Thursday, July 31, 2014

Query Question: niche, very niche appeal

I've written a whole series of novels (I'm on the seventh and final one). I know you're not supposed to complete a series unless you can sell the first one, but I quite literally couldn't help myself. The world drew me in.

I just started querying agents on Book One, after going through it with critique groups and beta readers. It's not a shelf's far from perfect, but I think it's good, and I don't think I'll change my mind about that with time. My problem, besides my inexperience querying agents, is that it's not a broad-audience series. They're decidedly weird books, hard to pigeonhole into an exact genre. I mean, imagine if Hunter S. Thompson came back to life, huffed a bunch of ether and said, "I'm going to write a young adult fantasy novel!" (Except maybe the ether impaired his glorious writing abilities a little. And to be clear here, I don't huff ether).

If I continue having no luck with agents (only queried about 15 so far), would it hurt me so badly to self-publish this series and try to market to my narrow audience? My future books might be more marketable: I'm having very good luck getting my little narrative nonfiction anecdotes published, and wanted to compile them at some point into a memoir. My idea for my next fiction novel seems more mainstream, too.

You think there aren't small publishers out there who appeal to very niche audiences? You haven't done enough research my friend.

Of course, some small publishers are complete and utter disasters, whereas others are chugging along  producing beautiful books.  Your job is to find out who they are and which side of the line they live on.  You can do this instead of writing and it still counts as work! Wheee!

A small publisher can be a whole lot better than going it alone. For starters, you have comrades in arms (other writers on the publisher's list) and that will help you when you need to learn how this
publishing game works. And you have people to ask if it's just you or if everyone's royalty statement is late.  Or a bunch of people to contribute toward the PW ad that features all your titles. 

Small presses are a great place to find the niche audience you think will be yours. 

And having niche work is no barrier when you have wider appeal books in the future.  Everyone in publishing understands that there's a limited audience for dinosaur erotica....or was.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Query Question: Plan B

My first book is self published. The publisher I used call themselves a subsidy publisher. They have an acquisitions department, are very selective about the books they choose, and accept submissions without an agent. I had read about the near impossibility of getting noticed by an agent and published by a traditional publisher in multiple articles and blogs. So their claims to be an innovative publisher changing the publishing market were intriguing. While I was deciding the best career path to follow, I sent my manuscript to them. They loved it, and gave me the hard sell to publish with them. It seemed too easy, so I asked a lot of questions. Because they are one of the largest publishing companies, they assured me they could give me more options and exposure than a traditional publisher. Of course, they couldn't predict sales or give statistics, but I understood there's no crystal ball in this business. Since then I have realized, marketing my book was completely my responsibility, noone gets rejected by this publisher, and everyone in the industry considers my book self published.

I've sold close to 900 books from personal book sales, book club discussions, and in the marketplace. That's small scale, but not bad for self publishing. Just not big enough to get attention from anyone in the traditional publishing world. From your blog it seems self publishing is a negative mark against me for future traditional publishing? It's impossible to know if agents are passing because they aren't interested in my second novel or because of my previous publishing faux pas. I just don't want to waste my time. If the vast majority of agents will pass on me, even if they really love my next novel, should I even send query letters to agents? Should I just self publish on my own, use the platform I've already started to build and sidestep all the rejection?

You don't have to mention your previous run in with the brutal reality of a company earning money by selling snake oil to writers. You query as you normally would. You simply don't say "this is my first novel."

Agents are passing because they aren't enticed by your novel.  You must have missed the day when I mentioned that agents are mostly rapacious sharks who will eat their siblings to get ahead in this world, and if we think a book will help us make money we are going to pounce on it like it was a seal in a salty sea.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Question: follow up time frame on full requests

I am wondering how long is appropriate to follow up on a full request. I saw one of your posts that said to absolutely follow up, but you did not specify the appropriate amount of time. I'm hearing 8 weeks, 12 weeks, six months.

Also, when following up with said agent, should I mention that the MS has been requested by other agents in the interim? I have not received offers, but requests. 

The industry standard here is ironclad:
1. Follow up in the time frame suggested by the agent's website or submission guidelines.

2. If there are no guidelines, you follow up in 30 days on a query, and 90 days on a full.  NO sooner.

I actually have a list of what to do if I don't respond to your query in 30 days.  It's here at Query Letter Diagnostics.  You can apply that to most other agents as well since most of us do these same things.

As to the second part of your question, no you don't mention how many requests you have. You DO mention if you get an offer.  In fact, if you get an offer you email everyone who requested a full and tell them. You also mention your time frame: you have a week to reply to the offer; you have ten days to reply to the offer; you have 7 minutes to reply, get out your rocket propelled eyeballs for a quick skim.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Dodged a bullet!

Last Saturday July 26, 2014 was the 16th Chum Bucket of 2014.

It's been running since July of 2012. In that time span I've received ONE reply that was slightly snotty.

Then Saturday, I got this:

"Why don't you read the inside of my butt, you smartass little cunt."

Now, you might think this would get me all ruffled and righteously angry.
You'd be wrong.

My first, last and only thought is "whew! Dodged a bullet on this one!'

Part of the query process is sorting out the folks you want to work with from the sort you don't.  Guess where this querier falls? And so nice to know so early in the process.

Can you imagine the querier's response to an editorial rejection? To a "review" on GoodReads? An Amazon one-star review?

Whew indeed!

I really do have to laugh because along with that email I got about eight others that thanked me, either just very politely and simply or much more effusively.  I know this guy is an amusing anomaly in a long run of otherwise amazing interactions.

I will say this though: this is the kind of response that burns bridges forever.  There's absolutely no coming back from this no matter how sincere any kind of follow up might be. 

Queriers are in a tough position. There's absolute no doubt about that. But, you can make it worse, and flying off the handle is one very good way to do it.  Flying off the handle with insulting, invective filled language is a better, faster way. Flying off the handle with insulting, invective filled language when you know you agreed NOT to is the very best, fastest, most thorough way. Please don't find out for yourself.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Happy Sunday!

I thought this list of words that have a different meaning if you're a writer on BuzzFeed was pretty funny.

Which one is your favorite?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Query Question: Should an introvert try for a writing career?

Greetings oh cartilage-finned QOTKU,

I happen to know a young lady who is immensely talented at writing. However, she is also VERY introverted. And by introverted, I mean that she has a minor disability (which is possibly worse to her mind than it really is, but still) which makes it unusually stressful for her to meet new people, speak in public, and sometimes even travel. I can relate to her on a smaller scale – at least I no longer vomit in anticipation of social gatherings; age and the necessity of holding an actual job go a long way toward lessening that kind of thing. Plus, you just learn to fake it. However, it’s one thing to overcome a bad case of shyness and another thing to have a real problem that is sometimes recognized and understood by the general public, and sometimes not.

This woman asked my advice on whether or not she’s wise under these conditions pursue a career at writing. On the one hand I wanted to say HOLY COW, YES (she’s so talented!). On the other hand I wanted to say, DO YOU LIKE GIN? Seriously though, here’s the thing: I’ve been told that promoting your work – regardless of genre – is of vital import. I know that many (most?) writers are introverts, and I imagine that giving readings/doing book signings/ attending release parties is probably difficult for a lot of us. But for my friend, this is the stuff of nightmares.

I know that if anyone can be trusted to deliver the straight poop on this (or any) subject, it’s you. What is your advice to someone who would have a hard time with the social aspect of the writing biz?

Pursue a career in writing? Please, hold my tiara while I gasp for air. I'd sooner advise her to pursue a career in taxi-dancing.

"A career" implies that this is how she will earn her daily bread. That's not something most writers can do. Most writers need a full time day job and a spouse to make ends meet.


If you were to ask me if this woman, lovely and talented as she is, should write with the goal of being published, I give that my rousing support.

Writing is how many people express themselves creatively, how they learn to think clearly and communicate well.  It's one of the most satisfying things in the world to know you've said something with pith and vinegar.

To connect with readers, to have readers write to say they find value, or solace, or entertainment in your words, well...I've never done heroin but I'm thinking that feeling of euphoria might come close.

Of course she should write.  All that other stuff is just an excuse not to sit down, stare at the wall, and commence with "it was a dark and stormy night."

And if her writing requires her to have a public presence, well, we'll solve that problem when we get there.  You won't achieve anything in this life if the only thing you can see are reasons you shouldn't try something.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Query: Golden oldies...not so much

In trying to figure out which of my book elements are appropriate for a query, I'm stumbling on how to say "it takes place in the 1970s."  Much easier to say "contemporary" or "historical" romance, but online research is showing different definitions for these (i.e., different time periods as cut-offs). Someone even coined a new word: "retro." Point is, I'm finding few periods for either era that include the 1960s through 1980s. How do you recommend handling this?

oh boy, this is a really tough question.  Since agents come in all ages, you want to be VERY careful about calling something set in the 70's (when they were in high school, or college, or working their first job in publishing!) historical!

I've often heard agents of a certain age grouse that nothing after their birth year better be "historical."

But there's no way to know just exactly how old Barbara Poelle IS (sharks live for years and years) or how young Brooks Sherman isn't.

There was a recent quiz on Buzzfeed to guess one's age, and my result was off by so much it was ludicrous.

So, no "historical."
Retro isn't a word you want to use either since it refers to style, not time frame.

I think you want to be very very plain: my novel is set in the 70's. And you might want to mention why it is as well, given that's always one of the things I wonder about.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Question: The currency of queries

I was recently lurking around Twitter when I saw your retweet about your home skillet Brooks Sherman here: Pens for Paws

I had every intention of placing a last-minute 9:59pm bid and winning the whole shebang.
At the last second, I couldn’t click “publish,” and here’s the question that stopped me: am I ruining my chances with an agent by paying (even for a good cause) for them to critique my work? What if he’s my “dream agent,” but hates my first chapter + query after I pay to have him critique both?

The bloated final bid belched in at a staggering $324. Would an agent secretly frown upon the person who paid this amount of money for a query + one-chapter critique should the same person query them later? Or am I taking a really positive, fun, amazing auction and being crazy over-thinking it? Thanks for your time.

Of course you're over thinking this. You're a writer. I've seen writers parse out the hidden meaning of replies to a query received after midnight versus before midnight.  

However, since telling you not to worry is pretty much a non-starter, how about I tell you why you don't have to worry.

For starters, if I like your work I don't care how I find it: query letter stolen from slithery Barbara Poelle under the guise of tidying her desk, Chum Bucket, written missive sent to my office (sans glitter and any other cutsie items), a short story published in a magazine, a drunken brawl at ThrillerFest, or a contest.

If I like your work, I want to read it.

If I don't like your work, it doesn't matter how it found its way to me, I still don't like it.

In other words: the medium is not the message here, all due respect to Marshall McLuhan

And if I'm your dream agent (and you know I hate that very idea right??) I won't even know about it till much later if ever.

And if you think $325 is a lot to pay for a critique, boy have I got a rude surprise for you.  I know several agents who commanded four figures on a ms critique, and of course promptly gave four crits instead of one so as to raise more money for the cause.

I'm actually rather fond of the people who fork over money for my amazingly cogent and pithy opinions.  They're supporting a cause I care about and flattering my already quite robust ego. Win/Win.

So, don't work yourself into a frenzy here. Don't spend money you don't have thinking it's a good way to get special attention; it's not. But also don't think you've closed off an avenue by bidding for a crit
instead of just straight querying.

Gnaw yourself into a frenzy about the rhythm of your sentences, and whether writing in the second person is really a good idea.  You know you can.

PS Yea, I had to look up home skillet. I'm not as with it as I like to think I am.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Query: research by living

I am preparing to query my novel and have a quick question for you about author bios.

A few agents go so far as to ask queriers to justify why they are qualified to write their novel. You've already answered this question in another post (in short, I'm qualified to write it because it's my novel!). I was both relieved and amused by your response and your usual down to earth common sense.

But even if agents are simply asking for a basic author bio, I wonder about what is helpful to include. In my case, the MC of my novel is a teenage girl who has been abandoned by her parents to live in a home for at-risk youth.

When I was thirteen I lived in a girls' shelter. While I did not experience the same degree of abuse and peril my MC is faced with, I certainly did glean a pretty personal understanding of what life in an institution is like for a teenager.

Because my book is set in this milieu, is it relevant to mention my own history (briefly and succinctly of course) in my bio? Is this information worth including? Would it mean anything to an agent?

It's certainly not out of place to mention you have some experience in the world your protagonist inhabits.  For some agents that's a valuable thing. Me, I don't care. Make it all up, but just get the details right.

You've hit exactly the right spot knowing you need to be brief and succinct.  What irks me is when someone starts their query with what they think is relevant info and go on and on and on.

You've got 250 words to entice me to read the story.  Get that part done first. If you've got words to spare, mention your experiences that influenced the writing of the book. More than having lived in a girls home, I'm interested in what drew you to tell this story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

question: how important is a querier's social media to an agent?

My question is: I am working on completing my first MS (YA fiction). I currently don't have a presence on social media. Should I start socializing electronically in anticipation of building a platform? How important is a social media presence to an agent when deciding whether to represent a new author?
You don't need platform for a novel.

Sure, it's nice if you have 10,000 friends and people are hanging on your every word, but generally that's going to happen AFTER you write Divergent, not before.

And the idea that you're "busy" on Facebook and Twitter when you're not writing is a terrible trap.  It's a trap beause you need, nay REQUIRE, fallow time. By fallow time I mean time when you're not doing anything.  Not tweeting, not reading, not driving the kids to school. Time when you're staring into space.

Sometimes this manifests as writers block and sometimes it manifests as "oh my god I can't get started" but what ever it is, you need it.  Your brain works in strange ways when it's working on writing a novel.  Not all writing is tapping the keyboard.  A lot of it is thinking. A lot of it is just dreaming.

It's one of the reasons I always advise buying a museum membership when you take up novel writing. Walking through the galleries, just looking, not thinking, not analyzing, just looking and seeing, juices up your creative spark.

So lay off the social media for now. Learn to be the very best writer you can. Once you start querying, it's time enough to make friends.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Query Question: Friends in high places

Some years ago, I wrote a non-fiction book as a work-for-hire for a book packager. It was published by Huge Trade Publisher. I worked quite pleasantly with an editor there, and she respected my work.

I have since finished my first novel. Pleasant Editor is now Executive Director of Humongous Trade Publisher. I am wondering if it would be a clever idea, or a terrible idea, to contact her and ask if she knows an agent who might be interested, or if one of her own editors might take a look. She of course doesn't acquire projects, and the publisher does not consider unagented submissions.

I'm quite sure she would remember me, but I don't know if my little plan would enhance her memory or besmirch it with excess chutzpah.

I'm not familiar with the title Executive Director. Executive editor yes, but exec eds acquire all the time.

But the key piece of info here is that the publishing company doesn't take unagented submissions, and that is essentially what you're trying to bypass. (I know you don't think so, but you are.)

In order to recommend any agent or any of her editors, Pleasant is going to have to read something about your book. And remember, it's a novel this time, not non-fiction work for hire, so you're not even asking her about something you're sure she knows much about. (Many editors at publishing houses specialize in fiction or non-fiction)

The temptation is strong to get a leg up on this querying madness, I know, but this one isn't going to help you even if Pleasant does help you.

I can't tell you the number of queries I get that say "so and so recommended I query you" and it's for a novel I wouldn't rep (or READ) in a quadrillion years. The truth is editors have no idea what agents are looking for. They only see the work we show them. Some of my closest editor friends are shocked when they hear I rep history and biography (or any non-fiction) because all they see from me are high-octane thrillers.

And of course, I get queries with "so and so said to query you" and I have NO idea who so and so is. Even when I google the person, I find I've never met them and have no idea why they would send a writer my way.

Where your connection will be of use to you is when your agent goes on submission with your novel and can call Pleasant and say "you've worked with her before, and now she's got a terrific novel."

In the meantime, start making lists of agents who rep novels and get to querying.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Query Question: diverging paths

Awhile ago my agent broke the news that she had reached the end of the road with my middle grade manuscript. It has been rejected by all of the big New York houses and their imprints, and when I asked about smaller presses she essentially said that they weren’t worth the effort (in terms of the financial payout and level of promotion), and that I’d be better off to self-publish it. Knowing myself, I’m fairly sure that the legitimacy that even a small press would give my novel would make me much more comfortable with the self-promotion I know is necessary for a book to sell. So I don’t think the self-publishing route is right for me.

I’m considering next steps at the moment. A friend suggested I query new agents. Obviously I’d have to tell them up front that the manuscript has already been rejected by the large publishers, which it seems would make 99.9% of them reject it outright (understandably so) (1). Or, I could simply go it alone and query smaller presses that accept unagented manuscripts?(2)

I've reached this point with a couple of my clients too. It's one of the worst conversations in the world to initiate let me tell you (and it's no picnic on your side of the phone either, I know.)

You're right (1) to assume most agents aren't actively looking for a used, albeit good, manuscript.  We are in business to make money and we prefer to sell to places that will give us lots of it.  Finding a new agent might not be step one here.

However, you might ask  your agent if she'll look at the contract if you sell it yourself to a small publisher.  This is what I do for my guys who've been in this situation.  (In fact, I insist on looking at every publishing contract my clients sign because I want to avoid problems down the road and some of these small publishers have contracts that make strong women weep.)

If she will, then (2) shop this puppy yourself.  You clearly know you're in for a lot of promotion and marketing work, but you are with a big publisher too.

The problem with self-publishing a middle grade book is that the buyers of these books are not the readers. Parents and teachers buy the books and it's hard to get a review in Library Journal if you're not a publisher.  It's REALLY hard to get your books in Barnes & Noble (where parents shop) if you're self-pubbed too.

If your agent won't help you with the contract you might consult this book for short term remedies.

For longer term remedies, this one is the place to start

Friday, July 18, 2014

Query: no confetti, no cake, and no bound mss.

I'm nearing the end of my agent search and it looks like I'm coming up empty. I'm already 67,000 words into my second novel so I'll be considering my first one a drawer novel. Worse things happen in the world.

My first novel is a mystery, a cozy mystery, and my second novel will be more mainstream fiction, book club fiction, women's fiction (these categories still confuse me somewhat). I would have written a long series with the first set of characters but if it's not going to sell, I'm going to move on.

My question is this: Can I "self-publish" my first novel in hard copy via print-on-demand with ~50 copies for my friends and family and still call myself unpublished? I wouldn't put it on Kindle or take out space on Goodreads or anything like that. My peeps have been so supportive of me throughout this whole process and I just want to gift them with a copy of the book (it's been professionally proofread but still would be considered a nicely bound manuscript). It's a good book even though it may not be good enough to make cash for agents in this particular market. I want to share it with my people. But I don't want to shoot myself in the foot by being one of those "who cares if you don't like it, big publishing; I'll publish it my own damn self" people. I want a traditional publishing career, even if it takes me a book or two more to get there.

If it ultimately doesn't find an agent, it's because it doesn't deserve an agent. I'll have queried every single agent repping mysteries of any kind by the time I'm completely finished. I've cast a wide net. But it is good enough for my friends and family, especially if I don't charge them for it, which I wouldn't.

Pitfalls? Draw backs? Legitimate to go ahead and commission a cover, get an ISBN, print-on-demand and move on to my next book and pretend to the marketplace like this one never happened? What say ye, oh wise Shark?

Well, the first thing to do is remember that once that book leaves your hands you have no control over what someone does with it, and I recently ran into a guy who found out the hard way that a "friend" had posted his early work for sale on Amazon.  Ooops. The early work was a manuscript he'd sent out to friends for feedback. Nice, huh?

Second, if this is a trunk novel, it belongs in a trunk, not sashaying around like a book. Five years from now you're going to look at that book and weep.  Please trust me on this. It's not that you're a bad writer, it's just this is your first book.  

Your peeps aren't expecting this and they're not going to feel slighted if you don't give them a copy of the book. In fact, if you do, all it does is create expectations that you'll do this with EVERY book, and trust me, when you get a contract, and you need sales, you want your peeps in the habit of BUYING books, not getting yours for free.

And honestly, not every event needs some sort of marker or celebration.  I still remember my father being a bit rueful about sixth grade "graduation" festivities at Sister Mary's School for Wayward Sharks.  "We expect our kids to complete the sixth grade," he said to Sister Mary.  Now, Dad did NOT feel this way about graduation from college and the tassels beyond that point.  He reserved his huzzahs for the achievements that really meant something.  Getting your first book published means something. Not getting your trunk novel published is like graduating from sixth grade.

If you absolutely insist on ignoring my advice, don't put an ISBN number on it, don't use CreateSpace, and pray your friends aren't douchecanoes. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Question: Talk about Grand Schemes!

A writer friend of mine writes adult historical fiction and has recently connected with an ex-literary agent who has offered to work with her on her query letter for $1,000.00. Honestly, I think it's nuts. My friend is a seasoned writer, highly educated, and has a firm grasp of her manuscript, query letter, synopsis, etc. She is tempted by the offer because she's been unsuccessful in garnering an agent's interest and feels this money may be well spent.

So my question is: Does this sound reasonable and fair to you? Any advice you can give would be most appreciated. As you know, the path to publication for an author is murky at best, and can sometimes cloud our judgment.

Wow, if I'd known giving advice on query letters garnered a thousand bucks a pop, think of all the dough I could have gotten from this! What are we up to now? 261?

Of course I think this is nuts. But I'm betting Miss X gets a bunch of people giving her money. She probably has to fend them off.

It's so so so beguiling to think the only thing standing between you and YES is a measly thousand dollars and The Secret Sauce of Acceptance.

I'm not going to rant too much about Miss X because if she's an ex-agent it's clear that she didn't make enough deals to keep her business afloat and is now busy making money the old fashioned way: snake oil. I feel sorry for someone who has failed at a business and has to become a literary busker.

Getting advice on your query is a good thing. Paying for it is not the problem. Paying THAT MUCH for it, and getting ONE person's opinion is.

Your writer friend is MUCH better off to use that spare thousand she's got lying around in her sock drawer to attend a writing conference (see yesterday's post) and talk to SEVERAL agents, and hit a workshop or two.

Writers who are butting up against the glacial embrace of rejection will often try everything and anything to melt the ice.  Paying this much and getting an opinion won't kill you but it's NOT the most efficient use of your resources (neither time nor money.)

I'll bet you twenty bucks and a shark bite that she does it anyway though.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Question: when should I hit a writing conference?

At what point should I, as a writer, begin dishing out the big bucks to attend conferences? It seems like, from what I've heard, they're a great place to meet agents and editors and writers I admire.

But I'm pretty far off (at least a year, if I'm being realistic) from querying. Should I wait until I'm further along in my MS to get serious about conference attendance? Or should I start laying that groundwork now?

And, perhaps more importantly, which conferences should I attend? I know about AWP and BEA. What biggies am I missing? And is there a resource for must-attend genre-related conferences (RWA*, CYA*, etc)?

Thanks again, sharko. 

Well, sharko just cracked me up completely, I may change my monogram to that.

Let's make sure you understand what a writing conference IS first, cause AWP* and BEA* ain't.
RWA and CYA are both closer to the mark but a writing conference is more like CrimeBake, or Rocky Mountain Fiction writers Colorado Gold conferencePacific Northwest Writers or Pennwriters (one of my faves!)

These conferences are focused on CRAFT more than the trade side of publishing. There are opportunities to meet and woo agents but generally these conferences offer classes and workshops and panels on how to improve your writing.

And these are the ones you want to hit before you even think of hitting anything else. For starters, you'll find some that are close to home, and for second, they aren't going to cost you an arm and leg. 

As for when to start going to conferences, I'd suggest after you finish your first book. That will be when you're thinking you're ready to query and the conference will give you some ways to analyze whether you are or (more likely) give you a whole bunch of information that makes you rethink that.

Not all conferences are good (the ones listed above are great.)  If you go to one and you hate it, it's not you, it's the conference. Try another. Ask your friends. And going WITH writing friends is a great way to get more than your money's worth from the conference. I know two writing gaggles who do that and it's always impressed me as a very smart approach to things.

*Association of Writing Programs
*Book Expo America
*Romance Writers of America
*Children and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators Conference

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Query Question: but I *am* unique

I’ve completed my first book, a memoir, and did my homework prior to writing a book proposal. I’ve read many memoirs to get a feel for style, focusing on those that are popular. I’ve studied books, websites, and blogs about how to write a good book proposal. The market analysis and complementary and competing titles sections are giving me fits. Everything I’ve read says don’t ever say your story is unique, because it’s just not true. However, I’ve honestly not found another story like mine. I’m not bragging here. After months of research, I’ve found no other book about a woman who became one of the first female forest firefighters. Plenty of books by men about firefighting exist, however most are self-published. (That leads to my second question.)

My questions: Do I dare say my book is unique, or should I just focus on published memoirs and how mine differs? Also, should I mention complementary and competing titles that were self-published?

You're mistaking what agents mean by unique.  You may have been the first female forest fire fighter, but your memoir is "first female fill in the blank."

And you are assuredly not writing the ONLY book wherein a woman is the first of something.

Thus you will not now or EVER say you haven't found a story like yours because that only says to me you haven't read widely in your category and that is a HUGE Red Flag (one might say it's a hotspot.)

Don't focus on the firefighting aspect when you look for comps. Look for "first female" and you'll have a better list.

As for what books to choose from for comparable titles:

1. Front list or within a year of publication is best. Thus, you want books pubbed in 2013 and 2014.

2. Do not use self-pubbed books unless they sold so well that editors will be impressed. Most self-pubbed books didn't.  How to tell? Well, Amazon rankings are helpful. Number of reviews on Amazon are a good indicator. When in doubt, leave it out.

3. You'll want to use books that got review attention. Good review attention is best, but BAD reviews offer a place to show why you are better/faster/stronger/hotter.   Books that have no reviews or only blurbs from authors are less useful as comps.

4. If there is a classic in your category (and in your case it's most likely Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean) you want to make sure you've read it thoroughly and can clearly state why your book belongs  on the shelf with it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Query Question: submission detritus

Dear Queen of the Known Universe (ballot write in, FTW):

As a querying writer, I now have a few literary bodies littering my wake. I've clawed my way up from silence and "Dear Author" forms to the coveted "I liked this and even smiled on occasion, but..." I didn't query my most recent book as hard as I should have. I could probably send another round or two, but I'm really close to being ready to query another project (stronger, better, faster than before). I have fulls out on my current manuscript.

My questions:

I'm ready to query the next novel VERY soon. How do I handle the fulls that are out on the previous manuscript now that I'm about ready to query the next? Patiently wait unless there's an offer of rep on the next book? (1)

I know everyone says to query one book at a time, but one of the fulls came in from a query that was six months old (Yes, really, six months on a query; my record is 18 months for a response). I don't want to rush the agent (unless there's an offer of rep, that is), but I think the agent would like my new work as well--or at least, I hope. Is there special "I've started querying a new book" protocol? (2)

In general, because the responses from queries can stretch into the distant future, what time gap do you recommend between books? Or are you a line-in-the-sand kind of gal--query one book until the day you start querying the next?

(1) No

(2) No

There are no hard and fast rules for this, BUT:

You really don't want the glacial speed of agent reading and response time setting YOUR timeline. This is your career car and you need to keep the ball rolling.

Thus, contact the agents reading the novel you have out on submission now. Say you've got a new, better, faster, stronger novel that has been known to eat agents for breakfast make strong men weep. Would they prefer to keep reading, or receive a query on the new one: that puts the ball in their court.

When I get these kinds of emails, I generally want to see the novel (or at least the query) for the better, faster, stronger work. I'm ALWAYS interested in the strongest novel you have.

Here's the pitfall with having a lot of work circulating: You don't want to query one agent for multiple novels in a short period of time. I have several clients who write VERY quickly and they can do maybe two good books a year. If you query me for more than that in a given year, I'm not impressed--I'm leery. Whether that is justified is not my concern. That I am leery is information you can use to your advantage.

I'm assuming here that all your novels are in roughly the same category. They're all crime, or all romance, or all SFF, etc.

IF you query me for six novels in six categories, I'm not leery of them. I'm blatantly put off.  I'm absolutely sure that an author can't write six good, fresh and new novels, in six categories in six years.  The reading alone precludes it.  (By reading, I mean reading enough of a given category to know the tropes, the history, what's old hat, what's hot stuff etc.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

It's a Thrilling Saturday!

It's been a busy couple of days with clients in town for ThrillerFest.

Some highlights:

1. Sitting very very quietly at the lunch table when some very accomplished writers started talking about whether the twist in the story comes first, or after the writing has commenced.  And talking about how they organize their writing and plotting.  This is fascinating stuff to me, and I always learn a thing or ten. 

2. Looking up to see Andrew Grant walk by! He'd flown in very unexpectedly and of course, we found each other in the bar!

3. Having Dana Kaye, the most amazing publicist in the world, run down a few tips on effective Facebook and Twitter postings.  I always learn a lot from her and this was no exception.

4. Meeting Lori Rader-Day, author of THE DARK HOUR.  You'll be hearing more about her from me.

5.  Getting blog reader J.D. Horn's new book!

6. Having an entire conversation with Lee Child via semaphore across the bar!

7. Discovering that Fabulous Terry Shames really IS one of the nicest people on the planet.

8. The opportunity to visit with writer Jill Abbott.  I met Jill some years back, and actually blogged about it: 

 Write what you don't know. I recently attended a panel sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and it was interesting to me that five of the six authors had created a protagonist in their own image. That's all well and good, but I'm much more interested in the people I don't see every day. The one author who mentioned her protagonist was a Pakistani terrorist was the author I went out and bought the next day.
That story is in Queens Noir by the way.

9. The bookroom! Always a place that sucks dollars out of my wallet and this year is no exception.

So far I've bought: The Darkest Hour by Lori Rader-Day; Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri; Tales of the Witch by Angela Zeman; and, The Line by J.D. Horn.  And I'm not done yet!

10. And my favorite thing of all was losing my phone! I realized I'd left it someplace when I sat down to a meeting in the bar and needed to check the time.  About five minutes later publicist Dana Kaye joined me and said "you left your phone in the book room." Whew! But wait, how do you know?

Well, the bookroom people found it, and called the last number I'd dialed. Fortunately it was not anything lurid. It was someone who knew me: Fabulous Patrick Lee!  Yes, he admitted he knew me, and yes he'd tell me. But of course, he saw Dana first and mentioned it to her. She saw me first.

At the end of the meeting, clients Dana Haynes and Katy King sprinted to the book room to fetch the phone for me, as I had another meeting.

One phone: the connectivity of the Fabulosity on display.

I love my job!

Friday, July 11, 2014

more on querying widely

So, yesterday's blog post created some confusion, so I'll shout louder add to it.   Here's the response from an agent who didn't understand the point. Let's use her for the example:

So, as I read this I keep thinking I may be reading it wrong. Are you actually saying, "who cares if an agent says they do not represent X, query them anyway?"

As an agent I specialize in MG, YA, and Romance. That's it. no PB, and no other adult genres.

Let's pretend Joe is writing an international thriller. It would be an incredible waste of time-- both for me AND the writer-- to bother sending me a query. But let's say the crazy happens and for some reason I read it and request it anyway because it sounds THAT amazing, and I read the full, and I think it's the best thing since sliced bread-- why the heck would this writer WANT me to take them on? I don't know a damned thing about adult international thrillers. I could never guide this writer on how to revise cliched plot lines or overdone tropes. Sure, I could dig up some random editors I don't know and send it on over to them, but why would these editors prioritize my submission?

I really do not understand this advice, or I am just completely misinterpreting you. One of the two.

-Mandy Hubbard 

Let's look at this from a writer's point of view.  Mandy has stated her guidelines pretty clearly right?

Let's answer these questions from those guidelines:

1. Does she represent New Adult?
2. Does she represent Women's Fiction?
3. Does she represent non-fiction for kids?
4. Does she represent chapter books?

Even when an agent thinks her guidelines are clear, authors who are just learning terminology, and aren't sure of what categories mean, and do not mean, can be confused. Hell, I'm STILL unsure of what New Adult means, and I've been swimming in the Sea of Publishing for some time now.

Thus my point is this: an author should err on the side of sending a query.  If an agent goes on twitter and says "oh why did someone query me for the Wrath of Zeus when I clearly don't represent Wrath books" that's the agent's problem not the writer's.***

Writers like to gnaw themselves into frenzies over small details.  Everyone with experience in this industry knows this.

I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who deal with the newest and least skilled and most meticulous (not overlapping groups by the way) to understand that "simple instructions" and "simple guidelines" aren't always simple to the people on the other side of the email inbox.

The answer is to just say no to the queries you don't want, and try not to make writers feel stupid.

***another commenter on yesterday's post gave that example:

There are agents on Twitter who do #tenqueries pretty frequently, and many of those batches are variants on "____, I don't represent _____. Rejection" (paraphrased). I do like reading #tenqueries, I think it gives me a false sense of educating myself? Or maybe a non false sense. Though any education would pertain to that agent and that agent only, I feel.

I think we're so indoctrinated into being terrified of making a misstep and being blackballed for life, and I think social media both helps and hurts. 

Query question: how much less enticing is a second novel

I read recently on Query Shark that you feel if "it's no longer your first novel" ... then it's "less enticing." I was wondering how less enticing a second novel could be to an agent/publisher.

I published my first novel with a very small west coast press. It was nice getting published and seeing my book on (select) bookstore shelves, but my publisher was so small, their idea of book promotion was pretty much telling their friends about it.

I don't regret the publication experience (the book got a really good Kirkus Review and it sold a few copies) but I wonder: how much will my being the previously published author of a low-selling book hurt my chances of having my query letter responded to by agents?

I have a math brain (I know, strange for a writer). Can you answer in a percentage? (ie. 20% less likely).....

Also, do agents see a big difference between an author having a book published by a major publishing house (and then failing to achieve sales) and an author publishing a book with a small publisher and only reaching a small audience? (In my opinion, an agent would be crazy to hold it against an author for poor sales figures when the publishing house is small & regional)....

It's much much easier to get an editor's attention for a debut novel than it is for your Debut +N novel.
That's just a fact of the publishing world these days.

There's no way to quantify that desirability (ie no, it's not 20% less or PiRSquared less or even the cube root of Rubik's less)

When I sign an author for a book that is not debut, I have a couple tricks up my sleeve about how to position the book for pitching.  I'm not going to tell you what they are. I'm sure every agent worth her salt has a slew of them as well.

If you get an agent for the book that's one of the things you want to ask before you sign: what's your submission strategy here?  And "oh, just send it out and see what happens" is NOT the answer you want to sign with.

And yes, where that first book was published matters a lot. 

This is where you want to be very careful who you sign with. You want an agent with some real experience here. There's a lot to be said for the younger ones starting out (and more than a few started
here at the Reef) but some things come with experience and this is one of them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Query question: Query widely or create spreadsheets from hell?

Dear Janet:

In the past you have given the following advice:

1) "It's not a waste of time if you query me, even if it's not right for me" (see: Elsewhere on your blog, you've said that you'd rather see a query that's not right for you than miss out the chance to represent an awesome novel--or words to that effect.

2) Do your research. If you query an agent with a genre s/he doesn't represent, that shows you haven't done your homework. (I can't cite you on this, but I know I've read it more than once.) (1)

Now, I'm picking on you, but I've seen other agents say similar things. In your humble opinion, as QOTKU, which piece of advice trumps the other? :)


(1) Not from me you haven't.
There's even a Rule for Writers about querying widely.

The longer I'm in this business the more I believe that persistence is the key to success. Not crazy persistence - you want to learn from each experience, not blindly repeat it - but measured, steady persistence.

And who cares if you've done your homework? This isn't Miss Anthrope's English class. This isn't going on your permanent record. So what if you query me for a picture book? The very worst thing that's going to happen is I answer you with a form rejection. If that sends you in to a tizzy, you need a new line of work. If that sends me into a tizzy on Twitter, well, I just needed to vent and now that Brooks Sherman has escaped my clutches, I vent to you not him.

That said, there is something to the idea that you should only query agents you're actually willing to work with, which presupposes you've done some kind of homework on them, or met them at a conference, or have friends who are repped by the agent.

Increasingly though, I'm less patient with my colleagues who behave as though writers are intruding on them by querying, or by querying for the wrong category or something they don't rep.  Writers are not beggars. We aren't more stressed or more busy than any of them.   There are enough things we have to ask of queriers (no attachments, no phone calls, write an enticing query) that adding more hoops seems both unnecessary and a bit patronizing. 

Query widely and damn anyone who says different.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Question: Querying while in the middle of a contest

I have one of those "how to include relevant info in a query without sounding like a loon" question. Basically, the MS I am working on was picked as a finalist in a contest run by a major publishers. The contest prize is an e-book deal with this publisher's new imprint. I'm to submit the complete MS to them by September 1 (right now they have only seen the first 50 pages and a pitch) and I want to query the project around that same time. The contest results are supposed to go out later that month.

My question is, how do I convey the situation to agents? It's not at all the same as telling the agent I have an offer on the table (I don't--more like a 1 in 10 shot at an offer) or that my work was simply recognized in a contest. In fact, I'm a little worried that the contest stipulations would be a turn-off to agents (the deal is e-book only with a very, very conservative advance, and I'm not sure if there's any room for negotiation in the event that I do win). To complicate things further, the timing of all this is such that I probably won't hear back from some of the agents on my list until after the contest results are out. Should I just wait until that happens before even attempting to query?

What's the best way to go about this?

There's one piece of information you left out, and I really hope you know the answer: if you win the contest are you required to publish the book there? In other words: can you decline the prize?

If you can decline the prize; query as you would normally, and wait to see what happens. If you win, and you're in the middle of querying you email the agents you've queried with the news.

If you CAN NOT decline the prize: you wait to query till the contest is done. 

Here's why:  If you query me and I fall in love with your manuscript only to find out that you've won the contest and there's no place else I can submit the work, you've locked me in to a small advance and most likely a not-very-favorable contract.  I'm less likely to say yes to that than I am if you've got the option of saying no and I can shop the manuscript more widely and perhaps get you a better deal.

If you're good enough to win a competitive contest, you're probably good enough to get some attention the old fashioned way too.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Query Question: querying under multiple names

A recent post about using pen names struck a cord with me.

I have two very near complete mss. One is Sci-fi time travel (97k), the other is Other world adventure (85k).

The third ms I have outlined is a 1920's nautical adventure with no Sci-fi elements ( It could be set in another world easily). And I have a completely written, rough draft non-fiction ms about packing up a family, moving to Europe, and renovating a old stone house(75k.) (It would be under my name and my wife's name.)

Would it be wise to shop the last two under a pen name?

I know I'm putting the cart before the horse, but I'm trying to work to my strengths. (Especially as I have no cart or horse at this point.)

I love writing and will continue writing Sci-fi. But the other two projects. I felt had to be written.

You're going to shop ONE ms at a time.

You're going to shop it under ONE name. If it's a pen name, so be it.

Once you secure representation, you'll discuss pen names for work in other categories with your agent. You will adhere to his/her advice.

You're harnessing a cart to a horse you don't have right now, as you wisely point out.

You're doing this instead of writing.

You're doing this because it's easier to fret about a problem you don't have than it is to fix that stupid plot point on page 269. Back to work bucko. That horse is getting impatient.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Query question: illustrations! Drawings! Art!

I'm writing sci-fi/fantasy. An artist friend has offered to illustrate the manuscript with b/w line drawings. Maps and illustrations. He's pretty good, he's been a NY professional illustrator for 30 years and makes a living at it.

My question is whether agents are likely to appreciate this effort? Or do they tend to think all such things are in the domain of the publisher, and they're only interested in the words?

Unless you are submitting a graphic novel or a picture book, you don't send illustrations with a query. For starters, illustrations would have to be attachments and most agents specifically say "do not send attachments" with a query.

Secondly, most SFF books are not illustrated. Illustration adds to the cost of book production, and most publishers are trying to keep costs low, particularly if you are debut novelist.

Third, you haven't mentioned money, but unless this artist friend is a Very Good Friend, and or your spousal unit, the question of making money from his/her art and not compensating him/her is going to be tricky.

Here's what you do: you say thanks, and mean it, for a kind and generous offer. Then say you know you can only send text in a query but if the opportunity arises, you'll be honored to mention this offer to the publisher.

This kind of offer of help happens a lot to writers at the query stage. Well-meaning friends and family want to help but they don't know enough about how publishing actually works to offer usable help.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Query Question: did my query get lost?

This is one of those neurotic writer questions(1), but . . .

I queried a brand-new agent the day she announced she joined her agency. This was almost three months ago now. I never heard anything back and assumed she had a "no response means no" policy.

Except then I was reading her blog today and saw that she promises a response to every query. Is it realistic for someone to be backlogged for three months on one day's worth of queries? (2)  Or is it common to answer them out of order? (3)

This is further complicated by the fact that we know each other personally - we live in the same city and attend the same writer's group. We don't know each other well, but well enough to say hi at meetings and whatnot. I haven't been to a meeting since (for other reasons), but I'm dithering about what to do.

Do I wait longer? (4) Say something next time I see her in person? (5) Email her and ask if she hates me so much she broke her "always respond" policy for me? (Just kidding on that last one.) (6) What do I say? (7)

(1) This is not a neurotic question. Trust me. At this point in my career I can spot a neuroses at 20 paces in .5 font.

(4) No
(5) NO
(6) NOOO (I know you said you are kidding, but all jokes are based on truth!)
(7) here's what you say:

Dear Agent (please put her name here)

I queried you on (date) I appreciate your commitment to answering all your queries. I haven't heard back so I'm resending my query now.


Thank you for your time and consideration.

Bonus content:  here's where you make sure that you don't have any weird things in your email like fancy sig lines that often convert to jpgs and thus get flagged as spam, or that you're sending from an email that doesn't sound like an invitation to a more intimate encounter than you intended.

I too am committed to replying to every query but there are some exceptions.  Here's my list.  I'm about ready to add another item:

11. Did you call  me on the telephone because you'd been "referred" by another agent, and when told you needed to query, sent an email saying "you sound like a fantastic prick" on the phone, thinking, I'm sure that it was a compliment?

Yes? Your query was deleted and your email address marked as spam.
No? Go to #12

Friday, July 04, 2014

I love Otter!

I love Otter so much! Of course, I'm on Otter's email list. And look what came in the mail this week!

Summer Reading Instructions

It's nice weather at the moment, so Teddy and I have been spending a lot of time in the garden reading. I like to be helpful, so I thought it would be a be a good idea to make this chart explaining how to get the most from your garden reading experience. I was going to write a story to explain things, but I have to go back to reading.... 

What a great start to the day. You can subscribe here!

I'm not sure if my favorite part is pig with the toast, or that Otter herself is reading about toast!
I guess I'll just have to keep looking!

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Query Question: who are you to write this book?

In researching agents to query, I'm coming up against one question (in multiple forms) that stumps me. It runs something like this: Who Are You To Write this Book? [Mind you, this is not for a work of serious non-fiction where questions of platform and profession come into play, nor for a work of literary fiction, for that matter]. I'd like to answer, "I'm a Great Liar, and all works of fiction require it," but I don't think that would be advisable. My mind jumps to JK Rowling. Who was she? I'm guessing she didn't list broom-flying as a prerequisite.

I'm bristling at the question and I think it's because I'm not really understanding what these agencies/agents are trying to get at. (BTW, the question was separated from another question regarding previous publication, so I've ruled out: What Proves you can get Published, as subtext).

Well, I'm not even the right person to answer this question cause I think asking someone for their credentials to write a novel is idiotic.  And yes you can quote me.

I'm not sure Patrick Lee has ever been to North Dakota or Alaska, but THE BREACH sure didn't need his travel credentials to be a fascinating page turner.

I'm pretty sure Jeff Somers drinks like Avery Cates but I'm hoping he's not as well versed in weapons as Cates: The Electric Church didn't need a gun club membership credential to be a fascinating page turner.

I know Sean Ferrell has not invented a time travelling raft, and yet, there he is with MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT.

I'm really hoping Stephanie Jaye Evans didn't club anyone to death on a golf course, as "credentials" for writing FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH.

It's fiction. You get to make it up.

If an agent asks why you're the right person to write your novel, the only real answer is "it's my novel, who else is going to write it?"

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

What my lo-mein disaster taught me about your revisions.

One fine day I decided to make lo mein. I'd never made it before but I'd liked it just fine from our local Chinese take out. The place I liked best closed up, right after a rash of murders of delivery men , killed for the cash in their pockets and the lo-mein in their white take out bags

I'd tried other places, but nothing seemed very good. So, I was off Chinese food for a couple years.

Then the yen for lo-mein hit and I figured, what the hell how hard can it be. You'll recognize that as Famous Last Words, right along with "here, hold my beer!" and "hey honey, do you know where I left the bear trap?"

Undaunted, I went to google, typed in "lo mein recipe" and found this:

12 ounces angel hair pasta
16 ounces mixed vegetables (sugar snap pea variety is what I used)
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

And of course, it helped that the recipe was called "super easy lo mein" cause I'd never made it before and anything super easy sounded like a good place to start.

So I ordered hoisin sauce for my next Fresh Direct delivery and right after Mr. Direct drove away, I commenced to cooking. I was really rather pleased with myself trying something new and particularly something new that included … hoisin sauce? (I tasted it first, rather timidly but it turned out to be pretty good.)

Of course, I made a lot. I like to make extra so I don't have to cook when I crawl through the door at night after a long day of crushing hopes and dreams and generally making writers miserable.

(Wait, that's really just a perk of the job, I don't get to do it all day. Some minutes I have to eat cupcakes and make sure the Query Blacklist is au courant. But I digress)

And when the lo mein was ready I got out my shark bowl and chopsticks and dove in.

And holy fucking moly it was the WORST thing I'd tasted since I don't know when. Maybe since I ate soap on a dare in nursery school.

It was flat, bland and such a disappointment. If the sea weren't already in danger of being too salty from shark tears***, I would have wept.

Plus now I was HUNGRY! I made a chicken sandwich, and reminded myself there was ice cream if the day got worse and retired to kvetch about this mishap on Twitter:

And sure enough a couple people did.

And were kind enough to send recipes.

Here's one of them:


2 tablespoons (2 turns around the pan in a slow drizzle) vegetable or wok oil
1 cup (2 handfuls) snow peas, halved on a diagonal

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into match stick size pieces
1/2 pound assorted mushrooms (shiitake, straw, enoki, or oyster), coarsely chopped, if necessary

4 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2 cups (about 4 handfuls) fresh bean spouts

2 inches fresh ginger root, minced or grated with hand grater
4 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound lo mein noodles or thin spaghetti, cooked to al dente and drained well

1/2 cup aged tamari soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, several drops

 I stare at this recipe for a couple minutes, and the light goes on over my head.

This new recipe has only one crucial difference.

Can you spot it?

It's oil. Oil gives most recipes their flavor AND brings out the flavor in other ingrediants.  The first recipe doesn't  have any. I hadn't noticed cause I'd never made lo mein before and I wasn't thinking "hey, what does this recipe need that it doesn't have."

So, I sautéed some shallots and some mushrooms in some olive oil cause I didn't have toasted sesame oil (but I sure ordered it quick from my honey pie Fresh Direct) added the Terrible Lo Mein and presto redemption. There's nothing olive oil, shallots and mushrooms won't improve.

Well, except ice cream. And coffee… ok, there's a lot of things it won't improve but lo mein is one thing it surely does.

Now, I can hear you asking "hey SharkForBrains, this is, as usual!, all about you. When do we get to ME. Specifically when do we get to how this dinner disaster is going to help me with my novel."

Ok, here it is.

When you're writing your first novel (or maybe novelS) you're making lo mein for the first time. You've READ novels, and loved them (I hope!) but you haven't actually written the 95,000 words that make a novel yet. So you do. And you read it and you know…it's not quite right. But not quite right isn't the same as knowing what's wrong.

This is where a good crit group comes in. A second set of eyes, much like my second recipe, can often help you spot what you don't know is MISSING. It's easy to point out errors on the page, but it's MUCH harder to point out what ISN'T there.

And if you don't have a good crit group, this is where reading the top authors in your category can be really helpful. Read them with a writer's eye. Try to see what they have that you don't. It's not as simple as analyzing a list of ingredients but the principal is the same. Find what isn't there in your book. Once you know, you can add it, or as I will be doing this weekend, starting over on a whole new lo mein adventure.