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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Writing Books for Us and Them: Diversity for Writers, Readers, and Publishers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economics of Diversity by Dana Isaacson

The big publishers release titles from across the political spectrum. While some of their imprints may have an ideological focus, many cross boundaries. Why are publishers so fair-minded? Well, it’s not exactly that: it makes economic sense for Macmillan to publish Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury while simultaneously having a conservative imprint All Points Books. Simon and Schuster sells Hillary’s What Happened and Ivana’s Raising Trump.

While there’s an ongoing publishing saga of under-representation among numerous groups, still, when authors like Margaret Atwood, Kevin Kwan, Jesmyn Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Sedaris, and Caitlyn Jenner sell huge numbers of books, surely some progress is being made.

Shhhh!

Some popular career authors have been criticized for expressing their political opinions on their own Facebook page. One bestselling author who, after expressing her opinions about the president—she “refuses to shut up”—got online responses like, “I didn’t come here to read this. I used to love your books and will never buy them again.” One outraged commentor promoted a phone campaign against this writer to her publisher. Undeterred, this career author politely responds to these comments with “Bye!” It seems sad that online cranks are depriving themselves of her delightful novels, which they formerly loved. Freedom of speech is a constitutional right that I hope we can agree to endorse, especially in forums created for just that.

Disagreement among friends or colleagues is not a deal-breaker.

Robin Williams said, “A friend is someone who listens to your bullshit, tells you that it is bullshit and listens some more.” Are not authors and their readers friends, or at least participants in a meaningful dialogue?

Sensitivity

While non-fiction political potboilers are selling like hotcakes, these days fiction featuring politics or political characters are a tougher sell. Fiction readers want to escape the overwhelming daily barrage of politics. But that doesn’t mean alternative or oppositional voices should not be heard from within works of either non-fiction or fiction.

Often when I ask writers whom their intended readership is, they answer, “Everyone!” If so, it’s wise to include diverse opinions. In their work, a writer may cloak themselves in anonymity, but their own perceptions and viewpoints naturally inform their literary labors. Adept (or perhaps “woke”) fiction writers may question their ingrained viewpoint, sometimes with oppositional characters. If novels are about character growth, conflict and debate are necessities. Career authors of fiction have ample opportunity to provide voices in counterpoint. It could be in their protagonist’s thoughts or the dialogue of others.

Fictional characters may passionately debate hot-button issues that folks are reluctant to voice in public these days.

Authors may also discover their characters are free agents. Hank Phillippi Ryan has spoken of how hers often do just as they please while she breathlessly records their actions and words on her laptop.

Alternative viewpoints

It’s not necessarily that you are writing a novel with a political agenda but instead more inclusively exploring the world at large. Rita Mae Brown says she doesn’t write “gay novels” because that would limit the scope of her fiction to a particular group of people.

Beyond their vast imaginations, careful observation and research, career authors have additional tools at their disposal to portray with accuracy people different from themselves. It’s fairly common for writers to seek and use feedback from a crew of beta readers—often friends and other kindly acquaintances.

Just lately, specialized services of this sort have been monetized. Career authors whose work explore alternative POVs may hire “sensitivity readers” to vet their books—specialized beta readers. For example, an African American author might hire a Native American reader to verify they are correctly describing Pueblo burial traditions. This sensitivity reader might reflect on other aspects of the book, perhaps a character’s emotions, discussing their own reactions in similar circumstances.

To some, this raises the question of whether political correctness or groupthink could inhibit the creative fiction-writing process. I’d counter that it allows another informed and interesting voice to be heard from the cast of characters, which during revisions an author is entirely free to heed or not. It seems a positive development for storytellers to seek inclusiveness. Raising questions is a good thing.

Seditious reading

Readers who carefully avoid political discussions at parties, family gatherings, and other public forums may still curl up with a Maya Angelou novel, or sneak a read of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to see what all the fuss is about. Dan Brown might do the trick, or perhaps Tom Perrotta. Maybe dipping into a Sophie Kinsella novel or Harlequin romance is what some readers might crave at just that moment. It’s no longer a problem to shield book covers, and expanding literary horizons is greatly encouraged.

Your mission, should you accept it…

Even as certain writers leave little in their plots to interpretation, it remains the reader’s task to sort through ideas and come to their own conclusions. Over a hundred years ago, the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin altered the dialogue about slavery. In more recent times, Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar caused a public discussion of misogyny and womens liberation. Bret Easton Ellis went more bonkers in the misogyny direction in American Psycho. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses launched hysteria, as well as a debate on satire. And E.L James… um, well… Can fiction be just as influential and powerful today?

In divided times, books provide a time-honored forum for meaningful discourse among writers, readers, and thinkers about contemporary issues. In your writing, without restraints or fear of criticism, seek new angles and POVs. Can you address opposing views? Literature can be a provocateur, a liberator, and potentially a unifier.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Isaacson worked as Senior Editor at Penguin Random House for thirteen years. There, he edited a wide variety of titles—from bestselling commercial fiction to literary biographies and historical narratives. Prior to that, he was an editor at various publishing houses, including Pocket Books and Regan Books. He has also been an abridger, literary agent, writer, book doctor, and ghostwriter. Now a freelance editor, more information about Dana Isaacson can be found at http://www.danaisaacson.com

An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK

A Review: French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays


A Review of French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays 

 by author Charles F. French

French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays,  is an essential tool for writing, that you will keep on your desk, as I do, for easy reference when writing a resume, a college essay or thesis, a commentary on your blog, or a fiction or non-fiction book.  This well-thought-out little book, reveals in simple and easy steps, ways to make almost any written work error free. An added plus is Dr. Charles F. French’s free online companion site for French on EnglishA Guide to Writing Better Essays.

Charles F. French, author of French on English – A Guide to Writing Better Essays, earned his PhD in English Literature from Lehigh University.  He has been teaching writing courses in composition for more than twenty-five years at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, and at Muhlenberg College Wescoe School of Continuing Education, Allentown, PA.

Dr. French’s essential reference book on writing skills, French on English—A Guide to Writing Better Essays,  includes examples of often forgotten English grammar rules that we learned in high school. He also included in simple and easy steps, how to create that first draft of a college essay or that novel many of us are hoping to write. Another important feature, is learning to create perfect citations that when improperly written, will cause a great paper to be marked down, one that should have been an A+ paper in college.

Another key feature for me when I am writing a first draft of a novel is that moment that finds me in fear of developing Writer’s Block. Dr. French has brilliantly included, in his spectacular reference book, a section entitled, ‘Brainstorming Ideas’ using the technique of ‘Free Writing’ that breaks through the dreaded Writer’s Block.

I know that you will find, French of English—A Guide to Writing Better Essays, an essential writing tool, and you will want to keep it on your desk for easy access, as I do. It is truly a treasure trove for essential error free writing!  

 

Literary Style in Storytelling

literary-style-storytelling

 

I am reblogging Melissa’s excellent post form 2016, it is that good!

Literary Style in Storytelling Posted by Melissa Donovan on December 13, 2016

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https://www.writingforward.com/storytelling/literary-style-in-storytelling

What’s your literary style?Today’s post includes excerpts from What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing, chapter five:

“Narrative Style, Voice, and Tone.” Enjoy! Literary style is the aesthetic quality of a work of literature—the distinct voice that makes each author unique. It’s the way we string words together, the rhythm of our prose, the catchphrases that pepper our language.

Literary style includes every element of writing in which an author can make stylistic choices from syntax and grammar to character and plot development.

Seasoned writers have cultivated a style of writing that can be identified by a snippet of prose alone. For example, a common English literature test gives you excerpts from several authors whose works you’ve studied. The challenge is to identify the author who wrote each excerpt—not because you’ve memorized each author’s repertoire but to show that you can identify each author by his or her voice.

Style can be contained in a single work, such as a novel, or it can be observed across an author’s entire body of work. One author’s style might be spartan—minimalist in nature—while another author’s style is rich with vibrant language. An author can also exhibit a range of styles, adjusting the aesthetics for each project, depending on what works best for each piece.

Understanding Literary Style

Style is comprised of many components. However, it is not any one component; nor is it all of these components together. Each author (or work) uses a unique combination of components to render a style. Among these components are personality, tone, diction, syntax, grammar, and content.

Authors also make stylistic choices with grammar and punctuation. Cormac McCarthy is one such author who is known for his omission of punctuation marks. Most notably, he didn’t use quotation marks for dialogue in his novel The Road. Nor did he use italics or any other punctuation marks or formatting to mark the dialogue. Dialogue was indicated within the context of the work.

Some authors are known for a style that resonates from the content or the substance of their works. These authors may always write about a particular type of character or topic. For example, one author might write stories that tackle social issues while another writes stories set in hospitals.

Style can also be expressed through structure. Some authors tell stories out of chronological order. Others may consistently use framing devices. Or maybe they’re known for including flashbacks throughout their stories.

It’s not unusual for young and new writers to ignore style. A fledgling storyteller often focuses on more concrete aspects of story, such as plot, character, and setting, along with other key elements like action, dialogue, and description. However, style is an important consideration, especially in literary fiction. In fact, style is one of the defining features of literary fiction, which is renowned for paying homage to the artistry of wordcraft. Some may even argue that the styling of prose and an author’s voice are more important than the crafting of story in literary fiction.

Mastering Literary Style

Style, voice, and tone work together to give an author’s work its unique flavor. Readers often form preferences for stories with a particular stylistic quality and tonality. Some readers don’t like dark stories and will only read stories with a light and casual vibe. Some may prefer fast-paced stories that are focused on action and dialogue, while others like to explore the details of a story world with vivid description and exposition. There are readers who like texts packed with long, fancy words and readers who prefer to skim the text rather than check the dictionary every few paragraphs (or pages).

Many readers may not even be aware of their own stylistic preferences. They’ll scan the first few paragraphs and find something they like about the narrative voice (or something they don’t like), which informs their decision to buy and read the book, which is why literary style is an important element of storytelling.

Want to learn more about literary style? Pick up a copy of What’s the Story? Building Blocks for Fiction Writing by Melissa Donovan

FANFICTION: ALL ABOUT DIALOGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Not being very familiar with Fan Fiction I decided to take a look at what makes fan fiction popular and well, writing is writing so I had to read about it. One website in particular caught my attention because it seemed to be a good place to start. I am always willing to read about dialogue and everything else about improving my writing.)    https://www.howtowritefanfiction.com

The following is an excerpt from the above linked site:

Dialogue is one of your primary story telling tools; it is how you move the story forward and how you reveal things about your character. If you write your story dialogue the way you talk every day, your reader will be bored in no time flat.

Have you ever had a heated discussion with someone, and then hours later, upon reflection, thought of the perfect witty retort?  The best way to describe written dialogue is what you wish you’d said in the heat of the moment. It’s clever, witty, and sometimes misleading.

Dialogue Defined

Speaker Attributions tell the reader who is speaking. He said and she said are the most common variety.

A Beat is a description of physical action that can be used to indicate the speaker instead of an attribution.

How to Write Dialogue

Don’t explain your dialogue.  When you follow dialogue with phrases like “he said angrily” or “she said harshly” you are explaining how the character feels. Instead, their feeling should be obvious by the words they say as well as their actions.  Use of an adverb (ly) almost always catches you in the act of explaining dialogue. Instead of an adverb, use a beat of action to convey your characters feelings.

When you are writing speaker attributions, said is always the right choice.  Do not saddle your characters with impossible actions; you cannot beam, smirk or grin a line of dialogue.  Said is akin to punctuation. It disappears on the page. For the sake of variety, you can use beats of action in place of said.

Always place the character’s name or pronoun first in a speaker attribution. Use ‘Sam said’ instead of ‘said Sam’. This is the professional standard for dialogue.

Choose one way to refer to a character in a scene and stick with it.  Don’t use “Detective” the first time and “Jane” a few paragraphs later.  This is one case where shaking it up for the sake of variety can be confusing.  Please note that this is within the confines of single scene, not the entire story.

Avoid ping ponging dialogue by having your characters refer to each other by name in order to eliminate speaker attributions.  This is just plain awkward. Use the speaker attribution or a beat of action.

Use sentence fragments and contractions to make your dialogue sound real.  Dialogue is the one place you can play fast and loose with grammar.

Do not use dialogue to data dump. Having your characters speak like an entry in Wikipedia is not natural. If you have a chunk of background information to reveal, do it piece by piece through both dialogue and exposition.

Let your characters lie to each other, argue and misunderstand each other. Allow your characters to be suspicious of each other, to wonder what the truth is. Real life is never wrapped up in a neat package, so give your characters the chance to disagree and they’ll sound more human.

Do This:

Read your dialogue out loud. Listen to see if it sounds natural, and if you can differentiate the characters in your scene by the words they say. As you listen, you should be able to find places where you stumble over words or places where you need beats of action. If your dialogue sounds stiff, make sure it isn’t announcing information that could be imparted through exposition.

My take on this short informative writing about dialogue:

Well, yes, a couple of good reminder points for the absolute beginning writer (oh wait – that’s me) with three books written and another being written as I write, I still consider myself a total beginner. I have actually found a few of the writing lessons here very  interesting. For instance, the Seven Point Story Structure, All About Dialogue, and Revision are all helpful when writing.

I found I was actually committing a few sins in my dialogue that I was not even aware I was doing.  I found this site very to the point with few flourishes of dialogue because, frankly, I need to write.