The Query That Got Me My Agent

Hello, readers!

Yesterday the lovely EM Castellan featured me on her blog with a quick interview on how I wrote my query and advice for querying writers, plus of course the query that got my agent’s attention. It’s a great way for readers to see examples of queries that worked.

Since that’s often helpful for fellow writers, I’m going to post it here today with the query results so you have a bit more info. If you want to see my advice on querying and a few more questions, head over to see the rest of the interview! (And great queries from other authors.)

Here’s my query:

Dear (agent)

After (personal detail) I’m hoping you’ll be interested in my MS. HOW WE FALL, a YA suspense, is complete at 88,000 words.

Making out with your cousin has its pitfalls. Seventeen-year-old Jackie hasn’t been able to end her secret relationship with Marcus since he kissed her on a dare. He’s her best friend, which only makes it harder to quit their obsessive relationship.

Except she has to, because she’s falling in love with him. It’s not like it’s illegal to date her cousin, but her parents would never approve and the families would split up their multi-family home. Afraid of losing her best friend, she calls it off. She can’t lose Marcus right now: the cops just found her missing friend’s body.

Hurt and angry, Marcus starts dating the new girl, Sylvia. But with Sylvia comes a secret and a stranger. The stranger starts following Jackie everywhere she goes, and Marcus is nearly killed in a car accident. When Jackie finds out Sylvia lied about not knowing her murdered friend, Jackie’s certain Sylvia is connected to the man threatening Marcus.

The more Jackie finds out about Sylvia, the bigger the wedge between Jackie and Marcus, but she doesn’t have long to figure out what’s going on. She may have lost both her relationship and her friendship with Marcus, but she can’t lose him for real.

If she doesn’t act fast, Sylvia’s secrets may mean their bodies will be the next ones the police dig out of the Missouri woods.

(bio)

Thank you for your consideration,

Kate Brauning

(contact info)

Query stats:

Queries: 53

Requests: 23 (6 partials, 17 fulls)

That’s a pretty darn good request rate, but I do want to highlight that the agents who didn’t request often wrote back with a polite but definite pass. I’m pretty sure half the publishing community thinks I’m crazy now. 🙂

Another thing I think is important to highlight in this kind of post is that it is not your query that lands you an agent. It is your story and your writing. The query serves to catch the agent’s attention. You’ll reuse it in various ways down the road, and you want it to be as sharp as possible, but it’s really not the query that gets you an agent.

That said, the query is your foot in the door. Take it seriously, make it sing, make it reflect your story the best it can.

Have a question about querying? Ask in this post, and I’ll answer! I’ve read slush for a publishing house and a literary agency, and I edit so many hours a week I have trouble counting them– and I’m glad to help!

A Plotting Tool (With Good News for Your Query and Synopsis): Pixar Rule #4

I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist.  It’s been a ton of fun so far and is really exercising my blogging muscles! If you didn’t see my interview with author Mindee Arnett from yesterday, check it out in the right sidebar, because she’s brilliant and so is her book.

Here’s the 4th rule of storytelling from Pixar and Emma Coates:

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

This one is a bit different. It’s actually a formula for the spine of your story, and it’s a great one. Filling this out before you start writing your draft will help you think through where you want to go with your concept. The first two blanks establish character and situation. The 3rd is the initial conflict- bam, your protagonist has a problem. This problem intensifies and the stakes leap higher with 4 and 5. One of those should probably even be a twist we didn’t see coming. Finally, the main characters hit the do-or-die moment. Of course, you still need to fill in your resolution.

This kind of 6-sentence synopsis is a great writing tool. Fill it out before you start writing- just one sentence for each step.  (To follow my own advice, I’m going to sit down and fill this out for THE BALLAD OF DINAH CALDWELL today, so why not do it with me?) Then revise it as you draft the first half, and revise again when you finish. Not only will this help the plot stay focused, avoid tangents, and progress at a good pace, but when you’re done, you will have your synopsis basically written. This is a fantastic starting point for both your synopsis and your query. Turn each sentence into a paragraph for the synopsis, and that’s a great start. Use the establishing and main conflict sections of the 6-sentence outline plus a few killer developing details, and you’ll have the bones of a query!

If you want to see a great article that expands each of these 6 ideas and adds in the resolution, go here.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!

3 Ways to Set Yourself Apart in the Slush

I’ve been considering writing a post for a while on common issues I see in submissions, and I’m seeing enough of the same things coming up that I think that might make a great topic. If you’ve been reading agent blogs or following writers on Twitter, you probably know to avoid super common openings in your novel- alarm clocks ringing, the main character waking up, an action scene before we’ve been given a reason to care, etc. Beyond those things, there are several elements of writing itself that makes me question the submission and occasionally stop reading.

1) Lack of contractions. I see this a lot in SF/F/paranormal writing. More formal phrasing is often the first route writers take when they want to make an angel/vampire/immortal of any kind sound as if s/he is from another culture. This idea might have worked for the first few who did it, and it still might work if done extraordinarily well, but it’s such a common device now that I expect it, so it isn’t interesting anymore. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes the writing stilted. Even if your character is from another culture, unless she’s the Dowager Countess, it doesn’t work. Try saying the lines out loud yourself; if it sounds weird, it reads weird. It pulls me out of the story and makes it that much harder to catch my attention.

2) Modifier overload. This has to be one of the most common things I write in reader reports. Adjectives and adverbs stand out; be choosy. An author friend of mine told me her agent says she gets ten adverbs per novel. That’s how choosy you should be. Now, if you’re that choosy, maybe you can do more than ten. The point is, I get the distinct feeling a lot of writers aren’t actually aware of how many they’re using. And you have to be. If using words is going to be your career, you have to be aware. Take just your first page and highlight how many adverbs and adjectives are on that page. I frequently see 15+ modifiers on the first page. Of course, the commonly advised solution is to delete the modifier and use stronger nouns and verbs- “china” instead of “plate”, or “hurtle” instead of “run.” I like to keep in mind the principle of “detail that matters.” If it doesn’t matter that the flowers are pink, don’t tell me. They’ll show up as a color in my imagination even if you don’t supply one. But if the tangle of the stems and the withered leaves matter as insight about the protagonist, then by all means, use it. Just be aware, and be intentional.

3) Common phrasing. This is a little more abstract of a concept, but it’s easy to identify in a manuscript. When I read about bright sunny days, fear creeping over someone, half-smiles turning up a corner of someone’s mouth, etc., I get bored because I’ve seen all these things too many times. Cliches might be a part of this, but it’s more just ordinary words being used in an unimaginative way. When I read, I want to see a new perspective on something. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent example of breaking away from the ordinary in showing the main character’s thoughts. Not everyone should go so far as to strike out portions of the text, but I do at least want to think, “hey, this writer sees that man’s shoes a little differently than most people would” or “I’d never thought of describing a street like that.” So, I want to see more language that shows unique thought.

When I see a writer who doesn’t have these struggles, I know he is both aware and intentional with his writing. That fact alone helps the submission grab my attention.

Publishing Terms and Abbreviations

 

Below is a list of common terms and abbreviations you might see as you read my posts or other publishing blogs.

Agent: Literary agents are professionals who represent an author’s career. The most well-known tasks an agent performs are selling the writer’s MS to a publishing house and negotiating the contract. Agents do much more than this, however.

CP: critique partner. Writers who critique each other’s work. These can be great relationships to establish because of the encouragement, resources, and support writers receive from each other.

Crit: critique. An evaluation that aims for showing both the strong and weak elements of a MS. Critiques from other writers, especially authors and agents, can be a great way for writers to improve their writing.

Editor: Editors acquire books for their house to publish and help polish the work before publication. Like agents, they do much more than this as well.

Form rejection: A copy-pasted rejection from an agent to a writer who queried. Most of the time this is what writers will receive. Most agents receive 100+ queries a week (I’ve seen some agents report 800+), so personal responses are often impossible.

MG: middle grade. Writing written for middle grade readers and adhering to certain age group conventions.

MS: manuscript. An unpublished work of fiction or nonfiction.

MSS: plural of MS.

NA: new adult. Characters and plotlines revolve around situations common to the 19-early twenties age group. This category of fiction is just getting started and most agents and editors don’t recognize it yet because booksellers don’t have a system in place to sell NA works. A good-sized community is advocating for NA to become established, however.

Personalized rejection: A rejection from an agent to a writer who queried, but some element of the letter is personal. A line or two complimenting the work but explaining why it’s not right for the agent may be included. This is an encouraging compliment from the agent, and is actually a good thing to receive.

Pitch: A brief description of a manuscript highlighting the main elements in a way that makes others want to read more. Contests sometimes ask for a 1, 2, or 3-sentence pitch. Writers should have one ready for contests and conferences.

Query letter: A letter, often a professional email, that writers send to agents asking them to consider them for representation. The letter includes specific details about the MS the author has written and relevant credentials the writer may have. Some agents want 5 or 10 pages and/or a synopsis included as well. Conventions for queries are very particular.

R&R(or R/R) Revise and resubmit. The request from an agent or editor to have the writer make certain changes to the manuscript and then resubmit the work for consideration. These are common, and don’t necessarily mean the writing was poor. The agent’s current list of titles, market trends, and the writing itself may be reasons for R&Rs.

Request: An agent (or sometimes editor) requests to see a certain number of pages of a writer’s manuscript. These can be “partials”-generally 30, 50, or 100 pages- or else “fulls”- the entire manuscript. Usually agents request a partial first and then request a full if they are considering representing the writer. A request is a BIG deal, particularly if it’s a full.

Synopsis: A 1-2 page summary that reveals the main elements of the MS.

Twitter pitch: A pitch designed for Twitter contests. 140 characters or less.

WIP: work in progress. The manuscript an author is currently writing.

YA: young adult. Writing intended for a teenage audience, but with tremendous crossover appeal to adults. Publishers Weekly reported this month that 55% of all YA books are purchased by adult buyers, and 78% of the time, those books are for themselves.

Have you heard any other terms you’d like to know more about? Ask in the comments- I’ll answer!

List of Agent Blogs and Interviews

A writer’s job is to read, read, read. Read fiction. Read nonfiction for research and nonfiction on your craft. Read your manscript aloud. Read publishing industry news. Read more fiction- bestsellers, books in your genre, and books nothing like your own. Read until your eyes cross. Read, read, read.

One of the most important things for aspiring authors to read is agent blogs. Whether you are querying agents, trying to break into the publishing business, or simply learning more about the world of books, agent blogs are an absolutely necessary source of information. During my plunge into querying agents, I’ve painstakingly divested the internet of its most valuable resource (don’t argue with me on that descriptor): agent blogs.

Blog posts from industry professionals contain the personal details you need to make your queries stand out, the contests that will give you a leg up, and the industry knowledge that will help jump start your writing career.

Actively Maintained Agent Blogs

Thoughts from a Literary Agent: blog from Marisa Corvisiero.

The New Literary Agents– blog of Kae Tienstra and her business partner, Jon.

Chip’s Blog: Blog of MacGregor Literary.

Ask a Literary Agent: Blog from Noah Lukeman, president of Lukeman Literary and author of multiple books on writing queries and fiction.

Carly Watters: Blog of literary agent Carly Watters. Great post from July 12 on making your query stand out in the slush pile.

Bookalicious– blog of agent and top YA book blogger Pam van Hylckama Vlieg.

Mandy Hubbard: author and agent with D4EO Literary.

LaVie en Prose: blog of Meredith Barnes, ex-literary agent now working in digital marketing for Soho Press.

Rapid-Progressive: The blog of Victoria Marini, agent with Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency.

New Leaf Literary: The blog of a brand-new agency headed by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

This Literary Life: The stylish and thought-provoking blog of Bree Ogden, agent with D4EO Literary Agency.

Magical Words: Featuring posts on helpful topics by several literary agents and published authors.

Confessions: Posts by agent Suzie Townsend.

Janet Reid, Literary Agent: Posts by agent Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management. This blog in particular contains a wealth of information and blunt advice for writers. Janet has also been known to host contests.

Query Shark: Janet Reid, master shark of the query waters, also maintains this blog where she dices queries to bits. Enter yours, if you dare! Reading the archives is one of the most entertaining and alarming things you’ll do as a writer.

Pub Rants: Maintained by agent Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency. Personal, informative posts about all things literary.

Rachelle Gardner: Posts by Rachelle with Books and Such Literary Agency. Many of these posts contain enormously helpful information on the daily life of a successful author- taxes, social media, and the changing publishing landscape are all covered.

Coffee. Tea. And Literary: Blog of the Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation.  Contests are occasionally run here as well.

Kathleen Ortiz: Agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation.

Glass Cases: Blog of the fabulous agent Sarah LaPolla with Curtis Brown, Ltd., featuring short stories, flash fiction, and memoir and novel excerpts from readers.

dhs liter show + tell: The wide-ranging blog of DHS Literary/Inkwell Management.

DGLM: Blog maintained by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. Frequent posts revealing the world of publishing and writing in valuable detail.

Full Circle Literary: Blog of Full Circle Literary, with archives going back to 2006.

Et in arcaedia, ego. Blog of Jennifer Jackson, powerhouse agent and Vice President of Donald Maass Literary Agency. Frequent “query wars” reports  and contests. Archives back to 2003.

The Knight Agency: Blog of The Knight Agency- fantastic recent post on preparing your manuscript for submission.

Lucienne Diver’s Drivel: News, advice, and entertainment from author, agent, and superhero Lucienne Diver.

Agent Savant: “publishing morsels from Laurie McLean.”

Agent in the Middle: posts by RT-award-winning literary agent Lori Perkins.

KT Literary: blog from “shoe-obsessed superagent Daphne Unfeasible.” Immensely informative peeks into her query pile included.

Call My Agent!: Blog from Australian “Agent Sydney.” Emailed questions will be answered in a blog post.

Writing and Rambling- A Literary Agent’s Industry Musings: posts by Nephele Tempest.

Fresh Books, Inc.: infrequent but substantial posts from Fresh Books literary agent and founder Matt Wagner.

All that’s new(s) from A to Z: posts from The Zack Company, Inc.

Ask the Agent: Posts from Andy Ross.

Kidlit: Blog from YA and children’s lit agent Mary Kole.

The Forest for the Trees: Maintained by Betsy Lerner- author, ex-editor and agent with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.

Between the Lines: Business Blog of Books and Such Literary Agency

Jennifer Represents: the blog of Jennifer Laughran, children’s and YA fiction agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Jill Corcoran Books: posts from Jill Corcoran, children’s book agent with Herman Agency.

Agent Incite: Posts from agent Mike Kabongo

Red Sofa Literary: Red Sofa’s agency blog. Eclectic industry news.

Babbles from Scott Eagan: posts from Scott Eagan from Greyhaus Literary Agency. Frank and unique presentations of industry news and advice.

Slush Pile Hell: “one grumpy literary agent, a sea of query fails, and other publishing nonsense.” Sometimes it helps to see what not to do in your query.

The Steve Laube Agency:  Browse it and learn from it- you’ll love it. Fantastic “News You Can Use” feature.

Upstart Crow Literary: new book announcements, advice on getting published, and more.

Navigating the Slush Pile: “Agent and book lover discovers the world of publishing one fast paced, eye opening step at a time, armed with only a handful of books and an English Lit Degree.” Posts by Vickie Motter, agent with Andrea Hurst Literary Management.

Inactive Blogs

BookEnds, LLC- A Literary Agency: Recently inactive, but chock-full of must-read posts on submissions, query letter samples, and pitch lines.

Fox Literary: Blog of Diana Fox of boutique agency Fox Literary.

Miss Snark, the literary agent: Inactive since 2007, but still a valuable resource.

Deep, Deep Thoughts: informative posts from John Jarrold of John Jarrold Literary Agency.

B.G. Literary: inactive blog of Barry Goldblatt Literary.

The Rejecter: Blog of a super-secret agent. See if you can find out who it is! Contains fantastic archives going back to 2006.

Lyons Literary LLC: “tips and quips on publishing from a literary agent,” Jonathan Lyons, formerly of Curtin Brown, Ltd., and McIntosh & Otis, Inc.

A Gent’s Outlook: inactive since 2007, but still valuable archives.

Blogs Interviewing Agents

Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog featuring new agent alerts, “How I Got Published” stories, conference/event spotlights, and author interviews.

Hunger Mountain: The VCFA journal of the arts Listed by interview type, the archives contain interviews with authors and agents.

Algonkian Writer Classes: Online Workshops and National Conferences for Agents: Great list of interviews with well-known agents.

Stacey O’Neale: Writer, Publicist, Superhero.  Most of these interviews are very recent and therefore most likely to contain accurate information.

Agent Advice: “a series of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.”

Literary Rambles: “spotlighting children’s book authors, agents, and publishing.” The agent spotlights are invaluable for personalizing your query letter.

Mother. Write. (Repeat.) Long list of agent interviews. Be sure to check out the main page of this blog for “how I got my agent” stories, contests, and more.

YA Highway: Writers hosting contests, introducing agents, and collecting publishing news. Fantastic resource.

Comment to let me know what you think of these! I’d love to hear any agent-related blogs you follow. I’ll add them to the list! As always, thanks for reading.