What have I been doing?

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve posted. I’ve been busy…

I’ve been back to “real work” since September, delighting in my day job but (as expected) not writing as much as I should. I’ve been querying (yuck).

I’m still reading, and I’ve kept adding book recommendations for teen and pre-teen boys.

In January I attended the Writer’s In Paradise conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, and it was amazing.

So what made me blog now? A writer friend asked me for some advice on querying. When I wrote a long-winded email full of advice and resources, I decided it should be a blog post… So here it is:

OK bear with me on this first part–you may know some or all of this, but it helps my brain to get it down for some context.

Querying is torture. I’ve personally met writers who got an agent and were published (with competing bids on their work at auction) after more than 150 query letters. If you have a dream agent, DO NOT query them in your first (or second, or third) batch of queries. Once you get interest from other agents, that’s the time to start on your dream agent(s) (you then lead your query with: I have had [specific interest] from several agents, but I’d love the opportunity to work with you because XYZ). On that note, query in batches. I do 5-10 at a time. The theory is if you are targeting the right agents (people who are looking for the type of work you are producing) and your query submission is up to par, you should be getting requests to read the full manuscript. If you get crickets (I’m up to 27 rejections, all of them either form letters or no response, and ONE request to read the first 50 pages (progress!)… and that one was followed by crickets), you need to rework/improve your query. The typical experience is a transition from no response and form rejections to more personalized rejections that explain why it was a miss (but that means they liked it well enough to bother telling you what was missing that made them pass) to requests for partial or full manuscripts, and eventually making a connection with someone excited about your work.

How to find your dream agent: (1) look in the acknowledgements at the end of wildly successful books that you admire and that have something in common with your project, (2) make a list of agents in those acknowledgements, and (3) make a list of the EDITORS in those acknowledgements. Research the agents to see if you like them (they will have a website, they are likely to have a twitter feed, and you can find many on https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/, where the info may or may not be different than what’s on their professional website). Research the editors to see what they have published, and [this is my biggest research tip!] check the acknowledgements on those books to see what other agents are selling to those editors.

The trouble with comparables: My directive above is related to the issue of comparables–similar works published RECENTLY (like the last 3-5 years). I’m basically telling you to look for comparables to find your dream agent, so I may as well address the difficulty here. You don’t want an exact comparable–if it exists, that agent doesn’t want another one. Agents don’t want books that compete with one another, but they want books that are known commodities–either a familiar (and recently successful but not overly done) theme, a familiar (and recently successful but not overly done) character type, or a familiar (and recently successful bu not overly done) type of voice. The best comparable is a recent publication in the same genre, but there are compelling examples that use older comps (The Martian is Robinson Crusoe on Mars) or other media (XYZ has the techy sci-fi feel of Black Mirror).

How to find your list of target agents that may not be dream agents: I started this the old fashioned way, buying the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and reading through for all the agents that represent my genre. I highlighted, I made notes, I built my own spreadsheet.  I wouldn’t do that again. Now I use Query Tracker (https://querytracker.net/), where you can search for agents using any number of factors and keep track of all your queries. They have a free version–I have a paid subscription, but I’m not entirely sure what I get for that over and above the free version. I apparently just like to spend money. Query tracker also tells you what each agent requires with a submission (query only, query + pages, query + synopsis, etc.) but I recommend always going to the agent’s website for that information.

Now this is the part I think you were asking for…. resources about querying.

First, I have to warn you there is a lot of conflicting information out there, most importantly whether a query should just entice the reader to want to read the book (like the blurb on the back) or whether it should have more of a plot summary. Some agents like one and some like the other, and it’s almost impossible to tell their preference unless they happen to have commented on queries publicly (like mswishlist below or in a “successful query” article: https://www.writersdigest.com/successful-queries). After reading all the conflicting stuff, I’ve tried to strike a balance between blurb and summary, but not straying into synopsis territory (the synopsis gives all the plot points, including the ending). Query Shark is a great resource (https://queryshark.blogspot.com/) and her formula (for fiction, so also memoir) is: Start with a hook, introduce your character, what does the character want, what changes, what’s the conflict, and what are the stakes. All under 250 words and written in a compelling voice that showcases your talent and gives an idea of how the manuscript is written.  If that were easy, I’d have been more successful…

Query Shark demands that you start with the hookiest part of your character or story (Character: Almost-15-year-old ROGER RAJIV SARKAR (first POV and Rog-like-Raj to his friends, if he had any) is a genius. Learning comes so easily he can do it in his sleep. Literally. OR Story: Almost-15-year-old ROGER RAJIV SARKAR (first POV and Rog-like-Raj to his friends, if he had any) has become a lab rat. Not the way he’d like–one of the cool college kids spending all their time in the research lab–but the actual subject of a mad scientist’s research.) and end with the stats (like THE SUBJECT is a young adult novel with a hard sci-fi speculative twist, complete at 98,000 words, and premised on the idea that memories are coded in DNA and inherited.), but it seems like most agents want the stats up front so they know what they are getting. Again with the conflicting information.

I’ve spent countless hours googling “query tips” and “how to query agents” etc., and you can do the same, but here’s some more of my favorite resources (in addition to Query Shark and Manuscript Wish List, which is arguably all you need):
https://mswishlist.com/  has a great twitter history, and there are many agents who tweet about the queries they are reading (https://mswishlist.com/queries), and you can sort by genre. They do these #100queries and #10queries series of tweets that are amazingly helpful (check here: https://mswishlist.com/queries/10queries) because they literally say what’s in their head as they are going through queries and why they pass or make a request.
https://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx  has agent info and good basic how-to-query stuff.

Friedman is highly regarded: https://www.janefriedman.com/query-letters/
https://nybookeditors.com/2015/12/how-to-write-a-darn-good-query-letter/ is a good article, but getting a little outdated. There’s so much out there, it’s hard to get good recent guidance and trends definitely matter. This has more recent advice: https://www.writermag.com/get-published/the-publishing-industry/what-literary-agents-want/

I like this article because I follow Eric–I’ve met him and pitched to him twice at conferences, he requested my full MS and then ignored it entirely… https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelkramerbussel/2019/12/26/how-to-get-signed-by-literary-agent-eric-smith-whose-2020-manuscript-wishlist-includes-genre-blending-literary-fiction-and-young-adult-novels/#6f0b75e562e1 He has a helpful website with query tips here: https://www.ericsmithrocks.com/perfect-pitch

And here’s the info on the writer’s conference:
https://www.writersinparadise.com/ Don’t be put off by the name, it’s a super serious conference, with big time author-instructors for the workshops (https://www.writersinparadise.com/faculty-guests/). This year memoir was Ann Hood: https://www.writersinparadise.com/bios/ann-hood/  Read her stuff if you haven’t (given that I read so much YA these days, I hadn’t read enough of what the instructors had written but I’d read House of Sand and Fog (Dubus) and Mystic River (Lehane) and I saw some of the movies….)

This year I did a 3-day workshop with Sterling Watson (https://www.writersinparadise.com/bios/sterling-watson/), but for next year I will apply for a 6-day. You don’t have to have a finished work, in fact the purpose of the workshop is to improve unfinished work and if it’s too polished everyone will be annoyed with you. Some people have completed a draft and some have not. Ideally, you’ve gotten about as far as you can on your own but know you still have work to do. All workshops cover the first 25 pages of a work, though some people submit other parts (but I don’t recommend that, as it was pretty confusing to start reading in the middle, even with a synopsis for reference). There is a small ($25) application fee that is applied toward the $900 conference fee if you are accepted. The bigger cost was flying to Tampa and staying at a hotel for eight nights. This year applications were open August 1-November 1, and notifications of admission came out November 15.
Hope this all helps!