Pub Rants

Category: Query Letters

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

Pitch Language vs. Book-Review Language

There’s pitch language and there’s book-review language, and each has a unique vocabulary. Pitch language sells, but book-review language tells. If you’re working on your query letter, here’s a quick tip to help you keep the tone on track: Avoid using book-review language in your pitch.

Here’s a quick list of book-review vocabulary:

  • Absorbing
  • Action-packed
  • Addictive
  • Ambitious
  • Awe-inspiring
  • Breathtaking
  • Captivating
  • Dazzling
  • Dynamic
  • Engaging
  • Enjoyable
  • Gripping
  • Haunting
  • Heart-wrenching
  • Juicy
  • Memorable
  • Moving
  • Page-turning
  • Poignant
  • Powerful
  • Scrumptious
  • Spellbinding
  • Suspenseful
  • Tear-jerking
  • Tense
  • Thought-provoking
  • Thrilling
  • Touching
  • Yummy

These descriptors and others like them, while wholly appropriate for book reviews and cover blurbs, should be avoided in your query letter. Why? There are two reasons.

First, when you tell an agent in your query letter that your manuscript is “a breathtaking page-turner full of juicy, spell-binding prose” and that your beta readers told you how “haunting and moving and tear-jerking” it was, the agent has no idea what your story is about. Your query letter’s pitch should be 100-percent focused on your story.

Can’t you do both? That is, why not pitch the story and also say a few glowing things about it?

Because (and this is the second reason) your query letter should be no longer than one printed page. It’s the equivalent of an old-school, ink-on-paper business letter. That’s not very long, which makes every line valuable real estate. The more lines you put to work immersing the agent in your story’s premise, characters, conflict, stakes, plot, and the like, the greater the likelihood they’ll be interested in reading your sample pages or requesting your full.

Your pitch is not a review you write about your own book. Once more for the back row, pitch language is sell copy, but book-review language is tell copy. The query letter, like back-cover copy, exists to sell. So keep that pitch focused on your story’s Five W’s to increase your chances of selling:

  • Who is your character?
  • What do they want? (Goal)
  • Why do they want it? (Motivation)
  • Why can’t they have it? (Conflict)
  • What happens if they don’t get it? (Stakes)

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels

In fifteen years of researching and writing articles for Pub Rants and the NLA newsletter, I’ve never seen an agent tackle this topic. Many newsletter readers subscribe solely for tips and insights on how to land an agent and fulfill their publishing dreams. But what happens to all those writers—and there are many—who landed the dream and then decided it wasn’t right for them? What made them choose to leave this career?

As an agent who has responded “no” to tens of thousands of writers over the last twenty years, I definitely understand that aspiring writers spend a lot of time and energy on the beginning of the journey. The first steps are mastering writing craft, landing that perfect concept, writing and finishing the novel, and then investing countless hours finding an agent or publisher. I won’t even touch on the hundreds of rejections writers face during this process. Writers in the throes of submissions probably find it mind-boggling that someone who got in the door would turn around and walk back out. Why would a published (and in many cases, successful) author deliberately choose to no longer be an author? Here are six reasons given by authors I’ve known and worked with, and these reasons can be illuminating for aspiring writers.

“I’m a one-book author.”

Some writers have only one book in them. This is not an issue of having too few ideas; it’s simply that these authors said what they came to say, and that was enough. Once their book is published, their dream is fulfilled. Other one-book writers came out of the gate with a literary masterpiece, and either they feel no need to try to top it, or they know how harshly their sophomore effort will be judged by critics and readers. Either way, the one-book masterpiece can feel like a good place to stop and turn to other pursuits.

“My career has run its course.”

One of my authors published five successful novels and one work of nonfiction in a hot trend of the time. When that trend ended, other stories simply didn’t interest her, and other exciting non-writer career opportunities beckoned. She hung up her pen with no regrets. 

“I’m uncomfortable in the spotlight.”

Very few authors can pull a Salinger these days and be both famous and reclusive. Today’s writers are expected to build and maintain a public presence on social media and show up in-person at major events. One of my authors, a private individual, felt constantly exhausted by this expectation. When this author had one tweet go viral, the sudden spotlight made this person rethink the whole writing-career path. With the completion of the publishing contract, this author decided that the publicity side of writing as a career was a deal breaker. 

“The publishing industry is a mess.”

Currently, many conversations are being held in the internal sphere about lack of representation of BIPOC and other marginalized voices. Change is happening, but like all things in publishing, it’s happening at a snail’s pace. For a lot of authors of color, it’s too little, too late. After several mediocre publishing experiences (no marketing budget for the release, odd shelving in bookstores—why would a fiction title be shelved in African American Studies?), I personally know several authors of color who chose to set aside their pens.

“Life got in the way.”

Some authors loved the dream and experienced extraordinary success only to have personal tragedy, illness, or other trials play the trump card. Writing careers sometimes get sacrificed so the author can simply survive. 

“It’s time to retire.”

As hard as it may be to believe, after a long career, some hardworking writers are just ready to rest. People get tired, and that can make the dream less dreamlike.

When that moment happens, it takes courage and strength to recognize, acknowledge, and embrace the end of this life chapter. Just on the other side lies contentment, freedom, and maybe even happiness. 

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

Zoom culture definitely opened up the ability for writers, where ever they reside, to attend wonderful writers conferences across the nation and around the globe. I participated in a few myself. Still, nothing beats the personal interaction and camaraderie of spending a weekend ensconced in an intimate hotel setting with a hundred-plus other writers, agents, and editors. Are you ready to gather again? Here are four questions to ask yourself. 

Question 1: Do you have an at-risk person in your immediate family or gather bubble? If so, 2021 might not be the year for an in-person conference. Although we would like to think that other attendees will monitor themselves accordingly and stay away if sick, this is not a certainty. It would also be great to assume that everyone attending will be vaccinated, but conferences will not be policing that. It really is on the honor system. If I had an at-risk person in my life, a big conference would feel too risky for me. In the past, I washed my hands multiple times a day anyway and always kept hand sanitizer near, since conferences were dubbed “coldferences.” As an agent, if I were going to get the cold or flu, I would most likely get it right after an industry gather. In fact, I always returned from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair with some kind of cold. Inevitable, despite dosing up on Echinacea and keeping Emergen-C handy. 

Question 2: What is your threshold for people in your immediate space? Writers conferences mean a lot of people in small spaces. The hotel bar is always crowded in the evenings, and such bars are often not spacious. Although terrific for networking, that means folks may be talking within a foot of you. As we know from the six-foot standard social distance during Covid, droplets spray when someone is talking. It will be inevitable. Not too mention the lunch gather will be at a round table with at least six or eight other attendees Then there are agent pitch sessions, where you’ll sit one foot across a table from an agent to pitch your story. Rick Springfield might suggest “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” but at a conference, there’s no way around it. (Although I’d like to advocate for plexiglass partitions, like what grocery stores have.)

Question 3: What is your capacity for not observing standard American social niceties? At every conference I’ve attended, writers introduce themselves by extending a hand for a handshake. Personally, I’ve always felt that the Japanese were on to something with the steepled hands and a formal, short bow instead. In a post-Covid world, I’m not as interested in hand-shaking. And don’t even get me started on the European tradition of cheek pecking at the Book Fairs. At a conference, you might have to hold your ground and decline certain traditions. Definitely be sure to feel comfortable with your capacity to do so. 

Question 4: What is the cost-benefit ratio for attending in-person versus virtual? If you’re going for craft guidance and instruction, virtual may still fill the need. If you are craving the human connection, then weigh the factors of catching a cold, flu, or worst-case scenario, Covid. 

Just yesterday I discovered that a gal in my immediate circle who has been fully vaccinated for Covid started having flu-like symptoms after flying. A rapid test proved she is Covid-positive. Vaccination is not foolproof armor. 

Something we all need to keep in mind as we start to gather again. 

Game? Here are some Upcoming Colorado Gathers:

Writing in the Wilderness – July 16-19, 2021 Retreat

Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference – October 15-17, 2021

Murder in the Mountains – October 29-31, 2021

Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Ten Tips for Virtual or In-Person Pitching

The writing world is transitioning back to in-person conferences, and we couldn’t be more excited! But the unexpected benefits of virtual events means they’re probably here to stay. Whether you’ll soon be pitching in-person or over Zoom, here are ten tips to help you present as professional, knowledgeable, and ready to take on the publishing industry.

1. Practice.

Run through your pitch a few times in front of the mirror (if you’ll be pitching in person) or in front of your computer with your camera on (if you’ll be pitching virtually). You can even record yourself and play back your practice pitches until you feel like you’re nailing it. If you’re super nervous, start by pitching to a sweet-faced stuffie or your least judgy-looking pet. Work up to your friends and family. But know that you’re going to get the best feedback from other writers. They can give you tips on the pitch itself as well as on your delivery, so when you’re ready, ask your critique group if you can practice on them. (See #6 below for another practice tip.)

2. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.

Have you ever attended a lecture or keynote where the speaker read word-for-word off their PowerPoint slides or note cards? Of course you have. Everyone has. It’s a little monotonous, right? The speaker’s lack of interaction with the audience is awkward and yawn inducing. The same can be true of a pitch appointment. Reading the agent your query letter or synopsis isn’t your best move, and there are several reasons why. First, imagine what the agent or editor will be looking at while you read: the top of your head. Second, it can be difficult to hear you if you’re aiming your voice at the paper in front of you, especially in a crowded pitch room. If you’re pitching on Zoom and reading off your screen, speaking right into your mic, that’s not as bad, but your reading-aloud voice might still be a little flat. Which leads me to the third and most important thing: a verbal pitch should be an engaging conversation starter. As such, it should be shorter than your query letter’s pitch paragraphs. Therefore…

3. Avoid talking the whole time.

Pitch appointments average eight to ten minutes, and those minutes go by fast. The best pitch appointments for both the writer and the agent are those that turn into personable dialogues about the book, comparable titles, and the writer’s inspiration, journey, and career goals. Yet my colleagues and I have taken tons of pitch appointments over the years that end with the writer still talking—either because they haven’t practiced their pitch and are kind of wandering through a vague recounting of their story’s events, or because they’re still explaining their backstory, world building, or themes. There’s just not time during the average pitch appointment for that kind of elucidation. Therefore…

4. Encapsulate your premise or concept.

Lead with your story’s title, genre, word count, and character- or concept-based “person with a problem” proposition. You can expand a little, but not as much as your query letter does. Then give the agent an opportunity to ask you questions…or better yet, to just go ahead and request your manuscript.

5. Make eye contact.

Whether in person or on screen, eye contact conveys confidence and commands the attention of the listener. Without it, it’s easier for the listener to zone out.

6. Avoid memorizing your written pitch.

Maybe you’re making stellar eye contact and not reading off a piece of paper. That’s good! But the word-for-word recitation of a memorized pitch also risks being humdrum—especially when the writer forgets to breathe. And let me tell you, pitch memorizers are the most likely to forget to breathe! You’re much better off knowing what you want to say and then letting it come out naturally and personably in the moment. How do you practice that? Here’s something a writer friend of mine did: Write “tell me about your book” on a dozen notecards or stickies and have a friend post them around your world (on your toothpaste, washing machine, fridge, rearview mirror, TV remote). Whenever you come across one, pretend it’s an agent or editor at a conference, and right then and there, deliver your pitch impromptu style.

7. Have paper and pen ready.

Unless your project is too far afield from what the agent is currently looking to represent, the agent is probably going to ask you for sample pages. That’s the only way they can assess whether the idea you pitched is executed well and ready for representation. So be ready to write down (a) what they want you to send (pages, chapters, full manuscript) and (b) how they want you to send it. This is especially important during virtual pitches. In person, an agent can hand you their business card. But over Zoom, you’ll need to be sure to write down their email address or the link to their submissions portal or online query form. When I’m taking virtual pitches, I post these things to the private chat window, so besides paper and pen, also have a document already open on your computer where you can copy-paste. What often happens is that the writer is so flustered by the request that they end up scrambling for something to write with and on…and then later, they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. So they contact the event organizers, who then have to get in touch with the agent, who then has to reiterate the request, which then has to be re-communicated to the writer. Best practice? Expect a request, stay calm and collected when it comes, and have pen and paper (or an open document) ready.

8. Respect agents’ social-media boundaries.

In our more virtual world, it seems professional boundaries have become a bit more blurred. Resist the urge to slide into an agent’s direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., whether to pitch them, send links to your content, or follow up on a pitch or other submitted materials. It’s simply not professional, and frankly, it feels a bit off. I don’t know a single agent who has ever been impressed by a writer who doesn’t follow the submission guidelines outlined on their websites. So unless an agent explicitly invites professional interactions via their personal media, it’s best not to go there.

9. Remember in-person hygiene.

This one’s a little uncomfortable to talk about, and you might be wondering if we need to talk about it at all. But every agent who’s ever taken in-person pitches has stories. Hey, I’m sure writers have stories about agents’ hygiene, too. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. So as we all return to in-person life, some grudgingly trading yoga pants and slippers for tailored slacks and hard-soled shoes, here are some tips. First, forego perfume or cologne the day of your pitch. A few years ago, Agent Kristin ended up sneezing and mopping her eyes all the way through a pitch appointment because she had an allergic reaction to whatever scent the writer was wearing. Second, slip some mints or hard candies into your conference bag. These aren’t just for your breath—they also help remedy anxious dry mouth in the moments before your appointment. To that point, have a bottle of water in your bag as well. Finally, I know several conference regulars who carry a little travel-sized deodorant or antiperspirant in their conference bags. Great to have on hand for pre-pitch anxiety, sure, but also for surviving long breakout sessions when the hotel air-conditioning is on the fritz. (Why is the hotel air-conditioning always on the fritz?) Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

10. Don’t be nervous.

Ha! Like it’s that easy, right? Of course there are nerves involved in pitching. The only way to combat the anxiety is to be practiced and prepared, and to keep signing up for pitch appointments every time you have the chance, both in person and online. Once you know what to expect, there will be fewer surprises, and you’ll be a pitching pro in no time.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

From Query Letter to Six-Figure Deal

When writers hear about a debut author who got a six-figure deal, their curiosity gets piqued. How did that author do it? Did they have industry connections? Get a referral? Did they pitch to their agent at a conference? Did their query letter get picked out of the slush pile?

This month, with the author’s blessing, we offer you a look at the query letter we received from Shelby Van Pelt for her debut, REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES, which Agent Kristin sold recently to Ecco (Harpercollins), in a major, high-six-figure deal after a multi-house auction. NLA’s Literary Associate, Maria, pulled this one out of the slush pile and brought it to Agent Kristin’s attention, and Kristin, immediately sensing a hit, acted fast. We can’t wait for this one to come out next spring!

So here it is…Shelby’s query letter, followed by a little commentary about why this is a query letter that works.

Dear Ms. Nelson,

REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES is upmarket fiction with a dash of whimsy complete at 88,000 words. Told alternately from the perspective of an elderly widow, a fatherless young man, and a giant Pacific octopus, this quirky story will appeal to book club readers who enjoyed Fredrik Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here and Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here.

Curmudgeonly Marcellus, a “prisoner” at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, wouldn’t lift one of his eight tentacles for his human captors, until he forms an unlikely friendship with the night cleaning lady.

After Tova Sullivan’s husband died two years ago, she talked her way into a job mopping floors at the Aquarium. She doesn’t need the paycheck, but keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she’s been doing since 1987, when her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound.

Cameron Catalinich recently turned thirty, but he has some growing up to do. He arrives in Sowell Bay on a mission to find the father he’s never known, and he lands a gig helping clean at the Aquarium after Tova breaks her foot. Marcellus, keenly observant, deduces that Cameron is a missing key to what happened that fateful night. As Tova’s injury lingers, with no family to care for her, she makes plans to sell the house her father built and move to a faraway retirement community. Marcellus must use every trick his invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for Tova before it’s too late.

I have received full manuscript requests for REMARKABLY BRIGHT CREATURES from acquiring editors at [redacted] and [redacted]. My short fiction has won honors in international competitions and has been featured, most recently, by f(r)iction, Flora Fiction, and Funny Pearls. I currently live in the Chicago suburbs, but I was born and raised in the Seattle area near the fictional town where this story is set. It was inspired by my favorite childhood aquarium.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shelby Van Pelt

Why This Query Worked

First, take a look at that opening sentence. Title + Genre + Word Count. Boom. No awkward small talk. No messing around. Those are the first three things an agent wants to know about your project, and the less searching you make an agent do, the better. Also, 88,000 words is well within the appropriate word-count range for a work of adult upmarket fiction, so we’re definitely going to keep reading.

In the next sentence, we get a brief mention of the three POV characters, which include…an OCTOPUS??? Talk about a hook! At this point, Maria was thinking, “This is either brilliant or bananas.” But with the recent success of the Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which since took home the Academy Award for best documentary (one of those uber-fortunate market-timing things no writer can plan for or predict), Maria kept reading.

This second introduction sentence, by the way, also includes two well-chosen comps—comparable titles and authors—that identify an existing readership likely to enjoy this book. This demonstrates the author’s market awareness, and market awareness is vital to any writer’s potential for commercial success.

Overall, that brief opening paragraph packs a succinct punch, including light-touch but vibrant buzzwords like “whimsy,” “quirky,” and “book club,” while avoiding lengthy explanations describing what the book is. Agents are far more interested in what the book is about. So nail that brief intro paragraph and move on to the pitch, like Shelby did.

Shelby’s three-paragraph pitch is structured in a way that mirrors how the book is structured. Each paragraph introduces one of the major characters. In truth, this is an approach I often warn querying writers not to use, because more often than not, we see it done poorly. It’s definitely not done poorly here! What’s the difference? There are three: (a) conflict, (b) connection, and (c) a ticking clock. Here’s what I mean.

What not to do: “Sally is this type of person. Jane is this type of person. Barbara is this type of person. Over the course of the novel, these three women will confront adversity, face hardship, find love, and discover the true meaning of friendship.” Or, in the case of middle-grade or YA lit, here’s another common iteration: “Billy is a nerd who is constantly bullied. Sam is the quarterback of the football team. Jamie is a fairy from the magical land of Eggwaffle. Together, this unlikely trio will have the adventure of a lifetime.”

This formula—“list and give backgrounds on the characters and then make a vague statement or two promising that meaningful or exciting stuff will happen to them”—is one we most often see in query letters for multi-POV novels. The problem is, there’s no room in this formula for a burning story question. A burning story question is the thing that lets know you actually have a story (as opposed to just “characters doing stuff and learning lessons,” which is often not story).

Instead, here’s what Shelby did. For each character, she gave us only what information is relevant to her central, burning story question: What really happened to Erik? She does that by hinting at how these characters are connected to each other even though they don’t know they are connected to each other—and we are compelled to read the manuscript because we want to find out how they find out they are connected to each other. That in itself is a second, “meta” burning story question that’s communicated through the pitch’s subtext, and it lets us know the novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. Finally, Shelby also sets a ticking clock: Marcellus has to communicate with Tova before she moves away and it’s too late. Ticking clocks are great ways to give stories tension, urgency, and stakes.

A well-crafted pitch is built on meaningful subtext. Don’t waste space in your query letter telling us you have a burning story question, and don’t tell us what it is. It should be made clear within the pitch itself. Don’t waste space telling us your novel has layers that promise an emotionally satisfying journey. That, too, should be conveyed by the pitch’s subtext. Don’t tell us your characters are connected in ways they will understand only at the end of the novel (yep—use subtext instead). None of those things tell us what the story is about. Keep the pitch focused on how your character(s) is(are) connected to a burning story question, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Finally, Shelby’s bio in the query letter’s final paragraph is brief and relevant. It lets us know she’s had editorial interest, which is important. (You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many writers I’ve had in my query workshops over the years who omit this type of thing—or other boosts or accolades—from their query letters because they’re worried it’s bragging. It’s not bragging! Step up to the mic! Give us the goods!) She lists a few prior publications, and then sums up with a personal note.

That’s about as close to perfect as you can get.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

New Year, New #MSWL

Oh, what a year. In the spirit of taking a (small) step forward, I’m not going to summarize the ways in which we’ve all been impacted by everything that happened in 2020, but as we approach the anniversary of, what I’ll kindly call, the big shut down, I’ve been re-thinking what types of projects I’d like to see in my inbox and what types of books I think editors will be looking to acquire in 2021. While thrillers will continue to be in demand, I do think both agents and editors will be on the lookout for diverse stories that build and fuel community as well as those that really dissect identity, family, and our place in the world.

The Dark Side of Homecoming. And the secrets it reveals.  I’m not talking about a big city corporate lawyer who inherits her great aunt’s estate and finds love along the way (although I have a soft spot for those stories, too). I’m interested in the tension that arises from being forced to confront your decisions to leave the place you were born and the desperate acts that come from being forced to return. I’m fascinated by the dark side and tension of identity building. What does it look like when you have to come back to a place to lay something to rest – especially if that place has a hold over you? What about when you have to confront the darker side of your cultural identity – be it myths or legends that turn out, somehow, to be real or the xenophobia you were raised with that you now have to confront?

Epic Sister/Friendship Stories.  I devoured Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and have been hiding from my family binging Firefly Lane.  There’s something about the bond of friendship and sisterhood that continues to fascinate me.  Friends have been a lifeline during these quarantine months and since I don’t have a sister, I’m always intrigued by what that would be like.  I am drawn to the extremes of these relationships – the dark corners that break our hearts and the love that mends them. Female friendships are one of the most important and often overlooked relationships out there, so I’m particularly interested in what happens when they end. The loss of a dear friend is a kind of orphaning and it is an area that again drives people to interesting extremes.  I’d love to find a Reconstructing Amelia among friends or sisters.

Food as a road to identity and community.  2020 had me thinking about food a lot. As I tried to control my reality by preparing heartening food for my family, I was also conscious that many didn’t have that same privilege. So much about food is tied to one’s sense of identity, feeling of home and sense of community. I would love to find a story about a community brought together by a local chef or restaurant – be it the community at large or the community a place like that creates for its patrons and staff. I’m also interested in stories about how food creates a home for someone. Whether it’s someone coming back to their roots, learning traditional recipes to reconnect to or learn about their history, or a kitchen of women who find solace and escape in the food they prepare and the restaurant they run, I’m interested in how people come to connect to food and how food connects us to who we are.

Thrillers. I am still in search of twisty stories where secrets are revealed and relationships are tested.  If it happens to be set on a creepy island or in a closed community a la The Guest List, all the better.  Stories where all things buried finally bubble over are deeply engrossing – especially when they involve giving a big middle finger to systems of oppression along the way. I’m thinking of The Other Black Girl or The Other Me as examples.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Dan Zen

How to Pitch a Character-Driven Novel

When it comes to pitching and querying, it’s hard for writers of introspective, character-driven novels not to feel like writers with action-forward novels have an edge. If you’ve written a quieter story (nary an explosion or shootout in sight), how can you pitch it in such a way that it will pique an agent’s interest?

Focus on arcs. Most successful stories have two arcs: an external arc (what’s happening in the world around your protagonist) and an internal arc (what’s happening inside your protagonist’s head and heart). If your story leans more heavily on its internal arc, remember that arc means change. Ask yourself: (a) what is my character like at the beginning, (b) what is my character like at the end, (c) are those two states different enough that readers will be satisfied that a meaningful change or transformation took place, and (d) what happened in the story to force that change to occur? Try framing your pitch in terms of character change. In addition, the answer to (d) is probably where your external arc lies, and getting your external arc into your pitch, too, will help make it stronger.

Focus on conflict. Conflict is the engine of story. Assuring an agent in your pitch that your character-driven story delivers enough conflict to propel a whole novel from start to finish is key. Remember that motivated conflict is always more compelling than circumstantial conflict. Easy to overlook are pitches for stories that can be summed up “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship.” Hardship is circumstantial. It’s stuff that could happen to anyone. But motivated conflict is pressed upon your protagonist by at least one other character who has an agenda—and that’s far more engrossing than mere circumstance.

If you do write a “watch as my character struggles to overcome hardship” story, make sure whatever they do is so flagrantly audacious and outside the norm that we readers are fascinated and can’t look away. That’s a conflict-breeds-conflict story, which often features humorous escalation and tends to do well when told in a comedic or darkly comedic tone.

Focus on voice and prose. An introspective story must deliver more than a brooding character sitting alone in a room thinking—that is, it must still be a story. The writing style of a deep-dive-into-character story is just as important as a meaningful arc and propulsive conflict. Your readership isn’t looking for explosions, but they’re looking for something—often to be swept up and away by a book that is a transformative reading experience in and of itself. An upmarket voice or artful, literary prose can step up to the mic in place of a muted external arc. Demonstrate in your query as well as in your sample pages (if an agent so requests) that your voice and prose are capable of sharing the workload of driving a whole novel from start to finish. When readers get the sense they are in the presence of literary mastery, they’ll gladly follow you to your last page…and into your next book, too.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Natalia Medd

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception but with one big surprise in the data. And it’s all about queries and the possible impact of Covid.

4 : Number of agents at NLA (same as in 2019)

1 : Number of agents who made the Publishers Weekly Star Watch Finalists List. Congrats Quressa!

13,561 : Queries read and responded to. QueryManager gives us an exact number now. As a team, agents were closed to queries for 27% of the year, including for 8 months for Kristin, but we also think it’s because fewer writers queried in the time of Covid, so this is down from 14,000+ in 2019.

430 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 354 in 2019, as we had more time stuck at home to read): 71 requests for Kristin, 173 requests for Danielle, 77 requests for Quressa, 109 requests for Joanna.

106 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (down from 127 in 2019, which might mean fewer folks have work out there on submission).

13 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (1 for Kristin, 4 for Danielle, 4 for Quressa, 4 for Joanna). Four was the magic number for everyone except me, and this is down by only 1 from 2019, so go NLA team!

39 : Number of book deals done (16 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle with 1 debut, 11 for Quressa with 2 debuts, 7 for Joanna with 4 debuts). Way up from 26 in 2019.

2 : Number of debut New York Times bestsellers (1 for Quressa and 1 for Joanna, whose client debuted in the #1 position on the list!).

48 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 45 in 2019).

8 : TV and major motion picture deals (6 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa, 1 for Joanna). Down from 11 in 2019.

41 : Books released in 2020 (down from 45 in 2019).

70 : Foreign-rights deals done (54 for Kristin, 7 for Danielle, 9 for Quressa). Down from 106 in 2019. Thanks, Covid.

0 : Physical Conferences attended. Thanks, Covid. 

2 : Virtual Conferences attended by Kristin (both Denver-based: Lighthouse Writers LitFest and the inaugural Margins Conference). 

102 : Physical holiday cards sent (down from 180 in 2019 as we only sent to clients during this Covid year).

837 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down by one from 838 in 2019).

Not telling it’s so embarrassing : homemade eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because I wasn’t popping out to Starbucks.

Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise and missing my dear, dear Chutney. Reading full manuscripts is just not the same without her.  

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Clint Budd

Books That Go Bump in the Night

(Just a note, this article was featured in our October 2019 Newsletter. Some references may not correspond with recent events. To receive our articles first, you can subscribe to our newsletter here.)

Happy October, Friends! This has always been my favorite time of year. I love sweaters and scarves and fall leaves and pumpkin spice. I love the chill in the air…but what I love even more is a good chill down my spine. So horror writers? To celebrate this most wonderful time of the year, this one’s for you: here are three things we at NLA look for in horror submissions.

Literary or upmarket prose. We’re unlikely to request anything that leans too heavily on cheap scares, gratuitous violence, or gore porn. But send us a more cerebral, psychologically challenging work that demonstrates the tense, suspenseful, unsettling, atmospheric slow-burn of masterful horror writing, and you’ll definitely get our attention. Read 100 reviews or blurbs for bestselling horror novels and count how many times the words “tension” and “suspense” are used. So much of a writer’s ability to bring tension and suspense to the page lives in their writing style and voice. In the horror space, we’d love to see the next big crossover project—the one publishers are going to release in hardcover, the one booksellers are going to set out on their front-of-store displays because the writing is so artful it has the potential to capture readers who “don’t read horror” as well as those who do. 

Premise. There’s no shortage of gorgeous, voicey prose in the slush pile, but a solid, unique, fresh, high-concept premise? That’s rare. This is where being well-read in your genre is so important. Know what’s already been done and by whom. A query that hits me with a premise I’ve never encountered, one that makes me think how in the world is the writer going to pull that off?—you can bet a query like that is going to get me to read the sample pages. Many a horror premise is often built on a corporeal fear that, when confronted, leads to some sort of psychological disintegration: being buried alive, abducted, trapped, imprisoned, or tortured; being accused of something you’re innocent of; getting lost; being chased; encountering any supernatural beast or force…the list goes on. Plenty of great horror plays on more than one type of fear. But premise can also be built on a real horror, like slavery, say, and then amplified or twisted in some way. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation explores an alternate post-Civil War world in which slavery has been abolished—but when the dead soldiers rise up off the battlefield as zombies, the new American government forces former slaves to train as zombie fighters, claiming they have a natural immunity to zombie bites (which everyone knows is a lie). So Dread Nation offers us the horror of both a real and an imagined-but-plausible injustice to grapple with, as well as the external threat of zombies. Rather brilliant.

Plot. It’s such a disappointment for an agency reader to get halfway through a manuscript that’s artfully written and that promises a cool, unique premise, only to realize the author is a little lost in the weeds when it comes to plot and structure. Plot is hard, but I firmly believe that anyone who devotes themselves to learning it, can. Start with Story Genius by Lisa Cron and Anatomy of Story by John Truby. For horror specifically, have you honored your contract with your readers by building speculative elements and conflicts that are uniquely creeptastic but that don’t strain their willingness to suspend their disbelief? Have you avoided falling back on deus ex machina? Have you developed complex characters in physical and/or psychological distress—or have you made the threat of that distress terrifyingly palpable for readers?

Prose. Premise. Plot. Any manuscript, regardless of genre, that delivers all three is definitely a manuscript we want to see. Happy Halloween!

Creative Commons Credit: Kamaljith K V