Tag Archives: querying

How NOT to Get a Literary Agent, by Stephen King

I’m coming to the end of my sixth annual read-through of King’s classic work ON WRITING. For any aspiring writer, I consider this book to be must-read material. There is much in this book I could quote, discuss, and speak about in glowing terms. But instead, I’m going to pick on its weakest point. In fact, worse than a weak point–it’s flat-out wrong, misleading, and will give today’s querying writer no end of trouble if he or she actually follows King’s advice.

To be fair to the maestro, ON WRITING was written in a different age. By that, I mean it is 18 years old, and 18 years ago, publishing was still very much a paper-and-ink affair. Most agents accepted queries by snail mail, and few accommodated email submissions. These days the reverse is true, and, the rules of the road have changed. Also, bear in mind that Stephen King hasn’t had to write a query letter in over 45 years.

The section in question, near the end of the book, asks how one goes about getting a literary agent. On more than one occasion, King states that one really ought to get an agent if one desires to be published. That advice is generally true today, though we would now make the distinction between traditional publishing and independent, or self-publishing. Self-publishing was a much shadier and riskier business back in 2000. These days, done properly (i.e., with a good editor and quality cover design), it’s a perfectly respectable approach to getting your work in print (paper or digital–an option that wouldn’t have crossed King’s mind back then).

Assuming, therefore, you want to be traditionally published, which means you want to have an agent represent your novel to publishers big and small, and for your publisher to handle seeing your work in print and in stores, here’s King’s advice, and why you shouldn’t follow it.

1, His fictional author, Frank, submits short stories to magazines so he can build a resume that would be attractive to an agent. This is not necessary. You don’t need a prior publishing history to get an agent. Of course, if you have a good publishing history, you will pique an agent’s interest. Three or four published short story credits will probably persuade an agent on the fence to take a look at your work. However, the agent’s ultimate concern is whether or not the novel you’re querying is any good. If the agent doesn’t like what you’re offering, or doesn’t think she can sell it, no amount of previous work will help you.

2. Frank’s short story submissions are made on a “good grade of white bond paper” with a cover letter on top. Again, most magazines take electronic submissions these days (though there are a few old-school hold outs that only want mail-in submissions).

3. Frank sends queries for his novel to agents before the novel is complete. This is a major no-no. When you query an agent, your novel had better be ready to go. And by “ready to go,” I mean complete, beta read, revised, revised again, and revised even more. If an agent asks to see your work, she will either ask for a partial (maybe the first fifty pages), or a full (the whole thing). You need to be ready to send the whole thing.

4. Frank’s query letter is a disaster. Let’s see if I can QueryShark it (apologies to Janet Reid):

Dear _____________ :

I am a young writer, twenty-eight years old, in search of an agent.

The agent doesn’t give a flying fig whether you’re eight, twenty-eight, or eighty-eight. Don’t even mention your age. This is only relevant when it comes to signing the contract. And she already knows you’re searching for an agent–that’s the point of the query letter. This is a waste of words.

I got your name in a Writer’s Digest article titled “Agents of the New Wave,” and thought we might fit each other.

This is actually good. Many agents like to know why you’re querying them. It elevates your query from a form letter to something more personal.

I have published six stories since getting serious about my craft. They are:….

As I mentioned, this is not necessary, but if you do have publishing credit, it’s good to provide it. Make sure you’re listing work that has been published by reputable magazines. They don’t have to be widely-known (e.g., The Atlantic, or The New Yorker), but she should be able to track them down and find your stories without too much difficulty. The line about “getting serious about my craft” is unnecessary and should be cut. And you don’t need to list how much the stories sold for. The agent doesn’t care. The value of the story is in the fact it was published, not how much you got paid.

I would be happy to send any of these stories (or any of the half dozen or so I’m currently flogging around) for you to look at, if you’d like. I’m particularly proud of “A Long Walk in These ‘Yere Woods,” which won the Minnesota Young Writers’ Award. The plaque looks good on our living room wall, and the prize money–$500–looked excellent for the week or so it was actually in our bank account (I have been married for four years; my wife, Marjorie, and I teach school).

King has now left query mode and is in story-telling mode, which is to say, most of this is a waste of space. The only useful piece of information is the fact that one of the stories won an award. That could be included with your listing of the story above. By now, if the agent is still reading the query and hasn’t hit “form reject,” she is yawning and wondering when we’re going to get to the story. You know, the novel. The whole point of the query letter.

The reason I’m seeking representation now is that I’m at work on a novel. It’s a suspense story about a man who gets arrested for a series of murders which occurred in his little town twenty years before.

At last! And… that’s it? The first sentence can be cut since, again, it states the obvious. Also, “I’m at work on a novel” means the novel is not finished. Automatic form rejection. If the novel is not finished, you are not ready to query. And how many suspense stories are there about a man arrested for past murders committed in his small town? Answer: lots. Where’s the conflict? Is the man innocent and needs to prove his innocence? What’s at stake? What entices the agent to read this novel over and above all the other murder-suspense stories in her slush pile?

The first eighty pages or so are in pretty good shape, and I’d also be delighted to show you these.

Again, don’t bother. No agent wants to consider an unfinished manuscript. Finish the novel and try again.

Please be in touch and tell me if you’d like to see some of my material. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

I doubt any agent read this far. “Thank you for your time and consideration” is sufficient for those few who did.

If you’ve been following Stephen King’s querying advice, I hope I’ve persuaded you not to. I would like to think this portion of the book will receive a much-needed update sometime in the near future. But after 18 years, it’s unlikely.

My advice: if you want to query well, check out the websites/blogs of the people who read the queries–i.e., literary agents. They are your audience, and they know better than anyone what they’re looking for. I recommend, for starters, Janet Reid and BookEnds. A quick Google search will pull up many more.

Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Objections?

Writing about Writing

You might notice that the tag-line to this blog says “Reading Writing Music Theology Etc.” If you’ve been following for any length of time (well, not any length–I mean, if you’ve been following for a few days this wouldn’t appy) you’ll have seen book reviews, Music Mondays, Sunday School Notes, Doctor Who stuff, and other things. But where’s the writing? Sure, I’ve posted some flash fiction from time to time. But you may have noticed I’ve gone quiet when it comes to writing tips and publishing advice.

Back when I started this blog, oh some six years ago now, I did a mini-series (a costume drama, I think) on querying agents, giving tips and suggestions. I was, at that time, querying my first query-ready novel. I had done a lot of reading, and I wanted to sum up all my research and offer it up to the world.

Since that time, however, I’ve done some hard thinking. You see, I am, and remain to this day, an unagented, unpublished writer. So my expertise in publishing is as good as my reading and conversations I’ve had with agents and published writers. I don’t have anything to offer by way of good, positive experience. When I look for query advice, there are two types of people I consider SMEs (Subject Matter Experts):

  • The people who read queries as a job requirement and necessity (i.e., literary agents and editors)
  • People whose queries have secured them multiple requests from agents, or, who have secured agency representation as a result of their queries. In other words, people who have written successful queries. Queries that have produced the desired result.

I am in neither of these camps. So why should anyone listen to what I have to say, when you have plenty of SMEs telling you what you want to know?

As for writing tips, sure I can tell you what works for me. But I have nothing to show for my writing so far, so why should you care what works for me? Clearly what works for me doesn’t yet work for many other people. Again, when I want writing tips, who do I turn to? Published authors whose work I like, people who have demonstrated ability with the craft of writing, and have, as a result, written work that is salable and/or critically acclaimed.

So, at least for now, until I have a credible enough platform from which to pontificate, I’ll gladly point you to SMEs. But unless, for some strange reason, you want to read my thoughts on writing, how I go about composing prose, or whatever, I won’t be posting “tips and tricks” here. Or anywhere else. It just seems a little presumptuous, and a bit arrogant, of me. After all, in the immortal words of the Eighth Doctor, “Who am I?” (Whovian in-joke). So here are some SMEs to get you started. You can easily Google for more:

Query SMEs:

Query Shark/Janet Reid

Carly Watters

Publishing Crawl (Pub Crawl)

Various Tips from Literary Agents

… and other Literary Agent blogs.

Writing SMEs:

Stephen King (his book ON WRITING)

Jeff Somers

Writer’s Digest

James Scott Bell

Encouragement from the Query Trenches

For those of you who aren’t writers, or have never queried a novel, the “query trenches”–that period of time when your novel is complete and you’re sending query letters out to Agents in the hope of securing representation–is a strange time of fun and insanity. There’s the thrill of researching an Agent who seems like a perfect fit. Then the nervous reading and re-reading and re-re-re-reading the query letter to check for spelling mistakes. And you want to come across as personable but professional and maybe a bit witty but not frivolous and show you’ve done your research on the Agent, but not in a creepy-stalker way, though it feels really stalker-y when you’re Googling the Agent and reading every interview and blog post about them. Side note: if you like a lot of attention, consider a career as a Literary Agent. But be careful what you wish for. Then after half an hour of hand-wringing and spell checking, you send the email. Then you check your Sent Messages box to make sure it went. And you open the Sent Message to make sure you really did spell the Agent’s name correctly.

The next part is the hard part: Walk away, knowing that when an Agent says “We respond to queries within 4-8 weeks,” they probably mean it. It’s so hard, we don’t do it. Even now, I’m expecting responses from Agents I queried last week. Completely unreasonable, but that’s the truth. And when you get responses, and they DON’T say, “I read your query and I love your writing so much, I want to go ahead and offer representation!” you’re a little disappointed. In fact, the polite form rejections will make you stop and re-think your life. They shouldn’t, but they do. That’s just a fact.

How do we writers keep sane? We cheer each other on (see the What’s Up Wednesday meme for a good example of such support). Also, those who have come through the trenches and ended up with an Agent share their stories. All Agent success stories are fun to read, and for me, the most fun aren’t the “I queried on Monday, and Dream Agent called Wednesday to offer me rep,” but those like Dannie Morin’s. If you’re with me in the trenches, I recommend you read Dannie’s “How I Got an Agent” post. Her road to finding an Agent was about as circuitous as you can get, full of mistakes and missteps. The encouraging thing is that she got there.

Here’s the link:


Query Shark

If you’re an aspiring author and have not yet encountered Query Shark, stop whatever you’re doing–no… wait… you’re reading this blog, so DON’T stop what you’re doing… CONTINUE reading!

Query Shark is, I think, the most useful resource on the internet for writers. The primary purpose of the blog is to help writers write the best query they can. But in doing this, Query Shark unloads a ton of excellent writing tips that can improve your novel, not just your query. Since Query Shark was just named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers (see the latest edition of Writer’s Digest), I thought it appropriate to celebrate it for today’s A-to-Z Blogging Challenge letter.

Query Shark is the brain-child of Janet Reid, one of the literary agents at Fine Print Literary Management. Janet receives countless queries from aspiring authors every day, some of which immediately get her attention, but most of which are rejected after only a few lines. To help writers understand where they’re going wrong with their querying, Janet set up Query Shark–a place where writers can submit queries purely for review. Anyone submitting their query must be willing to see it ripped to shreds before the whole world. But Janet’s main purpose is not sadistic pleasure at torturing poor helpless writers. Her primary purpose is to help people improve their querying skills–and often their writing skills. She points out the flaws so they can be corrected. She invites people to revise their queries based on her comments, and resubmit them to the site.

Submitting a query to Query Shark is not an official query submission to Janet, so she doesn’t care about the genre. She knows enough about the industry to know what constitutes a good query for memoir, picture book, MG, YA, etc. A submission to Query Shark is a request for help writing a query.

That doesn’t mean Janet won’t sign someone based on a Query Shark submission. Dan Krokos impressed Janet enough with his Query Shark offering that she requested the manuscript, and eventually signed him. You can read about his story here, and listen to Janet talking about Query Shark and Dan Krokos in this BBC World Service interview.

I may not be the best query writer in the world, but it’s thanks to the Query Shark archives that I understand the purpose of a query letter, what a query letter needs to say, and how to be a better writer generally.

Have you benefited from Query Shark? What’s your go-to site for query or general writing help?

For Writers Over 30

Right off the bat, let me just say that I applaud every writer that has managed to get an agent and sell their work to a publisher while they are still in their twenties (even their teens in some cases). Seriously, congratulations on figuring out what you want to do while you’re young, and successfully pursuing that goal. I’m sure you worked hard and I honestly wish you every success.

For those of us over the age of thirty–and ten or so years beyond that–who are still trying to hunt that elusive agent who loves our work (which sometimes feels like the high school hunt for that one true love), however, it can sometimes be a little discouraging. We see young authors being snapped up by young agents, and we can get to thinking that perhaps we missed the boat. If we were ten, twenty, thirty years younger, perhaps this would be easier.

This is why I am so grateful that “The Intern” posted this article on her (I presume from the picture) blog last week: Publishers Weekly: The Deals You Don’t See. Many of us don’t care about huge advances–we just want to see our work in print. And while you may not often hear about 30, 40, or 50 somethings getting debut book deals, it still happens. So let’s not be discouraged and continue to work on making our novels the best we can. After all, great novels are really what get agents and publishers interested, not the author’s age.

What Happens to My Query When I Hit Send…?

Are you a writer? Have you ever wondered how agents process query letters? I don’t doubt there are as many methods for attacking the slush pile (or query inbox) as there are literary agents (and there are HUNDREDS of those). Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be interesting to know how one or two agents go about it? Well, here’s one perspective from Jennifer Laughran, an agent with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She likens the process to ER triage! Yes, some queries are DOA, but others need more nuanced attention. It’s a fascinating insight. Indeed, it’s interesting what you can find out from reading literary agent blogs. For example, in this post, Lauren Ruth, Literary Agent with BookEnds, reveals that she logs every query in an Excel spreadsheet so she can track her response, and know if she’s queried by the same author, or receives the exact same query more than once. Anyway, I thought you might find that interesting.

Querying and Dating

Today I received a rejection from the wonderful agent who requested my full manuscript. <sigh>. She’s still a wonderful agent–I’m not that petty. Really, it would have been a lot of fun working with her, but she determined that my novel wasn’t a good fit for her. And that’s fair enough. The last thing a writer needs is an agent who doesn’t love your novel trying to sell it to a publisher. That just won’t work.

I have read that the process of querying is much like dating because sometimes the sting of rejection can be as harsh. I would have to say that would depend on your experience of dating. At least with an agent you can still part ways on good terms; that doesn’t always happen in romantic situations. For me, the agent-rejection hasn’t been too bad. Though it is kind of weird when I look at the long list of agents I have yet to query and think to myself, “Oh well–there are plenty of fish in the sea…”

Thoughts and Tips on Querying: Agent Hunting and Final Thoughts

After months of brooding over my query letter, writing and re-writing it, submitting it to public scrutiny on WriteOnCom and QueryTracker (more about this tool in a moment), and getting it to a point where I think it’s as good as it’s going to be, I finally used it last night. I submitted my first four agent queries. I can tell you, I hesitated over the “send” button for that first one. Did I spell her name correctly? Did I follow the submissions guidelines properly? I did put the correct agent’s name, didn’t I? Why am I doing this? I’m only going to get form rejections anyway… I’m told second-guessing and self-doubt come with the territory, and whoever said that was right. But that’s okay. If this makes us write better queries and causes us to query correctly, no harm done. Now, if it stops you ever doing anything, that’s a problem. At some point you have to press “send.”

So, as I now wait for feedback, and get ready to query more agents, I thought this would be a good time to share some thoughts on selecting agents to query, and give some final tips.

Most writers write to be read, and the best way to get your work read is to publish. It follows, then, that most writers are anxious to find a good publisher and, therefore, anxious to get an agent that will find him or her that publisher. In light of this, it’s easy for writers to want to query every agent and say yes to the first that shows interest. There are hundreds of literary agents in the US alone, so the chances of finding someone to take on your novel are actually pretty good. However, not every agent is worthy of your manuscript. As with any business, there are bad agents who really don’t know much about the industry, don’t have your best interests at heart, and really just want to separate you with your money as effortlessly as possible. They feed on your desperation to be published. So don’t be desperate. You should never be that desperate.

“But what if none of the good agents are interested in my work?” You have two options (as far as I see it): 1) go back and re-work your query, and maybe even your novel–the rejections may be indicating a fundamental problem with your work; 2) self-publish. Option 2 should not be entered into lightly, but it is certainly an option. But research thoroughly first. Read articles by agents, publishers, and experienced writers before going there. It’s a lot of work. In fact, I would recommend option 1 first. Most agents will let you re-query the same novel (after a reasonable amount of time has passed) if the new version represents a substantial improvement over the old one. I’m not talking about making spelling or grammatical changes. This usually means you have re-structured the novel, edited the mess out of it, and generally re-worked it. When you re-submit, you don’t want the agent to be re-reading what you sent him/her before. It must feel like a new novel to them. Alternatively, drop that novel and go with the novel you’re working on. Finish it, polish it, and query that one. Maybe the market’s not right just yet for novel 1. Let it rest. Maybe in a few years it will have it’s time in the limelight.

Remember: you’re not desperate. Develop a strategy for querying agents. Research, research, research! Go online and look up agents that represent your genre, or pick up a book like The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.  Visit each listed agent’s website. Go to their blogs. Look them up on Facebook. Do they represent your particular sub-genre? Are they even open to querying at the moment? What are their submission requirements (query letter only, or query letter plus sample, or query letter plus synopsis, or something else)? Are they independent or do they work for a large agency? How long have they been in business? Have they a large and/or impressive client roster? Do they represent authors who write books like yours? Are they interested in developing your career, or are they only interested in signing you on a per-book basis? Does the agent you’re considering seem like the kind of person you would get along well with (based on blog posts, FB messages, online interviews, etc.)? All of these are important questions to consider when choosing agents.

A quick note about newbie agents. Few “newbie” agents are really new. Most, especially those working for large and/or reputable agencies, have served an internship, and have apprenticed under an experienced agent before launching out on their own. The disadvantage with new agents is that they are still building relationships with publishers, and may not have as many contacts as the more seasoned agents. However, the main advantage is that they are building their client lists so they are more open to queries from new authors–and they generally have more time to read queries and submissions, so you may get a quicker response. If you’re considering a newbie agent, make sure he/she is with a reputable agency, or has a good background in publishing. If his website says that he just left an engineering job two weeks ago and is now working for himself and is open to submissions, you may want to pass.

You now have your list of agents. From your research, determine who are your “dream” agents–those agents who would be perfect for you and your project. Flag them as your A-List. Then select your B-List. Next, your C-List. Now you need to decide who to query first. Remember, in its current state, your novel has one shot with each agent. If you get a rejection, that’s it. You can’t re-query that same agent with that same novel without a major overhaul, as I noted above. So, you may not want to query any of your A-List first. You may want to send some queries out to B-List or C-List agents to see if you get any feedback. If they reject, that may be a sign that your query letter isn’t enticing enough. So tweak it, and go for round two, maybe hitting a couple of your A-List agents. This is just one approach to working your way through your agent list. The important thing is that you think it through–don’t just pick randomly.

“How do I keep up with the agents I’ve chosen, and which I’ve queried?” Some use Excel (or similar) spreadsheets. This was going to be my approach until I came upon QueryTracker, a neat website that helps you with every step of the process. It maintains a database of agents from which you can select as many as you want. QueryTracker stores your selections, and then allows you to note when you query each one, how you queried them, what response you got, when, etc. It’s free, though there is a “premium” user level you can purchase which gives some enhanced reporting. There’s even a forum where you can submit your query letter for peer review/critique. I seriously recommend you check it out. The only drawback I’ve noticed is that it’s database is not exhaustive. I have come across a couple of agents that are not in QueryTracker. There may be good reason for this (e.g., either they are new, or they’re not very reputable), but be aware that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of agent researching–at least not yet.

When you’ve queried, be prepared to wait. How long agents take to get back to you depends upon their workload, the quantity of queries they need to get through, and a host of other factors. Remember, reading queries is not the main job of the agent. The agent’s main priority will always be to his/her current clients. When you get an agent, I’m sure you’ll appreciate this. For now, we have to reconcile with the fact that most agents spend a small fraction of their day reading queries. Many agent websites will tell you how soon you can expect a response. As with all your dealings with agents, follow and note their guidelines and instructions.

I think I have just about exhausted this topic, and I’m not sure I have much else to say. If you are in the process of querying, I wish you every success. I’m in that position now, and I will no doubt keep my blog readers posted on how that goes.


Pitch vs. Query

If you’ve been reading my “Thoughts and Tips on Querying,” you will notice that I often refer to the part of the query where you describe your novel as “the pitch.” I want to make it clear that this is not the same as the pitch you would make to a friend, agent, or potential book-buying person who asks you what your book is about. I am using that term in the context of a query letter just to differentiate it from the other elements in the letter, because in the context of the query letter, it serves the same purpose: to get you to want to read the book. Both types of pitch have their place, and the aspiring (and even seasoned) novelist will need to use one or the other at some point. Janet Reid posted a blog on this topic today where she cites examples of the “query” as opposed to the “pitch.” Hers is, of course, the official terminology; my use of the term “pitch” was in the context of the query letter, and was of my own making. Check out Janet’s article for clarification and education. 🙂

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… 🙂