Reedsy Broadcast Recap: Revising and Querying

EditingSome months ago, I listened to a broadcast hosted by Reedsy called Revising Your Manuscript and Query Letter; it was moderated by Ricardo Fayat, the founder and CMO at Reedsy, and presented by five editors and literary agents from their network. I’ve since signed up for several of Reedsy’s free 10-email courses through Reedsy Learning, which you can learn more about here. Reedsy is a self-publishing service based out of London and, although I haven’t quite hopped on the self-publishing bandwagon just yet, I’m always down with further educating myself.

Anyway, I took a bunch of notes from the broadcast and quickly forgot about them. But recently, in preparation for an upcoming writer’s conference, blew off the dust and thumbed through it to help me get ready for a manuscript review. So here’s the quick version of the broadcast.

Revising Your Manuscript

For your opening, make sure that you start with action- something visual, intense, and unexpected. (‘Action’ doesn’t necessarily mean a gunfight or crossing swords. Action can be much quieter so long as it’s clear and powerful, drawing readers in.) Whatever your opening scene entails, be original and above all else, don’t be boring.

Some of the most common manuscript mistakes the broadcast’s presenters see are:

  • Telling instead of showing
  • Unbelievable conflict (forcing the plot, character out of character, etc)
  • Confusing viewpoint
  • Unnecessary Wordiness
  • Disruptive dialog tags (usually, just stick to ‘said’)
  • Misuse of tense

Once you’ve revised your manuscript as much as you can (read: several drafts), it’s time to get other eyes on it. (The broadcast didn’t specifically mention beta readers at this point, but in my opinion, they should have. Beta readers are great!) Professional editors are spendy, but they can also be transformative.

Because it can be such a costly investment, take care to make sure you have the right agent for your project. Start by searching reputable websites, such as Reedsy. 😉  Once you have a few potentials, take the time to do some background checking. Ask for testimonials or recommendations from previous patrons.

When you have an editor you trust, send the following information: kind of editing wanted; genre, synopsis, and target market; and a sample of the book. When deciding what kind of editing you want done, keep in mind that different types of editing usually cannot happen in the same sweep. (If you’re specifically getting ready for submissions, the broadcast folks recommend focusing on developmental editing.) Also keep in mind that good editors are often booked out months in advance. Don’t expect a rush job.

When your manuscript is all edited up and ready to go, shift your focus over to preparing your submission materials.

Sending Out Your Query

Well known agencies receive between one to two hundred queries every day, so it’s hard to stand out from all that.

The first hurdle to jump is avoiding these common querying mistakes:

  • Rudeness, arrogance, and a lack of professionalism
  • Not following guidelines
  • Too much plot and not enough hook
  • Submitting work that isn’t fully edited
  • Lack of research (both within genre and in querying specific agents)

As far as researching agents and publishers goes, there are a lot of resources out there, such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Authors Publish, Submittable, and Publishers Weekly. You can search through genre specific blogs for agent interviews with more specific information. Most agents these days also have a public blog you can comb through. If you’re on Twitter, you can run a search for publishing pundits’ manuscript wish lists.

This kind of specific information is perfect for a query letter’s personalization; personalization isn’t necessary, but does make you stand out a bit more, flatters the editor/agent, and at the very least shows that you did your homework. If nothing else, a more personal query encourages a more personal rejection, feedback which can then be used for later revisions.

While querying, it’s important to keep yourself organized, especially if you’re doing multiple submissions (which you absolutely should). Nothing screams amateur quite like accidentally querying the same place with the same piece twice. (Intentionality is different. If it’s been six months and you’ve completed heavy revision, it’s usually okay to resubmit- just be sure to mention it in the query.) Keep all your information in one place with a spreadsheet, keeping track of names, dates, etc. Prioritize your top agents and send out batches of queries (they suggest about six at a time), giving each batch about six weeks before moving on to the next group. As you learn from the process and (hopefully) feedback, make tweaks as needful. If you get feedback but feel strongly that it’s not appropriate for you or your project, don’t feel like you have to implement it. The agents and editors of this broadcast also suggest that, if you don’t get feedback, it’s okay to politely ask for it; you might still be ignored, but you also might get some insights otherwise left unsaid.

The thing that was stressed over and over throughout is to not give up. The submissions process is grueling. If you’ve been at it a while and still aren’t making much headway, don’t give up. Keep polishing, keep researching, and keep querying.

Happy writing!

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Pantsing v. Planning

blueprintWhen I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.

It. Was. Glorious.

And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.

These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.

I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.

Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.

So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Pantsing Room for surprises

Get right to the fun of writing

More organic characters and relationships

Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions

Requires extra time in editing and cleanup

Wonky flow, pacing, and direction

Chaotic storylines

Bloated first drafts

More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft

Planning Gives sense of the story’s direction

Enough organization to remember what I’m doing

Less prone to writers block

Cleaner first drafts

Faster first drafts

Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy

Requires extra time spent in prep work

Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project

Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development

These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.

continuum

I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.

Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.

So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!

(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)

Editing: The Art of Self-Surgery

editingYou know that scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin has to fish a bullet out of his own belly?  That’s about how I think of self editing.  It’s messy, painful, and exhausting, but ugh, it’s gotta be done.

Between smugly typing THE END and hyperventilatingly clicking SEND, you will (or at least should) spend many many hours self editing.  How these hours are spent varies from person to person, like all other aspects of writing.  After a nice long rest of at least a month, here’s how my editing process usually goes down.

First, I set a deadline.  I, my father, my children, and all of my brothers absolutely require a non-negotiable deadline to do anything at all.  If it’s not pressing, it’s not happening.  I give myself enough time to get through the thing (typically a two to one ration of editing to drafting time), but not much wiggle room.

As part of my deadline setting process, I start with a fast read-through.  I try to finish in just a few days, at about the same pace I would read a really engrossing novel.  This allows me to take a big picture view of what I’m working with, making it easier to see any plot holes, dangling storylines, sudden changes in eye color, whatever.  I take detailed notes throughout this reading so I know exactly what the problems are.

Once I have my list of issues, I set a realistic deadline and get to work.  Working outside of chronology, I usually start with the easier problems first, the things that I can already see the answers for.  This allows me to work- and again immerse myself in the world- while still devoting a large portion of my brain power to thinking about the problems that I don’t have the solutions for yet.  As I did when compiling problems, I write down any and all solutions I can come up with- no matter how stupid they may seem.  Eventually, I can usually sift through enough pyrite to find a few good nuggets.

Hopefully, by the time I work my way through the simpler problems, I’ll have come up with the glorious, surprising, satisfying solutions to the trickier problems, too.  But the reality is that I typically spend about a quarter of my editing time fixing the easy issues, another quarter of my time sprinkled here and there just trying to work my way toward the harder solutions, and then a quarter on the bigger issues once I have those solutions, and the final quarter on the clean-up at the end.

This ‘final’ cleaning process is done chronologically, starting at the beginning and working my way slowly toward the end.  I tend to require the same tweaks in everything I write, and so I’ve developed a to-do list that doesn’t vary much from MS to MS.

Fix spelling and grammar.  Bit of a no-brainer, but when I’m pounding out a quick draft, I apparently have no brain.

Skim out crutch words.  Your list of crutch words will be different, but mine includes: suddenly; up; again; back; and like a bazillion others.  The internet is rife with lists of words to seek and destroy in your manuscript, so if you’re still not sure, just run a Google search and get that Find function ready.  (Also, Scrivener has a really cool Word Frequency thing under the Project -> Text Statistics tab, which makes it super easy to know exactly what words you use the most.)

Assess adjectives and adverbs.  I’m a descriptor junkie.  My speech is peppered with them, as is my writing (especially these informal blog posts you all suffer through).  In drafting, nearly every sentence has some useless fluff about exactly why this character was squinting, or exactly how shiny that character’s hair is.  Most of these get snipped, so those of you who have read my work and seen how many get left behind have some idea of how many start out. (Yikes!)

Beautify language.  In drafting, I am a huge fan of SVO.  She- kicked- his face.  He- ate- a sandwich.  These sentences- bore- readers.  Readers don’t want to see the same structure over and over and over.  So I take pains to vary sentence structure and length.  I clarify.  I remove unnecessary descriptions and add the parts I missed.  I read prose and dialog out loud and fix up the awkward tongue-twisters that somehow sneak their snickering way into my stories every single time, blast you silly sibilants!

And the newest addition to my final clean-up:

Change all double spaces to single spaces.  I know, I’m very late to the party.  But if there’s anybody else out there who has terror-laced nightmares of Mrs. Hardman in the fourth grade standing over your shoulder as you tentatively tap out your book report on- I kid you not- the typewriter, let’s all just take a deep breath together and move on into the 21st century.  Edit -> Find. Replace. Simple.

Once I’ve completed this cleaning process, I do another quick-as-possible reading.  If something isn’t up to snuff, I go through all the same steps again until it is.  Once everything is to my satisfaction, I start lining up beta readers, with the understanding that I will be going through the whole document again once I get notes back from everyone on all the bits I missed.  Ah, what joy.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of editing, but I understand the appeal.  You get to massage your ugly draft into something beautiful; you can tune the language and deepen the meanings you only hinted at in draft mode; you can work in the foreshadowing and setup for that killer plot twist you came up with three-fifths of the way through the novel; you can seem like an intelligent person who actually knows how to spell.  Editing can be awesome!  So grab that red pen with ruthless delight.  As fantastic as your draft is, you’re about to make it a thousand times better.

Happy writing!

(PS- While editing this post, I nixed over a hundred words in adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive clauses.  Haha, I have a problem.)

Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:

hen

Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!

Receiving Negative Feedback

critiqueA few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence.  Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic.  In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.

Not quite.  One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back.  He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy.  Lazy.  But thank goodness he told me.  After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.

Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it.  We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves.  Rest assured, it’s not.  As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.

When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story.  Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document.  Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high.  Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever.  Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.

Still, favor or not, it stings a bit.  Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.

Don’t argue.  Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor.  Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it.  Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion.  Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).

Listen carefully.  Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing.  I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes.  We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point.  It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out.  So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves.  Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.

Trust yourself.  Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world.  If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it.  Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers.  Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them.  Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision.  Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.

Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise.  Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective.  Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym.  You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be.  If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.

How about you, lovely readers?  What do you do when you get negative feedback?  Any tips for the rest of us?

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster

 

SCBWI Panel

Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.

 

AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes had to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

The Five Phases of Querying

QueryingAhhhh, querying… What else can throw a writer into such a frenzy of excitement and terror? For those of us on the hunt for a literary agent, a solid query packet can make or break our plans for publication. So imagine how excited I was at the conference to attend not one, but three breakout sessions on snagging the attention of that most coveted of business partners.

After cramping my hand with hours of feverish note taking, I give you the combined wisdom of these literary sages- and my plan of attack on getting the attention of an agent. (For those of you not after an agent but still looking to traditionally publish, just replace the word ‘agent’ with ‘editor’ and proceed.)

Phase One- Edit your manuscript.

As much of a pain as editing can be, it is absolutely crucial to selling your manuscript. Although some agents are willing to work with authors on heavy editing, getting a book submission ready is completely and solely the author’s responsibility. Don’t count on an agent being willing to spend a ton of time editing your work- after all, agents only get paid when you do. Expecting them to put in a ton of free work just because you can’t figure out how to clean house on your own isn’t fair.

Your first page will be your most vital, but the agents all agreed that your first three chapters (about fifty pages) should be pitch perfect before querying. Eliminate anything that slows the reader down. Remember that agents are busy, busy people. If you lose their interest for even a moment, you seriously risk losing it forever. Make that manuscript sing.

Phase Two- Research your market.

Once you have your belle all ready for the ball, figure out where it has to go. We all think our manuscripts are lovely, unique creatures, but odds are pretty darned low that they are so unique as to be uncategorizable (which is most definitely a word, no need to look it up, shhhh). This category is your specific genre.

Think about where your book would rest on a shelf. The chances are pretty slim of Barnes and Nobles putting up a new set of shelves and placing just your book there. So where would they put it? And make note of the same books in that section- these are your comp titles. (But when searching for comp titles, don’t find big names that don’t really compare, and don’t use books that just generally similar. Find books similar in a very specific way- whether that’s style, theme, audience, whatever. And keep notes on all this for your query packet later.)

Think also about all the kinds of people who would be buying your book. Maybe you’d rest on the YA fantasy shelf, but if your book also prominently features mammoths in prehistoric Alaska, also consider mammoth fans or paleontologists or Alaskans or anything else. Go deeper than just a genre. Know your exact audience and pinpoint precisely what would make them shell out fifteen bucks for your book. Not only will you need to know this for future marketing adventures (wheeee!), but it will also help you find the most perfect agent on the planet for this specific book.

Phase Three- Research the proper agent.

For pity’s sake, do not blast the same query packet to every human who comes up on a Google search for ‘literary agent’. Since you already researched your perfect market back in Phase Two, take the time to find out your perfect agent as well. Laurie McLean’s rule of thumb is ten percent- spend ten percent of the time you spent on a novel researching agents.

The nice thing about this day and age is that all the information we need to figure out our best agent is online. Check out agency websites, querytracker.net, agentquery.com, Publisher’s Marketplace. Look at an agent’s client list, what kind of books they’ve sold, who they sell to.  Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs.

(But seriously, don’t stalk agents, digitally or otherwise. They want to only be queried with those projects best suited to them, so that sort of info is probably pretty available.  You’re not going to find the secret chink in their armor by hacking into their private Facebook page and looking at pictures of their daughter’s third birthday. Just don’t.)

And if you find you have the time and money to do so, definitely try online events, webinars, classes, conferences. Anything that gets you interacting with agents (in a good way!) will help you sort out whom to query with what, and how to best do it.

Phase Four- Assemble- and check!- your packet.

Once you have your dream team of potential agents post-it noted over your writing desk, carefully ready their submission requirements. Not all agents ask for the same stuff! A query packet can include many things. The most common is a query letter, but the packet might also include a proposal, a synopsis, sample pages, a marketing plan- basically whatever the agent finds necessary to assessing your viability as a client. The most important thing here is to know exactly what the agent wants to see, and give them exactly that.

In the words of Andy Kifer, “Put together a packet designed to intrigue.” Make the query letter personal and interesting- butter up the agents about their list, about their talks, tout all the research you’ve by telling them how perfect they are for this manuscript. Sell your book, and sell yourself. Don’t make a synopsis that sounds like a fifth grade book report- inject the voice of the narrative, keep statements brief and powerful, prove that you can write an absorbing story from start to finish. Be very clear on what you have, and what you’re looking for. In each facet of the packet, make every sentence fascinate.

And then go back through it with a magnifying glass. Read it out loud. Get your friends to read it and give feedback. Edit. Reread. Make sure you spelled the agent’s name right. Eliminate all mistakes. And then send it through another round of beta readers. Do this as many times as necessary to get it just right.

Phase Five- Click send and get to work on the next project.

After all that work in phases one through four, Phase Five should be a cinch. You’ve done the legwork- now give that packet a kiss for luck and send it off.

But don’t just wait idle in the time it takes to receive a reply. Agents don’t want to work with a one trick pony- they want an author who can provide top notch work time and again. So get to work on your next masterpiece! If nothing else, it will keep your mind off the agony of waiting, and it just might produce your next best seller.

Best of luck in your querying adventures!

As mentioned throughout, this sagacity came from literary agents Danielle Smith, Laurie McLean, and Andy Kifer, all of whom are fun and nice and not at all terrifying demigods! Who’d have thought?