Querying 101

Query letters are the bane of many a writer’s existence. Whatever joy authors get from writing is often tempered by the frustration of writing a query letter. For any authors struggling with their queries, hopefully my simple 5-6 paragraph format will take the sting out of query writing.

Paragraph 1: Introduction
This is a 1-2 sentence introductory paragraph that provides the agent with your book’s title, genre, and word count. This is also a great place to briefly explain why you thought the agent would be right for the book. Maybe you read on the agent’s Manuscript Wishlist page that she was looking for middle grade books set at summer camp, or maybe you feel your book is similar to another book the agent has done. You might also briefly describe the hook or themes of the book. And I mean briefly. This paragraph really shouldn’t be more than 1-2 sentences. Or you might compare your book to another book or two on the market. Here are some sample introduction paragraphs:

“I would love to send you STACKED UP, my 88,000 word narrative nonfiction book that reveals the hidden lives of hoarders.”

“I am looking for representation for my young adult psychological thriller that I’d describe as Sharp Objects meets We Were LiarsI’ll Never Tell (75,000 words). You mention being a big fan of both books on your MSWL profile, so I thought you’d enjoy it.”

“Given your interest in otherworldly historical fiction, I present to you my historical magical realism novel that addresses race, power, and what it means to belong—THE HARVEST. It is complete at 68,000 words.”

Paragraphs 2-3: Plot
Your plot may seem like the most straightforward part of your query, yet I see authors continually struggle with knowing how much of their plot to describe. Some authors believe that they’re supposed to describe the entire plot of the book, which isn’t the case. (Save that for the synopsis.) Other authors focus more on abstract themes than physical action, which is too vague and doesn’t give me an idea of what actually happens in the book. So how much plot is enough?

The kind of plot description I’m looking for in a query sets up the primary conflict and/or the protagonist’s primary goal, shows the stakes for the protagonist, describes some of the rising action around that conflict/goal, and hints at the climax. I don’t need to know about every battle your protagonist wins, or every clue he follows. The plot description should remain focused on the primary conflict and the things that directly complicate it.

Most plot descriptions I see are made up of two paragraphs. Generally the first plot paragraph sets up the conflict and stakes, then the second shows the rising action and hints at the climax. Some authors sum all this up in one plot paragraph, which works too. It doesn’t matter whether you use one paragraph or two so long as you cover all the important elements.

If you want to briefly touch on the themes of the book, that can be a nice addition to your second plot paragraph. (Or if you just have one plot paragraph it can act as your second plot paragraph.)

Paragraph 4: Comp Titles/Audience
Comp titles are published books that you consider similar to yours in some way. (I wrote a blog on comp titles a few months ago that you can read here if you’d like a more in depth look at the various ways of using them.) Even if you mentioned comp titles in your introductory paragraph, you can mention other comps here if you have them.

The main purpose of this paragraph is to show the audience for your book. Your audience may be readers of a certain book, author or genre. (Hence the need for comp titles.) It may be viewers of certain TV shows or movies. It may be readers of certain blogs or magazines. It may be members of certain associations or fellowships. Or it may be even more specific. For instance, if your book is a self-help book on parenting autistic children, then clearly your audience is parents of autistic children, though it may also be psychologists, teachers and others who work with autistic children. Whoever your audience is, be sure to identify them in this paragraph.

Paragraph 5: Author Bio/Publications/Platform
The kind of bio information I’m looking for is something that relates to your credentials for the writing the book. It could be previous publication credits if you have them, such as published essays, short stories or books. It could be writing prizes or honors you’ve received, like being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. If you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, then this is the place where you explain why you’re qualified to write the book and what your platform is.

If you want to add a cute line about your cat figurine collection or your teaching job, that’s fine, but the focus of this paragraph should be on your writing career and/or your career that relates to the topic of the book (if applicable).

Paragraph 6: Closing
Your closing paragraph should be simple and polite, perhaps thanking the agent for their time or showing how you followed their submission guidelines. Something along the lines of:

“Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Or:

“As per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the synopsis and the first two chapters in the body of the email below. Please let me know if you’d like me to send you the complete manuscript.”

Bam! Done! See, that wasn’t so hard!

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Six Things You Need in a Mystery Novel

I love mysteries. I love the thrill of uncovering new clues, of guessing who the murderer is, of being wrong, of being right. I love the thrill of seeing the pieces come together in the end. I love a dramatic climax and a satisfying resolution.

Another reason I love mysteries is because it’s easy to break the plot into distinct parts and tell whether or not it’s working. The plot of a mystery is usually more clear cut to me than the plot in women’s fiction or historical fiction.

Whether you’re writing a cozy, a police procedural or something in between, there are certain things a reader expects to see in a commercial mystery. (If your mystery is more on the literary side, then you might not have all of these qualities, but you should have some of them.) Here are the things that keep me turning the pages:

1. There needs to be a murder.
Maybe this seems obvious, but I mention it because occasionally I’ll receive mystery submissions where the crime is a heist or drug deal. Books like that fall more in the category of crime than mystery, in my opinion. And for me personally, theft and drug trafficking aren’t as interesting as good, old-fashioned murder, so they’re not likely to inspire me to read more.

There is always the question of when the murder needs to happen in the book. I’ve heard several editors say that they want the body to be found within the first three chapters, so that is a good standard to go by. (But there are always exceptions to that rule. My fabulous client, Libby Klein, holds off on the body dump until the end of the first act, which is often 90 pages in.)

2. There needs to be a reason for the protagonist to investigate.
In a police procedural, it’s the cop’s job to investigate, so this reason is obvious. Same with private investigators. Their reason is that someone hired them to investigate.

With an amateur sleuth, the most common reason I see is that the protagonist is the prime suspect. This is a great reason, because there are major consequences for the protagonist if she doesn’t investigate, like going to jail for a crime she didn’t commit. It’s also a great motivation when the prime suspect is someone close to the protagonist (like a family member or friend). Or when the murder has hurt the protagonist’s business in some way, and solving the crime will fix it. For example, a body is found on the protagonist’s vineyard, which keeps tourists away and now she’s struggling to make ends meet.

I’ve received amateur sleuth mysteries where the protagonist decides to investigate just for fun, and they usually stagnate at a certain point. Why? Because there are no stakes for the protagonist. If she doesn’t solve the crime, or if she solves it slowly, nothing bad will happen to her. There’s no fire under her that compels her to solve it in a timely manner, so I’m not desperately turning the pages to find out if she succeeds. It’s easy to root for someone when they have a definable goal, like not going to jail or saving their business from bankruptcy. But when they have a vague goal, like having fun, I don’t know when they’ve reached it. (I mean, they had fun when they impersonated plumbers to get inside a suspect’s house, but was that the most fun they can possibly have solving the case? I don’t know!) So always make sure there is a solid reason for your protagonist to solve the crime and stakes if they don’t succeed.

3. There need to be clues.
The purpose of a clue is to point the investigation in a direction, to provoke a question that needs to be answered. A clue can be a million different things. It can be a piece of forensic evidence found at the scene. It can be an eyewitness testimony. It can be a photograph. It can be an anonymous call. Some of these clues will be resolved part way through the book, and some won’t come together until the end. Whatever clues you use, you need to keep them coming if you want readers to keep turning the pages. You want to keep a question in your reader’s mind at all times.

I’ve received submissions where the clues lead to dead ends quickly and new clues aren’t brought in to guide the reader in a new direction. This again causes the investigation to stagnate and lose momentum. So make sure there’s always something left unexplored until you reach the climax.

4. There needs to be building action and tension.
One form of building action is the development of clues that I just described. Another is some outside pressure that makes the protagonist need to solve the crime even faster. For example, pressure from his boss that he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t solve it, or pressure from the police that his aunt is about to be arrested, or pressure from the murderer, like an attempt on the protagonist’s life. In other words, the stakes that your protagonist already has have to get even stakier to build up to a climax.

5. There needs to be surprise.
This means holding off on revealing who the killer is until the last minute. When you give away this information too early, you’ve created one more reason why the reader doesn’t feel compelled to finish the book. Misdirecting the reader with other suspects is a great way to keep the true killer a surprise.

6. There needs to be showdown between the protagonist and the killer.
The protagonist needs to be the one to find and confront the killer. And it’s best if your protagonist does this alone. Why? Because the most satisfying form of climax in a mystery involves your protagonist being in danger, and what could be more dangerous than a one-on-one with the murderer who’s been terrorizing the characters in the book.

This also reinforces your protagonist’s role as the primary driver of action in the story. If your protagonist found the killer and then sent someone else in to make the arrest, your protagonist would come off as passive. For the book to be satisfying, your protagonist has to act to bring about a change in a plot. He has to be the one to wrestle the killer to the ground or to talk him off the ledge. He has to be the only one who knows where the killer is, or has the right skills to bring him to justice, or the only person who put the puzzle together.

Does your mystery have all these things? If it does, congratulations, your book might be ready to send out. If it doesn’t, take a close look at your plot and ask yourself what you can do to build up that area. There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how to write a mystery, but hopefully this will give you a framework to break down the mechanics of your plot to see if it’s running smoothly.

Rules We Learned About Writing that We Need to Unlearn

In grade school, I always sat near the blackboard. With a last name like Bomke you get placed at the beginning of most things. (This is probably why it took me so long to get glasses.)

My memories of English class are scant. I think maybe we did sentence diagramming one day, but the memory might just as easily be from a TV show. Though I’m not sure where or when, there were certain rules I learned about writing growing up that working in publishing has rid me of. I continue to see authors follow these well-meaning but ineffective guidelines in their writing, so I thought it would be useful to lay them out.

Rule #1: Use a word other than “said” in dialogue
One thing I do remember vividly is being given a list of words other than “said” that I was meant to use when writing dialogue. The point of the lesson was to get students to be more creative with their writing, to not just repeat the same word over and over again, but to think outside of the “said” box. This is a good lesson in general. I’m a big fan of varying word choice, as I mentioned in a previous blog. But if you open most published books, you’ll see that most of the dialogue statements use “said” and most of the dialogue questions use “asked.” Why? Because dialogue should be so effortless that the reader forgets they’re reading dialogue and is just hearing the characters speak. A word like “said” is so basic that often when we read it in dialogue, we don’t even notice it. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, so our attention remains focused on the words the character is saying. If you used a word like “queried” or “speculated” instead, it would pop out more, which would remind the reader “hey, you’re reading dialogue right now,” which in turn would take the reader out of the moment and create distance between the reader and the character. The difference may be subtle, or even subconscious, but to keep that close connection between the reader and your narrator, it’s better for your dialogue tags not to stand out.

Rule #2: Use uncommon words to make your writing stand out
Like I said, I’m all for varying word choice. When this goes wrong in my opinion is when an author uses words that are too unusual or academic.

Sometimes at conferences I’ll do a panel where the moderator reads aloud the first page of an author’s book, and my fellow agents and I will comment on it. The authors are anonymous, but they are conference attendees who are likely sitting in the audience. I remember one opening page that described a war scene. I think there were shots fired, bombs dropped, people running for shelter, but despite all this action the scene wasn’t exciting, I didn’t feel like I was really there in the moment. There were a few reasons for this, and a big one was the word choice. The author had sprinkled in a number of “SAT words”—words you learn to take the SATs, but most people don’t use in real life. This made the writing feel stilted and formal. It didn’t have the immediacy of say writing that focuses on sensory imagery using simple words. I remember there was a camel in the scene. The first time it was mentioned, the author used “camel.” The second time it was mentioned, the author used “dromedary.” Normally I would applaud this word choice variation. But the word “dromedary” is so outside of everyday use, that it just made writing feel more stilted. (I would’ve rather the author used “camel” a second time.) When I read writing like this, sometimes I feel like the author had a thesaurus next to them, and they were looking for the most unusual words to make their writing pop. I’ve got nothing against thesauruses. I use thesaurus.com all the time. (I even used it for this blog.) But I don’t think big or unusual words should be used for their own sake. I don’t think they make a person’s writing better. They often make it worse. So excogitate that exhortation!

Rule #3: Start by describing the setting
Again with this lesson, our teachers were urging us to be creative. To think about the setting and anchor the reader in it, so that they would know the time and location in which the story takes place. This is good advice. In fact, I also believe it’s important to anchor the reader in the setting early on. But it’s more important to open with action that anchors the reader in the character. When I get a submission that spends a paragraph describing the setting before it introduces the action or the characters, I stop reading and move on to the next one. Because if I don’t know the person who lives in this setting, then why do I care about the setting?

Instead I urge writers to open with action that shows me who a character is, and gradually bring in whatever setting details are relevant to anchor the reader. For instance, if it’s set during the Victorian era, you can show that through details like what the character is wearing, what kind of transportation they have available, etc. There’s no need to spend a paragraph describing horse-drawn carriages moving across Trafalgar Square from a distant 3rd person POV. Instead show this setting from your protagonist’s POV. Have her narrate about the steady rocking of the carriage, how it’s like the ocean at low tide. Have her notice the onion skins and dog poop littering the street, clinging to the hems of ladies’ dresses. This kind of opening allows you to do all three things at once: open with action, ground the reader in the character, and ground the reader in the setting.

Rule #4: Describe what your character looks like early on
This early writing prompt was meant to get students to think about who their character is, which is one of the most important aspects of any story. And defining a character by how he looks is easier for children than, for instance, defining a character by his deep-seated emotional issues. But the truth is that how a character looks has virtually nothing to do with who he is, so these kinds of descriptions are often irrelevant in a novel. In fact, they’ve been done so often that they’ve become cliché. If I had a dollar for every submission I got where a character glances at a mirror and describes what he or she looks like, I would be on my own private island guarded by French bulldogs wearing striped shirts and berets. While there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with describing what your character looks like in the opening, descriptions that don’t move the story along fall under the category of an “info dump.” An info dump pauses the action to explain something to the reader. Often it’s something the reader doesn’t need to know right that second. Or it’s something the reader does need to know, but the author couldn’t figure out how to weave it in more naturally, so it feels tacked on.

The only time when it might be useful to describe what your character looks like in the opening is when how they look ties in to the story’s central conflict. For instance, if a girl is teased because she has red hair or because she wears hand-me-downs from her aunt, then those aspects of how she looks could be mentioned early on. But I don’t necessarily need to know other aspects of how she looks (what color eyes she has, how tall she is, etc) if they don’t relate to the central conflict of her being teased.

All of these rules had a purpose at the time we learned them. They taught us the building blocks of writing, and got us to think outside the box. But it’s even more important to learn the rules of contemporary publishing, what’s normal, what’s over-done, what’s fresh. I always feel like the best way to soak up this knowledge is to be an avid reader in the genre you’re writing in. Then you can learn the norms of the genre, and know what’s out there, and use that information to guide you in the right direction. And you get to read a lot of books. What’s better than that?

Making that Connection

When you think of your all-time favorite books, what do they have in common? For me, it’s a deep connection to the characters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters and I have similar life experiences, but that the characters are grappling with emotions that I’ve felt, which makes me feel a kinship to them. And once you’ve gotten your readers to feel that kinship and empathy for your characters, they will keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the characters. Do the characters reach their goals? Do they overcome their obstacles? Getting readers to invest in your characters is paramount to not just capturing but sustaining their interest over roughly 300 pages. So how do you do that? Here are some tips to crafting memorable, connectable characters from page one:

Show, Don’t Tell
I’m sure we’ve all heard this writing adage 20 million times, but given how often I see “telling writing” in submissions, it’s a lesson worth repeating. Here’s an example of telling writing: “I felt so sad I could hardly stand it.” The problem with this kind of sentence is I have no idea what it means to be “so sad I could hardly stand it.” One person might describe feeling this way after the death of a family member, whereas another person might say this when they don’t get to check their Instagram for a few hours because their iPhone is being fixed. Sadness is relative to the person describing it. And even if the character clarifies what they’re sad about, like for instance, the death of a family member, I still don’t know what that sadness feels like, because it’s relative to the character’s relationship to that family member. And even if that’s clarified, if the character says the relative was like her best friend, I still don’t know what that feels like. If I’ve lost a person who was like my best friend, maybe I can try to project my own experience onto that character, but it won’t give me a clear picture of who this character is, which means I won’t be able to connect to her.

Now let’s consider the same idea with showing writing: “I was a balloon losing air, flabby and wrinkled from being passed through too many hands. I wanted to lie down. I wanted to cover myself with the guest room’s worn wool blanket and lose myself in its whiteness.” The first sentence uses a metaphor, as the character refers to herself directly as a “balloon losing air.” And then it goes on to describe qualities that a balloon losing air has, it’s “flabby” and “wrinkled.” Anyone who has seen such a balloon knows what it looks like. This invites the reader to imagine what it would feel like to be the balloon. And obviously it relates to what is going on in the scene: the character is at the funeral for a person who meant the world to her. People are hugging her and sharing their condolences, but this just makes her feel like she has less room to breathe. She wants to lie down. She wants to lose herself under a blanket. In other words, she wants to dissolve, to cease to exist. That’s how much this person meant to her. That’s how oppressive the atmosphere of the funeral is to her. And again, she’s given us a visceral thing that people can easily imagine, what it feels like to be completely covered by a blanket.

So showing writing means anchoring the reader in a visceral experience, whereas telling writing relies on abstract concepts that are too open to interpretation. (Showing writing also often involves literary devices, like similes and metaphors, but that’s not a requirement.) Because I know what a flabby balloon that’s been passed around too much feels like, and I know what it’s like to be covered by a blanket, I can experience her feelings and more importantly begin to care about her. And if I’m worried for her, if I want to see her make it through her grief ok, then you’ve got me turning the pages.

Infuse Your Character’s POV in EVERYTHING
What I mean is don’t just use showing writing to describe things, use showing writing that shows readers how the character views the world. I specifically chose to refer to the blanket in the above example as “worn” in order to imply that the character also feels worn. If my point was simply that the blanket was old, I could’ve used “timeworn” or “antique” or even “treasured,” but all of those would insinuate that the blanket was old in a way that made it special or valuable, which would work against the character’s grieving mood and diminish the effect I was going for. I also could’ve had my character say she wants to lose herself in the blanket’s “folds,” but I specifically chose to use “whiteness” instead to further enhance the idea of her wanting to vanish, to be consumed by something that would erase her. While “folds” wouldn’t have been a bad choice, in theory, it’s more expected and it doesn’t do much to show her mood. To be lost under the folds of a blanket implies you’re still there under the blanket, whereas to be lost in whiteness has the additional connotation of being erased, so it creates more of a mood. And if you’ve given me a mood through showing writing, I can connect to it.

You have so many choices of how to describe something, so pick words that entrench us in the character’s POV. A woman jogging down the beach at dawn can describe “a pink sky,” which doesn’t show us anything about her character. She can describe “a bubble-gum pink sky” which tells me she’s in a cheerful mood. She can describe the sky as being “the color of watered-down blood,” which gives me an ominous feeling, like she’s about to kill someone. They’re all pink. Frankly, it’s not important to me that the sky is pink in the first place unless you’re using its pinkness to show me something about the character. So no pink skies! Give me watered-down blood or nothing!

Roll Over and Show Me Your Belly
This suggestion is possibly more subjective, since I see plenty of published books without it, but for me to fully connect to a character, I need to see her vulnerability. This vulnerability can come in the form of grief, like our previous example. It can be a feeling of insecurity. It can be fear. It can be the most important thing in the world to a character, like her dog, or her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. It can be a lot of things. Everyone has vulnerabilities, so when a character doesn’t, I feel like there’s wall around her preventing me from seeing hers. It doesn’t tell me that she has no vulnerabilities, just that she doesn’t trust me enough to share them with me. To connect to a character, I need to feel like I understand her, and I’ll never fully understand a character who hides her innermost feelings.

(This isn’t to say that if you’re writing a psychological thriller, for example, that the character needs to say from the get-go that she killed her husband. Certain genres rely on the character hiding certain things, on being an unreliable narrator, and I’m not suggesting the reader should know everything about a character if it interferes with the surprise factor. But the reader should know what makes a character tick, or else they’ll never make a full connection. You can also lead the reader to think they understand a character, and then twist the ending so they realize they never did understand her, but I digress.)

Like everything else in publishing, whether or not a reader connects to your character is subjective. Even if you do all of the above, some readers just won’t connect to your character, and that’s ok. It just means your book isn’t right for them. But all the same you should do whatever you can to make your character “connectable.” Show your character’s unique point of view and emotional state through showing writing, making the most out of every word (no pink skies!) and revealing their vulnerabilities. You just might make your own publishing connection.

In-Comp-Parable

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most important and undervalued phrases in the publishing world: comp titles. Comp titles are published books that you would compare your book to. They are similar to your book in terms of plot, characters, style or concept.

Why are comp titles important? They hook an agent’s interest. If you say your book is in the vein of The Secret History by Donna Tartt and that’s one of the agent’s favorite books of all time, then you’ve got their attention. They also make it easier for agents and editors to pitch your book. Agents use comp titles all the time in their pitches to editors, and editors use them in their pitches to the rest of their team, so if you’ve already done the work for them and found the ideal comp titles, it makes it easier for them to pitch it to other people.

Here are some effective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French…” This type of comp is very straightforward in that it compares your book directly to the works of another author. When I see this kind of comp, I expect your book to embody some of the qualities that make Tana French’s books so dynamic, like really deep character development in your cop protagonist, a memorable voice and vivid, literary writing. Or perhaps your police procedural is also set in Ireland, so your work is similar to French’s in that sense. This kind of comp wording is good when you feel like your book is similar to another author’s books in more ways than one. You can also refer to more than one author in a “in the vein of” comp (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of Tana French and Caz Frear”), or you can use titles instead of authors (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness”), or more than one title (“I would love to send you my moody police procedural in the vein of The Likeness and Sweet Little Lies”).
  2. “I would love to send you my historical psychological thriller that I’d describe as Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl…” Instead of comparing your book directly to another book, this kind of comp suggests that your book is a mash-up of two books, combining different aspects of each book to create something new. In this example, maybe your book is set in the South during the Civil War, like Gone with the Wind, but the plot focuses on the cat-and-mouse game between estranged spouses, like Gone Girl. The great thing about the “X meets Y” comp is that it allows you to combine two books that people normally wouldn’t put together, which makes the concept of your book sound fresh and unique. If I was pitched a book as “Gone with the Wind meets Gone Girl,” I would be all over it, because I would be curious to see how the author combined such different novels.
  3. “I would love to send you my young adult novel that combines the humor of Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda with the dark fantasy of The Hazel Wood…” In this case, you’re not just giving the reader a mash-up of two books or authors, you’re specifying what qualities each of those books has that make it similar to your book. This more specific “aspect of X meets aspect of Y” comp can be useful if you’re having a hard time coming up with direct comp titles.
  4. “I would love to send you my literary horror novel that I’d describe as Pan’s Labyrinth meets Dark City…” This the same as the “X meets Y” comp format listed above, but it’s with movie titles instead of book titles. Movies provide a quick reference point just like books, so it’s fine to use them as comps if they’re a closer match for your book.

Here are some ineffective ways to use comp titles:

  1. “My dystopian YA thriller is similar to The Hunger Games, but with much better writing and character development…” You should never criticize another book when you make a comp, because a) you sound like an arrogant jerk, b) the agent you’re sending your query to may have worked on the book you’re criticizing or may really like it. Not to mention, even if you didn’t like The Hunger Games you have to admit that it must’ve done something right to have been so popular.
  2. “My fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter…” One problem with this kind of comp is that it can never live up to the hype. I mean, it’s possible that your fantasy middle grade series will be the next Harry Potter, but is it likely? No. Because Harry Potter was such a massive success that 99.99999999999999% of middle grade fantasy novels will not measure up. So why set yourself up for an almost impossible goal? The other concern I have when I see comps like this is that maybe the author doesn’t know the middle grade fantasy market very well. If an author chooses comps that weren’t the most popular books in their sub-genre, but did relatively well or were well-reviewed, then that tells me the author knows the sub-genre deeply enough to go beyond the most obvious comps. So conversely, when the author chooses the most popular book in that sub-genre that everyone, even non middle grade fantasy readers, knows, it doesn’t give me the assurance that the author is well-read in the sub-genre, knows what’s already been done and what readers are looking for.
  3. “My quirky travelogue will appeal to readers of On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas…” The first issue I have with this kind of comp is that it repeats the same errors of the previous bad comp of choosing the most popular books in that sub-genre. The second issue I have is that these are both books that were published over 40 years ago. They were revolutionary for their time, but it’s been so long since they were published that oodles of people have tried to replicate their style since then and it’s no longer revolutionary or fresh. Again, this makes me concerned that the author isn’t up to date on the current travelogues being published and doesn’t understand the current expectations of the sub-genre. I feel the same way when I see YA novels pitched as being in the vein of Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders. It tells me the author doesn’t know the current market for YA fiction, so I feel less confident that their book will appeal to the current market. So when you pick your comps, try to pick ones that have been published in the last 10 years.
  4. “My book is unlike any other book published.” I see this from time to time, and it raises all kinds of red flags in my mind. It tells me that the author hasn’t done any research into comps and doesn’t know the market for their book, which makes their book more difficult to sell. Publishers need to have a clear idea of “how to position” a book, meaning they need to understand who the readers for a book are and how to reach them. If they can’t get a clear idea of who the book will appeal to, they will turn down the book. So when an author tells me there are no comps for their book, they’re basically saying they don’t know who their audience is.

The easiest and most effective way to make great comps is to be a fervent reader of the genre you’re writing in. When you know what’s out there, you know where your book fits in the market, and that will turn your query from complete to incomparable!

Three Tiny Things to Improve Your Writing: Is Everyone This Neurotic, or Is It Just Me?

I’ve been editing books for about 15 years now, so a lot of edits I suggest are based on intuition. Something about the writing irks me and I make note of it, sometimes without even knowing why it’s irking me. Often there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about the sentence, it’s just not amazing. Unraveling my reasons sometimes takes a bit of thought and today you lucky readers get to hear that bit of thought. Here are three tiny things that (in my humble opinion) will improve your writing effortlessly.

Varying Word Choice and Sentence Structure
As any of my poor, beleaguered clients will tell you, I lose my shit if I see the same word more than once in close proximity. Well, maybe not lose my shit so much as compulsively request that they change it. Why? It’s not grammatically incorrect, but it makes the writing feel repetitive and unimaginative. Writing is so much more sparkly and interesting when it has variety to it. And variety includes varying word choice and sentence structure.

What qualifies as using a word multiple times in “close proximity”? I tend to say twice in the same sentence or two sentences in a row, but it also depends on how it’s used. For example, you have a scene where your protagonist talks to a man at his house that goes on for five pages. When the protagonist gets to the house, his internal narration describes the house as “cozy.” A page later, he describes the house in internal narration again and he uses “cozy” again. Even though these two “cozy”s are a page apart, if you use “cozy” every time you describe the house, it’s going to get repetitive and boring pretty fast. There are a million synonyms for “cozy,” so use one of them instead of “cozy” for a second time.

Now I am not completely neurotic, so I know there are situations where there is no other possible word to describe something (like “kitchen”) or that any other possible synonyms will make the writing sound forced and unnatural (like using “dromedary” in the place of “camel”), so I allow exceptions to this compulsion of mine all the time. (I also don’t apply this rule to commonly-used words like “the” or “and”.) But if it is possible to use a different word without ruining the writing, I would prefer that.

Same goes with varying sentence structure. At a certain point using the same sentence structure repeatedly makes your writing become formulaic and flat. Here’s an example:

He walked outside and looked at the sky. He waited for the sun to rise. He stood there for a long time. He wanted to see the sun one more time before he died.

All of these sentences use the same structure (“He (verb)”) and they’re all short, simple sentences. To improve this, the author should change the structure of some of the sentences, maybe open some with prepositional phrases, and also try to vary the sentence lengths, so they’re not all short and choppy.

Cutting Out Unnecessary Words
For me, unnecessary words fall into two categories: 1) words that make a sentence longer and more convoluted than it has to be without adding new meaning, and 2) words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied.

Here’s an example of the first category:

I set my ring of five keys down on the wood table in the front hall next to the vase.

My first comment on this is: Why specify that it’s a ring of keys? Most people’s keys are on a ring, so mentioning the ring doesn’t add anything.

Also, why is it important that there are five keys? Unless the number of keys have been given some additional meaning (like there should be six keys, but he’s lost one of them), there’s no reason to mention how many keys there are.

Next, why is it important that the table is made of wood? A lot of tables are made of wood, so “wood” doesn’t impart any new meaning to the sentence. If you said “the 18th century, hand-carved Spanish oak table,” then I get the impression that the protagonist is rich, or really into antiques (which you typically have to be rich to buy), so it does alter the meaning of the sentence and add value to it in a way “wood” doesn’t.

And finally, does it matter that he puts the keys next to a vase? Does it matter that there’s a vase on the table period? If not, why mention it?

If one of my authors gave me this sentence, I’d suggest they condense it to: “I set my keys down on the table in the front hall.” See how much tighter that is? And nothing has been lost in the meaning of the sentence.

My personal philosophy is that any words that don’t alter the meaning of the sentence drag a sentence down with useless filler, so keep an eye out for any unnecessary words in your writing.

Now for words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied. Here’s an example:

“I’m totally over him, I swear!”

Trisha’s eyebrow shot up. She didn’t believe me.

The way that Trisha arches her eyebrow implies that she doesn’t believe the narrator, so it’s superfluous to then tell the reader, “She didn’t believe me.”

Here’s another example:

He put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it clockwise, pushed the door inwards and walked through it.

This is a really drawn out way to say, “He walked through the door.” All those little steps of putting his hand on the door and twisting it, etc. are implied in the action of walking through a door, so it’s unnecessary to mention them.

Avoiding Double Possessives
Now this is a truly tiny thing and it really could just be me, but I feel like a sentence reads better when it doesn’t have a double possessive in it. Here’s an example of a double possessive:

She placed her headband on her dresser.

In this case, I would prefer: “She placed the headband on her dresser” or “She placed her headband on the dresser.” Why? To me, it sounds clunky to use “her” twice, or at least it sounds more smooth and seamless not to use it. Yes, it slightly changes the meaning so that the noun without the possessive might not belong to her, but my question is—is it important that the noun belong to her? Does it matter whether the dresser in question belongs to her? Probably not, unless this passage is about her fighting with her sister over their father’s old furniture. In that case it might be really important that this is her dresser. But if it’s unimportant that it be made clear that both nouns belong to the character, to me, it sounds better to just use the possessive with one noun. After all, you’re not definitively saying the noun without the possessive doesn’t belong her, you’re just leaving it open to interpretation. And most people will interpret it to mean it does belong to her unless they’re given a reason to believe it doesn’t. For example, if she’s staying at a hotel, then the reader knows the dresser doesn’t belong to her (unless of course her family owns the hotel).

These are just a handful of types of fun suggestions you’ll see on your manuscript if you become my client. That is, of course, unless you’ve already fixed these things, in which case you get a gold star!

The 9 Most Common Mistakes I See on Opening Pages

A while ago when I solicited advice on what topics to cover in my blogs, someone asked me to cover common mistakes I see authors making in their first pages, so here is my rough list.

One quick note before I start the list, just to give you an idea of my mindset going into a manuscript. When I read a submission, I don’t ask myself: “Is this a good book?” or “Is this person a good writer?” I ask: “Am I interested in reading more?” There’s no such thing as an objectively good book, because reading is a subjective experience, so I don’t attempt to judge what’s “good.” All I’m looking for is a desire to read more. If I don’t feel compelled to read more, I stop reading.

So without further ado, here are the most common reasons I stop reading:

No Sense of POV
There’s a description of a place or thing or situation, but no sense of who’s telling the story. Sometimes I can’t even tell if the book is written in 1st or 3rd person until a couple paragraphs down. Readers connect to characters. We’re human so it’s through other humans (characters) that we become anchored in a story, so when there’s no sense of who’s telling the story, what their perspective is and how that perspective acts as a filter for the description of a place/thing/situation, then there’s nothing for me to latch onto, there’s nothing to compel me to keep reading.

Voice Doesn’t Feel Natural
In this case, the book has a POV, it just doesn’t feel like a real person. Voice is a hard thing to pin down, but the best way that I can describe it is the sense that I am being told a story by a person with a distinct point of view. If that voice doesn’t feel natural, or it feels distant, then I won’t connect to it. Two things that can prevent a voice from feeling natural are over-narrating and over-thesaurusing.

Over-narrating is mixing explanatory language into narration. Here’s an example, “As he crept forward, he began to consider the possibility that there was no one in the car.” Not a bad sentence you might say. But what if it was phrased like this: “He inched forward, light as a tightrope walker. The windows of the Subaru remained dark and motionless. What if there was no one in the car?” When you compare the two, the second description puts you more firmly in the physicality of the scene, while the first one feels distant and cerebral, because it’s over-narrated.

Over-thesaurusing is basically what it sounds like. It’s when the writing is so full of big, arcane words that it doesn’t feel natural. For the most part, you want to use language that people would commonly use in dialogue, even during narration, because it keeps the voice relatable and realistic. I’ve had authors respond to this advice with: “But I do have a really good vocabulary, and I actually use these words in real life.” That’s great, but to most people convoluted locutions pejorate an otherwise superlative tome. (Try saying that 10 times fast!)

Abstract Concepts
Sometimes I’ll see submissions that open with an unknown narrator waxing on about an abstract concept, like time or love. Assuming it says something fresh and unique, this is not a bad opening if it’s limited to a few sentences, but when it goes on for a quarter of a page or more, it begins to get boring. I want to have a sense of who the characters are and see some action to propel the plot into motion, and these kinds of openings lack both of those things.

Too Much Action
By this I mean, opening with an action sequence without any grounding in the characters. Yes, you want to have some action in your opening, but you also want the reader to connect to your character and to understand what’s going on. When these kinds of openings go south is when the author withholds too much information about what’s going on. I think they’re withholding the information in order to intrigue the reader, and this is effective for a short while, but if the information is withheld for too long, the reader will lose interest.

Here’s a common example: A girl is being chased. We don’t know who/what is chasing her (is it a family member, the mafia, a four-foot tall boa constrictor she just released from a laboratory that experiments on animals, etc.), we don’t know why she’s being chased (did she steal something from the drug store, is trying to escape a monster, etc.), we don’t know what world this takes place in (is it a dystopian world with an oppressive government she’s fighting against, is it 400 B.C. Rome, is it present-day Alabama, etc.), and we don’t know who she is. How long can descriptions of her running, hearing footsteps echoing behind her, and turning down dark alleys be intriguing enough to hook a reader’s interest? I’d say maybe six sentences, maybe less, depending on the writing. After that, you need to bring in more details of where she is, why she’s being chased, who/what’s chasing her and who she is. Though ideally you’d be able to bring these things in from the beginning.

Too Much Dialogue
Dialogue is a form of action, so I’ll often see books that open with it. The problem comes when it’s just dialogue, with no internal narration to give me an idea of who the characters are and the world they inhabit. While dialogue can show me both of those things, it can’t do it quickly or effectively enough on its own. So my suggestion if you want to open with dialogue is to just use one or two lines of it, and then add some internal narration that shows me who the characters are and what’s going on in the scene.

Nothing New Under the Sun
There are no unusual descriptions/phrases/images/ideas that take me to a new level of understanding. This is probably the hardest thing to pinpoint. When I read a submission, I’m hoping to be surprised. I’m hoping to see something described in a way I’ve never seen before, or to have an idea expressed in a way I’ve never thought of before.

Part of this is that real people are complex and unique, and when you have a character that perceives something in a new way, it makes me feel like the character is a real person, which takes me out of myself and into the character’s head.

The more obvious reason is that there are already so many books out on the market, and every time you send out a query, you’re making a case that despite all the books already available, the agent/editor should take a chance on you and your book. And if you don’t give the reader something new, your case won’t be very strong.

Here’s an example of a description that won’t grab my interest: describing a wolf as “lupine.” Lupine means wolf-like, so this is basically saying: the wolf is like a wolf. If you described a sparrow as lupine, I’d be intrigued, because I’d be thinking “how can a tiny little bird be wolf-like?” (Of course, you’d need to be able to explain this. Maybe you could describe the bird’s feathers as sticking up like fur, a certain fierceness in the sparrow’s eyes and posture, etc.)

Other descriptions that won’t catch my eye: majestic mountains, a glowing moon, fierce waves, a blinding sun. These aren’t tautologies the way lupine = wolf, but they are adjectives that are commonly used with those nouns, so they don’t show me something new. If I saw mountains described as wimpy, I might be intrigued. It’s not necessarily about describing something the opposite way it’s commonly described, it’s about describing it in a way that it isn’t commonly described, which then tells me something about the protagonist and how he/she views the world.

And this doesn’t just apply to how you use adjectives to describe nouns, it can and should be a new way of thinking about description period.

Telling Writing
The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is one I urge writers to really internalize. Telling writing explains to the reader who the characters are and what they feel, which doesn’t actually put the reader in the character’s head space. Showing writing, on the other hand, allows the reader to see/smell/touch/taste/hear what the character is seeing/smelling/touching/tasting/hearing. With telling writing, the reader stays outside of the character. With showing writing, the reader becomes the character.

Here’s an example of telling writing: “He felt scared and alone.” Do you feel scared and alone when you read that? Probably not. Because you don’t know what scared and alone means for that character, you don’t know what it feels like for that character.

Info Dump
An info dump is a form of telling writing, but more specifically it’s telling the reader a bunch of information in one place, as opposed to weaving it into the story through the action. For example, sometimes I’ll see this in a dialogue: “As you know, we’re stuck on this planet until someone rescues us.” A better way to show this bit of information is for the characters to talk about where they found food, if the radio to ground control is working, what’s weird about the planet, etc.

Sometimes it’s information the reader doesn’t need to know at this stage of the game, such as what a character looks like. The only time when it’s important to know what a character looks like is when it influences the plot in some way. For example, if it’s about a girl who’s bullied for being plus size, then it’s important to know that she’s plus size. But I still don’t need to know whether her hair is brown or blond, because it doesn’t affect the story in any way.

Common Tropes
There are certain openings agents have seen so many times that they’ve become cliché. They include opening with the main character dreaming and/or waking up, using the character looking in the mirror as an opportunity to info dump what they look like, opening with a prologue of a killer stalking his prey (typically a man stalking a woman). If it’s been done a million times before, don’t do it.

How You’ll Get an Agent in 2018

2018 is your year. Anything’s possible. Here’s how you’ll get an agent this year:

You’ll do your research.
While sending your book out to as many agents as possible increases your chances of getting published, you want to make sure that you’re sending it to agents who are actively seeking books like yours. That means that the agent: a) represents your genre, and b) is open to submissions. Sending your book to agents who don’t meet these requirements is a waste of your time and energy, and it’s also a waste of your emotion when they turn it down. The publishing industry is rife with rejection already, so there’s no need to add more to the pile by sending your book to someone who isn’t right for it.

How do you know if an agent is right for your book? Research the hell out of them. The best place to find current information about an agent’s interests and whether or not they’re open to submissions is on the agent’s website. There are other websites like Manuscriptwishlist.com that have more detailed bios and submissions list. And MSWishlist.com has a collection of #MSWL (manuscript wishlist) tweets from agents and editors.

Another way to find agents who are looking for your kind of book is to read other books in your genre that you feel are similar in topic and/or style, and then look at the acknowledgements in the back to see who represented it.

Even googling the agent can sometimes provide you with interviews they’ve done or blogs they’ve written, which can give you a better idea of their interests.

And of course, there are book resources like the Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.

You’ll continually develop your craft.
You might keep getting turned down because you just haven’t found the right agent yet. Or there could be ways to improve your writing to help you get to that next step.

There are a multitude of ways to develop your writing craft. Here are a handful:

  • Read books on writing.
  • Read agent blogs on writing.
  • Read books in your genre and analyze them in terms of writing, characters and plot and compare them against your own book. (I know it’s hard to be objective about your own book but try.)
  • Attend conferences where you can get feedback on your writing from agents and editors, or do contests where you win agent critique (sometimes a part of conferences, sometimes posted on Twitter, etc).
  • Join writer’s groups or get beta readers (ideally people who have been published by traditional publishers. Everyone has an opinion that is valuable, but the closer you can get to traditional publishing experts (like authors who’ve been traditionally published and successful, editors or agents) the more likely that feedback will bring your writing to that next step.)

You’ll work on your platform.
How much of a platform do you need to get published? It depends on what genre you’re writing in. If you’re writing nonfiction, you need to have a serious platform to break into the market. If you’re writing fiction, you don’t necessarily need a platform, but it will definitely help you if you have one.

How will you build your platform? There are many ways to go about it. Here are some ideas:

  • Increase your social media following.
  • Create a website, blog or podcast that offers valuable content to potential followers.
  • Drive traffic to this website, blog or podcast by interacting with other bloggers/podcasters/websiters who focus on a similar topic and becoming a part of their community.
  • Create a viral video.
  • Give speeches to large audiences on a regular basis.
  • Make connections with others in your field who can offer some kind of marketing assistance. (For example, if you know another author in your field with a large Twitter following or email list, see if that person will promote you to their followers in some way.)

Find your niche and build your platform there. Every little bit of platform helps.

You’ll participate.
In conferences, in Twitter pitch parties, in writing groups. Whichever medium you prefer, engage with others about your book. Writing is a very solitary, very personal activity, and it can be difficult for some writers to bring others in to the insular world of their writing, or for themselves to go out and join with others, but the benefits make up for whatever discomfort that comes with making the personal public.

By joining in conferences, you learn more about the craft of writing and the expectations of the publishing industry. You may even get to pitch your book to agents and editors, who can then request to read your manuscript. And if it’s a conference that offers advanced reading appointments with agents and editors, you can get feedback on your writing from industry professionals.

By joining in Twitter, you get connected to massive writing community that is majorly supportive, and dialed in to the publishing industry. And if you join in Twitter pitch parties, you get the opportunity of pitching your book to a sea of agents, getting requests from them, and getting your manuscript read more quickly.

By joining in writer’s groups, you get feedback on your writing and the support of others in the same position as yourself.


Here’s to 2018: the year you get an agent!

The Submission Process Part 3, After Submission

In this final installment of my submission process series, I’ll tackle what happens after submission, whether the submission resulted in a book deal or not.

No Deal Next Steps:
Despite the best efforts of yourself and your agent, your book didn’t sell during the first round of submissions. At this point you should talk to your agent about next steps. The first question you can ask is: will there be a round two? If the agent says yes, then the next thing you need to determine is whether or not it makes sense for you to revise the manuscript before round two. If most of the editors that read your book turned it down for the same reason, then it makes sense to revise it. If the reasons they turned it down varied wildly, then it can be hard to determine what changes need to be made, if any. Talk to your agent about revisions before you invest a lot of time making them to see whether or not she thinks it would be worthwhile.

If your agent is not planning to send out your book for round two, you have a few options:

1. Give her a new book to send out.
You may have a novel you wrote a long time ago or one you’re in the process of writing. In either case, this novel is a fresh slate, so your agent may want to send it out. However, your agent isn’t required to send out this other novel if she doesn’t feel it’s ready or right for her. At which point, you may have a third novel she might be interested in, or you may want to try one of these other three options.

2. Void your agency agreement and try to find a new agent for your book.
When and how you can cancel your agency agreement should be spelled out in the agreement itself, so make sure you look at that before you move in this direction. Assuming nothing prevents you from voiding it, make sure your agent gives you a list of the editors that read your book before you start querying new agents. The reason for this is that any future agents who might represent you on this book can’t send your book to the same imprints or publishers that already turned it down, so the agent will ask to see this list before making a decision on your book. If the list contains all of the imprints he would have sent it to, then he may decide not to represent you on this book. Many agents also will not represent a book that they don’t believe they can sell to a major publisher, so if your book has been turned down by every or even most major imprints, then a new agent doesn’t have much of an incentive to represent you on that particular book. In which case, you may want to try option 3.

3. Try to find a new agent for a new book.
Your new book is a blank slate that doesn’t have the submission baggage of your initial book. Hence, agents can consider it with fresh eyes. When I receive a query from an author who was previously represented on a different book, it typically makes me pay more attention to it, because I know the author has a talent that has been recognized by a fellow agent.

If none of the above options work out, you can try option 4.

4. Self-publish.
I have mixed feelings about self-publishing, as I detailed in this blog, but for some authors it’s the best option.

Yes Deal Next Steps:
YAAAAAAAAAYYYY!!!!! You received an offer on your book!!!! Next, your agent notifies the other editors reading your book that you have an offer and often gives them a deadline by which they need to make their own offer.

If no other editors make an offer, then your agent negotiates just with the offering editor for things like a higher advance, possibly higher royalty rates, and control over sub-rights. If you have offers from two editors, you have more leverage during negotiations. If you have offers from three or more editors, your agent will have an auction. During an auction, each publisher makes an opening bid, then the agent notifies the editors that don’t have the high bid what the high bid is, and the lower bidding editors increase their bids. Then the agent notifies the editors what the new high bid is, and so on and so forth until things start stagnating, at which point the agent asks the editors for their final bid. And once the agent shares those final bids with the author, the author decides who he wants to work with. At which point the agent notifies the winning editor that author accepts the offer.

One difference between publishing and a lot of other fields is that once an agent accepts an offer on the author’s behalf, the publishing process swings into motion, even though there is no contract yet. The contract will come from the publisher’s contract department, not the editor. The contract department has a backlog of contracts they’re working on, so it’s not unusual for it to take 2-4 weeks to receive a contract from them.

In the meantime, the editor may ask the author to fill out a questionnaire detailing the author’s contact information, bio, websites, blogs, marketing connections, a short synopsis of the book, etc. The editor may also provide the author with editorial feedback on the book and a delivery date by which the author needs to turn in his revisions.

Once the agent receives the contract, she will review it herself and pass it on to the author to review and/or share with a lawyer (or anyone else) should he choose to do so. At this point, the author has already accepted the basic terms of the contract (advance, royalty rates, sub-rights control), so these terms are not open to negotiation. What is open to negotiation are areas like: royalty rates not presented during initial offer (for things like highly discounted copies), cover approval/consultation, the definition for how a book is deemed “out of print” (which is important if the author ever wants their rights reverted), the number of free copies the author receives and the discount at which he can purchase more copies, the author’s responsibility in the event of a lawsuit over the book and his control over any settlements, and a myriad of little details like that. The agent then compiles a contract memo detailing the revisions she and the author are requesting, and sends it to the contract department. It can take the contract department anywhere from a day to a few weeks to respond to this request. Some revisions they will easily agree to and others they may push back on, so it’s not unusual for there to be multiple rounds of negotiations.

Once you’ve accepted the final terms of the contract, huzzah! You have a book deal!

The Submission Process Part 2, During Submission

Finally the wait is over! Here is my second installment of blogs detailing the submission process in which I’ll tackle what happens during submission.

Submission Day!

Your manuscript is polished to a fine sheen, and your agent’s pitch and editor list are nailed down. Now it’s time to actually start submissions! Depending on the agent’s personal style, she may pitch editors either over the phone or via email. And editors can ask to see the manuscript, or they might decline if they don’t feel it’s right for them. In some cases, they may recommend someone else at their imprint who they think would be a better fit for it. In other cases, they may not respond at all, which is its own kind of “thanks, but no thanks.”

The degree to which your agent keeps you in the loop about who’s asked for it varies agent by agent, so this can be a good question to ask during your initial phone call with the agent. Ask the agent what his typical communication style is during submissions. Does he let you know when you receive requests or rejections, or does he just tell you when you’ve received an offer? Most agents fall into the latter category, but at least you’ll know for sure what to expect from your agent if you’ve discussed it.

On Your Mark… Get Set… Wait

If I were to describe what happens during submissions on the author and agent’s end in one word, it would be: waiting. A whole lot of waiting. I once heard an editor say she receives about one manuscript a day. Most manuscripts are roughly 300 pages, so that’s 9,000 pages per month. And typically, they don’t have time to read manuscripts during work. So they need to squeeze in reading time during their commutes, evenings and weekends. And at the same time, they need to edit manuscripts they’ve already acquired. So it can be several weeks or months before editors can look at your manuscript. It also means that they may only read the first page of your book, and then turn it down if they don’t find themselves pulled in by it. It might seem harsh, but it makes sense when they have so much to read and so little time to do it.

Let’s say that an editor reads your complete manuscript and absolutely loves it. What happens next? Often editors, especially ones lower down on the totem pole, will ask some of their coworkers to read it as well to get their feedback. If their coworkers love it just as much as they do, then the editor will present it at the imprint’s weekly editorial meeting to try to get the buy in of her superiors and the marketing department. In advance of the meeting she will prepare a Profit & Loss statement, which is meant to project whether or not the book is financially viable. (For more information on P&L’s, check out Jane Friedman’s super helpful blog here.)

In advance of the meeting, she will also reach out to the agent to find out which other editors at her publishing house are currently considering the manuscript. (This is because only one editor at each publishing house is allowed to make an offer on a book, so that two imprints at the same house don’t end up competing against each other.) The interested editor will then talk to her colleagues at other imprints that are also reading the book, and they will collectively decide who will make an offer, depending on who’s interested in the book and which imprint is the best fit for it.

With the go ahead of the other imprints, the feedback of editors in her imprint and a P&L statement in hand, she presents the book to her editorial board. If she convinces the board of the book’s viability, they will give her clearance to make an offer. She will either call or email the agent to make an offer. (The amount of the advance she offers will be based on the projected sales she estimated in her P&L statement.)

Your agent will then call you to share the fabulous news, and call the other editors still considering the manuscript to let them know you’ve received an offer and give them a deadline by which to make their own offers. If you don’t receive any additional offers, your agent just negotiates with the original editor for a higher advance, possibly higher royalties (depending on what was offered and what’s standard in the industry) and/or control over subrights (if the agent thinks it’s in your best interest to retain the foreign rights, for example). The editor may agree to improvements in these areas, or they may not. If you receive an offer from a second editor, then you have a little more bargaining power. If you receive offers from more than two editors, then your agent will have an auction.

Timing and What Happens In Between

I have authors ask me all the time what the typical turnaround time for all of this to take place. And my answer is that it varies so widely that I don’t know that there is a “typical” turnaround time. I have received “interest” from an editor (telling me she’s going to share the book with her editorial board) within a week a sending a book out. I’ve also received an offer four and a half months after sending it to an editor. I’ve received rejections the same day I sent out a submission. And I’ve had other editors never get back to me about a book they requested, (even after giving them a deadline of six months after I sent it to them).

So in the midst of all this waiting, I follow up with editors. I know agents who wait until editors have had a book for three months before following up with them. I tend to wait two to two and half months. Then I follow up once a month after that. Often editors don’t respond unless they’ve either decided to reject it or they want to make an offer and are somewhere in the process of getting their ducks in a row to do that, at which point they might let me know they’re getting more reads on it, or they might ask me which other editors at their publishing house have it. Editors tend to play their cards close to the vest. They treat their offers like sneak attacks, to prevent agents from warning the other editors reading a book that an offer is coming. So a lot of times, the best indication that an offer is coming is a casual email asking which other editors at their publishing house are reading the book. (Though I’ve also had editors ask me who else is reading it the day they request the manuscript, so it’s even easier for them to sneak an offer on you when you least expect it.)

Round Two or Three or Four

An unfortunate truth of the publishing industry is that not all books sell in the first round of submissions. Sometimes it takes round two, or three, or four before you have a sale. (And sometimes even with four rounds a book doesn’t sell.) So it’s important to have a conversation with your agent before you sign with him to find out what his plan is if it doesn’t sell in the first round. Some agents only do one round. Other agents might ask you to revise the book before they start round two. (I will do this if all the feedback we received from editors said the same thing.)

All the waiting that takes place during the submission process can be maddening (trust me, I know!), but just remember, you’re not the only one waiting. Your agent is right there with you.