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Slush

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I tell clients all the time that my job is to manage expectations. Part of working with a freelance editor is expecting to be pushed outside of your manuscript comfort zone a little bit. Most writers come to me with the thought, “I am excited by my idea but I know there are several things that aren’t working. I want to learn and grow and make it better.” Maybe that writer has gotten some early feedback from critique partners about things that need tweaking. Or they’ve already done an unsuccessful submission round with agents or editors and they didn’t get the response they expected. Or maybe their manuscript isn’t meeting their own internal expectations and they just don’t know what to do about it. Enter a second pair of eyes: an editor.

A small percentage of writers, however, and I’ve only had this experience twice in my editorial career, are so convinced of the merits of the manuscript that they’re not looking for an editor. They are looking, I’d imagine, to get on the radar of someone even tangentially connected to the industry, and get a booster to the top. Maybe they think I will recommend them personally to agents. Maybe they think I’ll start agenting again myself for the sake of scooping up a hot project. Or maybe they just want the gold star from someone who has made a career of saying, basically, “yes” or “no” to thousands of other writers.

I try very hard to generate constructive, actionable feedback. I’ve never sent a set of notes that says, “This sucks, it’s dead in the water, and you should probably stick with your day job.” One time, at a conference, I met with a writer who told me something shocking. “This,” she said, “is the first manuscript I’ve written in twenty-five years. I had a writing teacher in college tell me I was no good, and it hurt so much that I stopped writing altogether.”

This woman lost twenty-five years of her writing life. She clearly loved doing it, but because one voice (in a presumed position of authority) told her she wasn’t good enough, she gave up on her dream for a quarter of a decade (and almost all of her adult life up until that point). People perceive me as an authority, too. And so I have made it my goal to never wield that power in a way that hurts a writer.

Do I rave about every manuscript unequivocally, then? Absolutely not. Even excellent writers have some blind spots. So whether I’m helping a beginning writer cut fancy “said” synonyms out of their dialogue, or I’m helping an MFA-graduate with beautiful prose work on plot and overall sales hook, I try my best to do it with the dignity and respect that each writer and each manuscript deserves, for where they are in their individual journey.

All that said, I still run into writers who have expectations that perhaps outpace their current manuscripts. Whether those expectations are of the one-in-a-million runaway success, or their shot at being a multimedia mogul, perhaps even in the query letter, I see this happen with writers. They’ve created websites, maybe, or products, or they’ve already self-published. They have a lot to say about various awards they’ve won or endorsements they’ve gotten. There’s little talk about the manuscript, though, as if that was just an afterthought.

This sends a message to me that the writer isn’t as interested in rolling up their sleeves and working on the product itself. To me, everything but the manuscript is just noise. You can send me a t-shirt with your characters on it, or a list of testimonials from school appearances, and all that is fine and good. I’m a driven, type-A personality, too, and I have way more ideas than I have time to make them all a reality. I respect proactive people. But my only concern is the manuscript.

It’s what an agent or editor will respond to. It’s what will stand out among the noise if it’s, indeed, worthwhile. I saw excitement bubbling over for a perfectly lovely client last week, and I wrote to them: “The only way to get someone excited about your work is by presenting good work, and letting it speak for itself.” It’s easy to say but very hard to do. It’s also at the very core of what I do as an editor. Every writer has a different personality, and some are more eager than others. That’s okay. My job, however, is to help put the crucial piece of that manuscript into place, and help writers create good work so that they can then present it. It’s as simple and as difficult as that, but, man, do I love my job.

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If you are an illustrator, I highly recommend having a simple portfolio website that you can use to display your work. When you’re querying, instead of attaching images (most editors and agents don’t accept attachments anyway), you can just send a link to your collection. Add new things, change out images in your rotation, and keep it clean, simple, and maintained. That’s about it. And if you’re not tech savvy, you may be able to hire someone via Elance (a freelance marketplace I’ve used to find web designers, or contractors in any arena, in the past) or in your circle of friends to put your image files (scans or digital creations) online. Just make sure that if you use scans, they are of high quality and taken under good lighting that’s true to your intended color scheme.

Two sites that I see a lot of illustrators gravitating to are Wix and SquareSpace. They are built to be user friendly and easy on the wallet. You can use templates provided or get someone to customize your site. These options are modern, work well across multiple platforms, and are easy to link to your other online efforts. I haven’t used either but I’m coming up on a project in my personal life and seriously considering SquareSpace because I like the design and functionality of their sites. I’ve been on WordPress for years and years, so maybe it’s time to try something new, minimal, and graphics-focused!

If all of this is very scary to you, you can just start a free Flickr account and make a gallery of your images. This is the bare minimum, and allows you to host your image and a description (I would opt for one if you can). Send links to the entire gallery in your query so that visitors can click through the whole thing instead of landing on just one image.

Many people overthink this sort of stuff because sometimes computers can be scary and the demands of building a platform seem overwhelming. Don’t let that stop you from putting up a portfolio. Hosting one online has become quite necessary these days, and agents and editors except to see several examples of your work, with different composition, subject matter, tone, palette, etc. (if possible), before they can decide if they’re interested or not.

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When I talk about a logline, I mean a quick and effective sales pitch for your story. It is the same as the “elevator pitch” or your snappy “meets” comparison (Harry Potter meets Where the Wild Things Are!). However, not everyone’s book fits the “meets” way of doing this, so they’re left with constructing their own short sentence to encapsulate their work. That’s where things often get hairy.

If you think queries and synopses are hard, loglines are often a whole new world of pain for writers. Boiling down an entire book into four pages? Doable. Into a few paragraphs? Questionable. Into a sentence or two?! Impossible.

Or not. The first secret to crafting a good logline is that you should probably stop freaking out about it. If you can get it, good. If not, you can still pitch an agent or editor with a query or a one-minute summation of your story at a conference or if you do happen to be stuck with them in an elevator. Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published.

That said, my surefire way to think about loglines is as follows:

1) Connect your character to your audience

2) Connect your plot to the market

Let’s examine this. First, begin your logline with your character and their main struggle. This is a way of getting your audience on board. For example, with Hunger Games, Katniss would be “A girl hell-bent on survival…” or “A girl who volunteers herself to save those she loves…”

Now let’s bring plot into it. When you pitch your plot, you always want to be thinking about where it fits in the marketplace. At the time that the first Hunger Games was published, dystopian fiction was white hot as a genre. That’s not so much the case anymore, but if I had been pitching this story at that time, I would’ve definitely capitalized on the sinister dystopian world building. To connect the plot to the market, I would’ve said something like, “…in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” This says to the book or film agent, “Dystopian! Right here! Get your dystopian!”

So to put it together, “A girl volunteers herself to save those she loves in a world where children fight to the death to keep the population under the control of a cruel government.” That’s a bit long, and not necessarily elegant, but it definitely hits all of the high notes of the market at that time, while also appealing emotionally to the audience. (Volunteering for a “fight to the death” contest is a really ballsy thing to do, so we automatically want to learn more.)

Notice that here, even the character part involves plot (it focuses on Katniss volunteering).

If I’m working on a contemporary realistic novel, the “plot to market” part is less salient because we’re not exactly within the confines of any buzzy genre. That’s fine, too. You should probably be aware early on whether you’re writing a more character-driven or plot-driven story. The Hunger Games nails some strong character work, but I would argue that it’s primarily plot-driven, or “high concept.” With character-driven books, the former part of the logline construction becomes more important. Let’s look at Sara Zarr’s excellent Story of a Girl. The title is pretty indicative of the contents. It’s literally the story of a girl, and the girl is more important than necessarily each plot point that happens to her.

With character-driven, I’d spend most of my time connecting character to audience. I’d say, for example, “A girl from a small town struggles with the gossips around her who refuse to forgive her past mistakes…” This is the girl’s situation for most of the book, and part of her biggest “pain point” as a person. Then I’ll need to indicate the rest of the plot with something like “…must step out from the shadows of her reputation and find out who she really is.”

Notice that here, even the plot part involves character (it focuses on the more subtle work of figuring herself out rather than, say, battling to the death).

Both are solid loglines because both communicate the core of the story and the emphasis of the book (plot-driven vs. character-driven, genre-focused vs. realistic). Try this two-step exercise with your own WIP.

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I’ve had a few writers recently come to me with questions similar to this one (summarized):

Help! I am querying agents and publishers simultaneously and I’ve noticed something strange. All of the agents seem to say complimentary things about the writing but reject my idea. Some have even said that they wouldn’t know how to sell it and that there’s no market for it. One went as far as to say, “Give up already, nobody is going to buy this.” Meanwhile, the editors I’ve reached out to rave about the writing and say that it’s a really good idea. Does this happen often? Who’s right?

I’m going to try and address this intelligently without insulting too many people. Agents and editors are different and represent different steps in the publishing process. Agents can often be accused of taking more mainstream projects with an eye toward the market and current trends. That comes from the way that agents make money: They want to attract as many buyers to your project as possible so that you, your project, the agent, and the agency get the most favorable outcome, which usually tends to happen to “bigger” or “commercial” projects that inspire a bidding war. Then they want to use this momentum to sell even more rights, like foreign and film. They take a percentage of the sale (sometimes with a salary, sometimes working only on commission) so they have to do a lot of big sales in order to profit.

Editors, on the other hand, often seem more sympathetic to more marginal projects without paying as much attention to market trends. They know that their publishers service many audiences, including schools and libraries, and that there are many different slots that a potential book can fill. They are willing to look at things that aren’t as immediately marketable and see their potential. They also don’t have to hustle for their money. Sure, they are under pressure from their bosses to acquire profitable projects. But they have more job security they can take more time and be more charitable with feedback for things that come across their desks. (This is not to say that editors don’t work hard. They work incredibly hard! But they, in general, are also more secure financially because they work for large companies that pay a salary.)

Before you think that I’m calling agents mercenary art-killers and editors starry-eyed idealists, though, here’s another layer of complexity: In the real world, it is very difficult for either party to get what it wants. Blockbuster commercial projects that will go on to sell in the six- or seven-figures come around once in a blue moon. Everybody wants one, everybody fights for it when it appears, but only one agent gets it. The rest of the time, agents have to see the potential in more challenging concepts. And as fun as it is to hold a huge auction, it’s just as fun fun to sell a “quiet” book to the perfect editor who immediately “gets it.” Finding this fit is a lot more work for often less (monetary) reward, but it feels amazing, too.

And while an editor may love the idea of doing a book for a very limited audience or with a totally out-there subject matter, they have to answer to their bosses, their pub boards, their finance guys, their marketing departments, etc. etc. etc., and they sometimes get brought back down to earth by a “no” that comes from above. So while the editors in the sample question all seem to be much more amenable toward marginalized concepts, I didn’t hear that any of them were offering to buy the manuscripts in question, either. Liking something and saying nice things about it is very different from putting cold, hard money on the line. We all go into children’s publishing to help get amazing books into the hands of worthy young readers, but these aspirations often butt right up against the fact that publishing is a Business-with-a-capital-B. And sometimes a book with a challenging subject matter, or one without “high-concept” commercial potential will take more work to see in print.

Agents do have to focus on more commercial concepts sometimes to stay afloat. And editors have to jump through a whole lot of hoops and “sell” a book to their team before they can make an offer. For books where the potential to profit isn’t obvious, that means it will take time to place them witheither and agent or an editor. I don’t think it’s right for anyone to say “Just give up, this is a fool’s errand!” But I also don’t want to say that every book will get published, because some ideas are jut too far out there to invest in in a competitive market.

Part of trying to get published, however, is understanding the process. Here I hope I can offer some insight into why agents and editors sometimes seem at odds when it comes to their decisions. It’s never quite as black-and-white as it appears. A caveat: This post is NOT about drawing a line in the sand and saying “this type of book is commercial and this isn’t.” Part of the gamble of publishing is to look and imagine and take chances. I will never tell a writer that this idea categorically won’t work and that idea is a guaranteed bestseller. It doesn’t work like that. There are no certainties. My core message has always been that writers who focus on the craft and learn about the publishing business are setting themselves up for greater success. This post is instead about addressing a disparity between agent and editor responses that several writers have noticed, and trying to explain the possible reasons.

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Situation Queries

One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.) This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.” In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

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Let’s get this right out of the way: bullies are horrible, bullying is universal, and a bully plot or subplot is a great way to establish an underdog character. They’re also a very important topic for kids to read about. After all, who doesn’t want to comfort a bullying victim or see a bully change their ways? However, if you’re grinding this axe in your manuscript, you’re not the only one. Far from it. One query recently made me almost fall out of my chair laughing when it read: “Since bullying has become such a big national issue…” (or something close to this sentiment).

First of all, “has become”?! Where has this writer been? Bullying has existed since the dawn of time and, unfortunately and despite the heavy media attention it’s been getting in the last few years, will continue to exist. Kids (and even some adults) need to try out power dynamics, push boundaries, and be bad people in order to figure out how to (we hope) be good people. Often at the expense of others. It’s human nature. And even those who consider themselves universally bullied can be the villain in another even more put-upon kid’s story (as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon discovered when she went to her high school reunion). It’s a horrible cycle and not even a boatload of all the fuzziest anti-bullying picture books will make a difference. Sad? Yes. True? I think so.

So, how do we tackle the bullying issue in a way that pays attention to reality? Let me just say, the bullying topic/character/plot in my slush pile is so tired that even a five-shot espresso drink won’t perk it up. Bullies are not exempt from all the writing tips out there on creating complex, multidimensional characters. Especially if they’re the primary antagonist. But most of the bullies I see are invariably large, physically, dull, mentally, and disturbed, emotionally. The girl versions are always mean, pretty, and popular. The second an aspiring writer begins to weave a school scene, I know I’m going to invariably meet a) the quirky best friend and b) the bully, who slams around the hallway, slamming people in to lockers.

Think differently about your bullies (especially their motives and actions) and about your bullying scenes. And don’t feel like you need to include the obligatory bully/bullying dynamic in your story just because it’s popular or realistic. Characters you force yourself to write are the flattest of all to read. If you want to truly go there and portray bullying, you need to do more research into what actually goes on in today’s halls, relay it unflinchingly, and try not to force a candy-coated resolution at the end. And make your bullies real people who can, on a certain level, command their own sympathy from the reader.

If you manage this, you’ll be far ahead of the pack. I, for one, would actually like to read a complex bully character and a realistic bullying scenario. Until I find one, query letters promising to address this “recent” epidemic most often get an eyeroll from me because there is no bigger stereotype in the schoolyard canon.

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Writing Emails

Kirstin asked about writing emails on the blog on Monday, and here’s her answer…and a reminder that there are no dumb or simple questions!

I was wondering about setting up email accounts. I have a personal one (family, friends). Should I make a “writing” email separate ? (i.e have that ONE email devoted to exchanges with CP’s, new writing friends, bloggers, asking for advice, submitting, commenting on others blogs with that email, etc)…and should that email account be in my full name or something else like “writingstories@gmail ” etc. And do you recommend Gmail accounts as best?

If you can deal with a little technical complication in your life (multiple inboxes), I think a separate writing email account is a good idea. If you really want to know, I have about a dozen different emails that I use on a pretty regular basis (one for online shopping logins, so that when the retailers start spamming me with catalogs, as they invariably will, it doesn’t go to my regular email…my personal email…my work email…my query inbox (that my work email automatically forwards queries to)…my kidlit email…etc.). A lot of these email accounts get imported into one or two main Gmail inboxes that I have, but, still, that’s an awful lot of windows!

You all are very savvy. That’s why you’re bothering to read an industry blog and educate yourselves. So I’m guessing you have a certain measure of common sense. Hence, remember: everything you do when you interact with the publishing world (your potential employers, if you consider writing your job, which might be a good mindset to get into) makes an impression. And you want to make a good one. So if your personal email is “suzieluuuuvscats76@gmail” or whatever, I think that’s a little personal and a little cutesy for business correspondence. A wacko email address is unlikely to be a dealbreaker, but it may make me look twice. (I mean, swearing, porn, or the admission that you’re a serial killer or KKK member in your email may be a huge red flag…just sayin’…) Since, again, all of my beloved readers are of above-average intelligence (and really good looking!), I trust that you’re not making this kind of no-brainer mistake.

If you decide to veer away from your personal email and get a writer email, then, you should still think about the impression it makes. I’ve seen the cutesy thing with writing emails, too, and I must admit that it gets an eyeroll from me every once in a while (“musingsfromthemuse@gmail” or “thebestwriterever@gmail” are a little…ahem…precious). Other than that, I’d avoid naming your email address after the current project that you’re querying (“endlessduskthenovel@gmail.com” or whatever) because a) that novel may not go on to get agented or sell, and then you’ll have to either keep the same address for a different project or make another email for each new project, which is awkward, or b) your title might change in the revision or publication process, as many do, which would date the address.

So if you want a nice and classy writer email, go with “marykolewriting@gmail” or “suziekatznovels@gmail” or something that can apply to more than one project and that isn’t over the top in any way. That’s probably your best option. Other than that, follow general email best practices in all of your correspondence with publishing people. If you include a signature in the email, make sure it’s not too obnoxious with images or crazy fonts/colors. Maybe cut back on inspirational quotes (and definitely don’t, as one writer did in my slush, quote yourself or your novel as a signature). Don’t call yourself an “author” unless you are actually published (“writer” is just fine, and there is a distinction, even if it seems nit-picky) and no need to include copyright information with your query or sample.

And, finally, as you can tell from my run-down of my own email addresses and all of my fake example emails, I am a fanatical proponent of Gmail. It is simple and easy to use but extremely powerful, in case you want to start doing fancy stuff like labels or account importing or forwarding or auto-responses, etc. I’ve definitely grown as a Gmail user in the past few years and am wild about it. It’s free and popular, and it has almost never done me wrong. Plus, it has a lot of space, is hosted online, and, because it’s Google, has great search functionality. So if you have tens of thousands of emails, as I do, you don’t have to delete them to free up space and you can find that random thing you’re looking for from four years ago quickly and easily. (I am not being paid for this endorsement, I just love Gmail, LOL!)

* All of the email addresses here are made-up. If I have insulted your actual email address, or you have one that’s pretty close to one of my “don’ts,” I’m very sorry. I was just thinking of some quick examples.

ETA: Just remembered! I was also going to say the following on the subject of emails. Some people have spam filters set up (Earthlink or something similar has a very aggressive one…can’t remember the exact program right now, sorry) where, if I try to respond to you, it makes me go to a separate page and prove that I’m not spam. This is an extra step for me when I’m responding to hundreds of queries and, I’m not going to lie, it’s annoying. For those of you who have such powerful spam filters that require an additional step for people trying to send you email, you may not get a response from me, depending on workload, because I don’t want to jump through the extra hoops. Maybe when you’re querying, disable the spam response filter or add all the agents you’re querying to your “safe” list. We really appreciate it.

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We all know the feeling–we’re about to do something really nerve-wracking, and all we want to know is whether or not it went okay. This applies to every nervousmaking thing in life: proposing marriage, going in for a job interview, giving an important sales presentation, pitching your book at a conference. While a marriage proposal usually gets a response right away, most of these other scenarios are of the sort where you put your best foot forward and then you wait for results.

Now put yourself on the receiving end. A candidate comes in for a job interview and they do well. They present themselves professionally and answer your questions. You put them in your “maybe” pile, or maybe slot them for a second interview. Then you let them know that you’ll be calling them with your decision in a few days. Pretty standard stuff. Very much the same thing happens to me when I sit to hear pitches at a writer’s conference. I listen to the pitch (and try to put the writer at ease if they are feeling nervous), then I say something along the lines of “I can’t really tell a lot about the writing from a verbal pitch, so I’d love to see a sample.” Most pitches are very short and, remember, a pitch or query letter and written prose are two very different things. I can’t extrapolate the latter from the former, even if I tried. Once I explain this to the writer and ask to see a snippet of the writing itself, I follow this with instructions for sending one. Again, pretty standard stuff.

But imagine you’re a job interviewer at the end of an interview, and the candidate just sits there, looking at you expectantly. Or maybe they go so far as to ask, “Well, am I gonna get it?” Or, “How did I do?” Or you’re sitting and hearing pitches–having seen none of the writing, which is what you’re “hiring” as an editor or agent–and the writer leans forward and asks, “So, is it gonna get published?” Or, “Did I do okay?”

We’re not a guaranteed 30-second decision credit card application hotline, guys. These are questions that have no right answers and, more often than not, they put the asker at a disadvantage.

Whenever you go from professionally presenting yourself in a good light and saying what you have to say, to letting your ego and insecurities drive the situation, you cross a line. The first question puts me in the very awkward position of reminding you that I haven’t seen the writing yet and, besides, I am just one person and certainly not the final word in what does and doesn’t get published. How am I supposed to know whether your work will sell, sight-unseen? Even if the premise sounds good, I don’t want to get your hopes up or seem like I’m making any promises, so the only thing you’ll get from this question is, likely, a tactful dodge. The second question asks me to outright lie to you about your pitch performance because nobody who asks “Did I do okay?” usually wants to hear anything resembling the truth. (And it’s the people who feel like they have to ask who usually didn’t do that well…)

The fact is, the percentage of people who get their work picked up at conferences is equal to or just slightly higher than the percentage who get plucked out of the slush. (1% to 5%, depending on who you ask. And the reason conferences might be slightly higher is that they usually attract people who are further along in their writing or making a firmer commitment to getting published. Paying for a conference does not guarantee you’ll get published, of course, but most do attract a more serious writer.) I always applaud writers for showing up to conference, but I’m afraid that they have to play by the same rules as everyone else submitting, unless they’re in the rare situation that they make a deeply personal connection with a faculty member, in which case the game might change. Whether you pitch in person or in a written query, the etiquette is the same, the agent or editor still wants to see the writing, and an instant decision should not be expected.

No matter how tempting it is to ask about your odds or performance, especially since you have a real, live agent or editor sitting right there, I would advise against it. I’d hope it’s awkward for you, and that you have that kind of self-awareness. Because it sure as heck is awkward for us on the other side of the desk.

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Today’s question comes from Peter:

I’m submitting simultaneous submissions (only when they say it’s OK, of course). I know it is common courtesy to let agents know the submission is not exclusive and inform the others when I receive representation from one. But what of the time in between? If I query two agents, and one emails me back with suggestions and asks me to resubmit, do I need to tell the other one? In other words, should I keep everyone in the loop of events prior to anything less than a signed contract?

Good question! I hope all of you are already as up-to-speed as this writer and know that it is courtesy to both inform agents when something is a simultaneous submission (and most things should be, you know how I feel about exclusivity), and when you receive an offer on a manuscript. Now, some people are torn as to whether to contact EVERY agent who has the query when you receive an offer, even if they haven’t responded yet, or just those agents who are reading fulls or partials.

I’m neutral on the issue. I’ve had querying writers inform me of an offer and this made me read their query immediately if I hadn’t already. I’ve also had writers whose fulls I was reading email me to tell me that someone had scooped me and offered quickly. Both work for me. What I don’t love is someone whose full I am considering emailing me to let me know that they’ve received an offer–and accepted it already–without letting me have time to decide whether I’d also like a chance at the manuscript. Of course, I understand that sometimes you have an instant connection with an offering agent and all other agents start to immediately look like chopped liver. But the usual time to inform everyone is when you receive an offer. If you do accept without giving anyone else a chance, a courtesy notice to other agents reading is, of course, appropriate, but try and make them aware earlier.

What I don’t care about are partial and full requests you’re getting while I either have your query or full manuscript. There is no need to keep everyone informed about this. I understand the psychology behind writers sometimes think this is a good idea, but it’s more annoying than anything. They want you to think, “What a hot commodity! I must read immediately!” This is what I think instead, “As nice as they feel to this writer, partial and full requests are actually quite common. Depending on the agent, however, they could mean very little in terms of getting an offer, and we all know it.” This type of nudge email is just that: a nudge. And, the more often a writer does it, the more annoying they might start to seem.

My response may not apply to all agents across the board, but the above are pretty standard best practices that you can follow to play fair and also not antagonize the agents you’re hoping to impress. If it’s an offer, keep us in the loop. If you’d like to withdraw your query, partial, or full for any reason, keep us in the loop. Otherwise, wait. I know it’s tough, but it makes a good impression if you can be patient.

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When writing your bio paragraph in your query letter, keep it short. Please. This is another quick post to answer a specific query question, and it follows on the heels of my advice to not write about yourself in the third person. For the bio paragraph, where you went to college, how many kids you have, what your pets’ names are, and even what your day job is are not important unless they are directly related to the book you’re writing.

Some of that warm-n’-fuzzy getting-to-know-you stuff will happen if and when an agent calls to offer representation. At that point, I want to know more about you as a human being. For your query bio, however, I don’t really care about personal information unless it relates to you as “the person who wrote the manuscript that’s in front of me.” That’s not me trying to sound harsh. I am sure you’re wonderful and interesting and have had a fascinating life (and you have impeccable taste, since you are one of my beloved readers, after all!). But a query is still a short cover letter, and a business letter.

In children’s books, some aspiring writers are convinced that they need to “prove” that they can write for children, specifically. So they talk about the children they have, or the children they have access to, or how they took a class on early childhood education in college, or how they worked as a birthday party clown, or whatever. The work itself is the only thing that proves whether or not you’re qualified to write for kids, honestly. In fact, the more experience with kids someone has, or the more education they’ve gotten about kids or psychology or education, the more they tend to either make their stories way too personal (only marketable to a specific kid) or too intellectual (“written by an expert” instead of just written).
So in the vein of telling me about yourself as “the person who wrote the manuscript that’s in front of me,” there are two things you should focus on in your bio: professional writing credits and information relevant to the project at hand. First of all, if you’ve published something or won an award, present it professionally. Say something like,

My book, Biographical Information in a Query (Unlikely Press, 2012), has sold briskly, and I recently won the Stupid Blog Post Example Award from the Muse Society.

If you haven’t published or won anything, don’t sweat it. Just like you don’t need to prove that you’re familiar with children (since we all were children at one point, we have experience), you don’t really need writing credits. Everyone starts somewhere. And, to be perfectly honest, most of the stuff that aspiring writers start off winning or publishing in, I haven’t heard of. It’s just nice to know that you’ve gotten yourself out there already, but if that’s not the case, don’t sweat it.

Finally, if you are, say, an archaeologist by day (or a superhero by night) and your characters either go on a dig or fight crime in Gotham, mention that your vocation or area of expertise is relevant to your story. Otherwise, knowing that you’re a middle manager at a corkscrew manufacturing corporation doesn’t really belong in the query letter. The only exception to this suggestion is if you have a really fun professional or personal fact that you think will add interest to the query (and if the tone of your query is light or quirky and matches the information). If you don’t, you shouldn’t sweat this much, either.

So, brief and relevant. That’s about it. An excessive bio is one of the biggest query issues that I see, but it’s also less important, for example, on the list of query faults, than failing to make me care, so read this post, cut your bio in half, and move on.

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