Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, March 31, 2008

Query Letter Mad Lib

UPDATED: 4/15/17

You know those "mad lib" games you'd play as a kid, where you start off by writing down a list of verbs, places and adjectives, and inevitably the words "snot" and "farted" were involved, which made any story HILARIOUS?

Well, we're going to play query letter mad lib today. Here's how it works.

First I'm going to need these things:

[Agent name], [genre], [personalized tidbit about agent], [title], [word count], [protagonist name], [description of protagonist], [setting], [complicating incident], [verb], [villain], [protagonist's quest], [protagonist's goal], [author's credits (optional)], [your name]

Now, look how your query turns out:

Dear [Agent name],

I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].

[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author's credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,
[your name]

That's all you need.

Now, granted, this is the most formulaic query ever written (you know... because it uses a formula). It's just going to give you a starting place to then add personality by adding some flavor and detail. But if you can't fill this mad lib out in two seconds and craft a pretty decent query letter, something might be wrong with your novel.

These are the ingredients that absolutely positively completely totally must be in your query -- if they are not, something is wrong. By all means use your creativity, add some more description, embellish, and be an author (well, within reason).

But it really doesn't need to be much more complicated than this.

UPDATE: I should note that "villain" does not necessarily have to mean an actual person, alien, monkey, spore, or etc. It could be a personality trait, nature, society... basically whatever is standing in between the protagonist and his/her/its goal.

UPDATE 2: If you mention a previously published book in the query letter the agent will need 1) the publisher and 2) the year. Otherwise they'll just assume it was published by a small press sometime in the 1850s, and you don't want them to assume that.

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: Euclid, detail from The School of Athens by Raphael

Friday, March 28, 2008

This Week In Publishing 3/28/08

In Publishing, This Week:

Ok, so I know I've been remiss in my TV roundups (I've been, you know, too busy to watch TV), but I was able to catch up a bit last night and HOLY BACHELOR. I had it taped since Monday, and little did I know that there would be 1) two horrendous singers, 2) a girl with chronic hiccups who not only has chronic hiccups but had hiccups at the most dramatic moments in the show, 3) a girl who didn't receive a rose, started crying, and talked about how much she misses her cat, saying (AND I QUOTE), "It will be great to..... to have a purr again... because she's the love of my life at the moment." People, why wasn't I warned?? It was dangerous for me to watch that show without proper preparation. I don't even know what to say. Frankly it would be really nice to have a purr again.

Oh. This is a publishing blog? Ok.

Well, it's Amazon's world, we're just living in it. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Amazon is tightening the screws on POD publishers, announcing that they will have to use Amazon's POD printing facilities in order to be sold directly on (thanks to Marti Lawrence for the tip). This move could have a significant impact on small and self-publishers, who have in the past been able to sell directly through Amazon but now face some tough choices. Yowsers, as they say.

In agent blog news, Janet Reid reminds you to be nice to everyone who works at an agency, and Jonathan Lyons reminds us that not all agents and agent blogs are created equal.

Friend o' the blog and author Kim Stagliano was on Good Morning America Now this past week discussing the needs of families with autistic children. Here's a wonderful Janet Reid post about Kim, which details her awesomeness.

Via Shelf Awareness, The Indianapolis Star reports that Indiana booksellers are fuming about a new state law that requires anyone who sells sexually explicit material (and apparently this includes bookstores) to register with the state and pay a $250 registration fee. What year is it again?? I could have sworn it's 2008. Did Indiana get stuck in a time warp or something? Do we need to send in Bruce Willis to save them?

And finally, you know that rejection you received from a big publishing house? Well, there's a chance it didn't come from a real person. GalleyCat is reporting that an anonymous publisher has been sending out rejections from a fake editor. I can't decide if this is mean or a stroke of genius. Hmm... maybe it's time to go and create that e-mail account for my new assistant Franklin McScaredofyourquery.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Triple the Query Critique, Triple the Fun

"Big ups," as the kids say, to maniacscribbler, madison and andrew carmichael for being brave of soul and quick on the trigger as they submitted their queries for a public critique. I really appreciate their willingness to put themselves out there so that we might all learn from their queries.

As always, please keep any and all comments completely polite and constructive, and anything snarky or mean will be dealt with quicker than you can say, "No really I will totally kick you in the shins."

On to the queries!

First off, I'd just like to take a look at the first paragraphs, and then I'll do a complete critique for each one.

Here are the first paragraphs:

I am currently seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, Moonstone.

I am seeking representation for my completed 80,000-word YA novel, THIS BRIEF FREEDOM.

I’m seeking representation for STARBOYS, a 60,000-word YA novel for readers who want to laugh a little, cry a little, angst a little, and look to the stars for something more.

I'm sensing a pattern.

But honestly, I'm so glad you guys all started off your query (basically) the same way, because it makes for a great illustration of what my inbox looks like. Now, I'm not saying you CAN'T start off a query with "I'm seeking representation for X," but you have a great opportunity off the bat to engage the agent with something original and interesting, whether it's getting straight into the plot (like so) or tipping me off that this is a personalized query and you're a blog reader (like so). Since you have "Query" in the subject line (and you do have "Query" in the subject line, yes?), I already know you're seeking representation, so you don't have to start off by making that clear.

Now for the more complete critiques. These are, as usual, going to be kind of ideosyncratic critiques -- I'm not going to focus on typos or word choices or anything like that, but will instead give some perspective on the things I'm thinking about as I'm reading queries.

Up to bat is maniacscribbler:

I am currently seeking representation for my young adult fantasy, Moonstone.

It begins in medias res with the death of Alita’s love, Brant. Alita is the Eci’lam, a young woman who can tap into unlimited magical powers and destroy the whole world if she so wish. She is being chased by the High King, for he is afraid of this power and the havoc that it could wreak on his totalitarian rule. Brant comes into her life when she shows up at his door mortally wounded and being pursued by the High King’s followers, the Myrmidon. Brant is a Ha’Nid, a magicmaker who is also being prosecuted by the High King. Through their adventures they both come to drop the guard that they had both wrapped themselves in and allow love into their heart. Now Alita has to fight the High King to regain what has been lost, including her lover.

Moonstone is filled with romance, action, and drama; it is 69,000 words.
(Short story publishing credits omitted to allow me to remain anonymous. ;)) I am currently in my first year of an English BA at the University of C------, and have been homeschooled since grade one. I have an avid love of books, with a special place in my heart for fantasy.

Thank you for time.

First, I'd like to focus attention on the second paragraph, which describes the plot, because I think it can be pared down to its most essential detail. Particularly in fantasy, queriers tend to overexplain what things are called in their world. For instance, do we need to know that Alita is called an "Eci'lam" and Brant is called a "Ha'Nid"? Do we need to know the Kings' followers are called the Myrmidon? These descriptions tend to break up the flow, when in fact the more important descriptions involve who these people are and what's unique about this world -- not what they're called.

The plot of this novel is archetypal -- woman has power, pursued by evil power who is threatened by her power, falls in love with man who can help her, quest ensues. This isn't necessarily a bad thing since we humans tell many of the same stories over and over in new ways, and many wonderful stories have been built around your same archetype (everything from Stephenie Meyer's books all the way back to Snow White and beyond). But when you are working in an archetype it's especially important to make sure that 1) you know what sets your novel apart, and 2) you convey this in the query. A new twist on an old archetype can turn "boy from humble background is actually from noble birth and must save his land using secret power" into Star Wars.

Next up, madison:

I am seeking representation for my completed 80,000-word YA novel, THIS BRIEF FREEDOM.

Sixteen-year-old Rosalie Clements never dreamt of leaving civilized 19th century Boston – until her father dies, leaving her alone and destitute. But he also wills her a clue that may lead to an elusive West Indian treasure. Desperate for money, Rosalie trades her skirts for breeches and heads for the Indies.

But although she can soon raise a sail, brandish a cutlass, and lie as easily as she once drank tea, all is not smooth sailing. She has to evade much more than discovery on board: her shipmates detest her incompetence and the ship is a breeding ground for mutiny. Worse, after recovering from her shock at the rough life aboard, she soon becomes as intoxicated with her new life of adventure as the other sailors are with daily grog rations. But when Rosalie discovers that Captain Beardslee, the most feared pirate of the Indies, and the crew aboard his aptly named ship, The Cutthroat, want the treasure, too, the race for the Indies becomes a race for survival.

A high school senior, I have published a short story in the magazine ‘Characters.’ I am the copy editor of my school newspaper.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

This query is in great shape, and I would definitely request a partial. I like the conflict you've built in, first by giving Rosalie a backstory (her father dying), sending her on a quest (the treasure), and setting up conflicts (with her crew, but then she has to work with them to combat the real enemy, Captain Beardslee). I particularly like this line: "But although she can soon raise a sail, brandish a cutlass, and lie as easily as she once drank tea, all is not smooth sailing." This is a nuanced line, and I particularly like the use of "smooth sailing," which has a nice pun to it given the ship theme, and displays deft writing.

Some people might be concerned that pirates are overpublished at the moment, but at the query stage I'm not generally thinking that far ahead and am just looking for good writing and an interesting idea. If it's good enough it ultimately doesn't matter what the trends of the moment are.

And batting third we have andrew carmichael:

I’m seeking representation for STARBOYS, a 60,000-word YA novel for readers who want to laugh a little, cry a little, angst a little, and look to the stars for something more.

Sixteen-year-old Nate Chiarello’s life is a collage of eccentricity. He has nothing in common with his friends, his parents are the very definition of idiosyncratic, and his starving-artist brother is neither hungry nor artistic. Nate has nothing going for him. Not until Kam arrives.

Kam claims he’s from the stars and Nate is immediately drawn to him. Kam seems interested too, when he’s not disappearing for weeks at a time. To forget his attraction, Nate tries to distract himself with Christian: a boy who is both interested and around.

But then Kam returns and warns Nate that intergalactic law enforcement is after him, ordered to destroy him because of what he knows. At the same time, Christian reveals that he has a secret that could change everything. Now, with two guys pining for his affection, Nate has to figure out how to save himself before it’s too late.

STARBOYS is an eclectic blend of light fantasy, soft sci-fi, gay romance, humor, and action. It would join books such as Perry Moore’s Hero in the growing market of LGBT genre fiction for young adults.

I must confess that while I like this query overall, I felt that the first paragraph was a tad overdone. I know there's a tendency to want to grab immediately, but I'd much rather be drawn in by the actual work than a pat description, and I just hear phrases like "laugh a little, cry a little" so often (even if you do complicate it with "angst a little.").

I really like the setup, premise, and your description of Nate, but I felt that once Kam arrived the description of the plot and world became a little scattered, and while you bring it together in the end, I think there is more of an opportunity to reveal more about what makes Kam appeal to Nate. So for instance, you write that Nate is "immediately drawn to him." You could replace "him" with a few descriptions of Kam so it becomes Nate is "immediately drawn to his X and X," to give the reader a sense of who he is and what role he could fulfill for both Nate and the plot. Is he going to take Nate away to another planet? What is he like?

This will also help distinguish him from Christian, who also could use a few nuggets of description himself. But overall, this is a unique premise, which is always hard to find, and I'm definitely intrigued.

THANK YOU again to our three brave queriers!!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Are You Reading At the Moment?

From time to time I like to hear what everyone is reading. How about it? Any good recommendations?

When I'm not reading manuscripts, I'm reading Ian McEwan's ENDURING LOVE, which, of course, is amazing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Open Thread

Curling iron drama on the Hills...

Borders on the ropes...

March Madness!!!

The thread is yours. We can only hope that this open thread is as crazy as the last.

Free Query Critique!

It's been a while since I've done a query critique, and I should mention again that if you receive a rejection from me and you would like your query critiqued politely and anonymously on the blog, send me a follow-up note. I can't critique all people who ask me to do so (and sometimes I honestly just don't have anything interesting to say on the matter), but I'll consider your query for a public dissection.

But now I'm going to try something new -- the first three people who copy their queries in the comments section will get a free query critique on Thursday. You can leave your name or you can be anonymous, your choice.

Once I have three queries I'm closing the comments section (to avoid confusion), and I'll start an open thread.


COMMENTS CLOSED -- thanks for entering, brave souls, stay tuned on Thursday for a critique.

Monday, March 24, 2008

On Formality In Query Letters

I grew up in California, which means I called my friends' parents by their first names and no matter where I am and what I'm wearing, I'd rather be wearing jeans. And as you can tell by the way I write the blog, I don't really worry about formality.

But lately people have been pushing informality in query letters just a tad too far. At the end of the day, while I'm really not a wild and crazy guy, I don't think of myself as a stickler. Don't worry about calling me "Mr. Bransford," even if we've never met ("Nathan" is fine). Don't sweat a typo. And by all means, crack a joke or two.


With your query letter you are proposing that we enter into a business relationship, and breeziness can be taken too far, particularly when it interferes with conveying the tone and spirit of your project. Yes, be funny and cool, but don't give the impression that you're taking the query lightly. With me and with other agents, err on the side of formality.

So for instance, do not call me "Nate," "Nat," or "Nate Dogg" (and yes, people do this). Don't use your language casually, unless you're specifically trying to convey the tone of your project. And if we've corresponded before, please don't assume that I will definitely remember you -- include the backup correspondence so I can refresh my memory.

As always, the goal of a query is to give the impression that you are talented and professional. Don't lose sight of professionalism as you show your talent.

Nate Dogg signing off.

Friday, March 21, 2008

This Week in Publishing 3/21/08

En Weekus Publishus

First off, a big congratulations is in order to friend-o'-the-blog Patricia Wood for her Orange Prize nomination for her novel LOTTERY! She was just one of seven debut novelists to be nominated, so let's all give an orange juice toast to Patricia!

If you work at the publisher Thomas Nelson, chances are you're in much better shape than I am. According to CEO/blogger Michael Hyatt, a full 1/4 of Thomas Nelson's employees are running half marathons. All I can say is: wow. Also: there are quite a few publishers I know who would need an entire hospital to follow them in the event their employees ran a half marathon.

Via Publishers Lunch, there's some big news in the bookselling business, as Borders is showing some signs of financial weakness amid the credit crunch and their ongoing reorganization. There are some fears that they might be on the auction block. Maya Reynolds has a great breakdown of the issues this raises, and all I can say is: Borders, get well soon.

mkcbunny pointed me to the front page of, where there is currently a message from Jeff Bezos explaining why there is a six-week wait to get a Kindle. It also has a picture of an edible Kindle, which might explain why it has such a short shelf life (I slay myself).

And finally, if you think I write long posts on The Wire, check out David Simon's Huffington Post article, in which he reveals that the major storyline that most people missed in Season 5 was that the newspaper missed every big story of the season. Only... what with Prop Joe and Omar and the homeless murderer scam going unnoticed by the Sun, I kind of got that. Still the greatest show ever though!

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Rejection Letter

I don't really try and hide that I have a standard rejection letter. All agents do, and there's just no time for me to write out individual letters to thousands of people. So naturally, my rejection letter is 1) vague (so it can address nearly any reason for rejection) and 2) brief.

Here it is in all its bland glory:

Thank you for your recent letter. I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work.

However, opinions vary considerably in this business, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.

Best wishes,
Nathan Bransford

I know it's bland, I know it's not terribly helpful, but I do hope that people find it 1) honest and 2) polite.

Now, if you mention my blog or my clients' books, I'll almost always write you a short personal note thanking you for reading my blog or expressing appreciation that you read my clients' books. But that's about as expressive as I'm able to get. I wish I could do more, and I honestly do wish you the best of luck in your search for representation, but the time crunch necessitates brevity.

When I'm responding to a partial manuscript request I have varying degrees of vagueness or specificity. If there's one or two specific things I can point to that made the partial a "no" for me, I'll try and point it out. If, however, I just have a general feeling that it's not for me but can't point to anything in particular, I write a similarly vague rejection note back -- I just don't think it would be helpful for me to say something just to say something, and I'd rather be vague than lead you astray.

But despite the inevitable blandness of these letters, I just want to say here that I very much appreciate the care and time that (most) people take to write to me when they're querying. I know how asymmetrical it is for me to expect an amazing query letter that takes a great deal of time to prepare, only to send a vague rejection letter in return. I definitely get that. But just remember that you have one query to write at a time, while agents are receiving dozens a day. It's asymmetrical for us too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Words and Power

**I want to preface this post by saying this is not a political blog, so let's all behave ourselves**

As you may know from the fact that I am the agent for THE ALMANAC OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION, SCANDALS & DIRTY POLITICS, I am a serious political junkie. I love following elections, listening to speeches, following political blogs, listening to the media describe the horse race... I really get into it.

I also think this time of year is an extremely interesting time to be a "words" person, because during an election words take on a power in our nation like perhaps no other time -- when being a great writer, or listening to the right writer, and being able to enunciate a vision (and, especially, a story) can be the difference between being president and being an also ran.

I've been thinking a lot about this, and since you all are fellow "words" people, I'm wondering about your response to the rhetoric of the campaign trail. How about those words? We've been hearing the words "style over substance" a lot, and open questions about how seriously we should take oratory in general.

So You Tell Me: as a "words" person, how do you view this time of year while looking through the lens of words and story? Can you separate the words from the speaker? Do words clarify or obfuscate? Do words express eternal truths or do people hear their own meaning? Does articulation of a vision make for a better leader or does the vision cover, rather than reveal the truth? Do the stories of the campaign have any relation to the stories we read in novels, memoirs, or history?

And please, separate this from your individual political allegiance, I'm most curious about how you view the power of words and story as they intersect with power.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

One of the great, pioneering science fiction writers of all time. He was 90.

NY Times

Trust and Communication

Based on some comments in the.. uh... comments section, it occurred to me that I'd never really written a post on the ideal author/agent relationship or my ideal client. And while I don't talk about specific relationships on the blog, it's actually a pretty simple equation. Every author/agent relationship is different, but they all depend on two essential ingredients: trust and communication.

Trust is especially key, and while it is something that is steadily built over time, it's essential for an author/agent relationship to kick off on sound footing. Over the course of the relationship the author and agent are going to go through some great times and some not so great times. They're going to have to deliver difficult truths to each other. The author is going to have to trust that the agent has their best interests at heart and is working hard on their behalf, and the agent has to trust that the author will fulfill their responsibilities.

I really can't emphasize enough how important this is. Some authors I've spoken to are incredibly paranoid that their agent is going to pull one over on them. People, there is nothing to be pulled! There is just no incentive for a (reputable) agent to scam their clients. We ARE our reputations in this business, and we're on your side. We want you to succeed as much as you want to succeed.

The essential second element is communication. The lines of dialogue must be open. I can't believe how many authors approach me who are scared to talk to their agent! This is like being scared to tell your doctor that you have a cough. If you are feeling uncomfortable about something, talk to your agent. Give them a chance to address the matter. If you want to change something, talk to your agent first. If the lines of communication have broken down it's a serious matter, but first give your agent to address the problem.

So when considering whether to sign on with an agent there are two questions you need to ask yourself: Do I trust this person? And can I communicate with this person? While every author/agent pairing is different, a solid relationship will be built on this foundation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Do Not Call List

I've blogged about this before, and so has Jonathan Lyons and others, but given the number of phone calls I've been getting lately this bears repeating.

About five times a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, I get this exact. same. call:

"Hi, my name is (so and so) and I'm from (such and such place), and I'm looking for an agent. I don't really know how to go about this, but I got your name off of the Internet and I'm wondering if you can help me out."

Then there is a pregnant pause as I try and stop my head from exploding.

I really try to be nice. I really do. Even if it's the 177,527th time I've fielded the same call, I try and be patient and either direct them to my blog or tell them how to write a query: (Them: "A what?" Me: "A query." Them: "Can you spell that for me?" Me: "Q-U-E-R-Y" Them: "What is that?" Me: "A letter describing your work." Them: "Huh. Do you want sample pages?" Me: "No, just a query." Them: "Really? You don't want sample pages?" Me: "No, just a query." Them: "Huh. What's your address again?" Me: (remain calm... remain calm...))

The thing is, I know that the query callers didn't Google my name in order to try and find this information themselves (thus avoiding taking time out of my busy day), so it's very difficult for me to be patient. And honestly, it reflects badly on a prospective author. Authors don't just need to be good writers, they also need to do their homework in order to succeed in this business. I know they mean well, hence my attempts at civility, and I don't want to pick on anyone, but you gotta know the customs.

Unless you're represented by an agent, you shouldn't call an agency. Here's how to deal with situations where you otherwise might be tempted to call.

- Want to know if they're accepting queries? Just send the query. If they're not they'll either tell you or you'll have your answer from their silence.

- Want to know which particular agent you should submit to? Research the agency online and try and choose the agent who seems like the best fit. If you can't figure it out online you can send a general letter to the agency, and if it's a great letter you can bet it will find its way into the right hands (although it might take a while).

- Unclear on an agent's submission guidelines? Guess. Don't call. If they don't have a website or clear e-submission guidelines, assume that you need to send them a query letter through the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope. That's the default. If you can't find any info that says otherwise on the Internet after a good-faith search, just go with that.

- Want to know if you should include sample pages? I always tell people not to include sample pages because I don't trust that they'll either a) not attach them to an e-mailed query or b) send too many through the mail. But I will say this - no one has ever been rejected just because they included some sample pages. Paste it in the body of the e-mail or include some pages if it's through the mail, just don't tell anyone I told you so.

- Want to follow up on a query? If it's me and you haven't heard in two weeks, first check your Spam folder, second send me a note via e-mail. Other agents? Unless they say it's ok to follow-up, assume they're following the "we'll respond if we're interested" policy and don't follow up. If you decide to follow up anyway, do so in the manner in which you sent the original query.

- Want to follow up on a manuscript the agent has requested? Send an exceedingly polite note, either via e-mail or through the mail (again, in the format in which you sent the original query), once a month. Don't call.

Times it's ok to call a prospective agent:

- They are considering your work and you want to give them a heads-up that you have received an offer of representation (but e-mail would do as well).

- You already have a significant track record in the business.

- Um. That's pretty much it.

I know to outsiders this may seem a little draconian, particularly when there are agencies who don't have websites, but this is a quirky business, and we're not Wal-Mart. My phone number is only a customer service line if you're a customer (read: client). In which case operators are standing by.

Friday, March 14, 2008

This Week in Publishing 3/14/08

Publishing in Week This Backwards

For those you out there who are fans of both the NBA and The Wire, Sam Rubenstein from SLAM Magazine has an awesome article comparing The Wire characters to NBA players. My favorites: Larry Brown as Valcheck and Kevin McHale as Rawls. Sam couldn't decide on a Carcetti by press time, but after some back and forth we agreed that Carcetti is definitely Chris Webber.

Congratulations to Kate Christensen for winning the Pen/Faulkner award for THE GREAT MAN, and a belated congratulations to the winners of the National Book Critics Circle Awards.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Borders plans to reduce the number of books they carry in bookstores, and instead use the shelf space to face out more books. In the course of reading different reactions to this news I learned the astounding fact that the average Borders bookstore contains somewhere around 90,000 titles, while B&N may stock 150,000 or more. WOW. The Millions doesn't love the idea, although they note that at stores where Borders has adopted this strategy sales increased 9%.

And finally, as reader Jim Schmidt pointed out, the Onion has a hilarious infographic on "Why Our Novel Was Rejected," including "agent not in novel as promised." The print edition has an extremely funny report on a three-month long novelist's strike that no one noticed and which did not affect anybody whatsoever.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Open Thread!

Never tried this before, but LET'S GO FOR IT.

The comments section is yours. Converse with each other, ask those random questions you've been meaning to ask, talk about what's on your mind, ruminate on the meaning of life, discuss your favorite television shows.... you name it.

There is no topic.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

How Do You Revise?

Ah, revisions. Achilles heel of the impatient, the great equalizer of the hardworking, and nearly as important as writing itself.

So how do you do it?

Do you start at the beginning? Trust your critique group? Do one sweep? Throw it out and write again? Kill scenes?

And if your answer is "I don't"..... well, you'd better start by revising that response.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

How (And Whether) to List Your Publishing Credits

**It is my duty to report that there is a new scourge sweeping our nation's queries: people are saying they are a published author without providing (1) the publishing house and/or (2) the year it was published. Please be vigilant. This is a code orange.**

I've previously blogged about what to do if you don't have publishing credits, but after yesterday's seven hundred page dissertation on The Wire I thought I'd do more of a nuts and bolts post that encompasses everything publishing credity.

- As mentioned, if you have published a book, whether through a maintstream publisher or self-publisher: I need 1) the publisher and 2) the year, and this goes for every book you list. If it's not there I'm just going to go look it up anyway, so might as well save me a trip to my local neighborhood

- Self-published authors: I am sorry to say you are not a "published author" by the parlance of the industry, and should not use that term to describe yourself. "Published," at least according to this publishing industry member's reading of the term, means that an editor judged your work acceptable, paid you for it, and published it in physical book form. If you are self-published it is perfectly acceptable to say you are self-published, although you might look at this post for some tips on some of the things I look for in self-published authors.

- Publishing credits from journals and stuff: these should only be listed if they directly relate to your project. So, for instance, if you have a novel, it's totally fine to list the literary magazines and journals where you have been published, even if it's not a strict genre match. Some newspapery articles might be fine as well if they're in the ballpark of your novel. But if you're pitching a novel to me I really don't need to know that you had articles published in, say, medical journals (unless obv. it relates to your project) or if you wrote a lot for your advertising agency once upon a time. Make sure it's germane. Same (in the reverse) goes for nonfiction. But in the end I'd rather see no publishing credits than a list of things that have nothing to with your project.

- If you have a MFA: absolutely please mention it. However, be aware that while I'm sure you're awesome, for some reason MFAs are notoriously bad queriers, and you should not assume that your MFA alone is a ticket to a partial request or more. You're being held to the same query standards as the non-MFA crowd, although perhaps with a small bump. Wait... no... sto... DON'T TORCH YOUR DIPLOMA! YOU GOT TO WRITE FULL TIME FOR TWO YEARS!

- If you don't have publishing credits: do not worry. They're not necessary. The ranks of people who have been published without a single credit to their name are legion. Just say "This is my first novel" and say it proud. Don't apologize, don't spend two pages telling about how much you love to write. Heck, you could hate writing more than life itself and if your book is good I won't even care. Whatever it takes you get the job done.

The most important thing to remember about publishing credits big and small is the focus should be on the project you are querying about, not on your credits. You could be the author of the Bhagavad Gita and I'd still be wondering what you're working on now. Publishing credits can certainly boost a query, but it's your description of the project you're querying me about that is key.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning From the Wire


I'm typing this in a Daylight Saving Time change-induced fog, so bear with me, (info on the pointlessness of DST, including its effects on cows here).

Last night The Wire closed out its last episode, a hugely satisfying end to the greatest show on television. This season was not the greatest of the five, that honor surely goes to either Season 2 (the docks) or Season 4 (the school), but it still was immensely satisfying to see everything wrapped up and yet coming back full circle: Leander as the new McNulty, going behind his department to a judge, Valchek as the new Burrell, Carver as the new Daniels, Michael as the new Omar, Slim Charles as the new Prop Joe, Dukie as the new Bubbles, Chris Partlow as the new Wee Bey, and Marlo back on the streets as a fusion of the striving Stringer Bell and the tough Avon Barksdale. In the end things are pretty much how they began.

So why was this show so good?

People often talk about the "Dickensian" aspect of The Wire as a shorthand to refer to the complexity of the show, and they're somewhat right -- it's intricately plotted across all levels of society, there are multiple intersecting plotlines, and at times it's difficult to follow. But what is really complex about the Wire isn't the number of plot threads, it's the characters. Every single character on the show, down to the last bit player, is a complex, nuanced individual with his/her own particular set of goals, vices, and motivations. There aren't "good guys" and "bad guys." Nothing is ever that simple.

What makes these characters so complex is that the creators of the show never fall back on storytelling crutches to provide the characters' motivations. In The Wire's Baltimore, people don't deal drugs because they're bad people, they simply can't even begin to envision a world beyond the Baltimore they know. Some of the most amazing moments have come when these characters are out of their element: the kids from Season 4 are more scared in a Ruths Chris Steakhouse than they are in the dangerous streets of Baltimore, Wallace is terrified of the countryside in Season 1, and Marlo doesn't even seem to know how to operate an elevator in the finale.

Similarly, there is no such thing as good or bad cops, only ones who are motivated by vice and self-interest or ones who are motivated by a true search for justice. Sometimes the same character vacillates between the different sides. There is never an easy explanation for why characters do what they do.

This is because there is no such thing as "good" or "evil" in the Wire. There is only "The Game," an all-encompassing and ultimately pointless battle to rise to the top in a world that rewards self-interest and mediocrity. The only "evil" moments in The Game come from inevitable acts of self-interest, since The Game's battle for survival does not reward altruism. Cheese betrays Prop Joe out of selfishness, Marlo picks off his enemies to build his name and consolidate power, Rawls throws everyone under the bus to pursue his career. And meanwhile, The Game cuts down visionaries who see a way out of the tangled mess of crushing meaninglessness - Stringer Bell democratizes and pacifies the drug trade by corporatizing it, but he's taken down. Bunny Colvin creates "Hamsterdam," concentrating the problems of the drug trade in one area so the rest of Baltimore can rebuild itself, he's taken down. Then Colvin helps formulate a new educational system that teaches kids to live in the world instead of teaching to a test, it begins to work, he's taken down again. The only people who can win The Game are people like Rawls, Levy, Valchek, Marlo and Clay Davis -- people with no concern other than their own enrichment and survival. The only winner in the end is the status quo. And you saw that in the last episode when things came full circle.

Personally, I think novelists looking to The Wire for writing advice could learn a lot from Season 5, not because it was the strongest, but rather because the show betrayed itself just a bit with the Baltimore Sun storyline, and in its weakness it illustrates why the rest of the show was so amazing.

Many people were down on Season 5 in the early going, and in particular the Baltimore Sun storyline (check out David Plotz and Jeffrey Goldberg's indispensable 60+ post discussion of the season on Slate. It came together somewhat in the end, but why didn't the Baltimore Sun plot work as well as the docks or the schools or Hamsterdam?

Because for the first time in the history of The Wire it was easy to break down the characters into "good" and "evil." The good characters (Gus, Alma, the anonymous old time newsmen) were really good and never once did a bad thing, the bad characters (Templeton, Klebanow, Whiting) were really evil and never once did a good thing. It was way too simple. After the first couple of episodes of Season 5 it was abundantly clear where everyone stood on the good/evil spectrum and everyone had a decent sense of the directions things would go from there. It was predictable. We hardly got the sense that the "evil" characters were decent people being subsumed by The Game or that the "good" characters may not have really been so good after all. Gus was the most saintly person on the entire show by a wide margin.

Some people have chalked up the weakness of Season 5 to David Simon's grudge against his time at the Sun -- I doubt it was this simple. The intersecting and mirroring plots of Season 5 were just fantastically complex, even for The Wire, and I think they ended up relying on the good/evil shorthand of lesser shows because they were constrained by getting through the (ultimately satisfying) plot. The scope of Season 5 was so vast it was nearly impossible to maintain the show's level of complexity.

But there is more than one way to show complexity, and you often see these differences in literary and genre fiction. In genre fiction, one of the major ways authors show complexity amid packed plots, even in a relatively simple good/evil binary, is through plot reversals: after a major plot twist (i.e. Darth Vader is Luke's father), that feeling you have is "Wow, things aren't as simple as I thought they were." The Wire is more like literary fiction -- literary fiction usually takes the time to complicate the plot by adding nuance and complexity to characters' motivations. Things are never simple in literary fiction. But even if in Season 5 they didn't have the space for the literary fiction route, there still could have been some reversals that would have made the newspaper plot more complex.

For instance, one way the Wire may have gotten around the too-easy good/evil binary in the newsroom would have been, say, if Gus' zeal for the truth could have led him too far in his pursuit of Templeton, to the point where he got out of hand. Or Templeton could have been motivated by more than simply a desire to move up the chain, perhaps also motivated by some real concern for making the world a better place. The editors could have been battling the Internet or their own financial pressures. There were ways the situation could have been more complex.

But rather than creating a reversal that revealed other sides of the characters, instead, Gus was good in Episode 1 and good in Episode 10, Templeton was bad in Episode 1 and bad in Episode 10 (and every episode in between), end of story. The creators of the show created a polemic, and that doesn't really work in fiction because it's too easy. It's never interesting to find out that our first impressions are precisely correct.

Still though, best. show. ever, and I think Season 5 was a spectacular achievement, showing the way we are all so invested in the fictions we create.

Ok, enough prattling. What did you think of that finale?

Friday, March 7, 2008

This Week in Publishing 3/7/08

This Week in the Wonderful World of Publishing:

Remember last week when I talked about Word Count and talked about how some people in publishing think that short books are coming into style? This just in from AP Books Reporter Hillel Italie (via Publishers Lunch): short books (especially of the nonfictional varietal) are in style.

I often hear from agented authors who are wondering whether or how to break up with their agent. It's a serious matter and people always need to make their own decisions, and it's not something I tend to give advice on. It's really tricky to offer good advice since every situation is different, it's not my place to interfere with someone's working relationship with their agent, and it's so important to recognize the work agents are doing on your behalf. Luckily Jessica Faust at BookEnds just wrote a really really awesome post about this tricky subject, which offers some great general advice and poses some questions you should be asking yourself. Please check that out, she says it all perfectly.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen has a seriously awesome blog, and this week she discusses an author who is suing her publisher because of the cover they chose for her book against her wishes. As aspiring authors are often surprised to know, you have extremely little to no control over the cover publishers put on your book. In this case, because the cover in question features women of color, the author felt it marginalized the book and hurt sales (the author is African American, which either matters or doesn't depending on your perspective on the situation). I shant touch this one lest I get in hot water with any involved parties and get Dooced, but definitely check out Gerritsen's fascinating breakdown and her take on the situation to see what you think.

And finally, in the wake of the fake memoirs surfacing and the less-than-skeptical NY Times profile of Margarat B. Jones/Seltzer, according to Gawker the NY Times Standards editor Craig has put the ixnay on one-source profiles, writing in a memo "Until publishers start fact-checking their own nonfiction books, and that'll be the day, we should remember that profiles of unknown authors should always include reporting from other sources -- not just surrogates of the profilee like agents, publishers, lawyers, etc. -- to verifiy the most important facts." Huh. Funny that they should chide the publishing industry for not factchecking their books, because you know who else doesn't regularly employ factcheckers? Newspapers! Thank goodness no one has ever faked a newspaper article. That would be embarrassing.

Sheesh. Don't these people watch The Wire? And SPEAKING OF WHICH, last Wire EVER on Sunday! Goodbye to the greatest television show of all time.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

How Long Does It Take to Sell A Novel?

About that long.

In the last couple of weeks I've received several distressed e-mails from authors who have reputable agents and who have novels out on submission to editors, and really they want to trust their agents and they're trying to be good and non-high maintenance, but seriously could the submission process really take this long?

Yes, it can.

But what if, one of these authors asked, a publisher expressed interest several months ago and then nothing has happened at all. Could they really still be interested? And if they were interested a couple of months ago why in the heck haven't they made an offer already?

Happens all the time.

I always assure these authors to just keep in touch with their agent, be patient, take up knitting, and go easy on the bourbon. Settle in for the long haul. A book might sell in a week or it might sell in a year. You never know.

So why does it take so long for an editor to make a decision anyway? Well, there are many reasons. First of all, it takes a long time to read a book. 6 hours on average, if you are a speed reader (and you'd better be if you're in publishing), and editors receive multiple submissions a day. Do the math and there just aren't enough hours in the day, especially when you already have a full time job while you're not reading. The first major delay is the editor simply sitting down with the book in question for a six hour stretch.

But let's say the editor does read the book, loves it, and wants to make an offer. What then?

Well, unless they are a serious publishing mucky muck, editors have to get approval to make an offer, a process similar to unlocking a nuclear bomb. They have to get it past editorial board, they have to get more reads, these reads have to be good, they have to unlock the failsafe and contact the president to press a button on the nuclear football, the sales team gets a look, some higher up has to sign off on it..... and all of these people have to read the book too. Multiply those six hours by ten, and then maybe the editor gets approval to make an offer of a certain amount.

Now, what's funny about all this is that when there's a hot project all of this goes out the window and people quickly lose their minds and the whole above process can be condensed to a couple of hours. Frankly it's a good thing publishing companies don't actually control our nuclear stockpile -- one whiff of a rock star memoir and bye bye Uzbekistan.

So I know it's terribly frustrating to go months and months looking for an agent and then FINALLY the book gets submitted....... and then wait months and months while you're waiting for editors to read it.

Welcome to publishing. You have no choice but to stay a while.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What Should Be Done About All These Fake Memoirs?

This may be the longest You Tell Me in history, but here goes:

What should be done about all of these fake memoirs?

Let that question percolate a little, and then let's see if your opinion changes by the end of this post.

I've been trying to process the news about two more fake memoirs surfacing, one by Misha Difonseca, who admitted that her memoir about her alleged Holocaust escape was fiction, and now Margaret Seltzer (writing as Margaret B. Jones), who concocted a story about growing up in South Central Los Angeles as a half-white/half-Native American gang member (she is white and grew up in Sherman Oaks). These fabrications, of course, follow closely on the heels of the J.T. Leroy and James Frey scandals (NYTBR blog roundup of these four here), and amid investigations by The Australian questioning elements of Ishmael Beah's memoir A LONG WAY GONE.

My first reaction is, of course, outrage that people could actually go through with these shenanigans, and resignation to the fact that the publishing industry will go through another round of beatdowns in the press and in public opinion. But after these initial reactions wore off, I'm left in a bit of a muddle. What really, should be done about this?

First off, as Michael Cader pointed out in Publishers Lunch today, I don't think people are giving enough credit to Riverhead and editor Sarah McGrath for heading this matter off before the book was published. According to today's NY Times article by Motoko Rich, knowing full well what happened in the Frey case, McGrath asked for (and received) several different pieces of corroborating evidence that backed up Seltzer's story. Seltzer's agent met with someone who claimed to be Seltzer's foster sister. McGrath and her agent did not turn a blind eye to Seltzer's fabrications and she did a more than cursory check, it just turned out that Seltzer had a whole lot more time to fake the truth than McGrath did to investigate it. Once the truth came to light, McGrath and Riverhead acted responsibly. I can't fault them on this. The book was never published and no one bought it.

But fine, so you might say, the editor did what she could do without becoming a full-on investigative reporter. So why don't publishers employ fact-checkers?

It's complicated. As Ross Douthat points out, the Atlantic fact-checks their articles, as does the New Yorker. But for the Atlantic this amounts to checking about 600,000 words per year. That's a holiday weekend in the publishing industry. It would take an army of fact-checkers even to do cursory checks of the millions of words published every year, it would be a tremendous expense, and that expense would inevitably drive up the price of books, reduce already slim margins.... I mean, are you willing to pay a lot more for a book just to root out a few bad apples?

One of the lesser-known (at least to outsiders) portions of a publishing contract is the warranty and indemnity clause. In nearly every publishing contract, the author has to warrant (i.e. promise) that they are the real author, that they have the ability to enter into the agreement, and usually when it's a work of nonfiction, they have to pledge that what they have written is true and based on sound research. If a court rules that the author has broken this warranty they're on the hook. Completely. It can seem onerous to the author to be on the hook like this and we agents negotiate the clause so that it's as fair as possible, but ultimately it's on them to tell the truth. And really, isn't this how it should be?

Another lesser-known component of memoir writing is that, from a legal standpoint, sometimes the truth HAS to be fudged to avoid defaming people, such as removing identifying details and changing names, so that the person in question can't point to the memoir and definitively identify themselves. Far from being a genre that is (or should be) held to journalistic standards, memoir is, and always has been, inherently a very squishy medium.

If anything, isn't this is all a byproduct of the drive by publishers, and in our culture in general, to want an author to be the "perfect package?" Someone whose life story is just as compelling as their work, who isn't just someone with a skill for words but someone who embodies their own work, this whole brand thing. We as a culture have become obsessed with authenticity -- it's not enough to just be talented, you also have to BE compelling. You can't just write a good book, you need to be able to sit down on a talk show host's couch and talk about your own human interest story, even if you're a novelist. The fabulists are just filling a cultural niche that we've created and which is nearly impossible to fill. It's so ironic that the more we as a culture want a great true story the more pressure there is to fake one.

Sure -- it's fun to pile on the publishers, but what really should be done about this? Should publishers bite the bullet, raise the prices on their books, employ fact-checkers and just hope that people will pay more for books when there is already incredible downward pressure on prices? Should we just treat these people as the outliers that they are, a few mistakes in an industry where thousands of books are published every year and live with a few embarrassments? Whatever the answer may be, it's not an easy one.

So now you tell me: what should be done about the fake memoirs?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Query Letter Formatting

This is all you need to know:

The amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you're finished.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Literary Agent Blog Confidential

I'm going to break out the honesty today. Weak of heart, cover your eyes. This truth can hurt.

So..... no disrespect to anyone who reads the blog and has queried me recently (I'm sure your query was good), but I've really noticed two things over the past couple of weeks:

1) I've been receiving way more queries than usual
2) The quality of these queries, on average, is WAY below normal.

Obviously there have been some pleasant exceptions and, if you read this or other agent blogs, even if I passed on your project the overwhelming odds (because you're awesome and doing your research) are that yours was one of the good ones. But on average, these queries I've been receiving lately are way way way worse than normal, like a train wreck on top of a volcanic explosion of cow dung (yay similes!)

What's going on out there?

On the agent panel at the San Francisco Writer's Conference we talked about how e-queries, because of their relative ease of use, have an unfortunate tendency to inspire some people to spend less time perfecting their query, somehow leads them to think it's a good idea to blast the entire industry with one e-mail, and/or prompts them to write a five hundred page query letter (I guess because they don't have to pay for the paper).

And unfortunately, it's exactly the type of person who doesn't take the time to read blogs or research how to write a good letter who sends these frivolous queries, so they're beyond help. I have no way of reaching these people, via the blog or otherwise. Even if I SHOUT REALLY LOUDLY. "HEY!! PAY ATTENTION PEOPLE NOT READING AGENT BLOGS!!! SHAPE UP YOUR QUERIES!!!" ... ... ... ... ... See? Nothing.

I've even had people ask me for help, I send them a blog link, they refuse to read it and send me a bad query anyway. I had someone today brag that she hadn't read my blog.

So now I'm in a position where I have to spend a huge amount of time wading through really bad queries to get to the good ones. This has always been a mainstay of the query-reading process and I still like queries (mostly), but the ratio of bad to good these first few months of 2008 has been widening and widening, with no uptick in sight. I have to be out there on the Internet so I can attract the good ones, but I'm drowning in haystacks as I search for needles.

Anyway, meandering post for a Monday. I have no answers! But I'm getting exhausted spending the first several hours of my day wading through a morass of bad query letters. I'm still going to adhere to my policy of responding to everyone who queries me, but anyone who complains about agents not responding to queries should really spend several hours reading through 100+ queries every Monday morning.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

How Much Would You Pay for a Dedicated E-Reader?

With nook (yes, no definite article and uncapitalized. That's how you know it's cool!!) arriving on the scene, there are now quite a few e-readers to choose from, and even more questionably named devices arriving imminently.

And though I tease the (whoops! Silly me, using the definite article) nook, it's only because I want one.

Seriously: want.

But how much would you pay for one?

For the purposes of this discussion, let's call our hypothetical e-reader the Wonderbook. The Wonderbook is much like the devices currently on the market: it has e-ink (no eye strain!), 3G wireless, and has a library of hundreds of thousands of titles to choose from, which you can buy for about $9.99. In other words, the only difference between the Wonderbook and the devices currently on the market is that it has a better name.

How much would you pay for the Wonderbook? $50? $100? $150? Nada?

Click through for the poll! If you already own a dedicated e-reader please click the price that's closest to the amount you paid:

Also, if you haven't had your fill of e-reader polls today, Eric at Pimp My Novel is also having a poll about why you haven't bought an e-reader yet. Check it out!

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