Today, for a slight change of pace, let's address a common question about querying:
How do you address an agent in your query letter?
Here are a couples guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Remember, a query is a business proposal, not an email to a buddy. You don't have to be overly formal, but you definitely don't want to be super casual either.
2. Always, ALWAYS address the agent by name. The only exception to this is when you're querying an agency as a whole, and not a specific agent. Very few places ask you to do this nowadays, though.
3. For the love of all you personally hold dear, triple check the spelling of the agent's name. And check to make sure that your query is addressed to the right person--not, for example, the last agent you queried. Cutting and pasting can be dangerous!
Now, the harder question, because this is more a matter of personal taste:
What name should you use when addressing an agent?
First off, "Dear Agent" is the wrong answer, unless it's a general agency query as specified above. When you query an agent with "Dear Agent," it can give the impression you have no idea who this agent is and what they represent. It looks like you're mass-querying blindly. Using an agent's name shows you've put in a minimum of effort, and that's appreciated.
Second, whether you should address an agent by their first name or their last name is often a matter of personal taste, but most agents agree that they don't like being addressed by first and last name. For example, "Dear Jane Doe" is NOT a good choice. It's overly formal, and it's just not how we address letters in English.
So how do you choose whether to use first or last name? There seems to be a shift in recent years toward agents asking to be addressed by their first name. This is to querying author's benefits, because then you don't have to worry about choosing the wrong title (meaning Mr, Ms, Mrs, or Mx). How a person likes to be identified may not be easy to find online. And misgendering an agent or mistaking their marital status isn't the best way to get off on the right foot with a potential agent. So first names are often the safest bet.
Now, if your research shows that you're addressing an older agent who's been around for a long time, and they seem fond of formality online, then you could consider addressing them by Mr./Mrs. AgentLastNameHere instead.
But here's the secret: If an agent is going to turn down your query simply because you addressed them as "Dear John," instead of "Dear Mr. Doe," then maybe that agent isn't the best for you.
Because an author-agent relationship is a partnership. You don't have to be best friends, but you do need to treat each other with respect and feel like you're on equal footing. Someone who's so far above you that they reject your query for a small error--and something like their preferred form of address, which you couldn't have known about--is not likely to make a good partner.
So shake off the querying anxiety, double check how you've addressed your queries, and send them off into the great unknown! Good luck, my writer friends.
Today's tip is for when you're ready to query your manuscript, also known as "when you'll likely start raking in the rejections." Most authors hear "no" many, many times before they finally hear "yes!" In fact, our very own Kate Foster posted a little bit about her story of how she signed with her agent last week here.
But even though all authors will receive rejections--my personal favorites are the stories of agents writing back years later to reject a book that's just gone on sale--there are things you can do to limit your number of rejections somewhat.
The first step is thorough editing, of course. A clean manuscript is more appealing than one that's riddled with errors.
But the second step, where a lot of authors stumble, is doing their homework. Agents are inundated with queries. Most of them post guidelines about what they represent and what sort of stories they're currently looking for. Research anyone you're interested in, and respect those preferences. Agents might enjoy reading stories outside their wishlists, but they know what they can realistically sell.
If an agent lists triggers that they personally have and do not want to see in manuscripts, respect that. Don't traumatize someone; you won't get an agent or make any friends that way.
Respect agency guidelines. Always send materials in the proper format, whether it's in an email or as an attachment; ten pages, or twenty, or fifty. If an agent I queried asked for my submission via snail mail, in purple Comic Sans font, I'd give it to them. Yes, it can be inconvenient having to format things differently for each agent. But they ask for formats that suit their reading devices and preferences. And showing that you can follow a simple request is the beginning of a good business relationship.
Lastly, and most importantly, always be respectful. Queries can be lighthearted, but not rude. If you receive a rejection, move on. If an intern is helping an agent read subs, be grateful, because it means that agent got to your query quicker. Bad behavior gets talked about, and you don't want to earn yourself a reputation as someone no one wants to work with.
Today's tip was inspired by an email I sent to myself, full of notes and ideas for future posts:
Yes, that was supposed to be blog tip ideas, not top ideas.
Oops. I blame my phone keyboard and the late hour.
So today's lesson is, whether you're a new writer or a professional editor,
Always proofread your work. Especially if it's a professional email.
Thankfully this little mistake was easy to laugh off. But here are some things you definitely want to double-check any time you're sending an email or query:
All email addresses
The agent's (or other professional's) name. Especially if you're sending queries and cutting and pasting; there are too many horror stories of writers who forgot to change the name. Don't be that writer.
The formatting. Yes, it's boring. But you still need to follow directions.
Your subject line
Your word count
Whether you were asked to send attached pages or pasted in pages
Your contact information. Wouldn't it be terrible if an agent tried to call you and you gave them the wrong number?
After you write a query, set it aside for a day if you can. Then read it aloud slowly, to make sure every single word is spelled correctly, means exactly what you want to say, and needs to be there. Voice in a query is good. Purple prose isn't.
Check again to make sure you've spelled the agent's name correctly. Do it.
If you're sending an attachment, make sure you actually attach the document. (I've never done that, I don't know why all my CPs are laughing at me right now...)
And lastly, if you're entering a writing contest, make sure to read the rules one last time before you hit send. You don't want to get your manuscript thrown out on a technicality when five minutes of extra attention could have prevented it, right? Which also means don't wait to submit until the literal last minute.
Anyone out there have suggestions of things to add to your manuscript or query's pre-flight checklist? Or cautionary tales of woe that you'd like to share? Our comments are always open. And as always, have fun editing!
Today's tip comes to you from the many editors and agents I follow on Twitter. I see one of them say this at least once a month, and it's good, solid advice, so I'm passing it along.
Read in your genre.
If you don't read in your genre, it shows in your writing. If someone sits down to write a kids' book but hasn't read one lately, chances are it's not going to be up to today's standards. And no, Harry Potter is not today's standards. Kids who grew up on Harry Potter are now adults writing books of their own. While HP is still beloved by many, books existed before it and books kept on being written after it. And the same goes for Twilight and YA.
To get an idea of the current state of your genre, try reading books that were published in the past 2-3 years. You'll see what sort of pacing works for different age groups and different types of stories; what the vocabulary level expectations are; how much conflict a story is expected to have and whether those conflicts are internal, external, or both.
When a writer queries an agent, claiming "you've never seen anything like this before!" it's usually because the writer hasn't read enough. Reading other authors is great research, and it shows respect for the work of publishing and others in your field. And plus, it's reading homework - always fun. Reading widely improves your own writing skills as well. Find a story you like and re-read it slowly, to discover what techniques the author used.
So do yourself a favor. Go pick up some books from your local library, and take a little time off to read.
Today's editing tip addresses a common problem we see at several different levels, within queries, scenes, acts, and manuscripts.
Make sure your stakes are clear.
Here's a simple formula I use with my own work as well as my critique partners. Hopefully you'll find it useful as well. If you aren't sure what your stakes are, or if you've laid them out clearly enough in your manuscript, try asking yourself these four questions:
1. Who is the main character?
2. What is their goal/what do they want?
3. What is preventing them from getting what they want?
4. What happens if they don't get it?
This is the heart of your story; who it's about, and why it matters. I recently had a 4th grade class I volunteer with do an exercise where they analyzed a novel they'd read as a class, using these questions. They answered these four questions for me, and we thought about what would happen if we removed any single one of those elements, or lessened the tension. They promptly realized the story would have been incredibly boring.
If your readers aren't connecting with your story overall, or a scene is lacking tension, or your query isn't getting any nibbles, see if it's answering these questions.(In the case of a query, it doesn't have to explain every goal and obstacle, but you do need a strong set for tension if you're going to hook an agent's interest.)
Is a character too vague or stereotypical? Is the goal clearly laid out? Avoid making obstacles too easy to solve, or completely insurmountable. And the last one is the one I most often see a problem with - does it matter? If the character goes on their quest, and could fail, learn nothing, and nothing would change, well, you've probably got a problem on your hands. Their action needs to make a difference, somehow, whether they succeed or not.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!