Monday, March 08, 2010

Slush Week: The recap

by Jim

So kids, did we learn anything from Slush Week? We hope so! Obviously, the subject of query letters is one that makes some authors very tense. I noted a touch more hostility among our commenters than ever before! And I understand. It’s an enormously frustrating process. Even from this vantage point I can see that. Hopefully, though, the exercise helped to further demystify the procedure at least a touch. Here’s what I consider the takeaway:

--For those who weren’t sure, the final tally was 6 passes and 3 requests: Jane, Chasya, Miriam, Stacey, Michael, and I would have passed. Jessica, Rachel, and Lauren would have requested more.

--There’s a lot of okay happening: That was a solid representation of what our inboxes actually look like. One we sort out the queries that make terribly obvious mistakes like addressing us by the wrong names, we’re left with a lot of queries that are very…okay. I can’t remember who said it to me all those years ago when I first hit the slush pile, but: “If it isn’t a yes, then it’s a no.” There’s no “maybe” option with unsolicited queries. We request things, or we don’t. And with the volume that’s coming in and the number of clients we already have, there often isn’t the chance to consider material if you’re waffling after the query. So often you won’t be turned down because you’ve written a bad query but because you haven’t written one that’s great. It’s a fine line but a crucial one.

--Compare yourself to other authors, but not all of them: There was a touch of confusion about our recommendation to compare yourself to other authors, particularly when Miriam had just said not to compare your work to “canonical titles.” “Canonical” is the key word there. We want to know who of today’s authors you’ll be shelved with. The comparative titles should give us an idea of the type of work you have and who you see your audience as. Once you start getting into the classics, well…it’s dangerous territory. You can compare yourself to great writers working today—let’s say you’re writing a novel from multiple point of views that you say is reminiscent on Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. That’s bold, but I’d be on board if the writing bore it out. But if you tell me you’ve written the next Anna Karenina, my response will be, “Oh, realllllllllly?” Keep it contemporary, and don’t be a braggart. Be careful about comparisons to massive bestsellers: comparing your book to successful authors who aren’t the most obvious choices (as in, not Dan Brown) gives us a stronger sense of what sort of book you’re writing and also shows that you really do know your category—not to mention that you’re less likely to be comparing yourself to the same author as everyone else in the slush pile.

--Be straightforward: you want to give us enough information to want to read more. As Jessica pointed out, it could take two single-spaced pages to do that. More often, it does not. Give us a snapshot of what your book is in the most concise way possible while still focusing on what makes it stand apart. It’s a taller order than it sounds, but it is the recipe to success.

--This is subjective: I was surprised when I saw that Michael suggested not to make your query sound too much like cover copy as I’ve given quite a few workshops at conferences where I told people to study just that copy and use it as a model for how to frame a query. That, in itself, is probably enormously frustrating to authors. But the truth is, there’s no such thing as a perfect query, and people respond to different things. It IS a subjective business. Remember that just because one person doesn’t have a positive reaction to your work doesn’t mean the next won’t.

--There are no right answers, only wrong ones. Bottom line: you can screw up a query by being too boastful, rude, silly, gimmicky, or underinformed. Once you’ve avoided all of those things, you have to rely a bit on kismet—whether your letter hits the right person at the right time, whether it sounds like something they think they can sell, if anything too similar has hit their slush pile on the same day, if they already have a project that would compete with it.

At the end of the week, what I can say is that we honestly are looking for those books that break out of the slush pile and grab our attention. The query itself is, as a commenter noted, simply a means to an end. You want to convince us that we want to read more, and we honestly do want to be convinced. So as frustrating and unnerving as the process is, do keep trying.

Any lingering questions still unanswered? Did you feel like you learned enough for us to do this again down the road?

32 comments:

  1. I said last week that this has been a great exercise, but that there was no need to ever repeat it. You should definitely archive it, perhaps on the DGLM website, as a guide for people, but if you were to do this again, I'm not sure whether we'd learn anything new.

    You want to be wowed, you want basic adherence to grammar and you want some sense of commercial awareness.

    The question I have is for all the agents, and it's this: was there any common problem or issue that somehow slipped through the net? Any bugbear that wasn't represented by the nine entrants?

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  2. Yes, please do this again in the future. It was highly informative, and after every reviewed entry, I went back and looked at my query searching for any more ways to tighten, clarify or capture your attention. Thank you for the great advice.

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  3. ". . . I'm not sure whether we'd learn anything new."

    1) There's always a new "we." You learned something. Maybe the next person will too.

    2) It's best not to speak anonymously for others.

    3) Thank you, DGLM.

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  4. Thank you to DGLM for doing this. I find it helpful to see the agent's thought process when reading a submission. My query does sound like jacket copy but I'm not stressed about it - different agents like different things. Also, I'm a huge believer in kismet. :)

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  5. I think this has been very informative. Fascinating, really. Obviously we all need to make sure our queries are as clear and concise as they can be. Why is it so difficult to boil our own stories down into something short but coherent? =)

    I have a couple questions for the future (and maybe these were answered, and I just missed it). There were a lot of places where the agents seemed to want more information, and yet we're always advised to keep queries brief. I've also read that agents don't want you to give too much away - just give them enough information to want to keep reading. I realize it's a fine line to walk. Perhaps if you do this again, you could address those types of questions regarding length and how much of the plot-line you should include.

    I found this very helpful and informative. I appreciate the time and effort of all of the agents who participated.

    Thanks!

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  6. I thought this was a great exercise. I learned a lot of what not to do. I think that is invaluable. As for the commenter that anonymously spoke for everyone on 'no need to do this ever again' I would disagree. I really enjoyed it and hope that you will do it again.

    What I thought was the most important lesson (at least for me) is that every agent is different and is looking for different things, so just write the strongest query letter you can, do your research on the agent you're submitting it to, make sure you follow their submission guidelines and send it out there.

    Thanks again for this exercise. I appreciate the time and effort you have put into helping the unpublished writers of the world (myself included).

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  7. This really was a great learning exercise. I think doing it again would be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately kismet isn't something we can learn. ;-)

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  8. I found the exercises and the recap both very helpful. Thanks.

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  9. I was about to say exactly what Shelley said. Onya, Shelley. What I take away from the exercise is the absolute necessity of doing your homework for each agent you query. Research their needs, wants, likes and dislikes. The internet gives us all a quick and painless way to do this. A query letter is something that requires a lot of thought and your best writing. It's not something to dash off after your third Martini on a Friday after work.

    I very much appreciate the agents at Dystel & Goderich taking the time to help writers with this important process. It reaffirms my belief that this is one of the best agencies out there.

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  10. Yes, please do this again! Thanks for going the extra mile.

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  11. I thought this was very helpful and would love to see another round in the future. What I think was most unique was that your entire staff participated. This helped to see a variety of perspectives and remind us that while there are common rules, tastes do vary. It was a great learning experience! Thank you!

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  12. This was one of the most helpful exercises on queries that I've seen. What stands out about it, as other commentors have said, is the window into the varied approaches / opinions among agents. Of course, there were also some commonalities in the advice given, and *that* was very helpful as well. I appreciate your doing this very much, and I hope you do it again.

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  13. I felt it was a fantastic exercise, but I was a bit staggered at how bland and unoriginal the submissions seemed to be. I have always secretly felt that my own work is both brilliant and original and if not that good -- that it was at least more interesting than 50% of the work you see on the shelves -- but the query letters you picked for your examples were all very bland, fairly to extremely unoriginal and not 'standout' representations of their chosen genre.

    How did those authors expect to get picked up by a publisher when they were not working on anything unique (or at least with a unique voice)?

    It must be tough to weed through the slush pile and I really appreciate that you took the time to give us a little inside peek into your world.

    (P.S.: Shame on you for not picking my brilliant and original submission to critique. Ha!)

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  14. 'It's best not to speak anonymously for others.'

    Well, Fatcaster - I suspect that's not your real name, so please don't get on too high a horse about me posting anonymously - I wasn't speaking for anyone but myself.

    I enjoyed it, a lot. If DGLM did this again in a few months, I suspect many of the things they'd have to say would fall into the same patterns they did this time. It's nice to think that every failed query fails for unique reasons, but even from a sample of nine, we can see that's not the case.

    So, archiving this somewhere and pointing new people at it may be a better use of resources than telling an endless succession of different people that they'd consider a novel about a paranormal Mary Sue, but it would *really* have to stand out, and theirs didn't.

    That's all. It was entertaining and informative. I suspect it would be a little less entertaining and a lot less informative second, third and fourth time around.

    If there is some kind of 'making the process transparent' thing further down the line, it might be nice to see another part of the process, not the same part again. What does negotiating with a publisher actually look like? Banging a fist around a conference table or polite email and waiting?

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  15. I learned not to query your favorite agents the first go around. ;o)

    Since the query process can be so subjective, wait until you start getting some serious nibbles before you go after your faves!

    Actually, it was a bit reassuring to see that even from agent to agent the ideas of what does and doesn't work vary greatly. A bit of a double edged sword since it makes it hard to find "perfection", but it makes the hit to the ego a little easier to take.

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  16. Although I'm not yet at the query writing stage, I definitely enjoy reading the critiques. It helps me focus on the ultimate goal--getting to the point where I'm ready to query.

    Thanks!

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  17. Thank you very much for doing this! Our work as writers would be far tougher indeed if not for agents who go out of their way to try to help us. Nothing is forcing you to do this, so thanks again.

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  18. Loved Slush Week! I vote, hope, for another round, soon. Thanks, it was very informative

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  19. Great advice, Tracy! And thanks DGLM for this informative series. And thanks, Jim for the clarification on comp titles: compare your work with bestsellers and "books you love" as long as they aren't the work of literary gods.

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  20. A few comments on comments!

    “I have a couple questions for the future (and maybe these were answered, and I just missed it). There were a lot of places where the agents seemed to want more information, and yet we're always advised to keep queries brief. I've also read that agents don't want you to give too much away - just give them enough information to want to keep reading. I realize it's a fine line to walk. Perhaps if you do this again, you could address those types of questions regarding length and how much of the plot-line you should include.”

    --This is a bigger question than I can answer in the comments, but I’ll pass it along to the others to see if anyone can use their post to answer it!

    “I have always secretly felt that my own work is both brilliant and original and if not that good -- that it was at least more interesting than 50% of the work you see on the shelves.”

    --If you didn’t believe that, you’d have no business sending in your query! 

    “What does negotiating with a publisher actually look like? Banging a fist around a conference table or polite email and waiting?”

    --Think Mommie Dearest’s Pepsico scene… No, actually there are as many different negotiating styles as there are agents and editors. But another good topic for a future post!

    -Jim

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  21. I really enjoyed Slush Week - thanks for doing it!

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  22. I'll add my thank you for doing SW and I'm hoping that you'll do it again! Next time (yes, I know it's called Slush Week) but I would love to see more diversity. If you could give us some examples of good queries vs bad ones and those in between, I think it could be very helpful. Some may say that it would be a waste of time because it would be too obvious, but I'm not so sure. What one agent may think is good, another agent might think it's just okay, etc.

    Just a thought, and thanks again!

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  23. Thanks a lot. I learned so much and am reworking my query. Thanks for all the time you all put into this.

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  24. 'it was a bit reassuring to see that even from agent to agent the ideas of what does and doesn't work vary greatly.'

    I didn't take away that message at all. Yes, agents have different taste, but the problems were more fundamental than that.

    I think it's really unhelpful for prospective authors to think it's the *agent's* fault their stuff gets rejected, that it's some whim or you failed to crack their secret code, or if you'd got Jim not Jessica on Tuesday not Thursday then you'd have made your fortune.

    DGLM makes you submit to a particular agent, listing what they're looking for and what they're not looking for. You submitted to that individual agent, sent them something you thought they'd like. If they didn't, it's not *their* fault (or their lesson to be learned, for that matter).

    I guess that's another question for the agents, then: looking at all nine queries, would any of you come to a different decision than your colleagues did?

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  25. Thank you for Slush Week. I especially enjoyed seeing where the agents differed in expectations. To me, that was the best - what each individual prefers so I can better personalize my query. Except, I can't because I submitted to DGLM a couple weeks before these postings. I was thrilled to see a couple things I did "right" and can see others that still need improvement. Yes, I hope DGLM does this again.

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  26. Interesting question: "would any of you come to a different decision than your colleagues did?"

    As for me, yes. I would have turned down Rachel's and very likely Lauren's. I think both of their critiques were spot on, though I might have been less forgiving.

    The only one I would have requested was Jessica's.

    -Jim

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  27. I've read every piece of query advice I could find, but I've learned the most from actual queries (successful or not) -- and even more from those with agent comments. Thanks for Slush Week, and here's hoping for another!

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  28. Love, love, loved it, and am very grateful. One hopes that your efforts in author education will pay off in shorter slush piles.

    A question remains:
    We are told to do our homework and seek out agents who rep similar titles/authors to our own work. The goal is to find an agent who "gets" what we do. I'm wondering if that approach could rule out a potential match, being too similar to a project/author you already rep?

    Thanks again!

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  29. Christine,

    If that's the case, an agent will tell you, in very clear terms, that's what they're doing. If an agent doesn't tell you that, it wasn't the reason you got rejected.

    An agent's individual taste is a factor. But you can see from last week that it wasn't anything like the main issue. When an agent says 'it wasn't what we were looking for', they don't mean 'it failed my personal, secret agenda, something you, a mere outsider, are not privy to', they mean 'we were looking for something good'.

    Do your research, submit to agents who say they're looking for a book like yours, but don't waste too much time and energy second-guessing them, spend it on the prose and expressing your ideas.

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  30. Woah, slow down, anonymous. There are definitely times we pass on things because we have something too similar on our lists, and just because that's the case doesn't mean we're going to explain the reasoning to someone who queried.

    "It wasn't what we were looking for" CAN mean it wasn't good. It also CAN mean that it's too competitive with something we already handle.

    Yes, most of the time we pass on things because they don't stand out to us as especially wonderful, but there are countless other reasons that some material might not get requested.

    So Christine, yes, you do want to find people who do books similar to the one you've written. That might mean you hit one or two people who have something TOO close, but it's still the best option out there. Good luck!

    --Jim

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  31. Thanks very much for all of your posts and comments on Slush Week. It's been incredibly helpful.

    I just posted the following Tweet, and I'd be so thankful to hear how the agents here would answer the question:

    #askagent A new author with a successful novel in the Kindle store: Would this make you more or less likely to want to represent that title?

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