Friday, June 18, 2010

Non-fiction query letter #3

31 May 2010

Dear Agent Sydney,

What makes a novel connect with readers? [Good start - I'm intrigued.] And when a manuscript falls short, what can a writer do to correct the problem?

Writers struggle to read as their own critics, yet there are few resources to help them.

I am seeking feedback [Don't ever ask an agent for feedback: it's not a service we provide and if you expect it we're likely to run away] and representation on a proposed ‘self-help’ book for novelists, which will assist them in creatively revising their own work.

The book (working title, BOOK TITLE TO COME) [NB: I've removed the title as the author is working on it as part of a thesis] would be based upon my PhD submission, which is currently undergoing examination. I am also refining my commercial fiction novel ['Fiction novel' gets used a lot - it's easy to trip up and say it, but don't, because we all notice it. Just say 'novel'], which has attracted the attention of a large publisher. [This sentence about the novel should come later in the letter, as you've just interrupted the flow of information about the non-fiction book, which is the reason for the letter.]

For my PhD, I surveyed more than 60 ‘how-to’ and ‘how-I’ (memoir-style) books on writing and mostly found them to be fast-food for beginners. Rather than encouraging originality, they inadvertently romance a would-be writer into reading (usually set texts) and writing through the prism of someone else’s world-view. Mimicking has its place in writing practice, but not when the aim is to produce an authentic voice. Existing books on revision are helpful with technical aspects of the craft, but again, lack in the area of creative revision. Two published samples of my work reviewing other literature in the field can be seen at and [Good - you've acknowledged the competition, said why your book would be different and offered writing samples that are easily accessible.]

So, what makes a novel connect? My book would argue that (beyond craftsmanship) it is about believability, authenticity and transformation. Using the Novelist’s toolkit, writers may well be brought closer to achieving these goals. The beauty of the toolkit is that it operates as an overarching device which can accommodate any aspect of advice from other sources—it is hence, totally customised by the individual user. The toolkit is applicable to all types of novel writing, regardless of genre or literariness. This is another point of departure from existing resources. Most of the existing works only deal with the first and maybe second stages of the toolkit—basic fact gathering, plot construction, world-building and character design. These are things that are typically described in mechanical ways, largely as information to be conveyed through narration, description and dialogue, etcetera. [You've lost me here - I actually don't need to know this much information because I'm not a novelist myself. The paragraph before was enough to lure me in.]

My Novelist’s toolkit will challenge a writer to consider uncomfortable questions, such as:
• Are you uniquely qualified to tell this story and should you be the one telling it? What do you know? This speaks not only to capability, but believability.
• Are you telling the story’s truth, your truth, or somebody else’s truth? How do you know it? This reveals much about authorial motivation and authenticity.
• What makes your story necessary? Who would care? Why does it matter and to whom? This is where transformation takes place.

[Again, don't need to know this - you've already established what it's about in a general sense. This sort of information could go in a synopsis, but doesn't need to go into the letter.]

The story’s truth moves beyond the author’s world-view and certainly isn’t open to mimicry. Without it, a story doesn’t ‘ring true’ … it lacks authenticity. Ironically, story truth is not transcribed actual truth … actual truth (from facts, experiences, research etc) needs to be transformed into the textual novel-world through the tricky process of “imaginative projection,” which is what the toolkit ultimately plots out. [Again,TMI.]

My Novelist’s toolkit shows how a private concern of an individual author can be processed through the psychology of convincing characters and stories such that they touch readers in the public domain. [By this stage I'm starting to change my mind - I'm not an academic, and if I don't understand what you mean here I'll start to think I'm too stupid to read your manuscript - and that's a reaction potential readers could have.]

Readers, internalising something learned, experienced or felt from reading the novel, re-enter the world anew—transformed—but only if the writer experienced this process (of awe, discovery and seeing things in a fresh way) through the writing first. This can hardly be achieved by swallowing a basic how-to-write book or by following the road already taken by another author who has safely reached the land of milk and memoir. [Cut this too]

My book, unlike many other ‘self-help’ books, intends to respect that everyone makes their own maps through living and writing, and eventually all these maps lead back to their source: ourselves. Writers who understand this simple premise have the greatest chance of producing original work, which is believable, authentic and transformative. [Keep this]

My proposed book, in its PhD submission format, is at 35,000 words, but can easily be adjusted to suit requirements.

I have enclosed a sample chapter and am available to further expand or clarify at your convenience. Should this proposal not suit your current list, I would be most appreciative if you could suggest possible avenues.

Thank you kindly for your consideration.

Yours faithfully,
Theresa L

Verdict: Needs revision. Where's the information about you? You've told me you're writing a novel but you haven't said why you've delved so far into the process that you want to write a whole other book about it. All I know about you is that you're doing a PhD. Don't forget that this letter could be the first step in a business relationship, and that those business relationships sometimes become friendships. We need some getting-to-know-you time. Apart from that, too much information about the content of the book - and this is always a relative thing. If it's a novel, you can give me a couple of paragraphs; if it's something more esoteric and I may not be the target reader but it's my job to identify if there's a target readership, just give me enough information to understand what the book's about. Remember that agents can be reading dozens of these letters every week - short and sharp is goo.

Non-fiction query letter #2

Agent X
NSW 2021

Dear Agent X,
Thank you for your time when I phoned last week and for agreeing to read my submission for Last Drinks in Vienna (working title), which is a Non-Fiction/ Memoir [Why the caps? The German influence on English ran out around the time of King George III] about the years I spent running my own Pub [Again! Proper noun alert!] in Vienna [I'll let you have this capital letter].

It is not a Travel Narrative [And again! Can you see that I'm getting distracted by this one grammatical tic to the point that I'm not paying the same amount of attention to your letter? That's all it takes], but more a story about a life spiralling out of control with both funny and sad consequences and learning you can’t runaway from your problems—with help from an eccentric cast of characters. [This could describe any number of stories - what is different about your story? Why should I read your submission more closely than anyone else's? Just because we talked on the phone doesn't mean I'll remember what you told me - it also doesn't guarantee that it's me who's reading the submission, so you'll need to write the letter as if the reader has no idea who you are.]

Please find enclosed:
• Synopsis
• Chapter summaries/ book outline
• Prologue
• Part One (4 chapters)

I believe the Chapter [Again! In what dictionary does 'chapter' have a capital letter!! Now I'm really worked up!!!] summaries will give you a clear idea where the story goes and that it can maintain reader interest till the end.
I hope the sample chapters will show you it is written with depth and humour.
I believe, also, that it has great potential in the German language market. [Why? Because it's set in Austria? Austria is a small market and the Germans probably think they're already publishing too many books about Austria.] I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours Sincerely, ['Sincerely' - capital S!!!!]


Verdict: Fail. You didn't tell me anything about yourself apart from the fact that you ran a pub in Vienna. This alone is not enough to spark my interest, and thus it's not going to spark the interest of a publisher - or a reader. You also didn't tell me anything about the manuscript apart from the fact that it's about you running a pub in Vienna. And, as you can see, I became increasingly exercised over your use of capital letters on nouns (and elsewhere). Anyone on the publishing/agenting/editing side of the industry is likely to be a pedant and they will notice typos and grammatical errors if they're repeated. The capitalisation of random nouns is a practice that no doubt started in the advertising and real estate sectors - 'Renovator's Dream! Only need to upgrade Kitchen!' - and I see it a lot in query letters. A novel is not a Novel.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non-fiction query letter #1

Dear Publisher X

I am writing in the hope you may be interested in publishing a work of non-fiction that I am currently working upon. [This opening sentence is overly polite and not necessary - we know that you're writing the letter because you want to be published, so that doesn't need to be stated. You can simply say, 'I am working on a book that is XXX.'] The book is to be [don't say what it will be - say what it is, even if you're still working on it - but big tick for saying 'passionately' - it's nice when writers have passion!] a passionately revisionist history. The working title is:


This book tells the story of the choice for war in Britain in late July and early August 1914 in a new way. It aims to interleave two stories, the story of the forces urging a choice for war and the story of those forces resisting that choice. It argues for a reassessment of both forces. It does not accept that the war was simply inevitable, or that the British choice was irresistible and righteous. [Insert a paragraph break here - when publishers/agents read query letters over and over, the text starts to run together. While we don't necessarily care about the font size, we will care if there aren't enough para breaks. After an hour of reading submissions I usually end up lying down with my hands over my eyes because they get tired looking at all the words.] The book is intensely critical of the British choice for war, and of the role of Liberal and Conservative politicians, the Foreign Office and diplomats, military advisers and the Tory and popular newspapers. It shows how a non-interventionist majority in the governing Liberal Cabinet was manoeuvred into supporting the choice for war, and how leading politicians orchestrated that decision from behind the scenes with scant regard for democracy or parliament. It demonstrates also that there was a very significant opposition to the rush toward war. [Another break needed here.] This book, therefore, is not in the heroic tradition of so many British histories of the war. It is in the tragic tradition. It argues that British choices and British errors made their own contributions to the outbreak of the common European tragedy that was the Great War. The book aims to show that even nations very largely in the right – as the British people discovered in 2003 with regard to Iraq – can make terrible mistakes in a rush toward war.

I am hopeful that the on-going controversy surrounding Britain’s decision for war in 2003, and the intense interest in 1914 that will be generated by the approaching hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, will attract a large readership for the book I propose here.[Good - identifying your market.]

The book is based on a very large array of primary sources, the private papers of dozens of politicians, including leading Radical politicians and publicists, as well as contemporary newspapers, journals and parliamentary sources. Private papers have been consulted in the UK, Canada, the USA and South Africa. I have been researching for the book since 2000. The proposed book would be the most detailed, and the only trenchantly critical, account of the British choice for war in 1914 in print. [Again, good, you're establishing your solid factual background for your argument.]

I should offer some personal background. [This first sentence is redundant - just cut straight to 'I have previously published'.] I have previously published two academic studies in related areas with Oxford University Press. One was a study of internationalism on the Left before 1914, British Labour, European Socialism and the Struggle for Peace, 1889-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) and the second was a study of the British response to the German Revolution of 1918-1919 at the end of the war, British Policy and the Weimar Republic, 1918-1919 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Both were well-received academic monographs. I have also published a very popular textbook for schools, Germany 1918-1945: From Days of Hope to Years of Horror (Sydney: Pearson, 1990-96).

But I should stress that I have recently retired [Why should you stress this?] from the University of Western Sydney where I was an Associate Professor in European History for 17 years. I am now most anxious to move forward from academic publishing and to seek a wider readership. [Don't say this - the publisher/agent doesn't want to be told that they're your conduit to anything.] I am hopeful that the book I am proposing here is written in a much more appealing way, in short chapters, with little knowledge assumed, and the whole story told with an eye to captivating the interest of the general reader.[Don't say this either - it sounds like you're unsure of your work.] I should explain I was attracted to Aurum Press after examining one of your recent publications in a similar field, namely Will Ellsworth-Jones, We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of World War One’s Conscientious Objectors (London: Aurum, 2008). That book leads me to believe that Aurum is sympathetic to books that strike out in new directions and are positive with regard to peace history.[This last sentence is the only thing you need to say out of everything else in this paragraph.]

In the hope you are willing to consider the proposed book, I enclose a bound portfolio [Have you checked to see that they want to receive this sort of material in a submission?] containing:
a title page and chapter list showing the themes of the whole work;
a sample illustration – from the neutrality demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Sunday, 2 August 1914;
some sample chapters from the heart of the book, that is, from “Part V: The Choice for War: Tuesday 4 August to Thursday 6 August” .

I will be very grateful if Aurum Press would consider this Project Proposal for a contract leading to publication. [Don't include this first sentence.] I should indicate that the bulk of the book is complete, but in need of revision in places and some additional evidence is required. It is 150,000 words, and arranged in 34 chapters. If I were fortunate enough to be offered a contract I should be ready to submit a final manuscript by the end of 2011.

I should add that I am aiming to be in England for three weeks from XX July 2010. If there is any advantage in our meeting personally, I would be very pleased to meet you during that time. [Don't suggest this - it makes people nervous that you're going to turn up at their offices. You could say that you're planning to be in England for research purposes for that time - thus shoring up the research background to the novel - and let the publisher work it out for him/herself. If he/she wants to see you, they'll contact you.] I will be contactable via my email: [Put all contact details either at the start or end of the letter - again, they'll work it out if they want to contact you.]

Yours sincerely
Douglas N

Verdict: comprehensive but overly polite. This letter is an introduction from one potential business partner to another. Keep it businesslike and DON'T GROVEL. Publishers need authors, even if they like to pretend they don't. So while it's good to be polite, just don't be so polite that it sounds like you're begging them to take you seriously (which is what overpoliteness usually looks like). Your publishing and research background gives them plenty of reasons to take you seriously.

An article like this makes me feel less alone

Because it's all about me, obviously ...

The indomitable Nathan Bransford has written an interesting, deftly handled piece about rejection, e-publishing and related matters. Read it here:

And I'm getting to the NF queries!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The fiction conundrum

No question for this one, just me ranting a little.

It's always hard for me to find publishers for fiction, especially debut novels. It's especially hard at the moment, with book sales down, booksellers nervous and publishers also nervous about not just the economy but digital publishing too. Even novelists who have already been published are having a hard time if they haven't sold several thousand copies of their last novel.

The fundamental reason for this is that there is not perceived to be a robust market for Australian fiction. Australians don't like to buy Australian novels (although they love Australian non-fiction). There are, no doubt, a few reasons for this, and a big one is that publishers tend to favour literary fiction, which is not the type of fiction most people want to read. There is not a lot of expertise or interest in the sort of commercial fiction that sells in big numbers here when it's written by other people. I've written before that there can be snobbery about commercial fiction. And we see the big sales for overseas writers continue. This could be a form of cultural cringe too - we just don't believe Australian writers would be 'good enough'. The only endeavour in which Australians seem to think we're 'good enough' is sport.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of submissions I receive are for fiction. And I receive a lot of submissions, so that's a lot of fiction being written.

My question to those of you writing Australian fiction (for, if you're Australian and you're writing a novel, you're writing Australian fiction) is: when was the last time you bought an Australian novel, of any type? Have you bought one in the last year? Have you bought more than one? If you have not bought one or have bought only one, I guess we can't say that you're actively supporting Australian fiction, can we? As our economy works on supply and demand, no demand = no supply. No supply is rapidly where we are heading, which means that if you are writing fiction it's going to because harder and harder to get that novel published by conventional means.

If you've just realised that you don't buy Australian fiction, yet you write it and expect to get it published, you may be coming up with reasons: it's too expensive, there's nothing that I want to read or, perhaps, Australian novels aren't as good ... Yes, some novels are expensive (although what price someone's years of intellectual and creative toil?). I try to get first novels published at B formats, priced under $30, but I lose most of the time. It's frustrating. So I understand why you may not want to take a $35 risk on an unknown author. Why, then, would anyone want to take the same risk on you and your novel? And if you have a cultural cringe about Australian novels, why will yours escape someone else's cultural cringe?

So here's a suggestion. If you are writing Australian fiction and want to get published one day, the best thing you can is to buy Australian fiction and create a bigger demand for it than publishers currently think exists. Actively choose an Australian novel over a novel from another country. There are lots of great Australian novels out there. If you love genre fiction, buy Australian thrillers, romance or crime novels over books from other countries. Become a mindful book buyer and reader. We know that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. If you put more of your book-focused energy into Australian books, there will be more to move around. This not a woo-woo incense-burning statement - it's science.

My personal policy is that I buy Australian books and I usually borrow books from foreign writers from my local library or buy them as ebooks. I work in the Australian publishing industry and, even though I don't have a huge amount of disposable income to spend on books, this is one expense I will bear because it's important. Is it important to you too?

Countries of choice

I’m Australian (Sydney), but living in an undeveloped part of the world which is geographically much closer to the UK and the USA, respectively. I’ll spend my life between here and Australia (my husband and our work is here). I’ll probably be in Australia when my manuscript is complete, but back here for the long term.

I have completed two travel memoirs about travel/life abroad. (Now in the drawer for fresh eyes in a few months.) Meanwhile, I’ve begun working on a YA (12-18) novel. It’s not set in Australia and it has no Australian characters. (Australia has become a rogue state.) Real world setting, a few years in the future, slightly dystopian, earth is on the brink of irreversibly warming. No magic (other than youthful creativity), no fantasy (other than inside minds) and no vampires (other than the duplicitous corporations). Think mystery—four young teen characters from four continents (with entwined destinies that they discover in the course of their quest)—and global consequences if they fail.

Which location should I submit to? Would Australia be advisable—location-wise and subject-wise? (I feel slightly caught in no-man’s land on where to query.) Or would I be better to try elsewhere? Is querying an unfinished manuscript at first draft (as I am now) acceptable or should I just finish and then query an agent?

Well clearly you haven't read many of the older posts on this blog ... if you had, you'd know that I regularly say NO FIRST DRAFTS!!! UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!!! And an unfinished first draft is an even bigger sin. How can you know if you have something ready to submit until you (a) finish it and (b) read it over again to see what needs to be changed? Clearly you know about putting things aside, because your memoirs are marinating in a drawer somewhere ... So I'll overlook this little slip in regards to the YA manuscript and, thus, shall answer the rest of your question.

If your memoirs feature Australian settings, submit them in Australia (for the reasons discussed in the previous post). But the YA novel can be submitted anywhere. Of course, if you end up with an Australian agent and/or publisher for your memoirs then you'll no doubt want them to look at your YA too. You could always submit the YA first, overseas - I suggest to the US rather than the UK - and see how that goes. Just finish it first, and then revise it, and don't submit it until it's cooked.

Too down under to get out from underneath

Is it possible for a manuscript to be too Australian? Our humour can often leave foreigners scratching their heads, and a lot of our slang is unintelligible to anyone who hasn’t grown up here. I realise that I am being incredibly optimistic to even think that I could be published in Australia, let alone have the conundrum of changing things for an overseas audience, but is it possible? Would an overseas agent take one look and reject on the strength that it is too niche-ie?

In short: yes. How many Australian novels do you know of that have gone on to worldwide acclaim? It's not because Australians can't write; it's because we used to be a colony (or, rather, a collection of colonies and - YES, SOUTH AUSTRALIANS, I KNOW - some settlements). You don't see flotillas of New Zealand or South African - or, really, Canadian - writers setting the world on fire. The Canadians have a better chance because they can peer over the border to the US but considering how many outstandingly great writers they have, they're underrepresented on the world stage. As are writers from non-English-speaking countries. And I suspect the issue is twofold.

First, we are all considered to be 'in translation' because we are not writing in the dominant dialects of English - namely, American English and, erm, English English - nor are we considered to be writing stories that will be deemed to be of interest to Americans or Britons, and they have the largest English-language book markets in the world.

Second, as former colonies we are still trying to shake off our own and others' sense of us being 'less than'. The Australian, NZ, Canadian, Indian and South African publishing industries still fight regular battles to get rights to sell in their territories, because the British publishing companies just take them as their entitlement. They simply do not consider that we may want them. Canada has the worst time of it - as members of the Commonwealth they regularly suffer from the UK presuming they can have the rights for themselves, but American publishers want them too, although the Americans can be a bit more relaxed about it. It's a wonder Canadian publishers get anything done (they do, though, and very well).

So for an Australian author writing an Australian story, there's a very small chance they'll get published overseas, and it will probably be in genre fiction where readers are more interested in the story fitting the genre than in its setting. Young adult fiction also travels, because teenagers are less finicky about place than adults. But it's hard and dispiriting trying to get published overseas. If you're really intent on being published in the US or UK, it does make sense to not set your story in Australia and also to research the market for similar books in those territories.

As a point of interest I can tell you that, in my experience, the Americans are less likely to care about an author being from outside the US than the British care about a writer not being in Britain. But they still care about whether or not the story is too Australian for their readers and some things have been changed for some books (but not all) for US publication.

What counts in the query word count

When an agent asks for the first five pages of text to be sent with the query, are they referring to literally the first five pages, i.e. which would include the prologue, inspirational quote, etc. Or do they want only the first five pages starting at chapter one?

They mean the first five of whatever starts the story off. If your prologue is largely unrelated to the story that follows, don't count it. If it starts the story, count it - and send it. Generally I'd say send the prologue anyway, because that's where your story (whether fiction or non-fiction) starts and the agent wants to read from the start. We usually make our decisions very quickly - after you've been an agent or commissioning editor/publisher for a while, you start to know the signs - so we usually don't even need the first five pages to tell us if we want to read more. I've sometimes requested a full manuscript after reading the first two sentences. This does not mean that you should polish your first sentence, paragraph or page to within an inch of its life. You can either write what we want to read, or you can't, and we'll know that when we see it. Also bear in mind that everyone's taste is different. I've turned down manuscripts that went on to get published but I've never regretted turning them down - they weren't for me, and if I don't love something I can't get it published.

So that answer digressed from the original subject. Accordingly, I'll give you a short recap: take the five pages from where the story starts.

NF query letter update

Since I posted the request for non-fiction query letters I had only one letter in my inbox for a loooooooooong time. I fretted about whether or not to publish just the one letter but, lo, two more turned up overnight so I shall post the three letters either today or over the weekend. Many thanks to the original queryer for their patience.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Version control

I am the original neophyte when it comes to the whole writing/publishing thing. I had no idea that a query letter, synopsis or word count was required, and just happily wrote my manuscript, Googled a literary agent and sent her an email with an outline of the story.

Despite my stupidity, I was blessed with a request for the full manuscript by the literary agent, and duly emailed it. The major issue is, I was on my way out the door for an overseas holiday, and I have just checked what I sent her – it’s the wrong revision! Revision 2 out of 9 – pure unadulterated wombat droppings.

Would it be prudent to just slink into the sunset and forget it ever happened, or would it be better to email her again, apologise for my idiocy, and ask if she would like the correct version?

Australia is such a small industry by the sounds of things; to think that I burnt a fabulous chance has resulted in daily nausea and rocking in the corner. Please, please – what should I do? What are the protocols?

Do you want to get published or not? That's the only question you need to ask yourself. And if the answer is 'yes', then you'll email the agent, say, 'Oops, I made a mistake - if you haven't read the manuscript, please accept my apologies for sending the wrong version and please find the correct version attached.' You don't have to say anything about idiocy - you just say you sent the wrong version, because that's not an idiotic thing to do, it's a completely normal thing to do. Agents are humans too, and we make mistakes - and an agent certainly understands that sometimes you can send the wrong version of a document. I've done it. I'm sure other agents - and authors - have done it. It's not a catastrophe, it's just a mistake. Fix it.