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Slush

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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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This question about email formatting comes from Helen:

My question concerns e-mail submissions. When an editor, publisher or agent requests e-mail submissions with the manuscript cut and pasted into the body of the e-mail, Is there a way to keep the proper submission format? I have experimented with techniques and looked in help, but have not found a way to keep the formatting once I hit the send button.

It is almost fruitless to stress about formatting. No matter what you do on your end, the editor or agent’s email client might just tinker with things on the receiving side. (If that isn’t enough to keep you up at night!) Do the best you can and remember the universal truth: we’ve most likely seen much, much worse.

There’s a lot of anxiety about query letters and typos and formatting (like, a LOT of anxiety). Those are important and you should pay careful attention to what you’re doing, but, in the grand scheme of things, the writing is the star of any submission package and that’s what I’m paying the most attention to. If you’re looking to burn off some nervous energy, worry about the manuscript. It’s of paramount importance and the rest of this stuff slides like water off a duck’s back after we start reading. Just do your best with query, personalization, and formatting.

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Almost every time I dip into slush, I find a query (or a dozen) that mistakes my name. I’ve gotten:

  • Dear Editor
  • Dear Agent
  • Dear Andrea Brown
  • Mr. Kole
  • Ms./Mrs. Cole
  • Marry

There are also those people who spell is “Querry” or “Quary” or “Quarry.” (I don’t think I’ve ever gotten “Kwerie” or anything similar, unfortunately.)

Point is, this is a common mistake. What’s also common, though, is emailing immediately in a panic and apologizing for the mistake. Those emails are almost always panicked in tone. A recent writer even went so far as to say “I am beside myself.” (I know you are reading this and, for goodness’ sake, please don’t email me with an apology for the apology!)

Guys.

I’m not going to reject you outright for misspelling my name. My name is an uncommon spelling of a more common last name. In fact, it’s that way intentionally and I like it. So I know it’s not “Smith.” And even people named “Smith” probably get their names misspelled all the time. These things happen.

If there’s one thing I hope you’ve taken away from my blog and my speaking engagements at conferences is that queries aren’t the end of the world. They’re a cover letter. If done right, they will make me more excited to read your sample. If done wrong, or if they contain a silly mistake, they will not end in your demise. I will always read your sample. And I’ve never offered a writer representation for their query-writing skills.

Please don’t freak out to such a degree that you feel compelled to send these frantic apologies. (To the writer whose apology I quoted: You aren’t the first this week, let alone today, to do so, so please don’t worry about it.) It’s okay. It’s all okay. Query mistakes and misspellings happen. I usually gloss over them and keep reading. The apology emails, if anything, just draw more attention to the original typo. I know that most writers do a careful job of researching agents and putting queries together. Errors happen. If that’s the worst thing to happen to you, I’d count yourself lucky.

There is never any need for panic or such deep regret when it comes to queries. Relax and tell us about your story. You’re the expert in it, after all!

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I was reminded by a recent email that I had never covered how to write a non-fiction query letter. Whaaaat?! I couldn’t believe it, either. Now, a non-fiction query isn’t entirely different from a fiction one, but there are some nuances. First of all, I have to make the distinction between a non-fiction picture book and non-fiction for older readers. With a non-fiction picture book, you want to have the full text complete. With non-fiction for older readers, you are most likely pitching with a proposal (there are many excellent books on writing non-fiction book proposals, like HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL by Michael Larsen from Writer’s Digest Books, so, trust me, you really don’t need to hear my thoughts on it).

In your query, you also have a different objective. With a fiction query, I want you to make me care about your characters and your story. With a non-fiction query, I want to know three things:

  1. What’s cool, different, interesting, or unexpected about your idea?
  2. Why are you the one to write this book?
  3. Why does this book on this topic need to be published now?

So, basically: What is it? Why you? Why now?

First, in a non-fiction book market that is suffering because of library and educational budget cuts, I can sell only the most unique ideas. Do we need yet another Ben Franklin picture book biography? Yet another guide to puberty or friendships or doing well in school for middle grade readers? Probably not. But if you can find a unique twist or a subject that is surprising, interesting, or just dang cool, then you probably have a non-fiction book idea. An example of a cool recent non-fiction picture book: SARAH EMMA EDMONDS WAS A GREAT PRETENDER : THE TRUE STORY OF A CIVIL WAR SPY by Carrie Jones and Mark Oldroyd. It’s about a girl who pretends to be a boy and joins the Union Army during the Civil War. It’s not a known person from history but it’s someone with a great and unexpected story, and it teaches readers about the Civil War and about the state of women at that time in America.

For your non-fiction query, start by hooking your reader with what’s unexpected about your story…what unturned stone you’ll be turning over…and then also discuss what the other educational hooks are, like I did when discussing SARAH EMMA EDMONDS. Not only do you need to sell the reader on why your idea is awesome, you need to give it a larger educational context as well, so that you show the agent or editor that you’ve thought of where in the curriculum your idea might fit.

Next, you will need to keep building your case. Now you need to prove that you are the right person for the job of discussing this subject matter. In fiction queries, your bio isn’t all that important unless your life relates directly to what you’re writing. In a non-fiction query, you need to spend more time establishing your authority on the subject you’re discussing, as well as building your platform. Are you a Civil War reenactor who wants to write about a specific battle or person from the history of the war? Great. Do you keep a popular Civil War reenactor blog? How many visits does it get? Do you travel to over a dozen reenactments a year? Speak to groups of students about the war? Teach a university class on a famous battle? Fabulous! Sounds like you should write a book!

For fiction, you don’t really need any qualifications to sit down and start writing. Being alive and wanting to write is enough. In non-fiction, you really do need to convince the agent or editor that you have enough expertise and authority to write about your subject matter, and if you have a media, online, or in-person platform that will help you sell your books, that’s a big consideration. After all, you need a reason to be writing on your particular topic and, once you write non-fiction, you will be seen as an “expert” on it. Make sure you can back that up with proof from your life.

Finally, non-fiction needs a timeliness peg. Is a timely anniversary coming up? Did a new study just come out? Did something just get discovered? An editor will want your idea not only to be cool and written by an expert, they will want something that will be easier to sell to bookstores and libraries, and a hot topic is one of the best markers for non-fiction success in this challenging market.

If I were writing an imaginary non-fiction query, it would go like the following. And please keep in mind that this is a quick example, and not a very good one, but it demonstrates the basic points I made above:

Dearest Mary,

I’ve enjoyed reading your kidlit blog and just found an article on writing non-fiction queries. Funny, that, because here’s mine! Did you know that there are only four cemeteries in the city of San Francisco? It’s true. All of the other ones were dug up during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and moved outside of city limits because of mass hysteria over contamination [true story]. Now, Colma, CA, directly south of the city, boasts a bigger population of vintage San Francisco corpses than it does living residents. This is just one fun fact from my non-fiction book manuscript Spooky San Francisco. This book will take you on a tour of one of America’s most haunted and interesting cities, from the tunnels under Chinatown to the eerie shuttered hospital on Alcatraz Island (tourists are not allowed, but I’ve been there) [true story...I went yesterday, in fact]. San Francisco will host the America’s Cup sailing race in 2013, so there will be renewed interest in the city just in time for my book.

I grew up in and around San Francisco, have taken ghost tours in seven American cities [true!], and even worked at the Winchester Mystery House [okay, so it was for a day, but my roommate in college worked there for two years and I once got to spend the night with her there, just the two of us, it was awesome], the most haunted site in the Bay Area, so my interest in all things spooky runs deep. Through my network, I have access to all of the haunted sites that I will be showcasing, and have a team of ghost hunters standing by [believe it or not, true!] to help me with my research. The 1,200 word manuscript for Spooky San Francisco details the top ten haunted sites in SF, including the old Presidio Hospital, Alcatraz, Chinatown, the University of San Francisco Lone Mountain campus, and more. If you like this idea, I could take my show on the road and highlight the most haunted sites in other cities like New Orleans, Salem, Savannah, and New York City.

The manuscript is pasted below. This is a simultaneous submission. I hope to hear from you soon!

Sincerely,
Mary

Okay, so this is not a very good query, but I think you get the point. I’ve tried to hook the reader with some interesting facts, I made a lame attempt at explaining why a book about San Francisco would be timely (to answer the Why now? question…which I don’t do very well because a boat race has nothing at all to do with ghosts…yours should be better), and I cherry-picked some interesting details about myself that make me sound like somewhat of an expert in the paranormal (again, yours should be better…if yours is as lame as mine, maybe you haven’t found the right non-fiction topic to cover yet). I’d probably reject this query because it’s not very good and the author, despite having really cute hair, didn’t build a very good case for herself, but, since I’m the same person and since I wrote it in like five minutes as an example, I don’t feel too badly.

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