where's the comma?!!]

Louise G

Status: Conditionally APPROVED

Query letter #6: Megan B

Dear Agent [you missed a comma here]

The Iron Bubble is a 90,000 word urban fantasy that deals with what it means to do the right thing, the far-reaching consequences of actions, and why you should take care never to piss of
[extra 'f' needed on this word] a werewolf. [So far, so good - except for the typo. Generally, though, this paragraph tells me all I need to know before I dive in.]

William likes David Bowie and The White Stripes. He likes pizza and chocolate. He likes working for the mysterious Company and he really likes his new superpowers. [You don't need to use 'like' so often to make the point - linguistic or otherwise. And what are the superpowers?] One thing William does not like? Children. And yet, here he is: Jobless, stripped of his powers, and with coworkers he only days ago called friends out for his blood. All because of some stupid kid. [Apart from verb overenthusiasm, this is a pretty good para.]

But what choice did he have? [What do we say about starting sentences - let alone paragraphs - with 'And' or 'But'? Naughty, naughty.] Making bad guys explode and healing bullet wounds with his mind was all very awesome, but kidnapping little girls? Not so much. Even if Daisy is a prophet with a head full of facts his bosses really want, he can't kidnap her and still expect to sleep at night. But does Daisy's mother care about all the sacrifices William's made for her daughter? No! She acts like he actually did kidnap Daisy, instead of only, like, half kidnapping her. It doesn't make for pleasant on the run conversation, to say the least. [Now we're getting into synopsis territory - keep it snappy. Make the pitch.]

And Jones isn't helping. Ah yes, Shakespeare Jones. The bitter werewolf who's worked for the Company since forever (or since 1994, same thing), and is the only other employee who wants to keep Daisy safe. Admittedly, he isn't motivated so much by morals as by his own mysterious and possibly sinister reasons, (though to be fair, everything about Jones is mysterious and possibly sinister), and he did try to kill William that one time… Still, his car is fast and his teeth are sharp, two things that can only come in handy right about now. [Too much storytelling - introduce the main characters, tell me why I should read the novel, then get the hell outta there.]

But they need to learn how to get along. Because, with an army of zombies and vampires and probably a freaking banshee or two (and we can't forget Lilitree; William's insanely hot but mostly just insane ex-boss) close behind, now's really not the time for fighting. [Zzzzzz - I'm gone.]

This kid had damn well better be worth it. [But now I'm not sure YOU'RE worth it - and we were getting along so well. So why did you write this novel? What's your background? This is information I don't have - information which you could have sacrificed one of those earlier paragraphs to give me.]

The manuscript is complete and available, should you wish to request it, and I have included the first five pages below. [Clear, courteous - good ending. Except I've arrived here not knowing how the title of the novel relates to the story - you need to explain that, otherwise I think 'The Iron Bubble' refers to a heretofore undiscovered liquid gas source in the former USSR.]

Megan B

Status: I'm on the fence.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A pause in proceedings

I have been following with interest the debate between two commenters, stuntsmile and Sarahlynn, which you can read here:

Makes me think I should read the comments more ...

Basically, stuntsmile, if you think I'm reading query letters in order to decide 'what to print and what not to print' then you don't know what an agent does. We are not publishers - publishers decide what to print. We just try to persuade them to print the stuff we like.

Moreover, YOU may look at the quality of the writing, but a lot of people look at the covers - that's why publishers and authors get so worked up about them (the biggest battles usually take place over the cover, NOT the text).

And another thing: Jane Austen wouldn't have ever needed to have written a query letter because she was writing in a time when there weren't a bazillion (conservative estimate) people trying to get their novels published. More wannabe novelists = less time to consider each submission, ergo, the query letter was born. Get over it. And don't for a second think that Austen is still being read because she was the best novelist of her day - she was the best marketed novelist of her day, and that's why she endures. I am sure there are many good novelists of her era who have disappeared into the mists of time. Jane worked it. She knew her audience and she worked it. Good on her. I don't have a second's doubt that, if pressed to write a query letter for Pride and Prej, she'd have come up with something like this:

Elizabeth Bennet has a problem: several of them, actually, and they're all related to her. Then she spies new neighbourhood recruit Mr Darcy, and things take a turn for the interesting ... Not only is Mr Darcy handsome, but he's loaded. And he seems to think she's a bit of all right. Still, those pesky relatives are likely to deter an eligible bachelor who seems a bit commitment phobic. What's a girl to do?

See, JA was writing what we now call genre fiction.

And as for JK Rowling: I have heard anywhere from 5 to 35 rejections for Harry Potter - the story is apocryphal, and only Rowling knows the truth. But the 'rejections' make a great tale, don't they? I'm not saying she wasn't rejected, but it makes a better story to put those rejections in the multiples of ten - not that I think it's even her propagating that line. She doesn't need to, you see - she's JK Rowling.

Now I'm going back to my glass of red and my Richard Price novel. LOVE Richard Price. Everyone should read Lush Life.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Query letter #5: Annie S

Dear Agent,

What happens when Mean Girls become mothers?
[This is a solid-gold start: I know immediately what sort of book this will be and who might read it. The author has cleverly used a cultural reference to cut down on the amount of explaining she needs to do.] Adam James thinks his new wife Amy [you could use some commas around 'Amy' but I will let it go because the first sentence rocks] is adjusting to motherhood pretty well. Then he sees security camera footage of Amy acting as a decoy while the rest of her mothers’ group conceal $900 digital hard disc recorders in their Bugaboos. [Gold, gold, gold. I am hooked.]

Mum on TV is the opening scene of The First Year, a complete 78,000-word manuscript aimed at readers of contemporary women’s fiction.
[The author didn't need to tell me this straight up because she completely hooked me with that first paragraph - she gave me all the reasons I needed to keep reading - so the information can stay in the second para position.]

It tells the story of English Amy
[comma here] who almost spent her first year of being a mum in Sydney’s eastern suburbs doing the traditional mix of gymbaroo, sleep school and swimming lessons. Instead, Amy is drawn to a trio of magnetic yummy mummies. What do the women see in Amy that transforms the clique into a seemingly tight quartet? Amy is in a foreign country with a newborn; her husband has gone all hunter/gatherer on her and she can’t decide if her mother-in-law’s interference is misguidedly benign or plain toxic. Motherhood is also bringing Amy’s own childhood into painful focus. As isolated Amy becomes increasingly dependant on her mothers’ group, it takes a while for her to realise that some bonds of sisterhood are meant to be broken. [More gold - this author goes to the top of the class - she has told me absolutely everything I need to know to make a decision about whether or not I want to read the manuscript: she has set up the main character, the plot and the points of intrigue.]

Running alongside a plot that includes pram-jacking
[ha!], an assault on Pumpkin Patch [gold!] and an actual arrest,[lose this comma] is an honest account of the joyous terror that a first baby brings. By the time her baby is a mighty toddler, Amy will look back at his first year with nostalgia. Really, the baby bit is the easy bit, she’ll tell her husband. It’s not like they move. [I've kind of hit the snooze button here because the pace drops back a bit, but not enough to deter me.]

I’ve worked in communications since graduating in 1997. With high-profile work in both the public and private sector, writing is part of my daily life in the form of brochures, websites, newsletters etc.
[Good - establishing her writing background without belabouring the point.]

I would love to forward you my synopsis, sample chapters or indeed the full manuscript. Thank you for your time and consideration.
[I think verbs like 'love' are underappreciated and underused in daily life - what's wrong with a bit of vigour in a business communication? So I like this more relaxed sentence, and this is one of the rare query letters where I'd say, 'Hang the sample chapters - send me the full thing!']

Best regards,
Annie S
Status: APPROVED with distinction

Query letter #4: Theresa L

Dear Agent,

I have written a 75,000 word,
[don't put a comma here] soft crime novel, Six Minutes [but you do need one here] which is currently being read by one of the big Australian publishing houses (details upon request) [this doesn't actually mean anything apart from telling me that you've potentially closed off one submission avenue for me]. The Commissioning Editor, Books for Adults [there's only one publisher who has a division with this name, and as far as I know they don't have 'the' commissioning editor - they have some publishers and some editors who also commission - be very careful when using titles of people you're dealing with as someone in the industry can immediately spot when it's not right and they may then think you're fibbing], requested that I send her the novel when finished [again, this doesn't mean anything - you shouldn't lead with any of this information about someone reading it because that's not what will get my attention. I want to know about the STORY - so put this other stuff near the end of the letter]. Presently, I am seeking the services of an agent. [I know that - you've written me a query letter.] Immediately it would be to assist with any negotiations that might eventuate with this publisher [Here's where I'd stop reading - you're telling me what my job will be, when actually it should be to find you the BEST publisher, not necessarily THIS publisher], but primarily to represent me in the broader market place [and how can I do that if you've already decided you just want to negotiate with this publisher?]. The novel has not been seen by any other house. A synopsis and sample chapter follow.

I write about lawyers … because I am one, or was one, until I turned from the dark side.
[Good, funny.] The characters of Six Minutes were born of extreme boredom, on the back of a never-ending list of exhibits, during the longest (and possibly, most excruciating) Supreme Court trial in Queensland’s history. Somewhere in between noting details of cheque-but [you're missing a T on that word] number 193 and 1500, the whole plot took shape. [It's nice to include this sort of information, to lead me into the story.]

Hennessy Clark has just fired three of its best litigators for something they didn’t do. They weren’t friends before;
[semi-colon not needed - use a comma instead] but they are now. Sandra Jeeves, the pug-like, binge-drinking, sex-obsessed senior associate [Cool! I like the sound of her], had dedicated her life to the Brisbane law firm. She had nothing else—no man, no kids, no pets. What’s a girl to do? And didn’t their night together [Whose night together?] mean anything? Frances Mackay, employment law expert, is the exact opposite. [colon, lower-case S on 'secure'] Secure, restrained, refined, Hepburnesque. But again, the firm was her life. What nasty thing did she do in the middle of a school-night to warrant this? Andrea Toohey, the managing partner’s former extra-marital squeeze, started it all by getting pregnant to him. [WHO IS 'HIM'??? This paragraph is confusing. The only part I liked was the description of the pug-like Sandra. Where is the crime? Why is it 'soft crime'? I just don't know what's going on.]

I’ve been writing for love and laundry money for well over a decade. I am finally completing a PhD in Philosophy (by research, part time, external) on the quest to turn out a believable, authentic novel, beyond what basic advice is available
[awkward - 'beyond the basic advice that is available ...' would be better] in how-to and how-I manuals and writing memoirs. There is a gap in the market for books on advanced writing techniques. [How is this relevant to your novel?] I have been a presenter at writing conferences, tutored in writing and been a guest speaker at my local law faculty. I have also written: published book reviews, dental/medical patient education and marketing material, web content, legal briefs, policies, procedures and technical training manuals. In subtle ways, these experiences all flavour my favourite work: novel writing. [You have a lot of experience - so why can't you pitch yourself better?]

Thank you for considering this proposal. I look forward to your feedback.
[By this point I'm cross. I can see that this writer has some talent but she's tripping herself up trying to tell me how much experience she has at other kinds of writing - she's spent more time establishing her bona fides (the book is being read at a publishing house, I have writing experience at this and that) than telling me what her story is and why I should read it.]

Kind regards,

Theresa L
Status: REJECTED with regret - this author can do better.
By this stage you can probably tell that I nitpick query letters - because I see a lot of them, small points of comparison (like punctuation) have larger meaning. It really doesn't take much for me to get to 'no' - the default position is 'no' simply because the volume of submissions is so great and I've been doing this long enough to know that, statistically, there won't be many great queries.
Remember, the query letter is your first way in to an agent or publisher and first impressions definitely count. A badly punctuated letter is equivalent to turning up to a job interview with messy hair and buttons missing. A letter that doesn't tell me why I should read the manuscript is the same as sitting in that interview and not talking about your experience or why you should be hired. How can you then be surprised if you don't get the job?

Query letter #3: Bronwyn S

Dear Agent,

When you find yourself naked except for your shoes and backed up against a cold wall mounted mirror, stuck between a rock and very, very hard place. Do you;
[Now, here's where I'm disappointed - word-wise this is a good start but the punctuation is BAD. 'Wall mounted mirror' should be 'wall-mounted mirror'; there should be a comma not a full stop after 'place', and a colon, not a semi-colon, after 'Do you' - all of which I noticed immediately and my heart has already sunk.]
A: Remember that your life is threatened and you need this modelling job so you don’t end up a Jane Doe on the six o’clock news…or; [Again, bad punctuation - don't use a semi-colon if you've given me an 'or'.]
B: Do you [Don't repeat 'do you' here] throw caution to the wind and let him lick away your protests like the candy shell around a chocolate centre and decide that Mixing Business with Pleasure sounds like a whole lot of fun. [There should be a question mark here, and why are there capital letters in the middle of this sentence? You haven't told me the title of the novel yet, so if you use the caps here I'll just think you have a thing for proper nouns - as in, your first language is German. Otherwise this sounds like a story I would read.]

The only way for Allison Marcum to pay her brother’s gambling debts is to transform herself from boring predictable social worker
[boring COMMA predictable] to experienced model. She gets more than she bargains for when she surpasses model and heads straight for flaming hot temptress. [flaming HYPHEN hot - and this paragraph isn't hanging together - I need a bit more information.]

As her lies
[What lies? You didn't say anything about lying!] start to unravel and the loan sharks get impatient, will Allison risk the best thing that’s ever happened to her by telling more lies? Or will she learn to trust the man who makes her toes curl, the man who teaches her that sometimes trust is all you have left. [question mark needed here]

My name is Bronwyn S.
[You don't need to tell me your name - it will be at the bottom of the letter, where I expect to find it.] I am a member of Romance Writers of Australia, the South Australian Romance Association, Romantic at Heart and several small writers groups. [Good - this lets me know that you're serious about your genre - romance is unlike other genres so you need to know what you're doing.] Mixing Business with Pleasure is 60,000 words, my first complete manuscript, polished from top to bottom and back again. [Under no circumstances say that the manuscript is polished from top to bottom if it contains the sort of punctuation mistakes I've just found in this letter.]

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to show you a glimpse into the rocky journey of Sam
[Who is Sam?] and Allison’s happily ever after. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

[Where is my burning-hot reason to read this about this flaming-hot temptress? The story has been described - and it's not a ragingly original storyline, but that's completely fine so long as I have a good reason to read it. So what's the reason? Will my loins stir? Will my heart race? Either of these will do. It's a romance novel - you'll have a lot of competition in this genre - what makes you different from the rest?]

Bronwyn S

Status: REJECTED. Read the AGPS Style Manual for punctuation tips (I'm serious).

Query letter #2: SF Writer

Sarahlynn made a comment about the word count for the previous query - I hadn't said anything about it, as I was trying to limit my feedback to the letter itself, rather than commenting on storylines and word counts and whatnot. But I realise it may be more helpful to writers to actually give the 'personal feedback' too. So I'll do that, where appropriate - please bear in mind these comments are all my opinion only and you won't like some of them - but this is really what I'm thinking as I read the letters, so it should give you an idea of how quickly the guillotine comes down sometimes.

Dear Agent,

I am seeking an agent
[Really? Thanks for telling me - I wasn't sure why you were writing to me.] for my 90,000-word science fiction thriller: TimeSplash. [Don't use a colon - it's not the correct punctuation for the sentence and immediately makes me think that you don't know what you're doing.]

Set in Europe in the near future, TimeSplash is the story of two young people, Jay and Sandra, both traumatised by their involvement in the youth cult of timesplashing. [But I don't know what timesplashing is, so I just have no idea what any of this means and thus I've already stopped caring. Ideally, you should put a comma after 'timesplashing' and explain it right there.]

All Sandra wants is to see her former boyfriend, Sniper, dead. The glamorous German timesplasher [Sniper is glamorous? The BOY gets to be glamorous? Now I'm envisaging blond tips and loafers without socks - Don Johnson with a Rhinelander accent] dragged her back in time to witness an horrific killing spree which left her terrified and institutionalised. The same timesplash created a temporal anomaly that destroyed the Dutch town of Ommen, and killed Jay's best friend. [Apart from the glamorous distraction, this is a concise, clear paragraph.]

All Sniper wants is to cause a timesplash so big it will make him a legend. [This doesn't sound like much of a reason - if he's the villain, you need a stronger villainous hook than 'he wants to be a legend'.] He doesn't care that this will wipe out central London as effectively as if the city had been nuked. To do it, he and his crew plan to go back to 1902 and murder Lenin. [You're presuming that everyone knows who Lenin is, and the Red Revolution was so long ago - most of the kidz these days will just think this is a misspelling of Lennon and then wonder why you think The Beatles were around in 1902. So you either have to explain who Lenin is or change this plot point - dead Communists aren't compelling story drivers any more.] Every intelligence agency and police force in Europe [They're after him in 1902? Or they're after him in the present day for murdering Lenin in 1902? If it's the latter, why do they care? If Lenin died in 1902, no one knows who he is and there's still a tsar running Russia. If it's the former, you'll have a hard time convincing anyone that an early version of the KGB was in operation in 1902 because, well, that Tsar Nicholas II was a softie.] is after Sniper, but only Sandra and her new ally, Jay [How do Sandra and Jay meet?], know where to find him. Yet Sniper has powerful backers with deep pockets - and they have a mole within MI5 [No! This is too much Day of the Jackal and James Bond - forget MI5, England is SO 1967.] , keeping Sniper one step ahead of his enemies.

One by one, every plan to stop Sniper fails until all that is left is to send Jay and Sandra back to Edwardian London to save Lenin's life. [Here you've officially lost me - Edwardian London in a science fiction thriller? I don't care.] But just being there in the past is enough to cause deadly anomalies and this desperate last stand might be as dangerous as taking no action at all. [This storyline sounds interesting if the historical detail is extracted - if the reader isn't interested in Russian history or Edwardian London, they're going to be turned off immediately. I guess this is why science fiction is usually set in the future.]

I attach a 3-page synopsis of the manuscript and the first three chapters.. [I've left in the two full stops because this is something that I will notice in a letter - is the author trying to do an ellipsis? Does he/she not know that an ellipsis is three dots? Or is it an extra full stop? See, now the punctuation has distracted me from the letter.]

I have recently had stories published in the anthology, U, and in the magazines; V, W, X, Y and Z. This month, one of my short stories was announced as third place winner in the Very Prestigious Writing Contest. My previous novel Time and Tyde was chosen for an Orbit manuscript development programme in May last year. My writing credits also include three children's science books and over a hundred magazine articles. My blogs currently attract over 500 unique visitors a month from around the world (mostly the USA, the UK, and Australia). [This is all great experience, but now I'm wondering how someone with that many writing credits can make elementary punctuation mistakes AND think that anyone who likes science fiction wants to read about Edwardian London.]

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon. [Don't say you're looking forward to hearing from me soon - that means you're going to call me in a week and ask why I haven't responded to you yet. All I need to know at this point is whether the manuscript is available if I want to read it.]

S. F. Writer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Query letter #1: Christine N

Dear Agent,

THE UNICORN TAMER is Greek mythology meets Pok√©mon, a middle-grade fantasy that will appeal to fans of Carl Hiaasen's HOOT and Brandon Mull’s FABLEHAVEN.
[Hmmm ... if I don't know those two titles I'm going to feel like a dumby and I'll immediately think that I won't understand this manuscript. Better to not refer to specific titles - stick to genres. You've said it's middle-grade fantasy - that's all I need to know.]

13-year-old Emma Brown knows that sphinxes like to eat people. [Good - catchy, clear - I know the protagonist is 13, I know her name, and I know that this story is going to be a bit unusual. This line stands alone in the letter I received - ideally, run it on to the following paragraph.]

She knows that leprechauns live in a city made of gold, that a selkie is a girl in seal's clothing, and that you can fall in love with a pixie even if he just looks at you. Emma knows all this because her mom read to her when she was a little girl. [Her mom read what to her? The author needs to tell me that the mother read her stories, otherwise I think we've gone into some general thing about her being read to as a child and then I start wondering what that has to do with the selkie ... and now I'm confused. See how easy it is? When I'm reading lots of queries at once, it doesn't take much to confuse me. I don't think I'm the only agent who gets confused so easily, either. ]

What Emma didn't know is that the stories her mom told her weren't make-believe. Her mom was secretly trying to prepare Emma for the ultimate sacrifice - merging a human's life with that of an endangered animal's to save it. [Ewwww! But she has my attention. This is the point at which I'd decide if it's my kind of story or not.]

When her parents mysteriously disappear, Emma is catapulted back to her birthplace - an older, steampunk [What is this word? The author is American so I'll let it go, but be careful about using culturally specific words if you're querying overseas.] version of our dimension. In the wonderland called Drualtys, teenagers study to become Tamers - people who form unique bonds with legendary creatures to protect them from extinction. Through this bond, Tamers absorb the creatures' majick [Why is this word never spelt the old-fashioned way any more?], special powers ranging from the ability to control lightening, run on water, or see through skin. [Overall a good paragraph.]

Emma embraces her taming lessons to rescue her parents from the Hunters, a ruthless clan of humans determined to prove that man is the most powerful beast of all. Their mission: murder the creatures of Drualtys and steal their majickal abilities. The prize: a unicorn's cloak of invisibility. Together with her newfound friends, including a half-pixie who's too pretty for his own good and a whimsical boy who can talk to animals, Emma must stay one step ahead of the Hunters, save her parents, and the unicorns - before she is hunted herself. [I'm a bit confused by all the new names, but fantasy isn't my strong suit - from a query letter point of view, this paragraph is solid.]

THE UNICORN TAMER is complete at approximately 96,000 words and is the first in a trilogy. Upon your request, I'd be more than happy to send you the manuscript. [This paragraph should come last.]

I graduated from Santa Clara University with a Major in Communications and a Minor in Creative Writing. I worked on my university's literary magazine as well as a Children's Storyteller at Barnes and Noble. I also used to contribute to the Google Video Blog. [This paragraph should come second last. I don't need to know about the Google Video Blog, but otherwise all the information was good and not belaboured. Again, no comparison to a big author - JK Rowling would have been the obvious one here - and that's a good thing. ]

Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work.
[Leave out the 'representing' because at this stage I'm only considering the work, not considering representation.]

Sincerely, Christine N
Status: PROVISIONALLY APPROVED (pending some changes)

The published author's query letter

Before I start posting the query letters I received for the purposes of close scrutiny, I'm going to show you a query letter from an author who's about to get published - JJ Cooper, the author of THE INTERROGATOR. JJ tells me that this is the letter that got him an agent and I can see why: it's pretty much perfect. I'll tell you why in bold comments throughout - with many thanks to JJ for offering it up. Now buy his book!

Dear Agent,

I am seeking your representation for my completed 80,000 word thriller, THE INTERROGATOR.
[Good - in very few words he's told me that he's finished, the novel, how long it is, the genre and the title - you'd be surprised how often this information is NOT given or, if given, is buried in the letter.]

According to Greek Mythology, Aphrodite had a wayward eye and a loyal son. When Eros gave Harpocrates a rose to keep quiet about his mother’s little indiscretions, the rose became a symbol for secrecy. This is a story Jay Ryan has never heard — until his hand is nailed to a table and a red rose tattooed onto his wrist.
[Dramatic hook - HAND NAILED TO A TABLE! INVOLUNTARY TATTOOING! I want to see where this is going.]

Jay is an interrogator with a dark past and a tortured soul; he’s also the keeper of secrets Israeli spies will kill to get their hands upon. Renowned for his skills, he is used to commanding a certain level of respect amongst his peers. Then one day Jay is drugged, tortured, tattooed and accused of rape. He is forced to reveal information that could further destabilise fragile Middle East relations and plunge the entire region into war. They are secrets he has struggled to keep hidden for four years — proof that the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ knew Israeli Mossad agents removed chemical weapons from Iraq before the launch of the 2003 invasion.
[This paragraph has the pace of a thriller, so the author is simultaneously telling me about the novel AND giving me a taste of what the reading experience will be. He's told me a lot just in this one paragraph, and he's done it by mostly leaving out the adjectives - this is a whole lot of nouns and verbs and that's all I need at this stage. If I want purple prose, I'll ask for it.]

After escaping his captors, Jay discovers that he is wanted for crimes he didn’t commit and that his father has been kidnapped by his own intelligence agency. No-nonsense secret agent Sarah Evans and lively retired security guard William ‘Bill’ Hunter join Jay on a quest to get his father back alive and avoid Israeli spies hell-bent on eliminating them all. Together they uncover the truth behind two spy agencies playing a high-stakes game of espionage with a ‘winner take all’ mindset. After Sarah goes missing, Jay must choose between hunting his father’s kidnappers or saving Sarah and exposing Israel’s involvement in the removal of chemical weapons from Iraq.
[Second paragraph on the storyline - and then he stops. Two paragraphs is all you need, if that. If you need more space than this to describe the story, there's a good chance you're not sure what the story is.]

THE INTERROGATOR is a story of betrayal and nightmarish conspiracy firmly rooted in the highest levels of government across international alliances. The story rockets toward a shattering finale that will leave the survivors changed forever. Thriller fans will enjoy the colourful characters, twisting, turning plots and fast action. The authentic military details gives the story a chillingly real context, drawing the reader into Jay’s world and not letting us go until the very end.
[Here's the pitch - and here's where the adjectives come in. This is the right place for them, as the pitch is where you want to seduce someone into reading the manuscript. Stronger language is needed - and he uses it well: 'shattering finale', 'colourful characters', 'authentic military details', 'chillingly real context'. The pitch would not have been better placed earlier in the letter as I didn't know the story at that point - thus it wouldn't have had any impact.]

I spent the last seven years of a seventeen-year Military career as an Intelligence Operator, specialising in interrogation (as a practitioner and instructor). My ability to communicate in-depth knowledge of interrogation methods, techniques and procedures, coupled with my experiences in Iraq in 2003 and two tours of East Timor adds value to the idiosyncrasies and depth of the characters within my novel.
[If I had doubts about reading it, they're gone now: he's just established his bona fides. He's being clear without being boastful - and, best of all, he hasn't told me that he's the next Dan Brown.]

Thank you for your time. As requested I have attached a short synopsis of THE INTERROGATOR and the first 2500 words. I look forward to hearing from you.
[He's finished as he started: here is all the information I need to know. It's a short, sharp ending.]
So, punters, study this letter well. JJ gets an A+ - or, to borrow the grade scale of the Tiny Art Director, this query letter is APPROVED. (I will probably use the TAD's scale throughout, thus letters will be APPROVED or REJECTED with some shades in between.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In answer to ...

I don't usually read the comments, but in answer to graywave, who wrote this:
'What I don't understand about the publishing game is this, if all the agents have full lists and yet there is apparently huge demand for them, why aren't more agents starting up? Isn't that how markets are supposed to work?'

I say this:
The reason there aren't new ones starting up is that it's very difficult to make the money work. Starting a new agency means working without income until you place a writer with a publisher. If that first writer gets, say, $10 000, the agent earns 15% of that: $1500. That $1500 may come in three instalments. That's $1500 spread over at least a year, if not longer. So that's one author. You need to place more to make a living - many, many more. But how are you going to support yourself while you're doing that? You need an extra income or you need to independently wealthy. If you've been working in publishing long enough to have a shot at being a successful agent, you certainly won't be wealthy. So then you need an extra income - like a husband or wife. Or another job. If it's the former, let's hope they're happy to support you for the years it will take to establish a good-sized income through the agency - and it will take years, because there's not as much money in Australian book deals as there is in US or UK deals. If it's the latter, you're not really going to have enough time to run the agency AND do another job.

Of course, you may get one whiz-bang client to begin with - the sort of client who may earn you a $10 000 commission - but the 'authors' who usually earn the most money are sportsmen, and they have sports agents. And that $10 000 won't help you eat for a whole year.

So, graywave, if you would like to suggest a way in which a fledgling agent can make a living just by agenting, I'd love to hear it.

On another note, thanks to those of you who submitted queries. Once I've recovered from the Sydney Writers Festival, I'll get to them. As I still don't know what day of the week it is, that may not be soon ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fangs for nothing

To preface my question: I'm not writing just to get published. I've been writing for a long time now and while that was my ultimate dream, it was never the goal of what I do.

I am a university student studying Creative Writing, and that workload means I'm not working solidly on getting only one of my works up to scratch to send to an agent or publisher, but recently I've been entertaining the thought of becoming a published author one day, but the more I research, the more I despair.

I write in the fantasy genre and as if that wasn't enough reason to have doubts about publishing in Australia, I have a vampire fiction that I've been working on since before I ever heard anything about sparkling, romantically-inclined vampire lovers. The vampire fiction business is booming at the moment, but I'm not going to be able to work solidly on it for a few years and I'm slightly sad at the thought that Stephenie Meyer's worldwide phenomenon will make my novel generate so much less interest than it would have even before all of this hype.

The work-in-progress I have isn't anything like the irksome tale of Edward and Bella (one HUGE difference being my complete lack of a love story) and my mythology isn't even the same, so my question to you is about the fate of a vampire novel in, say, five years' time when this is all old news. Willl anyone even bother to look at my manuscript or query letter when the word 'vampire' turns up?

Um ... I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't tell you. Although I understand your frustration - on the one hand I'm completely annoyed that Joss Whedon isn't getting ALL of the credit for bringing vampire storylines to the world; on the other hand I hope that the Twi-hards keep their mitts off Buffy and Angel (the series, not the characters) because those stories are just so, so, so much more fabulous. But Twilight gave us Robert Pattinson (or R-Patts, as he's known in my 'hood), so it's not all bad, non?

I digress. Truthfully, I have no way of knowing if novels will even be around in five years - it could all be fragments of text on iPhones by then - so I can't tell you how anyone's going to respond to your manuscript. If you love the story, write it. If it's good enough, it won't be just a 'vampire novel' and will be considered for its general story merits. Until then, don't waste any energy wondering what's going to happen in the future.

As for the fantasy genre: see the post directly below this one ...

Submitting fantasy novels overseas

Since all the Australian agents I try are not taking on new clients I'm trying my luck overseas for my fantasy novel. My problem is postage costs. An SAE even for a partial is expensive enough, especially if I intend to try many agents, but for the whole novel I might have to sell my house. It's also confusing trying to work out how much it costs in their currency. I 've discovered I can buy stamps on-line but I'm wary of giving my credit card details on-line. I could ask them to pulp the ms and reply by email but the thought of printing out hundreds of pages again and again is distressing. Any suggestions?

My suggestion is that you check their submission guidelines again - a lot of agencies in the US accept electronic submissions. So start by querying only those agencies - you may hit the jackpot without needing to kill any trees. And if you do have to do paper copies, send the initial query without a SSAE and ask them to destroy it. It's unlikely you'll get scores of requests for a full manuscript as there just aren't that many agents who specialise in fantasy, so cross that bridge when you come to it - if you're asked to provide a full you could always enquire whether they'd make an exception and accept your submission electronically.

Also, while a lot of Australian agents may have their books closed, it's also true to say that most of them don't consider fantasy novels. The genre is not as popular here within the industry as it is without; this will probably change in the next few years but at the moment there's not as much expertise as there is overseas.

Submitting picture books

I 'm a bit confused. I read on the CBCA website that children's books should not be submitted with pictures, however then I read that illustrators are very busy and difficult to book. Is it better to submit a children's book with or with out illustrations?

If you're an author/illustrator, submit text and pictures. If you're a writer only, submit the text only. It's useful if you know an illustrator who might be appropriate, but quite often publishers have illustrators they use. Just bear in mind that picture books are probably the hardest type of book to get published - many, many people are writing them; very, very few picture books are published each year. Your text would need to be perfect - yes, perfect - to get noticed. So polish, polish, polish until you just can't polish no more.

In the clink

I have a high-profile prisoner who wants to write an autobiography. Would there be a market for this sort of thing in Australia?

It depends on the prisoner and what he did (I'm presuming it's a 'he' - we don't have that many high-profile female prisoners). If it's Ivan Milat, forget it. If it's one of the Snowtown murderers, DEFINITELY forget it. If it's a white-collar crook who can dish dirt on corporate shenanigans, maybe. But it's a hard thing to sell to publishers and the public - people will assume that any autobiography would be an attempt to place blame elsewhere rather than accept responsibility. The story would need to be really amazing to get past that. I wouldn't personally buy the autobiography of a high-profile prisoner but I read a lot of true crime, so maybe I just like to read about that stuff at one remove from the perpetrator. You should also bear in mind that if your prisoner is still in gaol, he's not going to see any moolah from a book deal, even when he's out of gaol.

The manuscript boileth over

I am a writer and reviewer currently working on my second full-length fiction manuscript (the first was unpublished). I have had a lot of non-fiction articles and reviews published but only a few short stories. I have undergone a detailed manuscript assessment on the second manuscript and implemented their changes. The manuscript has also been edited by a friend who has recently completed a University degree in editing and publishing. I also met an agent, who told me to send through the manuscript when it’s ready.

My question is as follows: Where would you recommend I go from here? Another assessment, send it to the agent or go directly to publishers?

Well, here's MY question - why would you bypass the agent if they said to send it through? I don't know whether you accidentally met the agent or did it on purpose, but if it's the latter, it's a bit odd to now not take her/him up on the offer.

Quite apart from that, if you're an Australian writer it will be hard for you to get your novel in front of publishers if you don't have an agent, unless you're participating in one of the various awards/programs now available (Varuna, QWC, Text YA prize etc). So my suggestion would be that you send it to the agent and also investigate some of those awards and programs to see if you're eligible to enter. I only advise going directly to publishers if you have really good contacts within publishing companies and/or you're prepared to wait even longer for an answer than you would for an agent's answer. Whatever you do, though, don't get another assessment - there's a risk your manuscript is going to be overcooked if you put any more cooks in that kitchen.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Query me, query you

Thanks to those of you who emailed saying they’d like to have their queries flagellated on the blog. I’m going to leap into the void now and ask you to send your queries. BUT! There are some rules.

1. Your query letter should be of a length that would ideally fit on one A4 page if it were printed – it’s up to you whether you want to double space it or not …

2. Tips on writing query letters can be found here:
And here:
Also here:

3. I’ll only review the first ten I receive – if, in fact, I receive that many.

4. I won’t be publishing any identifying characteristics, like your name and address. But do presume that everything else in the query letter will be published.

5. The query letter isn’t a submission to me as an agent – it’s for the purposes of this exercise only. But if I really like your letter, who knows …

6. I will be an offering an OPINION on what I think works and doesn’t work in the letter – I won’t necessarily be giving tips on how to rewrite your letter. I’ll mainly be trying to show you what sort of mental processes I go through when reading query letters. NB: these processes may include me repeating the name ‘George Clooney’ over and over if that’s what I’m actually thinking about.

7. The closing date is Friday 22 May at 5 p.m. AEST.

If you’re a published writer and feel like submitting the query letter that got you an agent and/or publisher, please do send it in.

And finally … Please email your query letters to call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com with the subject line QUERY LETTER.

Monday, May 4, 2009

And another thing - and this time I'm REALLY annoyed

In amongst the emails from people saying 'yes, please' to the idea of sending in their query letters was a chap who said that, despite realising that sending in an undercooked manuscript was not a good thing, there wasn't much choice when every agent took the 'luxury' of at least two months with a manuscript.


Breathe, breathe ...

Reading submissions is the extra part of our job that usually gets done in our own time. It can be different for US agents as they can have interns, but we're not allowed to use interns in this country - it breaks all sorts of laws. If I had unpaid or lowly paid minions I could get through a whole lot more reading, but I just can't. So it's not a luxury - it's the minimum amount of time we can manage it.

Tonight, for example, I have to read one of my client's manuscripts because it's past deadline but he still wants feedback. On the weekend I read another client's new manuscript so she could have feedback before it goes to her publisher. And you want me to give you less than two months for your submission? Why don't you ask my clients - the ones who pay for my time so that I'm able to even consider reading submissions - to stop writing new books? Maybe THEN I would have the time. But then there would be no money, so the business would fold. You see the conundrum?

The business model for agenting in this country is tight and, if the Productivity Commission has its way, it will get tighter. As I've said before, we do the best we can. We want to read submissions and we usually do it as fast as we're able. We do not have a vendetta against unpublished writers - there is no agent cabal, where we sit around cackling, 'Aha! Let's make them wait two months!' Sheesh.

More on fiction subs

I don't usually read the comments on this blog but I did for the post below - and it seemed I confused at least one reader about where the 'good stuff' should show up in a submission. Mainly because I didn't clarify what I meant by 'submission'.

In the US, an initial submission is usually a query letter. Here in the Colonies of Kevin, it's usually a letter and some sample chapters/first few chapters. So it's in those sample chapters that I'm looking for evidence of the good stuff. And here's a little secret: I can usually tell on the first page. Not because I'm some kind of literary seer (if only!) - just because I've seen enough submissions to recognise the signs.

One commenter mentioned 'platform', which is an American term meaning, roughly, 'publicity hooks'. Platform is not as important for fiction as for non-fiction but it doesn't hurt. If you have an interesting personal story that makes it easier for a publicist to get an interview for you, that's useful.

Thanks to those of you who've been emailing regarding the query letter thingy. I will do it. I just need to buy some scotch first.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The fiction submission rant

There is no question for this post - I'm writing it because I want to whinge. For there are many days when I just want to never, ever, ever look at fiction submissions again. And it's not because I don't find clients that way - I do - but it's because so much of my time is wasted doing it that I find it hard to justify reading the subs. And why is my time wasted? Because 99% of fiction submissions aren't ready to be seen. (That percentage is an approximation, and possibly influenced by my snarky mood.)

So let's play a game. Let's say I grant every submission 100 points to start with. I'm going to list some common things I see in submissions. Certain things will take off points; certain things will add. If the submission still ends up with around 100 points, then I'll ask for a full manuscript. (In reality it's not that scientific, but maybe I'll change my ways.)

1. Sending in your first draft. LOSE 50 POINTS
1. (a) It's your first novel. LOSE ANOTHER 25 POINTS

2. Asking your best friend or mother to read your novel and then believing what they say and THEN telling me that I should read your novel because your mother loved it. LOSE 20 POINTS

3. Putting your novel away for a while - weeks, if not months - and then revisiting it and doing some more work. ADD 20 POINTS

4. Telling me that if I don't take you on I'll be missing out on the greatest novelist who ever lived. LOSE 10 POINTS

5. Taking the time to understand that to write a novel is to tell a story and that means you can't write 50 000 words of beautiful prose with no plot and no character development. ADD 20 POINTS

6. Being completely unrealistic about your abilities as a writer - everyone may have a novel in them but that doesn't mean everyone should write that novel. If you failed to read any novels in high school, there's a good chance you're not cut out to be a novelist. LOSE 20 POINTS

7. Reading lots of novels, particularly in your genre. ADD 15 POINTS
7. (a) Comparing yourself to those novelists when you submit your manuscript. LOSE 10 POINTS

8. Sending in a half-baked submission 'so you can give me some advice on where my writing should go from here'. LOSE 40 POINTS

And, at the suggestion of one of my authors (some of them know I write this blog - well, only the handsome ones):
9. Mentioning it's a literary novel. LOSE 15 POINTS (he suggested 1000 and used swear words - I'm not going to be that forceful - and please bear in mind that he actually writes literary fiction)
9. (a) Mentioning it's a literary novel set in Melbourne, and you're from Melbourne, and all the characters are from Melbourne too. LOSE ANOTHER 15 POINTS (and before you take umbrage, remember that my name is Agent SYDNEY - that gives me licence for a little fun, non?)

I've just run out of ideas, but there's every chance I'll add to this list in future. And you can probably tell there are more 'lose' than 'add' items. Believe me, I WANT to love every submission I read. I want there to be so many brilliant novels of all stripes out there that Australians only ever want to read Australian novels and forget about overseas authors. But the bitter truth is that I despair. I read the submissions and I see novelists who could turn out to be great but who will get rejected by me - and probably everyone else - because they were impatient. I read other submissions that are truly awful. I read a lot that are just tepid. All of this wastes my time, and when my time is wasted I grow cranky and I'm more and more tempted to never read fiction submissions again.

The biggest problem is that novels are submitted well before they're ready. If this blog achieves nothing else than to make novelists think hard before they submit to anyone, I'll be happy. Because while people like me spend too much time reading submissions that will never get published, we are not spending time on developing and supporting Australian talent.

In the past I have received several emails whinging - yes, whinging, how dare you! - about agents closing submissions and asking why. Well, now you know. We're not a public service - we run businesses. We can't work for nothing. So if we detect that something is wasting our time - and our money-making capabilities - we'll stop doing it. The one thing writers can do to ensure that doesn't happen is to make sure their submissions are up to scratch. Agents do not exist to give you advice unless you're a client. We are looking for writers we can get published. If you can free us up by not sending us your undercooked novel, we'll be more able to look at it when it IS cooked.

Having now expunged myself of bad feeling, I'm feeling charitable. Miss Snark used to run the occasional query-thing - writers would send in query letters and she'd flagellate them (or not) on the blog. I'm considering doing the same thing. If you think this is a good idea, please send an email to call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com. Please don't send query letters yet - just drop me a line to tell me whether you'd be interested.