QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lighter Side of Business: Book Signings

You've been asked/allowed/we-won't-call-the-cops-if-you-show-up to do a book signing? Great! You get bonus points if it's indoors. I'll just say that outdoor events in the deep south are only bearable for three days between January and March, and no one knows when those days will fall.

My first "official" book signing was in the dead of winter in Michigan, so, naturally, I figured, Captive audience. It's frickin' cold outside!  When I rolled up an hour early just to get the lay of the land, I saw a young man perched at what would soon be my folding card table selling his self-published epic fantasy novel. And, I might add, they were selling briskly. I impatiently gnawed on my Styrofoam cup filled with hot chocolate until exactly ten minutes before my signing was due to start.

"Uhm, you've been in the store for like, an hour, right?" the clerk asked.

"No, that wasn't me," I replied, "Just got here. Had another event."

This was technically true. I'd had lunch with my sister in law and because I was on vacation and it was the holiday season, we could drink at noon without judgment.

I set up at the card table, exchanging pleasantries with the young man, who'd sold all of the books he brought except for one, which I purchased. Good karma, right? He wished me luck and went to the hipster coffee shop next door where I always felt like everyone's mother.

So I sat and smiled cheerfully at the holiday shoppers who bustled in and out of the store. For two solid hours I sat and smiled. A few people smiled back, a few glanced at the book and the display the store manager had kindly set up. No one stopped to pick up the book or read the blurb or notice that supplies were dwindling. So I tucked a few away so it looked like only two remained. I really wanted to take a restroom break after the wine at lunch and all the hot chocolate, but what if I missed the one customer looking for exactly the book I had? No, I had to stay strong.

And I did. With fifteen minutes left, I finally made a sale. To my mother in law. Who only reads biographies and Good Housekeeping. But with a fistful of dollar bills in hand from my sale, I went across the street to buy myself a cool cup of coffee.

And to tell those kids in the café that, for the love of god, they needed to bundle up!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taking Care of Business: The Author Biography

When you’re an as-yet-unpublished writer, one of the most intimidating things you’ll face is your own author biography.

You’ve read countless bios of successful authors, with their lists of titles and bestselling charts and accolades. Then, there’s you, manuscript in hand, wondering how you can possibly get the attention of your dream agent when you don’t have what the others have.

You already know that the hook and blurb is vital to getting an agent to finish reading your query…so how do you keep their attention long enough to hit “reply”? What if they see your empty, unenthusiastic bio? Won’t they pass because no one wants to take a chance on an unaccomplished unknown?

Stop that right this instant. You’ll defeat yourself before you even get started.

You do have a bio inside you, even if you’re querying your first book. You are an accomplished writer who obviously has what it takes to go pro—because the act of querying is proof that you are ready to make this manuscript into a product. You are seeking a career. You are worthy of

You simply need to find the bio that’s waiting to be written.

Building a Bio

“This is my first novel.” Clean and simple. This statement is not a death wish. It’s simply the truth. Think of all the successful debut novels you’ve seen over the years. They were all first books. If you have nothing else to add, just leave it at that. Agents appreciate brevity. (And... just in case you have a trunk full of unsold manuscripts: nobody needs to know you have a pile of gone-nowhere projects. Just say it's your first novel.)

“I belong to a writer’s group.” This shows that you are already networking with other professionals and shows you have commitment to the craft. Join a local writers group at the public library. Join a state-wide group like Pennwriters (who have members worldwide). Join a national group, such as Romance Writers of America if you write romance.

“I have a platform.” Platform is such a lofty word, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. Platform doesn’t mean pedestal. Platform is simply the legs on which you stand. What experience do you have in real life that has inspired or supports your book? Writing about animals because you’re a vet or work for animal rescue? Bam—platform. Writing about Greek gods in contemporary settings because you’re a curator in a museum or have travelled to ancient archeologic attractions? Bam—platform. Writing a vampire love story because you are the Slayer and have been fighting the forces of the undead since you were a high school freshman and honestly believe that Slayers need love, too? Bam, bam, stake through the heart and bam—platform (as long as you can prove it.) Which brings up the warning—don’t make stuff up. Save that for your novels.

“I have previous work published.” Novels aren’t the only things that get published. So do poetry, short stories, and articles. Do you contribute to an established blog with wide readership? Have you been featured in ezines or print journals? If not, don’t despair—because those are things that you can start doing right now. You’re a writer. Publishing in smaller venues gets your name out there and builds a readership. And if there is one thing that agents love, it’s a writer that comes with an established audience.

“I’ve won a writing contest.” This is another thing you can start doing right now. Contests are perpetually being held, from local to online to national to worldwide. Just do a quick search and start picking which ones you’re eligible to enter. Since many contests charge fees, you’ll have to be choosy. Winning a contest or simply making finals is great for publicity and often a nifty prize. Personally, I value the blurb more than anything else. Calling my first book BLEEDING HEARTS a “Six-Time RWA Chapter Contest Finalist” is a huge deal for me…and that blurb went a long way to sell that book.

Chances are you already have an impressive bio inside you, just waiting to be written. If a job, an experience, an association, an accomplishment, or a skill is pertinent to you as an author or to your book, it may be bio fodder. Just be sure to state it succinctly and professionally—you don’t want to blow your honed-to-perfection hook with an inflated, irrelevant bio.

And remember…if you’re in doubt, just go with the clean and simple “This is my first novel”. If you’ve hooked the agent with your story, that’s all they need to know.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Taking Care of Business: Making Friends

Taking care of business and making friends may sound unrelated at best, but here's a secret: the dreaded term "networking" is basically just jargon for making friends.

Writing is a lonely business. You pull out your laptop, put on your headphones, and enter into a world that you created and no one else knows about (yet:  one day they'll be writing FanFiction in your world). If you're lucky enough to be writing full time (and don't all of us, somewhere, have that goal in the back of our mind?), that's pretty much all you do.

Write stuff: no human interaction required.

There are, of course, a few issues with that. For one thing, how do you write Deep Truth About The Human Condition if you aren't around other people? For another, writing is lonely. I know I'm repeating myself, but it's true. You write alone, you face writer's block alone, you revise alone, you read rejection emails alone.

Here's the thing: you don't have to. Making friends might be one of the key ways to keeping your sanity during the long and crazy process of writing and subsequently selling a novel. There are Twitter hashtags to follow (#amwriting is common; right now, #CampNaNoWriMo is a big one. And there's also #amrevising and #amquerying for other stages of the writing process); word sprints to join; and friends to be made.

If Twitter isn't your thing, writers love to blog. Search people out. Interact with writers on their blogs and through their Twitters, their newsletters, their Facebook groups... I do all these things, and I've made a lot of friends through the Query Tracker forum, too.

Besides keeping you sane and making friends from around the world (which should be all the motivation you need), making friends really is networking (which is a very scary word. Sorry about that.). Other writerly friends make great critique partners, ones who are willing to tell you, "You can do better than this. Don't take the easy way out." And you'll listen, and they'll read the revision, and they'll let you know they love it. You'll know they're sincere since they weren't afraid to tell you when they didn't love it.

When you get an agent, you'll want people to tell who understand what it means to actually have an agent. (I don't know about you, but this basically discounts my real-life family and friends.) When you go on submission, it's great to have friends who can send you pictures of cuddly animals to keep you sane and remind you that this, too, shall pass. And when you get the book deal you've always wanted? It's time to celebrate, and celebrations are always better with friends.

Twitter is full of now-published authors who have been friends since the days of querying. The most famous for their friendship is probably Susan Dennard and Sarah Maas, both now published successfully. And because they're writing BFFs, they get to blurb each other's books, and happily promote each other on Twitter, and collaborate on projects.

A quick reminder: Never treat someone like they're just a business deal waiting to happen, or befriend someone only because you think they'll help your career. It won't work. That's why I call it making friends, and not networking.

Befriend someone because you both have an undying passion for knee socks, obsess over Lizzie McGuire even though it's been off the air for 11years, and neither of you are sure what the big deal is about coffee. Oh, and you happen to both be writers. Maybe one of you rocks at dialogue and the other is excellent at filling plot holes. You'll make a great team, the two of you, with two books that both have killer dialogue, no plot holes, and obscure references to fancy knee socks.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Lighter Side of Writing is Heavy Stuff

Writing humor may be the most challenging, complicated, and difficult tasks we face. Difficult when it comes to execution, that is. Conceptually, there’s one key to everything that’s ever made anyone think something conveyed in written form is funny. One key that fits a million locks. A single element that every punch line to every joke ever told in any language as well as the broader, less “laugh out loud” humor found in Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy and Kurt Vonnegut’s satire have in common.

A lot of it can be boiled down to a single word: Juxtaposition.

Note that a number of Different theories of humor have evolved over the past few centuries, the most prevalent being incongruity theory, relief theory, and superiority theory. The distinctions between them are philosophical in nature, not practical. Using a generic locker room sex joke as an example, incongruity theory will point to the structure of the joke, the thing that makes the punch line a surprise and therefore funny, and say humor stems from that. Freud would point to that joke as a classic example of relief theory, since, to him, we do nothing but walk around repressing sexual desires whilst sticking large cigars in our mouths. Thomas Hobbes’, the originator of superiority theory would say the humorous denigration found in the sex joke gives rise to a “kind of sudden glory” that boosts our self esteem (relative to whomever is the butt of the joke).

To simplify things a bit, one clear strain runs through all of them (as well as the less widely accepted theories). Without an unexpected outcome or high degree of contrast between the situation and the actor’s response, there is no joke.

My take is: incongruity theory wins. NOT because it was championed by the likes of Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant, and Herbert Spencer three hundred years ago, but because everything we’ve learned since supports it. At the Institute of Neurology in London, neuropsychologists Vinod Goel and Raymond Dolan describe successful jokes as "a cognitive juxtaposition of mental sets, followed by an affective feeling of amusement." The “feeling of amusement” is the response (a hugely important part of any joke, for sure, but not one we can put on the page). That means when we’re writing, a joke is nothing more than a cognitive juxtaposition of mental sets—something out of place for a situation running into the familiar or expected. Like, for example, the punch line to every funny joke you’ve ever heard. Those words become a “joke” when the brain’s response goes from deciphering (reading the code in the joke to reconcile the incongruity) to rewarding the reader for doing so by activating an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, a reward center.

Love or hate any of those theories, Understanding this basic idea means understanding humor. Its importance cannot be overstated, which is why this post about “humor” is probably the least sarcastic most boring-ass thing I’ve written in my life. If you are trying to sprinkle humor into a serious book, the issue is mixing in the punch line in an otherwise serious situation. For a satirist like Pratchett or Vonnegut, the opposite is true, which explains the strong, slightly formal and authoritative voice their third-person, often omniscient narrators speak in. The tricky part is finding that balance, and the first step is knowing your end goal is juxtaposition, which can be achieved in a million ways.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Taking Care Of Business: Your rights

I've got a contract in front of me for magazine filler material. They want to publish it this September, and they'll pay me $15. In exchange, they want my signature on a piece of paper.

This is what the piece of paper says:

"I hereby grant to MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED and to its legal representatives, successors and assigns, a world-wide, perpetual, non-revocable, sub-licensable and transferrable right to do and to authorize the following, in all languages and in all formats, configurations, means and media now existing or hereafter devised, discovered or devloped (including, without limitation, physical copies, digital media, electronic transmission, "new technologies" and portable electronic devices): 1) to prepare derivative works based on the work…"

Wait, wait, wait. WHAT?

Don't let your head swim. When you get a contract from a publisher or a literary agent, you need to know what you're signing. So look at the above.

The magazine is, as best I can understand, only published in English. So why do they want rights in every language? The magazine is online, sure, so I guess I can see worldwide rights. But irrevocable? And sublicensable? And they want the rights to any derivative works they may be able to create based on my piece?

And they want to pay fifteen dollars for all that?

I'm not saying you shouldn't sign this contract. But you need to know what you're doing.

If this were, say, The New Yorker, I might sign it because I'd want to be able to say I'd been published in The New Yorker. But it's not. There's a 99% chance you've never heard of this magazine, so no prestige and exposure from this publication.

If they were offering me a thousand dollars for worldwide perpetual rights in every language and in every technology that may ever be invented, I think I'd take that too. But not for fifteen bucks.

Looking further into the contract, they're further specifying all this is for the life of the copyright, which means the writer will not outlive this contract. Even if they go bankrupt, the writer has given them permission to sell all these rights to someone else.

The contract also looks a little deceptive to me because there are places where it discusses ending the agreement on the date specified, but they don't specify a date. And another paragraph says these rights are exclusive to their magazine for one year -- but that only means you can sell non-exclusive rights to this work afterward, not that the contract terminates.

Here's the takeaway: when you get an agreement from a publisher or an agent, read it. Really read it. Make sure they're only asking for rights you're willing to sell, rights they plan to use. I would suggest looking for words like "irrevocable" and "perpetual" and really scrutinizing who benefits if you can't terminate the agreement.

Don't sign anything that doesn't specify how you can get out of it.

Don't sign anything you don't understand. Ask questions. Ask more questions if you don't understand the answers, and if you don't understand those answers, then maybe wonder if someone doesn't want you confused. And who benefits if you sign an agreement you don't understand?

If there's something you don't agree to in that agreement, don't sign it. Negotiate a change (agents are in the business of negotiation, remember, so if an agent hands you this agreement, negotiate it) and be willing to walk away. But don't tell yourself, "Oh, that will never come up," because it's pretty much a guarantee that the one thing you don't want to come up in a contract will definitely do so, and at the worst possible time.

In this case, I wrote to the magazine and withdrew my submission due to their contract terms. The editor wrote back and assured me these were the industry standard. (They're not.) I replied with a couple of parallel contract paragraphs I had agreed to sign (because they were fair and reasonable) and added that my agent also had issues with their contract. The editor never replied.

My takeaway? Know your rights and sign them away only for what they're worth. And if you'll pardon me, this contract has an important appointment with my shredder. Wouldn't want to keep it waiting.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent (Guest Post)

We've spent the month discussing different aspects of the querying process and writing query letters. It's really been a lot to take in! However, I want to leave you all with a message of hope, simplicity, and achievability--querying can a tough process, but it's not an impossible one.
Here is a guest post by Peter Hogenkamp, who wanted to share his thoughts on getting a literary agent. Only five simple steps--and it all starts with a query letter...

It was seven years ago, but I can remember it like it was today. I woke up on the day before Thanksgiving, booted up my computer, and saw the e-mail in my inbox. "I have reviewed your query letter and the first five pages of your manuscript and I would like to read more; can you please e-mail me the first 50 pages along with your author bio and and a list of comparable titles."

Now, by virtue of the fact that you are reading this blog on QueryTracker, I suspect you all have received similar e-mails and realize that this was no big deal. But it was a big deal to me at the time, and it is still something I remember fondly. I had sent this--my very first--query to Writers House (I am sure you all know what Writers House is) and gotten a request for a partial. Things fell apart from there, of course--the I regret to inform you e-mail followed shortly--but it was the first step of the 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent.

Step 1)  Getting Your First Rejection.

Why, you ask, is this the first step? Well, consider the number of talented writers I know who have never received a rejection. The obvious reason is that none of them have ever sent a query letter in the first place. And why haven't they? The list is long--too much work, such a small chance of success, and not wanting to be slapped in the face top the list--but the reason doesn't really matter. If you are going to be a successful, agented and traditionally published author, you have got to put yourself out there--again and again--and in so doing you will be rewarded with rejections, apathy, criticism, (Sounds great, huh?) and the occasional positive response. Cherish the positive responses. Enjoying the small successes is the best way to keep on going.

Step 2)  Getting Your First Partial Request.

A request for a partial is not a guarantee you are going to be the next James Patterson or Daniel Silva, but it isn't a bad thing either: Someone (likely an intern or an agent's assistant) Somewhere (likely in NYC or San Francisco) thinks you can write. It is a validation of what you have known deep down all along. It is not a good thing: It is a great thing. But let's take a step back for a second, and do some math. Yes, yes, I know, they said there would be no math, but it is simple stuff and it makes my point. You sent out 10 queries and received 5 requests: What can you glean from this? You did a good job writing your query letter. On the other hand, if you sent out 20 queries and received just the 1 request, your query letter isn't any good. Revise it. (Here is the link to the QueryTracker Forum, where you can get great advice on how to improve your query.)

Step 3) Getting Your First Submission Request

After reviewing your partial, 10 agents have requested your full manuscript (this is what is called a submission request) but you get nothing but form rejections, lack of enthusiasm and, in many cases, nothing, in response. The fault here lies in your manuscript. I am not saying that your manuscript isn't any good, I am saying that it isn't good enough... yet. Getting an agent is a hard thing to do: Take a look at the acceptance rates on QueryTracker (and don't even consider the querying process without having QueryTracker on your Favorites list.) Many agents sign only one or two writers a year, some less than that. And many of the writers they sign come from referrals, not the slush pile. I am not saying you can't do it: my agent found me in the slush pile, and if I can do it, so can you. But you have to learn from the failures along the way. Kabitzing about how unfair the process is--or how arbitrary, or how frustrating--gets you nowhere. Asking yourself how you can improve is the correct approach. Go back to the comments you may have received; what are the agents telling you? Where is the weakness in your manuscript? Are your characters well-developed? Is your dialogue genuine? Is your prose tight? This is where you become a better writer: Don't waste the opportunity. Stop querying agents until you have fixed the problems with your manuscript; there are only so many agents who represent your genre. Stop querying. Start revising. Then query again. I say this from experience--this is the exact approach that worked for me in the end.

Step 4)  Getting Your First Revision Request

You may see this referred to as a Revise and Resubmit, but be careful: agents are very savvy about how they manage a writers expectations. You may need to read between the lines of their comments to realize you have received a revision request. What do I mean? Take my case. I worked very hard on revising my manuscript after it was rejected two dozen or so times at the submission level. I was fortunate to receive a lot of comments with the rejections, both good and bad, but let me tell you something: It is the bad comments you should be paying attention to. It is something you can work on. One agent told me: You write well, and I like the premise, but the main character isn't strong enough. That, my friends, was a revision request by my way of looking at it. So, that's what I did: I spent several months making the characters stronger and I sent it back to her with a carefully worded letter explaining that I had addressed the weaknesses of the manuscript and would she be interested in taking another look? (The key here is to be professional and polite.) In fact, I sent my revised manuscript to all the agents who had taken the time to make some comments (don't bother with the ones who sent form rejects or who didn't respond at all--they have no interest) and to the one agent who had specifically asked for a revise and resubmit. The agents who made comments were interested enough to spend some of their valuable time to help you: You owe it to them and to yourself to give them another shot. But only after you have worked hard to address the shortcomings in the manuscript.

Step 5)  Getting Your First Offer of Representation

Interestingly enough, the one agent who had specifically requested the R/R never even responded to my letter. Even when the offers started coming in and I let her know that I had several offers of representation, she simply said she was 'no longer interested.' (I wrote her back to thank her for help, by the way.) Her lack of interest didn't phase me, however, because I had received an offer. What to do in this case, when I still had another ten or so submissions out there? You want to let the agents know you have received an offer. They will either bow out (and save themselves some time) or expedite the reading of your manuscript in case they want to make an offer. I ended up with six offers in the next few weeks. (But just so we are clear, these six offers represented five years of querying, ten years of writing two different manuscripts, two writers conferences, and several laps of the earth trying to hike away my angst.) It can be done: You can get an agent through the querying process but it can only be done with a lot of hard work. Their are no shortcuts, no head starts, no tricks or gimmicks.

Just five steps.

Author Peter Hogenkamp
Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.


Friday, March 27, 2015

The Five Stages of Querying Grief

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described the five stages of grief in 1969 in her book, On Death and Dying. It detailed her observations of terminally ill patients as they dealt with their diagnosis. I think it’s equally applicable to the querying process.

DENIAL:  This is it! My 250,000 word urban fantasy featuring vampires and brooding shape shifters is going to land me an agent at the biggest, baddest agency in New York. There’s going to be a bidding war with the BIG 5. It’s going to be made into a blockbuster movie. Foreign rights will pay for my private jet. I’m going to quit my day job and wear pajamas all day for the rest of my life, just like Hugh Hefner.

ANGER: Crappy form rejections! What’s wrong with these agents? Don’t they recognize talent when they see it? You know what happened to the stuck up kids in high school who never invited you to their parties? They became agents! I’ll show them. When I hit it big, I’ll start naming names of everyone who rejected me. They’ll be sorry.

BARGAINING: I’ll only send five more queries out, then I’ll stop. I can stop any time I want. If I just personalize it a little better…Hey wait, this agent loves Joss Whedon! I love Joss Whedon. This could be the one. It only takes one yes. I don’t need multiple offers. I don’t need a movie deal. There’s this one literary agent in Omaha that’s also an insurance agent. It could work. My neighbor’s grandson has a start up press in his garage. Indie is cool. Indie is the new traditional. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Just one more query first.

DEPRESSION: I suck. I suck so badly I even suck at sucking. I’m a worthless, talentless hack. What was I thinking? Why did I bother? My mother was right. I should stick to what I’m good at: Sucking. Are we out of chocolate?

ACCEPTANCE: I had a tough sell in a crowded genre. It’s not personal. It’s business. I’ll dust myself off and move on. I jotted down an idea for a new book the other day. I think I’ll start outlining this weekend. I do love to write, after all. This too shall pass.



This is it! This is the one!

P.S. Don’t let yourself stay too long in stage 4. Sure, we all get down, but don’t let the rejection get the better of you. It does only take one yes. And you can’t get to that one “yes” unless keep writing.