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Archive for query

Agent intelligence flows from Writer’s League

I took a deep class this month on attracting a literary agent. Offered by the Writers’ League of Texas, it was provided good intelligence on getting books considered for representation. It might have been the single best $52 I’ve spent as an author and coach. For example, I learned that some agent businesses are a “solo shingle.” That’s a single agent, successful at a larger company, who starts their own business and finds books to sell to publishers.

In another example, the instructor Becka Oliver (director of WLT, she worked at William Morris as an agent) had advice about writing the Compel section of a query letter. Despite all the other options of contacting agents, the query letter remains the lingua franca of agent pitching. By crafting your Compel paragraph, you try to lure the agent into requesting pages they might agree to represent.

Some agencies permit the submission of sample pages with your initial outreach. The agencies nearly always request a “cover letter.” No surprise, that’s your query letter. In order of materials requested for fiction, the readers at an agency dig into the query letter, then the writing sample. If they request a synopsis, Oliver said that agents are likely to look at it only if they’re well along in the book and need a map to see where the story’s headed. Nothing is absolute about this process, of course.

In another example, a query’s Context paragraph is the best way to assure an agent you know where your book should live on the shelves. One phrase that I’ve used in query letters is, “This book is for readers of [commercially successful book like yours] and [critically successful book like yours].” Both these kinds of books like yours help the agent place your book prospects.

There was plenty to learn. Oliver drew out maps of the Big 5 publishing empires, plus independent presses like Coffee House and Dzanc. Both of the latter group will consider non-agented projects. They do prefer agented submissions, though. Lots of authors don’t remember to check up on the indies while querying. Those kinds of queries to the indie presses can go straight to publishers. The Big 5 imprints — and there are so very many of them — demand agented material.

Query letter advice was only a part of the WLT class. What to expect to hear when you get a call from an agent. What questions to ask an agent when you’re offered representation. Ask them what they specifically love about your book, for example, just to see if they really read it. How to follow up: Wait for something significant to happen — a contest, a publication of a short story. You want more good news to add to the submission.

You also will wait “as long as it takes” to hear from an agent. After a matter of months, it can be permissible to send a little email saying, “I know you might be just getting ready to read, and…” The submission of your book for consideration is a humbling affair. But agents, acting as gatekeepers, are a very good means to get a professional publishing contract.

Themes, power, and how they make queries easier

Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing crafts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It bubbles up from the writing. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot. Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.