Monday, June 20, 2011

Selling Yourself, and Selling Yourself Short

"I'm the first to admit that I'm not much of a writer, but I have stories burning inside me, and I want a professional book editor/agent such as yourself to help shape my work..."
This is not an actual quote, but it might as well be.  I get similar in the inbox several times a week.

Problems with this thinking:

First, I am not an editor, and though I might wear a fancy cape on occasion, I am also not a magician.

Oh, I can certainly help my authors put the polish on their already-terrific manuscripts, but turning your uncooked lump of Idea Dough into a delicious Book Pie is not my job. That you've presented your query in such a way shows a real lack of understanding about what agents are for, and is a sure sign that you are not ready yet.

But more importantly, the line "I'm not much of a writer" is a real turnoff. The query is the only thing I have on you at this point. Self-deprecation is unattractive. If you are saying it because you are being coy, or because you don't want to come off as braggy, or because you really think that you aren't a writer unless you are published, I have news for you: Writers write. If you write, you are a writer. It isn't a title that has to be bestowed on you by the Queen of Booklandia. I read a tweet yesterday that I liked and retweeted:
"You're not a writer till a writer says you're a writer." -Harlan Ellison // Okay then.  "All you people who write? You're writers." -Me
 I work for writers. Real, professional-level writers.  If you "aren't much of a writer," I will never, ever sign you as a client. Call me crazy, but I really do want writers who are GREAT AT WRITING. It is a prerequisite, in fact. I have a ton of faith in the writers I represent, and even when they are feeling low about it, I know that they can do amazing things with words. They've proved it to me.

But as a person querying, I don't know you yet. I can't possibly have more confidence in your work than you do.

I'm not suggesting you puff yourself up or brag. Just be straightforward. If you're applying for a job as Town Blacksmith, you say that you're a Blacksmith, not a Baker. Or better yet, you say nothing about it, and let the 'smithing tell the story for you.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


A wee link roundup for you, so I can close some tabs:

The Big Black Cat did a fun interview with me, including NO questions about queries, and a little contest!

Two great links about the Pinkwater/Brown collaboration, Edward Lear for the 21st century, HIS SHOES WERE FAR TOO TIGHT! First up, a shout out from Jules, writing for Kirkus.  Also, a swell mention on Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac. *swoon*

If you are a teacher, librarian or book club leader who would like a free, groovy Marty McGuire discussion guide, Scholastic would love to send it to you.

Talented client Gwenda Bond edited the all-YA edition of Subterranean Online.... and it features a story from other talented client Tiffany Trent (among others!) - Check it out.

Oh did I mention that THE REVENANT by Sonia Gensler is now officially out in the world? Yes. Yes it  is. Buy two! (Especially if you were a fan of A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly, or if you like ghost stories and romance!)

Have a great week, all - not sure if I will have time to post for a bit, but I am thinking of you.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

On Boredom

A lot of YA and MG slush pile offerings open with something like this - a totally made up example:
"There was nothing to do in this dumb subdivision. Every house looked the same. Cookie cutter. The heat was oppressive. I idly tossed a crumpled up piece of paper at the trash can and missed. Sweat made my t-shirt stick to my skin. I fell back onto  my pillow and stared at the popcorn ceiling. Nothing to do today. Nothing to do all summer long. This was the most boring place in the world."
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. When I was a kid I did a lot of whining about how I was bored, and my wise grandmother would say, “bored people are boring.” And I'd get insulted, because I certainly did not think of myself as boring. But guess what? It also made me pipe down and find something to amuse myself with. (Particularly when she combined that with the follow-up, "If you're so bored, I'll give you something to do." And a meaningful look at dustrags.)

The point is, your main character has to be DOING something. They have to be an active, non-boring person. There has to be a reason you are telling their story, for pity's sake. Don't make hanging around with them a drag. Because truly, pages of characters hanging around complaining about how there is nothing to do is just not compelling. Your readers - kids - already KNOW there is nothing to do in the suburbs half the time – that is why they spent $16 bucks on a book.

Don’t make them turn to drugs instead.

Slush Pile Triage

I am going to start off by saying, I have never worked in a hospital or on a battlefield or at a vet's office or even played Operation (well, I had a set when I was little but it only worked half the time and it was always missing Tennis Elbow).

But I wanted to talk about how I deal with the constant influx of queries, and the metaphor that comes to mind is "triage."

Once I was in an emergency room, and I saw a triage chart. I remember asking what it was all about, and the nurse explained that it the system that dictates how they decide who to treat first in a hospital. Let's say there is a disaster and dozens of people are brought in at once. The victims have to be prioritized and sorted into groups to allow the doctors to do their jobs most efficiently and allocate resources appropriately.

If a person is dead, he does not need help. MORGUE

If a person has something very tiny wrong with them, they can wait - but in a crisis it'd be advantageous to just patch them up and get them the hell out of the emergency room quickly so that more people can be admitted, or so they themselves could help. MINOR

If a person is in severe pain with a complicated problem, or is definitely terminal, but the pain can be managed by use of a painkiller, then it behooves the hospital to give them the painkiller, make them comfortable and move on, and come back to that person later when they have the time and manpower to solve the issue.  DELAYED

If a person is dying, and they must be treated RIGHT NOW to live, then it can't wait. IMMEDIATE

"So what the heck does this have to do with MY QUERY, Jennifer? ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT I SEND IT TO THE MORGUE!?"

Shhhh, honey. It's OK. It's only a metaphor. You know how I always say that I look at submissions "In the order received"?  That is true.  HOWEVER...

Think of me as that nurse, sorting through slush pile. Managing the query inbox is essentially like figuring out how to tag items.

MORGUE: First I look at the pile (inbox) as a whole and quickly assess what I can delete immediately. These are queries that do not follow guidelines, and/or are for types of books I simply do not rep. I can sort them at a glance.

MINOR: These are quick passes. With a quick read of the query and pages, I can tell that this is not resonating with me. I need to get it out of the inbox as fast as possible. (How fast this is entirely depends on how much I have stacked up, but response time goes from about one day to about 4 weeks.)

DELAYED: These are queries that seem really cool, or the author comes recommended, but I have to give them more thought. I will generally star and hold onto the queries a bit and re-read after a bit of time has passed. If I am still unsure, I'll request fulls for these queries, both so I can read more and because that buys me time. (Response times vary but at the moment are anywhere from 3-6 months - though I actually hope to remedy this soon and make it faster, as I think am catching up.)

IMMEDIATE: These are queries from VERY well published authors, or there is some sort of a deadline that makes it hot, such as somebody who has a publishing contract in hand. Also, if I have a full that receives an offer of rep from another party, they will get bumped to this category. ("Immediate" is relative, but, it typically means about a week.)

ETA: TO CLARIFY:  Just because something is "immediate" does NOT mean that it is a Yes. In fact, much like how the red-zone people in our hospital scenario often don't make it, if I have to make a quick decision on a manuscript, the decision will often be No. It will ONLY be a Yes if I love it enough to go down fighting for it, because I probably won't get the opportunity to ask for revisions or anything else before signing the person. "Delayed" manuscripts are a bit more likely to make it out of the hospital alive, because if I like it but it needs some work, I'll have the time to think about it, write a revision letter, chat with the author, etc.

Naturally, there is another triage situation that goes on with client manuscripts (books that need a major edit might take longer than books that have already been revised, etc.) AND with daily regular emails (ads get sent to the morgue immediately - yes or no answers pretty much get dealt with immediately - answers that require more thought get starred and dealt with later). And I am sure that anyone who gets 100+ emails a day for their job can probably relate to that.

So does that make things simpler, or more confusing?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Who to Query First

Q: Do I query my favourite agents first or second? Please help.
This has come up a lot lately and I don't get it.

I am told that authors don't want to "burn bridges" by sending out substandard queries to their A-List of agents - so they send them to the B-list of agents instead, figuring that that way, they'll have time to hone the query if it isn't working, and then send the stronger material to the A-listers.


First of all, it's extremely rude to ask someone who you don't really want as an agent, to read your work just because you want feedback. What if they love the book and say YES? Are you going to tell them, oh yeah, no, you aren't actually my first choice, I was just testing the waters? Are you going to let them sit there and twiddle their thumbs while you send out MORE queries?  What a waste of their time.

Then, are you going to query your "dream agent" but say, "Oh sorry, you have to rush, I know you're extremely busy but I already have another agent on the hook, so can you read this by the end of the week"? If they are really your "dream agent", why are you treating them with so little regard?

Your query is not an EXPERIMENT. It should be great. Send it when it is great. Here's how I would do it:

1) If you don't know how to write a great query, learn. Consider joining a message board like the VerlaKay Blue Board (for kids & YA) or AbsoluteWrite (for YA and adult), and soak up some wisdom there, or have your query critiqued in their forums. Visit the Query Shark for wise words and examples of what NOT to do.

2) Once your query is all polished and shiny and beautiful, make a list of agents. On the list: Agents that you have heard of - agents that rep books that you love - agents who rep your type of book, that you find via a service like AgentQuery or QueryTracker. This will probably be a long list.

3) Look up every single agent in at least three places: A) Look them up on Preditors and Editors. Cross their names OFF THE LIST if they are noted as a scam or bad agency.   B) Google them and look up their website. Most agencies do have some sort of web presence at this point. C) If you can afford a $20 month-long subscription to Publishers Marketplace, you can look them up and find out their sales. Note that not all agents list their sales - but lots do, and this should give you a good sense of what kind of books they do. C2.) If you CAN'T afford that subscription, try googling something like "Agent Name" Interview and see if you can't find more info about them that way. 

4) Weed the list: Now at this point your "LongList" should be free of all the awful scam artists, people who don't really rep what you write, people with no sales from shady agencies, etc. (NOTE: Newer agents, who might not have many sales, but are with great agencies, can be a good opportunity because they are often actively building their lists.) So everyone on the longlist is at this point reputable. And you know a bit more about all of them. Now think about this list. Really think about it. Divide it into "who I would swoon for" "who I would probably like a lot" and "who I actually wouldn't like, now that you mention it."

5) GET RID OF GROUP THREE.  If it isn't an agent you'd want to do business with, don't query them. Getting rid of any ones you feel negatively about means that now you ONLY have good agents that you'd like to work with on your list. Do NOT get hung up on the concept of a "dream agent" - you want a good, reputable, communicative agent who clicks with your work and will be a great rep for it, but you won't know who that is until they have actually read your work.

6) Create a batch: You can choose your own way of doing this. But if I were doing it, I would choose about 10 agents - a healthy mix of 'rock stars' and fairly new up-and-comer agents at established agencies. Make sure you know their submission guidelines, and follow them.  

7) Hit them with your awesome, supersonic query... and see what happens. You are prepared - you've done your research - you have the awesome. So if you get nothing but form rejects, there is something wrong with your query or sample pages and it isn't actually supersonic.  Then you recalibrate - check again for supersonicness - and make another batch, this time another healthy mix of agent types. Nobody on the list you've is bad, everyone is vetted for scamlessness and has the taste to rep the books you write, so it is just a matter of finding the one that clicks with your work. Yay!

Make sense? Or did I totally miss the point of the original question?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Go Team Writemoreplease!

Yesterday, twitter-peep @BriaQuinlan asked the following questions of her followers:
QUESTION: What does it say to you when you see that an agent's clients are tight on twitter (or blogs, etc)??? Anything? ...[if] there's an obvious bond of some sort inside an agency - do you think that means anything about the agent herself? ... Would you feel like you were missing out if you joined an agency where the clients didn't have this "team" feeling?
So you might wonder, hey there Jenn, why should this provoke a response from you? After all, um... she's kinda sorta talking about agents like YOU.

And it is true. I have a group of clients who are very active on Twitter (as, of course, I am myself) - and they have been known to refer to themselves jokingly as the "Literaticult" (ha ha). Lots of my clients share manuscripts with one another, are critique partners, or are just pals, online or off. I try to offer galleys of my clients work to any other client who wants to read and asks me (subject to availability, of course.)

Also, I know some agents who host client retreats and say it is an amazing experience. I can't speak to that, I've never been to one, but I know people love them. The agency DOES host the Big Sur Writer's Conference, which many clients do attend (though it is open to the public, is mostly NON-clients who attend, and client attendance is by no means required or expected.) It is always great fun to be able to hang out with authors and talk books, and writing, in such a beautiful setting.

Anyway. Back on topic. I'm going to tell you a little story.

A certain client (who I LOVE btw, and who is a princess of social media, and I am in no way disparaging her glee or good intentions), when I signed her up, was swept away with enthusiasm."Jennifer!" she exclaimed. "I am going to start a LIST-SERV for your clients! And we'll have a GROUP BLOG! and you can do RETREATS! And we will be RAD and BRAG ABOUT EACH OTHER ON TWITTER and and and it will be soooo awesooome! Woooo!!!!"

Pretty sure that is a direct quote. ;-)

I told her to slow her roll. I think she might have been surprised that I wasn't into this idea.

But the fact is, though all my clients do have websites of some sort, only maybe half of them are active on Twitter or Facebook or have active blogs. Yes. The All-Powerful "Literaticult"... isn't. It only consists of half the people I rep. Less, even, when you consider that many folks have an account that they rarely use.

I don't want my authors who are not all over Twitter to ever feel like they are not one of the "cool kids." I don't want people who can't afford to fly to some far-off location for a retreat to feel like they are missing out on something important. I don't want people who just aren't interested in blogging or socializing with virtual friends or getting tons of newsy list-serv emails from strangers to feel like they are somehow being punished for having different priorities. Or for 'outsiders' to feel jealous, or like I am promoting cliquishness, because I am really really not.

Of course, I think that all my clients are adorable geniuses. I love all their books and think we all have similarly good taste, and so chances are good that they will like one another's books too. And I am glad that so many of them do seem to get along and have organically become friends, because I think they are all genuinely really great and talented people. So of course, I am totally fine with it if my clients meet up and have fun together. If they want to start their OWN retreats amongst themselves. If they want to be cheer one another on, be Twitter Pals or Blog Buddies or Crit Partners or whatever.  I just don't want it to feel like any of this is something that you must do to be "IN."

Fact: If you know who an agent's clients are because of social media, and read their books, it might give you insight into their taste, which might help you target your submission with accuracy. Fact: The "team" feeling definitely makes some authors, particularly newbie authors, feel a part of something, and gives them an automatic group of people who know what they are going through, which is all very nice for somebody starting out in this often-confusing business. Fact: When you are a full-time writer, it can be isolating - social media friends can help enormously, especially if they "get" where you are coming from. Fact: It is good PR for the agent to have high-profile clients talking to one another about their books, and today's newbies coming up together are tomorrow's stars.


It is really easy for people in the blogosphere, or the twitterverse, to assume that everyone important is in the blogosphere or the twitterverse. But they really aren't. Not even close. Most people aren't big on Twitter. That's fine. If this is not your "thing", never fear.

If I had to choose one, I would 100% rather my clients be writing their next book than being goofballs with each other on the internet. The writing always has to come first.

SO... what do YOU think? Does it matter to you if you see these seeming agency "teams" on Twitter and the like? Do you feel that it tells you something about the agent? And if so, what?