Monday, March 1, 2010

How to Write a Book 9: Querying and Agents

Quote: "Rhetorical questions are a powerful force for evil. They feel no pain and can't be reasoned with. Do I wish rhetorical questions would temporarily assume human form so I could tell Mr. Rhetorical Question that he is bad writing and should never allow himself to be used in any letters, particularly ones addressed to me because they are a sure-fire sign of a query letter gone astray and I will probably not want to request a manuscript if he is in the letter? Yes. Yes, I do."
Nathan Bransford

Song playing: Everything Burns by Ben Moody and Anastasia (fitting, isn’t it?)

So I am feeling better today, and have been deemed fit for society, though the joke may be on them. I still look like a cross between a plague victim and a zombie thanks to my super-pale skin, but that’s nothing a little makeup won’t fix.

Anywho, I added a new widget to my blog thanks to Michael Emeritz. I kept adding books until I reached the limit and it erased all of my books, so I had to start over. I might have to go through and make sure all the important books were put back on the bookshelf before it virtually toppled over from the strain. Not unlike my bookshelves in real life…

Suffice to say, if an author is on my bookshelf, I have probably read everything by them. It’s strange to go back through all the books you felt like were influential in your life. I read everything by William Sleator, Roald Dahl, and Robert Cormier I could when I was a kid. By the way, if you’ve never read Robert Cormier I suggestion you remedy that post haste. He was an amazing author.

Looking at the books on the shelf you’d expect I write darker material than I do, what with all the Stephen King, Robert Cormier, and Richard K. Morgan. My writing can certainly be considered “dark” or “gritty” at times, but I wouldn’t classify it as horror either. Interesting. I can see what I learned from each author though: Stephen King taught me how to build suspense, and introduce strange elements into a story slowly so by the time the s@#$ hits the fan, you’re hooked. Robert Cormier is a master of the moral choice. His characters always seem to be stuck between a rock and another hard surface. No matter what choice they make, they lose something precious.

But I digress. I could ramble about books for days.

Today we are talking about the dreaded query letter (dun dun DUN) and the importance of agents. Since I do not have an agent, most of this information is garnered from reading books about agents and agent blogs. As always, your opinions may vary, but this is what I have been able to find out through hours of research, harassing agents, and reading everything I could get my hands on.

1. The Wild Wild Publishing Industry

Let’s not put the lasso before the cow. We’ll talk about agents first, then querying. (dun dun DUN…I wish this blog had sound effects. Just imagine a huge thunderclap every time I type “query” (did you imagine one when I typed “query” just now? Good, I am training you well))

Agents are the guys who fetch your venti mocha cappuccino, and make sure you have moist antibacterial hand wipes at every book signing…

Actually, wait, I’m sorry. That’s your assistant’s job. Most writers don’t have assistants though, so they fetch their own coffee from the coffee maker downstairs. And wash their hands in the bathroom.

However, an agent is your inside man, as they say in the seedy underworld. He (or she, but I will use male pronoun for simplicity’s sake) is the one with the contacts and knowhow of the publishing industry. Some authors rather deal directly with the publisher, and that is their choice. I am not saying anything against people who believe agents aren’t necessary.

But they are for me. The most important job an agent does for you, in my opinion, is let you get back to writing another book while they do what they do best: sell your book. An agent knows people: they know editors, and publishers, and other agents, and the assistants to publishers, and even the barista at Starbucks. They network within the industry, so they might know a certain editor at a certain McFamous publishing house who absolutely LOVES books about space hedgehogs and monkeys. A subject you just so happen to have written about. Instead of throwing darts, in the dark, during a tsunami, and submitting your book to a bunch of publishing houses, the agent cuts much of the capricious chance out of the equation, and submits your book where it needs to go.

Once an agent helps you find the right publisher, they help you navigate the publishing company regarding your contract. And before you say your third cousin lawyer could easily help with that, consider that a publishing contract is a very different animal than whatever sort of law your third cousin is familiar with (not to mention that neither contracts nor law are in fact animals).

Even if your third cousin is somehow intimately familiar with publishing contracts, consider this. You have a relationship with your publisher, hopefully a good one. You provide the book, they provide the means for other people to read it. Do you really want to talk money with these people? Money is a funny thing, and does funny things to people (and by funny, I mean terrible nine times out of ten). You don’t want bad blood between you and your publisher, so I feel it’s better to let the agent handle the negotiation.

You could hire a literary lawyer to do this part of the job for you. A literary lawyer negotiates the contract with the publisher, allowing your agent to take care of other business, or if you don’t have an agent, the lawyer vets the contract for you. Either way, it’s in your best interest to get a professional to look at your publishing contract. Remember, even though I am sure most publishers are wonderful people (to the publishers reading this: the best kind of people, the most awesome, stupendous, splendiferous sort of people in the history of people EVAR) they are still going to do what is in their best interest. And their best interest is probably keeping as many rights to your book as possible.

Depending on the sort of agent you have, they can also be your cheerleader, the person who believes in you beside your friends and family. They can help you market yourself, advise you on career decisions (like when the best time to quit the Day Job would be, whether it’s a good idea to write erotic furry romance under a pseudonym), and give you advice on the industry as a whole. Some agents can even double as a first editor, and give you feedback on your manuscript. These agents normally call themselves “hands on” agents from what I have noticed.

Most agents tailor their role to what each author wants. Some authors just want to send the book off to the agent and get right to their next one, and other authors (*cough*me*coughcough*) might need more hand holding (It’s okay Elizabeth, not it’s fine you’re calling me at four in the morning with a meltdown. Again. No, no, don’t worry about it…no, the entire world doesn’t hate you…no, I’m not just saying that because I am your agent).

In short, agents are the Doc Holiday to your Wild Bill in the wild west that is publishing.

2. Query Letters

In order to cull the herd, agents force writers to bend over backwards and touch their toes while rubbing the top of their head and patting their stomach, or in other words, write a query letter.

Actually query letters are an invaluable tool for agents. It lets them determine many things about the author querying them. Some of those things are:

*the writer has a good, salable book idea

*the writer has finished writing said book

*the writer has written a book in a genre the agent represents

*the writer can follow basic instructions

*the writer understands basic English and grammar

*the writer knows how to read

These are desirable traits in a writer. You have to finish the book first. You have to be able to succinctly explain why people would want to read your book. You have to be able to write basic English (or in whatever foreign language you’re writing in your own country).

I know it seems like a query letter is a form of torture first employed by the Spanish Inquisition, and later perfected by agents everywhere, but really, query letters can be your friend.

If you write a great query letter, you can snag the fancy of that special agent. It is not unlike the dating process. A good query letter is like taking the agent out to a nice restaurant, filling the evening with intelligent conversation, and kissing them on the lips before you leave them at their door. You show yourself as neither too boring, nor pushy, nor weird: if you can make your query letter shine, the agent will call you for a second date—a request for a partial or full manuscript—a few days later.

As to the actual writing of the query letter, I am still learning, so I will just point you in the direction of Nathan Bransford’s blog. He has some wonderful articles about query letters, examples of good ones, and demystifies the entire query process. Think of Nathan Bransford as you dating expert in the world of queries. Nathan also has a forum where you can post your query there and let the other posters rip it to shreds—I mean, critique it (seriously. Piranhas. Amazon River. Your query as the cow. But sooo helpful in the end).

I wouldn’t query before you are sure your manuscript is perfect. Like, perfect perfect. Like you want it published as is, perfect. What happens if two days after you query an agent you get a request for a partial, and you still haven’t edited the book to the quality it needs to be? You either tell the agent they will have to wait for said partial (something they don’t like to hear. I have read people mentioning this problem, stating by the time they got back to the agent with their partial, the agent had already moved on), or you send them a hastily edited partial. The excitement your smashing query is ruined in either case. Why risk it when it’s hard enough to get a request for a partial as it is?

I will also suggest working on your query letter as you edit your rough draft. This has several benefits.

*Instant gratification. I like instant gratification. I like feeling like I am making progress. Writing and editing the query makes me feel productive, while at the same time forgetting about the behemoth of an editing job I have ahead of me with the actual manuscript. It is still productive towards my end game of publication too, so I don’t feel guilt.

*The more time you spend with your query letter, the better it’s going to be. Most writers want to send their book off the SECOND it’s done, thus they jot off the query in a frenzy of ink and paper. Maybe they sit on it for a day or a week if they are especially disciplined before sending it off to that special agent they’ve been stalking—err, had their eye on, but certainly not months. If you work on your query in between editing your book, a project that will take months anyway, your chances of having a great query are increased exponentially.

3. A Dark Confession

I have a dark confession to make.

I am working on a query letter for a book I haven’t written yet. Presumptuous, isn’t it? I know. But I find the unique task of distilling a 100K book into two paragraphs enlightening. It’s very Zen (don’t judge me! I have to find inner peace where I can, okay?).

Writing the query letter helped me focus on what the book is about, since I can’t include every secondary character and subplot. When I feel overwhelmed by the plot, working the query letter helps me figure out what’s really interesting me about the book.

So in short:

Agents = good
Query letters = not torture

How have you all fared in the querying trenches? Anyone have any further advice? I realize this post was very general, because each agents wants a slightly different format for querying so if someone feels the need to elaborate I am all ears.


  1. Very entertaining post about an often-dreaded topic. The pictures are great! Nathan Bransford has an excellent blog. Someday, I hope to have the nerve to actually query him...

  2. Someday I hope to finish my editing so I actually CAN query him. *sigh* Thanks for the comments!

  3. I think the idea of writing the query before the book is great! I've actually been pushing myself to do that more often. If the pitch isn't good enough to grab a reader's attention, then why would they bother reading any further than the back cover?

    I have 2 stories I'm writing now, and I've spent more time on the summaries than anything else. By reading these short pitches, which use very specific language, I really have almost a dozen potential stories, because each summary has a slightly different take on what the story is about. That's the most important part too; what it's about.

    I think you have the right idea, but that's just my opinion, my 2-cents.

    Good post. It's sad that this series is coming to a close, but I'm looking forward to reading whatever you share with us next.