Hello, Query? Meet Your Manuscript…

August 8, 2016

I know, this sounds funky, right? I mean, presumably the person who wrote the query is the same person who wrote the manuscript, so why the need for an introduction to each other?

Well…

I can’t tell you how many queries I read or pitches I hear that whet my appetite to the point where I scream, “SEND PAGES!” with the same inflection I use when yelling, “Honey, the meatloaf is on fire! Again!

It would be unseemly to yell about my meatloaf being on fire, and have “honey” discover that it’s really a Bundt cake that’s aflame. Right? First thing you’d utter is “What the hell?”

This is what happens when I get a query that says it’s one thing, but the manuscript says it’s quite something else. For example, if your query states that you’ve written a memoir of friendship built around the love of hot rods (the vroom vroom kind, not the…oh get your head out of the gutter), but your manuscript is really a How To on how to form a Hot Rod club, then my eyes will cross, and I’ll let The Rescue Beagles commence to tearing and shredding.

Because this isn’t what I was expecting.

Don’t tell me memoir, then give me How To. It forces me to switch gears and completely realign my thinking. And let’s face it, my synapses only fire under extreme protest. They’d much rather be sipping mai tais under a cool palm tree.

This just happened to me, and I was in the process of writing a rejection letter, when…shock of shocks…my synapses fired and told me to look at the chapters as a How To – even though it was supposed to be a memoir. I’ve decided to give this another try. This time the author lucked out. Synapses save the day! But when I’m reading a bunch of queries and sample chapters in a day, those same synapses may desert me. I may utter, “What the hell?” and reject it.

I hate rejecting things that sound like amazing concepts.

This requires objective self-analysis on your part. You have to step outside of yourself and read your chapters with an unbiased eye. How do they read? Do they read like a memoir? A How To? A romantic comedy? A horror show? If they read in a definite way, then you need to write your query to match it, so the bleary-eyed editor on the other end will see your brilliance for exactly what they are.

So introduce your query letter to your manuscript and see if they are friends or oil and vinegar.


Avoiding the Terrible Awful

August 3, 2016

Whenever I go to writer’s conferences, the question usually arises; “What’s the absolute worst thing an author can do?”

Oh. The mind boggles.

I’m usually the one on the panel who urges my synapses to fire more quickly so I can go back through the many years of some of the more interesting WTF-ery that has flown across my desk. And truthfully, my brain rebels because I’d rather concentrate on all the right things to do.

However…

There is one little thing that busts my chops every time because it’s just so absolutely horrible. It’s the query letter that doesn’t tell me anything about the manuscript, but instead asks for advice. Could I please talk a bit about my company and what we’re looking for? Could I please state how I want the query to look? Then I’m told the author “isn’t really a writer,” but, oh gosh, the story is JUST SO GOOD, that it’ll sell a bajillion books. Everyone who’s read the manuscript says so.

Um.

There is the “new writer” and then there’s the “hopelessly lost, out-of-the-zip-code writer.” It’s so achingly incredible that anyone in 2016 can be this lost. This goes beyond living on Writer’s Island. This is more like living under a rock.

I realize this is an extreme case of the Terrible Awful (thank you, Minnie Jackson) – but the fact that it still happens is worrisome. And of course, there are varying degrees of the Terrible Awful, and there is a very simple solution: Pretend this is a job interview.

The gods would toss down lighting bolts if you went into a job interview and ask the boss to tell them about their company and their guidelines…all the while telling them absolutely zip about you. It would go back to that getting laughed out of the zip code thing. If you want a job, then you make sure to put your best foot forward.

There is no reason for me to reply to a “query” such as this, so the author has blown the one chance they had with me. So think about your own query; is there a compelling reason for an agent or editor to reply in the positive…let alone reply at all? Does your query detail your main character? Does it focus on the heartbeat of your story and highlight what’s at risk? Does the tone of your query match the tone of the writing in the manuscript? I’ve seen any number of queries that insist the story is a comedy, yet the writing is somber and the storyline is anything but amusing.

Most importantly, have you written your query then walked away from it for a while? Did you let others read it and ask them if it’s written in a fashion that makes them want to read more?

Don’t be the Terrible Awful. Be the Holy-Margaritas-I-Gotta-Have-This!


Authors Who Need a Binky

July 22, 2016

There are authors who believe their writing comes from the hand of God. Hey, maybe it does and I’m too dumb to realize it. But I do know what works for us and what doesn’t. For instance, when Kristin Adams pitched her manuscript about the amazing friendship between her son and his chicken, Frightful, to me at the PNWA in Seattle last July, I knew I had to have her on board.

But not everyone rocks my boat, and they receive a rejection letter…which affronts some the point of striking back. Instead of doing what you should do: M.O.V.E. O.N. the aggrieved author writes me back in a fit of pique, accusing me of everything from global warming to acne.

Let me invite you into my world for a second:

I read a manuscript and sent this rejection letter:

Thank you for writing. There are some problems with this that prevents me from considering this further. First, I can’t find anything about XXX on the internet. If there’s no proof this place existed, and thereby impossible to verify, then I don’t see where the compelling components for this manuscript exist. Lastly, your query letter lacks editorial finesse. If I’m forced to re-read sentences two and three times, then I have to assume the manuscript would be of the same quality. This makes things quite untenable for us. Best of luck to you in your endeavors.

I received this back from the author today:

I had my proposal letter edited and found out that even though it needed improvement it was not any where near as bad as you claim it is. My manuscript was reviewed by a professor when I took a course with her and she has found it to have what a creative fiction that is auto-ethnographic needs which is clarity and believability. I do not accept your feedback as valid in fact it was very insensitive. I now believe  your or or publishing company just wanted to discourage me because of being scared. I talk about powerful women and that can scare some people. I also think that even though y’all claim to focus on such things as conflict and resolution in truth y’all are just wanting to stop social progress and keep socialization as it is now so you have to discourage people who think and act outside of that oppressive box, take good care

Oh dear.

This is never a good idea. EVER. I can’t say it enough. Conduct yourself as you would at a job interview, because basically, a query letter is a job interview. All I could think was that this poor author is in for the shock of her life when she has to experience the editing process. And reviews? Oh, the horror.

Publishing is a tough, competitive business, where only the best are chosen. If you need a safe place to suck your binky over what you perceive as “insensitive,” then I posit that you ain’t ready for the Big Leagues, yet. There is a huge difference between making professional critiques and telling someone their writing sucks stale Twinkie cream (which I would never do).

So why do I bring this up? Because I see so much of this idea of “I deserve this, and screw you if you reject me!” And you know what? You don’t “deserve this.” You earn it…and you do that by acting like a professional and having an amazing story that is clearly outlined in your query letter. The characters and plot should be so real that they leap off the page. This is exactly what Kristin Adams did when she pitched to me during breakfast in Seattle last year. By the time I’d slathered the butter on my roll, I knew I had to see more. Kristin earned it. And so have all of our authors.

Over the years, I’ve seen more and more bad behavior, and I don’t understand this. Is this the general coming of things, or is there something in the water that’s making everyone put on their Crabby Pants? Regardless of why it’s taking place, there is one constant, and that is that editors and agents won’t put up with rude behavior. You want to throw a hissy? Fine. Go do it in your safe space. And don’t forget your binky.


The Query Game – Are You Bantha Fodder?

September 27, 2015

Of late I’ve collected a lot of query letters where it’s obvious the authors lost sight of its actual intent – to the point where all I can do is shake my head and utter, “Wow.”

And not in a good way.

“Everybody Wants Me”

One query named every editor and agent who had asked to see pages. I understand the desire to make oneself look like they’re in demand because sometimes it actually works. That’s the stuff auctions are made of. However, they have a topic that’s worth fighting over because they know what the story is about. The one sentence she expended on her book had me looking around my office wondering if The Rescues had played another trick on me.

If she’d sent the same query to all those people clamoring for her work, how were they able they draw enough of a conclusion to warrant asking for pages?

The icing on the cake is that she never actually mentioned she was querying me. It was merely an email telling me about everyone who wants her. Her reply was that she “forgot” in all the excitement. Forgot. To. Tell. Me. She. Was. Querying. Me.

Alrighty then. I think I’ll let all those other agents and editors duke it out.

Wow.

“I Did This and That”

One author offered up accolades from a play performance and being featured in the local newspaper twice, and only included one teensy sentence about the topic of the manuscript…which is in a very crowded category.

One short sentence. I’m pretty good, but the reception on my tinfoil hat doesn’t extend to reading author’s minds.

Wow.

Humor

Humor is a tough thing because it’s so subjective. What the author may find utterly hysterical may put my teeth on edge. If you’re tempted to use humor in your query letter, ask yourself whether it fits with the flavor of the manuscript, and whether you’re trying too hard to be witty rather than simply telling me what your book is about.

One author’s query letter made me belly laugh – and I’m a very hard sell. So, of course, I asked for the full. Her manuscript is a humor piece, so the humor in her query was appropriate. She had me at hello, as the line goes…

Another author wasn’t as lucky, and had me dropping Pepsid OTC. Her first line begged me not to eat her. Eh? I’ll admit that I can have a bit of bite to me on occasion, but to actually consume another human being is beyond my capacity or desire. I’ll leave it to the bears ‘n gators. There was also an odd reference about hair-pulling which still has me scratching my head. But the ultimate killer was that her subject matter was of a serious nature, so the use of humor  fell as flat as my efforts at baking.

Wow.

“I Thought the Manuscript Was Attached”

Another query was long on the braggy stuff – “I’m the coolest thing since sliced bread.” – and short on detail; also one short sentence. The kicker is that the author thought he’d attached the manuscript, which he hadn’t. But that wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was the author’s assumption that the manuscript would speak for itself, thus making up for a vague query letter.

The truth is that an incomplete query won’t compel me to open up an attachment…even if it is attached. Well, okay, yah, in truth I’ll open it and read a page or two. But if it isn’t even attached, thar be no way I’ll carry the conversation any further, other than to reject it.

Wow.

“To Whom It May Concern”

This is always a favorite of mine because it instantly makes my intestines do a backflip. I know, I know, maybe it’s petty, but I view query letters like a job interview, and my mama always taught me that when job hunting, you always know the name of the person to whom you’re talking, and you’re familiar with the company. It shows due diligence and professionalism.

Wow.

“How Much Do You Charge?”

This is another favorite of mine for the sheer humor of it. That simple question tells me buckets about the author’s knowledge of the publishing industry. And hey, what better compliment can one have than to be assumed as being a vanity publisher? Cracks me up every time because there are so many responses I’m tempted to write:

“A quart of your blood and any beagles you have stashed around.”
“If you gotta ask, then you can’t afford me.”
“I don’t charge, I lollygag. Slowly.”

Oh dear, the list of possible replies goes on and on…

Wow.

“I Have an Agent”

Now this confounds me every time I read this – and yes, over the past 13 years, it’s happened more than I care to count. For the love of all that’s holy, why, why, why would you write a terrible query letter that’s on equal footing with bug repellant when you Have. An. Agent? Isn’t that why you have an agent?

I know of some authors whose agents will only query the Big Guns and permit their clients to query us “less worthy” sub-humans. This offers up its own roadblocks because I find it arrogant and offensive. So if those Big Guns don’t bite, and the author does all the dirty work of querying us peons, then how has that agent earned their 15%? Uh uh. Not in my book.

Double wow.

Do It Right or Go Home

The long and short of The Query Game is this: If I have no idea what your story is about, then it doesn’t matter how funny, popular, forgetful you are, who your unnamed and absent agent is, or how much money you have. Send a query that’s short on giving me the goods, and you’re bantha fodder.

A query letter exists for one purpose; to attract an editor or agent to the point of uttering “Wow” in a good way. My particular needs are the following:

  • What is your book about? – this means details about your personal journey and how it impacted/changed your life.
  • What makes it a “gotta have it”? Is there an identifiable audience? If so, what are the unique elements of your story that make it stand out from the herd? If you don’t have something unique and revolutionary to say, then I probably won’t bite.
  • Who are you and what kind of platform do you have? Furthering that idea of a unique message, you need to have a platform to back yourself up. This doesn’t mean how many people you know, but how many people know you. And how do they know you? If you’re known for being a painter, then I’m leery about whether your book on manic depression or cancer will carry much weight. Reason being, there are a jillion books on those topics, and the thing you’re known for doesn’t impact the subject of your book. Nonfiction is funny that way.

Conversely, Erika Armstrong, author of our upcoming release A CHICK IN THE COCKPIT, is known for being a pilot and writing amazing aviation articles in many mags. However, the fact that she’s a pilot is the compelling hook for her personal journey. Given the vast numbers of pilots, this is going to be a hot seller because her platform supports her book.

This is how you Wow an agent or editor. Don’t be bantha fodder. Go out and be fabulous!


You Rejected Me – Can We Talk?

September 23, 2015

The icky part of publishing is writing rejection letters. I reject projects for all kinds of reasons, and in a lot of cases I try to give the author a very brief reason as to why their work didn’t fit with us. I do this in order to offer some insight, because it’s frustrating to authors to receive the standby form rejection letter.

What authors should never do is instantly assume they’re being rejected because their work sucks stale Twinkie cream. Sometimes a work has great potential, but it’s either written in a crowded category, like Alzheimer’s or cancer, in which case, the author would need a large platform. Some manuscripts would simply be a challenge for me to market because I don’t specialize in that particular genre; like religion. These books have a whole different distribution outlet that we’re not a part of.

Whatever the reason, the one thing that makes me want to chew razor blades is the author who wants to engage me in further discussion.

Last past week I rejected an author and gave solid reasons as to why his project wasn’t right for us. But that didn’t deter him from emailing me twice more to convince me of the error of my ways. He offered statistics about his particular subject and told me how hard he’d work to promote his book. I politely reminded him to please look at the rejection letter, as I felt it spoke for itself. He wrote again with more stats. By this time I figured diplomacy wasn’t going to work. Feh.

A rejection letter isn’t an invitation to open up a dialog. A rejection is a shut-the-door-no-further-discussion-required. This author reminded me of the waitress who was determined to get me to order more food than I wanted.
Her: “How about fries with your sandwich?”
Me: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Well let me recommend the coleslaw. It’s really good.”
Me <getting testy>: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Our rolls are to die for. Want me to bring a basket?”
Me <contemplating hari kiri with my butter knife>: “Just. The. Sandwich.”
Her: “Pie for dessert?”

Argh.

No means no. If an editor wants to further the conversation, they’ll say so, and happily, I’ve done this many times. In fact, I just did this a few weeks ago, which resulted in us signing the author.

But what will quickly tarnish an editor’s impression of you is if you can’t let go. There are many wonderful publishers out there, so don’t waste another second on someone who has said no thank you. Rather, go after someone who will say, Please send me more!”


Mainlining Drano

March 31, 2015

There are a number of things that make me want to drink/mainline Drano. I’ve talked about them over the years…and wouldn’t you know, but I have a new batch of goodies.

  • Font color: Write your query letter in light gray, so that my weary eyes strain to the point of crossing.
  • Begin your query by admitting your work probably doesn’t fit our guidelines: (actually, this is a benefit of sorts, because I can delete that much faster without having to read the entire query). For crying out loud. If your work doesn’t fit a publisher’s guidelines, then why in the name of all that’s holy are you querying them? Editors are busy folks, and they’ll simply delete without replying – so you’ve wasted not only your time, but the editor’s as well. Not a smart idea.
  • Word Count: Make sure your manuscript is miles under the minimum word count. For example, the sweet spot for most mainstream publishers is between 50k – 100k words. They will usually specify that they publish shorts. But if you’ve written something that clocks in at about 30,000 words, it becomes more of a pamphlet than a book. This is especially irritating with nonfiction because, really? A nonfiction pamphlet on how to survive getting laid off/leaving a cult/dealing with falling in love with your best friend’s boyfriend…How much depth can you attain with 30,000 words? Puhleeze.
  • Request Help: Ask me for help in directing you to a publisher who does publish your kind of work. Um. Yah. Nothing would excite me more than to do your work for you.
  • Query Length: Just today I had a query that went on for six pages. SIX. Deleted without reply.

After thirteen years in this business, I still remain gobsmacked at the ability of authors to shoot themselves in their own feet and guarantee instant, sudden death rejection…especially since it takes so little research to understand how this crazy business works and the most beneficial ways to approach an editor or agent in a professional manner.

Okay, pass me the Drano…

 


Query: Editors Respond Far Better to Positive

December 11, 2013
beagle-smile

Yes, Gertrude, beagles smile

Nabbed from a query letter:

“I self published a book last year on Amazon to great acclaim, but I realized it’s best to leave publishing to the professionals.”

This isn’t a positive statement, and doesn’t make me excited about asking for pages. Rather, this infers that for whatever reason, the author self-pubbed and didn’t do well promoting it – checking Amazon bore this out. So I have to ask myself whether the author would be equally unsuccessful in promoting a book with us. I understand the uphill battle of the self-pubbed author and that promotion is much more difficult, but I’ve seen plenty self-pubbed authors kick ass and take names. They’re an asset.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not, I see the author as a liability. It sucks to have to make snap judgements, but publishers have no choice but to weigh the pluses and minuses of an author’s platform because it’s a vital element to publishing nonfiction.

The take away here is that if you don’t have anything positive to say, then don’t mention it. Instead, focus on your book, what it’s about, why it rocks, and why readers will clamor to buy it. It’s a better idea to play up your platform than divulge how poorly your self-pubbed book did. Keep it positive because that’s far more infectious.

And when you’re talking about your book, don’t forget to include the most important elements of your story:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • How did he/she come to this story?
  • What does s/he want?
  • What does s/he discover?
  • What choices/decisions/changes does s/he encounter?
  • What terrible thing will happen/ would have happened if s/he chooses (chose) A; what terrible thing will happen/would have happened if s/he doesn’t/didn’t?

Now go forth and be brilliant!


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