Wednesday, July 22, 2009

what literary agents' blogs can teach us

I've been following a lot of literary agents' blogs lately, like this one, for example (and not just agents who represent my genre), and am fascinated by how much I am learning about the query process. I am especially learning what not to do when querying an agent.

Some things are instinctive; for example, it baffles me that some writers actually say things in their letters like, "it's probably not as good as other stuff you've read" or "it picks up by the fourth chapter". Another agent recently tweeted "It's a good idea to make sure you spell 'query' correctly."

Oy vey.

Other things require practice, such as how to show your story vs. telling about it. (I teach this stylistic technique to my freshman students all the time, but putting it into practice with a query letter -- especially when you've got to knock an agent's socks off in a nanosecond -- poses a far greater challenge.) And there's a big difference between a fiction-genre query letter and a nonfiction-genre query letter.

Many agents are posting actual query letters that won their hearts and discussing why these were so successful. One thing that really stands out about all the winners: brevity. That's right, conciseness is key. These letters are so finely tuned that I can't find a single word that doesn't belong or serve a purpose.

Most of all, the number of queries agents read in a day, and rejected, is astounding. I suppose this supports Sturgeon's Law, which postulates that "Ninety percent of everything is crap." My twin brother is fond of reminding me of this. And yet, agents admit to rejecting good work all the time for various reasons. I conclude that the goal for querying an agent is the same as breaking through the self-publishing stigma: make my work stand out. And frankly, that means the writing has to be better than good enough. It has to knock their socks off.

I take my hats off to agents. It has to take quite a bit of energy to read so many queries, and being an instructor who often deals with problematic writing, the temptation to start turning your attention to the bad over the good is great. Likewise, when you get a good one, it really does stand out. What's more, I understand the intuited "I'll know it what I see it" in response to the question "What are you looking for?" that happens to so many of us when making an evaluation on a piece of writing.

Getting a literary agent used to seem to be such a mysterious process. I think I've de-mystified it, but that doesn't mean that there's still not an X-factor to contend with. You just never know who is going to like what, and when. You never know at what point in the day an agent is going to read your query, or (if you're lucky), your manuscript. You don't know what mood they'll be in. You can't control the marketplace. You don't know whose manuscript came before yours and whose came after.

Familiarizing yourself with the query letter craft, the market, the agent to whom you're querying -- all these things are positive steps that should be taken and can only help you. And of course, make your manuscript the very best it can be. But in the end, I can't help but wonder if it's all a game of chance.

What are your experiences with querying agents? Do you feel stymied by the process? What have you learned?


Rob said...

I feel that Publishing houses have a backed up mail system. When you think about it, billions must query them with a new book. If you were told you had 1.5 billion letters to go over, would you read every one. Unlikely. Plus there's a whole filtering system, I imagine. Which ones are thrown out or are read by just a secretary? I once saw stacey cochran's video on how he queried 2,000 agents and publishers. Only a handful responded with an inkling to take his work. I feel that this system is very flawed and that's why authors need to promote themselves in a way that works rather than being on an enormous list with little hope of coming to the front of the line.

Elisa said...

Rob, I think they have interns and assistants to help w/ the reading (although I may be wrong about that). And I'm guessing they make snap decisions and don't read slowly.

I suppose it is flawed, but (and I'm playing devil's advocate here), doesn't an author have to go through the same thing in terms of self-publishing and promotion to be recognized by the consumer?