Monday, June 22, 2009

Picture book presentation

I'm a writer/illustrator working on a picture book. I paint digitally and it would be much easier for me to present the book digitally, say on DVD. Is that an acceptable format?

Yes, but you should also submit high-res printouts of the manuscript - most publishing companies or agents will not want to print out colour copies of your digital files ... If in doubt, check the relevant submission guidelines or call/email to find out if you can submit that way.

Navigating the submissions waters

I know the chances of getting published in print are very slim (I do have an e-book out there, though it's not exactly being grabbed by lots of people) but I would like to maximise my chances. I research what I can on the internet, but sometimes get confused. Could I ask you a few questions?

Firstly, simultaneous submissions. I understand why publishers wouldn't like them, but in my circumstances I feel almost impelled to have manuscripts at more than one publisher at the same time. Naturally I let them know this situation, and that I will inform them at once if anyone else accepts a piece of writing (unlikely, hence one of the reasons why I want to do it). Briefly, I am in my sixties, a recent survivor of cancer and healthy now, the sole income earner with lots of debt still and nearly 100 animals directly dependent on me to pay for their feed (this is no fault of my husband's); I drive four hours a day to and from work, have no real job security, work after hours as well, don't really have a life (including time to do any more writing). There are certainly people worse off than this, but I hope people would understand why I don't want to wait several months before trying the next publisher on the list. What is your view on this?

Secondly, I find a lot of publishers are demanding a detailed marketing plan. As someone who doesn't expect the plumber to fix my car too, I am a bit disheartened by this, especially as I live on a small farm, don't know anyone important and don't have time or money to get this sort of contact. I also have no experience of marketing whatsoever. Are they being reasonable? Do they really expect me to come up with a plan, and if so, how? (Sorry, this all sounds terribly negative!)

Lastly (and thanks for your patience), opinions seem to be many and varied as to whether one should have an agent. If you think it is generally a good idea, is it ethical or sensible to approach a would-be agent with samples from manuscripts already waiting at publishers, or should one choose a manuscript that is currently nowhere else?

First question: simultaneous submissions are completely acceptable, so long as you let publishers and agents know that that's what you're doing. If a publisher (or agent) doesn't want you to submit anywhere else at the same time, it's up to you whether you want to submit to them at all, but in my experience they all expect that authors send manuscripts to more than one publisher at the same time.

Second question: I can only presume you're talking about American publishers, as I don't know any Australian publishers who ask me for a detailed marketing plan, let alone an author. But I don't think American publishers expect marketing plans either. Without knowing more detail about who you're submitting to, I can only give a general response, which is that this requirement surprises me.

Third question: the previous two questions lead me to think that you DO need an agent, if only to navigate all these submissions and to give you advice about what you should or shouldn't be doing. As I've said in the past, not all authors need agents but it sounds like an agent could help manage things for you. When you're submitting to agents, you can submit manuscripts that are already at publishers but you need to disclose all information to the agent - i.e. say that it's on submission. The best manuscript to submit, though, is the one you're happiest with - and only submit one at a time. Most of us can only handle one at a time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The age of innocence

I am a young writer, 19 at the time of writing this, and I just cannot achieve any progress with any of my work. I have written two novels. The first one, I know, is a fairly trashy effort and was just to see whether I could achieve a full length novel with a plot that made sense. I did not seek publication. However, I loved doing it so much I decided to try a second one. I did the next one by the book, making sure I read the genre and understood the conventions, putting it away for several months and then reworking it with fresh eyes, and making sure it was the best I could make it. Now, when submitting for consideration by an agent, I can't even get past a query letter.

Sure, perhaps my query is letter is trash, but I think it's fairly consistent with successful ones yourself and Miss Snark etc have posted.I know I'm not the next Dan Brown or Stephen King, and neither do I want to be, but I would like the chance to try to be a writer. So I guess my question comes down to how I might attract attention from an agent/publisher without any qualifications or credentials and a lack of "adult" world experience? (that last one I have been told by a rejecting agent). Should I draw attention to school and university based achievements, such as being part of an International Honour Society for Academic Excellence, or does that just sound trivial and make it seem like I'm bignoting myself?

Your age is a problem. Not because you're not necessarily a good writer - I don't know if you are or not - but because it sounds as though you're writing for adults, not teenagers, and no adult wants to read a teenager's take on the world unless they have a specific interest in young adult fiction. You as a teenaged writer would be almost an impossible sell for a publisher to booksellers and for booksellers to customers.

Here's the good part: you're going to turn 20 soon. And then 21. Both of these ages are probably more palatable to an agent and publisher. So just wait, and while you wait, work at your craft. Most published first novels are not first novels - they're third, fourth or fifth novels. You have time on your side - what a gift! Make the most of it.

The hold-up

I completed my first novel (a 2-year journey) early this year. I sent in a query letter/submission to a few agents (not many were accepting unsolicited childrens' fantasy submissions) in February, and had no luck. Given the much-advertised 'economic crisis' I decided to hold off sending it directly to publishers, thinking they would be unlikely to take on new unknown writers this year with a presumably reduced childrens' list, and I shouldn't waste my one chance with them.

My intention was to send it to publishers early next year, but now, 4 months later and given I'm a new (impatient) writer, I am itching to try as soon as I can. I know you can't predict the future but nevertheless my question (or questions) involve it:

1.Would it be best to wait till next year, or until this 'economic crisis' blows over, before sending my manuscript to publishers?

2. Will I be blowing my 'only' chance if I send it around now or a little later this year?

3. If I do send it round now and have no luck due to reduced capacity for publishing books in this current economic downturn, would it be acceptable for me to resubmit later (in 1 or 2 years' time)?

I'll do the short answers first:


2. YES

3. NO

Now here are the long answers:

1. It's not just the economy that's making us all nervous - the Productivity Commission has put everyone distinctly on edge, as none of us knows if we'll have jobs next year. However, children's publishing is resilient in times of economic downturn. I think your problem is not so much the economy as it is the genre you've chosen. You wouldn't believe how many children's fantasy manuscripts are floating around out there ... It is, by far, the largest single genre (out of adults' and children's books) that I see. So you really need to have an outstanding manuscript that is not at all derivative of anything else out there - especially the boy wizard - in order to rise above the pack.

2. and 3. Yes, you're blowing your only chance because you do only get one shot at submitting to agents and publishers. We only ever look at something twice if we've asked to see it again after a rewrite. Most of us - probably all of us - keep records of submissions and will be able to tell if you've resubmitted after a rejection. People try it, but my answer to them is still 'no'.

I've written a few posts about patience and impatience - there's even a label for it at right. It's really worth being patient - not necessarily because of the economy, but for the sake of your own writing. Before you send it out again, make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be. That usually means being patient and not looking at it for a while.

Who needs short stories?

My question is about 'writing experience' and how that helps you in the game of getting published.

I understand that for an unknown writer to be picked up by a publisher their work would have to be brilliant, or they would just have to send their manuscript to the right place at the right time (i.e. they're lucky). But there are thousands of submissions each year that are just 'very good' which means, although they may be publishing worthy, they may not necessarily be picked up. Some suggestions to help writers in the 'very good' range are to get short stories or articles published, win writing competitions etc.

My passion is in writing novels where I have the time and word count to develop a character and present their journey to my heart's content. I struggle to write a good short story and I don't believe this is where my talent lies. However, I would be more than happy to pursue this if it does indeed help in the long run. Therefore my question is this: in your opinion, are agents or publishers really likely to give an unknown writer more of a chance if their query letter shows they have published some short stories or won one of the many random competitions?

In short: no. At least, I don't discount writers if they haven't had short stories published or had short stories win competitions. Short stories can be a very good discipline if they appeal to you - the same way that writing poetry can be a very good discipline for writing novels if poetry is your thang - but I'm struggling to think of the last writer I took on who had written any short stories at all ... Word search ... Search fail.

If novels are what you love writing, then stick to what you love. You may never get published - statistically, most novelists won't - but I can guarantee this: you will never ever get published if you don't love the form you're writing in. If you start writing short stories because you think they'll be helpful and your heart's not really in it, it will show in your writing. If you write a screenplay because you think it'd be cool but the screenplay form is something you really struggle with, it will show in your writing.

So stick to the novels. Maybe enter them in some comps; maybe apply for the odd development program or mentorship. That stuff does look good in your bio simply because it shows that you enjoy the writing process. And don't forget to have fun.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writing for credit

In the query letters you’ve reviewed you talk about including credits and the need to assert yourself as a ‘bona fide’. So my question is what if you don’t have any writing credits? Would you consider a first time author who had nothing else to hang their hat on but a passion for their craft? Is being a good writer enough? Also I write romance/ contemporary chick lit – so how do I prove I’m qualified to write in this genre? It’s not like you can do a PhD in broken hearts, there’s no Romance 101 taught in any legitimate learning facility that I’m aware of. To some simply being a woman whose experienced her fair share of love and heart break might be enough to make me a ‘bona fide’ for this style of writing but I more interested in what the industry standard is. If you’re a first time writer, other then writing a good novel what else can one do to improve their chances of getting published?

This is a very good point and, again, makes me examine my own query letter–reading mindset.

In JJ Cooper's letter he says that his novel is a thriller about a military interrogator - this is quite a specialised area, so it's great if he has some knowledge about it, which he says he does - that is, he's established his credentials in this specialised field of knowledge. Likewise, if someone's writing non-fiction about, say, the life cycle of the bee, it's best if the writer is an apiarist or bee scientist. So the 'bona fides' really matters when you're writing the sort of book that people will notice a lack of real detail: novels about the military or the police, for example, even about championship tennis - it's hard to write about a culture if you're completely outside of it. The Devil Wears Prada wouldn't have worked if the author knew nothing about the fashion industry.

If you write chick lit, you're correct: you don't need the same kind of background knowledge.

However, regardless of what you're writing, the manuscript needs to be excellent. And most manuscripts don't get to be excellent if the author has not put a lot of work into them. So when I'm looking for writing 'credits' I'm not necessarily looking for a degree in creative writing - in fact, that qualification can sometimes make me run screaming away from the submission - but I am looking for some evidence that you haven't sent me your first draft. That may mean that you say 'I've been writing for five years and have started two novels, but this is the first I've seen to fruition. I've spent a fair bit of time with it, and this is the third draft.' And that, as far as I'm concerned (I can't speak for others), is writing credit. You've done time in the trenches. You haven't just dashed off something in five days and decided to submit it just to see how it goes. A lot of writers won't mention previous (unpublished) novels or stories but I think they should - it's part of their own story. And your own story is what makes you different from the twenty other chick lit writers whose submissions I may be reading on the same day.

Query letters - the main points

Reviewing the query letters has been helpful for me - yes, it's all about my needs, not yours - as it's forced me to examine how I make decisions when I'm reading letters. And the main points I've gleaned are these:

1. If I like the sound of the story, I'm prepared to overlook missing information in the query letter - therefore, the story needs to be described well.

2. If I like the sound of the author, I'm prepares to overlook a query letter that is otherwise lacking. Liking the author doesn't mean liking their biographical information - it means liking their tone. A lot of query letters read the same - with a flat tone - and that's probably because writers are taking them seriously, which is fair and reasonable. But an author who shows me a bit of personality - an 'I love' or 'I'm passionate about' or 'I came up with the idea for this novel while standing on my head' - is going to make me want to read what they've written.

3. I often work on instinct and there's some stuff I just can't empirically break down about why I like some letters and not others. The authors I've found in the slush pile have all - without exception - had fantastic letters. I got a feeling when I read the letter and then it was borne out when I read the manuscript. Wonderful writers always write wonderfully, regardless of whether it's a query letter or a novel or an email.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: don't be too rigid in your letters. The basic structure is: describe the story, tell me why I should read it and tell me a bit about you, and write the letter as if you're writing to someone you want to start a relationship with. The agent-author relationship ideally endures for years, and we're all human - we all respond to emotional cues, even in business (perhaps especially in business) - so when someone sends a query letter that makes me laugh or makes me feel like they have a wildly beating heart, it makes me want to work with them. It makes me want to work on their manuscript to get it ready for submission. It doesn't matter so much if their novel isn't 'perfect'.

In the US query letters are often the only thing an agent will look at first up; in Australia we tend to ask for chapters as well. So the query letter in Australia probably isn't as critical, but it's still important. It's my first introduction to an author I may well end up working with - and it's always a thrill when I get that feeling - you know, that feeling - when I read a letter and suspect that it may just have been written by an author whose work I'm going to LOVE.

Query letter #10: Lin W

Dear Agent ,

MYSTICA is a completed 90,000 word YA fantasy tale where the strong heroine in A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY meets the suspense and conflict in THE CITY OF BONES.
[Avoid mentioning other people's novels completely or, if you have to do it, wait until the end of the query. If you mention them this early, I will think your work is derivative - and that's if I recognise the novels you mention. If I don't recognise them, I just won't understand what you're telling me. However, agents in Australia have to work across the whole gamut of titles - we usually can't afford to specialise - so we won't know all the big novels in any given genre. Agents in the US can and do specialise, so my advice would probably be different if you're querying in the US, as those agents may expect these sorts of references.]

Anastasia never believed in ghosts, though they have always haunted her glamorous city. But then she encounters Duncan Fae – a charming druid ordered to suicide for treason years ago. [Rock and roll! I like this story already.] When Duncan declares himself her birth father, a deep anger resurfaces from within Anastasia’s memory, enabling her to unlock a power that is more of a curse than a blessing. [I'm still interested.]

Commoners and nobles alike fear her unique ability to summon flames – as well as her inability to tame them – especially when nobles are murdered and orphans vanish without a trace. Unsure of whom to trust, yet desperate to save her city, Anastasia must venture into a labyrinth of class war and forbidden love, a world of haunted vaults, abandoned ruins, and extravagant palaces. Duncan Fae is willing to do anything for revenge, and murder is just the beginning of his plans. [It's still rock and roll - nice work.]

My magical realism story [which story?] captured 1st place in the 2009 Joshua Weinzweig National Postcard Fiction Contest, while my speculative prose poem placed 3rd the 2009 OddCon Speculative Fiction contest. For more information, please visit my writing blog: [It's good to mention the URL but please also tell me a bit about you - why do you write in this genre, when did you start writing - and don't forget to tell me why I should read your novel.]

Thank you for considering my query.

Lin W

Status: provisionally APPROVED - I need more information about the author but the lack of it wouldn't stop me wanting to read the manuscript.

Query letter #9: Nisha G

Well, in between one commenter saying that doing these query letters is a waste of time and a couple of other people telling me that my punctuation is old-fashioned, I almost gave up on the whole exercise! But that wouldn't be fair to the folks who've valiantly sent in their query letters - obviously some people don't think it's a waste of time. I did receive more than 10 letters so I may do the 'excess stock' at a later time - but for now, we're almost home. I should say that critiquing these letters in detail may not necessarily help anyone but there are some elementary things that lots of authors get wrong and they're the sorts of things that can be fixed quite easily, as they're usually the result of the author simply being too close to their own work to spot what's missing or what's not working.

Dear Agent,

I am writing regarding my debut novel ‘A Curious Competition’. Aimed at children between 8-12 years of age, this is the first novel of at least three in a fantasy series entitled ‘The Magic’. [A good, clear opening - it lets me know that there's a series planned, and in fantasy that's usually a good thing; in children's books it's a nice thing, but not always what publishers want to hear.]

Queen Aazma has lived without Magic
[Why the capital M? Maybe it's a fantasy thing ...] for thousands of years; and now she wants it back [Why does she want it back? What has happened to her without it?]. But she must find the anointed to do this, and so she creates a competition to lure him into her trap. Thus begins Cicada’s journey as one of five children who, unknown to them, are destined to return Magic into the world. Within the moving walls of a castle hidden in the depths of a cave, Cicada is thrust into supernatural challenges beyond his means. According to the prophecy; [no semi-colon here - no punctuation at all is neeed] a single key will release Magic and the one to release it will forever rule the land. Queen Aazma is sure Cicada knows where to find the key and is holding his and his friends’ lives ransom until he hands it to her.

Narrated by Magic [Is Magic a person? Now I'm confused - you said 'it' above - if Magic is magic - a force, not a person, how can it narrate?], but told from Cicada’s perspective, A Curious Competition and subsequent novels in The Magic series follow Cicada as he develops the courage and understanding to fulfil his destiny, save his friends, and stop the Queen’s evil plans. [This plot description is clear and solid, apart from my confusion about Magic.]

As both a reader and writer I enjoy watching vibrant characters grow through the actions and events in their lives; ultimately illustrated through their relationships and their heightened sense of self-fulfilment. I have written 'A Curious Competition' with this in mind; the intention being to create a fast paced story that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.
[Great - love to hear this sort of information as it gives me an insight into the author beyond 'the credits'.]

I have day-dreamed and written for as long as I can remember, but somehow I have spent my adult life to date working in corporate business environments. Two years ago I came to realise this should not stop me from writing and thus began my journey with ‘A Curious Competition’. My passion
[Another word that is underutilised in query letters - passion rocks! We need more passion!] is in writing quirky stories for children and fantasy novels for all ages [good - lets me know what to expect from your writing - this story will be quirky]. In addition to the second instalment of The Magic series, I am currently working on a short children’s story intended for the Puffin Aussie Chomps series, and the first novel in an adult fantasy series. [It's good to mention that you're working on other novels, as it lets us know that you're working on other stories while you're waiting to hear about this one - publishers usually like to hear this too.]

I understand you must receive many submissions daily and I am sincerely grateful for your time in considering mine.
[You don't need to be sincerely grateful, but I do appreciate the mention of 'many submissions daily' - that lets the agent know that you understand that we won't be speedy and aren't likely to call us twice a day until you get an answer.] If requested, I would be delighted to send you a sample or complete manuscript of my novel. I can be contacted at any time on 0421 XXX XXX or at this email address.

Kind Regards,

Nisha G

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Query letter #8: Cassandra B

Dear Agent,

Ben and his twin sister Emma
[I would put commas around 'Emma' but apparently my views on punctuation are OLD-FASHIONED so I will be rationing my remarks about it] move to the country and what they find in the woods will question [better to say 'will cause them to question- presumably the thing in the woods isn't doing the questioning] everything they've ever known about their dead mother.

In my 55k
[don't use 'k' - put 000 if you mean 'thousand'] word urban fantasy YA novel TINKERS [good title], Thirteen-year-old [I wouldn't capitalise the 'T' on thirteen - there's no full stop before the word - but perhaps that's an old-fashioned view] Benjamin Hawthorne hears rumors at his new school about a group of people called Tinkers who live in RV’s in the woods behind his house. [Run on the next paragraph - the description of the Tinkers should immediately follow the first mention.]

They’re thieves, drunks, uneducated, and haven’t taken a shower in weeks. When Ben actually meets a Tinker and he doesn’t fit this stereotype, Ben sets out on a course to uncover the truth about the people in the woods: that they protect a secret race of faeries [here's where I'm personally lost - anything with faeries, ARGH - but faeries float other people's boats so I won't judge] that may have been the inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and that the Tinkers themselves may be closer to Ben than just a people living in the woods. [Closer? What does this mean? And think very, very carefully before you reference a classic like Peter Pan - this immediately invites others to compare your work to whichever classic you're folding into your story].

I have recently completed an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I have had a short story published in Lit by New Writing North in conjunction with Newcastle University. I have also had several works published in Blackberry Winter, the annual chapbook of Rochester College where I earned my BA in English and Professional Writing. This is my first novel. [This part is good - a nice amount of credits.]

Upon your request, I am prepared to send the complete manuscript. [But I don't know if I want to - you didn't give me a reason to read it. I would have been prepared to get past my horror of faeries if you just gave me one good reason to read this novel! When you don't pitch the novel, even a little bit, you're depending on the agent/publisher wanting to read more based on just your description of the storyline, and that's not enough. Tell me why you wanted to write this story - tell me WHY I SHOULD READ IT.]

Thank you for taking the time to consider representing my work.


Cassandra B