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What’s Behind Your Query Letter?

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?

 

In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.

The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.

But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.

Find Your Man

When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.

When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.

Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.

What’s Behind the Curtain

Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.

  • A hook: an opening scene that presents a problem for your protagonist
  • A driving need for your protagonist
  • A back story that may be hidden but erupts at just the right times to explain certain moments—without sounding like you’re explaining. Author and coach Kristen Lamb talks about The Wound and she will help you see why is matters so much. Round out your character till you know what’s hurt them!
  • A heady, healthy pace rooted in A Problem to Solve. If you’re writing a novel that’s one suited to of the commercial genres, think of your story this way.
  • A plot with a satisfying arc—catalyst and rising action, crisis, falling action, and resolution (see above)
  • Characters who intrigue—worthy companions for the reader’s journey
  • Voice—the unique tone and lilt and volume and features of the storyteller’s angle on the world
  • Just-right descriptions—not too wordy, not present to impress but present to seal an image in the brain

In It to Win It?

A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?

No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

How a Query Can Help You Write Your Novel

When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.

Butterfly boots by Justin. Lyn Fairchild Hawks' favorite boots.

These boots are made for pitchin’–in all kinds of weather.

A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.

What have you learned about your novel while writing your query? Share below!

Story in a Nutshell

Questions you solve when writing the query:

  • Does my story have an arc that satisfies the reader?
  • Does my story have stakes?
  • Does my hero transform?

When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.

Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.

The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.

Appreciate that Audience

You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?

Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?

Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.

I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

 

 

Minerva Mae Would Like to Be Heard

Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.

Enjoy!

 

Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,

I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.

9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.paper-pen2

This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.

I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).

I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.

Best,

Lyn Fairchild Hawks

 

How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.

I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.

I can’t wait to tell Di.

A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.

 

Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

Image found here

A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”? 

When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work–women’s and YA? Is this more women’s fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women’s fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be–you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What’s your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?


Sweet or Sour? Opinions Vary Widely

“Writing is a profession for talented, imaginative, sensitive Gila monsters (I say this because good writers don’t give up, and legend claims that when a Gila monster clamps its jaws on something it won’t let go.)”

— Mary Beth Parker, founder of the Dana Awards

So is that why my jaws are aching? I’ve clamped down pretty hard lately.

I have an email inbox full of rejections for various manuscripts. Because I’m a fanatical optimist, I’m determined to find the sweet in the sour (actually, sweet and sour is a GREAT combination, if you’ve ever been obsessed with sour gummy worms).

The sweet: in between ten rejections here, thirty there, I’ve had at least one publishing success every year for a while now.

The sour: the rejections still seem to pour in like lava.

In the sour moments, kind agents will speak with regret: “I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work. However, opinions vary considerably in this business…”

Ah! The sweet! Let me cling to “opinions vary considerably.” So, is Agent X saying she could be wrong?

The sour side of my brain says, “Ha, keep deluding yourself.”

More sour comes with Agent A’s fear: “We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list.” I’m afraid, too: that my project ain’t right for anyone’s.

More regret: “…I regret I wouldn’t be the best match in this instance.” Oooh, flashbacks to online dating and Match.com. Ugh: fade to black. But wait, sweet: I met my fabulous husband online.

More on the fact that the agents could be wrong, which I’m not sure if is sweet or sour: “I regret to say that I don’t feel I am the most appropriate agent for your work. Considering the subjective nature of the business, I hope that you will find someone who feels differently, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.”

Form, form, form letters: I’ve given them out many times too as I turn away applicants for employment. How’s it feel now, Hawks, huh? Sour, sour, sour.

You’ve got to appreciate when agents get terse to the point of not even punctuating the final sentence:

“Not for us, thanks. Better luck elsewhere”

I could bemoan the fact I’m not worth an additional period, or, I could look at the sweet fact that a) I got an answer (many agents don’t answer at all) and b) The note is concisely kind.

After a certain amount of rejections, one starts seeing things. “This certainly sounds like an original and compelling premise for a novel, but I’m sorry to say it’s just not quite the right match for my list at this time.” Wow! He said “original”! He said “compelling”! Wow!

Hahahhahahaha. Lyn, everyone says that. You have, too–you’ve seen brilliant ideas in many a student manuscript while knowing the piece was many moons from completion.

“Please do not take this rejection as a comment on your writing ability.” This is said while also saying, “Given the large amount of submissions I receive, I can only properly represent material that greatly excites or interests me.”

No great excitement or interest, then. I do understand.

I can’t help but end on sweet. It’s my nature, to cling to the candy moments.

“You write very well, and I’m intrigued by the concept, but–is the entire work told through journal entries? I confess that’s not a format I connect with; that said, it sounds like you have a lot of good material, and I do think you should continue writing and sending
this out.”

This one I will attach to my monitor.

Mary Beth Parker, Dana Awards founder, says in “How We Started”:

I’ve learned a heartening but frightening thing in managing the Dana Awards: that there are thousands of excellent writers out there…Which is heartening for the sake of literature, but frightening because of the sheer numbers of good writers looking for recognition–so much competition for each one of us, and so many people who deserve notice but aren’t getting it.

Now that’s a truth both sweet and sour. That’s my story for now, and I’m sticking to it.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation…Or Not

If I mention this often enough will you stop doing it?

DO NOT PUT YOUR ADDRESS AT THE TOP OF AN EMAIL QUERY.

If I see this in a letter addressed to the Query Shark, your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero. If I see it, you haven’t read the archives. Or you read the archives and didn’t pay attention. I’ve mentioned this enough times that I’m starting long past boring myself.

Learn it. Know it. Follow the damn directions.

— Query Shark, Query #168

I doubt English teachers assign that back-to-school essay anymore, or, if they do, let’s hope they’ve found more inventive titles. “What I Did…” does carry a whiff of nostalgia for me, bringing back my teen years, when all I had to do was watch those newfangled MTV videos or follow my romantic heroes on The Guiding Light; maybe meet my friends at the pool with SPF 8 rather than 30+ slathered on my skin; dream about boys for hours; or read, read, read. All that free time…In a manuscript I’m reviewing, the teen narrator gets up one Saturday morning, eats a waffle her dad makes, and goes back to bed–to read. Anyone miss that?

What I’ve done on my summer vacation is write queries, edit queries, learn about agents, and query agents–and doing this whenever I’m not revising my novel, getting feedback from kind readers and writing colleagues, or giving feedback. Somewhere in this frenzy, I make time to read. While the learning process is no vacation, there’s something invigorating in the journey. A steep learning curve will keep you wide awake.

First, good news: there are many agents out there. For those who think a few rejections signal the demise of their writing career, hold on. Agents exist who want unsolicited submissions; start your search on QueryTracker. It’s free and it’s inspiring the number of names returned to you.

I’m amazed at how easy the Internet makes it to find agents, learn their submission guidelines, and send a query. Today, there’s no excuse for misspelling a name when you can copy and paste or sending too many or too little pages when they specify exactly what they want, such as “NO ATTACHMENTS, EVER.” Basic courtesy aside, the spam blockers, viruses, and different operating systems of the world demand such rules. Do you want your email to arrive or not? Perhaps it’s the English teacher in me who always had a bulleted list of guidelines for her students, but I get this system, 100%, and I follow the rules. I don’t mind the time it takes; it’s a sign of respect as you knock on the door, pretty much like dressing up for an interview.

While I might have the formatting and etiquette down, I’m still mastering the art of the query. That’s a journey in itself, learning how to capture not only the substance but the spirit of your novel and then to sell it with style.

I’m also impressed with how many agents take the time to educate writers. At our Googling fingertips is a university course in “how to write a query”: everywhere, tips from agents who blog weekly, daily, with concrete examples of what to do and not to do. If you don’t already follow Rachelle Gardner or Nathan Bransford, do. Then there’s Janet Reid’s Query Shark: she puts your query through boot camp. I’m working up the courage to enlist, and just that thought has me trying draft #10? #15? of my mine. I note that despite her drill instructor MO, she is patient with the very, very weak queries that keep streaming her way like minnows eager to be eaten.

I’m also discovering my own particular process. I skim the QueryTracker profile of an agent, then the one at the agency site; I search for interviews with the agent, such as Chuck Sambuchino’s blog, Guide to Literary Agents. I want reasons to submit, and I need to get a feeling this person could be a good fit. That research fuels the final paragraph of each query, a two-sentence summary of why I’m submitting to this particular agent.

One of my writing colleagues, who has a fabulous blog of his Argentinian Fulbright adventures and a superb YA novel he’s querying, gave me this response when I asked how many agents to query and how many rejections should freak me out:

“This is the typical story I hear: 100 queries sent, 5 partials requested, 2 fulls, major revisions requested, then an offer of rep. It’s a long process and if we’re lucky an agent will offer some advice which makes the book better.”

I won’t say how many I’ve sent, but a report on the specifics of agent responses is coming soon. I will say my colleague’s concluding line sums up the attitude one must have to make it through: expect the process to take a good while, and appreciate the feedback you do get.

Some way to spend a summer vacation! I won’t lie: I did go off the grid for about 8 days–no writing, no querying, no work–and it was glorious. But when that true vacation ended, I returned gladly back to the grind. Sometimes it’s the sweaty, complicated work that makes you feel life force at its strongest. It’s fraught with as much hope as disappointment, either of which will get me up o’ mornings either mad as hell or driven as can be.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Note these are mixed-age prompts this week.

1. Complete one of these sentences:
–This has been the summer of my content/my discontent…
–In hot weather, I…
–Summer makes me…
2. What is your favorite season of the year? Why?
3. What was your worst vacation, ever?
4. Describe summer using one sound, one color, one smell, one shape, and one taste.
5. What is the sum of summer?
6. Are you a better person in summer or winter? Why?
7. What’s the hardest work you’ve ever done in a summer?

The Hero’s Journey, Part 3: Sloggin’ Through the Slush

“…Genre problems–more accurately, problems with your work being the right fit for the agency–weigh in at 33 percent. This is the number-one reason for form rejection letters from our agency. Keep in mind that this means a third of your competition is eliminated immediately–and that it’s an area that, with a little research, is completely within your control.”

“Life of Pie,” Getting Past the Gatekeeper

One of the agents I queried reported in his blog he received 298 queries the week I queried him.
He shares that over 20% of those queries had generic salutations, ranging from “To Whom it May Concern” to “Dear Agent.”

Another agent blogs about the fact 33% of the queries submitted are the wrong genre for the agency. That means she must slog through not just my query but ones pushing, I assume, romance? chick lit? sci fi? she did not request.

I figured when I started this journey there could be such spam in the mix of slush wherein my queries land. Query wisdom teaches me to think about my audience, and these reports from agents confirm that and it also doesn’t hurt to think about the competition auditioning alongside me. These agents have a ton of client advocacy and manuscript reading to do besides man the inbox, and yet they must still wade through this type of dross o’mornings. So what does that mean for my letter?

a) my query must pop — caffeinate the overworked eyeballs;

b) my query could be A+, but just like those A+ writers I once graded, if you appear at the bottom of the pile, there ain’t nothing that looks good to a reader too exhausted to care. There was a reason I didn’t grade more than 15 papers in a sitting; it wasn’t fair to number 16, 17, and 18, what my mood might do to that poor child’s grade. English teachers, like agents, grade in between negotiating, teaching, planning, advocating, disciplining, and coaching.

It’s useless to rail against competitors. It doesn’t matter what they write; just write yours better, no matter where it hides in the slush. So I’ve made a note to self, and here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve revised my queries.

1) Don’t sound cocky. You may THINK you don’t, but revisit every line asking if you’re making some kind of claim that could be construed as brash if not ridonkulous.

2) Don’t try to be clever if you’re not naturally a comedian. I am not.

3) Know thy conflict. Beware the dangers of grocery listing the “cool happenings” in your story. Tell the story in terms of goals and obstacles. Write that back-cover blurb that makes you fork the money over.

I’m also not going to rail against agents for being horribly unfair gatekeepers. (By the way, you know I love the hero’s journey image at this agent’s blog.) The right fit with the right advocate is down that yellow brick road, but who knows how many twists, turns, and gnarly flora and fauna one must dodge, only to find that at the end, the answer was within. Remember, the Fab Four obsessed with seeing the Wizard only had to look within to find what they were lacking. It wasn’t up to the Wizard at all.

Back to that query.

Filed Under: query letters, rejection, revising  

The Hero’s Journey, Part 2: SCARY!!!

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

— C.S. Lewis

Querying is fearsome, daunting, nerve wracking…but it’s also one of those times when you feel most alive.

On the hero’s journey, it’s that time when the heroine bushwhacks through the wilderness, dodges possum critters and explosions in the fire swamp, and resolves that SHE WILL MAKE IT THROUGH NO MATTER WHAT.

Okay, so I’m a little dramatic. This is the same granddaughter who was just musing on how easy she has it compared to her grandmother. Like queries are going to be the death of me!

You can make all kinds of monsters in your mind, though. You can picture the disdainful agent at the other end of your email, not only too busy to respond but so not taken with your opening paragraph. You can picture him fed to the gills with horrible queries, great queries, and exciting bestseller projects that prove your story has already been said a million times and said much better.

Why must there be all this suspense and drama? Why can’t I be Zen? I suppose if I didn’t feel, I wouldn’t cry over my main character or feel compelled to tell her story. I suppose I’d be in some other job like counseling or diplomacy. I’d be the rock others clung to in crisis.

Instead, I, the writer, thrive on living through others’ crises. I am the voyeur who sniffs at their pain and tears up and swears this story has to be told. I can’t sleep at night for everyone’s stories running through my head, and I rise before dawn to get them down.

My novel is unique. Trust in that, as I brush off ticks, spiders, and scorpions; as I dodge quicksand and those weird possum creatures (what the heck were they in The Princess Bride???); as I swallow the nausea of being foolhardy enough to venture forward into this dark, dark forest with only a headlamp showing three feet ahead.

Ah, the drama. Only, there really were ticks on me this week, thanks to the swampy climes of Carolina. I’ll not take that as a sign of anything save parasites trying to hang on for the same dear life. I live for this writing thang, and querying is part of the deal. Get over it.

Filed Under: query letters  

How to Get Published: The Hero’s Journey, Part 1

“What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”

Joseph Campbell

While the manuscript breathes in the hands of kind and thoughtful readers, I’d like to invite all my friends to follow me on this hair-raising adventure we’ll call “Getting Published.”

The hero’s journey involves many stages, according to Joseph Campbell. And as a teacher who publishes how-to-write curriculum, I sure as heck better follow the stages of writing I preach.

First, the Call to Adventure. Like Dorothy walking out of the farmhouse door into Munchkin Land, or Luke leaving the burnt home of his aunt and uncle to seek revenge, I’ve walked through the door of my office into the wild world bearing a third draft of my manuscript. And lo, I have said, “Um, somebody read this, please?”

While some review the manuscript, I seek the guide who will help me get published– that Meeting with the Mentor, AKA, the agent.

Now, if I were Luke, Obi-Wan might just manifest, like it or not, and then I could dither around, refuse him, and finally acquiesce to my destiny. Or if I were Dorothy, I could stumble out of my house and happen on Glinda, who’d appear in a cotton-candy bubble with a sweet pair of ruby slippers. All I’d need were those and a kiss for the yellow brick road ahead. But in my case, I need to hunt down my Obi-Wan, that agent who will shepherd me through the dark and light sides of publishing.

So how does that magical meeting happen?

It’s the ugly out-takes nobody wants on film. Hours of research. Hours of figuring out whether this person I’m querying is the right fit; hours taking copious notes on submission guidelines. Surfing the agent’s blog and profile so I don’t make the mistakes of online dating: pursuing a potential match based on a picture or a few stray details. Writing multiple drafts of a query. Running those queries by people I trust.

Did you know the writing life was this glamorous?

Then, when the moment is right and the Force most active, I shall click “Send” and query a few agents at a time. Then wait. Then query my next list. And so on. (Did I mention this could take a while.)

Apparently, there are many writers out there who skip all these rules. They spam a whole slew of potential agents simultaneously when they haven’t even finished Draft #1. They ignore the very clear and specific guidelines on agents’ web sites. They misspell the agent’s name, they send bad pictures of their pets, they dangle some obscene participles, and perhaps worst of all, refrain from stating why this particular agent is the one being queried. Because apparently, in people’s lust for stardom, any agent will do.

I guess it takes all kinds to make up that pool of wannabes. Aspiring writers include that percentage who are like the recent college grad interviewing with a company. Less than 24 hours after his interview, he texts, DID I GET THE JOB? LMK. Agents are not your buds, your Facebook friends, your 24-7 advisors. They’re Obi-Wan stature. We must respect them.

Some would argue I don’t need a mentor, that this is the age of self-publishing and DIY. For some that process no doubt works, but not for me. This heroine needs a companion for the ride, a sage who knows both market and publishers. This heroine wants truth that a stranger, soon to become colleague, will tell her. Obi-Wan wasn’t Luke’s buddy, and neither was Glinda. We eventually have to listen to mentors, like their advice or not.

Dear Future Mentor: I promise I won’t be whiny like Luke, nor as skittish as Dorothy. I’m eager to test that light saber and don those ruby slippers. I’ll show you my mettle by querying by your rules, and I’ll show you my trust by believing in the Force that manifested this manuscript will also manifest You.

I know you’re out there.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Prompts, All Ages:
— What is the longest journey you have ever taken? Where did you go? Why? What made the trip long? What are your strongest memories of that trip?
— How is writing like a journey for you? Or, how is writing not like a journey for you? What’s it like instead?
— Have you ever wanted to write something that was so exciting to think about, you felt as if you were entering another world? What was that writing project? If you haven’t had that experience with writing, what other activity do you do that gives you feelings of adventure, escape, magic, and power?
— Who has been your best writing mentor — whether a favorite author, a friend/family member/teacher, or someone else? How did the person mentor you? What was that mentor’s special gift?
— You are recording a message for people hundreds of years from now. You must explain to future generations why the people of this year and this century engaged in the art of writing. Why do people writing? Why does today’s writing matter?

Query Me This


“Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.”

— Nicholas Sparks

Today’s Word Count for the Novel: 261,363. 466 words gone.

Page Count for the Novel: 928 (I had chapters beginning on separate pages, and I want to see what the true page count is, not including pages with only one line on them.)

When is a writer ready to query? It’s both an intuitive and a logistical decision, a balancing of your mind and heart’s call, that gut feeling, against the reality of those picked-at pages. In what I would call my serious sixth year of writing this novel and in my third draft, I write query letters as a way to focus my goals for my novel. I am not far from sending one off, as I’m on draft #8 of one particular query letter. Researching my potential future agents and editors as been a way to stay motivated and keep myself on track.

On Saturday, October 25, The Raleigh Write 2 Publish Meetup Group held a Q & A session with Charlotte agent Sally Hill McMillan (literary fiction, women’s, inspirational, nonfiction) and editor Chuck Adams of Algonquin (Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants one of his well-known books). Here’s what I learned:

About the business: the publishing industry does not employ a diverse group of people, therefore what gets published is limited by the perspective of those running the business. The profession pays poorly, so the people who are drawn to it tend to be northeastern, white, prep school graduates with families that can afford to work in publishing. A gifted Latino coming out of college with student loans can’t get very far on the salaries paid in publishing.

Algonquin – owned by Workman – is a New York publisher. The Chapel Hill office is a “façade,” he jokes. Algonquin doesn’t take on any book that it doesn’t believe couldn’t sell 50,000 copies. An acquisitions editor has to ask, Does this book have a broad enough readership? Most first novels sell less than 5,000 copies. Why? Publishers don’t have advertising budgets to push these books further.

About an editor’s role: Chuck Adams said he has a knack for trying to keep people calm, which helps in the process of reworking a novel. He says he’s a line editor –dogged, chipping away word by word — but not a conceptual thinker when it comes to solving plot problems and getting past blocks. Some editors are great for that. He joked that some acquisitions editors are not good line editors, but they give good lunch. He approaches everything as a reader. When something in the manuscript makes him stop – a word, an action – he makes a mark. The really good authors listen to what he says but not everything. Half the time he’s right, and half the time he’s wrong. An author needs to speak up when she’s sure that her character wouldn’t take the suggested action or speak a certain way. He says that as an editor you’re there to guide and facilitate, but it’s not your manuscript. Your name doesn’t get put on the book.

Adams noted that today there is too much emphasis on a manuscript coming in perfect. Big houses such as Bantam don’t give a manuscript detailed attention, since houses can’t afford to hire line editors for four months. More and more authors rely on agents or free lance editors for that kind of help. McMillan suggested that if you use an editor before submitting to her, don’t let her know: she wants to see what you can do without an editor. She’s looking toward your future as someone capable of multiple publications, not someone whose work needs serious book-doctoring every time. (I’ve learned firsthand the perils of handing your baby over to an ill-qualified book doctor with little to tell me and much to charge me.)

About the role of an agent: McMillan says that a good agent works like the diplomatic middle child, the moderator between publisher and author. She asks, What can I do to make this relationship smooth? McMillan says she tries to stay in the loop of what’s happening in the book’s production. If her client gets into an adversarial relationship with the publisher, it has an effect on her. So an agent needs to bring the skills of problem solving, intuiting, and question asking to the relationship. Her answer came in response to, “How do you balance the relationship between author and publisher?” – and this might be a good one to ask when interviewing agents.

About your manuscript: Both McMillan and Adams say they take notice if voice and energy are present. For McMillan, it could be a quirkiness, a unique voice still bearing a universality that speaks to her. As she reads, she’s asking, Can I identify with this main character in the first few pages? She said that as a reader she wants to be compelled to read till very end—not just the first 50-60 pages. She wants to think, “I love this character and I want her to work these problems out.”

Adams’s question while reading is, Is this is a big enough story that will make me enjoy myself the whole trip? He says he doesn’t finish the great majority of manuscripts because by page 30 they run out of steam. He’s looking for raw talent and doesn’t mind the kind of errors that are “fixable.” He loves to work with first-time authors. He says he loves his job because it’s like “falling in love” again and again when you discover that great new manuscript.

Both mentioned poor grammar and mechanics (occurring at a rate of increasing frequency nowadays) as big red flags. Such errors usually give away the age of the author, Adams says, but more importantly, speak to the lack of care invested in a manuscript.

About querying: Adams does look at slush e-mail as does McMillan, but don’t expect an answer. He shepherds about five books a year, while Algonquin as a whole juggles about 20. Therefore his usual response must be a “no.” Algonquin is a publisher that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts, and you can expect your manuscript to be read by an intern (the majority are UNC-Chapel Hill students.) Adams does open all the mail he receives and then hands it off to various interns.

About the writer as client: McMillan hopes that all her clients will be good listeners who are coachable and teachable. She says her dream client wants to work with her. For nonfiction especially, the writer who brings a platform (the number of potential readers awaiting the book) is ideal. If you can use a blog or Web site to build a base, that’s an excellent way to build your platform. Endorsements in a query letter might catch her eye, lending your unknown name some credibility.

About self-publishing: It’s something to consider for those who have a niche market, such as nonfiction writers. Adams says he has heard that Lulu.com and iUniverse both do a good job getting your book built. Lulu is currently establishing a headquarters on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. However, self-publishing means you’re on your own, and a publishing house will edit and market better.

I spoke with Adams after the session and asked him about the fact that my book is somewhere between two genres, a hybrid beast. He mentioned a few publishers that might suit and then said that it’s hard when you’re forging a new path – you’re out there on your own trying to communicate where you fit and what you have to offer.

As I’ve polished the most recent query letter, I’ve used a very helpful resource, Noah Lukeman’s How to Write a Great Query Letter. It provides specific guidelines about how to stay concise (a three-sentence plot synopsis), how to focus each paragraph, and how to keep your audience clearly in mind. He also points out several pitfalls you definitely want to avoid. My queries have improved tremendously from consulting this resource.

Today’s Writing Goal:
Work through a block where two plot lines cross and make sure they link up smoothly.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Elementary: The Big Questions

We all have questions that no one seems to know the answer to. What questions do you wish someone would answer? What questions are really exciting to you? What questions keep you up at night? What questions would you like to ask but are too afraid to ask?

Think of someone whom you believe knows a lot. Think of a question you would like to ask that person.

Write a list of ten big questions you have. Then write about how you would find the answer to one of them. Who would you need to talk to? Where might you go to find out? What else would you need to do?

Optional: Write a letter to someone who can help you answer this question.

Secondary and Adult: The Big Questions

There are many types of questions that excite us or keep us up at night or haunt us during our days. Factual questions are those ones that will eventually yield a yes/no or data-based answer – and it may be just a matter of time to get there. Analytical and evaluative questions result in more open-ended answers and require more critical thinking.

Analytical and evaluative questions can begin with words such as how, could, what if, and should. Write ten open-ended questions that get you thinking hard.

Select one and answer it. Answer it by listing what you already know, what you want to know, and how you will find the answer.

Optional: Write a query letter to someone who can help you answer this question.