Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: pitch blurbs

#NLAquerytip #6

Fact: If you have to defend that your novel is over 200,000 words in your query letter, then you are not pitching your story from a place of strength. And agents are more likely to pass.

Here’s why:

Even though a writer might insist that the length is necessary for the story, rarely is this true. In fact the hefty manuscript getting picked up and sold for a debut author is so rare and unusual, industry folks make note and remember the titles (i.e. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell).

In probably 99% of the cases, a super long manuscript usually signals that a beginning debut writer has not mastered pacing. Or, that the writer has not learned self-editing. This is even more true when we talk about the fantasy genre. Lots of fantasy authors will cite George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones in the query letterA great example certainly, but that wasn’t George’s debut project. Most established and successful fantasy writers begin with a normal length debut (around 100,000 words with some room on either side of that).

And yes, you can certainly cite the extraordinary instance of Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind. But he’s an exception, not the norm.

So my advice? If you have a long manuscript and you truly believe it is the “one in a thousand” and is the appropriate length, I wouldn’t cite your word count in the query and instead focus on writing the most incredible pitch you can.

After all, if an agent/editor begins reading and is blown away by the mastery, we won’t care a fig about word count. We’ll believe. But you have to get a request for the pages first.


Special Treat: Stacey Lee’s Original Query for UNDER A PAINTED SKY

Happy Release Day Stacey Lee! UNDER A PAINTED SKY is now in bookstores.

Since I’ve been doing nothing but blogging about queries for the last week, what better way to celebrate the release of her debut novel than to share Stacey’s original query letter (with permission of course!)

Dear Ms. Nelson,

I am seeking representation for my 77K-word YA historical romance novel, GOLDEN BOYS.  Arthur Levine selected GOLDEN BOYS for the 2012 Golden Gate Award at the recently held SCBWI Asilomar Conference. GOLDEN BOYS is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest, results to be announced in April.

When fifteen-year-old orphan Samantha Young kills the richest man in Missouri in self-defense, she disguises herself as a boy and flees to the unknown frontier.  She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman. Along with a runaway slave, also disguised as a boy, “Sammy” joins a band of young cowboys headed for the California gold rush.

The trail poses far more hazards than the demure violinist imagined, not just from pursuing lawmen, but from Sammy’s own heart when she falls in love with one of the cowboys, West Pepper, who doesn’t know she’s a girl.  Sammy can’t reveal her true identity for fear of losing the cowboys’ protection.  But when West’s confusion over his feelings threatens to tear them apart, Sammy has to choose between her love for West and her own survival.

I wrote GOLDEN BOYS because I often wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  My great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush.

Thank you so much for your consideration,

Stacey H. Lee

So what inspired me to request sample pages? The terrific writing and the sheer originality of the premise. A Chinese girl violinist on the run via the Oregon Trail? I’m in. To me, it was a story that needed to be told and when I fell in love with the manuscript, I offered representation.

It certainly wasn’t because cross-dressing young adult historical westerns were all the rage in 2013. Talk about swimming against the current trends then….

The novel, after several revisions, transformed away from the historical romance to an enduring story of Sammy and Andy’s deepening friendship. And that is the story of UNDER A PAINTED SKY that readers get to enjoy starting today.


Kristin’s Original Pitch Letter to Editors – Under A Painted Sky

 

And as further celebration, my original pitch letter to editors when this work was on submission. A couple of things to note:

1) As my letter reveals, UNDER A PAINTED SKY was not the original title. We have Stacey’s estimable editor Shauna to thank for that! It was a great suggestion and way more evocative than Golden Boys. LOL Titles can be tough. As an agent, I either come up with a terrific one right away for the submit or it doesn’t happen until after the book is sold etc. But editors trust me so I know they’ll read the manuscript even if the title isn’t 100% golden. Pun intended.

2) This novel has received a lot of accolades and two STARRED reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Over the last two weeks,  several editors have reached out to me with congratulations and a request for me to keep them in mind for future stories like this. Given how wonderfully this title is coming out of the gate, it’s easy to assume this might have been a slam dunk of a sale when on submission.

It was not.

Putnam really took a chance and with Shauna’s (and Jen Besser’s) wonderful editorial guidance and vision, Stacey worked hard to perfect the story of Sammy and Andy for the novel you get to read today. My fingers are crossed that this is a sleeper hit in the making.

 

Hello EDITOR NAME REDACTED

It was so lovely to see you while I was in New York. As promised after BEA, I’m sending along GOLDEN BOYS by Stacey Lee, a  young adult historical western a la True Grit.

After I had offered rep and Stacey accepted, I dug in to do the slow read. I was worried that my lack of sleep caused by staying up to read the manuscript had impaired by judgment when offering rep. *grin*

Lucky for me, it was just as good, if not better, than the first time I read it! I love love love it! Get ready to hold on to your saddle because I think you are going to love it as much as I do.

After a suspicious fire burns down her father’s dry goods store with him in it, newly orphaned Young San-Li, who goes by Samantha Young, confronts the landlord she suspects of setting the fire. When she accidentally kills him in self-defense, her only option is to hit the Oregon Trail. She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman.

With a whip-smart runaway house slave at her side, “Sammy” and “Andy” disguise themselves as boys and join a band of young seasoned cowboys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy must evade bounty hunters and hunt down Mr. Trask, the man entrusted with her dead mother’s treasured jade bracelet. When she also falls for West Pepper, a cowboy with no tolerance for greenhorn boys let alone girls, Sammy is convinced that the trail poses more hazards than a demure violinist can handle. 

When the wild West doesn’t prove big enough to hide her, Sammy must choose–avenge her father, forsake the memory of her mother, or embrace a new identity forged in the frontier and forever lose her history. 

Stacey Lee wrote her debut novel GOLDEN BOYS because her great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush. She wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  This novel won the 2012 Golden Gate award at SCBWI Asilomar Conference. This work is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest.

Enjoy!

All Best,

Kristin


#NLAquerytip #5

Fact: A really terrific concept in your query won’t save you if the letter itself is poorly written.

Think of the query letter as a special training ground. A pitch for your novel is really hard to write. Trust me, we agents understand that, which is why most of us aren’t also writers. I’m not crazy enough to subject myself to that torture. LOL.

But you’ve chosen to be a writer so we expect you to perfect every aspect of your craft–and that most certainly includes the pitch in a query letter. It’s your first opportunity to show just how good a writer you are by nailing the pitch.

So if you don’t, agents will simply have the expectation that you are still a beginner and not quite ready for an agent to read your material. Hence, why we pass on 99% of the email query letters sent to us.


#NLAquerytip #4

Fact: A really good title for a novel will catch an agent’s attention

And once that attention is caught, then the chances of the entire query letter being read is very high. The benefits of this is obvious. If an agent reads the entire email, the more likely it is that the agent will request sample pages.

I know I’ve requested pages simply because a title was so original and cool, I had to see if the writing stood up to the wonderful title premise.

Now if the writing doesn’t engage, a good title won’t keep the agent from rejecting the pages but as you all know, writers have to get a foot in the door first to even get the chance to wow agents with their craft. So anything that increases your chances for getting sample pages read is valuable.

Spend some time on this component of your novel. Do searches on Amazon and other venues to see how common it is, etc. Don’t just include a “throw-away” title. It certainly won’t help and it might actually harm.


#NLAquerytip #3

Fact: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

First off, what do I mean by “clearly outlining how your novel fits in the market”?  You can do this by:

* listing other titles that would be comparable to yours.

* adding a line that readers who enjoyed X title, Y title, and Z title would also like your story.

* clearly designating your novel’s correct genre or type of work.

Note: This doesn’t mean saying that you as a debut writer are spectacular or that you write better than “insert famous author name.”

That is going to be read as hubris and won’t be helpful in making your query letter stand out. In fact, I have a suspicion that positing so in the beginning of your letter will probably result in a quick rejection.

The three bullet points above, by contrast, spotlight your professional savvy and the fact you did your homework about the current market. This is a business and writers who demonstrate a clear understanding of that in their query letter will attract agent attention.

Professionalism always encourages me to read the entire letter–unless it’s very clear to me early in the pitch that the type of novel just isn’t what I represent. And I imagine that’s true for a lot of my colleagues.


#NLAquerytip #2

Fact: Literary Agents rarely read the entire query letter.

It’s simply not possible given the sheer volume most of us receive. I average about 100 email queries a day and these days, I actually do read the letters myself. If I’m buried, Angie will jump in and help out on my request (as I don’t want writers to have to wait too long for a reply), but it’s pretty much me doing the reading.

And I have maybe 30 minutes a day to give it. Which means getting through 100 queries or so in that time frame. You can do the math. That means approximately 30 seconds for each letter.

So most agents I know, me included, skip down to the pitch paragraph and read that portion first. If it grabs us, then we read the entire query letter.

In long query letters, sometimes it’s hard to actually find the novel pitch! Yet another reason why shorter query letters get better response from agents….


#NLAquerytip

Fact:  Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Or to say this point in a different way: the longer your query letter, the more likely an agent or editor will pass on it and not request sample pages. Why? Because it shows you haven’t carefully crafted or honed your query pitch.

In query letters that are short in length, the writer has to make every word count. So the writer is showing a level of craft expertise nailing it succinctly.

So subscribe to the Twitter-verse approach to writing your query pitch. Okay, I’m going to give you more than 136 characters to nail the pitch but any pitch paragraph should not be more than 5 or 7 sentences long. That’s it. (And no cheating and subscribing to the Faulkner method of making a whole sentence last an entire page length).

Less is more!


68 Queries In 60 Minutes

STATUS: Auction day tomorrow.  Always fun.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? HOT STUFF by Donna Summer

I can’t help but think of the movie The Full Monty whenever this song pops up on the iPod. Always good for a smile.

I must admit that I’ve been a little behind on query reading so Sunday evening, I sat down to power through them. You are reading the above title correctly. I averaged less than 60 seconds for each query read.

If your pitch wasn’t, well, pitch perfect, I was hitting the pass button.

Here’s something agents hardly ever reveal (and this of course could only apply to me so take it with a grain of salt) but I honestly believe that your chances of grabbing an agent’s attention decreases in the warm summer months.

Quite frankly, I’d rather be outdoors doing something fun rather than reading. I feel the exact opposite in winter months. I’m happy staying home and catching up. Consequently, if I were to look at my client list, I probably took on more clients during the winter months than I do during the summer.

Not a hard and fast rule by any means but something to keep in mind.

So Sunday I’m reading 68 queries. I actually only asked for sample pages for 10 of those queries. You’d be right to think that the ratio was small. So what was up?

Here’s what I saw:
1) At least 10 YA dystopian queries where I didn’t think the concept felt original enough for what is a crowded market.

2) 5 queries for literary novels that said there was a commercial bent but I wasn’t seeing it in the query lettr. They sounded too literary for what I can take on and be successful with.

3) Several queries from writers that we had passed on but they had revised and wanted to know if we would read again. Right now I’m too pressed for time to give something a second read so I passed.

4) Several authors looking for new representation but I didn’t think we’d be a good fit given what they were currently writing and what has been appealing to me as of late.

5) Several middle grade novels that the queries themselves sounded too didactic. I didn’t take a chance to read the sample pages fearing the same.

6) Several steampunk fantasies that obviously pay homage to Gail Carriger but sounded a bit too romance or derivative for what I’d take on considering I rep Gail Carriger.

7) Lots of epic fantasy queries from a previous blog post where I mentioned that editors were more open to seeing these stories as of late. But it’s hard. Most of these queries were a bit too generic and you really have to make your fantasy pitch stand out. I particularly liked the one where the writer instructs me it’s not the “typical fantasy” as this one has character development. Like that’s the original element. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of epic fantasy and all the terrific ones have great original concepts and excellent character development.  You are going to need both.

Then of course there were the 10 queries I asked sample pages for.

One query startled a laugh out of me. That got a request. Another was a really charming middle grade novel. The query was inventive, well written, and charming in and of itself. I had to ask for sample pages. The writer left me no choice.

I only have August and September before the weather turns cool again so I’m looking for reasons to say NO. Come first snowfall, I’ll probably be looking for reasons to say YES.


A Pitch Is A Pitch Is A Pitch – A Query Is A Query Is A Query

STATUS: Working though 245 emails in the inbox. You can’t hide from me!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  DON’T STOP by Foster The People

An yet, writers always have some confusion on what is the difference between a pitch and a query. Seems like a good topic to tackle (as I can already see a myriad list of sub-questions within this topic).

Let’s start with the basics.

A query is a professional business letter that introduces your work to an agent or editor. These days, this letter is sent by email rather than snail mail. In the query letter, you will have something called a pitch paragraph. The query letter will also contain an introduction and the author’s bio or credentials. It will be one-page long.

A pitch is the verbal delivery of the main pitch paragraph from your query letter. In other words, you need to have a quick way to sum up the opening plot catalyst of your novel in a sentence or two while talking to someone. That way your audience gets a clear and immediate gist of what your novel is about.

Here’s a great example from a novel I just sold by David Ramirez called MINCEMEAT. It’s a good example because in this instance, I actually did something unique. I pulled out the pitch from the main pitch paragraph. I don’t always do that but I did so in this instance. Also, when I was in New York in May, I verbally PITCHED this work to editors using the one sentence pitch highlighted in pink.

Here’s my submit letter to editors–which in essence is the agent’s QUERY letter to editors (to draw a comparison to what writers are doing when they approach agents):

Hello XXX,
It’s pretty rare that I send an email about a manuscript submission that I can sum up in a one sentence pitch. Trust me, I tend to be wordier than that!

But here it is:
All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new home aboard one ship, The Noah, and this ship is carrying a dangerous serial killer.

Intrigued? I hope so. At its heart, the concept for this SF novel MINCEMEAT by David Ramirez is quite simple but what unfolds is layer after layer of complexity.

Since most editors prefer I don’t leave it at one sentence, here’s a little bit more about the manuscript:

Priss Dempsey is a City Planning Administrator on the Noah, a vessel carrying the last survivors of Earth on a thousand-year journey to a new home.  She is equal parts psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat, a vital part of the mission, but her life seems to lose purpose after she experiences Breeding Duty.  Kept asleep through the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, she still feels a lost connection to the child she will never be permitted to know.

Policeman Leonard Barrens approaches her with a request for hacking support in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death. Only Barrens knows that a crime has been committed because he came across the mutilated remains before Information Security could cover it up. To everyone else, the missing man was merely “Retired,” nothing unusual.

Their investigation takes them through the lost dataspaces in the Nth Web and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a Mincemeat Killer after all. And what they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity.

May I send this novel your way?

All Best,
Kristin

Next up, I’ll tackle the log line versus the pitch.


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