From time to time, I’m going to try, here, to address the frequently asked questions that I field at writer’s conferences. And if you have questions, please feel free.
Today, nation, it’s the query letter. First, should you send a real letter or an email. While I still love a letter, I think most people are sending and most agents are accepting email query letters. If you are sending a letter on stationery, please do not have special stationery made with a “fun” font, a cute typewriter or quill pen logo, do not have the word, “writer,” after your name. Such as: Ernest Hemingway, Writer.
Next, how long should my letter be? Three paragraphs: Introduce yourself and your purpose, describe your project succinctly, and give your credentials. Done. Only the description should be tantalizing, the credentials substantial at best, interesting at least. Don’t be too informal. Don’t be so stiff that it looks as if you can’t write. Don’t do anything that’s so attention grabbing it will look amateurish, don’t say that your mother/lover/friends love the book, don’t send it out with a crappy title (a great title can make a big difference — and I’ll talk about titles down the road).
Don’t include a synopsis. While rabbis and philosophers have been debating the inclusion of a synopsis for centuries, and some come down on the affirmative side, I think they are as boring to read as listening to a person’s dream. And they don’t give an agent or editor a clue as to what the writing will be like. In other words, more can go wrong with a synopsis than go right. Most important, remember that this is a business transaction and be professional, but also remember, you’re a writer so you should be able to write a damn good letter that reveals something unique and enticing about you or your work.
FAQ – How Do I Get an Agent?
This is probably the most asked question I get at writer’s conferences. And this is my answer: when you have a perfectly polished non-fiction proposal or novel or memoir, subscribe to Publishersmarketplace.com. On this site, you will be able to search whatever category you hope to publish into and find all the recent deals in that category along with the agent of record. That is the best place to begin putting together a list of agents who might be right for your project.
Publishers Weekly on line is another good source. Look at the acknowledgments of books you loved; if an agent is thanked, he or she might be a kindred spirit. Network: go to conferences, readings, workshops, read Poets and Writers where agents are often profiled. Now, with Google, you can easily research any agent.Many agencies have websites and post their submission guidelines. There are good reference books, too, that list agents like Getting Your Book Published for Dummies.
If up to ten agents turn you down and all give the same reason, or send a form letter rejection, then you may want to reassess your project. Is it really ready? Are you marketing it correctly? Have you workshopped your novel? Have you developed your platform? If you get a variety of rejections, keep going until you can either glean some valuable information or can’t take it any more. But don’t waste your time and energy sending your writing to someone who doesn’t represent material in your category. I get tons of queries from people writing sci-fi, historical fiction, thrillers, self-help, etc. when I don’t represent any writers in these categories. Lose-lose.
Manuscripts, of course, are not math problems, and the test for whether they work is highly subjective. It’s all about the right fit. Agents are, contrary to popular belief, human. Well, most. And they would much prefer to discover a superb new writer than turn hundreds down. Remember, a lot of agents have passed on writers who went on to become bestsellers — I believe thirty passed on Grisham’s first novel, A Time To Kill. (I’m not ready to confess, here, who I stupidly didn’t “see” or “get.”)
Most important, try to take your very thin writer’s skin, through which you feel everything and as a result produce searing and pellucid prose, and turn it into rhino skin, tough enough to withstand the inevitable rejections. You shouldn’t send a manuscript to an agent unless you know that nothing that agent says will stop you from writing. It’s about finding the person who does see it, does believe in you.
Stay focused. Be professional. And like love, remember, it just takes one.
How can tell if your work is good? How can you tell if it’s done? how do you know if readers will feel what you want them to feel? See what you see? Why did you choose red over scarlet? Blue over cerulean? Dumb ass over douche bag? What’s the frequency, Kenneth? Is your character real or made from mix? Does your work scream amateur or does it mingle in a smoking jacket? How does time move? A day, a year, a century? A million kisses? Is there a clock? For whom does it toll? To thine own self? Or Ruth amid the aliens? What pattern is the wallpaper, the china, the china china? Are your similes brittle, brash, unexpected, bashful? Does a river run through it? Do you even know what it is “about?” And please don’t “about” me. Are you lean, concise, compressed? Bold, sassy, expansive? Highway or my way? Back hoe or pick? Do you tap, slam, rap, dip? Brush, smudge, thumb, tongue. Do you lick it, kick it, kill it, burn it. Are you in the driver’s seat? The sandbox? The stairway to my fat heaven. Can I see your license and registration? Do you seek the sun, the sea, the long finger of love.
Who says you’re a writer?
Sold my last book of 2011 today. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa. I know many of you hate agents out there and I get it. I hated most agents when I was an editor. Taking them to lunch so they could shit on your face, if you feel me. I once took an agent out to lunch who looked at the menu and said, “If I have one more cobb salad, I’m going to kill myself.” Another pulled a bill away as I was figuring out the tip and said, “Gimme that, I know 15% of anything.”
But you didn’t ask me about agent lunches. You didn’t ask about anything. I’m not proud of it, but I am an agent. I’m proud of the job I do for my clients, but being a professional sleaze bag is a drag. You know the one about the guy who comes home to discover that his wife and children have been raped and murdered, and his house has been burned down. The cop explains that his agent had come to his house. The guy gets all excited, really, he says, my agent came to my house.
Just for fun tonight, just because I think a little pre-holiday raging is called for, I wonder if you would share your worst agent story and no need to mention names (especially if it’s me).