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Old 09-12-2016, 05:53 PM View Post #1 (Link) Submitting to Agents: a Look from the Inside
Majyk (Offline)
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I just spent the summer interning at a literary agency in NYC, and I thought Iíd tell you guys what it was like, because itís been amazingly helpful as a person who wants to be published one day. You can read as many query-writing guides as you want, but thereís something about being handed a stack of awful queries and having to read them that really pounds it into your head how important a good query letter is, for one thing.

(Not that you shouldnít google away about how to write a query letteródo it! And while youíre at it, this is my favorite site, because itís an actual agent talking about writing queries. There are a lot of posts; just go to the dropdown menu under ďAgent Kristinís Queries: An Inside ScoopĒ to find them: CLICK. Iíve gotten agents replying to me when I used the format in that guide.)

Anyway, queries.

Until I got this internship, I honestly thought it was exceptionally obvious that you should put your genre and word count in the letter, but apparently itís not, because quite a few that I read just plain forgotówhich then leads to a guessing game. Is this adult fiction? Is this YA? Is this low fantasy? And you donít want to make the person reading your query get distracted by anything, because thatís the other thing I didnít realize: just how little time someone spends on your submission.

The slush pile is real, and itís awful, and it quickly kills any eager readerís spirits.

Which means: youíve got to hook that reader right away, and do it quickly. None of these page and a half queries that summarize events that bog down the story. So many queries were unfocused (the plot is what now?), badly written (please no run-ons), and stuffed with unnecessary info (really, we donít need to know everything upfront, kíthanks). I kind of figured thereíd be quite a bit of badly-written queries, though. Thatís pretty much a given when youíre reading the slush pile. But what got me again was how boring some were!

If you canít figure out an exciting way to pitch your story, sorry, but youíre doing something wrong.

The decision about whether to reject or accept something is pretty fast, as expected. Just because a submission has ten pages of material along with it doesnít mean anything besides the query gets read. Just because a full manuscript was requested doesnít mean the full thing will be read either. Only one page of a partial needs to be read for it to be rejected. And the agent I worked for told me that even on requested fulls, I only had to read twenty pages.

When people say that your opening is important, they mean it. Iím sure weíve all heard a billion times about how youíve got to hook your reader ASAP etc. But itís unfortunately not so straightforward. There was this really cool book that I wound up rejecting after reading fifty pages, because while the first forty-five were good, it started to go downhill after that. A great opening hook canít always save a book.

My point is this: when you read about how important an engaging query is, when you read about how seriously freaking important that opening line/paragraph/page is, itís true! Itís SO true. Start with the actionóeven if your story isnít epic fantasy or sci-fi, find the most important scene thatís as close to the start of the plot as possible, and start there. I donít care if you think that backstory youíve come up with is the most important thing everóalmost guaranteed it shouldnít be in the first five pages.

Ultimately, if/when you guys submit to agents, think of someone whoís just read four hoursí worth of the worst stuff you can imagine, and then you'll have an idea of the mood your reader will be in when they get to your query. If you do that, I think youíll be in the right mindset to write an engaging query letter/opening scene.

And donít take this as disheartening, because thatís not why Iím writing this. Agents/interns are looking for something good, and theyíll be really excited when something pops up thatís exciting and well-writtenóand has all the proper information in the letter! They want to read a good book, just like the rest of us.

I could talk more about this stuff, but I feel like this is enough for now; however, if anyone has a question about something else, Iíll try to answer it best as I can. I only stopped working at the agency a few weeks ago because grad school, but I spent about three months there. I got to read submissions, edit clientsí work, write personalized rejection letters, and attend some conferences with AAR (Association of Authorís Representatives) where editors talked about their jobs at some of the big-name publishing companies (I literally sat five rows away from an editor at Random House! I couldnít believe it). My point being, Iíve done more than read unsolicited queries, so if you wanna know about something besides the slush pile, let me know! Otherwise, I hope this post at least gave you guys a look onto the other side and maybe helped you a bit.

(Note to the mods: I honestly couldn't decide if this should be posted in the guides/tips sub-forum, so feel free to move this if anyone sees fit.)
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Old 09-12-2016, 06:27 PM View Post #2 (Link)
Infinity_Man (Offline)
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Hey, congratulations on that opportunity Majyk! This is the kind of thing I wanted to look into, but unfortunately opportunities are low where I live, and I can't realistically move to NYC to do this either, so I'm very jealous! Also, thanks for doing this, and for the resource! (I know Kristin Nelson is a wealth of information on these topics, but I've never gotten around to more than a few of her blogs/vlogs)

I hate writing query letters, as I think most writers do. I hate it because no one told me I would have to do it until I actually had a book I thought I could sell, and was holding it looking around trying to find out how to publish it. Query writing is such a fine art on its own that learning I had to do it was like someone telling me "Oh, you've spent the last fifteen years working on your novel writing skills? You fool, you should have been working on query writing. Now you'll never get anywhere." So on the upshot, at least you're here talking about it, so some young writer will learn what a query letter is and that it's a thing they need to work on, and they'll maybe be prepared when it's time to start submitting.

This is heartening, at least, to read. A lot of agents I've researched have said that while they maybe only ask for a full manuscript on, like, 1% of everything they receive, at least 50% of that is garbage that's not even in a genre they represent, and like 25% more is something that didn't follow their super easy guidelines. I like to hope I'm above that 75% line (although the best I've ever gotten was a few personalized rejections, so maybe not).

It's cool that you weren't just assigned to slush pile hell and got to read fulls, do some real editing, and attend conferences! Are you allowed to tell us which agency you were interning for?

I guess if I have to ask a question, it would be what kind of guidelines you were given for reading queries/partials/fulls about what to look for specific to your agent. Like, not just writing that seemed good or bad to you, but if there were other aspects that your agent was especially interested in, or was tired of seeing, or just wouldn't touch with a ten-foot-pole?
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Old 09-12-2016, 08:38 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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Thanks! Yeah, I'm in upstate NY right now trying to move to the city (my plans keep getting messed up...), so I totally understand about not being able to get to NYC. (Fortunately I only had to be in NYC twice a week, but it took me a two hour car ride and a two hour train ride one way to get to the city, then I stayed with my sister overnight in Philadelphia, which is a two hour bus ride from NYC, so... yeah.) There are the occasional virtual internships that pop up, though.

Yes! Query-writing is kind of the worst and is definitely a whole other skill set.

Yeah, a lot of stuff doesn't follow the guidelines, so if you can do that, you're already better off than most of unsolicited material. I'd say personal rejections are, while still disappointing, useful, too. At least in my experience, they are truthful representations of why the book wasn't accepted, so if you've gotten some that are saying similar things, you can generally figure that might be something you should take a look at before submitting again. But I wouldn't change things just because one agent said so. Another agent might like what some agent didn't, because if I learned nothing else this summer, it's that after you get past the general requirements of a book (well-written, good characters, interesting plot, etc.), it's subjective to the agent. They have to really love your book in order to push it to publishers, and if they only like it but don't love it, they might pass. It's disappointing, but then, there are a lot of agents out there, with a variety of different likes and dislikes, so all you have to do (after writing a good book and query letter XD) is find someone who likes it.

Yeah, I don't see why not--I'm not saying bad things about them or spilling top secret stuff, haha. I was at Laura Dail Literary Agency and they were great.

Well, the obvious is that it has to be well-written. But I was also asked to look for a strong voice--if I was reading YA, did the voice sound young adult? Was the voice unique? Was it interesting? Were the characters relatable? How were the characters' relationships with each other? Believable? Was the plot interesting; was it too slow, too fast? Was the world interesting? How was the world building? If it was fantasy, how was the magic system? Diverse characters seemed to be a popular thing, from what I was reading.

I wasn't given a list or anything, but those are the kinds of things I had in mind while reading, and some of the questions I'd be asked after I was finished. (I'm halfway through my MA in English and creative writing, so those are also areas that come up a lot in school.) I wasn't told too much about what they wouldn't touch, though I was told that for query letters, anything that was trying too hard to be clever came off as annoying and no one appreciates that, so... avoid being too clever, haha.
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Old 09-12-2016, 10:16 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Majyk View Post
Yeah, I don't see why not--I'm not saying bad things about them or spilling top secret stuff, haha. I was at Laura Dail Literary Agency and they were great.
Nice! I'm working at a bookstore right now, which has really made me aware of a lot of genres and books that I normally wouldn't be aware of, so I can tell just by looking at some of the books displayed on their front page that they're doing pretty well for themselves in the YA market (we have so many of Sarah J. Maas's books, and so little shelf space for them)

though I was told that for query letters, anything that was trying too hard to be clever came off as annoying and no one appreciates that, so... avoid being too clever, haha.
Oh, believe me, this won't be a problem.
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Old 09-13-2016, 12:54 AM View Post #5 (Link)
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My dear little young writers, please pay attention to this post and ask questions about it. Knowing the business is EXTREMELY important! Honing your skills comes first when you're young, but by god no one will be holding your hand when it comes to the business end of things.

I got some insight about this process from one of Tin House's editors (Rob Spillman) earlier in the year. He didn't really address the point as a lesson to us, but was talking generally about what it's like being an editor for a magazine, and it reminded me how important concision is when you're doing a cover letter or query--if for nothing else but courtesy to the agent/editor/intern.
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Old 09-13-2016, 01:38 AM View Post #6 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Dabs View Post
My dear little young writers, please pay attention to this post and ask questions about it. Knowing the business is EXTREMELY important! Honing your skills comes first when you're young, but by god no one will be holding your hand when it comes to the business end of things.
I agree whole-heartedly with this. I greatly improved as a writer when I started paying attention to the business-end of my writing.
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Old 09-13-2016, 09:10 PM View Post #7 (Link)
Majyk (Offline)
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Originally Posted by Dabs View Post
My dear little young writers, please pay attention to this post and ask questions about it. Knowing the business is EXTREMELY important! Honing your skills comes first when you're young, but by god no one will be holding your hand when it comes to the business end of things.
Exactly! And if you're not aware of this, it can be quite disheartening when you figure it out. XD Writing isn't just art; it's a business, and when you realize that, you start to understand publishing a bit more. At the AAR events, the editors were talking about what makes them acquire a book, and one editor talked about this book that she liked, but that she, other editors in her department, and the marketing department didn't think would sell that well, so she passed on it.

We've all heard the stories about how JK Rowling got rejected however many times before getting accepted, but that's no joke. Her first book was categorized as middle grade, and it's a little long for that genre and doesn't quite fit the category (at least the category that existed back when she was submitting to agents), so people were passing it up because they weren't sure how it would sell. Obviously writing is art, but there's this whole side of it where people try to make it into a business and you get a weird mix of art/business stuff, which is part of what makes the publishing industry so difficult to get into. Someone might absolutely love your book and still reject it. Or, an awful book might get published because, hey, you know, money is good. *cough*Twilight*cough*
I got some insight about this process from one of Tin House's editors (Rob Spillman) earlier in the year. He didn't really address the point as a lesson to us, but was talking generally about what it's like being an editor for a magazine, and it reminded me how important concision is when you're doing a cover letter or query--if for nothing else but courtesy to the agent/editor/intern.
Yes! No one cares until you make them care, and making them not care is a lot easier to do, so being concise and engaging ASAP is a good idea.
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Old 10-22-2016, 06:20 PM View Post #8 (Link)
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This is extremely insightful and helpful! It's good to have resources like this available to writers and I think anyone with an inside look has something of a platform to help other aspiring writers. The fact that you are giving of your experience this way is great, so thank you for that!

Just out of casual curiosity was there a catch-all, across the board rule that got query letters thrown out before anyone gave them a real read? Something that got an automatic toss?

I know this is sort of similar to a little bit of what Infinity Man was after, but I just wondered if your editor ever told you, 'If the letter/writer does this or has this, don't go any further'?

Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight!

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Old 10-23-2016, 12:14 AM View Post #9 (Link)
Majyk (Offline)
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Originally Posted by Grey View Post
This is extremely insightful and helpful! It's good to have resources like this available to writers and I think anyone with an inside look has something of a platform to help other aspiring writers. The fact that you are giving of your experience this way is great, so thank you for that!

Just out of casual curiosity was there a catch-all, across the board rule that got query letters thrown out before anyone gave them a real read? Something that got an automatic toss?

I know this is sort of similar to a little bit of what Infinity Man was after, but I just wondered if your editor ever told you, 'If the letter/writer does this or has this, don't go any further'?

Again, thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight!

Grey
You're welcome! Glad I could be helpful.

If the submission wasn't in a genre the agents took, that was an automatic rejection for obvious reasons . But pretty much if something was badly written, it wasn't going to stand much of a chance, though that's the only across-the-board type of of thing I can think of. Everything else came down to things like hook and whether the summary sounds like it makes sense with the genre of the piece.

EDIT: The submission guidelines for the agency I interned at requested the first ten pages of a manuscript along with the query letter, so most of the time I was judging a piece based off its opening. (However, there were a couple snail mail submissions that didn't follow the guidelines and only submitted a query, which was weird because I didn't think the angry accepted snail mail, haha.) I read quite a few requested fulls that had obviously interested the agent with the query letter, but that then didn't hold up. The biggest thing that made me get annoyed with the manuscripts was when they didn't get to their point. So often, the openings were insanely slow, like the hook promised in the query letter was sometimes nowhere in sight even after fifteen to twenty pages.
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						Last edited by Majyk; 10-23-2016 at 12:24 AM.
					
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Old 01-10-2017, 11:02 AM View Post #10 (Link)
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Hi Majyk,

Amazing to hear of your experience and there's some fundamentally important elements that you bring to light there too! Would you be interested in working with me on bringing these experiences to more people?
I'm working on a project where we're trying to help connect people's interests with actionable advice and understanding. It would be great to get your thoughts on the project and how we can further galvanise experiences to connect people with the things they love to do.

I look forward to your thoughts.
Sam
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