Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Page Critique Tuesday: Dial down kids' excitablity


If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts on the page, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to julieorris, whose page is below:
Title: Etta & Otto
Genre: Middle grade, Adventure 
First 250 words: 
Looking at the pile of suitcases lying around her, Etta couldn’t believe she was really doing this. 
Granted, her choices were limited…this was her only option. She was excited about spending time with her aunt but nervous about what she would do for a WHOLE SUMMER in Three Trees. She had always enjoyed listening to her dad’s tales about growing up there, but she had visited a few times and knew that her dad was exaggerating…a lot. 
She had spent the last three weeks of 6th grade daydreaming about carefree, summer days at Aunt Etta’s house, but now she was dreading being left there for three whole months! Her parents would be spending the summer in France studying l’art de culinaire (in other words: cooking fancy foods that no one wants to eat) and she would spend the summer watching cows chew grass. And if she was really lucky, she would then watch the grass grow back. 
“Stop procrastinating Etta,” her mom yelled from the driveway. “We have everything you need!” 
“Yeah,” said her dad, “including an entire suitcase of shoes that have no place in the country.” 
“FINE! I’m ready to be dropped off and forgotten,” huffed Etta. “And just because your only friends were farm animals, doesn’t mean a girl like me won’t have a reason to dress nice.” She knew she wasn’t being fair to her parents. But she still felt a little like Orphan Annie. 
Five hours later, they entered Three Trees. The sign next to
From an adult's perspective, children seem rather excitable. They are emotional, they are prone to outbursts, they live in extremes, they huff and puff a lot, and the way they choose to act in any given moment is slightly incomprehensible.

From a child's perspective, they are 100%, totally, completely rational human beings. It's adults who are arbitrary and unfair, not adhering to their promises, making exceptions to "rules" whenever they please, and, fundamentally, constantly failing to understand and appreciate how 100% totally rational their children are thank you very much.

In order to write a children's book from a child's perspective, it's super necessary to get back in touch with the child's perspective. Ditch the excitability, think of them like miniature adults who can be somewhat angst-ridden but still have a sense of wonder, and show their emotions through clear observations from their perspective, rather than trying to authentically capture the way their exhortations sound to an adult ear.

In this case, while I think there are some good ingredients in this page (in particular, I love the line "I'm ready to be dropped off and forgotten"), slowing down, letting Etta really observe her surroundings with more specificity, and dialing down the excitability would go a long way toward making this feel like a more authentic middle grade voice.

Here's my redline. I'm going to take a bit more of a heavier hand and invent some things in order to demonstrate what I mean:
Title: Etta & Otto
Genre: Middle grade, Adventure 
First 250 words: 
Looking at the pile of suitcases lying around her, Etta couldn’t believe she was really doing this. She was surrounded by suitcases, stuffed full of every article of clothing she owned, and some she had never even realized she possessed.
Granted, Her opportunities for escape were limited… this was her only option. She was excited about spending time with her Aunt Mabel, learning to bake bread and watching old TV shows past her bedtime, but nervous about what she would do for a WHOLE SUMMER how could she survive a whole summer in a dump like Three Trees? Sure, Dad loved to tell whoppers about the gigantic fish he caught in sparkling mountain streams he had always enjoyed listening to her dad’s tales about growing up there, but Etta had visited a few times and knew that her dad was exaggerating…a lot. the only fish anyone was catching were some sad goldfish at the county fair.
Etta had spent the last three weeks of 6th grade daydreaming about carefree, summer days at Aunt Etta’s house, but now she was dreading being left there for three whole months! H Meanwhile, her parents would be spending the summer in France studying l’art de culinaire (in other words: cooking fancy foods that no one wants to eat) while Ettta she would spent the summer watching cows chew grass. And if she was really lucky, she wouldn't die of boredom before she then watched the grass grow back. 
“Stop procrastinating Etta,” her mom yelled from the driveway. “We have everything you need!” 
“Yeah,” said her dad, “including an entire suitcase of shoes that have no place in the country.” 
Etta trudged downstairs, grabbing only her most prized suitcase of clothes, and plopped in the car.FINE! I’m ready to be dropped off and forgotten,” huffed Etta. she said “And just because your only friends were farm animals, doesn’t mean a girl like me won’t have a reason to dress nice.” She knew she wasn’t being fair to her parents. But she still felt a little like Orphan Annie. 
Five hours later, they entered Three Trees. The sign next to
Here's a clean version of the redline:
Title: Etta & Otto
Genre: Middle grade, Adventure 
First 250 words: 
Etta couldn’t believe she was really doing this. She was surrounded by suitcases, stuffed full of every article of clothing she owned, and some she had never even realized she possessed.
Her opportunities for escape were limited. She was excited about spending time with her Aunt Mabel, learning to bake bread and watching old TV shows past her bedtime, but how could she survive a whole summer in a dump like Three Trees? Sure, Dad loved to tell whoppers about the gigantic fish he caught in sparkling mountain streams growing up there, but Etta had visited a few times and knew that the only fish anyone was catching were some sad goldfish at the county fair.
Meanwhile, her parents would be spending the summer in France studying l’art de culinaire (in other words: cooking fancy foods that no one wants to eat) while Ettta spent the summer watching cows chew grass. And if she was really lucky, she wouldn't die of boredom before she watched the grass grow back. 
“Stop procrastinating Etta,” her mom yelled from the driveway. “We have everything you need!” 
“Yeah,” said her dad, “including an entire suitcase of shoes that have no place in the country.” 
Etta trudged downstairs, grabbing only her most prized suitcase of clothes, and plopped in the car. “I’m ready to be dropped off and forgotten,” she said “And just because your only friends were farm animals, doesn’t mean a girl like me won’t have a reason to dress nice.” 
Five hours later, they entered Three Trees. The sign next to
Thanks to julieorris for volunteering!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Poplars (Autumn) by Claude Monet






Monday, June 26, 2017

Harry Potter at 20 -- What has the series meant to you?


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone, and what a twenty years it's been. An entire generation has now been raised on Harry Potter, in addition to those of us who came to the series as adults.
I came to the series a bit late, and first read Harry Potter during one of my summers in college, when I was spending six weeks in remote Alaska. What a magical time to read it though. I would read it by sunlight until 1 AM in a few of Alaska's strange and amazing summer perma-days.

The books are not without their flaws. The rules of Quidditch still make no sense whatsoever, and the adverbed dialogue tags can rankle.

But what an incredible series! So richly imagined, so well-executed. It's just so fun to spend time within those pages, when it's not harrowing and when Dolores Umbrage isn't making our skin crawl with rage.

Like nearly every children's book author, I had Harry Potter in the back of my head as I was writing Jacob Wonderbar, knowing how thoroughly J.K. Rowling had raised the game and setting nearly impossible expectations. I now know just how hard it is to do the things she pulls off seemingly effortlessly, and I bow to her for pulling it off.

What has Harry Potter meant to you?

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.






Friday, June 23, 2017

This week in books 6/23/17


This week! Books!

I skipped last week's roundup because we were a bit light on the ol' content, but now I have a whole slew of good links for your enjoyment.

Who'd have thought that Instagram, a photo app, would be an influential way to market books? Jo Piazza takes a look at the world of Bookstagramming. (via The Millions)

And speaking of Instagram, The Next Web had a pretty solid guide to killing it on Instagram.

BLACK MIRROR BOOK SERIES YOU GUYS. (via Alyce Harley)

Agent Jessica Faust has an interesting post about fear, and how you should respond to it and let go of it. Also from Jessica, first impressions mean (almost) everything.

Over at Publishers Marketplace, there's a really interesting series of posts that scopes the size of the US book market (subscription required). Two interesting nuggets of many: Amazon has about 75% of the e-book market, and independent authors represent a little less than 25% of the e-book market.

Speaking of which, do Amazon ads work? Reedsy takes a look at a few case studies.

Check out this incredible book art from a few years back in Spain.

Slate is launching a new podcast devoted to conspiracy thrillers. They're focusing on movies, but it may be interesting for book lovers out there. (via John Ochwat)

This is some really interesting writing advice from Murakami.

And in science news, a new experiment has proven spooky action from a distance. Spooky and amazing!

This week in the Forums:

Ten (Totally Made Up) Commandments of Querying
Request for feedback
Ask me anything!
Nominate Your Query for a Critique on the Blog
Nominate Your First Page for a Critique on the Blog

Comment! of! the! week! Goes to Unknown, who I think had some good advice for authors on the do you have beef with agents post:
I think writers should get on with their writing lives and not put all their eggs in the seeking-an-agent basket (one egg at most, zero is better). (1) concentrating on getting an agent's validation can lead to tunnel vision, as well as despondency and loss of motivation when you don't get one. (2) Agents are looking for something they think will sell, i.e., something that's like a recent big publishing success, which may not be what you write. (3) Concentrate on challenging yourself and enjoying writing. (4) Join or start a writing group. This is the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing and be successful. Really! While I don't entirely agree with Anonymous above, because the way he puts it, it sounds like if you just know the right people they will get you published, it is true that having a circle of writing friends and colleagues will help you in a multitude of ways. There is a social side of writing, and it is vital. (5) Take every opportunity to find readers (blogging, self publishing, whatever) because you simply don't know what's going to draw attention and readers to your stories. No one is an overnight success. (6) Learn about the business side of writing so that you don't become the victim of a lazy or unethical agent or publisher. Never sign a contract that you don't understand thoroughly and that your attorney hasn't read and explained to you. People's careers are ruined by bad contracts. (7) Join a writing group. (8) Join a writing group. (9) Join a writing group. (Repeat as necessary)
And finally, Bill Ferris does not want you to support his Patreon.

Have a great weekend!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram! @nathanbransford






Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How do you cope with staring at screens so much?


Many of us look at screen all day as we work. We look at screens when we are reading the news. We look at screens when we're watching TV. We look at screens when...

Okay you get the point.

Looking at screen all the time can make writing very difficult. To wit:
  • We often write on the same devices that have access to email, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of other distractions. So blocking out the outside world is a challenge.
  • It can cause eye strain, especially as day shifts into night. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, it can feel claustrophobic, like you're in a very small room whose furnishings don't really change much.
So how do you cope? How do you force yourself to keep staring at the screen when you really need to write, especially when you don't really have an alternative to screen-staring?

Devices? Apps? Screen settings?

(Thanks to Olivia Clements for the question!)

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: A Writer Trimming his Pen by Jan Ekels the Younger






Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Query Critique Tuesday: Read your query out loud before sending


If you would like to nominate your query for a future Query Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique on the blog so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I'll present the query without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to Michael Carroll, whose query is below:
Dear [Agent Name], 
After discovering your passion for education, through your work as a teacher, literary agent, and [Company], I think you would be the perfect fit to represent my manuscript. DOG GONE DOG is a humorous middle grade detective adventure about a 12-year-old inventor. 
Dewey “Mac” McClain is a desk-drumming, creative goofball. Through his love of science, and how cheap his mom is, he has learned to make inventions out of common items. After a former friend’s dog goes missing, Dewey decides to find the dog to repair the friendship. When partnered with loudmouth and overconfident Ched and Betty Bacon and feel like they have it solved until Betty’s dad is framed for the job. Now the three need to hurry and find the real thief, free Betty’s dad, and complete their school projects. 
The manuscript contains two parts: a narrative section (30,000 words) and THE HAM DETECTIVE MANUAL (5,500 words). The Detective Manual contains simple step-by-step directions to build STEM gadgets from common or inexpensive items. No project is too hard or too expensive, so all children can enjoy, experiment, and learn.  
In late 2015, 2,000 copies were printed through a partner publishing contract with Mascot Books. These were used to fulfill a Kickstarter campaign that was over 300% funded. The book was launched at World Maker Faire, where it was honored with an Editor’s Choice Award and an Educator’s Choice Award. Only a few hundred copies remain unsold. I have retained the rights to all content, characters, and artwork. 
As a third grade teacher, I see many students who are currently disenchanted with reading because of a lack of initially appealing books. I also see many students who don’t realize how interesting STEM can be. I would love to team with you to help put DOG GONE DOG, A DEWEY MAC MAKER MYSTERY into children’s hands everywhere. 
Sincerely,
Michael Carrol
www.deweymac.com 
I always like a good detective novel, and it sounds like there's a pretty fun story at the heart of this query. I also like the idea that it comes with a manual that kids could perhaps use for gadgets for their own detective work.

My concern about this query is that there are a lot of sentences that are a mouthful. What's the best way to figure out when your'e writing a mouthful? Read your query out loud to let your words fill your mouth.

Okay that sounded weird. But you know what I mean.

If you can't read your query smoothly out loud, chances are someone's not going to be able to read it smoothly.

Secondly, as agents articulated in a recent survey, just about anything other than the story in your query is extraneous. An agent doesn't need to know every detail of your self-publishing journey or what led you to write the book. It's enough to know to know whether it's been self-published or not, what your credits are but no worries if you don't have them, and that's basically that.

In this case, I worry a bit that the story feels a little bit rushed in favor of other details of the query. Take the time to make sure you're getting your story through.

Here's my redline:
Dear [Agent Name], 
After discovering your passion for education, through your work as a teacher, literary agent, and [Company], I think you would be the perfect fit to represent my manuscript. DOG GONE DOG is a humorous middle grade detective adventure about a 12-year-old inventor
Twelve-year-old Dewey “Mac” McClain is a desk-drumming [I'm not sure I know what this means], creative goofball. Through his love of science, and how cheap his mom is [Awkward phrasing - essentially this reads "Through how cheap his mom is he has learned to make inventions"], he has learned to make inventions out of common items. After a former friend’s dog goes missing [Who's the former friend? Be specific], Dewey decides to find the dog to repair the friendship. When partnered with loudmouth and overconfident Ched and Betty Bacon and feel like they have it solved until Betty’s dad is framed for the job [Mouthful - not really sure what this means]. Now the three need to hurry and find the real thief, free Betty’s dad, and complete their school projects [Which school projects? This paragraph feels a little rushed through]
The manuscript contains two parts: a narrative section (30,000 words) and THE HAM DETECTIVE MANUAL (5,500 words). The Detective Manual contains simple step-by-step directions to build STEM gadgets [What is a STEM gadget?] from common or inexpensive items. No project is too hard or too expensive, so all children can enjoy, experiment, and learn.  
I self-published a limited run of DOG GONE DOG in late 2015, 2,000 copies were printed through a partner publishing contract with Mascot Books. These were used to fulfill a Kickstarter campaign that was over 300% funded. The book was launched at World Maker Faire, where it was honored with an Editor’s Choice Award and an Educator’s Choice Award. Only a few hundred copies remain unsold. I have retained the rights to all content, characters, and artwork. 
As I am a third grade teacher, I see many students who are currently disenchanted with reading because of a lack of initially appealing books. I also see many students who don’t realize how interesting STEM can be. I would love to team with you to help put DOG GONE DOG, A DEWEY MAC MAKER MYSTERY into children’s hands everywhere. 
Sincerely,
Michael Carroll
www.deweymac.com 
 Thanks again to Michael Carroll!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: The Coal Black Hound by Sidney Paget






Monday, June 19, 2017

Writing children's books from the inside out


So. You want to write children's books. Do you have to know any current, modern day children?

Nope.

You really don't need to know children to write children's books. In fact, I even think it can be a hindrance for some people.

The problem with writing children's books from the outside in, as in, writing with some particular children in mind, is that it's hard not to view them with an adult lens. Their actions can seem super irrational from an adult point of view, and that lens inevitably creeps into how writers portray their characters' inner lives.

This is how you end up with YA novels where the kids are completely petulant and angsty all the time. Sure, this is how teenagers often appear outwardly to adults, even when we look back at ourselves from a distance. But the writers are forgetting that the petulance is contextual, and a child may act completely differently in front of their peers. And even when a teenager is being petulant, that's not how they're experiencing it in the moment.

For me, the best toolkit for writing for young readers is a writer's own memory. It's writing inside out.

The reason I can write books for twelve-year-olds isn't because I know any twelve-year-olds, it's because I can vividly summon the memories of what it was like to be twelve. I remember what I cared about, what scared me, what I found funny, what I found mortifying, what I found impressive, what it was like to have crushes, what it was like to have enemies, what it was like to imagine a hazy future where anything and nothing felt possible at the same time.

Sure, the technology, slang, clothing, and tons of other things have changed since I was a kid. If I wanted to write something that felt totally modern or if I wanted to step far outside my own personal experiences, I would need to consult with some actual children in order to make sure I got it right.

But growing up is growing up. Your memory of it is likely a great starting place for your story.

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Distant Thoughts by Fritz Zuber-Buhler






Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Do you have beef with literary agents?


Having once been a literary agent myself, I'm still pretty instinctually defensive of the whole enterprise.

It's not easy to be a filter, especially when every single one of the thousands of people who query you think they have a bestseller on their hands. Most agents I know are in it for the love of books, they scraped their way up, and they care about their clients. 

But every now and then something happens out there in the publishing Internetosphere and I'm reminded that there's also a whole lot of angst toward agents. And I'm not even talking about people upset about scam artists, I'm talking about people who are upset with legit agents.

So let's hear it. Do you have beef with agents? What are your complaints?

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Black and white cow standing by Carlo Dalgas






Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Page Critique Tuesday: Is this really where the story begins?


If you would like to nominate your page for a future Page Critique, please enter it in this thread in the Forums!

Also, if you'd like to test your editing chops, keep your eye on this area! I'll post the pages and queries a few days before a critique so you can see how your redline compares to mine.

Now then. Time for the Page Critique. First I'll present the page without comment, then I'll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts on the page, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to knowledgeable, whose page is below:
Title: The Musician
Genre: Literary Fiction 
Aaron opened his eyes, but he could only see dark. Small spots of cold—snow—pelted his face. Pain shot though his ribs. He tried to suck in air, but his chest—something pushed on his chest. Huge. Heavy. Immovable.  
Am I dying?  
How long could I go without breathing before passing out or dying?  
A deathly, otherworldly silence enveloped him like an isolation booth.  
Where am I? 
They had been on the bus, driving through the Berkshire Mountains. The five men were all talking about the gig they had just played in New York when Danny, the driver and their manager, let out a cry. The bus lurched and the next thing Aaron knew, he was tossed in the air, multiple items in the bus flying and hitting him. 
He slipped between substance and shadow as recent and older events whirled and tumbled in his mind, just as he and some of the equipment had in the bus. Cele. If only he had known what to do when he realized she wanted an abortion. Maybe he could have gotten there in time to save the baby. If only he had known sooner. Hitching a ride with Danny to get out of Dalhart. bussing tables at the diner. London. Amsterdam. 
* * * 
On a warm August night in Nashville, 1963, Aaron Cronan arrived at Manchester’s bar. He, Cal, and Cele were the house band until July of that year when Aaron took work at a local studio.
People often feel as if they need to do something really big and dramatic with their opening page to give their story stakes and oomph. You hear this advice so so so so much from people around the Internet, at writer's conferences, even from people who are within the publishing industry.

Grab the reader's attention! Do something more dramatic! Wow, that murder scene was chilling, why don't you start with that?

I don't know what the rest of this story will entail, as I've read no more than you have. But I have a hunch that this story actually begins with a warm August night in Nashville in 1963, as in the section after the bus accident. This framing device has the makings of a deus ex machina that forces the main character to reflect back on their life. But do characters really need a big, dramatic reason to reflect back?

There may well be some reasons for beginning this way that I'm not privy to, but I would urge the author to be confident that the reader will be engrossed by a very well-written scene at Manchester's bar, and that they don't necessarily need to do something big and dramatic for the sake of doing something big and dramatic. There's some good detail here, and I trust the author can set the scene.

But setting aside whether or not the framing device is necessary, I had a few concerns.

First, it mixed perspectives in a way that I didn't feel added much. If you're going to break perspective from third person to first person, it should be italicized to tip off the intrusion into someone's head.

But to me, the bigger problem is that  "Am I dying" and "How long can I go without breathing?" don't add much for me. Isn't that pretty much exactly what you would expect someone in Aaron's position to be thinking? Either these thoughts should be revealing of a very particular character (an over the top example: "Looks like I've strung my last Gibson Les Paul"), or the reader is going to just assume these types of thoughts are running through their head and we wouldn't really to be told.

Lastly, for veteran readers of page critiques, you know how much I believe in specificity. Good writing is precise. Give the reader the details they need to understand what you're telling them.

Title: The Musician
Genre: Literary Fiction 
Aaron opened his eyes, but he could only see dark. Small spots of cold—snowpelted his face. Pain shot though his ribs. He tried to suck in air, but his chest—something pushed on his chest. Huge. Heavy. Immovable.  
Am I dying? 
How long could I go without breathing before passing out or dying?  
A deathly, otherworldly silence enveloped him like an isolation booth.  [Don't think "like an isolation booth" adds much.]
Where am I? 
They had been on the bus, driving through the Berkshire Mountains. The five men [Be precise -- who are they?] were all talking about the gig they had just played in New York [Be more specific and slow down -- what were some details? Give some flavor, set the scene more. Anchor the reader] when Danny, the driver and their manager, let out a cry. The bus lurched and the next thing Aaron knew, he was tossed in the air, hit by equipment and glass multiple items in the bus flying and hitting him [Be specific - which items?]
He slipped between substance and shadow. as recent and older Events whirled and tumbled in his mind, just as he and some of the equipment had in the bus [This sentence is awkwardly phrased]. Cele. If only he had known what to do when he realized Cele wanted an abortion. Maybe he could have gotten there in time to save the baby. If only he had known sooner. Hitching a ride with Danny to get out of Dalhart. Bussing tables at the diner. London. Amsterdam.  [This is an abrupt transition]
* * * 
On a warm August night in Nashville, 1963, Aaron Cronan arrived at Manchester’s bar. [Set the scene.] He, Cal, and Cele were the house band until July of that year when Aaron took work at a local studio.
Thanks again to knowledgeable!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Mezzetin by Antoine Watteau






Monday, June 12, 2017

This week in books 6/12/17


This week! Books!

A little delayed on the link roundup as I was traveling over the weekend, but I still have some good stuff for you.

First up, do you need some coaching? My friend Justine Clay is a business coach for creative professionals, and she's running a virtual boot camp starting tomorrow on the six essential steps for creating a steady stream of income doing the work you love. Learn more here!

Interesting publishing diversification news, as Penguin Random House has acquired Out of Print Clothing, a company that produces book-related clothing and accessories.

Do Amazon's bestseller charts have a fake book problem? David Gaughran investigates.

Bob Dylan delivered his Nobel lecture, which sealed his win of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He started off by wondering what many of us all did -- what's the connection between song lyrics and literature?

Annnnnd then I saw a bunch of stuff that wasn't related to books.

Climber Alex Honnold did something astonishing last week: he climbed El Capitan without any ropes. I can barely wrap my head around this.

Fifteen years after its debut The Wire continues to generate conversation. This was a really interesting look at the life of the man who inspired the character of Omar Little.

And politics alert and all that, but this was an interesting rumination on the essential loneliness of Donald Trump.

This week in the Forums...

What's the scariest book you've read?
Ask me anything!
Nominate Your Query for a Critique on the Blog
Nominate Your First Page for a Critique on the Blog

Comment! of! the! week! goes to the one and only Jane Yolen, who had a great suggestion on my post last week on researching agents:
If you do childrens' to YA books, join SCBWI and get their list of agents. Best starting place ever.
And finally, photographers are making some incredible advances colorizing old black and white photographs, which can really make us look twice at history. I really enjoyed this video and article on their process.

Have a great week!

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram: @nathanbransford






Thursday, June 8, 2017

How to personalize a query


Nathan here! My friend Rachel Stout used to be a literary agent at Dystel & Goderich, and now she teaches a course on querying called Query Mastery, which provides live sessions, modules, resources, and community to help you hone your pitch.

I asked Rachel to write a guest post on the best approach to personalizing a query. Take it away, Rachel!

Anyone who spends more than a few minutes perusing articles and blog posts about writing, querying, and the publishing world in general (read: you) is already aware that the best shot a writer has of getting an agent to read their work is to research and to personalize their query letter to show that research.

Well, guys—good news. As a former literary agent and current query coach and consultant for authors (among other things), I’ve got some pretty good tried and true tips for you. Better than that, they’re super simple to implement.

Let’s go over some basics on research and personalization as well as some pretty important what not to dos.

It’s all in a name. Really.

Your first tip on personalization is to get the agent’s name right. Look, I know that sounds like child’s play and is too obvious for even the thought of a mention, but as an agent, I received queries with my name misspelled, addressed to an ambiguous “Dear Agent,” addressed to another agent entirely or even written in a different font that lead me to believe that the author was just copying and pasting dozens of names in haphazardly. And those letters weren’t necessarily anomalies. I’d wager a guess that I received them several times a week for five years running.

Even if your query is going to a submissions@ generic email address, ALWAYS use a specific name—and know why you’re using that name over any other name on the agency’s website.

Any agent who receives a query that is simply addressed “Dear Agent,” is going to (probably correctly) assume that this query has been sent out to a hundred other generic “agents” with no real care who got it as long as their business card stated they were in the business of representing and trying to sell books. If the querying author doesn’t seem to care all that much, why should the “Agent”?

(I will say, queries I received that were addressed to “Dear Agent Stout,” I did not dismiss because they made me feel like I was a super cool spy.)

Even the most carefully curated and personalized letters sent to a specific agent you’re really excited about need to be proofread. Focusing on those “more important” details often means that you forget to go back to the top to double check that the agent’s name is there and correct. Make sure you’re doing that—every time.

Little things help a lot.

Sometimes there are big important reasons you hopefully query an agent and wait for their reply, biting your nails down to the quick and jumping out of your chair every time you get an email notification. Those are your dream agents—the agents who represent your favorite authors or who are well known to be very successful in your genre. Definitely query them*,  but also keep an eye out for the connections you can make with agents that are a little more mundane, yes, but maybe all the more successful because of that.

[*Side piece of advice here. Never, ever be too intimidated to query any agent. I find that so many authors don’t think they’re “good enough” for big name agents or agents who have been in the business and doing it well for decades. Throw that nonsense out the window! At the end of the day, it comes down to the writing and the storytelling, not whether you’re a debut author or have a back catalogue of dozens of bestsellers. ]

What do I mean by that? I mean that any information you can gather about an agent, from anywhere, can be helpful. Sometimes you’ll find something that would otherwise seem forgettable or random, but sticks out to you as a perfect reason to query someone.

Here’s a little story to clarify. As an agent, my preferences for submission were pretty clear. There were some genres I simply wasn’t interested in because they just weren’t up my alley or I didn’t have any real experience with them. Crime and mystery were two of those genres.

One day, I came across a submission for a mystery about some crime or another. Now, normally, I’d skim through a misguided letter like that just in case, but would more than likely reject it soon after. This one, however, I requested. Why? The author did one very small, but very important and effective thing. He read my bio on the agency’s website.

Not only did he read those couple of sentences filled with pedestrian information about my background, but he found something in there that he could use. I grew up in South Jersey (I don’t think there’s any state in this country that is as small but as ferociously divided into North/South factions that no one outside of the state is even aware of as New Jersey) and made my home afterward in Brooklyn. This author’s protagonist also grew up in South Jersey before moving to Brooklyn.

That’s a small thing that probably had no mention in any other query letter to any other agent, but that author made sure to mention it in his letter to me. And I requested his novel.

This was my line of thought— first of all, this author is taking his time to reach out to me specifically. He isn’t spamming agents across the globe with a generic form letter, and, well, I genuinely might actually feel more of a kinship with a protagonist who shares a similar background to mine, so let’s give it a shot. C’mon, everyone loves to see familiar streets and landmarks in the backgrounds of movies or TV shows—and even books. It just makes it more fun.

So keep in mind that I knew, without a doubt, that the author had picked me specifically because he had put a little bit of time into looking me up and honing in on a connection. That made me feel like I could reciprocate by giving him some extra time and consideration. It also made me believe that the book could be more relevant to me than I might normally have thought.

Social media is where it’s at.

Specifically, as far as agents and most of the writing world is concerned, Twitter is where it’s at. And let me start with this right off the bat: no, I do not mean you should pitch an agent on Twitter. Please don’t pitch an agent on Twitter.

What you can do, though, is get some really great intel not only what an agent might be interested in on any given day or whim based on what they post on Twitter, you can also get a really great read on their personality. Are they sarcastic? Straightforward? Political? Really into cat videos or memes about bacon? Follow someone for a week and you’ll figure all of that out pretty quickly.

Once you begin reading about what different agents are looking for or like, you’ll start to see pretty quickly that it’s not all about strict plot elements or story types. A lot of the time agents will ask for things that are more ambiguously described and relate more to the tone of the book or the personality of the protagonist. Tone is an extremely important factor to consider and often goes overlooked when personalizing query letters and choosing comp titles (if you’re using them). Getting a sense of what makes an agent tick in the day to day world might give you a better sense of what that particular agent means when they ask for “irreverent yet well-meaning wit” or something as equally mind boggling.

If an agent has participated in an interview or guest blog post, you can bet they’ll probably tweet about that, too, and that’s where you can get some good, verbatim info. It’s a huge boon to you to be able to say to an agent, “I read in your recent interview with So-And-So about your love for both Project Runway and Planet Earth and I oddly have a novel that combines elements of these TV shows.” Not only does that sound like a nuts enough book that anyone would want to take a look just to see how that works, but it shows that you are able to fill a specific niche interest for that agent—and that you know it.

Stay casual.

However—and here’s what you want to be careful of—paraphrasing is much, much more effective than a direct quote. If you must quote someone, please make sure that your source is a) reliable and b) recent.

Having your own words quoted back to you, especially if they are from a blog post written three years previous, can be a bit alarming and off-putting.

Over-specificity bordering on obsequiousness is too obvious and feels too forced. It’s the casual mention or straightforward, up front one liner that sells the personalization to the query, not the fangirling.

Get the "why you're querying" right.

At the end of the day, if you truly have a reason for reaching out to any agent, it will come through in the query letter. Even if you simply know that this agent represents books in your genre or books that share a similar audience to yours, that can be enough. Make sure you state it somewhere in the letter (“TITLE is a 80,000-word work of women’s fiction with offbeat humor and a wry sensibility”), and the agent who is interested in that type of work will recognize that they are being targeted for a reason.

The more agents you reach out to, the better—and expect to reach out to a lot. Use industry sites like Publishers Marketplace and databases targeted to authors like Writer’s Digest to get broad reads on the genres agents are interested in (as well as their contact info) and resources like Manuscript Wish List and social media to get the more specific treasure troves of possible golden nuggets you can hit on and mention on your query letter.

What was your biggest personalization success? Whether you landed that agent or not, what was the most heart-stoppingly exciting bit of connection you found between an agent and your book? Querying fails are also welcome stories…

Nathan again. I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.


Full disclosure: I receive an affiliate commission via the links to NY Book Editors and Query Mastery, but I believe in these services. I mean, Natasa and Rachel met at a party at my apartment, and I've provided feedback on both services. Click freely!

Art: The Love Letter by Auguste Toulmouche






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