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Friday, September 13, 2019

Writing Query Letters (The Very Basics)

So today's post is a bit of a hybrid between a frequently asked question and something I can link to when I'm talking about query letters (that isn't part of a longer mailbox question). So here are The Very Basics™ on writing a query letter to an agent.

You should query after your fiction is in its final form, and you can query multiple agents simultaneously, but agents have "brands" and "niches" that they work best in, so think of picking out six or eight that you imagine would be a good fit with your writing and your specific piece rather than spamming all of them. (They are likely to find out, and this is considered a bit unprofessional.) You don't want to send your zombie page-turner query to the agent who deals mostly in literary fiction and poetry.

A query letter should be formal, concise, and impeccably professional. It should never be informal or familiar in tone ("Hi there, brah! Lemmie tell you about your next best seller!" ––ROUND FILE!), and it should never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever EVER be more than one page. (Please fucking trust me on this one. I have known agents who go through their stack of query letters and literally throw out everything with a staple. ––ROUND FILE!) Even in today's market when most submissions are electronic and sans staple, a word rolling over onto the second page is all she wrote. (For that agent, anyway.) Agents get dozens, sometimes hundreds of query letters every week. If you can't even follow the most basic directions, they're not going to want a professional relationship with you. Also, don't get cute with the font sizes or the margins. You're dealing with professionals––they can tell.

Before I talk about the query letter, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear. Like mountain lake after a spring thaw crystal clear where there are fucking snow-capped mountains in the distance, your face is about to freeze off, and the light sparkling off of everything is a razor blade across your pupil. Do you get how clear I want to be?

DO NOT SEND A QUERY LETTER BEFORE YOUR BOOK IS DONE.

Just don't.

In non-fiction, there is something called a proposal which you can write before you're done if you query with a table of contents and sample chapters, but in fiction, you need to be sitting on a final project––that's "final" as in the most edited, most proofread, most revised project you are capable of creating. Not a few chapters. Not a first draft. Not "still needs some cleaning up." Done. An agent who asks to see more and finds out you're not done will ROUND FILE your query and probably put your name in the "Do Not Reply" section of their rolodex for the future.

The number one mistake in query letters is that the book isn't done. The number two mistake is that the letter is over a page. About 80% of query letters break one or both of these rules. If you follow them, you're already in the top 20th percentile. Rock rock on Cheat Commando.


What do you mean this is from fourteen years ago?
Shut up!

Paragraph one is the hook to your story. Describe your book like you would to someone you met on a subway who was about to get off at the next stop. Or better yet someone who was about to do their first unassisted parachute jump. This isn't the place for plot points beyond the basic description. In storytelling terms, use one clause to describe "the mundane world" and one clause to describe the inciting event. ("Chris couldn't hook up a threesome to save his life until one day he met a pair of gothic lingerie models who loved blogs about writing.") Be careful of making it as formulaic as I have here, but that is the basic idea. This is also the place to mention setting, or any stylistic decisions you've made that you think are very unique. (They won't be–unique that is–which is why I used "very" in front of it, but if you think they are, include that.)

Paragraph two is a brief synopsis. Let me say this again with the proper emphasis. Paragraph two is a MOTHER-FUCKING BRIEF synopsis. Brief. Hear me on this. Brief. If your whole query letter is over a page (which will get it ROUND-FILED) it will probably be because you are trying to introduce too much detail into your synopsis. You don't need to tell the agent the whole story, just get them interested. This may actually be some of the most difficult writing you've ever done, and it matters greatly because this is what the agent is going to focus on. Summarizing is hard. (That's why they still teach it in college English classes.) Don't worry about "spoilers" in this paragraph. Summarize the whole thing (albeit briefly).

Paragraph three is about you as a writer. Degrees you hold. Places you've published. If you don't have a lot of that, increase the length of your synopsis (paragraph two) but don't bullshit your way through this. You're dealing with professional bullshit sniffers who have epic reading skills. Don't even bother. An agent doesn't care about your job (unless you're writing a story about that job). An agent doesn't care about your education (beyond what you got a degree in). If you have a lot of writing accolades, keep it to a few that you're most proud of, and keep it short. Journalism publications, awards or contests you've won, or literary publications.

Lastly, don't forget to thank them for their time and attention and to tell them the full manuscript is available on request. (And make sure that is true.)

It's a LOT of information for a single page, and it will not be easy. Be ready to spend a couple of days on this. It may seem arbitrary and unfair, but it gives the agent a very quick assessment of your story, your writing skill, and your ability to follow directions. Remember that an agent is deciding whether or not to enter into a professional relationship with you where you might need to make revisions on a deadline or approve proofs in a time crunch. If the first thing they see is that you can't (or won't) follow directions, you're off to a poor enough start that they won't proceed.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Small Press or Agents First (Mailbox)


Should I send my manuscript to agents or small presses first?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one question about once a week.  I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Props (and jumping the question queue) if you can come up with interesting questions about the industry.]   


Anonymous asks:  

Thank you so much for your blog and fb site! 

My question is about where to start sending out queries. I plan to pitch it as Historical Women's Fiction, but it would also work as a regional novel, as it has a strong sense of place. Should I query both literary agents and small regional presses (ones I can query directly), or focus on one or the other at first? I've done my homework and have a list for each, just not sure where to begin. I would appreciate any thoughts you have about this aspect of querying.

My reply:

Though I spend most of my time in craft and process questions and less of it over in the "How do I get an agent*," type stuff (even though the composition of the questions I get is generally about the opposite in emphasis), every once in a while there is a really good question that gets at the heart of writing as a business and industry and isn't sort of analogous to a kid on the junior high basketball team or someone who plays a pick up game a couple of times a week at the local park also trying to figure out how to sign with a professional agent.

*Finding an agent is one of those questions that people ask writers a lot but that is a lot easier than one imagines once a writer is at the right part in the process and ready to spend a day doing research. It only seems like an insurmountable hurdle when the book is only on its first draft or hasn't been finished yet.

To really answer this question, I have to unpack one of the false dichotomies of the writing world. The publishing industry tends to break the universe up into "The Big Five" and "small presses." And this is a very useful distinction for a lot of purposes (from the profit motivation to the size of the legal department and definitely the placement of popular fiction). However it does ignore a spectrum of press sizes that exist. Once upon a time, you could not make a print run profitable for fewer than about 7500 units, and so you had a big gap between those little tiny small presses that would do modest runs and sell books (usually soft covers) for a lot more than a regular book to make even the tiniest of profits and the those presses that put out paperbacks and hardcovers.

This split got baked into publishing culture even though it has a lot to do with printing technology that is, for the most part, about as old as me.

These days, though, there is a much wider range of print runs and monetization approaches, even in the traditional publishing world. You can make money on MUCH smaller runs because you don't actually have a printing press anymore. Some of the "small presses" are capable of runs that, while they would be modest by big five standards, are more the purview of a major house. That gap is mostly filled in, and now there is even some dovetail between biggish "small presses" and the smaller projects a big five house will take on.

So the important question to ask is just how niche you think your historical women's fiction/regional novel is. If you think it's super duper niche with niche sauce, then you might, might, MIGHT want to go with the publishers first.

However, in general, when it comes to traditional publishing, I will ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS recommend querying agents. They are worth their weight––perhaps not in gold (because that would be millions), but definitely ruthenium. Even if you think your work is probably going to go to a small press and make no money, they may know things you don't about markets you haven't researched yet, or be able to suggest marketability changes. Or they may know a guy over at Simon and Schuster who heads up the Historical Women's Fiction department and can definitely help you jump the queue. Typically an agent will be able to negotiate you a better deal than you would have gotten without them, EVEN INCLUDING WHAT YOU WILL END UP PAYING THEM. This is true even with a smaller press.

Oh and here's something that may help you feel better about hitting up agents first. You don't have to painstakingly work your way through the agent list, securing a rejection from each before you can move on. I get asked a lot about querying multiple agents simultaneously. This is okay. Generally, it is even encouraged since some agents take months to get back to a prospective client. And while I wouldn't spam out your work to dozens of agents haphazardly (THAT is frowned upon), if you've done your homework (as it sounds like you have, Anon), and have yourself narrowed down to six or eight, you can do them all at once––which sounds more fun than it is.

Basically consider this. If you think your book's publication would be SO niche that it is really more like getting published in a magazine, periodical, or anthology, even though it's a whole book, then maybe, MAYBE consider going straight to the publisher. However, my first and foremost question to you as a fellow writer––seeing you consider that as a first step, rather than a plan B––would be to ask you  what you have to lose? I would wonder if you're hedging your bets on the safe side to avoid rejection. The worst thing that could happen is you work through your agents, get a bunch of nos and THEN go to the publishers. The best thing that could happen might be really, really awesome.

So unless you really really are just absolutely certain that your book is destined only for the TINIEST of presses (the runs of maybe a FEW HUNDRED), you will still want an agent representing your work and arranging for it it the best possible reception.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Best Horror? (Book or Series) Nominations Needed

What is the best horror genre book (or series)? 

We need A LOT more books for our next poll.

Lackluster response to my first shout out means there are still lots of slots open for anyone who wants to nominate the best horror for our poll. So please pop over to the original page (very important), read the rules (including the new rules), and drop a nomination or an undersung hero. 

I'll be putting this poll together next week.

Remember, go to the original page or it won't count. Not a comment here. Not a comment on the Facebook post. Not Tumblr. HERE.

Monday, September 9, 2019

This Blog Needs Your Help

As we head into a recession that even the most optimistic financial news sources are saying is a matter of when rather than if, I feel the first perturbations along my crowdfunded income. People who are starting to look for ways to save a few dollars are reducing their contributions. Which makes the role of $1, $3, and $5 patrons more important than ever.

It's going to be a tough couple of years as a working writer making JUUUUUUUUUUST enough to pay the bills. The Stephen Kings and Jim Butchers of the world might notice a dip in their royalties during a recession, but they probably don't have to think about putting away their pens and going to get a day job until the economy clears up. I on the other hand, am at that point where writing pays just enough bills that I could (very technically) SURVIVE on it. However, if I want a cell phone or car insurance, I have to get a side gig. I've been trying for 18 months to reach a goal of covering increased tax burden and medical costs, but my income keeps going up and down like a cork in water. So what will a recession look like for someone THAT on the edge? Will writing become inexorably more untenable? Will an income based literally on people's generosity blow to flinders?

I'll write my way through it––as I have through other trials and tribulations––and try to share everything I learn with you. Perhaps it won't be as bad as I think. Maybe it will be worse. And maybe it will weirdly follow some bellwether in the economy like consumer confidence or something. Stay tuned!

I am currently in the initial processes of polishing some of my best articles for a compilation ebook that I hope will add a revenue stream, and there may even be some keychains and mugs and stuff before we're all through. I'm still hoping beyond hope not to have to turn ads back on. They would change the kinds of images I would be able to use and cause me to have to go back and edit thousands of old articles. But more than that, they would just be ads. I am unimpressed enough with capitalism that I will sort of consider every other possible option of surviving it before that one. I'll let you know how those go too.

I'm also saving in anticipation. I know that's part of the thing that causes recessions––people who start saving when they see the signs––but I don't care. Right now, I am working a little TOO much, and every week I can sock away money will buy me a MONTH of writing time with my current Patreon levels come 2020.

My side gig isn't going away either. It's just getting a dramatic reduction in hours next year as the little one heads off to preschool. I don't know exactly what my new schedule will be, but it's possible that if I don't lose too much writing income, I will be able to kind of "tread water" until the recession ends.

Fortunately, your current levels of support mean that I'm not here telling you that Writing About Writing may have to go down to one post a week while I get a day job. So if you've always wanted to support what I'm doing here (even just a little), there would never be a better time.

COME BE A PATRON THROUGH PATREON.

I love my big donors, of course, and if you really believe in what I'm doing here and want to sign on at higher amount, that would be awesome, but I can't stress enough that it is a thriving population of $3 and $5 donors that create an ecosystem that lets me budget for the future, weather an ebb and flow of donors, and even survive the occasional loss of one of my big donors. One of the reasons I have a pretty decent reward (my monthly newsletter) for the $3 tier is because they are so important to me. I have SOME idea what to expect from month to month because of the low donor amounts that people are less likely to change if their budget hiccups a little. Even a single dollar gets you in on the patron-only announcements (like what's going on that might affect the blog) and the back channel communications.

Of course if an ongoing donation is not your style, you can always give a one-time donation through Paypal

So if you like the writing I do here, or on my other blog, or on my public Facebook wall, or you even just want to support the kind of content I can go find for Writing About Writing's Facebook page when I'm not working a full time job away from my computer, and if you want to support its continued existence and even see more, we could really use your help. And as always with these kinds of posts, the real trick is being seen by more than a handful of people, so if you're penniless and still want to help (or just want to help twice) please consider contributing your favorite gif to the comment section.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Best Horror Genre Book (or Series) NOMINATIONS NEEDED

What is the best Horror genre book (or series)?  

Remember that we're rerunning some of our most popular polls of the past few years, but this time we're doing it with lots more voters (and we'll be keeping the results on display.) It's all part of our new Sticky Polls--the 2019 roll out for polls here at Writing About Writing.

The Rules

(I know this is the fourth round of polls we've done under the new rules, but now that we've done a couple, you can see what I mean by some of this):



  1. I have a special rule for this poll because of how niche the genre is (even though we're talking about hundreds of years). Only TWO BOOKS from a single author will go on to our poll. Whatever the most "seconded" two books are, they'll go on to our poll. I'm not going to oversee a poll that is half Stephen King.
  2. There is a new category of nomination. It is NOT a nomination for the poll. It is an UNDERSUNG HERO nomination. Basically it is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, but maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. I will be listing these books along with the poll results. However, if you nominate a book for our poll it will not be considered for the undersung hero list and if you shout out something for an undersung hero, it will not be counted as a nomination for the poll. (Someone else can nominate it.) Think about if you want to give a book few seem to know about a shout out or if you're tossing your fave into The Hunger Games.
  3. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate John Dies at the End, I'm not going to argue that it's probably less horror than comedy or science fiction, but YOU have to convince others if you're going to get on the poll--nevermind win.
  4. You get to mention two (2) books (or series). That's it. Two. You can do ONE nomination for the poll and ONE UNDERSUNG HERO.  Or you can do TWO nominations. Or you can do TWO undersung heroes. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but I compile these polls myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list every decent book they can remember of in the genre. It is up to you how to divy your TWO choices. TWO.
  5. Did I mention two?
  6. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. THEY WILL NOT GET ONTO THE POLL WITHOUT SECONDS. You can agree with or cheer on the undersung heroes, but they won't "transform" into nominations unless someone else nominates that same book as "best" (and then they get a second). Also stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll. 
  7. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that and what your nomination is, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  8. You are nominating WRITTEN genre fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought the The Hunger Games movies were the shiznit, but thought the books were not written very well and slow, nominate something else.
  9. This is probably well known by vets of this blog by now, but there will be no more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. By "performing" I mean the seconds. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them "thirds," "fourths," etc...) The competition on this poll might be fierce. You may have to get your friends involved. Buy them a pizza. Make it real. 
  10. TWO!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Best Modern Fantasy (Book or Series)

I don't have a lot in me for bells and whistles this evening, and I'll get the Permanent Results and Undersung Heroes up this weekend, but I do want to thank so many people for participating. It was a really good turn out.

Text results below
Good Omens - T Pratchett & N. Gaiman 102 33.12%
The Farseer Trilogy - R. Hobb 46 14.94%
Moonheart -C. de Lint 39 12.66%
Storm Front -J. Butcher 27 8.77%
Sabriel -G. Nix 23 7.47%
Tehanu- U.K. LeGuin 21 6.82%
On a Pale Horse- P. Anthony 18 5.84%
The Fionavar Tapestry - G. G. Kay 16 5.19%
Dragonsbane -B. Hambly 9 2.92%
War of the Flowers -T. Williams 7 2.27%