I Wrote a Book, Now What?

Here’s an email from Maria on behalf of her daughter, whose question boils down to this: “I wrote a book, now what?”

My 13 year old has just finished writing the rough draft of her first novel and is in the process of editing. Do we wait until she feels “finished” to send out query letters or should we do that now?

i wrote a book now what, when is a manuscript finished
If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Don’t query something that’s half finished.

I Wrote a Book, Now What? Three Points to Consider

This question touches on three points, but the three points are related. The first point is knowing when the manuscript is ready to go out for agent consideration. I’m sure I’ll post more about this issue in many different contexts later, since “When is a manuscript finished?” is one of the biggest questions writers have. The second point is when to query an agent. The third point is teenage authors.

Point One: When is a Manuscript Finished?

Think about getting to a point when you’ve worked it so long and so much that you’re frustrated with it and never want to see it again. Then tack a couple more revisions on there. Then you might actually be ready. The answer to “When is a manuscript finished?” is when other people (who know what they’re talking about) have read it and ripped it apart and you’ve put it back together. At least twice. In my previous life as an aspiring author, I sent out manuscripts that I thought were ready. They weren’t and I collected a nice bouquet of rejections. You never truly know until you try, that’s true. But if you’re sending out of frustration or out of a lack of ideas for what more you could possibly do to make it better, that’s when you should ask trusted readers for feedback and revise again. Speed benefits nobody when you’re trying to finish a manuscript. You might as well take that time to really, really, really polish and perfect your submission.

Point Two: When Should You Query Agents?

Simple. If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Remember our original question? I wrote a book, now what? Don’t approach the “now what” until your book is fully baked. If it’s only half-finished and an agent wants to see it, a) you’ll have to get back to them and say “Uh, it’s not done yet” and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush when you do try and finish, which is the worst possible thing you can do. Don’t query something that’s close to finished and then have an idea for a revision a minute after you send the manuscript to someone who requests it. Then you’ll a) be in an awkward position where you’re sending a revision to a literary agent, and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush, which etc. etc. etc. Send queries only when it’s ready and never resort to the query letter follow up, better known as the Reassurance Query. Trusted readers (and NOT agents and editors) like a critique group or published, experienced writers should be your sounding board for all manuscript-related questions.

Part three: Teenage Authors

It’s a tough call. Some agents will flat-out refuse to work with teenage authors because that means working with their parents also and all the different legalities involved. A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened. The biggest issue with teen authors, in my opinion, is something that totally can’t be helped. It takes a whole lot of time and practice to become a good writer. Time is something teens haven’t had a whole lot of yet. So when you and your daughter send queries around, Maria, do understand that some agents will have prejudices against you automatically, if you choose to mention her age. If she’s a crazy prodigy, mentioning her age might be an asset. Otherwise, it probably isn’t the boasting-point you’re imagining. I’ve been shocked by the maturity and quality of exactly two teen’s submissions in my career. One mentioned her age in the query, the other didn’t. He only mentioned it later, when I happened to say, ironically, that his writing read like it was for an audience slightly older than YA. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

The great thing about being a 13 year-old who’s asking, “I wrote a book, now what?” is that with that kind of dedication — even if this first project doesn’t find a foothold in publishing, and it might not — she’s got nothing but time to keep writing and honing her craft. We should all be so lucky. 🙂

Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll give you the push you need to finish your manuscript.

Comp Titles: Comparing Yourself to Other Writers in a Query

Kristen asked the following comparative titles or “comp titles” question a few weeks ago about a post I did on how to write a simple, compelling query. Here goes:

What about jumping straight into the query synopsis after the “Dear (Agent)” salutation, and sticking the “I am seeking representation for X” at the end? Also, I’ve been adding a sentence that goes something like this: “(Book title) will appeal to fans of (author) and (author)” — is this type of comparative titles analysis a pro or con?

comp titles, comparative titles, comp title, comparative titles
“I’m basically like all of these comp titles … but better.”

The Scoop on Comp Titles

Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first. This is your query. The order of the sentences that comprise it is completely up to you. Personally, I like to know genre/word count/basic stats on the manuscript up front, that way I don’t read a query out of context and then get surprised that the author was actually describing a 100,000 metafictional picture book (hyperbolic on purpose) when I thought they were talking about a YA fantasy. It just helps me get my marbles all in order as I’m reading.

Now, on to the stickier part. As for drawing comparisons to other authors, you can do that all you want, but make sure it’s true. 🙂

Someone can say comparative titles like, they’re J.K. Rowling crossed with Sarah Dessen until the cows come home, but I’ll be the judge of that. Rarely are people ever truly excellent at objective self-evaluation. Most people want to write like a Sara Zarr or a John Green or a Holly Black or a Neil Gaiman or a whoever, precious few actually do. In fact, drawing these kinds of comparisons is something I might do when I’m pitching your work to an editor. If you compare yourself to someone, your writing is excellent and I completely agree with your comp titles, you’ll make that part of my pitch easier!

So yes, theoretically, an author can take a looong step back, figure out exactly who their comp titles are and where they’ll fit in the market, let me know, and then we’ll dance into the sunset of publication hand in hand. More often than not, however, the kind of writers who draw comparisons between themselves and others (namely Rowling, Meyer, Brown and Patterson) are self-aggrandizing and delusional and don’t stand a chance of finding an analogous author because their writing is only comparable to one thing: drivel.

As with most things to do with publishing and the craft of writing, if you’re going to do it, make sure you do it well, and that includes comparative titles. That’s good advice for pretty much anything, I think.

Wondering how to pitch and market yourself? I do query letter editing, which includes advice on comp titles, if you’re getting ready to submit.

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

how long should a children's book be, children's book manuscript length, manuscript word counts, picture book word count, middle grade word count, chapter book word count, early reader word count, young adult word count, literary agent word count
That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

Here’s the question:

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

When Manuscript Length Is an Issue

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Children’s Book Length

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 100 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 400 words max
  • Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
  • Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
  • Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
  • Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
  • New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience.  If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.

Working With a Literary Agent: What to Expect

There’s something I’d like to clear up about working with a literary agent: their job is to sell your already-polished work to a publisher. Their job isn’t to help you develop a half-baked idea or to provide free editorial services.

Granted, when I was an agent, I loved the editorial process of working with a manuscript. It said that right in my bio on the agency website. That’s why I started my own editorial agency — so I could focus on the work I enjoy the most.

working with a literary agent, literary agent notes, when to hire a freelance editor
Working with a literary agent means that your manuscript is ALREADY sparkling at the time of submission.

But when agents say, “I love to do editorial work with clients!” it opens up an ugly Pandora’s box. When certain unprofessional writers see an agent’s passion for editorial work, they think it’s okay to query with statements like:

I know this needs a lot of work but I’m fed up with it. I need professional help because, if I ever have to look at this manuscript again, so help me God…

I never done written nothin’ befor so I need sumone to healp mak this teh best book evar…

Together we can develop this into a bestseller bigger than Twilight and Harry Potter combined…

My idea is so great, and if you could only write it for me…

Working with a Literary Agent: What it Entails

An agent makes money by doing one thing: selling books. Not by developing projects (though that’s a huge part of the work they do every day…for clients), not by taking on the role of a freelance editor, not by ghostwriting, not by playing critique partner for free. That’s not an agent’s job, and is essentially wasting time on something that, most likely, will never amount to anything.

When I was an agent and I said that I loved doing editorial work with my clients, that didn’t mean that I had the ability or desire to rehabilitate every querier’s Ugly Ducking Manuscript into The Next Bella Swan. It didn’t mean I wanted to fix your hot mess. It meant that I was hands on and loved to give guidance to the clients I signed.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

The clients I took on already had manuscripts that were 95% ready for editors to see them. That meant I took the best of the best and made sure it was irresistible to publishers. If I saw promise and potential and, ahem, professionalism and craft, I worked with a writer until the ends of the Earth. If a writer begged for me to fix their thing for free, I shook my head and chuckled. Impatience, as you can see from the comments in It’s Easy to Get Published, is one of the biggest mental hurdles writers have.

The point is, if you can’t bear to look at your manuscript one more time, hire a freelance editor. If you’ve never written anything before in your life and you want to know whether you’re doing it right, keep writing because you’re probably not. If you want free guidance from another reader, join a critique group. If you want someone to develop a project with you, try to get a co-writer who will agree to work for free and take a risk on you.

However, if, and only if, you want someone to take your nearly-editor-ready, sparkling, beautiful manuscript and sell it, then working with a literary agent makes sense, because that is what an agent does.

The Diamond in the Rough

I know a lot of people will think “But what if something really is a diamond in the rough and working with a literary agent is what it needs to be the next Harry Potter?” I’m sure this has happened. But you know what? When I was an agent, I tried doing that with a few writers. I really saw promise…or convinced myself I did. There were glimmers of hope. I spent hours giving extensive literary agent notes.

But the problem with people who have promising yet unpracticed writing is that the writer doesn’t have as many revision skills as people who have been writing and honing their craft for a while. Every single one of the “diamond in the rough” projects I tried to rehab fell apart in the revision phase and I pretty thoroughly learned my lesson. If some writer were to come to me and say “Here, please fix my urchin of a manuscript and, oh yeah, I’ve invented a machine that’ll give you 24 more hours in every day”…then I might’ve given it a second thought, but not before. 🙂

I’m no longer a literary agent, but I love providing editorial services to writers of all skill levels who need help polishing their work.

How to Write a Query: The Myth of the Perfect Query Letter

Shannon asked this how to write a query question on my post about the second person and rhetorical questions in queries a few days ago, and I wanted to do a quick post about this myth of the perfect query letter in response:

Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this write a query business is intimidating.

write a query, perfect query letter, slush pile, literary agent, publisher submission, book submission, get published
Think this is the set-up for the perfect query letter? Read on to write a query without losing your mind.

Write a Query Letter Without Stressing Out

I may completely misread her point here, but I do it intentionally, so stick with me. “Marketing” implies gimmicks to me, especially this early in the game. When you’ve got an actual published book out, then you can market your butt off (and should) to try and get people to buy it. At the querying phase, it’s not about selling and hustling at all. This is one myth of the perfect query letter.

Getting an agent means entering into a relationship because two people believe in a project and want to have a long working partnership. The author places a lot of trust in the agent and the agent works hard without any immediate gain. The choice to work together doesn’t originate from any flashy whiz-bang query letter shenanigans. You aren’t trying to trick an agent or use fancy misdirection when you write a query. You don’t try to “market” your way into a long-term romantic relationship, right? It’s the same thing here. The query exchange, to me, should come from a place of authenticity, as stripped free of gimmick as possible.

Adjusting Your Attitude When You Write a Query

If you’re getting intimidated by writing the perfect query letter, that might be a sign that you’re overthinking it. It’s very simple. Tell me about your idea and make me care. The perfect query letter, to me, is just a way to attract interest in your writing sample, which is the heart of the matter anyway. Once I start reading your manuscript and love it, the query letter is completely forgotten. If you want an easy suggestion for writing an appealing letter, you can read a previous post about the kind of query I like to see here: Writing a simple, compelling query. Or you can swim on over to Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark.

It might seem hypocritical for me to say: “Don’t worry about your query, you’re overthinking it! It’s easy!” while, at the same time, writing so much about queries, but that’s what people ask me about. A query is a writer’s first step into the agent search and, understandably, they want to get it right. So, while I have and will continue to dispense a lot of advice about how to write a query, they’re really a much smaller deal — big picture-wise — than the manuscript that follows.

Every one of my manuscript editing services as a book editor comes with query notes. Take the guesswork out of this simple letter, and get feedback on the book itself, and hire me today.

Writing a Series Query Letter and Series in General

This question about writing a series query letter is from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

series query letter, writing a series
Writing a series query letter: do you have a series up your sleeve? Focus on the first book in your query.

Good question, Elan. Writing a series query letter is something a lot of writers should be researching beforehand, because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Writing a Series Query Letter: Past and Present

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really writing a children’s book series for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

Series are Risky for Publishers

This isn’t fun to hear for the fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi writer who’s planning to write a series query letter for their seven-book story arc. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

Create Stand-Alone Stories

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

Gauge Interest Before Writing a Series

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So it’s fine to send agents a series query letter. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

Writing a series? When you hire me as your children’s book editor, I can help you structure your novel so that there’s subtle potential for a sequel.

Elements of a Query Letter: Send a Manuscript Sample Anyway

You will see many a frustrated agent harping over and over again that the elements of a query letter should always follow submission guidelines. I will be the first to add my voice to the chorus: you should always follow submission guidelines when sending your novel query letter!

elements of a query letter, novel query letter
Are you confident that the first ten pages of your manuscript are exceptional? If so, they could be a strong addition to your query letter submission.

Elements of a Query Letter: Always Follow an Agency’s Specific Guidelines

But…you should always follow our submission guidelines. At ABLit, we request the first 10 pages as one of the elements of your query letter submission. I’m here to say something a little controversial that might raise some hackles. I say, send the first 10 pages to all the agents you’re querying, even if they don’t ask for them. (Sorry, guys!)

Before we proceed, I will write one note of warning here — this advice is for Advanced Users Only. Your first 10 pages have to be solid gold, or you shouldn’t bother with this strategy. Try to take an objective look. Try to determine whether or not you’ve got Conference Polish Syndrome. If your first 10 are a marvel and the rest of the manuscript is even better, send them with your novel query letter regardless of the guidelines. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel for more info.)

Why You Send Send Your First 10 (If You Know They’re Good)

Here’s why. When I read a novel query letter that catches my eye, I have absolutely no way of knowing if the writing is any good. And that’s all that matters at the end of the day. If I was judging a submission on query only, I’d have a very high chance of requesting something that ended up being totally off-base. Query writing does not equal manuscript writing, the two are completely different by nature. Or I’d request something and wait to receive it and forget what I liked about the query in the first place and so the sample would make no sense and I would’ve lost interest in the meantime or gotten busy with something else, etc. etc. etc.

If some sample pages are an element of your query letter submission, I can look at the writing  right away. There’s much less room for error in terms of requesting something that ends up a hot mess, and I have instant gratification. A query intrigues me and I can keep reading immediately. No wait, no chance to lose any enthusiasm. Sometimes, it’s a total let-down. Other times, I like the sample and get even more excited and request the full on the spot.

My Personal Experience With Sending the First 10

Before I joined the agency, I was an agented writer myself. My third manuscript and, hence, my third round of sending novel query letters, landed me an agent (full disclosure: I am no longer with that agent, as that would present a conflict of interest). When I sent out only queries for my first two manuscripts, I got a lukewarm response and it took forever. With my third try, I decided to send 10 pages as an element of my query letter submission, whether requested or not. I think Sarah Palin might’ve called that a “mavericky” move. Almost everyone responded right away, the whole process took two weeks and I got offers from six agents. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, but this strategy made it easy for an agent to a) read me right away, b) like me right away, c) get really excited. (Note to writers: I did mention above that this was my third try at getting an agent…that means I’d tried and failed several times. It takes a lot of practice to write a novel that agents consider publishable enough to offer on.)

That’s why I’m so happy the first 10 pages are part of our submission guidelines at ABLit. And I think there’s a good case for making it your submission strategy, regardless of guidelines elsewhere. Just make sure you paste the text in the body of an email if you e-query. Also, the “No attachments” part of many submission guidelines is one you really shouldn’t ignore.

Are you struggling with how to pitch an idea effectively? Hire my query editing services and I’ll guide you through the process.

Appropriate Rejection Response

I hope this post will lift the veil a bit regarding rejection response and let writing hopefuls see some of my thought process as an agent. There’s some truth here about publishing rejection that might not be fun to hear. Sensitive souls might want to turn back now.

rejection response, publishing rejection
A simple “Thank you” (or nothing at all) is the perfect response to publishing rejection.

An issue that some writers wonder about is rejection response, aka., what to do once you get a rejection in your inbox? Tread carefully, writers! A rejection is, by its very nature, unpleasant. There are many different types of query rejection and some rejections are better than others, but at the end of the day, it’s still a “no” when you want to hear a “yes.” Here are two frequent rejection responses agents get:

Rejection Response: The Salesman

“Oh, you don’t like this particular manuscript? Well, I’ve got something else here in my Bag o’ Tricks that might just fit the bill instead.”

Here’s the ugly truth, writers: when we reject something, it is because we don’t believe we can sell it to a publishing house. About 90% of the time, this is because the manuscript is just not ready to be shown for possible publication. The writing is weak. There’s no voice. The idea doesn’t have any spark. (The other 10%, of course, is reserved for people who are rejected because they’re just plain crazy…) I try to give some constructive feedback if I see the opportunity. But most of the time, it’s simply because the writing is not ready. (The good thing about that, of course, is that every day is a new opportunity to improve your craft and get it ready!)

This problem is not going to be fixed by trotting out another manuscript. Or two. Or three. I used to let people show me a few things if they so insisted but the results were always the same and now I dread this situation.

Whatever you have in your stable, chances are, it still has the same general writing issues as the thing I just rejected. It’s already a less-than-pleasant part of my job to reject you. Don’t force me to do it again.

Please don’t start going through your roster of manuscripts and offering up everything else you’ve ever written unless you can categorically say that the quality is a huge improvement (and if it is, why not just send that in the first place?). Instead, hone your craft, get opinions from readers you trust and query around after some time has passed and you’re confident that your work is stronger.

Rejection Response: The Rage

You are the stupidest/most incompetent/ugliest/smelliest person in the world and you are missing out on MILLIONS, LITERALLY MILLIONS of dollars by rejecting my genius opus. I thought you were one of the smart ones and could recognize brilliance when you saw it. Well I guess I was wrong.”

Nothing needs to be said about this other than: email makes it easy to fire off a rejection response, no matter what emotional state you happen to be in. That doesn’t mean you should.

Long story short? Don’t take a publishing rejection to mean that the door’s wide open for everything you’ve ever written and don’t be a psycho.

What are the two preferred rejection responses?

  • “Thanks for reading!”
  • Nothing

Simple as that.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

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 approach a literary agent query letter, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

writing a query letter, fiction query letter, query letter editor, children's book query letter, literary agent query letter
Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Beginning

Want to know how to write 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 literary agent query letter 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.  They’re also the key in terms of how to write a query letter that’ll grab an agent’s attention. 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! (For more on this topic, check out my post on writing fiction that makes readers care.)

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 Write a Query Letter: The Closing

Then, you’ll finish your literary agent query letter 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 format 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 answer to questions about how 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.

When to Use Second Person Writing

Is everyone clear on what second person writing is? It’s the you POV in a narrative. Many narrators, usually first person, use the “you” occasionally.

second person writing, you pov
Leave me out of it and get on with your story.

Examples of Second Person Writing

“My heart pounded with the kind of beat you only get after running for your life.”

“I’m telling you straight, man, she was so hot you could fry an egg on her.”

There’s also implied second person writing, which is sort of like the second example only the you POV is never explicitly stated. This implied 2nd person is usually used with a storytelling sort of voice:

“It rained so hard, honest to God, I never thought it’d stop.”

In all of these examples, there is either a “you” addressed or hinted at. The narrator is always talking to someone (usually interpreted as “the reader”) and breaking the fourth wall. (Theatre geek here, remember? “Breaking the fourth wall” is a theatre term, meaning the actors break the barrier between the stage and the house and address the audience directly.)

There’s also a less widespread use of second person writing… that’s when the “you” is another character in the story and the narrating character is talking directly to them. An excellent recent example of this is WHEN YOU REACH ME.

Finally, there are books that are written entirely in the you POV, where “You” is the main character. These do not work for me, at all, as the direct address feels like it’s pulling me out of the story the entire time. A book that I have recently been unable to get into, despite knowing how brilliant it is and having deep respect for its writer and editor, is (the aptly titled) YOU by Charles Benoit.

Avoid Carelessness With the You POV

Now that we’re all clear on what second person writing is, I want to make a point about it. A lot of writers are very careless with the occasional you POV because it has become very common in our way of talking. Everyday speech is studded with expressions like “you know?” and they translate into our manuscripts. Sometimes a narrator will go on a 2nd person jag, and every simile has a “you” embedded in it. Other times, the you POV will be absent for hundreds of pages at a time only to show up randomly.

Be very careful with the 2nd person. It is confrontational. It breaks out of the 1st or 3rd person and crosses the line between story and reader, fiction and the real life of the person reading it. It makes the reader part of the story and, when used intentionally, can have a really cool effect (which I still probably won’t appreciate, as is the case with YOU, because I don’t personally enjoy 2nd person).

Second Person Writing Tip

But I’m seeing a lot of sloppy, careless second person writing outbursts in narratives that don’t necessarily demand the 2nd person. My tip, while you’re just feeling out a story and getting the hang of writing it, is to leave the 2nd person out, if you can. If used correctly and consistently, it rocks. Otherwise, it just seems spotty and annoying. From me, it gets the reaction of: “Leave ME out of it and get on with the story!”

So that’s what I’d say. Either you use 2nd person consistently in a manuscript (and I’m talking narrative here, not dialogue) or write a draft without the 2nd person and see if you miss it. All I’m saying, folks, is make it intentional.

Bonus Query Tip

If there’s one thing that bugs the jeebus out of me, it’s the use of second person writing in your query letter POV:

“What would YOU do if a flesh-eating virus was descending on YOUR town and only YOU had the antidote… locked in a small capsule in the base of YOUR spine?”

Um… are you honestly asking me? Because I’d probably mess my pants, eat a pint of ice cream and go hide in the basement with my back to the wall.

See, when you get the 2nd person involved, it automatically elicits a reaction from your reader. By starting a query with a rhetorical question, you’ll get on your reader’s nerves and most likely elicit the reaction of: “I don’t want to hear about ME, I’d rather hear about YOUR book, dingus!”

Not that any serious publishing professionals have ever been known to use the word “dingus.” (Okay, that might be a lie.)

If you’re still struggling with POV, tense, or revision, hire me for freelance editing services. I’m well-versed in these and all other craft topics and we can tackle big changes together.