QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, May 30, 2016

A New Frontier For Queries

As you probably know, QueryTracker is dedicated to improving the query process for authors, but that isn't always easy. A lot of the problems authors face are outside of our control, but maybe we can fix that.

Some of the biggest complaints I hear are about the long waits for queries, and the increasingly common reply of, "No reply means no." How many times have you sent a query and never received a reply? Did you wonder if the agent ever saw it? Maybe it got lost in the web? Or, worse yet, the agent did reply (requesting a full even) but you never got it.

But let's look at it from the agent's point of view. They're receiving hundreds of queries every week, and they've got plenty of other work to do besides read queries all day long. So, of course, they're seeking a faster way. Not answering is fast, but not ideal for either party. Of course, the authors don't like it, but it's a problem for the agents, too. As word gets around that they're non-responders, people are choosing to not query them, or maybe put off querying them. This means the agents might be missing out on the next big book. How many great queries went to a different agent because the author chose not to query a non-responder? We'll never know.

So what's the solution? Can both sides be made happy?

I think so.

We at QueryTracker have been busy developing a new tool for agents and publishers that we hope can solve some of these problems. It's a system for receiving and quickly processing and responding to queries. We call it Query Manager.

Here's a short video introduction:

There have been services in the past that attempt to ease the query pain for one side or the other. The problem with these are they tend to relieve the pain for only one side, and they always charge either the agents, the authors, or both for the service. Query Manager is totally free to all parties, and focuses on lessening the pain for both sides of the query.

Other sites have tried things like "Display" or "Discovery" services. These are sites where authors upload their manuscripts and hope an agent will stumble upon it. These sites don't work because agents get plenty of queries and don't need to go looking for more. They also charge the authors for the service. If you run across a site like this, don't waste your money.

Another type of query site is the "gate-keeper" site. These sites say they'll pre-screen queries for agents, and only pass on the good ones. But how do they know what an agent will or won't like? And of course, someone has to pay them to do this.

Both these types of sites pop up all the time. Rarely do they last more than a few months.

QueryManager is neither of these.

Any and all feedback on this new site is appreciated, so please post your comments below.

Patrick McDonald is the founder and creator of QueryTracker. Though maintaining QueryTracker keeps him too busy to write anymore, back when he did he tended to write in many different genres. Not because he was eclectic, but because he was still trying to find his niche. Though he never discovered his genre of choice, he did find his home at QueryTracker, a place where he could spend time in his two favorite worlds: writing and programming.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Truth About Prologues

The second rule in Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Avoid Prologues.” At first this sounds like Mr. Leonard is telling us not to use prologues. Until you realize that the Rule 1 and Rule 3 don’t start with the word “avoid.” They start with the word “never.”

Avoid means steer clear of, think twice about, shy away from. Never means, well, never. Ever. Not even once. That’s a big difference. Particularly when Mr. Leonard’s comments about that rule consist largely of John Fucking Steinbeck brilliant use of a prologue.

The entire prologue situation (both the problem itself and the extent to which writers exaggerate that problem) was summed up beautifully by Angela James, an editor for Carina Press (a Harlequin digital first imprint). She said:

Of course, I’m an editor, and if you’ve heard it once you’ve probably heard it from an editor or agent: we’re not always fans of prologues. I think this has morphed into authors saying that we HATE prologues, but that’s not true. What’s true is this: we see a lot of stories come through our slush pile that start with prologues, and 9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.

I’m willing to bet she speaks for virtually every agent and editor in the business when she says it begins – and ends – with “We’re not always fans of prologues.”

That’s far from “never do it or you will immediately burst into flames and the souls of your loved ones will be doomed for all eternity,” which is how a LOT of writers tend to treat the issue. Still, it’s a really good idea to avoid them if you can.

Prologue Problems

Prologue problems come in two flavors: Problems with the prologue itself (which we will call problems with other people’s prologues, because, seriously, I’m sure yours is wonderful) and problems intrinsic to having and querying a novel with a prologue (which we will call the real problems with having a prologue).

Problems with Other People’s Prologues:

They are often used as info dumps, with all the attendant problems of info dumps.

One of the most common agent/publisher complaints about beginner novelists is that they start the novel two or three chapters too early, before the story really gets going. A prologue adds a fourth chapter of “too soon.”

Readers imprint on the first MC they meet, like baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see and follow it around assuming it’s their mama. The prologue MC usually isn’t the book MC, so readers feel cheated when you switch to your real MC.

Many readers skip them, which means they need to literally be prologues — the story needs to stand on it’s own, completely independently from the prologue. So, by definition, it has to be extra stuff.
If it’s not an info dump, it’s probably backstory, and backstory is generally a very bad way to start a novel.

Compared to working the prologue information in through flashbacks or directly through the narrative, a prologue is an easy way to get it out there (which is why the info dump/backstory concerns are so valid).

Chapter One has to manage to introduce characters and setting and lay a lot of groundwork for a story. That’s hard to do without being boring. Some people use prologues to throw something exciting on the table first, in an attempt to “hook” the reader.This often fails -- it comes off as a gimmick, then you leave the reader with your boring Chapter One (possibly more boring, since you think you’ve taken the pressure off) and the reader goes from exciting prologue to boring chapter and thinks “the first real chapter of this book sucks.” It’s like having a date show up in a Ferrari but then having him drive you to Taco Bell.

There are certainly more, but that gives a decent idea of why, as Ms. James put it, “9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.” Worse than not necessary, the things those other writers are trying to do through the prologue – provide backstory and worldbuild, start with something interesting, etc., are the things that separate great writers from the good. Great writers build incredible worlds and provide deep, rich backstories throughout the narrative core of their books.

The Real Problems with Having a Prologue

The real problem with having a prologue, even if it’s both necessary and brilliant, is: Seriously, prologues are tricky.

For starters, they present logistical problems. You’re ready to query and the agent you are querying asked for the first three pages or your first chapter or whatever. Does that mean your prologue, or Chapter One?

According to literary agent extraordinaire, Janet Reid a/k/a the Query Shark, “your first five pages” or “first chapter” obviously means the first part of the novel, not your prologue:

The five pages you attached don’t mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It’s as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.
 That’s one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Nathan Bransford, on the other hand, says that “first 30 pages” obviously means the first 30 pages that are part of your book:

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue… let’s see it.

Oops. Those are agents (well, in Nathan’s case, now an ex-agent) who blog a lot about what they expect and want to see, and the advice is diametrically opposed. If I had to guess, I’d say more agents probably agree with Nathan, but that’s a guess. I doubt Janet is completely out in left field, so it’s safe to assume a significant portion of agents agree with her take as well. Either way, having a prologue creates a new, possibly unnecessary problem.

There’s also the issue of Pavlov’s agent (or, worse, reader). Imagine having 200 queries and sample pages to wade through in a day. Ten of those had prologues, and all ten treated you to worldbuilding, backstory, and info dumps. You open your 200th query, and discover it’s the eleventh to start with the word “Prologue.” At this point, you expect it to suck. There’s a 90% chance you’ll be right. You’ve been conditioned to expect it to suck. Maybe even conditioned to think it sucks.

It’s not your prologue’s fault. It those ten other, stupid, needless prologues that came before it. But you’ve been tainted by association. Now, at best, the reader is looking to see how much of an info dumpy, backstory filled piece of shit your prologue is, not objectively looking at how good or bad it is. Prejudice is an ugly thing, but it’s also a real thing.

The Bottom Line on Prologues?

In this case, it’s also the top line. Prologues are tricky. If possible, you should avoid having one. I don’t think agent’s and editors hate them, I don’t even think most readers skip them (although I’d bet that’s more of an issue with YA readers, for example, than with lit fiction readers). But I do think they bring a host of new problems to the party, even if they don’t suffer from the problems that are endemic to prologues generally.

Put differently, there is the way you dress for a job interview, the way you dress on your first day of work, and the way you dress when you’ve been working the same job for a few years. Prologues are a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Even if that’s how you’ll be showing up the third week, when you’re interviewing and it’s probably best to clean things up for one day. It certainly won’t hurt.

UNLESS, you absolutely understand exactly what I’m saying here, see the problems, are positive you aren’t providing background, worldbuidling, info dumping, garbage, and know that your story really, really needs a prologue for a very specific reason that can’t be handled through the body of your narrative.

Because there are some jobs – lifeguard, surf/snowboard/skateboard sales, marijuana dispensary clerk and/or gardener – where you just look like an idiot showing up for the interview in a suit.

Prologues fall into the huge category of writing issues, ranging from adjectives to introspective monologue, where the shorthand "DON'T" is inaccurately used instead of the accurate "MAKE SURE IT'S REALLY NECESSARY." If a prologue is the best way to execute and it's executed well, there's no option other than using one. The confusion arises because they are often tacked onto the beginning of novels where they aren't truly necessary and there are better ways to accomplish what the writer is trying to accomplish through a prologue. 
Michael McDonagh lives outside Boise, Idaho, with an assortment of barn cats, chickens, turkeys, and horses, as well as a cadre of stray dogs and daughters who melt his heart. A charter member of the Humor Writers of America, his personal motto is: I write dystopian fiction, but everybody else thinks it's contemporary fiction. That's what makes it satire.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

QT Open Mic: Today's Writers, Today's Topics

There is an important aspect of the writing business that is often easy to overlook.

Keeping relevant.

Writing is an intensely personal venture and many people get swept up in their personal art. We live in our stories. We eat, breath, dream our books and their inescapable grasps. After months (perhaps years!) of laboring at our novels, we emerge from the writing haze, ready to get that book out there. Only, some of us find that the publishing world changed quite a bit while we were busy dreaming.

That happens to QT bloggers, too. :)

Some of us are out of the query trenches and fast-advancing toward the front lines.  A few of us are madly managing back lists and marketing endeavors. But all of us want to continue to provide insightful, relevant posts to help you get to where you want to be with your writing, your book, and your career.

Over the years, we’ve discussed numerous topics related to writing, editing, agents, and the journey toward publication. However, maybe there’s something we haven’t covered (or haven’t covered in a while) that you’re curious to know more about. So today the QueryTracker Blog Team is taking your questions!

Need some writing advice?  Dying to ask someone that question nobody seems to be able to answer?

If you have any question you want answered--even if it's something subjective that solicits an opinion--throw it at us. We'll research and compile our answers for future posts. Our blog team has an amazing range of both personal experience and professional expertise and we're here to share it all with you.
Please ask your questions or suggest your topics in the comments section below. (If you would like to suggest something but wish to do so on the down-low, just contact Ash through her website www.ashkrafton.com using the subject line "QT Open Mic". She'll make sure your thoughts are shared with the team.) 
We love our blog readers and are thrilled to have all of you with us. Our subscribership keeps growing and we are grateful for your support.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thinking Inside The Box (Set)

Platform, platform, platform. Ugh.

Agents say it's not necessary for fiction writers to have a platform to land an agent, but it also can't hurt to build yours now, so let me introduce you to the most intriguing and fun way I've found so far to get my name out there: an anthology.

A box set. Oh, those little awesome 3D covers with their long stack of titles behind them, priced dazzingly low to entice readers in, and once you've got the readers, you have a chance to figure out how to keep them.

I've participated in anthologies for years (starting in 1994 when I had a story in Catfantastic IV, curated by Andre Norton, no joke) but this is the first time I've seen how writers wield anthologies as platform-builders. Plus, as a new writer can make yourself more marketable to agents, so let's talk box sets.

First and foremost, if you participate in an anthology, anything you publish is published. That means you're not going to query it later. So choose your work carefully. Many anthologies will have a theme, so you may be writing something specific, but try to tie it loosely to whatever work you plan to query. Same genre, for example. If it has the same characters, make sure the anthology contract doesn't lay claim to sequels or related works. (Make sure the anthology has a contract.)

Secondly, participating in an antholgy or a box set will give you a writing credit. You may not get any money (especially if the box set is being distributed for free, like mine is) but you're right at the beginning of your career and you're going into this open-eyed: writing for free is fine if you're willingly choosing to get paid in some other currency. In this case, the currency is experience.

Agents and editors like to know how a writer responds to professional guidance. If you've participated in an anthology, you've proven you know how to work with other professionals. (This goes for magazines, too.) You'll have a track record of being able to keep to deadlines, being able to accept critique, and being able to put yourself out there as a professional.

Experience also means flexibility. We had one individual leave production for personal reasons, so the remaining members divided up the responsibilities to make sure all needs were covered. Another participant needed to flex her schedule due to absolutely unavoidable conflicts, and we were able to adjust everything around her so that when she did have the chance, her work could come in late and then be streamlined right through production so everything was completed on time.

Flexibility is a skill. Taking critique is a skill. Working with others is a skill we all learned in kindergarten but needs practicing on a regular basis. In an anthology, you'll get all that.

Your currency may also come in the form of mentoring. If there are more-experienced writers in your group, watch them and soak up every single bit of information you can. Ask them to put you to work, and then go ahead and do it. Why? Because they're going to show you tricks that are second nature to them after being in the trenches. Marketing tricks. Phrasing tricks. Keyword tricks. Selling tricks. And remember, as a querying writer, you're marketing yourself.

(An unexpected side-effect of my participation in this anthology was that after I formatted the ebook versions, two members asked if I formatted on a freelance basis. I currently have my first freelance check sitting on my desk, awaiting transport to the bank. How cool is that?)

Third is that you're going to increase your platform, or maybe begin building your platform. When you participate in an anthology, each participant is going to reach out to her network in order to get support for the final product. If there are ten participants, you have ten times the reach you had before, and if you assume an equal division of readers, then 90% of the readers will be new to you.

Ah, but it won't be an equal division of readers because the other writers may have fully-developed platforms of their own already. And all together, you're each riding the others' coat-tails onto new readers' shelves. Everyone benefits. (Just make sure you have a way to keep those readers attached to you, such as a blog to follow or a Facebook page they can like.)

Side note: The authors of The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing talk about how, when they first formed The Indie Voice, they decided all of them should have the monicker "New York Times Bestselling Author." So they formed a box set with one book from each member, priced it at $.99, got a BookBub and other supporting ads, and proceeded to sell thousands of books, hitting the bestseller list. That, my friends, if you can be paid in it, is currency. (But you can't do that anymore. Both the NYT and BookBub closed that particular loophole. Sorry.)

It'll just be a sentence in your author bio. "I was previously published in Where The Light May Lead, an anthology that sold a thousand copies during its publication weekend." You don't need to harp on the fact that now you have experience and the beginning of a platform, or that you've picked up new skills and new contacts. Agents will know.

Participation in an anthology won't vault you over everyone else's head right into the agent's "request a full right this second" pile. But having a track record might tip the scales if the agent is unsure whether to look at more of your work.

And above all: participating in an anthology will make you a better writer and a better professional. Plus, it's fun. Those are always good things, even if you never want to impress an agent or an editor.


(Psst: If you want to check out the anthology that spurred this post, it's free in the US on Amazon and worldwide at a number of other vendors.)