Getting ready to pitch? Read me first! REVISITED

Writers Conferences–HA! Remember those? Workshops, panels, sitting across from editors and agents, breathing the same air… Oh, the good old days! I’m sure somewhere down the road we’ll be in the same room together again, scarfing cheese and grapes from the appy trays and crowding around the bar. But until then, here’s some sage advice from a couple years back, whether you’re pitching in person or online. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a Zoom pitch in our future… Have I mentioned I’ve been having nightmare about Zoom? Anyhow…

So you’re getting ready to pitch your book at your first writers conference because you think you’ve finished the ms. But have you? Here’s something few new writers realize: you haven’t. Then how do you know when you have finished? When you send back the publisher’s galleys. Galleys? What are galleys?

Oh boy, do you have some work to do.

So between now and then you need to go over your manuscript with a magnifying glass, looking for plot holes, continuity slips, characters inconsistencies, etc. This is also a good time to use a beta reader, a critique partner (highly recommended), or someone you trust to give it an honest, critical read, and not someone who’ll just say “It was great!” because they don’t want to damage your fledgling writer ego. (Look, I may as well hit you with it now–the World of Writing is a World of Hurt. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can dab your cryin’ eyes and get back to work.) But here’s a caveat to all that critiquing–DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY! If your betas are worth it they’re not criticizing you, they’re critiquing the work. And it’s better hearing it from them first than having it rejected by an editor or agent because of some very fixable flaw. So do the work now and get it over with because you’re going to do it eventually anyway. Your work will need to be as perfect as possible, and that’s  the whole work, right to THE END.

One thing that is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE is that you MUST have a FINISHED MANUSCRIPT before you start pitching it. Why? Let me tell you something about agents and editors: they are being bombarded by submissions. My agent alone gets up to 200 queries a week. If you get a submission request and you don’t send your manuscript within a month, trust me, she’ll forget all about you. Strike while the iron is  steaming and before you move out of her memory. But again, only after you’ve polished that manuscript until it’s pink and screaming.

The Basics—Genre and Word Count.

You know what your manuscript is about, but how would you categorize it? And what is your word count?  A typical fiction novel is 75,000 to 100,000 words, though most check in around 80-85k. Round this number to the nearest thousand. The editor doesn’t have to know it’s 82,437 words. You also need to know your genre. This is key as this is how you’ll not only narrow your search for an agent, but once you’ve found one, it’s how she’ll target it to editors. Common Fiction genres are:

literary                 commercial          mystery                romance    

women’s fiction   humor/satire        historical              new adult

young adult          middle grade       children’s             picture book

espionage             thriller/suspense    LBGTQ          military

horror           fantasy        sci-fi                graphic novel

paranormal           erotica

Or any combination of. Some of the popular genres, such as mystery and romance, also have sub-genres, ie, “cozy” mysteries, like Agatha Christie, or historical romance, or spec-sci-fi.

Common Non-Fiction genres are:

history                 sports                   biography            science

memoirs               narrative              pop culture          cultural/social sci

travel                   political                humor                  gift books

health/fitness       gardening            photography       self-help

true crime            art                        adventure            business

how-to                 journalism           religion                cookbooks

celebrity               current affairs

You need to be very familiar with your genre and word count, as you’ll need it for your presentation or query. It’ll be one of the first things the editor or agent will want to know. Know that many, if not all non-fiction genres take submission on a proposal, which can be the first three chapters and an outline. But as a fiction writer, they’re out of my purview, so do your research for current submission requirements.

Finding your Perfect Editor/Agent

The majority of publishers no longer accept unagented submissions. Though some do, such as genre pubs, but if you target one of the major houses without an agent, really the only way you’re going to get to them is through pitch sessions at writers conferences or the direct recommendation of one of their clients. Unless you’re lucky enough to know the latter, you’re going to have to do some legwork for the former.  Because there’s nothing worse than meeting with an editor or agent face-to-face and having them say, “Sorry, I don’t represent that genre.” From which the luminescent glow of your  crimson face will no doubt show the world what a minor league player you are. So do your homework.

  • Read other authors in the genre of what you write, and target those editors or agents. Look in the acknowledgement page and see who the author thanks. Look through the books you’ve already bought, go haunt your local bookstore, or flip the preview pages on Amazon. Then when you’re querying the agent, or sitting down for a face-to-face, you can say your book is a cross between “this writer and that writer with a touch of another writer thrown in.”
  • Literary Marketplace (LMP). If you don’t know what it is, time to find out. Available in hard copy and database at most local libraries.
  • Manuscript Wish List , the websiteMSWL or the hashtag, #MSWL. Find editors and agents, and see what they’re looking for.
  • Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity. Love love love this blog. Too much publishing info to put down on this entry, so go there and see for yourself.
  • Go directly to the agent’s website, and see what authors they represent, and what books they’ve sold. This is even more important for an editor. Go directly to the publisher’s website. An editor or agent may say they LIKE something but if they’ve never SOLD it, they may not be a good fit. A SALE is always a more reliable indicator.

Targeting your Editor or Agent

Now that you know your genre, and how to research an agent, or an editor, you need to target which one will fit your style. Compare the list of visiting editors and agents to what you write and see if there’s a fit. If an editor only publishes literary fiction and you write sci-fi, chances are, no matter how well you write, they will not accept your submission. Same goes with agents. If an agent’s specialty is romance, and you write essays, you’re going to strike out. Too many times writers will submit to agents that don’t represent their type of writing, and then can’t understand why they get rejected. I can’t stress this enough: It’s better NOT to submit than to submit to the wrong editor and/or agent. Don’t think they’re just going to fall in love with your western and grab it anyway, when all they’ve previously sold is cookbooks. That happens VERY rarely in the real world. Save yourself a lot of needless rejection angst and just do your homework.

Now hop to it!

Spiff that ‘script! Revisited

Okay, last week we revisited an earlier post about the Dread Query, and this week we’re recycling another golden oldie about what happens after that query obtains its objective–which means you have to actually send it in! For that you have to make it the best it’s ever been. Here’s how…

Remember when you were in college (or even high school for that matter) and you took a class called CompositionWe all had to follow some kind of standard formatting for our essays, whether it be standards set by the MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association).  It’s no different in the world of publishing. There’s a “somewhat”  standardized type of formatting writers follow when submitting work to be published. I say somewhat because all manuscripts, at least in their final form, are subject to a house style which is tailored to a publishing house’s  individual preferences. But you can’t know that unless you’ve been sold, so to up those chances, you’ll want to make your manuscript as clean and professionally-presented as possible. You may not think formatting has a place in this, as your story, your ideas, your own unique voice will supersede anything as inconsequential as paragraphing or indents or the proper use of voice tags. But first you have to get that editor or agent to read your work. And if you’re making it too difficult for them to decipher what you’re trying to say, you may never get them to read past the first few lines.

So make it easy for them, beginning with a few basics that are a part of ANY manuscript submission—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or otherwise.

  • Make sure your manuscript is the best it can be. Close all plot holes, make sure it has a catchy beginning and a satisfying ending, that your characters are compelling and human. That’s for another workshop, but you do want to make sure you’re happy with your manuscript before you send it off.
  • PROOFREAD! Correct ALL spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This goes without saying.
  • Be familiar with where you’re submitting. Check the publisher’s/magazine’s/journal’s submission guidelines for style and formatting. If you’re sending to a particular editor, check to see if they have an individual preference. I worked with a publisher once who did NOT like semicolons. I had to eliminate all from my manuscript. Most times you won’t know this in advance, but if the info’s out there, it’s up to you to find it. Plus it gives you an advantage, the more your know.
  • Check to see if the publisher/magazine/journal is accepting electronic or paper submissions. They may have different formatting guidelines for each. Most now use electronic submission, but there are still several out there that only take paper, and there are differences.

Okay, so you have your manuscript all spiffed up, and you’re now going to prepare it for submission. What would a properly formatted manuscript look like? I want to caution you that agents and editors as well as publishers, etc. may have different formatting guidelines, but most of what I am showing you is the general consensus of what an ms. should look like, and this is what has worked for me when I submitted.

The publishing industry standard is MS Word, 12 point font (usually Times New Roman). The entire body of the manuscript should be double-spaced.

TITLE PAGE

  • TOP LEFT –  Your name and all contact info, including address, phone number and email in single space.
  • CENTER, MIDDLE OF PAGE – Title of work in bold and all caps
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Genre of work with approx. word count
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
  • BOTTOM RIGHT – the word “Contact:” followed by agent’s name and all contact info in single space (skip if no agent)

FIRST PAGE OF MANUSCRIPT

  • TOP LEFT IN HEADER COMMAND – LAST NAME/Title of Work (written like that.) If the title is long, just use the first few words. You need to insert Header in “Header” so this info appears on each page.
  • TOP RIGHT – Start page numbering, starting with pg. 2, using “Insert Page Number” command so pages automatically advance. Leave the title page blank by using the command in Word.
  • CENTER, SKIP FOUR OR FIVE LINES  – TITLE OF WORK – in bold and in all caps,
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – the word “by” (in small letters)
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Your Name
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Again, Genre and word count
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Chapter One
  • CENTER, SKIP A LINE – Title of Chapter (in italics, if you’re using one) The chapter number and title of chapter are open to style.

BODY OF MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING

  • Indent each new paragraph. For ease of use, I use on tab
  • Indent one tab for each new speaker or when speaker changes
  • Italics for internal dialogue
  • Capitalize the first letter of each word for Names
  • Capitalize the first letter of towns, cites, states, countries, streets, etc., proper nouns and copyrighted names and terms
  • Capitalize the letter I when you’re using first person (you’d be amazed how many times I see it isn’t)
  • Encase dialogue “In quotes”
  • Follow this formatting for voice tags: “I’m not going,” she said.  “You’re not going?” he asked. (Comma after last word, followed by the end quotation mark, followed by the voice tag (she said, he asked) followed by a period, or additional info. The voice tag is part of the sentence.  Do NOT add an extra space after the quotation mark, or Word will automatically capitalize the following word.
  • Use * * * * * for scene changes within chapters, or # for change of POV or impact within chapters.
  • End a chapter by INSERT PAGE BREAK command so the next chapter will start on a new page,

So that’s what’s worked for me. A clean manuscript will keep them reading, but a sloppy one is just one keystroke away from the delete button. Keep them as far away from it as possible.

Writing the Dread Query Revisited

hammondIt’s never been a better time to spiff up that old ms. and send it out into the world. Here’s a repeat of an old post to help you do it!

If you fancy yourself a novelist ( as I, on occasion, have been wont to do), and you’d like to see yourself represented, sooner or later you’re going to have to attempt that necessary evil, the Dread Agent Query Letter. Truly, I know people who’d rather stick pencils in their eyes than apply that pencil to the task, but sweeties, it doesn’t have to be that painful if you know the assembly method. So here, in four easy paragraphs, I’ll try to show you how to compose the Perfect Agent Query. Now pay attention…

First, some preliminaries… First and foremost, a query is a business letter. Since most (if not all) agents accept queries only through email, and since that email entails one finger firmly adhered to the delete button, you want your query to be as concise and professional as possible, contained in the body of the email and NOT by attachment. Since attachments can carry viruses, agents are loath to open them unless they know you, so send attachments by invitation only. Most definitely use honorifics (Mr., Ms. etc.) in your Salutation as you should never assume familiarity. If you had previously met with the agent at a conference, workshop, cocktail party, etc, and were invited to query, most definitely write REQUESTED in the subject line as well as the first line of the email. These will get opened first. As a best practice, check the agent’s website or blog for query/submission guidelines. If you don’t have a particular agent in mind, try Jeff Herman’s guide, the library for The Literary Marketplace, or www.agentquery.com, just to name a few resources. Another one is troll the library or bookstore stack of the books of your genre, and see who the author thanks in her acknowledgements. Now, on to the actual construction…

Para One – Howdy! With Benefits – This is your query knock-on-the-door, your literary calling card designed to get the agent’s attention. Introduce yourself, remind her if you’ve previously met and where (we chatted during lunch at the XXXX Writers’ Conference), if you’ve been invited to query/submit, the name of your novel, the genre and word count. You might what to toss in a quick teaser like, A cross between Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen, My Bloody Margarita is a 80,000 word…, to illustrate what your writing is like. But on the whole, keep this para to a five-six line minimum, with just the facts, ma’am, inviting her to the next para to learn more.

Para Two – In which we employ The Hard Sell – this is where you get ONE paragraph to car-crush your entire 80,000 word novel into one easily digestible capsule.  Twelve to fifteen lines in all, introduce your main characters, basic plot line, conflict, lessons learned, the conclusion. Remember, although you want the agent to be intrigued, you don’t want to raise her ire. So if you say …but if you want to know how the story turns out, you’ll just have to request the rest of it… you’re just asking for a delete.  Be creative, not cagey.

Para Three – It’s all about YOU! – This is where you get your close-up, Mr. DeMille; it’s all about you, you, you. Cite your published works, awards, training, blogs, websites, education (if pertinent), professional associations, jobs or skills that give you credibility for/authority on what you’re writing about. Again, because this is a business letter, remain professional. Don’t take this personally, but no one really cares if you like to raise bunnies and take long walks lakeside, unless, of course, you’re writing about The Killer Hare of Lake Superior. Again, no more than twelve to fifteen lines. A link to your blog or website is also advisable, as most industry people now assume you have a web or social media prescience, and if you don’t, you have to ask yourself why.

Para Four – Wrap it up – This is your shortest paragraph of all. I’ll even toss in examples free of charge: I can send a proposal or the complete novel at your request. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. OR  According to your submission guidelines, what follows is the first ten pages (or synopsis or first three chapters, or any combination thereof stated in their guidelines) of <Name Work> Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. THAT SHOULD BE IT. No more, no less, just a salute as you head out the door.

All finished? PROOFREAD AND SPELL-CHECK, then add your email address and your phone number. All in all, a succinct query should never contain more than 400-450 words, and NEVER more than one page. And never query unless you have a completed, fully-polished, proofread and spell-checked novel ready to go. I know of agents who get 200 queries a week, and some substantially more. That’s a heck of a queue, and if you’re not ready to submit at a moment’s notice, rest assured there are hundreds of others who are.

One more thing — good luck!

 

Camp NaNoWriMo Is Here!

Looking for something to do with all that me time? Check this out from the great folks at NaNoWriMo!

It’s hard to believe that April is almost here (or, for some of you in early time zones, it may already be here)! Wherever you’re at right now—whether you’re looking for a distraction to keep you occupied, a community to get through this with, or a project to dive into—Camp NaNoWriMo‘s got you covered.

If you’re looking forward to spending some time with your creativity this month, create a project to work on during Camp! Don’t worry, you can set a goal that feels good to you—and you can change it later, as many times as you need. Camp NaNoWriMo is here to help you lean into the joy of writing.

This week at Camp NaNoWriMo:

💬 Join our #CampNaNoAdvice tweet chat on Friday, April 3, 1 PM PST (Your Time Zone)! Ask our Camp Counselors and published authors An Na, Dallas Woodburn, Devi S. Laskar, and Jennifer Ziegler your questions.

🎬 Join our next Virtual Write-In on Wednesday, April 1, 1 PM PST (Your Time Zonefor real-time writing prompts and sprints with the NaNo community from around the world.

👋 Become part of a writing group! You can now join or create a 20-person writing group to post messages and chat with your fellow writers. (Looking for cabin mates? Find them on our forums!)

📸 Follow NaNoWriMo on Instagram to join our Instagram Live check-ins and Happy Hours!

📚 Read the winning entries from our YWP contest! Last month, we asked our Young Writers Program participants to submit excerpts from their novels. Read the winning entries on our blog!

Thank you, Camp NaNoWriMo sponsors!

We’d like to thank our corporate sponsors for this year’s Camp NaNoWriMo programs. These amazingly generous companies help support us so we can keep bringing you creative community and resources all year long.

They also have some great offers exclusively for Camp participants, so check them out!