OWFI 2016: Great Query Letters for Great Agents

A few weeks ago, my friend Debra Dockter and I went to the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference. It’s one of two that I get to attend every year – well, almost every year. We get to meet other writers, hear from great agents and editors, and have fun. And we also get to learn something.

This year, I was able to attend several sessions. The first was with agent Sam Morgan (“If I am your agent, I am your friend, your parent, your sibling, your coach, your cheerleader, your lover – well, maybe not your lover! – but I will be whatever you need me to be!”), who is with Foundry Media.

As an agent, Sam gets hundreds of queries in a month. Some can be tossed in the first sentence. Some lead him to new clients. What makes a good query letter stand out? Sam wanted us to know.

  • While there are some rules Sam has seen broken, there are some you can’t ignore, such as:
    1. Get his name right!
    2. Know what genres he represents! And don’t send him something else.
  • In the query, he wants to learn a few things about your book. Top of that list is: Who is the main character? Get this across – not just their name, but who they are, and especially what’s your MC’s problem?
  • Give a taste or a hint of what’s to come. Put yourself on the page. Your voice will come through. Is the novel humorous? Your query should give us a taste of that humor.
  • Having said that, don’t write your query letter in the voice of your MC. Just don’t.
  • Get him to want to read the book, by any means necessary. Ask others to read your query. Do they want to read the book? If not, keep revising. Sam generally wants to see authors follow the basic rules of querying, but noted that a couple of his current clients broke every single rule imaginable in theirs – but that’s what it took to get him to want to read their books. Not to say that you should, however.
  • In the query letter, show why you wrote the book. Show what made you stay with it and finish it. Show him why you gave up time with your family and friends, why you had to DVR the last season of Game of Thrones, why you got up an hour early or went to bed an hour later, to finish this book. (I know, I know! A tall order!)
  • If you’ve published in the past, you can put that in – it means someone else has read your work, and liked it enough to publish it. However, if you don’t, it’s not a deal-breaker for him.
  • Likewise with social media – if you have a large social media following on Facebook or Twitter, great, include that in the query if you can, but it’s not necessary.

(This is querying, as in sending a letter or email to an agent, not pitching. While similar, they employ totally different methods, so keep that in mind.)

But Sam wanted to be sure we understood that it’s not all about him choosing a new client – it’s also about you choosing an agent. Believe it or not, it’s your choice, and you are in charge! Just because the agent makes an offer to represent doesn’t mean it’s the right person for your book, or you should accept without hesitation. You need to ask questions. You need to be sure this is exactly the right person for you and your novel. You need to make sure you can work with this person for the next 6 – 24 months. So Sam gave us some questions you need to ask potential agents:

  • Editorial work? How hands-on is this person in that process?
  • How many other clients do they have? How many books have they sold? To which houses? (And, although he didn’t say it, for how much did they sell?)
  • What does the agency do in terms of advocating for TV/foreign/audio rights? What about e-book rights?
  • Then decide: is this person worth 15% of your profits? If you have any doubts at all, you need to keep looking.

One other thing Sam wanted us to know is something that Deb has been dealing with for the past couple of years:  especially if you’re a debut author, assume the publisher will do NO promotion of your book. Plan to do it yourself. It becomes a cyclical thing – the publisher will tell you that they won’t promote your book because it’s not selling. You think, “But how can it sell if you’re not promoting it?!” Their response? “Not our problem. It’s not selling.” So you need to be able to discuss promotion plans with your agent as well.

So if you’re planning to query agents soon, hopefully some of these tips will help you out. And if you write fantasy or science fiction, I would encourage you to query Sam – he’s funny, enthusiastic, and if I wrote in these genres, I would definitely query him!

Here’s Sam’s page on the site Manuscript Wish List:  http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/sam-morgan/

Photo Challenge: Danger!

11219706_703830016425265_1071836984797893734_n

This is one of my favorite bridges – the iron bridge east of Blackwell, OK. It was built in the 1920s and has been closed for decades – ever since a new road/bridge was built. The bridge itself still seems in good condition, and I’ve walked it. But lest you miss the point with all the trees and shrubs and the mound of sand and gravel in the way, both ends also have these lovely warning signs.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/danger/

. . . and here’s the pitch! Pitching at writing conferences.

This weekend, I’ll be at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (OWFI) conference, and I’m supposed to pitch at least one of my novels.

Here’s the thing:  I can’t! 

How many of us can walk into a room and immediately start to talk about ourselves? Some can. Some of us can’t. I can’t. Give me someone else’s book to pitch, and I’d be great. Give me my own novel to pitch, and I sort of dissolve into a dribble of incoherent pudding. You know, like Donald Trump trying to talk about – well, anything.

See, I’ve done this before. Four years ago, to be precise, I pitched at this same conference. And I was lucky enough to not only get a request for the partial, but also (later) for the full. The agent was serious about the book, but . . . I realized it needed far more work than I’d realized when I pitched it, and so I bowed out. It was a hard choice, but I think I made the right one for me at the time.

This time, I’ve got two novels that I could pitch, and agents there who seem like decent fits. It’s just hard because a.) neither novel is really ‘done’ yet, and b.) I HATE TALKING ABOUT MY OWN WORK!

You know how sometimes you have dreams that make absolute sense at the time, and then when you start trying to describe them to someone else, you can’t explain why the polka-dot dog/unicorn things were at a meeting between you and Caligula, or why the Japanese businessmen were all wearing alien suits? Yeah. That’s what I sound like when I try to explain my urban fantasy novel. “There’s ghosts,” is about as coherent as I get.  Nicky’s easier – somehow “My protagonist is a 14-year old rumrunner in the 1920s, trying to save his family and avoid the Klan” rolls off the tongue a bit more easily than “My protagonist sees ghosts and moves to England and then has all these ghosts she has to sort out there, and oh by the way it’s the first in a series.” Right. Who’s going to want to read that? 

In fact, I’ve always had an aversion to pitch sessions. It’s not the end-all, be-all of publishing, in my mind. (Of course, I’m neither an agent nor a published author, so take that as you will.) I think I communicate better in writing. Makes sense. We’re writers. Why wouldn’t we be better in writing than in person?

I also want to point out that in the brief amount of research I did for this post, I ran across some blogs from agents in which they decry the whole pitching process. Yes. That’s right. Some agents don’t like pitch sessions. For various reasons. Andy Ross sums it up like this:

When I get pitched at conferences, too often I find that the attendees have been so over-coached that by the time they get in front of the agent, they act like their heads are going to explode. They read from note cards, they recite  from memory in a sing-songy way, they stare at me with an intensity that spooks me out. A lot of times they are taught that the 10 minutes they get to spend in front of an agent will determine whether their book will get published. AND EVERY SINGLE WORD THEY SAY DURING THE PITCH MUST BE PERFECTLY CRAFTED AND CALIBRATED.

Oh, puh – lease!

And I’ve listed those blogs at the bottom of the page for your enjoyment later.

But if you’re hell-bent on it anyway, here’s a few tips I’ve picked up:

1.) KNOW YOUR BOOK INSIDE AND OUT. And I don’t just mean the plot – know your characters, too, including your antagonist. What do they want? Who’s trying to stop them from getting it, and why? What motivates them? What’s their main problem?

2.) WRITE YOUR PITCH. You will not read from this, unless you are so nervous that reading your script is better than bolting from the room. But this helps you solidify what you want to say. You get only a few minutes – anywhere from 5-10 minutes – to get an agent interested enough to say “send me the first 50 pages.” So your pitch needs to be . . .

3.) BOLD, CONCISE, INTERESTING, ENGAGING.  I KNOW. That’s a huge order! I hear your gears grinding in agony already. Don’t start with your setting. Start with your main character and his/her main problem. Why is it interesting enough that this agent should spend time reading about it – and then, hopefully, spend time selling it? Remember, your time is short. Your pitch should be, too. Why? Because . . .

4.) THE AGENT WILL WANT TO ASK QUESTIONS. If they’re interested, they’re going to ask questions. Mine did. It might be about the setting, the plot, the characters. They might ask if the novel is complete. Maybe they’re curious about you – what led you to write this, what research you’ve done. Take deep breaths. Answer them. Remember that the more questions they ask, the more interested they are. As ‘Miss Snark,’ Literary Agent, says, the well-prepared author will win the day if they have the following answers ready:

  • genre
  • word count
  • plot line
  • hook
  • who would read this?
  • is it like any books I’ve sold?
  • what’s interesting to you about the characters and story ?

In fact, one of the questions they might ask is “Why did you choose me? Why do you think I’m a good fit for this project?” You’d better be ready with a killer answer, based on . . .

5.) YOUR RESEARCH INTO THE AGENT. Never, ever, unless it’s one of those last-minute, hey-we’ve-got-a-free-agent things, go into a pitch session without researching the agent first. Why do you want them to represent your book? What makes them a good fit? It can’t be their resemblance to George Clooney, sorry. It needs to be a real answer. They represent your genre, for one thing, They’re looking for X fiction or X nonfiction projects. They recently sold X, which is similar to your book because __. One thing that caught the eye of the agent that requested my manuscript was that I knew she’d graduated from Harvard with a degree in Early American History; that gave us common ground and since my book dealt in part with history, she knew chances were good that my research was sound.

I still don’t know if I’ll pitch. I know there are a couple of agents at OWFI that would be a good fit for Nicky, but he’s nowhere near done. And I do not want a repeat of the last time – a whirlwind of rewrites that ultimately left me feeling hollow and browbeaten. (Not by the agent:  by myself!) But at least if I decide to, I can walk in there knowing a bit more about what agents want.

 

Here’s a few articles and blogs about pitching to agents at conferences:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/7-tips-for-pitching-to-an-agent-or-editor-at-a-conference

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-to-pitch-agents-at-a-writers-conference

https://www.thebalance.com/how-to-pitch-your-novel-at-a-pitch-conference-1277304

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch.shtml

http://www.writing-world.com/publish/pitch2.shtml

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/4-questions-agents-ask-at-pitch-sessions

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2014/01/rant-pitch-sessions-are-spawn-of-satan.html (From an agent who actually despises pitches – and wants to revamp the entire process.)

https://andyrossagency.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/how-to-pitch-to-an-agent/ (Tips from an agent on what he’s looking for in a good pitch.)

http://misssnark.blogspot.com/2007/02/pitch-sessions-at-writing-conferences.html (THIS one is fantastic – both funny and insightful.)

http://nelsonagency.com/category/query-letters/pitch-sessions/

https://carlywatters.com/2013/05/06/how-to-pitch-an-agent/

A MINI Saga

The other day, I found myself at Walmart, staring with a feeling of growing panic at the rows of motor oil.

Yes. I said motor oil. Apparently Minis use a lot of oil. And if I screwed up and bought the wrong kind, I could kiss my engine goodbye. And since I’ve already replaced about half the engine components, I didn’t really want to do that.

I’ve wanted a Mini since 2002. Seriously, who DOESN’T? So freaking cute! Those little bug-eyed headlights, the grill that’s a perpetual grin, the adorable side mirrors that look like Shrek ears . . .

Oh yes. I was smitten. And I knew exactly what I wanted – Oxford White, black top, black side mirrors. I wanted the tan leather interior. I wanted the ‘flappy paddle gearbox.’ No reason. Just did. It sounded cool. Actually, that wasn’t what I wanted at first. The first Mini I fell in love with was this cute 2005 base model, with the black and tan interior. She was gold and white. I. Loved. Her. Still do. Named her Penny. Test drove her twice. Then she got totaled in a hail storm and the dealership shipped her off to the junkyard.

Then last spring – almost a year ago – my beloved Saturn L200 died at 351,000 miles. I cried. I was in class when I got the call. I cried anyway. Then I spent the next five months searching for Exactly The Right Car. I wanted a Mini. If I absolutely had to buy a new car, it was going to be my dream car.

Ever notice how dreams so often turn into nightmares?

miniIt was August and I was still driving my dad’s spare truck when I finally saw Tally. She was three hours away. A 2009 Clubman, tan interior, the S model. Dual exhaust. I test drove her. I loved her. I was desperate and lonely and I fell in love and I didn’t care what her past was or what she might have done before I met her. It didn’t matter, I told myself as I signed the check. Tally was mine. MINE!!!!!

On the way home, the radio started to act funny. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t seem to tune it, but I figured I just didn’t understand it. I’d figure it out later.

A week later, it rained. Inside the car.

Yup. I opened the door to see water all over my dash, and the center console. Dripping down the front of the radio. Pooling in the cup holders. Apparently, whoever had replaced the windshield had never actually glued it to the car. So when it leaked, it took out the speedometer/radio component and my remote keyless sensor.

That’s when I met Marcus. He is – was, today was his last day – my Mini guy. Without Marcus, I could not have afforded Tally all these months. Marcus informed me that the windscreen had been leaking for quite some time, and that the radio/speedometer would cost about $2,000 to replace. I decided that I could live without the radio, and I could live without locking the car (another $900), and I could live without knowing quite how fast I was going.

A week later, she started to overheat.

That was the entire cooling system. She did make it most of the way to Wichita before going into the red. As I recall, we replaced the water pump, thermostat and housing, the water pipe, and something else really expensive. She was there for nearly two weeks.

A week after that, in the drive-through one morning, I hit the switch to roll down the window.

Nothing.

I hit it again. Nothing. Then for some reason, I pushed it up – and the passenger side window went down all the way. And stayed there. Eventually, after a great deal of hitting switches, both windows rolled down and stayed there. Back we went to Marcus, who diagnosed a bad computer module (it couldn’t be a simple computer module. NO. No. This was the Mother of All Computer Modules, the one that controls ALL the interior switches.). Replaced. All good. While there, I had the brakes done because, well, they were metal-on-metal by that point.

All seemed good. Then, in December, we had a cold snap. Flurries. Wind chills in the teens. That’s when I got the bright idea to roll the windows down. They stayed down. All day. By the time I got off work, the temperature was about 21, with a wind chill of 14, and it was starting to snow.

Now by this time, you might be asking yourself, why not just put a sheet of plastic or a blanket over the door frame and at least block the wind? That’s an absolutely brilliant idea. Except Minis haven’t got door frames.

So I drove home nine miles like that. Windows down. Overcoat buttoned to my chin. A wool blanket over my legs and a scarf tied over my head like some 1950s starlet. News flash:  that does not help when there’s a 14-degree wind chill. Every single person I passed on the highway just stared at me. Then I had to cover the car with horse blankets and stick it in the barn to keep the snow out of it.

I live in fear of the next thing going wrong. Actually, that fear came true last night when the Check Engine light came on. She’s at the dealership now, even as I type, with the latest loaner car in my driveway instead. At least I get nice loaner cars.

So if you, too, have been bitten by the Mini bug, here are some tips:

1.) Buy your own flatbed tow truck. You’ll save a LOAD of money. Believe me.

2.) As with horses, it’s not about how much it costs; it’s about how much it costs to maintain. I’d advise having at least $15,000 on hand for repairs. That should get you through the first year.

3.) The more parts you have, the more parts you have to break. Forget the S model. Yes, that turbo is FUN, and I LOVE when big-ass truck idiots idle next to me and rev their engines, and then I waste them off the line. But. Remember that ‘flappy paddle gearbox’ I just had to have? I’ve never actually used it. Why? Because I’m convinced that if I do, I’ll break the transmission.

4.) In all seriousness, never buy a Mini from a used car dealership. No matter how freaking cute it is. Only buy from a Mini/BMW dealership. Will it cost more? Yes. Will you save money in the long run? Quite possibly.

5.) Never ask how much a part is. Just hand over the credit card. Never look at your balance. Just assume that whatever the part is, it would cost less to buy a black-market SCUD missile and use it on your Mini.

6.) Enjoy all those times someone says “OMG it’s so CUTE! Is that a Mini? I love it!” Cherish them. Remember them as you’re limping along at 45 on the highway one day with your Check Engine light on, praying the car makes it to the dealership before catastrophic engine failure occurs.

7.) In fact, just consider buying a house a block or so away from the dealership. You’ll save money in the long run.

8.) Also, in all seriousness, remember that Minis do need premium gas to run right, and they DO burn oil. Even new ones. It’s just their nature.

I love my Mini, I really do. She’s great for hauling everything (and I mean everything – she’s a true British estate car). She’s fun and sporty. She’s damn cute.

But as I stood there in that Walmart, frantically searching for the right kind of oil, I had to ask myself – was it worth it?

Maybe some dreams should just stay dreams.

 

Photo Challenge: Surprise!

One of the cool things about Kansas is that you literally never know what’s coming up next. Storms can pop up out of nowhere. Three-foot long copperheads can cross your path. The dog brings you a live armadillo. (No, the armadillo wasn’t happy. Yes, I made the dog let him go.) Life’s just full of surprises.

Lots of photographers I know just love to go out driving. Saturday afternoon, pack up the car and hit the road with a map and hope the cell service holds out – just to see what’s on all those dirt roads. Last year, I headed east of Winfield looking for a 1920s bridge that was about to be torn down. I didn’t find the bridge – I was late by about a day – but as I was trying to find my way back, I saw a chimney off in the distance. The closer I got, the cooler the place looked, until finally, I could see it.

Or what was left of it, anyway.

house 1 vg bw

Surprisingly, it’s STILL THERE! Or was the last time I drove out to see it, anyway. I honestly don’t know how, though.

Here’s a close-up of the second story:

house 3

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/surprise-2/

“But that’s MY novel!” When your idea is written by someone else.

At some point, it’ll probably happen. You’ll have this FANTASTIC idea for a novel. The characters are unique. The setting is all yours. The plot – hah! No one will EVER come up with this! You’re feeling great. You start to dig into the research . . . and come to a screeching halt when the first thing you Google turns out to be . . .

Your novel.

Written by someone else. 

How could this be? You were so sure! Unique characters! Your setting! A plot no one else could ever come up with! Then WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL DOING ON SOMEONE ELSE’S AUTHOR’S PAGE ON AMAZON?????

I know. It sucks. Been there, done that. Sort of, anyway. Mine was more creepy than this, though. I’ve been working on an urban fantasy series for a while now, and I think my plot and characters are pretty unique to the story. Without giving too much away, in one of the books, secondary character Bridget is possessed by a demon at a church, and my MC, Erin, is desperately trying to save her. Only my beta readers have seen it. Then one day, I decided to attend a writing group at my local library, just to see what it was about. Imagine my shock when one woman started to read a scene from her novel . . . involving characters named exactly the same names as mine, and set in a church and a demon has possessed one of them. 

I seriously don’t think I breathed for about ten minutes. No, it wasn’t quite the same. It wasn’t as if she’d grabbed my manuscript and tried to pass it off as hers. But damn! It was close enough. And it still creeps me the hell out. (And no, I never went back.)

But you’ve probably also heard the saying there are no new stories. And it’s kind of true. Look at how many people came out of the woodwork to blast JK Rowling for infringement over some things in the Harry Potter novels (none of which, BTW, were held up). I still swear I’ve heard the term ‘muggle’ before from some book I read as a child, but I can’t tell you which one. And I don’t really care, either.

Here’s the thing:  you can write a story and it can be similar to another, or it can have certain similarities. But will it be word for word, 100%, just like it? NO. Why? Because you wrote it, and you’re bringing different views, different experiences and justifications, different expectations, different research, to the process.

Take my own example as a – well, example. Without knowing anything more about that woman’s idea and manuscript other than what she read aloud to us, I can tell you that we were going in VERY different directions. I can tell you that our characters were creme brulee and Jell-O (see, I took inspiration from My Best Friend’s Wedding there!) – my Erin is kick-ass and street smart, argumentative and stubborn, and quite likely an agnostic (though we’ve never really discussed it); her Erin was quiet, depressed, faithful but doubting that faith. My characters are best friends; hers were mother/daughter. Just due to their very different outlooks on life, our characters should make very different choices – which will influence the directions of the novels. It was also very clear that hers’ was a Christian novel. Mine is – not. 🙂

I can’t imagine the gutting, wrenching sensation you must get when you find a book already published that, on first glance, is just like yours. I can’t imagine spending years working on a novel, only to find that its doppelganger was published just a few months ago – or maybe, God forbid, years ago. But – when you can breathe and when you can think without hard liquor in your hand – look at it rationally. Sure, on the outset there may be quite a few similarities. Look deeper. How is yours different – and more importantly, how is yours better? 

In a blog post, author Bryn Donovan wrote:

I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.

How true is this? Think abut the books you read growing up. You and I may or may not have read the same things, but in many classrooms across the country, certain books are required reading, and librarians certainly know what we want to read and what’s popular, and strive to put those books in our hands. And even if you haven’t read the books, you are probably familiar with the movies. We’re all inspired by the things around us. Everything we see, read, watch, and learn becomes part of us, and probably, in some way or another, will make it into our novels. We may not be aware of it, but it’s true.

There have always been hero quests. There always will be. A young boy finds out he is the only one who can save the world. Let’s see. Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara. Harry Potter. Star Wars. In fact, look at the plots of Harry Potter and Star Wars for a second. As Melissa Donovan points out in her blog, their plots are uncannily similar:

A young orphan who is being raised by his aunt and uncle receives a mysterious message from a stranger (a non-human character), which leads him on a series of great adventures. Early on, he must receive training to learn skills that are seemingly superhuman. Along the way he befriends loyal helpers, specifically a guy and a gal who end up falling for each other. His adventures lead him to a dark and evil villain who is terrorizing everyone and everything that our hero knows and loves — the same villain who killed his parents.

So if you’ve got that in mind – it’s okay! What can YOU bring to the idea to make it fresh and yours?

Or this one:  a girl falls in love with a boy who isn’t what he seems to be. Twlight. The Vampire Diaries. The Mortal Instruments. Beauty and the Beast. Even Cinderella (if, of course, you flip the genders). Make it yours (though I will tell you, shape-shifters seem WAY overdone at the moment, and for the love of God, do NOT put  a menage-a-trois in your shape-shifter novel thinking that will make it fresh – it won’t. Just. Won’t.).

It even happens to the big authors. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about just this:  her husband told her a story about an effort to build a highway through the Brazilian jungles, but when the project had to be abandoned, the jungle swallowed the entire thing – the road, the machinery, all of it. She loved the idea. She adored it. She had a love affair with it. And then she got sidetracked by life and the idea left her – but then, months later, she discovered that Ann Patchett was writing a book about the exact same thing. There were differences, but the plots were eerily similar. As she puts it:  “. . . we each counted backwards on our fingers, trying to determine when I had lost the idea and when she had found it. Turns out, those events had occurred around the same time.”

See, fantastic ideas are just that – and if it occurred to you, there’s no doubt it occurred to someone else, too. The key is to make sure you bring enough of yourself to the novel to make it yours. 

And just to prove that there are no new ideas under the sun, here’s a sample of blog posts and forums about this exact topic:

http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/04/26/someones-already-written-a-story-like-the-one-youre-writing-and-thats-okay/

https://www.writingforward.com/writing-ideas/are-there-any-original-writing-ideas-left

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?112580-Writing-a-novel-and-then-realize-another-book-has-a-similar-plot

https://theawl.com/this-witch-wrote-my-book-bb480ee9d264#.z77xha56w

And here’s a previous post I wrote about seeing Liz Gilbert in person:  An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Photo Challenge: It IS Easy Being Green

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/it-is-easy-being-green/

Kansas has a lot of green. Usually. Sometimes. Okay, where I live, it does.

During spring and summer, it’s easy to be green:

rainbow 1

flowers 1

Even during winter, you can find something green:

cedars in snow 1

But sometimes, you have to trek down back alleys to find it.

chair 3 vg