First Impressions with Nicole Resciniti

NResciniti“It only takes a sip,” Ms. Resciniti told us. One needn’t drink an entire carton to realize the milk has soured, and readers treat books the same way. It doesn’t matter if the second page, or the second chapter, or the second novel, is magnificent; agents and editors won’t wait around to see, and neither will readers. This is why first impressions are so vital. They make the difference between ‘slush’ and ‘sold’.

Nicole Resciniti is a literary agent with the Seymour Agency. Like all agents, Ms. Resciniti sees a lot of wheat and a lot of chaff come through her inbox every day. Literary agents are so busy, and have so much material to get through, that a first impression is usually the only impression a query will get to give. Ms. Resciniti highlighted three parts of a submission packet as being key to a good first impression: a high concept hook, back cover copy, and first pages.

A high concept hook is only one or two lines, but carries a punch. Also known as a one-liner or a log line, your hook is what first grabs the reader’s attention. (High concept, a term which I have spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to define via Google searches, is what Ms. Resciniti calls “the familiar idea with a twist” and “a concept easily visualized.”) The hook usually goes something like this: “[Character + descriptor] wants [goal] because [motivation], but [conflict] and [possible consequences].” Pretty catchy, huh? It sounds better when you fill in the blanks. Try it out with your own story!

The back cover copy is two to three paragraphs that encapsulate the heart of the story. The goal, motivation, and conflict create the vehicle for the characters that propels them through the story, and should be front and center in your back cover copy. (Side note: Ms. Resciniti recommends that you have each of these three things for your main character, second main, and antagonist. All of them might not show up directly in the back cover copy, but they should in the story overall. Know what your characters want, dangle it in front of them, and then rip it away.)

Ms. Resciniti recommends a six-pronged attack in hooking readers within those first few pages.

Begin with a bang. Open with action, with characters in motion. Be visual. Avoid clichés, info dumps, background, coincidence, set up, and an excess of characters.

Establish the mood. Convey an immediate tone. Keep in mind your audience and the expectations of your genre, and respect- or subvert- the conventions.

Evoke instant emotion. Immediately establish an emotional attachment between the reader and the character. Make your character inspire emotions in your reader- admiration, pity, envy, kinship, sympathy. It’s not enough to have a passive character that we follow through the story. The characters should be active, making choices, growing and changing, and it should all happen in a way that the reader can feel.

Convey conflict. Conflict is the core of emotion. Present problems on the page quickly, and structure characters so that they are at odds with one another. Create problems that are based on the characters and their weaknesses. And for every problem that is solved, create two more.

Create visceral reactions in the reader. Incorporate humor/danger/tension to make your readers laugh, cry, and tremble right along with your characters. Never state an emotion or action- show it, and make the reader feel it too.

 Make a “what happens next” moment. Don’t immediately tie problems up neatly for the characters. Evoke curiosity. This goes hand in hand with conveying constant conflict.

A book on a shelf has about thirty seconds to sell itself: cover, title, back cover copy, and pages. Agents and editors are themselves readers, just of earlier forms of the book. You don’t need to impress them with a gorgeous cover, but you do need to grab their attention with your submission materials, and never let go.

Ms. Resciniti’s final advice? “Do not be discouraged. Do not.” Editing is hard, and submitting is hard, and selling is hard. Every step of the process is hard in its own way. But don’t give up because of the difficulty. The difficulty is the very thing that will transform your book from an awful first draft into a beautiful final product in the hands of people who love it. So do not get discouraged in the in-between. You can do this.

Tune in next week for the cliff notes version of Jane Friedman’s three hour intensive, How to Get Your Book Published. We’ll be talking about traditional, indie, and hybrid publishing, and the most important steps to take down each route.

Until then, happy writing!

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Query Letter Tips with Paul Lucas

Guys, the conference this year was great.  I got to see old buddies, make new buddies, and learn new stuff about the industry’s past and present. I was awarded a grant, and declared the guild’s Writer of the Year- now doesn’t that sound fancy! I also had a very helpful manuscript review, and then a quick query letter review. Everyone is always so generous with their time at these things!

PLucasThe presenters were also very generous with their knowledge, and so we’ll have three weeks of conference lessons this time around. This week’s post is based on a query letter workshop with literary agent Paul Lucas, who works for Janklow & Newbit Associates.

For context, keep in mind that Mr. Lucas’ work day often looks something like this: 100ish emails- per day!- to writers, editors, colleagues, etc; meeting with editors; on the phone with editors; internal meetings with colleagues; researching to keep abreast of industry news; and going through queries. (He tends to do his manuscript reading after work or on weekends. The guy gets no rest.)

Queries are important. Queries are (usually) how agents find new talent and sign new authors. But agents are super super busy folks, so a query has to really stand out to make any noise in all that daily cacophony.

Here are some basic tips that Mr. Lucas shared on helping your query to make the cut:

Be polite. Don’t be crazy.

A query should have three things: who you are, why you’re writing this agent, and what the book is about. If something in your query is not one of those three things, axe it.

Never mention others who liked the book. (The only exception to this would be an author or editor who will endorse the book with a short blurb.)

Edit, edit, edit. (Side note: I got called out for an intentional fragment sentence, which Mr. Lucas feels is always a bad thing. I made a squinchy face of disagreement, but he’s the pundit, not me. So maybe stare at those stylistic choices long and hard before hitting send.)

Follow agency submission rules. Always. No exceptions. No squinchy face.

Specify age range, genre, and word count.

Keep comp titles within five years of publication. (I’ve heard other agents who suggest no more than two years.) Don’t use megastars or absolute nobodies; look for recent comps that sold 10k-ish.

Be succinct. Queries should never run longer than a single page.

Be specific. Name awards in your bio. Describe why a certain book is a good comp. Tell why you chose this agent to query.

Queries are hard, and way less fun than drafting the next book in that bubblegum space opera you’ve been working on, but they’re vital to getting your work eventually seen and published. Work to make sure that your query is intriguing and reflective of your writing style in each of the three sections Mr. Lucas mentioned: why you’re writing this agent (hook), what the book is about (blurb), and who you are (bio).

Once you think you have a good query, run it past several pairs of eyes before sending it out to literary agents. Workshops are great because you can get instant feedback from several people, but if you don’t have access to a group, send it out to several writer friends for their opinions. When you are ready to submit to agents, do it in batches so that you can incorporate any feedback you might get in order to hone your query down to its best possible form.

Finally, if you are getting feedback on your submission packet, keep sending it out to as many agents as you can find who are good fits. But if you’re only hearing crickets, consider making major alterations or moving on to a new project after fifty ignored queries. Either way, don’t get discouraged. Querying is difficult, but a necessary bump on the road of traditional publishing. Don’t give up on your dream.

Next week, we’ll get into more details for query letters and first pages with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Until then, happy writing!

Podcast: Why Go to Writing Conferences?

Podcast the Second! Tune in as I hassle folks about why they go to writing conferences, including Brooke Hartman, Conference Chairperson for the Alaska Writers Guild, and Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/pn7de-691a6f?from=yiiadmin

Thanks to all the podcast’s participants: Brooke Hartman, Patricia Nelson, a handful of modest writers, and singer/songwriter Becky Beistline, who voice acted Patricia Nelson’s quote for me in exchange for chocolate chip cookies.  Thanks also for the patience and support of my husband.  Sorry I kept you up so late to complain about technology.

Still looking for a little more conference guidance?  Check out these links:

How to Make the Most of Any Writing Conference | Writer’s Digest

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare | The Write Life

Why Attend a Writer’s Conference | The Steve Laube Literary Agency

And a video from the Book Doctors!

Also, you can snag Brooke and I’s full interview here, stutters, ums, and all.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/5dxcw-691a7e?from=yiiadmin

Podcast music credit:  “and your Love”
Exzel Music Publishing (freemusicpublicdomain.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Conference Lessons: Rookie Submission Mistakes

facepalmDuring last fall’s writers conference with the Alaska Writers Guild, one of our illustrious presenters was literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  One of her presentations was the very informative Eight Rookie Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, and I’m happy to share the gist of it with you.

So here they all, all of writers’ favorite ways to ruin their own submission packets!

#1- Wrong Age Category

Know your age category!  If you’re not sure, there are lots of resources on the internet to figure it out, including my handy dandy chart from the post a couple months ago, Conference Lessons: Age Categories, but the two age groupings that Ms. Nelson highlighted in particular were YA and adult, which apparently get blurred a lot.

#2- Wrong Genre

Think about where your project would shelve in a bookstore.  What titles would it sit between?  If you’re not sure, think about another author writes like you (your comp titles, anyone?) and look up how they classify their books.  It’s not enough to say that your manuscript defies categorization; odds are it doesn’t.  (Still not sure? If you write speculative fiction, Ms. Nelson suggests Connor Goldsmith’s sci-fi/fantasy breakdown on Fuse Literary’s website as a good place to start.)

#3- Wrong Agent

Do your research and only query the agents that are a good fit for the project.  A few (free!) resources for finding the right agent include: agent websites; AgentQuery; QueryTracker; and Literary Rambles (but always be sure to double check aggregated information against the agents’ websites, since it can sometimes be dated).

#4- Wrong Comp Titles

Don’t pick books that are too old, too famous, or in a different genre.  When looking for comp titles, try to find similar (to prove demand) but different (to show there’s still market space) titles that were published in the last 3-5 years, and did well, but not made-into-a-movie well.  Ms. Nelson goes so far as to say that it’s better to leave out comp titles altogether than to use the wrong ones.

#5- Query Not about Book

The story should take up the bulk of the query, with only a small portion devoted to the bio.  (The bio is more important for nonfiction, but even then, unless you’re Oprah, focus on what the book is about.)  Bio only matters so long as it pertains to this book (so don’t put in your day job, your hobbies, your fifteen cats, etc., unless it’s applicable), and if you want some kind of agent personalization (I’m querying you because…), keep it to just one non-creepy sentence.

#6- First Page Clichés

Dream scene, character waking up, character being chased, a long time ago moment: none of that.  If it’s been done a thousand times, find a new way, or at least a new tweak on the cliché.

#7- First Chapter Info Dump

This is a similar issue to the above.  When agents see clichés, they stop caring.  When agents see background information, they stop caring.  The moment the agent no longer cares is the moment they stop reading, so make sure that your first pages are endlessly engaging.  Ms. Nelson recommends highlighting every moment of backstory and asking yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’

#8- Unprofessional Communication

Think of your query as a cover letter for a job application.  In communicating with literary professionals, and being one yourself, keep these things in mind:

  • Be friendly! Agents are humans too.
  • Be prompt with responses.
  • Be patient, and be polite when checking in.
  • Don’t complain about querying.
  • Notify all agents immediately if you get an offer.

 

A final piece of submission advice? Ms. Nelson suggests sending queries out in batches to fifteen agents at a time.  After two months with no takers, tweak your submission materials and send out another fifteen. She suggests one hundred to one hundred fifty rejections before moving on to a new project.  So if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a long way to go.  Don’t give up too early!

Happy writing!

Think you might like to query Ms. Nelson? She’s currently looking for adult, YA and MG.  Look on her agent page for details and good luck!

Reblog: How to Land a Literary Agent

Hi!  I’m sitting in a graphic design shop typing away for the one hour of internet that I’ve had in the last week and have I got a lot of ground to cover.  With that brief excuse, please enjoy this short video by The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, while I register my second child for kindergarten.  *sobs*

The Call

Today’s cool cool blog post is a throwback to the writer’s conference I attended all those months ago. But I still have more information to share! Next week should be the last of the conference posts, but please let me know if you have anything else in particular you’d like to hear about. Until then, have some more brain-conglomeration from Laurie McLean, Andy Kifer, and Danielle Smith. They’re fantastic!

Once Upon a Time... communication one hundred years ago. An early telephoneThis will happen some day. I will be sitting in my kitchen baking something unnecessarily complicated. My mysteriously sticky flip phone will ring and I’ll wipe my hands on my apron and answer.

It will be a literary agent. A literary agent ready to talk representation.

My heart will implode in my chest, all the blood will drain from my skull, my knees will wobble, and my youngest child will start screaming. By the time I hang up, my baking adventure will be hopelessly ruined.

But all will not be lost, for I have prepared myself for that very moment. In between the screaming child and the destroyed foodstuff, I will run to my desk for this very thing: my list of questions to ask an agent during The Call. (I kid you not. The following exactly sits on my desktop.)

Take a breath. Chit chat. Be yo’ cool self. And then…

Definitely ask:

What was it about my book that made you want to work with me?

Are there any areas in the story that you think need to be reworked? How extensive do you think edits will be?

Are you interested in working with me on only this project, or on all future projects? How long does agency representation last? Is there an agency agreement, and may I read it beforehand?

How frequently do you communicate with clients? What’s your preferred style? (Phone? Email? Smoke signals?)

Maybe ask:

What do you charge for what? (15% of any deals? Subsidiary rights licenses? Out of pocket expenses?)

What happens if you leave the agency (death, disability, retirement, moves on to different agency, etc.)?

As an agent, what do you consider your strong suit? (Pitching, editing, negotiating, etc)

(Okay, not a question) Here are some ideas I have on promotional/marketing plans for this particular project.

What happens if we don’t sell this book?

Don’t ask:

Can you tell me about your list? (Anything about their list of sales and their other clients is probably online. In fact, you should probably have already looked at it when you were doing your research. Asking this will make it look like you didn’t do your homework at all.)

How big is your agency? (Again, this is online and you should already know this before you even sent your query.)

How long have you been in business? (Seriously. Homework. You did it, right?)

Now before you get the call, it’s important to have some idea of what your ideal answers would be. (I didn’t include mine in this list because I didn’t think that would be super helpful to you.) For example, when I ask an agent what her strong suit is, I should have an idea of what kind of agent I’m looking for. A hand holder? A negotiation shark? An editing agent? A business agent who can pitch, pitch, pitch? If I don’t already have a sense of what I’m hoping for, any one of those answers will sound just as good as any other, and I’m not any closer to finding my ideal agent.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to go over all of these questions. (It’s a hefty list. You probably shouldn’t.) See where the conversation takes you! Have fun, be your charming self. By the end of the conversation, both of you should be happy and confident. And feel free to ask for a week or two to consider the offer, especially if you have other agents you’ve queried that deserve a heads up that an offer’s been made. (Don’t ask for more than three or four weeks, though. Be courteous.)

Still not sure what sorts of things you want to ask agents? Victoria Strauss pulled together an amazing resource on her website called Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent. She has links to bunches of posts on the subject from authors, agents, and literary companies. If you’d like to give the topic a bit more research, go give it a gander!

Reblog: The Evolving Literary Agent

Hello, hello, hello!  The hand is healing up nicely and I’ve caught up and then some in my NaNoWriMo daily writing goals.  Huzzah!  But I’m still busy tapping away to catch up to my personal goal of finishing 50k by Thanksgiving and hitting 60k by the end of the month.  So to free me up for that, I present you with another fantastic reblog, this time from Jane Friedman via Writer’s Digest.  Enjoy!

jane-friedman-writer-media-featured

Jane Friedman

Progressive literary agencies are redefining the traditional role of the agent—and finding new ways to support authors in the digital era. Here’s what savvy writers—beginning and experienced alike—should know.

Claire Cook is living the dream. She wrote her first novel at 45, and five years later, she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of her second novel, Must Love Dogs. She’s the USA Today bestselling author of 11 novels, and her books have been translated into 14 languages.

And she no longer has an agent.

Cook recently broke with her long-standing agency when they reached an impasse over how to handle her indie work. She says that while she loved the support of being agented, she didn’t want to be pressured to sell her new work to traditional publishers, and would prefer an agent willing to allow her the freedom to pursue alternatives. As she considers her next steps, she says, “I decided to write the book I’d wanted to write for years that nobody on my former publishing team felt fit my novelist brand.”

Cook’s story illustrates a larger shift in the industry, where authors’ needs and long-term career trajectories are no longer automatically defined by selling their next book to a big publisher. Self-publishing and digital publishing now can serve as important (and lucrative) building blocks for growing a readership, and more authors are choosing a hybrid model of publishing, where they decide how and where to publish on a project-by-project basis.

Click here to read more! –>