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Slush

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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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This isn’t going to be a meaty post, but it’s a little issue that comes up every once in a while in slush: write your queries in first person. It’s a very small tweak and, honestly, it’s not going to make or break your query letter by any stretch of the imagination, but in case you’ve been wondering, you should discuss your plot and characters, and then introduce yourself and do your breezy sign-off in the first person.

Mary is not a fan of people who talk about themselves in the third person. It’s an awkward tonal shift in the middle of a query and all she can think when reading one that introduces its author in third is about the author sitting there and writing about themselves in the third person and how weird it must’ve felt, because she herself finds it weird. See? She considers this paragraph a case in point.

So write it all in first. And, for the love of all things good, don’t write your query in your character’s POV. A very simple reminder and a question you didn’t ask, because maybe you didn’t think to, but now you know!

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Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but here’s what I’m often curious about, and why.

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the call, but I am curious about you as a persona and about your sense of humor, sensibilities, storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time. Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road. Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of much to the majority of debut authors these days. Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent. I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

This is probably the most important thing that happens during this call, for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree. But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level. Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

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Long story short:

Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do it well, don’t do it at all.

Long story:

It’s great when you take the time to personalize your query. Think of all the time you spent writing and revising. That was months, maybe years, or your life. Put some time into researching agents and into writing queries as well. Most agents are online or beefing up their blog/Twitter/Facebook presence. Most agents have books out that you can buy and read and think about. You should want to reach out to specific agents because of what you think they can bring to your career, not just because it says “Literary Agent” on their business card and you’re grasping at straws.

So the personalization part should be a no-brainer. But there are many times when I get “personalized” queries that have tried to work around this step. “I am contacting you because of your love for books” is a lame personalization, (as is, “because you are an advocate for children’s literature” or “because you have sold some books” or “because you come from a reputable agency,” etc.) I know immediately that the same line is in every other query you send out. (With agents like me, who have almost psychotic levels of online presence, there’s almost no excuse not to personalize with something that shows me that you really do intend to reach out to me and make a connection. I don’t get offended when a query isn’t personalized — far from it, I really don’t care — but in some cases, it’s just obvious laziness on the writer’s part, which does knock them down a peg or two.)

Unless you have something real to say in the query personalization part, maybe don’t even mention why you’re contacting us specifically. It’s well understood that you’re emailing because you want to get published. And I should hope that every agent you contact loves books, is an advocate for children’s literature, has sold some projects, comes from a reputable agency, etc. That’s not personalization, that’s a waste-of-time sentence.

And, as I wrote earlier, in my query formatting post, you can put the personalization nugget either at the beginning of your query or below the “meat.”

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Query Formatting

This is probably the most common question I get asked about queries at conferences, and it comes from Lyla:

I’m putting some final touches on my query and I have a question on format. Many of the agents whose blogs I subscribe to have mentioned that they prefer the ‘hook’ first and then personalization later on in the query, while as many have said that they prefer the personalization first. I’m assuming this is just a preference thing, so I was just wondering, Ms. Kole, which do YOU prefer?

As I have said before, there is a lot of undue anxiety about formatting, and even more undue anxiety about queries. As long as you have all the main building blocks of queries — query meat, bio, query personalization (if you have good stuff here, see my post on this in a few days), vital statistics (word count, whether or not it’s a simultaneous submission, contact info, etc.) — you’re fine to arrange them in whatever way you want.

The two most common formats are in Lyla’s question:

Query meat, personalization, bio, stats
Personalization, query meat, bio, stats

What I prefer is completely a matter of personal taste. I’ve seen both of the above. I’ve seen queries that lead with the bio. I’ve seen queries that lead with the stats (though this is probably the most rare). I’ve seen queries that follow no logic that I can possibly comprehend. I’d say that you should stick with one of the above and you’ll be just fine. There are as many answers to this question as there are agents…and writers.

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First off, a caveat to say that this is my opinion, not necessary The End All and Be All, though I’ve heard other agents who share my thoughts.

I am not impressed by queries that come to me with too much voice. Of course you want your query to have some voice, in the same way that good advertising copy has a personality. But one type of query I often see and that tries way too hard is the query written “by” the protagonist that “introduces” me to the protagonist’s author. It goes something like this:

Hiya! I’m 12 and my name’s Mackenzie. I’m in a story about all these crazy adventures that my friends and I go on. Even though everyone says I run the show, the gal taking it all down on paper is Jane Doe, a schoolteacher from Philadelphia who has a B.A. in Child Psychology. Whatever that means, teehee! If you want to read my story…

Etc.

Point is, a query is a cover letter for your writing. It’s your foot forward and your first contact with an agent. It’s also a business letter. I know I’d never apply for a job by submitting an overly playful resume that’s covered in hologram stickers unless I wanted to work at a clown college (and I’m sure that even clown colleges respect a degree of professionalism). That’s gimmicky. While gimmicks sometimes pay off, more often than not, they become the stories agents tell when they’re hanging out after hours at conferences: “Did you hear the one about the guy who showed up to the pitch slam dressed as a giant baby?” (That’s a fictional example I pulled off the top of my head but, actually, I’m sure it has really happened.)

This reminds me of that episode of Arrested Development in the third season where Tobias, a struggling actor, enlists Maeby, his daughter, who has been cutting school because she’s secretly a prominent film executive, to help him make goodie bag packages for casting directors. He stuffs them full of headshots, candy, vaguely threatening notes, and packets of glitter…all in the hope of catching their attention.

Maeby, by this point way jaded by the film biz, says, “Casting directors hate this!” Then the scene cuts to a casting director opening one of the packets, getting a shot of glitter to the face, and yelling into the phone, “The glitter queen struck again. Never hire Tobias Fünke!”

Just as I discussed in my post about social networking abuse last week, there are good ways to get attention, and there are bad ways. Glitter-filled packets? Bad. Queries that bend themselves into pretzels trying to be clever and “voicey”? Not my cuppa.

The #1 surefire super-secret can’t-fail way to impress a literary agent? Your manuscript!

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I was at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference this weekend in Cleveland, and I got several questions about simultaneous submissions. Just as I was thinking of crafting a post about it to remind writers that it’s not only okay but recommended to query multiple agents at a time, I found the following excellent post from Chuck Sambuchino on Writer Unboxed. There must be something in the air!

Chuck’s points are all valid. He encourages writers to submit to batches of 6-8 agents at a time. If you get no requests at all, there’s something wrong with your query or your writing sample. If you get no good feedback or full requests after sending out writing samples or partials, your work isn’t quite there yet. Critique helps here, so will your writing partners. The one thing I’d add to this post is that exclusive submissions do have a place…but only in one or two instances.

One is if you’ve been working with an agent on a manuscript and they’ve given you several rounds of revision notes or if you’ve corresponded a lot. If an agent has invested serious time in you and your work and you feel it’s the right and professional thing to do, you can grant them an exclusive to consider the latest version of your manuscript. But do limit the exclusive — two weeks to a month is fair — so as not to leave it open-ended. The other scenario is if the agent requested the exclusive and you’ve agreed to grant it.

Agents like exclusives. They let us consider things on our own sweet time. But this is a competitive business. If you have a hot manuscript, it doesn’t behoove you to have just one person sitting on it. Honor agent relationships that you’ve already nurtured and exclusives you’ve already granted, but, beyond that, you can and should submit your queries and writing samples to well-chosen batches of multiple agents. Simultaneous submissions are just a part of the game, and anything else could be unfair to you and waste your time.

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Today’s post is inspired by a question from reader J.P.:

I’ve assumed that it’s okay to have “spoilers” in the plot summary of my query letter. Am I wrong? My book is a mystery. Do agents like to have mystery books’ punch lines revealed before they read the book, or do they like to find out the answer for themselves? Should I put the answer to my mystery manuscript into my query?

This is a very common query question.

It’s totally fine to spoil the plot in your query or your synopsis. Sometimes a query won’t deal with the entire plot and you can save your revelations for a synopsis (if requested or if sending one). But, either way, reveal your twists and turns. Withholding exciting plot points isn’t going to make the agent or editor crave to read it and find out…we most often don’t have the time to read every single manuscript through to its conclusion, no matter how delicious the mystery pitched to us in the query.

There’s a big bonus to showcasing your mystery in the query or synopsis. If you indeed have some show-stopping plot twists, I want to know about them as soon as possible. True surprise is one of the most desirable emotions that you can make your readers feel. If your novel is packed with surprises, if the mystery is unpredictable and twisty, give us a sense of that, tell us exactly what happens, and I will be that much more eager to read the manuscript.

Some writers think they have an amazing and unique idea (and some genuinely do) and therefore they don’t want to spoil it all in a query, but every idea is about execution. No matter how great your plot, I still need to see it come together. So revealing plot points isn’t the end of the world…it will at least give me a teaser of the book itself.

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