Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Query Letters: How to Get an Agent to Beg to Read More.

One of my favorite sessions at PNWA, conducted by agent Marilyn Allen, was Query Letters: How to Get and Agent to Beg to Read More. Prior to the conference, participants were invited to submit their query letters for Allen’s review, and she promised to discuss them.( I missed the deadline and didn't send mine in.)  Like Sands, Allen also breaks queries into three important elements: The Hook, the Book and the Cook.

Hook: The first sentence should answer, “Why should I read this? And why should I read more?

The description of the book should be brief yet compelling yet be no more than two lines. She says to pitch a main theme. And use active verbs. The set up, conflict and resolution. Also use your voice. Allen says she can tell by the letter if a writer has narrative skills.

The cook is also important. Who are you? Why are you qualified to write this book? What do you do for a living (even if it doesn't relate to the book.) she wants to know you are a credible person with a job and not

Marilyn Allen was generous with answering our Q & As, and she outlined the Ten Deadly Sins of Query Letters based on the queries she read from PNWA participants.

1.      Weak hook. The first sentence did not want to make her read the entire letter.
2.      No comparisons to other books. Agents and editors want to know where bookstores and libraries will place you book, and also see that you read in your genre or category.
3.      No platform. If one has a blog, a Facebook fan page. (I asked several agents if they read blogs or look at Facebook links from submissions and they all said if they have an interest in the writer they do. So make sure your web presence is cleaned up. Delete those pictures of yourself throwing up after binge drinking or dancing topless on the bar.)
4.      Too many rambling details. I plead guilty to this. I can talk for days, say 300 pages, about my tale. Note to self; work on this.
5.      No bio information. Even if it is not apparent to you how your experience coaching little league or driving a cab could open the gates, put something interesting about yourself in your letter.
6.      Way too generic. The hook is weak or not memorable.
7.       Technical misteakS. (Guilty!!! I am the typo queen. Note self; make sure Elizabeth AND Cindy read your letters before you send them out. )
8.      Overselling oneself or the book.
9.      Lack of understanding of the business
10.  not enough sense of talent in the letter
11. (She added this one on the fly)Trite words. Use active verbs and specific words.

Allen also had some other tips for good queries.
Understand word counts for the genre. YA books are generally shorter than adult books (50-75,000 words), but some writers describe their YA titles as having 180,000 words.
If you have self published, it’s okay to mention it, but only if you have great stats. If you have sold ten copies to your friends and family, leave it out, but if you have sold 10,000 or more, mention it.
Weak titles. (But if you write fiction, don’t get too attached to your titles; chances are the publisher will change it.)
Allen says she also hates  what agents call ‘shoe-shopping’, where the writer mentions a list of other books he or she has available for sale. Focus on one at a time.

The letter should be 150-250 words. While most agents now take only e-mail submissions, Allen says the letter should still look like a letter. Often she prints these up to read them (staring at a computer screen all day tires her eyes.). Ironically, in these days of electronic submissions, Allen says sometimes she will read paper submissions faster because she gets about 400 e-mails a day, but very few through snail mail.

The bottom line, make sure your work is worth selling before you put it out there.
I liked her a great deal, but unfortunately she does represent YA.

Happy Writing. (and querying.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Business Side of Writing

I just returned from the 2013 Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association (PNWA) conference in Seattle, Washington, so my next few posts will feature highlights of the conference.   In the conference brochure, PNWA president Pam Binder likens a writing career to a roller coaster ride. Unlike other writing workshops and conferences, where the emphasis is largely on craft, the PNWA conference focuses on getting your work published. While there were a few craft sessions, this is not a conference for newbies; it focuses on having polished work ready for market. If you are at the beginning of your writing career, try regional workshops and hone your projects.

On opening day, agent Katharine Sands conducted a session on Pitchcraft. While the stigma of self-publishing has ebbed, she makes the distinction between being printed (self published) and published (traditional.) She points out that too many self-printed books are put on the market before they are fully seasoned. “People are in a hurry, and publishing is a slow business.” She estimates once a book is accepted by a house, it is a minimum of eighteen months before it will be available in print copy. That’s not counting the months or years it takes to secure an agent. So as much of a kick it is to see your book in print, “don’t “publish” something you may later regret.”

When reading queries or hearing pitches, Sands says she looks for three things: person, place and pivot. She wants to know right away who the story is about. She also wants to know the setting, and mostly, she wants the pivot, (the problem).

I know I’ve said this before, but I’d rather write another novel than a query letter or a pitch. It’s easier. Writers feel comfortable in the artistic zone, the creative universe where we converse with our imaginary friends. Many of us have EmilyDickinsoned our manuscripts in a box or computer file because marketing our words (and ourselves)feels like roaming a foreign country without a guide.

But the reality is if we want our books out there, we have to pitch them to agents or editors. Condensing a three hundred page manuscript into two or three sentences is like climbing Mt. Everest with a fork.

I’m a good writer, but a lousy self-promoter. I’m like the two girls I see outside the window at Starbucks as I write this, waving a sign to promote their check cashing business. Traffic whizzes by and few pay attention. I’m not shy, nor am I invisible. As a teacher I stand in front of a lousy audience every day and manage to capture my students’ attention. I even took a stand up comedy class were my final exam was to write and perform a comedy routine for a live audience. I killed them. Granted, most of the audience was drunk, but I got a standing ovation. I’m fairly brave, so why do I balk at pitching my writing?

The object is to describe your book in 2-3 sentences without making it sound stupid. Guy wakes up to discover he’s a cockroach. A man burns books for a living and starts to feel guilty about it. Destitute Family leaves Oklahoma for California to seek jobs and security. See how easy it is? Why can’t I do this for my own work?
In an upcoming post I will share my experience with preparing my (dreadful) pitch, but still scored a couple of mss. requests..
Happy Writing.