When to submit your manuscript

Revision update: On chapter 21 of 30. I had a productive weekend, and I hope to continue and be done in a few days.

This will definitely be my last revision before I submit, but the question of when to submit a manuscript, when to know it’s done, always leaves me a bit nervous. I submitted my first novel too early, then did a bit of a rewrite and submitted to new agents. Ultimately, although the book got lots of great feedback, it wasn’t as good as it should have been and it didn’t land an agent. I don’t want to make that mistake this time around, but how can I be sure when it’s ready?

There is advice on this out in the writing blogosphere, such as agent Mary Kole‘s post, agent Jessica Faust‘s post, and one from Omnific Publishing. They all talk about revising and revising, getting other writers that you trust to read it and give you notes, leave your manuscript for a month or so and look at it again. But after you’ve done all that, how do you know if it’s as perfect as it can be?

I like agent Kate Schafer Testerman‘s advice best: If you’re down to just tweaking, i.e. fixing word choices, etc., and the main story and characters are as good as they can be, then you’re ready to submit.

I’m at that point. I’ve fixed my story holes in previous revisions, fixed plot problems, made the characters stronger. I’ve also had the manuscript read by several beta readers and gone through the book with their notes. Now, I’m tweaking. I’m fixing word choices, making sentences stronger and paragraphs clearer. So, when I’m done with this round, I’ll start submitting.

Of course, there’s always that nervous thought that maybe I’m too close to the story to see other faults or that maybe my best won’t be good enough for the publishing world. For the first, I’m trusting my beta readers. For the second, well, those thoughts will always be there, so, my advice to myself: Trust yourself. Trust the work you’ve put into this book, your heart, your time, your passion. Trust that you have done your best, because that’s the most important thing.

And ultimately, if I don’t get the attention of someone in publishing, I can always try again with another book.

What do you think? How do you know when you’re done with a manuscript?

Write On!


Agent Sara Crowe on finding the right agent

Revision update: Got three chapters done today. On chapter 26 of 30. My goal was to finish by tomorrow and I don’t think that will happen. Sigh. But I’ll finish it next week.

Harvey Klinger Agency agent Sara Crowe

Sara Crowe

This is my fifth and final post from the awesome Houston SCBWI conference. If you missed my earlier reports, Simon & Schuster editor Alexandra Cooper talks about submitting to an editor, including herself; Scholastic editor and author Lisa Ann Sandell talks about making your query letter package stand out; Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas talks about what makes a great book; and National Geographic Children’s Books editor-in-chief Nancy Feresten talks about the future of publishing.

Today I’m featuring lovely agent Sara Crowe, who’s with the Harvey Klinger Agency. Sara gave  a presentation called “Hitching Your Star to the Right Agent,” and said, “I do believe that there is a right agent for you, just like there is a right editor and a right house.”

She said that although rejections are difficult to take, writing is subjective, especially fiction. “Not everyone is going to love everything,” she said. (Good thing to keep in mind when you get a “this isn’t for us” letter.)

The matchmaking begins with the query letter, and Sara advised to be courteous, professional but persistant. (More good advice.) And she said to make sure the description of the book shows everything that is original and true about it. (Great advice!)

She also passed on some great advice she had picked up in her favorite writing book, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Before you write a query letter, focus on being a great writer. (I’ve read this book and can attest to how wonderful it is.)

On the subject of searching for the right agent, Sara said research them online and find out as much as you can about them. You should want to work with them before you query, she said. And when you’re researching, consider these things:

  • What books the agent has sold;
  • What kind of agency it is and whether you want to be with a big agency or small agency; and
  • The agent’s experience and reputation with other writers.

After you’ve been offered representation:

  • make sure the agent is passionate about your book; and
  • have an open conversation about expectations, communication style, etc.

“There are so few instant successes that you need someone who really loves your book so they stick with you,” Sara said.

As for whether agents should edit, Sara said she loves going back and forth with writers to make the book perfect before it’s sent out and said she won’t send out anything that isn’t polished. She said that especially today, editors can’t take on a book that’s not completely polished because of the amount of work they have to do. That said, she explained that she generally looks at big picture changes, like plot and character, and leaves smaller changes to the editor.

“Revision’s a constant in this business, so embrace it. It never goes away,” she said.

An agent will also be the author’s negotiator for the best deal and general advocate for the whole process. Because of that, you must make sure your agent is someone you can trust.

For her own list, Sara said she represents mainly young adult but she likes middle grade too. She does fewer picture books, but she likes high-concept picture books.

Great advice. And it mirrored what agents Nathan Bransford and Andrea Cascardi said at the Austin SCBWI conference.

What do you think of what Sara said? Got any other tips?

Write On!

Editor Lisa Ann Sandell on query letters

Revision update: On chapter 16 of 30. Still on track for end of February finish.

Lisa Ann Sandell's headshot

Lisa Ann Sandell

In my second report from the Houston SCBWI conference, Scholastic editor Lisa Ann Sandell talks about making your query letter package stand out. Lisa is also a writer, with four books published.

If you missed my first report from the conference, Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas talked about what makes a great book.

10-year Scholastic editor Lisa said she mainly works on middle-grade and young adult fiction, rarely non-fiction and even more rarely picture books. Among the books she has edited are the Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo, The Fire Eternal by Chris d’Lacey, Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah and the upcoming Shadow from Houston-area author Jenny Moss.

Lisa said that YA paranormal and fantasy have a bit of a glut, and she’s hearing that mysteries might be about to make a comeback.

She prefers character-driven books to plot-driven, and looks for strong character and voice.

“It’s about the words and how they come together on the page,” she said.

She said that when a writer is looking to submit to editors, they should find an individual editor who has the right sensibilities for the manuscript, rather than submitting to a general imprint. But, she also urged writers to get an agent, as the agent will be on the writer’s side.

She also admitted that manuscripts that she receives from an agent go to the top of the pile.

A query letter, she said, is like meeting someone at a cocktail party and having 30 seconds to make them excited about your book.

She suggested writers construct a description of their book that can fit on one side of an index card. Then, condense it further so it will fit on a Post It.

It should be a concise summary of the plot, with characters, conflict and theme.

The writing style also should come through.

Include a brief intro that says who you are as is relevant to the book, keep it short and hit the right tone — respectful and professional, but not too casual.

What not to do:

  • no marketing info. The book is the priority.
  • no adjectives.
  • no comparisons.

Check back tomorrow for notes from Simon & Schuster‘s Alexander Cooper on submitting to editors.

Querying links and more

Revision update: Working on a change to chapter 2 after my 10-page critique at the Houston SCBWI conference, then back to chapter 12. Still on track to be finished by the end of the month.

I’m holding off my coverage of the Houston SCBWI conference til tomorrow because I was doing some blog surfing yesterday and found some great posts that I wanted to share.

First, a couple of posts that again show the importance of writing a really great query letter. Agent Janet Reid details the reasons why she rejected 50 queries in an hour — such as cliches, stale or not compelling premises and queries that don’t explain what the book is about — then defends her rejections and explains why she wants to see better queries.

Agent Jennifer Jackson posted her latest Letters From the Query Wars update, reporting zero requests on 134 queries. She also details some reasons for the rejections.

And agent Jessica Faust reports the number of queries and requested manuscripts that are on her desk — showing why patience is important in this industry.

Talking about cliches, Frenetic Reader writes about some cliches she never wants to see again in a book and some cliches she’s not yet tired of.

Lisa Schroeder wrote an awesome checklist for what to do before your book launch, showing how much work is necessary to get the word out.

Anita Nolan posted author Neil Gaiman‘s top 8 writing tips and a link to more, and Jill Corcoran included links to each of the individual authors featured. Looks like there’s lots of good stuff here.

Casey McCormick at Literary Rambles wrote about tightening up your writing, part 1 and part 2.

And finally, Beverley BevenFlorez compiled another list of great blog posts, including a very interesting podcast of pacing by author James Dashner.

Got any good posts you’d like to share?

Write On!

Nathan Bransford on finding the agent who's right for you

Day four in my reports from the Austin SCBWI conference, and today I’m featuring Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford. But first a recap of days one through three in case you missed them: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book.

And now onto Nathan Bransford. You’ve probably already heard of Nathan, one of the best known literary agents around because of his much read blog. If you haven’t read it, go there — after you’ve read this, of course — and bookmark it, add it to your Google Reader or whatever.

Now, before you read Nathan’s blog and whip off an email to him with all the details of your book, note that he said he likes the title he gave his presentation — Finding the agent who’s right for you — because it suggests there should be an element of deliberation and patience in an agent search.

He said that while writers are writing their book, they should take some time for what he called “productive procrastination,” during which they find out everything they can about different agents.

When looking for agents, he offered up some red flags that should make writers run in the other direction:

  • an agent who charges for representing you.
  • an agent who offers you representation just off a query without looking at your full work or talking to you.

He also said not to dismiss young agents, because they’re motivated and might take on projects that need polishing when busier agents might not.

To find agents, he suggested the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) website and AgentQuery.com.

For the query, Nathan said he knows they’re hard to write. He wrote one when he was looking for an agent for his own book (yep, he wrote a middle-grade space adventure and it has sold to Dial Books for Young Readers). Even though he’s an agent, Nathan wanted someone else to handle his own work, and he ended up signing with an agent he didn’t know before, so the query letter helped.

His query tips were:

  • The most important thing is conveying the story arc.
  • Personalize the query. It’s not about sucking up, he said; it’s about showing the agent you’ve chosen them. And he said he thinks that someone who takes the time to personalize the query is someone who’ll work on their own book.
  • The query should be one page, around 250 words.
  • Use proper formating, which you can find on his blog and many other places online.

Signing with the right agent “is the most important decision you’re going to make as a writer,” he said, advising writers to take the time to get to know agents before they sign with one.

After an agent offers representation, talk to them about their agenting style, what expenses they’ll charge (no fee, just incidentals such as copying, etc., and only after they’ve made money for you), how often they get in touch with their clients, how they see your career going, how long their response time is, and anything else you’d like to know.

Once you’ve signed with an agent, trust them because your interests are aligned, he said. But, don’t feel as though you always have to agree.

On the issue of agents editing work before it’s sent out to editors, Nathan pointed out that it’s so hard to get a book through the editorial process nowadays that it has to be really ready before it goes out. Nathan said he was an editorial agent (one who edits their clients’ work before it goes out to editors) before he started to write his own books. But, he said, he never tries to impose his own vision on a project; it’s all about making the author’s work the best that it can be.

As for whether writers should bypass agents altogether and send their work directly to editors, he cautioned against it because of the state of the industry. Most editors won’t accept work from unagented writers. He said, however, that very specialized books or book proposals can go straight to editors. When in doubt, he said, start with agents.

Tomorrow, writing and revising with author/former editor Lisa Graff.

Write On!

More on query letters

Manuscript update: Still perfecting my query letter and synopsis. I’m attending the Austin SCBWI conference on Saturday — so excited — and hope to have a fantastic, shiny, brilliant query letter and synopsis ready to start sending out to the conference speakers soon after.

Yesterday, I wrote about why it’s important to write the perfect query letter and synopsis, and then I read a really great article on the subject and wanted to share.

One thought before I do: Your query letter and synopsis are supporting players to your manuscript. Ultimately, it’s your manuscript that will get an agent to sign you as a client, so working hard and as long as it takes to make your manuscript perfect is essential. But once that’s done, don’t short-change this next part. Even though the query letter and synopsis are supporting players, they are the first ones on stage, and if they don’t shine with brilliance, your audience won’t stay for the full show. So, take the time, do the work, no matter how frustrating it can be. If necessary, shelve your query letter and synopsis for a few weeks, just as you would your manuscript, to make sure it’s the best it can be before you send it out.

When I was submitting my first novel to agents, I worked hard on my query letter and synopsis, and my first query letter got a good many requests for the full manuscript — the goal — but it also got many no thank yous. Later in the process, I revised the query letter, and my ratio of requests to no thank yous rose enormously on the side of requests. (Ultimately, my first manuscript got back very positive comments about my writing, the story, characters, etc., but the agents I submitted to said they felt it wasn’t right for them right now. As I had finished my second novel and started revising it, I decided to stop submitting my first book and start again with my second, which is what I’m doing now.)

Ok, now for the sharing part. Writer’s Digest just posted a really great article about query letters by literary agent Ann Rittenberg, Basics of a Solid 3-Paragraph Query Letter. Ann gives an example of a query letter that worked for her and dissects the parts of a query letter and how they should be used.

But what I like best about Ann’s article is the statistics she gives at the beginning. They might be daunting, scary even, but they’re the reality, and the way to look at them is as a challenge. Let’s face it, with these statistics, the odds are against anyone getting a request from a query letter, but people do get requests (see above) and books from debut authors are published every year. There’s nothing to say that it can’t be your book or mine, as long as we put in the work that’s necessary.

Read Ann’s article but don’t feel discouraged. Feel energized, charged up that you are now closer to getting that request, closer to being a debut author, because you have something other writers must not: You have the keys that Ann is giving you about how to write a query that will get a Yes.

Coming next, more on writing a brilliant synopsis.

P.S. You’ve got til the end of this week to enter the contest to win a PDF copy of Laura Cross‘ book Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to Become Successfully Published. Go to my post about ghostwriting and leave a question about this great writing option for Laura. I’ll send all the questions to Laura on Feb. 1 and she’ll fill us in on the details of this lucrative field in an interview on Day By Day Writer on Feb. 12. The person who submits Laura’s favorite question will get a PDF copy of her book. And make sure you come back on Feb. 12 to read Laura’s answers to your questions.

Write On!

Writing a great query letter and synopsis

Manuscript update: I miss it! I miss working on my story. But I got another book idea yesterday, so that’s exciting. I’m trying to refrain from running off into another book just yet, though, as I’ve still got the query letter and synopsis for my current book to perfect.

Please note in the sentence above that I didn’t say I had to “write” or “finish” or “compose” the synopsis and query letter; I said I had to “perfect” it.

The query letter is the first impression an agent and/or editor is going to have of you and your writing. It’s the key to the first gate — for want of a better word — to get through, and it better be perfect because it has to shine through a lot of others. As an example, in the week of Jan. 22, agent Jennifer Jackson read 108 queries and from those, requested 1. That’s right, you read it correctly, there’s no typo. Jennifer requested only 1 manuscript out of 108 query letters. To be that 1 that gets a request, your query letter has to be perfect.

As for the synopsis, not every agent requests one, but for those that do, it can represent the key to the second gate. The synopsis tells the agent that you can write a coherent story that flows and has all the necessary elements to make your book a bestseller. It must show that flow, the plot twists, but also, it must give the agent a taste of the characters and emotion of the story. It should be exciting enough for the agent to want to read the full manuscript — even though he/she already knows the ending.

So, that’s my task right now, to perfect my query letter and synopsis. It’s not as much fun as writing my book or even as revising my book, but it’s necessary and can make the difference between a yes and a no.

What are you working on?

Write On!

Slush Pile: Then and now

Revision update: Another two chapters revised in the last two days, but I’m starting to doubt that I’ll finish by the end of the week. Maybe end of next week?

For unpublished writers, facing the slush pile can seem daunting. We hear all these horror stories about manuscripts getting buried in six-foot piles of paper, never to be heard from again. We send off query letters filled with hopes and dreams and fear they’ll get lost in a sea of other queries.

The slush pile has changed a lot in the last few years. It used to be stacks and stacks of manuscripts in an editor’s office, but that has — mostly — gone now. In its article Death of the Slush Pile, the Wall Street Journal offers up some of the well-known authors who were discovered through the slush pile when it was in its heyday, such as Anne Frank. If it wasn’t for the slush pile, we wouldn’t have her classic literary work, which is a staple of English class curriculums.

But what WSJ’s Katherine Rosman doesn’t point out is that it’s not so much that the slush pile has died, it has just changed. Today, most publishing houses won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts except from agents. So the slush pile has moved from the editor’s desk to the agent’s desk, and for most agents, it has moved from paper to electronic. This newest technological change benefits both agents and writers. When I sent out my first query letter for my first novel, within minutes I had a request for the full manuscript. Not every agent was so quick, but on average, I’d say the turnaround time was around a week between query and response. (It was longer after a full was requested, but that’s a lot more reading on the part of the agent.) A week is a lot different from the three-to-six-month turnaround time — at least — when writers and agents/editors were dealing with paper copies.

Rosman does point out one agent slush pile success: Stephenie Meyer. But agents will tell you there are many others.

Here’s the latest example: Earlier this month, agent Janet Reid wrote about the launch of her client Patrick Lee‘s book and how that book came to her as a query in her slush pile back in August 2007.

And on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, agent Ted Malawer told how he found his client Sydney Salter through her stellar query letter in his agency’s slush pile.

These are just two examples, but it shows that, with a brilliant query letter and an equally brilliant manuscript, slush can in fact work.

Hang in there.

Write On!

Learning the query

Revision update: I’ve done entering all my corrections for the crucial first eight chapters. Next is the big test: Read it all and see if the edits I’ve made work. Fingers crossed.

If you read my post a few weeks about about Andrea Brown literary agent Mary Kole‘s query contest, you’ve probably been following her analysis of her winning letters. If not, check them out, starting with her honorable mentions here, and moving forward to the grand prize winner.

Writing a query is a very different skill from writing a novel, but good writing is still good writing, and learning about query writing is not only important when you’re writing those dreaded letters, it can help with your long-form work too.

In a query letter, you have one page to make a brilliant first impression as a writer, a person and for your story. You have to entice the reader with your story and impress with the freshness of your voice, all while you’re telling the main crux of your story in just a few sentences, showing your experience and why you’re submitting to this particular agent — and, again, all in one page.

Doing that, fitting it all in and making it interesting and exciting, is a lesson in editing that will help with your book.

When you’re writing a query letter, you have to make sure every word counts. You have to use just the right words to tell the story in the briefest most interesting way, with the right flow, action, etc., and all in your voice. Sound familiar?

When writing a novel, it’s easy to overlook some sentences, paragraphs, even chunks of text and think, ahh, they’re good enough. They’re halfway down page 124 in a 214-page book. Who’s going to notice?

But really, when we’re editing our novel, we should give every word just as much attention. The story should flow, be believable, be understandable, entertaining, etc., all showing your fresh, original voice. And this applies to every word, every sentence and paragraph on every page. Phew!

Mary Kole gave some really great analysis in the query letters she showcased in the contest results. Have a read. I learned a lot, and I’m sure you’ll take something away too.

How’s your writing going?

Write On!

Submitting to an agent and/or editor

First, good luck to all you NaNoWriMo participants starting your 50K novels today. I’m revising, so I’ll be participating in spirit, with some revision work done every day. But my best wishes go out to those of your who signed up. Good luck!

Now on to the regularly scheduled blog post:

Number three in my blog posts about the North Texas SCBWI conference I attended on Oct. 24. Today, I’ve got notes from Dutton Children’s Books editor Lisa Yoskowitz and Foundry Literary + Media agent Lisa Grubka, both of whom were really great.

Few pointers from Lisa Y on submitting to an editor:

  • Submit in accordance with publishing house’s guidelines
  • Address to Acquisitions Editor or Query Editor. But, IF (and only if) you’ve researched a particular editor’s body of work and you feel your book is right for them, it’s ok to address to them, and in your query, explain why
  • Economy of words – just like in your book, make sure every word counts in your query.

That last one was echoed by Lisa G, who stressed, “You only have one page [for the query]. Make it count.”

She also told attendees to submit in accordance to agents’ guidelines, and to personalize the query; research the agent and explain why you’re sending to that agent. She said that good writing will come across in a good query, and she encouraged writers to, like they do with their manuscripts, put their query letters away from a while after they’ve written them so they can revise and make them the best they can possibly be.

Even the best query can take time to get through the system, of course, and Lisa G said the busiest times of the year for agents are January through May and September through December. The summer, although still busy, is considered the slow time. So, consider this when sending your query. Don’t wait to send out your query if you’re ready and it’s in a busy time, just be patient and know that if you don’t hear back immediately, it’s just the workload.

Lisa Y said for editors, they’re busy year-round — especially in today’s economy, with fewer people doing more — but they generally have four slower weeks in each quarter, but they vary.

As for what these two lovely ladies look for in submissions, both lean toward more literary, character-driven YA, but Lisa Y said that, if the writing’s amazing, she’ll be attracted to anything. There it is writers: Be amazing!

Write On!