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Archive for the ‘agents’ Category

(This post is for junebugger–thanks for asking, June!)

When I first started writing romance novels in the early 90’s, I was still in college and didn’t know anything about trying to get published, only that I wanted to. Very much. So I sought the advice of books (please note the distinct lack of references to internet for these first few paragraphs) and found a listing of houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, though I don’t think they even called them that then; it was so common to send something in without representation.

I quickly amassed a collection of personalized rejections from Avon, Harlequin, Silhouette and others. I kept every last one and suggest everyone do the same (digitally or in hard-copy), particularly those responses that offer even a whisper of advice.

More romance manuscripts followed (Victorian, Vikings, Antebellum!) as did more rejections, bu more and more the responses were offering personalized critiques (I know! Can you imagine!?)–sometimes even full page line edits or the request to send the next manuscript.

But after several more years of writing romances and still not finding representation, I decided to switch gears and wrote a horror story about a female executive who is bitten by a wolf on vacation and subsequently finds her world turned upside down when she realizes she’s turning into a…Yes. That.

I queried the manuscript, sending it out to agents, some familiar and some not (it was a different genre, after all) and within a few weeks, I received a phone call from an agent who was very interested in the book and wanted to meet. (I was living in NYC at the time –otherwise, we surely would have simply talked on the phone as most do now). At the meeting, she had complimentary things to say about my writing, but was concerned about the plotting of the novel. We agreed that I would revise the story with an eye towards representation. It was a tremendous opportunity and this agent was incredibly generous and so lovely to work with. When the story still didn’t come together after another draft, she offered me the chance to propose a series of storylines to her which I did, but when life stepped in a few months later and I had to leave the city for personal reasons, my writing took a backseat. This agent was beyond gracious and I will be forever grateful for her.

In the years that followed, I wrote sporadically but didn’t complete a manuscript. I kept notes on story ideas and even jotted down a few proposals. I moved a fair amount and finally landed in New Orleans in the summer of 2002 to get my masters in Historic Preservation at Tulane’s School of Architecture. There I fell in love–first with the city and then with my husband Ian a few months later. Ian encouraged me to get back into my writing and I began a new novel about a shrimper’s wife who finds herself unwittingly involved in the disappearance of a graduate student on the eve of a catastrophic hurricane. That was the summer of 2005. Katrina made landfall two months later.

When Ian and I left New Orleans (we stayed through the storm with four dogs) and made our way to Maine to stay with my family, writing was the last thing on my mind. Yet as we began to put the pieces of our world back together, I found myself drawn to the story I’d started and finished my manuscript within a year. I queried widely and received a few requests for fulls but still no offer of representation came.

Two years later, after a move to Indiana where my husband had accepted a job teaching biology at a boarding school, I wrote a manuscript about four faculty wives (hmm, wonder where that inspiration came from…?) who find themselves at crossroads in their lives. It caught the interest of an agent and, after a few revisions, he agreed to represent it. (The project, not me–an important distinction I would learn later on.) We reworked the manuscript for THE CRYING ROOM, he submitted it to many editors but ultimately, no takers. I assumed we would revise it and send it out for another round of submissions, but he declined. I was crushed, but grateful for the experience and his expertise.

Eager to get back on the horse (not so dissimilar to rebound dating after being, well, dumped), I fired off a novel that was essentially a piece of women’s fiction with a male protagonist. In STILL, MARTIN, my rumpled, far-too-sensitive-for-his-own-good hero heads off to Europe to take his honeymoon after his fiancee leaves him the night before their wedding. (If you think that sounds ill-advised and unconvincing, yeah, you’re not alone.)

So after some soul (and genre) searching, I realized my writing heart was in women’s fiction, where it had always been, so I set about writing what would become LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

Now before this novel, I’d had the good fortune to connect with a wonderful agent who worked at a large agency. Ever since responding to a query of mine years before, she’d agreed to see my follow up manuscripts, and even granted me a second look after a revision of one, but the projects had never been right. So when I asked her if she would consider LITTLE GALE GUMBO, this agent was as generous as always. After reading it, she said she saw great potential but that she simply couldn’t take on another client at that time, but (and this is one of those GOOD “buts” in a query response) she knew another agent who was looking for women’s fiction projects named Rebecca Gradinger. She had already forwarded the book to her, and Rebecca was intrigued. I was beyond thrilled.

Rebecca called a few days later. She and I clicked at once. I loved her sense about the book, her ideas for revising it and making it stronger, so I agreed to do a substantial revision, again with an eye toward representation. Within a few months, I had a new draft and Rebecca and I made it official. Best of all, Rebecca said she wanted to help me build my writing career, that the offer for representation wasn’t just for LITTLE GALE GUMBO, but for future books.

We tweaked and tweaked until we had a draft we both felt tremendously good about, a draft that had little resemblance to the manuscript I’d first discussed with her almost a year and a half before. Rebecca sent the book out. Then, just months away from my fortieth birthday, NAL made an offer for a two book deal for LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

(Now if I could just make two decent batches of pralines in a row.)

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When I first began querying agents and editors in the 90’s (Yes, it’s true–years ago, in certain genres, you could submit unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses, AND, even more amazing, expect and receive lovely, personalized responses!), I was writing romance novels and I used something called the Romance Writer’s Pink Pages in my quest for publication. It quickly became my handbook, my bible. I highlighted the heck out of it, folded over page corners two and three times, scribbled in the margins and underlined, underlined, underlined.

By the time I had finished my fifth manuscript, I had almost memorized the exhaustive list of agents and editors that filled its petal pink pages. I had amassed (and still proudly own) many, many replies, almost all of which were typed or hand-written on letterhead. Some were for partial requests, more were gentle rejections, some even from a few incredibly generous agents who gave me pages (that’s not a typo) of notes, even though they didn’t plan to offer representation.

But with the dawn of email, the game changed a bit. Well, at least the field did, but not the rules. Whether writing to an agent using a typewriter and a SASE, or sending off an email, the basics of query-writing have remained the same  through the years and the changing technology. And out of all the query-writing tips that so many other agents, editors and writers have put more eloquently than I will have here, these five have stood out the strongest for me.

1. Keep the query simple. In the old days of hard-copy, it was obvious if your query ran longer than a page, but some might think that email allows for more wiggle-room. Don’t let it. A page is a suitable length for a query and forces you to keep your pitch short and tidy. Always include word count and genre, and cut to the chase as cleanly and fast as you can. You want to entice your reader right away. This isn’t a first date. Feel free to open the closet and let the skeletons fall out as quickly as possible.

Wicked cute picture of tiny frog found nestled in a lily, isn't it? Too bad it has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

2. Make the query about the book. An agent isn’t particularly interested in how old you are, where you live, or how many instruments you play. Unless any of those facts are needed to give credibility to your story’s pitch, leave them out. For now, your product is your book. Focus on that.

3. Know your recipient. There’s no question that the internet makes it easier to learn about an agent’s tastes, and yet we read over and over about how agents are inundated with queries for genres they don’t represent. There’s no reason for it. Maybe you think your novel is so amazing that it will be the one to change an agent’s tastes. Doubtful. In the old days, you might not have dreamed of wasting a stamp on a “what the hey” pitch, but with email, a click is free. But before you click away, keep in mind that agents remember pitches, and why take the chance of looking uniformed when you might actually end up writing a novel that does fit within that agent’s tastes down the road?

4. Keep track of your submissions. And I don’t just mean a checklist, I mean notes. If you plan to write and submit more than one book, always keep a record of which agents requested a partial or full. It is perfectly acceptable, and highly encouraged, to make mention of this in another query for a different book; ie, You kindly reviewed my last manuscript, LOVING LOBSTER, and now I’d like to offer my most recent novel, THE LAST CRAB, for your consideration. Agents have good, good memories, and will usually remember work they wanted to see more of.

5. Be courteous. Agents and editors are as crazy busy as the rest of us. Always take the space to thank them for their consideration and be patient for their reply. Out of office replies are not an invitation to converse further. And as much as we are disappointed by a no, it’s never good form to follow up a rejection with a request for why the agent didn’t want to offer representation. Move on. Query on.

Now your turn: What tip or tips for query-writing have served you the best over the years?

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So, you finally heard back from the agent who has had your partial or your full. You open the email/letter with your heart in your throat. Your eyes dash over the response, catching every other word, hoping to glean the real message as quickly as possible. When you do, your brow furrows. It’s not a no, but…well, it’s not a yes, either.

So what is it?
It’s the mysterious revise and resubmit request.

When I read junebugger’s post today, I was reminded of this often-frustrating but usually-encouraging happening in the world of writing and publishing. So what to do when an agent requests a revision of your manuscript and then offers a second look?
Better yet, what to think?

Let’s look first at the second question: What to think? The first answer is think good thoughts. Agents are busier than ever these days, and inundated with more material than ever. They aren’t offering you ways to possibly improve your manuscript as well as the chance to reconsider it just to be nice.  They are doing it because they genuinely believe there is potential in your work.

So if they believe there’s potential, why not just offer representation outright? Well, an agent-writer relationship is just that: a relationship. Your agent has to know that she/he can work with you, not just your written words. Are you easy to work with? Will you respond professionally, in your dealings with the agent, with potential editors/publishers, with the reading public? Can you meet deadlines? And maybe most of all, how well do you take reviews of your manuscript and subsequent requests for changes?

So when you get that wonderful offer to revise and resubmit, don’t despair. Sure, we all want the offer for representation–that’s the goal–but keep in mind the road to representation (and the road to publication in general) is winding and bumpy and never, ever straight. It’s not a yes, but it’s not a no, either.

So if  the agent’s recommendations for your manuscript make sense to you and are ones you are comfortable making, then by all means, revise and resubmit. And even if the results still don’t garner the offer, always remember that most agents have remarkable memories for material and writers who piqued their interest. A courteous and professional exchange goes a long way down that winding, bumpy road.

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