Literary Agent Research

Among other things, I am in the midst of researching agents. This is a subject I’ll go into a bit on the last “Thoughts and Tips on Querying” post, but I want to tell you that it’s a lot of work. And I’m only at the point of making a hit-list. Once I have my hit-list and I’m ready to query, I then need to research each one and determine a) if the agent really is one I think would be great to work with, and b) if he/she is an agent that I think would be interested not only in the novel I’m pitching, but in the novels I have in various stages of progress, and the ideas and plans I have for future projects. That requires reading blogs, websites, looking up recommendations, hunting down interviews, finding out which authors they currently represent, etc.

I say this to get the point across that often finding an agent is thought of as being solely dependent on whether the agent likes the author, when in fact, it goes both ways. Agents understand this, I think, but I’m finding that as I look at agent websites, and read agent bios, I’m evaluating them as much as they will one day be evaluating me. When I pull up an agent’s website, if he’s only interested in contracting on a per-book basis (i.e., he will rep your book, but not necessarily the next), I move on. I want to have an agent working on my behalf for the duration of my writing career. I want to be dealing with someone with whom I can build up a rapport, joke with, celebrate with, commiserate with, and trust with my work. Some writers may not care, but this is important to me.

There are other preferences I have when selecting potential agents–things that attract me to some agents, and put me off others–but I won’t go into them here. My point is that finding the right agent is, to me, as much finding an agent I like as it is finding an agent that likes me and my novel. And that takes a lot of work. But hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end. Check back in a few months… :)

Romans 1:18-23

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. [NASB]

Verse 18 is where, I think, Paul begins his gospel presentation. The connection with the previous passage seems to be the Greek word apokaluptetai, meaning “he, she, or it is revealed.” In verse 17, it was the righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel. Here, it is the wrath of God that is revealed. How it is revealed is yet to be seen–that will be the subject of verses 24-32.  In these verses, Paul describes what he means when he refers to the recipients of God’s wrath as those practicing “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.” This passage is critical if we are to appreciate everything that follows–indeed if we are to truly understand the gospel message, we must come to terms with the truth Paul preaches here.

The unrighteous and godless suppress the truth. Paul goes on to explain that God has made His existence evident to them. In their hearts they know He exists, and the creation so clearly displays God’s divine power, so they have no excuse for denying Him. Yet they suppress that knowledge, preferring instead to follow their own path. They don’t want to honor God or give Him the thanks and praise He is due as their Creator and Sustainer. Instead they put their minds to futile speculations. They turn to worship of images and creatures–idolatry–instead of worshiping God.

If we understand the distinction between “righteous” and “unrighteous” here as that between “Christian” and “non-Christian” (which I think is justified given what Paul has already said, and what teaches in the following chapters), Paul is saying that even non-Christians, people who profess to be atheists, know in their heart-of-hearts that there is a God; they are just actively suppressing that knowledge so they can live the lives they do. Naturally, atheists will deny this to be the case, but there’s a reason why the atheist worldview simply doesn’t work. The concept of morality is inconsistent with an atheist outlook; atheists cannot explain the existence of universal moral principles, or things like love, justice, mercy. There is no natural reason why such things should be so dear to people, and so much a part of human nature. So when the atheist practices such things, he demonstrates his innate knowledge of God, because only a knowledge of God would allow him to value these principles.

The denial of God expressed by the unrighteous is demonstrated by substituting the God who is real for idols, things that are diametrically opposed to God. Such blatant rebellion is surely another sign that they know God is real. And Paul calls them fools, despite their professing to be wise (remember, Paul is obliged to preach the gospel to both the wise and the foolish, the Greek and the barbarian). Only a fool would parade his hatred of God in such a way. And yet it still happens today.

Some interesting points from the text. When Paul says in verse 23 that they “became fools,” the verb he uses is môrainô, from which we get our word “moron.” Paul uses this word in this sense again in 1 Corinthians 1:20, but it is also used in Matthew 5:13/Luke 14:34 about salt becoming tasteless. It is not uncommon for words to change their meaning in different contexts without there necessarily being a connection between the different meanings. But in this case I wonder if there is a sense in which, just like salt that loses its saltiness becomes useless as salt, in the same way the unrighteous man who suppresses the knowledge of God and lives in unrighteousness has lost what it means to be God’s loving creation, and is unable to function in that capacity–there is something missing from his life. This might be stretching it a bit, but it is an interesting thought.

The verb Paul uses when he says they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God…” in verse 23 is the verb allassô, which can mean either “to change,” or “to exchange.” The New King James version chooses the meaning “change,” which I cannot agree with. They are not changing the glory of God into something else, but they are exchanging it for something else–they are replacing the glory of God as the object of their worship.

For the Greek/Hebrew geeks, it is interesting to note that Paul’s use of the verb allassô with the preposition en parallels the way the Hebrew verb mûr (which means “to change” or “to exchange”) is used with the preposition be. On its own, the Hebrew preposition be means (among many other things) “in” or “on,” which is also the meaning of the Greek en. But when this Hebrew preposition is used with mûr it denotes the object of the exchange (e.g., Psalm 106:20: “Thus they exchanged (wayâmîrû) their glory For the image (betabenîth) of an ox that eats grass” [NASB]). Paul uses the Greek en in the same way in Romans 1:23, which, to my knowledge, is not the way this preposition would normally be used in Greek, showing that Paul is importing a Hebrew grammatical construction. It’s possible his usage reflects the usage in the LXX (the Septuagint–the “standard” Greek translation of the Old Testament). In other words, Paul didn’t do this off his own initiative, but simply did what the translators of the LXX had done. However, Romans 1:23 is not a quotation from the OT, so Paul is clearly comfortable using this Hebraism in his own prose.

A last point of textual interest. His mention of man, birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures or reptiles (Greek: herpeton) in verse 23 seems to recall the creation account in Genesis. I’m not sure we can read anything into this other than Paul setting out the scope of man’s idolatry. Fallen man would rather take anything from within the whole realm of creation as an object of worship rather than the Creator of all things Himself.

A thought from the text: how does the fact that all men–atheists included–are suppressing the knowledge of God affect your evangelism? Or to put it more pointedly, do we really need to prove God’s existence to anyone? Might it not be more effective to demonstrate to people how their values and morals betray a hidden knowledge of God?

Yes, I know–another large section. I’m trying to catch up to where we got to in our Sunday School before we start up again on September 11th, so I’m afraid I might have to continue with large chunks for a little while. But even here I’m not going as deeply as I could. But that’s what the comments are for. Please–use them to discuss, ask questions, disagree… but be nice! :)

Literary Agents Who Represent Christian Authors

This is as much for my benefit as anyone else. Michael Hyatt posted a blog article–I don’t know when–listing literary agents who represent Christians. Not all the agents on the list are themselves Christians, but they all represent Christian literature. Some, like Rachelle Gardner, represent both Christian and non-Christian. Anyway, here’s the link to the article. I hope it is useful to you. And thanks to Michael for gathering this information!

http://michaelhyatt.com/literary-agents-who-represent-christian-authors.html

 

Who Review: Let’s Kill Hitler

This will just be a quickie review–not too many spoilers I hope. If you haven’t seen the episode and don’t want anything spoiled, please don’t read. Otherwise… first I thought the episode was fun, with some clever Who fan fodder.  For example, did you catch The Doctor’s comment about the TARDIS’ “state of temporal grace” (which means that weapons supposedly can’t fire inside her)? Was this Moffat’s way of getting Eric Saward off-the-hook for having The Doctor kill a cyberman in the TARDIS in Earthshock? There were also some holographic past character cameos that I’m sure brought a smile to many faces.

It does seem that the episode served a) to give more River Song backstory, b) provide some comic relief after the heavy mid-season finale, and c) throw in some arc elements that I’m sure will prove to be important later. That’s the thing about Steven Moffat–you can’t always take his stories at face value–especially when he’s writing the season arcs. While it seems that the episode only serves purpose a) (and that did seem to be a large reason for the story), I’m sure there’s more to it than that. The trouble is, we won’t know until episode 13 airs! For example, why Berlin 1938? The whole “Let’s Kill Hitler” idea seemed to be launched and rested after 10-15 minutes, meaning that more than two-thirds of the story had nothing to do with murdering the Führer. So, what was the point? Was this merely a teaser? Or will the whole Hitler thing come back later? Again, we’ll have to wait and see.

Also, I have to say, I wonder if Moffat also read The Beano comic when he was a kid. Remember The Numskulls? That’s what came to mind when I saw the Teselecta!

So, to sum up–a good fun jaunt, with twists and turns, whetting the appetite for what’s to come. Questions answered? Yes. Questions left unresolved? Of course! Stay tuned…

Romans 1:11-17

11 For I long to see you, so that I may share a certain spiritual gift with you so that you may be strengthened, 12 and that is to receive mutual encouragement among you–through the faith you have one with another, and my [faith]. 13 But I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that often I have planned to come to you, yet I have been hindered until now, in order that I may have some fruit among you even as also among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am obligated to both Greek and Barbarian, to both wise and foolish, 15 so, as for me, I am eager to preach the gospel even to you in Rome. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and the Greek, 17 for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, from faith unto faith, just as it is written, “but the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Again, because of copyright, I have attempted a translation of the Greek. Feel free to compare it against your favorite version–there shouldn’t be too much variation in meaning. Let’s see if we can hit the highlights of this passage without making this blog article too long. Please make use of the comments to add insights or ask questions to dig deeper.

Continuing the thought of verse 10, where he spoke of his prayer that he would be able to visit the church in Rome, Paul really stresses how much he wants to spend time with them. He says he wants to be there so that he can encourage and strengthen the church, and also that they may share (and build off of) one another’s faith. I don’t think the “spiritual gift” (Greek: charisma pneumatikon) he speaks of is one of the gifts of the Spirit discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I think verse 12 explains what that gift is (and I’ve tried to bring that out in the translation): the mutual sharing of faith leading to the edification of the saints.

The way he speaks in verse 13 about not wanting the church there to be “unaware” (Greek: agnoeô) of his desire to visit them leads me to think perhaps they were feeling neglected by the apostle. Paul seems so anxious that they know how much the church has been on his heart, and how much he has wanted to spend time with them. Perhaps they felt it strange that, being the capital city of the Roman Empire, Paul would have placed a greater priority on visiting them. Or perhaps someone was spreading rumors suggesting Paul didn’t want to go there–we can only speculate. The fact is, Paul really looked forward to seeing them so he could “have some fruit” among them. Other translations render this along the lines of “reaping a harvest.” While this is a possible translation, I think it sounds too much as if Paul is wanting to make converts out of the church, which, I think would not be his primary motivation. Preachers don’t often visit churches to convert the saints! That’s not to say there might not be unbelievers there that would benefit from his gospel message, but the impression I get from the passage is that Paul wants to strengthen the church–to water what someone else had sown. And the fruit Paul would bear among them would be a church of healthy Christians. “Even as also among the rest of the Gentiles” again hints that he wants to be sure these Christians don’t feel left out. While the church is clearly a mix of Jews and Gentiles, as noted before, the church was probably at that time primarily Gentile.

Verses 14-15 give us, I think, an idea of how the Roman Christians were perceived. The term “barbarian” was used in ancient Greece as a derogatory name for those who were unsophisticated. The Athenians used it of the Spartans, for example. The term is actually an onomatopoeia, since to the high-minded Athenians, the Spartan’s language sounded like sheep: “baabaabaa”–hence barbaros, “barbarian.” From this, I would infer that among Gentiles, the Gentile Roman Christians were considered sophisticated, especially compared to some of the other Gentile churches (e.g., in Spain). Paul’s point is that the gospel message is for both wise and foolish, for the well-educated, and the lowly rural person. The New York sophisticate, and the Southern “red-neck.”

And it is the universal application of the gospel that enables Paul to preach the gospel without shame. If the gospel can be equally applied to all types of Gentile, it can most assuredly be applied across the board to both Jew and Gentile. Indeed, it is the power of God for the salvation of all types of Gentile, as well the Jew–whoever believes. There are no race or class distinctions in the gospel. In the following verses and chapters, Paul will demonstrate why this is the case. The Jews were certainly the first to whom the gospel message came, since Jesus came first to the household of Israel (Matthew 15:22-26), and then Peter and the other apostles first ministered among the Jewish people. But it was clear both within Jesus’ time, and within the ministry of Peter, that the intention was to include the Gentiles (Matthew 15:27; John 10:16)–and this became more apparent with Paul’s conversion and subsequent ministry.

Verse 17 was the passage that convicted Luther of his misunderstanding of the righteousness of God. He had previously seen the righteousness of God as that righteousness by which God judged and condemned him. However, he rightly understood Romans 1:17 to be saying that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God which is given by faith and leads to a deepening faith. The double prepositional phrase (“by faith unto faith”–Greek ek pisteôs eis pistin) I take to be Paul’s way of underscoring that this is all a work of grace by faith. He then quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to reinforce his point: “but the righteous man shall live by faith.”

The Habakkuk 2:4 quotation is not a precise quotation of the Hebrew. Indeed, if we look at the opening chapters of Habakkuk, we see that 2:4 is part of God’s response to the prophet’s complaint that the wicked seem to be getting away with their wickedness, and God is not saving His people from them. God appeals to the prophet to be patient. The proud man’s soul is not upright within him; but the righteous man shall live by his faith (Hebrew: beemûnâtô). Why is Paul’s quotation different? And why does Paul use the passage in a way that is seemingly different from the original intent?

First, I believe most, if not all, of Paul’s OT quotations are from memory. In this instance, it happens that dropping the pronoun “his” from the Hebrew doesn’t alter the meaning of the passage, so his quotation still matches the original sense of the Hebrew. Whether he accidently omitted the pronoun, or whether that was the way he memorized the passage, it’s hard to say. But as Christians we believe that this was the way the Lord intended Paul to write it, and so we can be satisfied with that. As to the meaning, I think it’s simply true that sometimes Paul intends his readers to import the meaning of an OT passage into what he’s saying, and other times he’s just pulling a familiar OT quotation to help make his point. In this instance, I think Paul is using Habakkuk 2:4 not for it’s original meaning (feel free to discuss in the comments if you disagree), but because it was a well-known passage whose words seemed to sum up what he was trying to say.

A thought from the passage: Do you find yourself gravitating to certain types of people when sharing the gospel? Not that you are consciously prejudiced, but do you consider some to be more “difficult”–or perhaps you think of some people as too “different” for you to reach with the gospel message? Consider what Paul says about the power of the gospel to save people from all walks of life. Remember that it is not you that saves, but it is God through the gospel’s power.

That was a bit of a marathon, but I thought it important to keep these verses together. If you feel like I’ve skated over some good points in the text, or gone over something too quickly, or you disagree with something I’ve said, please use the comments! I will be happy to interact, and others are free to join in the discussion.

 

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Title, Word Count, Genre, etc.

Some writers like to start their queries with the title/word count/genre paragraph (what I call the “housekeeping” paragraph). I believe I mentioned before, when discussing the opening address, that I prefer to leave this to last. If your word count is a little long, or the title not particularly inspired, these might give the agent a negative impression of your query before he/she has even got to the main pitch. However, if the pitch is great and the agent is loving your novel, he/she is less likely to get hung up over the word count and/or title. But let’s talk about these…

You probably have at least a working title for your novel. If not, you should probably come up with one. What if it’s not very impressive? Do the best you can. A great title will certainly put a smile on the agent’s face, but the title alone will not make or break the query. I have yet to read or hear a single agent say they have rejected a query solely on the basis of the title. Titles change. Even if you love your title, the agent may want to change it. And if you and your agent love the title, the editor/publisher might want to change it. I say, try to come up with a good title, but don’t be too invested in it. Better to let your title be changed and have a novel published, than be stubborn over the title and potentially lose your agent or publisher’s good will. If you want to fight for your title, make sure you have compelling and convincing reasons not to change it. The title should always be in ALL CAPS in your query.

Word count has more potential to scare an agent than the title. An agent can change a title; only the writer can change the word count. What constitutes too many or too few words depends largely on genre, though I think it’s fair to say that any first-time novel more than 100,000 words long is going to be frowned upon. Remember, any publisher looking at a novel has to justify the cost of all that paper and ink. This is, perhaps, one reason why Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is significantly shorter than Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. When the former came out, no-one knew how successful it would be. By the time the latter came out, the series was already multimillion selling, so it was really no risk to the publisher to green-light a 500,000 word YA novel. As a general rule of thumb, Middle Grade should be between 50-70K, YA 60-80K , adult 70-90K. This is just my general impression. Fantasy genres might get a little more flexibility on the word count (perhaps up to 110K) because of the world-building that’s often a part of such novels.

What about genre? Hopefully you already have a good idea of the genre of your novel. At least you should have an idea whether it’s written for kids, teens, or adults, and if it’s a mystery, a crime, a fantasy, or a sci-fi novel. There are hundreds of possible categories and sub-categories to choose from. If you’re not sure, find books that are like yours and look them up on Amazon, or check out the author’s website or blog, or look up the publisher’s website. See how they categorize that book and use that as a guide. DO NOT say that your book is a “fiction novel.” That’s a redundancy, and an amateur mistake that signals to an agent that you haven’t done your research, you don’t know what you’re talking about, and will almost guarantee you a form rejection. Be warned!

If this is not your first novel, you should also include the titles and publishers of your existing books. Otherwise, you don’t need to say your a first-time novelist. The agent might assume that, and ultimately won’t care. If the writing is strong and the story’s good, things like age and experience won’t matter one bit. In fact, just don’t mention either. Even if you’re only twelve. Surprise your agent when you tell him/her you need to have a parent sign your contract (it happens more often than you might think)!

What about a paragraph with your biography, influences, educational background etc.? This is definitely an area where agents differ. Some would say don’t bother–unless the biographical information lends credibility to your novel (e.g., you’ve written a crime novel based in New York, and you’re a retired New York cop). Others like to see that kind of thing. I would say, if you’re going to include biographical info, keep it relevant (MFAs, English degree, etc.). If your writing won a nationally-recognized competition, or a competition run by a respected magazine or organization, then certainly include that. Anything that shows your writing has been praised by recognized industry professionals can only enhance your query. But remember, no amount of extra information can cover for bad writing or a weak story. And that’s what agents and publishers care about most.

In the final installment, we’ll go over a few other things about querying–finding agents, agent research, and any other tips I can think of.

Romans 1:8-10

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. [ESV]

The introductions complete, Paul now begins the letter proper. Another common technique Paul uses, especially when he is getting ready to admonish his audience (e.g., Philemon), is to begin with praise. Here he commends the faith of the Roman church, telling them that their faith has become widely-known. Have they survived persecution? Or is it the fact that the church managed to continue despite Claudius’ decree? We can only guess. What is clear is that, while Paul is about to chastise them for their pride and in-fighting, he does not consider them to be weak-minded. He respects the strength of their faith, and approaches them as strong believers who need to be reminded of gospel truths. Even today, mature believers need to be reminded of gospel truths–even simple things like love for the brethren, putting the Lord first in all things, and always being ready to share the hope that we have.

Paul then makes clear his fervent desire to visit the church in Rome. He has undoubtedly wanted to visit the church in Rome for some time. More than likely this is not a church Paul himself planted, which, given the strength of the congregation there, would only make his desire to visit stronger. He now has the opportunity to visit and has made plans to do so (Acts 19:21); all he needs now is the Lord’s will for his plan to come to pass. As we know, it was God’s will, and, indeed, this trip to Rome was the last documented journey Paul made.

The “first” that starts this section seems to me from the Greek construction to be the first item in a list of things he wanted to address (Greek: prôton men). You will search in vain, however, for the “second” or “third” items. It appears that Paul’s intention to make a list was soon forgotten in the flow of the letter. Remember, the New Testament letters were not written by some kind of divine dictation. God inspired Paul to write, but He used the agency of the human Paul, with all his limitations and frailties, to communicate His truth precisely as He intended. And God still operates this way today, using frail human instruments to accomplish His good and perfect intentions.

In verse 9, Paul says that he serves God with his spirit in the gospel of His Son. Some interpret the use of “spirit” here to refer to the Holy Spirit, but I side with those that think Paul is referring here to his spirit.  That is, Paul serves God in the gospel–proclaiming the message of repentance and forgiveness of sin through Christ’s death and resurrection–from the very core of his being. The gospel proclamation is what Paul’s life is about. He is a living witness to the grace of God in Christ.

Finally, notice this little glimpse into Paul’s prayer life in verses 9 and 10. He prays continually for the church in Rome (as he did, no doubt, for the other churches), and he prays that God will make it possible for him to visit. Paul’s position as an apostle did not give him infallible access to the mind of God. He didn’t know whether the Lord’s plans for him included a trip to Rome. Notice the uncertainty in his statement: “somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.” Literally, the Greek translates this way: “if perhaps at some time [or "ever"] I shall succeed in the will of God to come to you” (ei pôs êdê pote euodôthêsomai en tô thelêmati tou theou elthein pros humas). The greatness of Paul’s faith was not that he knew God’s will, but that he was willing to trust God’s will for him whatever it might be.

Romans 1:7

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To all those living in Rome [who are] beloved of God [and] called [to be] saints; grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul has introduced himself as the author of the letter, and stated clearly his position with the Lord, and the ministry he has been given to perform. Now he identifies the recipients.

My translation of the verse splits Paul’s sentence into two parts: the full identity of Paul’s audience, and then one of Paul’s standard benedictions. In the first part, Paul doesn’t refer to his audience as “the Romans” but as “those living [Greek: ousin denoting a state of being or existence] in Rome.” I think this lends credence to the view that he recognizes it is a mixed audience, not just Gentile Romans. Further, these people are not just in Rome, but are part of the church. Only Christians could be described as both “beloved of God” (agapêtois theou) and “called [to be] saints” (klêtois hagiois). While it is true that God has a love for the world (John 3:16), this is not the same love that He has for His people. Simple observation of the distinction between the way Jesus treated His disciples, and the way He treated those outside of the Twelve, shows that He did not love all people equally. God has a special redemptive love for His people that those who are not Christians do not know. Non-Christians know God’s life-sustaining, sin-restraining love, what we sometimes call “common grace.” But this is not love that will save them. Only by being “called to be saints”–called to be set apart from the rest of humanity–can we partake in God’s saving love. Note here that being “saints” or being “set apart” is not something we do, but is something initiated by God in His call upon our lives.

The second part of the verse is a standard benediction used by Paul (see, for example, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians). However, just because he uses it frequently, that doesn’t mean it isn’t sincere. Especially given the attitudes we perceive in the church at Rome, it seems appropriate that Paul prays for grace and peace from God upon them. Grace with which to better treat one another, and peace to live and worship together as brethren in Christ.

Suggested application: If you are a Christian, spend some time meditating on what it means for you to be beloved of God, and called to be a saint. Remember, a saint is not some specially good or pious person officially recognized by some ecclesiastical body. A saint is simply one who is set apart by God by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. That is, a Christian. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to make you a saint; God is the one who sets you apart though an effectual calling (i.e., a calling that is effective in your life, a calling that brings you to faith in Christ).

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: The Pitch

I don’t know if that’s what this part of the query letter is officially called, but let’s call it that for now. It’s the part between the “Dear [Agent]” and the word count, genre, etc. info. The section where you actually attempt to sell your masterpiece to the agent.

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I recently “attended” WriteOnCon 2011. As part of that event, I posted my query letter for critique by peers and professionals. What a learning experience that was–not only having my own letter analyzed, but seeing others undergo the same treatment! I repeat what I have said before, the things I say here are based on my reading, not based on me being an expert at writing query letters, or having landed an agent as a result of a successful query. What I offer here are tips that I have picked up, and that I try to apply when writing my own query.

First, a list of agent pet peeves. Not all agents hate when writers do these things in their query letters–at least not to the same extent.  But try to avoid the following:

  • Don’t start with quotations from your novel. Many agents ask for a sample (first five pages) pasted into your e-mail query, so this really isn’t necessary. Also, without the context of the novel, the agent hasn’t a clue what’s going on. He/she needs to know plot and story.
  • Don’t ask rhetorical questions (e.g. , “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fly?” or “What would you say if your best friend told you she was a werewolf?”). Depending on how snarky the agent is feeling that day, the answer to your questions may be “no” or “I don’t care” and a form rejection would be on its way to you.
  • Don’t switch points of view. Try to keep to one POV (Point of View). Even if your novel is written in the third person seeing the story from various perspectives (e.g., your Main Character (MC), the antagonist, your MC’s friends), it keeps the query simple if you tell the plot from your MC’s POV. There’s a good example of how to do this on agent Janet Reid’s QueryShark blog here.
  • Don’t waste word count on backstory, descriptions, and anything that does not communicate the story.

Your pitch should briefly outline the story, but not the whole plot–this is not a synopsis. The query letter pitch is often likened to what you might find on the cover flap or back cover of the novel. It tells you who the main character is, the situation, and the crisis or problem that needs to be overcome. Just as the purpose of the cover blurb is to stop you putting the book back on the shelf, so the purpose of the query letter pitch is to stop the agent from hitting “form rejection” and moving on to the next query.

That, in fact, is the main rule of querying: tell the agent what the book’s about in the most compelling way possible. Yes there are things you should and shouldn’t do–“rules” for querying, if you want. However, the successful query is not necessarily the one that adheres to all the accepted wisdom. The successful query is the one that generates a request for a partial or a full from the agent. That said, you should certainly try to craft the best query letter you can, paying attention to all the “rules.” But at the end of the day, you need to remember that a strange (or “gimmicky”) query that is compelling (or that sells a compelling story idea) can work just as well (see this query, for example, again from QueryShark).

Another reason to take time, effort, and care over writing your query is the fact that your query is often the agent’s first exposure to your writing skills. If the query is full of typos and grammar flubs, and/or is disjointed and inarticulate, he/she will not hold out much hope for the novel being much better. Sure, the agent might have your attached pages to read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if given such a badly-written query, he/she didn’t bother reading on.

I hope this is helpful. My own query letter didn’t fair too badly under critical scrutiny, largely because I tried to pay attention to these rules. I got nailed over the multiple POV point above, so I fixed that and made sure to include that point here. My query still needs work, though. One further way to sharpen your query-writing skills is to spend time reading agent-reviewed queries on sites such as QueryShark and BookEnds. You may even be brave enough to submit your attempt to one of these!

Advance Advice

Rachelle Gardner today posted this article discussing how much of an advance an author should want from a publisher–are big advances always better? Now, I’m nowhere near the stage where this is relevant for me, but the more I (and any aspiring author) learns about the publishing industry, the less scary it becomes, and the better prepared I am/we are for that day when we get The Call! Check out what Rachelle has to say.

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