Politics in Children’s Books

How do you include politics in children’s books? I received an interesting inquiry today from a potential editorial client. (Just as I was casting around for blog ideas! Hooray!) The writer has written a book for young children and, before sending me the manuscript, warned me that it had a specific political bent about Donald Trump. This writer wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be offended. While this is considerate of the client, it’s not my job, as an editor, to bring my own political biases into the editorial process.

politics in children's books, politics in fiction, politics in ya, politics in picture books, politics in middle grade
Something we can all get behind, right? Maybe that and “Snacks are awesome!”

But the question did get me thinking: What place, if any, does politics have in children’s books? Especially books for younger readers? Here’s what I came up with.

The Role of Politics in Children’s Books

When I come across books that have any kind of bias, whether it’s political, religious, philosophical, etc. it’s never my job to comment on the actual content.

My concerns, instead, are the following:

  1. Does the political element work in the context of the story? Is it necessary or is it gratuitous?
  2. Is the message and its packaging appropriate for the intended audience?
  3. How might this political element affect pitch and marketability?

This is the same way in which I would treat an “issue book.” For example, if there is a book where the character happens to be a certain sexual orientation, I’m always asking, “Is there more to the story than this element, or is this the central focus?” I ask this because I doubt that a book where politics is at the very center, or sexual orientation is at the very center, and nothing else is going on, is going to be very marketable. Readers expect multiple layers from a story, so if it’s just “a political book” or just “an LGBT book” with no other significant plot or character arcs, then I worry that it’ll fall flat. A story cannot stand on one element alone.

Another way of thinking about it is this: If I remove the political element, what’s left? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then you may have written a rant or an opinion piece or a manifesto. But a story? Maybe not.

Depending on what role the element plays, and the writer’s execution in including it, a political element in fiction could be either an asset or a liability.

The Marketability of Politics in Children’s Fiction

The other issue to consider is that of marketability. This consists of two parts:

  1. The audience
  2. The publisher

In children’s fiction, you have the additional element of your audience’s age to consider. Sometimes, politics plays well in children’s fiction. Consider dystopian YA novels. All of those authoritarian governments have a political message, and most of those stories have something to say about ideas of human rights and individual freedom. Plus, the YA audience is going to be more aware of current events, and more receptive to themes that lend themselves to the dystopian genre.

But a picture book about federal regulation shutting down a lemonade stand, bolstered by a discussion of big government? I just don’t know if a typical picture book reader (3-5 years old) would find that very relevant. You might be speaking to the adult reading the book, but that disenfranchises the core audience (the kid) and I doubt you’ll get very far.

You also have to think about the potential publisher. Most major houses like to make money. If they publish polarizing fiction, they may alienate potential customers. Sure, there are a lot of left- or right-leaning houses, editors, or imprints, but you should at least recognize that your opportunities to place the manuscript are going to be limited if it has an overt stance.

So How Do You Include Politics Successfully?

All this being said, you still have a message for young readers. These are, after all, political days, and your idea probably feels very relevant and timely to you.

Go ahead and include your political message. Just don’t preach it outright. You might want to go Wizard of Oz with allegory, or disguise the political force (an oppressive student government at school, for example). Make sure there’s more to the story than the message. There should be a compelling character and a high-stakes plot.

Make sure it’s appropriate and relevant to your audience. Is a three-year-old really going to be fired up about Grandpa Joe’s long discussion of tax reform? Will a nine-year-old understand the intricacies of your Cold War references?

In the same vein, search for like-minded or at least politics-friendly agents, editors, and imprints. An agent who has a few books about social justice on their list might be much more willing to “go there” with you, for example.

Finally, check your motives. Story must come first. If your main interest is in preaching or converting or soapboxing, you’re likely not coming to the page with the right intentions. No matter which side of the aisle you’re sitting on, save the grandstanding for your Twitter. Political element aside, you still need to practice the storytelling craft.

Submitting Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents

Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question about submitting multiple queries to multiple agents:

Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.

This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts!

multiple queries to multiple agents, submitting multiple queries, sending more than one query at a time, querying multiple agents
Thinking of lighting up New York City with your submissions? Think very hard before querying multiple projects to the same agent, or multiple projects to multiple agents…

The two questions here are:

  1. Should I send two projects to the same agent?
  2. Should I query multiple projects at a time?

If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed?

Submitting Multiple Queries to the Same Agent at Once

Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent them another submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances.

Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a bit melodramatic, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.

Querying More Than One Project at a Time

Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be. Keep that in mind.

Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see that it’d turn into a mess very, very quickly.

Multiple Queries to Multiple Agents is Too Much

FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.

Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”

Not only do I do manuscript editing, but I am also a publishing strategy consultant. If you’d like to talk your submission plans over and plan your next move in a sane and productive way, please reach out.

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

Should You Try Publishing a Novel Excerpt

Thinking about publishing a novel excerpt as a way to generate interest? My readers have been on a roll with some really good reader questions lately. As a reminder to anyone out there who may be new to the blog, I do open myself up to general inquiries about writing and publishing via email.

publishing a novel excerpt, generating buzz for a novel, attracting literary agent attention
Does the novel excerpt approach generate buzz for the novel as a whole?

Sometimes these exchanges end up on the blog, sometimes they’re between you and me. Information on how to reach me is available in the sidebar. I regret that I can’t answer very specific questions or review work…that’s reserved for my freelance editorial clients. But questions Kate’s, below, are more than welcome!

What are your feelings about submitting an excerpt from an as-yet unrepresented novel for publication in a literary magazine? My concern is that on the off-chance that the excerpt would be published I would thereby render the whole novel unsellable to a publisher. In my case I’ve rewritten the submission to make it work better as an excerpt, but I’m not sure if there’s enough difference between it and the version in the manuscript, or whether that even matters. Thanks!

Does Publishing a Novel Excerpt Get My Novel Noticed?

This is a great question, and one I see from time to time. I didn’t find out the exact circumstances until later, and it turns out I was right. Because I imagined a few things about Kate’s situation that would lead her down this path of reasoning.

First, Kate is frustrated by a novel that’s not getting picked up. She later reported submitting to agents for quite some time and not getting where she wants to go. Second, she has likely started thinking…Well, what else can I do with this thing? Is there a shortcut to getting to getting noticed? Hence the literary magazine idea. And it’s not a bad idea, in theory. But would I recommend it? This was my response. Read on:

Good question. I’ll answer, but start my answer with another (blunt) question: Why? What’s the point? If you want to get a novel published, it is very, very, very unlikely that you’re going to get there by publishing something in a literary magazine from it that an agent will see or that will otherwise draw attention to your efforts. That’s a very circuitous route.

Focus Your Publishing Energy More Directly

And getting published in a literary magazine involves learning about good literary magazines to submit to, submitting to them, getting immersed in that, etc. If your big goal is to get a novel published, your energy is much better used focusing on the DIRECT route: writing a kickass novel and getting immersed in the novel/agent submission process.

While, yes, writing credits are kinda sorta important to collect when you’re trying to make your name as a writer*, they are not the determining factor. And literary agents and literary magazine people don’t spin in the same worlds some of the time. You’d think they would be connected, and some definitely are, but agents have so much to read that when a literary magazine lands on their desks, on top of everything else, it may or may not get attention.

For me, even if someone is published in The Paris Review, one of the most noteworthy journals and pretty impossible to get into, if I hate the novel they’re submitting, the credit is impressive, but meaningless to me because, as an agent, I am looking to sell you as a novelist, not a literary magazine writer. So, you could be doing all that UNRELATED work for very dubious payoff. If the journals even want you.

Demand For Novel Excerpts in Literary Magazines Is Low

The thing is, lit mag demand for unpublished novel excerpts is quite low compared to standalone articles, short stories, and poems. They’d rather publish those because they’re more satisfying for the reader, rather than some random piece of something that, who knows, nobody may ever hear from again. Unless they’re inspired to contract you for a serial series, I wouldn’t imagine that this type of piece is hot property. And if they do, you may have more problems publishing it eventually because more will have appeared in print.

So the print rights issue is certainly one to consider, and some publishers might be jerks about it, saying that since you’ve already exploited some rights by putting the excerpt in print, the property is less attractive, etc. It has happened. But that’s honestly not why I’d reconsider this idea.

Focus on Writing and Revising Your Novel Instead of Publishing a Novel Excerpt

Finally, what about when you revise your manuscript, as you’re bound to do, because you wake up one day and realize the piece you’ve been missing? It happens all the time. And then you have this excerpt floating around that’s now horribly broken, in your eyes. And that’s your “sales piece” that’s now immortalized in print.

I know that you are probably very eager to do something, anything to move your chances forward. Think of taking the more direct path. Write the best manuscript you can. Write a killer query. Research agents. If you really have enough free time to also research literary journals, more power to you. But to me, that’s not going to be your strongest potential path to success.

  • I know many of you are going to find this statement interesting. I will cover clips and writing credits in a subsequent post!

The best sales piece to generate excitement is a strong novel manuscript. Plain and simple. Hire me as your novel editor and I can help you get there without resorting to gimmicks.

Why An Agent May Not Submit Widely

I’ve had many writers coming to me over the course of my leaving myself open to questions. (If you have any general writing or publishing questions, email me at mary at kidlit dot com or leave them in the comments anytime!) Some of these writers are struggling with their agents. I know, I know. Most would simply die to have an agent in the first place, but once that hurdle is cleared, there really are issues that come up. Sometimes agent/writer relationships dissolve. Sometimes communication isn’t the best. It’s certainly a wonderful professional achievement to land an agent, but being agented isn’t a magic bullet guarantee of getting a publishing contract.

One question that a lot of writers have goes along these lines:

I got an agent. Yay! But my agent isn’t really sending my project out to a lot of editors. Is this normal or does this spell trouble? Do they not like me anymore? Etc.

There are a few behind the scenes reasons why your agent might be sending to a smaller list. First of all, “small” and “a lot” are quite subjective. That’s why you should talk to your agent about submission strategy before you sign with them. They might be the type to blast your submission all over New York, or they may be more selective, sending to six or eight carefully chosen editors at a time. Both of these approaches can be the “right” way of submitting. It all depends on the project, its prospects, and the agent’s personal style.

When I was submitting, for example, I would try between six and twelve editors at a time for a project, and I’d have a list of other potential names ready to go for future submission rounds, if necessary. That way I could control the submission, be deliberate about my selections, and usually only contact one editor per publishing house. You can submit to more than one if you target different imprints, and sometimes that approach makes sense, but those judgment calls, again, depend on the circumstances of the project.

This is the part that can get dicey, though, and it’s frustrating because it’s largely out of the client’s control. Sometimes an agent has projects out with a lot of editors. If you have twenty clients, for example, and they’ve all turned manuscripts in recently, you can find yourself with fewer and fewer potential available editors that aren’t already considering your other submissions. You want to send to the right editor for the project, always. But you also want to send to editors you know and like. This keeps your relationships alive and inspires those editors to give your projects more careful consideration. You want to work with them, they want to work with you. And, more importantly, they trustyou to bring them good stuff that they can buy.

This brings up the issue of capital. Just like editors have capital with the pub boards–it’s understood that they will bring their directors great manuscripts and only really fight for what they believe in, rather than bringing ten things to every meeting and trying to make a case for things they’re lukewarm on–agents have capital with editors. You don’t want to send an editor three projects while they’re still reading your previous subs. That’s careless and maybe they won’t be as excited to open your future emails or take your future calls because soon your pitches will feel like impersonal spam. You’ll be backed into a corner, because you don’t want to cannibalize their attention in favor of one client over another. So if an agent already has other projects with the Perfect Editor that they had in mind for you, you may not see Editor’s name on your submission list. At least not until the previous project either goes through or doesn’t.

And sometimes an agent gets into a relationship with an editor at a certain house, and they want to take care of that relationship because said editor is handling a big book or top client for the agent or agency. (This sounds a lot like office politics, and it is. Sometimes an agent has the agency’s other interests to consider.) It’s unspoken but recommended that the agent bring more projects to that editor, in the hopes of lightning striking again. If that’s the case, and that editor isn’t a fit for a certain client’s work, maybe that whole publishing house falls off of the submission list for the new client. Agents try to be as diplomatic as possible, but it’s a tough decision sometimes between thinking either “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I sent him something not quite his style” or “I hope it doesn’t alienate Mr. Editor that I contacted a colleague of his instead of wasting his time with something not quite his style.”

Sometimes, it’s true, an agent will only submit to a few editors because they don’t believe in the project 100% and they want to test the waters. That’s a tough pill to swallow. To be perfectly honest, sometimes agents send out projects against their better judgment because they are feeling undue pressure from their clients. “I have a feeling this won’t sell as is, and I feel like I’ve tried to discuss the issues with my client,” they think. “But the client says it’s ready and wants to see a submission list, so maybe I’ll send it to a few editors. If it doesn’t sell, at least the rejections might mention the same issues, and maybe the client will finally listen.” That, and sometimes you want a little vindication when a publishing colleague agrees with you. This way you’re not the only bearer of bad news about a writer’s beloved manuscript, and there are more messengers to shoot! Editors, of course, do not appreciate being used as a “second opinion” on problematic manuscripts, but this does happen on occasion.

This article lists some scenarios that might result in a smaller submission list from your agent. The key takeaway, though, is that you should keep all this in mind and yet be more proactive. It’s your agent. They work for you. If you suspect any of the above, ask them why their list seems small. Get into specifics. Don’t look at it and take offense or start constructing conspiracy theories. A lot of realistic considerations go into a submission strategy, and you deserve to know what’s going on. If an agent is out with projects all over town and that leaves no editors out there to give you a fair audience, see if you can’t wait a little bit. If an agent is frustrated because they feel like your manuscript still needs work, do the difficult thing and try to see where they’re coming from.

Client management is difficult, as is sitting at your computer and waiting for news from your agent–the person in charge of making your dreams come true. Be honest, be informed, be understanding. Keep your lines of communication open. And if you feel like something is going on, and it’s not making you feel great, start that conversation sooner rather than later. Judging by the emails I’ve received from agented writers, there are too many out there stewing in silence or complaining on message boards. That doesn’t have to be you!

Communicating With Literary Agents While On Submission

Today’s question about communicating with literary agents while on submission 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?

communicating with literary agents, received offer of representation, following up with literary agents, submitting to a literary agent
The train is leaving Fiction Station! Rec’d offr 4 rep. U in? (No, please don’t text or call literary agents that you have another offer, but you do want to send an email…)

Keeping Literary Agents in the Loop–How Much Is Too Much Communication?

Good question! There are a few things going on here. I’ll do my best to unpack them. 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.

Communicating With Literary Agents When You Receive an Offer

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.

Do you feel lost navigating the ins and outs of submission to literary agents and publishing houses? Bring me on board as your manuscript and publishing consultant, and we can work on a game plan together.

What Literary Agents Want When Evaluating Full Manuscripts

Written during my agenting days, this post details what literary agents want. This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. And I want nothing but more of the same for my next year, my next five years, my next ten years in the business. However, as I mentioned on Alice Pope’s blog a few weeks ago, I now have a great base of clients and don’t feel the same frenzy to grow my list as I did, say, this time last year, as I was signing up my first few clients (who are still my clients, by the way, and one of whom just had a great success story).

what literary agents want, full manuscript, how to write a great book, slush pile, submission, how to write and publish a children's book
What literary agents want when evaluating a full manuscript.

What Literary Agents Want

And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. (I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it…more on that in a future post.)

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents. It’s a tough position to be in, and it doesn’t always let me go through my entire manuscript consideration process (which was supposed to be the point of this post). Still, while this is happening more and more, I wanted to let you in to my regular manuscript consideration process, since my slush consideration process post seemed to get a good response. This is how it all goes down on my end.

Write a Good Query Letter

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, per the post linked above, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month (this summer was slow because of the move) to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

Literary Agency Interns

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. Though, I don’t always agree with them, I value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us.)

What Literary Agents Want in a Manuscript

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me. It’s not rejection or offer by consensus. But because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

Learn to Write a Novel

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up (more on this, as promised, later). And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. Keep those submissions coming!

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.

Getting Offers from Multiple Literary Agents

Every writer dreams of getting offers from multiple literary agents, right? Maybe. A reader asked about what a writer should do if they happen to get offers of representation from multiple agents. First of all, congratulations are in order. An offer of representation is professional validation to a writer who has, most likely, not really gotten such praise and confidence from an expert source.

A lot of writers, though, think this is an embarrassment of riches and a great problem to have. It’s not. It’s a really stressful situation where you have to make a major business decision under time pressure, all while being wooed by really nice, really encouraging, really savvy people.

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Did you get an offer from multiple literary agents? How will you possibly pick?

What to Do When You Get an Offer of Representation

When you first get an offer of representation (see a previous post on this topic), send an email to all the other agents who have your partial or full. More often than not, in today’s really busy climate, you’ll probably get another offer by doing this.

Agents want the hot commodity and will likely chase a writer they know already has an offer — that means someone else thinks they’re good, too! (Occasional truth: some busy agents screen their slush pile by focusing on the writers who email to say they’ve gotten offers…that way the agent knows which projects are worth reading.)

Getting Offers From Multiple Literary Agents

So now you, the writer, have offers from multiple literary agents. The first one feels great. The second one starts to feel confusing. By the third, you’re queasy. Who to choose? They all love your book, or should. If you get a lukewarm offer, that person is just playing the game, most likely, and can be cut from consideration. They all have editorial advice. They all have enthusiasm for you and your career. Well, what now?

Talk to each of the agents. Get a feel for their passion level and for their ideas for the manuscript. Try not to let the gushing or hype or big promises go to your head, even though it’s hard. What do you want as a writer? An agent for the long-term or for just this project? Or an agent who gives editorial notes or one who is more hands off? An agent who communicates openly or who just gives you the verdict after the submission round is over? An agent who communicates by phone or by email? Or an agent who does small, careful submission rounds and waits to hear editor feedback or an agent who submits you all over town in a huge, splashy round?

Questions to Ask a Literary Agent

You are hiring this person. Let your needs and your feelings and your understanding of what’s right for you guide your questions. Good questions to ask:

  • How many clients do you have? (You may have trouble getting a straight answer here.)
  • How big do you want to grow your list?
  • What houses do you work with? (It’s the agent’s job to make connections, so if they only know or sell into a few houses, that might be too narrow.)
  • What is your submission style?
  • How often do you follow up once on submission?
  • Do you do editorial work? A little or a lot?
  • How do you see us growing my career together?
  • How often do you communicate? How do you best communicate?
  • Are you receptive to questions from me? How quickly do you respond? (Some agents are more standoffish, others do a large amount of “hand-holding” and support for their clients.)
  • Do you share submission lists and rejections as they happen? (Figure out if you want to know this…some authors love transparency, others like not hearing bad news.)

As about your agent’s path to becoming an agent, where they see themselves going, what their hopes are for your project. Ask them for client references if you think talking to one of their existing clients will help you. This definitely helped me eliminate a few agents when I was in these shoes.

What a Literary Agent Wants to Know About You

From an agent’s perspective, this is our time to feel you out, too. How open are you to our editorial ideas? (I will often give three big ideas but save most of my editorial notes for later. I don’t want to overwhelm the writer but I also don’t want to give them some of my best ideas in case they go elsewhere with their project but still use my notes.) How savvy are you (in terms of being part of the publishing scene, having an online presence, knowing how the business works)? Do you have stars in your eyes or are you realistic about the marketplace and about how much work it is to be a published author? What are your career goals? How high-maintenance or easygoing are you and how easily would we work together?

The question you’re seeking to answer, as a writer, and the question I’m seeking to answer, as an agent, is this: Would we have a long-term, profitable, communicative, respectful, productive business partnership?

Choosing the Right Literary Agent for Your

Now, this is a difficult question to answer. It comes down to a combination of gut feeling and your impressions of an agent and their prestige and record. You can check an agent’s sales in Publishers Marketplace. For $25 a month, month-to-month, you have access to a deals database that is pretty comprehensive (some deals aren’t posted there for various reasons, but you do get a pretty good picture) for each agent and agency.

Agency reputation is really important. Has the agent’s agency been around for long? Have they brought many books to market? Are they known for the genre or age range for which you want to write? Publishing is a business of relationships and reputation.

You also need to take the agent’s rank into consideration — are they a newer agent with the agency or pretty senior in the organization? How long have they been agenting? There are pros and cons for a younger agent vs. an established agent, and I think that will be my next post.

This is a big decision. And getting offers from multiple literary agents is becoming more and more common, from what I’m noticing (a post on this later, as well). For every writer in this position, I just want to say: this is your decision. Take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Agents are intimidating to a lot of writers but, at this level, you really are in control. Use it.

How Long Do I Have To Submit After a Literary Agent Request?

Beth asked a literary agent request question that I’d love to address. Here’s what she said:

My burning question: Is a week–or two too long to wait to get back to an agent requesting a partial? Based on a different agent’s feedback, I’d decided to do a huge revision of the beginning of my manuscript. Recently another agent (queried *before* my decision to revise) asked to see the beginning. Obviously I want it to be perfect before sending it, but I don’t want to lose the agent’s interest or have them think I queried them prematurely (which is actually the case, but it was an honest mistake).

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For those of you winding your pocket watches and working on a typewriter, some great news about literary agent requests.

You’ve Received a Literary Agent Request… But You’re Not Ready!

Honey, every writer I’ve ever known has made this honest mistake. OF COURSE you queried prematurely. Why? Because, even though I’ve been saying not to f-o-r-e-v-e-r, you didn’t believe me. That’s fine. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not fun advice, so I know most people ignore it (or think they’re the exception).

The only way to really learn this is to be in the situation and to have that light bulb go off in your head. Even with things you’ve been told a million, billion times, it never resonates until you’re staring at the manuscript you just queried around and seeing all the flaws and you have that sinking feeling in your gut.

I won’t scold you any more about it, though. 🙂

Do Not Rush Through Revision

But now I will give you some advice that I really hope you (translation: everybody reading this who will be querying at any point in their future, and not just querying me) take to heart. If you’ve already made this mistake — to be clear, the mistake is rushing out a manuscript that wasn’t as fully revised as it needs to be — once, don’t make it twice.

DO NOT rush to complete this next revision just so you can rush it out to agents again. How can you POSSIBLY do a “huge revision” in two weeks and have it fully percolate and marinate and settle?

This just happened to me, for example. I usually don’t talk about things where the writer will most likely be able to identify him or herself on the blog, but this is harmless. I asked for a full manuscript in, oh, October. I never ended up getting it. And I’m selective about the fulls I request, so I did remember that I’d asked for it, and every few months, I’d randomly think, “Hey, I wonder what happened with that one.”

Well, an email with a completely revised full showed up this week (April), with a note that the writer had done a serious revision and didn’t want to bug me before it was ready. You know what? Not only did I not forget this manuscript (a), but I now respect that writer, because they got a full request and were about to press the “send” button in their excitement, but they pulled back and really took their time on a revision (b).

Submit to Literary Agents Only When Your Manuscript Is Ready

I tell people at conferences the same exact things (are y’all listening out there from Dallas?!). If I ask to see something, or I am even remotely interested in what you’re doing, you will not lose my interest. They probably got some ideas at the conference. They will probably go home and do revisions. They should take their time and query me whenever, because I’d rather see something good than something unpolished that comes quickly.

Let’s just say I prefer slow, gourmet food to fast food, because it takes a lot of time and care and craft to cook really delicious fare. (Edited in 2017 to add that I married a chef, so I take this metaphor super seriously!)

So, Beth, take your time. Don’t rush AGAIN. I know I’ll end up begging and pleading this particular point for the rest of my career, so here’s yet another entry into the Don’t Rush Out Your Submission Hall of Fame.

Let’s jump into your revision together. Revision guidance is at the heart of every one of my book editing services.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Start a Query Letter

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Finish a Query Letter

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.