Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Get the Big Stuff Right

As I was brainstorming about what to blog about today I was thinking I'd discuss how if you just familiarize yourself with agent blogs and use your best judgment and act in good faith and send the best query you can you're going to be fine and there's no need to sweat the tiny details. And then lo and behold I come across an identical post by Michael Bourret. Already written! Today no less!

Between this and Holly Root's recent post, both of which I agree with, clearly there is a feeling among agents at the moment that we have sufficiently terrified authors that it is now necessary to reassure them that we are not going to send them packing at the first sign of a typo or query faux pas.

And Michael's right. It's not about the details.

Only.... it kind of is.

I mean, it is and isn't.

It isn't in the sense that there really is no such thing as an instant rejection if you make a query faux pas. We're going to take everything into account when making a decision, and just because you, say, started with a rhetorical question doesn't mean I will automatically reject you. It just means you will have tried my patience to the breaking point argh don't do it to me!!

It is about the details in the sense that we are actually making a decision based on a short letter and maybe some sample pages and so of course it's about the details.

But which details to sweat and which details to not sweat?

Here's my sweat list:

Overall look - Around the right length, a reasonable font, 10 or 12 point font, broken into reasonable paragraphs, no fiddling with margins, pictures, indenting, colors, etc. Just a clean, professional-looking letter. Don't sweat if it's a little long or a little short, and definitely do not start messing around to try and make it look creative or different. When it comes to letters, "creative" tends to look "insane." It's like showing up to a job interview in a clown costume. When you're formatting your query: wear a boring suit.

The description of your work. Get. This. Right. Get it right. Get it right, get it right, get it right. Get it right. Sweat this. This is what we care about. We're looking for a good story idea and good writing, and you want both to jump out in the query.

Annnnd, we're done!

All that other stuff like credits, genre, word count, series, etc. etc. etc.? Sure, great if you can sort through our pet peeves and get yourself in the ballpark of the right genre, and every little bit helps if you can show that you're cool and professional and know what you're doing. If I didn't blog about that stuff people would still ask, and hey: I'm much more comfortable when I feel like I know what I'm doing, so I try to bore down and help people out with the little stuff too.

But when it comes down to it: use your best judgment and get the big stuff right. All the rest is gravy.






80 comments:

Donna said...

Fantastic post.

Ink said...

Stuck at work and thinking about gravy... Do you think french fry shops deliver?

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

You don't know how jealous I am of your ready access to poutine.

Jill Kemerer said...

Thanks for sharing this, especially the "wear the boring suit" part.

Amanda said...

I'm not to this point yet, but it's good to have a little reassurance about what is and isn't important. I was already starting break nervous about writing my query letter and I don't even have a completed first draft! : -P

T. Anne said...

I'm glad it is and it isn't. It's those details that terrify, I mean clarify.

;)

Emily C. said...

Nathan, I think you're pretty laid back when it comes to the small stuff. I know agents who will hit the delete button if you don't at least mention what the genre is.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you're just making everyone want YOU to be his/her agent with this. You know that, right?

Tangential question, sorry. If you have used something in your mauscript for which you might need permission or their might be a legal issue, at what stage is this addressed? Song lyrics for one. But also what if you, say, set part of your story at Obama's Inauguration and mentioned actual people who were there, along with your fictional characters. Does an agent worry about this kind of thing and would the potential hassle be enough to make him reject?

Ink said...

And maybe you should go to New York more often... what with the Kings looking for three in a row tonight.

Kathleen said...

I feel like my gmail sometimes screws with the formatting, and I have no idea how to fix it...

Hopefully agents still read it even if the font looks minuscule/weird.

DebraLSchubert said...

Being professional and telling your story as succinctly as possible, puts you in the game. Research agents, write the query with authenticity and confidence, and get to work on the next project.

Great post, Nathan. Thanks yet again!

Whirlochre said...

Great post.

But my question is — what do you do with all the chocolate nibbles accompanying the more insane queries?

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Seuss.

Susan Quinn said...

Terrified? Check.

Reassured? Maybe. On a good day.

Mostly just disturbed by the state of the industry and trying to whistle in the dark while I write.

Mira said...

No it's Suess.

Theodor spelled it wrong.

Terry said...

Thanks for this. Loved the clown costume. I'll try to avoid that one.

The description of my work is exactly what makes me sweat. Well, one of the things.

I study the Writer Digest queries in hopes that one day it will all sink in, perhaps through osmosis.

Anonymous said...

Seuss is how he's known.

Mira said...

Yes, I know. I mis-spelled it. I also took it down. Wrong for this post.

Nice post, Nathan. I think it's wonderful that you're reassuring writers that they can relax alittle.

Thanks.

Marilyn Peake said...

Reading your, Michael Bourret’s and Holly Root’s recent blog posts has added joy to my writing day. I think writers who frequently visit agent blogs and try to follow advice have been feeling frustrated lately because so many agent blogs and Twitter messages have been warning writers not to do certain things and expressing frustration about writers’ query letters and other communications over and over again, but the writers who follow the blogs have already read those warnings in blogs and archived material. It’s incredibly refreshing to read three blog posts by agents speaking to the writers who regularly read agent blogs and try very hard to absorb all the information they can.

Michael Bourret mentioned Lisa McMann. She is such an incredibly nice author! She belongs to one of my writers’ groups and it’s been wonderful watching her get an agent, then land multiple book deals and make the New York Times Best Seller List. I sent out my own query letter to a handful of literary agents before showing my original query letter to Lisa and other authors in the writers’ group. They pointed out to me that I hadn’t explained enough about plot or characters. They were right. I had been trying to keep my query letter very short, but my novel is too complicated for that, and I ended up describing mostly theme. I went on to revise my query letter over ten times before sending out the final longer version.

Mark Terry said...

I don't suppose it's just, you know, "relax," said the call girl to the archbishop.

But aspiring writers get all worked up about a lot of minutiae when they should worry about the overall message they're sending. As an editor for a technical journal, I'm sort of big on:

Don't waste my time.

I have tons to read, tons to do, I get tons of emails. Get to the point. In fact, you may very well spend 10 paragraphs telling me what you want, but it's unlikely I'll read to the end anyway, so make sure that what's up front is the important stuff.

Kristi said...

I can't imagine you not rejecting someone who started their query with a rhetorical question...it would mean they knew nothing about you.

Gemma said...

POUTINE? Oh now I miss Quebec.

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

This is brilliant advice – thank you. But I have to take issue with one point you made. I wouldn’t consider it crazy to turn up for an interview in a clown costume if the circus, was in fact, looking for a clown. Just thought I’d point out that slight flaw in your logic!

Nathan Bransford said...

MOB-

Haha, good point.

Rhonda said...

Love that you mention the importance of the look of a query. I'm a big proponent of all writing looking good. I'm always telling my kids that about their homework, book reports,etc. Spacing, size, neatness, etc, all matter to the reader whether they realize it or not. This is one reason I always preferred essays to multiple choice tests in high school. I could write an essay on something I had no clue about, and get a decent amount of points based just on how it looked and my writing style. The answer may not have made sense, but it seemed like it should...

Anita Saxena said...

Thank you for making querying seem a little less daunting =)

Lisa Dez said...

This is a great post, Nathan. Just one thing I wasn't clear on. Are you saying we should get the description of our work right? ;)

Nathan Bransford said...

lisa-

GET IT RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Lisa Schroeder said...

It amazes me how people fret and worry about the small stuff. Is this font okay, should I include this or that, what do I do if I don't have any writing credits, etc. etc.? You see this stuff on message boards ALL the time.

Sometimes I want to reply - does your novel have a kick ass plot? Compelling characters? Is there some heart in there? Because that's the stuff you should be worrying about.

Worrying about font is like worrying about what color your tablecloth is for the Thanksgiving dinner. Who cares? I mean really? If your turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy are the best I've ever had, believe me, I won't be remembering the ugly green table cloth.

And now, I'm hungry.

Laura Martone said...

While I'm definitely feeling reassured today - thanks, Nathan! - I'm with Terry, who wrote:

The description of my work is exactly what makes me sweat. Well, one of the things.

LOL! So true. :-)

Sherry said...

I sooo dig this post. "Get it right! Get it right!" It's awesome advice. I'm still working on my writing, but I'll get it together, I mean, I'll get it right.

Bane of Anubis said...

Wish there were a magic ratio of requests/rejections to know if we're 'getting it right.'

Emily White said...

Thanks for the post, Nathan. I have to say that it is the description of my work that I'm sweating about and all those "get it rights" that you put... yeah, not helping to alleviate my stress. But it's good stress! I know I will get it right!

I could really go for some chocolate right now. :)

Dawn Hullender said...

Did someone mention chocolate? Okay, okay, back on track. Thanks for this wonderful post Nathan as I've been absolutely pulling my hair out over these darned query letters. Oh, and let's not forget the elusive synopsis.

In fact, my author's blog has been dedicated to these evil documents for the past few days and you would be amazed at the contradictory advice I've received.

It would be nice if someone would invent software to read a manuscript and then write the query and synopsis for us lazy writers.

:-)

Kaitlyne said...

I'm starting to think that there's some sort of psychic link going on between the agents. Jung's collective unconscious, if you will. :P

In any case, this definitely makes me feel better. I'm getting my queries ready to send off, and there is so much information and detail that I've been worried over doing something wrong and wrecking my chances. This is a nice breath of fresh air. Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

In my profession, it's considered bad form to waste bandwidth on HTML-styled e-mail. Do you discriminate against people who don't use it?

mulligangirl said...

You are a beautiful man for throwing this bone. In my experience, it’s all true. I tend to make those irritating little mistakes that can’t seem to be caught the first twelve times I proof-read but only after I hit submit (can you say mulligan girl?). Fortunately, I still manage to get plenty of requests for fulls. Agents aren’t evil. They’re just business people.

Steve Sparshott said...

So, I shouldn't start with a rhetorical question? OK, I'll try not to do that. And then, the description; it was subtle, but I think you were suggesting we should get it right. Am I wrong?

Really though: Thanks. Simple, memorable advice.

Jemi Fraser said...

So nice to read this :)

wendy said...

About six years ago, I wrote a description for a children's novel (not a query letter) that started with a rhetorical question. I had thought this description might now work for a query as it was bright and fun reflecting the tone of the novel. As the next sentence answers that question, I wondered if this would make it more acceptable:

'Wouldn't you love to have your own beautiful sea witch? Marina has!'

ann foxlee said...

Ahhh.... poutine!

Lucky for me I live in Portland, and one of my friends opened up an all-night poutine cart.

For fun, he sometimes lets us deep-fry random food items! I can't wait to do a slice of pizza.

I wonder how that would taste with gravy...

Malia Sutton said...

I had to google Poutine. I've never heard of it.

Marilyn Peake said...

Ann Foxlee -

This past summer, I was at a State Fair that had food stands featuring all kinds of fried food: fried cheesecake, fried macaroni and cheese, fried candy bars and cookies and Twinkies, not to mention the regular fried stuff like french fries and funnel cake. I saw a sign in one of the windows where funnel cakes with all kinds of sugary toppings were being sold that had a rather funny grammatical error. It said, "Diabetic desserts sold here." I thought to myself, "You betcha, they’re diabetic." :)

ann foxlee said...

Marilyn Peake:
Ha! If they're not diabetic, they will be after eating at that cart!

Malia Sutton:
You probably figured it out, but Poutine is delicious french fry goodness, topped with gravy and cheese curds. mmmmmmm......
My friend also makes his own ketchups for the non-gravy folks, my favorite of those is the rosemary-truffle.
I think he's open now...all this talk about poutine, I might just have top swing by for my day's junk food ration.

ann foxlee said...

Nathan, sorry I hijacked the comments with Poutine talk, but you started it! ;-P

Book of Matches Media said...

Thanks for the great post, Nathan! I'm currently writing and revising my query letter and it's nice to be getting some positive feedback while staring down the barrel of a rather daunting gun.

Myrna Foster said...

This post made me happy, so I'm linking to it in my blog. Thanks.

Malia Sutton said...

Ann Foxlee...

I'm literally on my way out the door to a place on Second Ave., between 7th and 8th, that makes it. Supposedly, it's authentic.

J.J. Bennett said...

Argh! My editor is telling me I'm maybe a quarter of the way done with my WIP. A 500-600 page book is going to kill me. I feel like this post sounds... Crazy.

J.J. Bennett said...

Stress...it's the gravy of life!

Sharon Mayhew said...

Nathan, while you're explaining all the rules could you answer this for me? Is a personal hand written rejection a good thing? Out of the last five stories I've sent to editors, I've gotten four completely hand written rejections and one form rejection with a note written on it. My writing buddies say these are good rejections...I'm skeptical.

SFixe said...

So let me get this straight, all we need to do is get it right. Right?
Just one more question...How is it that we get it right again? ;P
Great post Nathan, and just kidding--Just get it right, of course, now let me go work on that...

Anonymous said...

Nathan

Apologies in advance, I have a question about one of your earlier posts - can anyone with enough practice be a good writer?

How much emphasis do you place on technical skill when you read a partial or manuscript v's how captivated you are by the story?

Would you reject someone if, say, they were not technically proficient in spite of their story holding great appeal, or would you take a chance on that person and work with them to iron out the rough spots?

Apologies again if you have already answered this question somewhere else and I missed it.

Thanks

Steve said...

It seems to me that it is a good idea to target your level of nit-pickiness in a query to the level you would be comfortable with in an agent with whom you would be working.

If you are a perfectionist, you will probably be most comfortable with a very picky perfectionistic agent. If you're more laid back you almost certainly would prefer an agent that does not sweat the small stuff.

If you are a laid back individual, let your query be a bit relaxed, as Nathan seems to be suggesting. You may well get some semi-automatic deletes from very fussy agents. And that's probably all for the best.

-Steve

Erastes said...

Great post, thank you, Nathan.

The trouble is - that so often we see the question approach working!

Catherine Hughes said...

Oh this is weird. I won a guest blog competition on strictly Writing and my subject was how I don't believe agents are as scary as we're led to believe.

http://strictlywriting.blogspot.com/2009/11/agents-do-not-breathe-fire-by-guest.html

It's not quite the same topic but it seems lots of people are thinking along similar lines!

bigwords88 said...

I don't own such a thing as a boring suit... If in doubt, go with the Mark Twain-inspired white suit.

Or jeans and a t-shirt.

GhostFolk.com said...

Given it is unlikely that people who cannot write well will write a query letter well, isn't it the book behind the query that is of interest to the agent?

Devil's Advocate: Isn't it up the agent to develop the skill to see the book behind the query?

I don't understand why any agent would want authors to focus on writing the perfect query.

You're going to find that a lot of people incapable of developing fascinating character, compelling conflict, fresh concept and interwoven story arcs, can, indeed, learn to master a one-page query letter.

What does that get you? A bunch of really good query letters for a bunch of poorly executed books.

It's the book behind the query that matters and it is up to the agent to learn to see it.

And should an agent miss a highly marketable novel or two, it is easy to blame the author for not having done the query correctly. I'd consider blaming the agent for not having read the query correctly.

It is easy to say that it is a matter of taste what an agent chooses to read and/or represent. Sometimes. Maybe. I think it is a matter of the agent's professional skill to see a good book behind a query, to admit they miss a few (and not blame it on subjective tastes in every instance), and to, please, stop teaching query nuance mechanics.

The one thing I have noticed the "successful" queries (that are posted now and then online) have in common is that a highly marketable book was behind each one of them.

If you want to be published, you need to write that book. Query a dozen agents simultaneously and let those who can't see the book behind the query pass on it. The best agent(s) will see the book behind the query and contact you.

It's your job, Nathan, to find good work among the submissions. It is my job to produce a book that will sell. If an agent passes on reading my Ms because of 6 query flubs, I'll go with another agent, thank you. And I will make them money for their trouble.

Authors who have work that is ready to sell are in the market for agents for only a short time. Often only a week or two.

Again, it is the agent's job to see the marketable book behind the query. And, fellow authors, if you don't write that book, it really doesn't matter how well your query is executed.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why one agent online has potential authors revise (often more than once) their query letters to her specifications and, when they finally get it right, she agrees to read and consider their manuscript for representation.

Uh, isn't it the same book?

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

This post has given me a lot to think about. The posts I've read recently which have been written by literary agents presented a circus freak show, where writers were the performing artists.

It was a 'given' that we are up here, you writers are waaaayy down there. Obviously, this annoyed me greatly.

Yours is a sensible approach that makes more sense. It seems to represent a professional, working relationship, which is nicer than the norm.

Jason said...

Great post Nathan...something I personally needed to hear. With some of the emphasis on agent blogs I've read it almost like we're having to walk on egg shells for fear of saying/doing something that gets us forever blacklisted.

You're a cool dude...maybe it's the California sun???

Word Verification: canize--act of preserving and packaging old vegetables.

Scott said...

Rule #1: have an idea that lots of people will want to read a story about.

Rule #2: express it clearly in a letter to an agent.

Rule #3: mail.

Terry said...

GhostFolk, Thoughtful comments. I know of an agent, who doesn't even ask for a query. Also, I read an interview with another, who asks for one, along with the first so-many pages. But she admitted she goes straight to the work, because that's the most important. If she doesn't like that, apparently the query doesn't matter.

Agents seem to differ in their approach. I read as many agent interviews as I can, to get to know how they work as well as their likes and dislikes.

Gordon Jerome said...

Hey Ghost Folk,

I think you're right. In fact, it can't be the case that query-letter specifics even matter. I mean, I'm not an agent, but if a good idea (something I could sell) came in on a napkin, I would want to know about it. Wouldn't you?

I think the idea is just to keep wannabes strung along so they provide an audience whereby the agent can be scene as mentor and teacher in their respective blogs or in the books they write--and why? So that those who have the great ideas will send their napkins to them instead of some other agent. I could be wrong, but that's sure how I'd play it if I were an agent.

By the way, I had a terrific idea for a literary horror story while writing this. I almost posted it as an example of what I'd read if it were on a napkin, but then I thought, "No, that might make a really good novel. I think I'll just tuck that one away for now."

So, thanks for posting a post that inspired me in that way. I have a feeling if the idea hasn't been done before, that it will be my third novel. I'm currently working on my second.

Thanks Ghost Folk

Malia Sutton said...

I had my Poutine last night and loved it.

Ink said...

Malia,

Congrats! You can be an honorary Canuck now. And tonight you can have some Canadian bacon with maple syrup on it... Mmmmmm.

Giles said...

Nathan,

If I'm working on the sequel to the book I'm querying about, is that a good thing to mention in my letter, or a bad thing?

Carolyn V. said...

Boring suit, get it right. Sweet. Thanks for the info.

ryan field said...

It took me years to get what you wrote in one simple post. I wish I'd read this in college.

Nathan Bransford said...

ghostfolk-

I addressed this in a post a while back.

I partially agree that it's important for an agent to look past the query, but it's asking a whole lot to think that an agent is going to see good writing in a poorly written letter.

It's not a matter of just writing a good book and sending it off into the ether with a scribbled off query and watching it succeed. Getting an agent and a book deal is way more complicated than that and there's a lot more luck and chance involved. It's an odds game - you have to connect with the right people along the way.

Sure - the most important thing is writing a great book, you won't see any disagreement from me. But you're hurting your odds of having that spark happen if you try and leave the query part to fate.

I know different agents have different systems, but everyone makes a decision on a short excerpt, whether that's the query or the first page of the manuscript. If it's sloppy you're hurting the chance that an agent is going to see what's good about it.

SZ said...

Good morning,

Good post and information to know indeed.

I was hoping for a response from Nathan, or anyone in the know, regarding the post from anon. 11/10 1:47 please.

in part:

Tangential question, sorry. If you have used something in your mauscript for which you might need permission or their might be a legal issue, at what stage is this addressed? Song lyrics for one. ... Does an agent worry about this kind of thing and would the potential hassle be enough to make him reject?

November 10, 2009 1:47 PM

ninidee.wordpress.com said...

Very valuable information. There is one thing I wonder about regarding queries. What if everything is right but you are a newbie and don't have anything other than a few magazine's under your belt? Will this be reason enough for an agent to reject you because they fear taking a chance on someone unkonwn?
Maribeth:)

Ink said...

ninidee,

All the agents really care about in terms of experience is a great book. Every great writer starts somewhere, and many great books were written by people with no publishing history. Newbies get deals all the time. Well, as much as "all the time" can apply to the publishing industry. :)

GhostFolk.com said...

Oh lordy, yes. I didn't mean to disagree with ANY of this:

I know different agents have different systems, but everyone makes a decision on a short excerpt, whether that's the query or the first page of the manuscript. If it's sloppy you're hurting the chance that an agent is going to see what's good about it.

All quite true (and helpful).

And I certainly take note of your own REASONABLE approach to what a query letter should contain.

I was just fretting that this online RABID emphasis on the perfect query letter was missing the point of an author's charge (if seeking commercial publication) to write a saleable book to begin with.

And, conversely, it seems that agents who participate in training not-ready-for-prime-time writers to compose a perfect query letter are, in fact, going to be reading a lot of short-of-the-mark material that follows an otherwise dynamic query.

As someone else noted (again, thank you, someone else!), most truly crummy queries are such because they describe a crummy book and/or demonstrate the author has not yet mastered the sentence.

Here's what I have found helpful about spending a few weeks in my spare time studying the species Query letter (aside from recommending the book THE PERFECT PITCH.):

The solid query letter can be used as a general guide to composing a good novel. Yes, it can. Cross my heart.

So can a tagline. In short, it makes sense to me to write the query letter first then design the book to uphold everything the query promises... without straying.

P.S. I also know you cheerfully allow dissent on your blog so I thought I would fiddle with a little harmless counterpoint. It's just one of those days when I wish I actually knew something about anything.

Liz de Jager said...

Absolutely fantastic post - terrifically real and upbeat at the same time.

...and breathe...

Nathan Bransford said...

ghostfolk-

I think all of your points are really good, and I think your first comment is a great reminder of how important it is to first write a book that an agent can sell. And I also would argue that how you think agents should read queries (looking past the query at the underlying work) is how we try to go about it. So looks like agreement all around.

margaretdilloway.com said...

I met an agent at a conference who listened indifferently to my pitch, but laughed with glee at my first page. She said what it came down to was the writing, and only the writing, because some authors are terribly shy.

So, what about just sending the first page, no matter what?

Missing Person said...

A great title always gets me.

hollywoodclown said...

Thanks for the links to Holly and Michael's post. Now that I've read them, as well as yours, it's like a trifecta of warm fuzzies that prove agents are NOT the monsters writers tend to think they are.

By the way, you don't have to be dressed like a clown to get a job as a clown. You just have to seem "insane" on the inside.
I once interviewed to be a clown for kids birthday parties here in Los Angeles. I was not dressed as a clown but did get the job. And guess what? Yup, that's right I wrote a book about it.

Thanks again Nathan,
Hollywood Clown

Cher'ley said...

I am so scared and so nervous. I'm doing a pitch this weekend and I so much do NOT want to fall on my face. I feel I have to worry over the little things, I want you to want my novel and I don't want to do one tiny little thing that puts me behind another MS.

Thanks, I have been really concentrating on "Get the story out". Let the agent see the story. Don't sound boring or not excited enough. LOL.

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