Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Secrets and Letters

There are two ways to nab that elusive literary agent and obtain that big book deal born of dreams.

Method 1

First, you must obtain a mint condition, first edition Stephen King novel. I’m talking pristine. Which one? Doesn’t matter. The next step involves locating an abandoned crossroads. Preferably one with a lonely, flickering light that even the flies know to avoid. Bury that aforementioned book at the dead center and wait five or ten minutes for the next available agent. Try not to let your senses be dulled by the soothing music.

The agent will appear with a puff of smoke and a whirl of discarded query letters. The summoning was the easy part. She will demand you pass two tests. The first test is a brutal trial that eliminates nearly all. She places a vintage version of the board game, Operation, upon the dusty road. Time has only made the damn thing more sensitive (did I just switch tenses?). She points wordlessly to the wishbone.

If you somehow manage to skirt the buzzing sound and lit nose to obtain that pesky piece of plastic, your last Herculean task is the secret handshake. Every published author knows the handshake, but is sworn upon painful obscurity to never reveal it. Plied with enough bourbon, they will relent and admit the existence, but that is all you will manage to dredge. If you can master all of the intricate slaps, fist-bumps, and fist-plosions, she will bow her head and hand you the golden typewriter.

That damn thing is heavy. You didn’t walk to the crossroads did you? Good luck carting that behemoth home. Newb.

Method 2

For the rest of us, there is the query letter. For those of you that don’t know, the query letter is a one page attempt to introduce yourself and to convince the agent that it’s worth their time to read your newly minted manuscript.

Some consider it a necessary evil, but It does makes sense. No agent has time to read 200 novel-length manuscripts. The challenge is to get past the auto-reject. Imagine if you had 200 letters to go through. Are you going to carefully examine each one, stroke your chin, and ponder the contents? No. You will be looking for any excuse to recycle and whittle that slush pile down to a few promising samples. So do they.

There are a few possible responses to your query letter ranked in order of awesomeness and scarcity:

1.       Silent rejection. Very common.

2.       Form letter rejection. Dear Author, thanks but no thanks.

3.       Helpful rejection. No thanks, but . . . they may tell you specifically why they passed on your manuscript, ask you to send your next work, or just offer some rare words of encouragement. Bless the agents who take the time to do this.

4.       Partial request. They ask for a few chapters to test the waters, partially intrigued by the query, but not completely sold yet.

5.       Full request. Bingo. They saw enough promise in your work that they want to read the whole thing! From here it could be a no thanks, a revise and resubmit, or an offer of representation (this is where you learn the handshake!)

In my first round of queries, I got partial requests, but nothing panned out. I did get a helpful rejection, which was, well, helpful. I also got a form rejection, after seven months. That was not very helpful J. One of the bits of advice I picked up was to set aside your favorite 5-10 agents and save them for last, instead sending out smaller batches of queries to see if they elicit responses. If not, rework and try the next batch. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s an odd system, but as flawed as it is, it does seem to largely work. How about you? Have any bits of advice or tales to share about the query process?

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