How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile

How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile  by Paula Munier 

Everywhere I go I hear writers complain about the black hole that is every literary agent’s in-box—the slush pile—that dark and dangerous place where their queries and manuscripts go in, never to be seen again. Kind of like all those socks that go into the dryer, never to be seen again.

I sympathize, up to a point. Here are the slush-pile facts of the matter, and what to do about it:

Some slush pile stats

I receive some 10,000 queries a year. I got more than a thousand of them my very first week as an agent, and I’ve been behind ever since. Way behind. Most of my fellow agents are drowning in a similar tsunami of unsolicited material. Note: This doesn’t count all the material—queries, proposals, sample pages, partial and full manuscripts—that we’ve asked to see.

For this reason, many agents do not read unsolicited queries at all. Nor do most publishers. I know, I know, it’s a Catch 22.

For many of us who do read unsolicited queries, well, that’s why God made interns. I can hear you cursing at me from here, mortified that the precious job of finding talent should be relegated to interns. I repeat: 10,000 unsolicited queries a year. And may I point out that my actual job is not to read unsolicited queries, my job is to sell my clients’ work.

Only 1 in 200 queries is well-written enough, well-conceived enough, and well-targeted enough to prompt me to ask to see more material. Why? Because many writers simply write a one-size-fits-all query, set up a mail merge that includes every agent in Literary Marketplace, and hit send. This means that they haven’t done their homework and they know nothing about me or the kind of projects I represent. Note: The salutation “Dear Paula Munier” is a dead giveaway.

What to do about it

You can beat the odds, simply by making sure that your queries and proposals and manuscripts fall into the solicited, rather than unsolicited, category.

Research the literary agents you pitch, and only pitch those who rep your genre. Go to conferences, and meet the agents. Hang out on twitter, and meet the agents; participate in online and offline pitch contests and meet the agents; go to your genre association functions and meet the agents. Then, when you follow up, you can set your communication apart by referencing your previous contact in the subject line.

As in: “Requested material from Bouchercon” or “Nice meeting you at the Boston Book Festival” or “Twitter pal writes mystery” or “Loved your panel at the MWA meeting” or “WD says you’re looking for Domestic Thrillers.”

By putting this kind of headline in your subject line, you’re far more likely to catch the agent’s attention. I always skim the subject lines of all the emails that come in, and if I see something from someone I’ve met, I’ll look myself. (The rest of the slush pile I often leave to the interns.)

Beat the in-box odds

Whenever you send out an unsolicited query, you are in effect making a cold call. Any good salesperson will tell you that cold calling sucks, and that the best leads are the qualified leads. So use these end-runs around the slush pile to figure out which agents to approach, make initial contact, and beat the query game.

Research and networking pay off in publishing as in any business, and they beat cold calling any day. All evidence to the contrary, agents are people, too, and face-time and familiarity make a difference.

I’ve edited bestselling authors from a myriad of worlds with vastly different viewpoints: Judge Robert Bork, Michael Chertoff, GenXer Doug Coupland, Irish rebel Gerry Adams, conservationist Mark Kurlansky, activist Rita Mae Brown, among others. I never questioned whether any of these authors should be published. I believe all voices should be heard.

In my editorial role, it doesn’t matter if an author makes a point with which I personally disagree. I strive to help that author clearly articulate their vision, making it comprehensible to readers.

I sometimes encounter passages in which I fear a novel’s readers may misconstrue an author’s intent—for example, a hypothetical margin note might read, “I worry some readers could view the portrayal of this character as stereotypical. Want to tweak the characterization so the character becomes more vividly real for readers?”

Ick

Err. Actually, I feel the need to digress, recalling an anecdote illustrating a notable exception to my high-minded “publish everyone” screed just above. Years ago, with a millisecond’s adeptness, an assistant clicked through a telephone caller that had been bothersome to my boss: “Dana, David Duke for you.”

Oy! The former Grand Wizard of the KKK had heard that the imprint where I worked published “controversial books,” as he put it, and Duke had a book to sell. My last name made him assume I was Jewish so I proudly was for that one day. Astonishingly, he quickly told me how before World War II the National Socialists had a plan to settle European Jews in Madagascar. I managed to end the call. Unfortunately, only later did I think of all sorts of wise, witty, pornographic comebacks I might have lobbed back at him.

Anyway—him. He shouldn’t be published.

Hate speech should not be published.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

 

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The Boy With The Indigo Eyes – A Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jenna Sweet was taking a walk back in time. It was now mid-afternoon, sunny and warm. A slight breeze rustled through the trees. A dog barked in the distance. She walked along the side walk, not really aware of where she was headed. Jenna guessed it was by instinct alone, a path she could not forgot. A narrow bridge was ahead of her and Jenna knew it was the bridge that crossed over Stoney Brook.

It was a place where she swam and frolicked as a kid. It was where her mother and her aunt would bring lunch for Jenna and her cousins. Her mom and Aunt would sit around the picnic table talking, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. Both of them have been gone for a very long time now. It was a terrible accident. It changed all of their lives forever.

Jenna stood looking over the bridge, looking down into the rippling water feeling pensive and sad. She listened to the flow of the brook over the rocks and stones as the afternoon sunlight glittered on the water like sparklers on the fourth of July.  She breathed in the sweet smell of the glacier-fed brook and the musky scent of wet moss along its banks. A long kept memory of a young stranger came flooding back into her consciousness from the past.

Jenna was once again walking through the forest and it was cool and shadowy. She remembered how the sunlight coming through the tree tops dappled the forest floor with shades of sun-kissed yellow.  The forest, thought Jenna, was a masterpiece of infinite color, with shimmering emerald leaves, azure sky above, and chestnut brown earth below.  The pungent memory scent of evergreens enveloped Jenna’s senses. She remembered the feel of the waxy substance of the fallen leaves beneath her bare feet as she padded through the dense forest and listened for the sound of water against rock. She would follow the sound to discover the hidden part of the Brook that few had ever ventured to see.

Beneath the forest canopy she heard a slight rustle and then she saw the boy. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace like a white-tailed deer through the brambles and bushes. He leaped dancer-like over decaying logs and skipped stone by stone over mossy growths, wet with dew.

The tall, dark-haired boy stopped now and again to smell the air as he made his way through the forest. Jenna, Indian-like, followed the boy through the brambles and bushes. She was almost close enough now to see his nostrils flare. In the distance, Jenna heard the flow of water over pebbles and stones as she followed the stranger who followed the sound of the brook.

Ahead of them were large granite boulders and the sound of rippling waters. She watched the boy as he skillfully scampered over the huge glacier boulders and disappeared from view. Jenna followed suit and climbed over the boulders to reach the rocky banks of the brook, but when she looked around, the boy was nowhere to be seen. She sat down for a moment and sighed as she wondered who he was and why she had never seen him before. After all, reasoned Jenna, this was a small farming community with only one middle school.

Jenna dangled her feet above the crystal clear water as she looked at her reflection that was gazing back at her. Her long golden brown braids framed a face that was tanned from the summer sun, hazel eyes now as deeply green as the moss beneath her feet.

She then slipped her slender pubescent body into the cool waters of the brook and was suddenly struck by an incredible sense of freedom within her being that was exhilarating and daunting at the same time. She was growing up and her life and all of life was before her.

Jenna looked down and saw that the wet cloth of her blouse had fallen away, revealing how her body was changing. Suddenly, she was aware of someone looking at her from above. It was the tall dark-haired boy. He was looking down at her. She was sure he had been watching her and then he smiled. Jenna blushed crimson. The boy’s broad shoulders and long muscular legs glistened in the warm sunlight as he stood high on the rocky over-hang above her.

Without acknowledging it, both Jenna and the boy were awakening to their bodies as they grew and changed. Soon, thought Jenna, they would no longer be the carefree children who swam with abandon and ran like deer through the ancient forest. Jenna turned away from the boy, but secretly smiled at this sweet flirtation as the sunlight sparkled like diamonds on the rocks, the trees, and the water’s surface.

The boy, not unlike an Indian brave stalking his prey, suddenly appeared near Jenna, having silently slipped into the water. It was his indigo blue eyes that startled her. The depth of emotion that emanated from his eyes, she didn’t understand. The boy smiled knowingly at Jenna. He could read her thoughts, she knew.

“Listen, he whispered to Jenna as he placed his hand near to his ear. “The water is whispering – do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna leaned into the water to hear the voice of the brook. The brook murmured as it gently flowed over the rocks.  Puzzled, Jenna could only shrug her shoulders.

The boy leaned closer to Jenna—his face just inches from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now glittering in the sunlight, looked into Jenna’s eyes, willing her to somehow absorb the mystical knowledge of the brook that he so easily understood.

“You must hear it for yourself” he replied gently, in a voice that was softly mesmerizing. Jenna felt spellbound by his presence and she opened her mouth to speak, but she could only shake her head.

Suddenly, a flock of Canadian Geese flew over their heads and broke the spell. Both of them she remembered, had looked up together to see the geese majestically crossing the azure blue of the endless sky. So close to them, she thought, that she could feel the air move around them. A single feather swirled downward to the water’s edge and the boy gently cupped it in his hands. He then placed the feather in her hand. She brought it to her lips to touch and smell the still warm and fragrant odor of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow. The white quill was downy soft and still warm. She would always keep it.

When Jenna turned to thank the boy, he had already climbed back up to the rocky ledge and was staring at her.

“Wait”, she cried out. “Who are you?”

“Someday you will know, Jenna.” And then he was gone.

Jenna stood on the bridge over-looking the brook remembering those moments long ago. She was now twenty-four years old and her life had taken many twists and turns since the day that seemed a lifetime ago. It surprised her how constant the memory of the boy stayed with her. How many years, she thought, have I returned to this town, to stand on this bridge, wondering whatever happened to the boy.  Jenna took the single white quill feather from her pocket and brought it to her lips. It still held the scent of wheatgrass, marsh, and meadow.

Jenna suddenly became aware that someone was watching her. She then turned to see a tall, dark-haired young man. He was staring at her. His long slender legs moved with an effortless grace as he walked toward her. She was stunned. There was something about him, she thought. Her mind raced with speculation.

The young man came to stand in front of her. He leaned in, closer to Jenna—his face just inches away from her up-turned nose. His indigo blue eyes, now resplendent in the afternoon sunlight, looked into Jenna’s, willing her to remember. “The water is whispering,” he said with a grin. “Do you know what it is saying?”

Jenna’s eyes opened wide. She nodded to the tall, dark-haired young man with the indigo blue eyes and smiled. “We are like the brook–a constant thing, she told him. “Nothing is ever truly lost, if one seeks to remember.

“Yes,” he said, “that is the secret of the brook.” The young man took her hand in his and together they walked down memories road, into the future.

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Jami Gold’s Resources for Writers

My Writing Articles by Jami Gold

I’ve written over 700 posts on my blog, most geared toward writers. Sign up for my newsletter to receive new blog posts every Tuesday and Thursday. The links below highlight some of the most useful and helpful posts so far (or use the search box in the sidebar to find information about a specific topic). https://jamigold.com/for-writers/

Favorite Writing Blogs and Resources

  • Fiction University by author Janice Hardy (excellent writing craft advice) and her team of guest authors (for more writing and publishing advice), including the Indie Author Series, where I’m a faculty member/guest blogger
  • Writers Helping Writers (The Bookshelf Muse) by authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (home of writing thesauruses for brainstorming unique emotion, settings, weather, and sensory information, etc.)
  • One Stop for Writers by Angela and Becca, the same team as above and the authors of the fantastic Emotion Thesaurus, created an online version of all their thesaurus collections and tools
  • Writer’s Knowledge Base by author/link-collector Elizabeth Spann Craig (the search engine for writers)
  • storyfix.com by author Larry Brooks (great breakdown of story structure; author of Story Engineering)
  • warriorwriters by author/social media expert Kristen Lamb (fantastic advice about writing and publishing industry; home of #MyWANA)
  • edittorrent by editors Theresa Stevens and Alicia Rasley (writing advice and publishing news from editors)

Favorite Writing Tools and Resources

  • OneNote: A free, full-featured application for saving research notes, planning our story, capturing photos and ideas, etc. And everything is searchable. Squee!
  • Dropbox: Never lose your writing! Internet-based, password-secure storage to access your work from any connected device (computer, phone, tablet). Ta-da! Instant backups. *smile*
  • Evernote: A great little access-anywhere note-taking application. I use this for everything from grocery lists to remembering that cool name for a character I saw in a movie’s credits.
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for planning, drafting, and ebook formatting. I mostly use this for drafting, but the possibilities are endless. (For Windows and Mac)
  • TechSurgeons: Need a (better) website/blog? TechSurgeons specializes in author services (and understands our neuroses!). Super reliable, kick*ss support, and technical geniuses. (Why yes, they’ve saved my site more times than I can count. *smile*)

Favorite Writing Craft and Reference Books

Click here for a listing of writing craft and reference books I’ve used and/or discussed on my blog

DANGER WALKS HERE!

It happened in a small farming community in the northwestern part of Connecticut that also included a large forest preserve, a once glacial river, now a bubbling brook, a lake, and a spring-fed pond. The community’s roots began in 1680, as The Salmon Brook Settlement that was also home to Native Americans like the Tunix, the Massaco, and the Mohegan.

It was a perfect summer day. The morning was cool and the sky was a brilliant Periwinkle blue. The deep, dense forest was a monolith of wonder for elementary school age kids.  The ancient woods that the Salmon Brook flowed through provided the Native Americans with all kinds of fish, fowl, and river animals, like beavers.

Evidence of their inhabitation lingers still in the form of arrowheads, pathways, in meadows that were once crop producing fields, where they once grew tobacco, beans, squash, and corn, as well as middens of shells like clams, mussels and turtles were eagerly searched for in the forest.  There were plenty of bones to find too, mostly animal, but sometimes, human bones that would be exposed as they washed up on the rocky river banks.

On this beautiful summer morning, a small band of kids, having traversed deeply into the forest, smelled smoke and considered it to be a fisherman on the river or the nearby lake.  At first, nothing much was thought about it. The smoke seemed to be coming from some distance away.

Taken aback by what she was seeing, one of the older members of the group of five children, yelled out, “FIRE!”  All heads turned to the leader of the group, who stood mesmerized by the yellow-orange fingers of flame surrounding a giant oak tree, that appeared to touch the sky it was so tall. The forest fire was closing in around them, silently sneaking up on them, until it roared like a lion.  The fire then leapt among the tree tops, high into the sky, turning the blue sky into a purple twilight, billowing with fire.

Like deer, caught in the headlights of an on-coming car, they froze in fear.  Suddenly, they ran, following their leader to an old wagon wheel road where giant, thick oaks lined the road, that was little more, now, than a pathway.  They ran and out of the corner of their eyes the watched the fire explode into the giant oaks behind them. As they ran, animals of all kinds joined in their fierce desire to escape the flames that were now, 40, 50, 60, 100 feet high in the air, and animals ran alongside the five children. The leader was shocked to find a black bear keeping pace at her side and deer leaping everywhere. Wild Turkeys, Foxes, Porcupines, Skunks, Woodchucks, all, ran with the humans, side by side on the narrow path, until the path widened as they reached an open field. Ahead of them was Canton road and fire trucks with long hoses and a helicopter overhead. The parents of the children were kept back by officers and firemen.

The children emerged, blackened with smoke, wild-eyed with fear, and the animals took off in different directions, some crossing the road to the other side where safety could be found, unmindful of the crowd gathered on Canton Road. The children, now at the point of exhaustion, collapsed into their parent’s arms as the firefighters dosed them with cool, clear water.

This was a day the five children would never forget. I will always remember the black bear running by my side. I remember how we looked at each other, the black bear and I—with a look that was “will we get out of this alive?”  It was as if we saved each other and we were a team. It was amazing. I will always remember the look he gave me as he turned to run into the safety of the tall bushes and another part of the forest, he turned and stopped for a moment, like he was saying, thank you and nodded his head.

By K. D. Dowdall

***I wrote this sometime ago and I had not proofread it before publishing. I have now made grammatical changes. A mistake, hopefully, I will not make again.