Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Strategies for Landing a Literary Agent

New authors seeking representation wonder whether or not they should approach this task by sending out queries to a large number of agents all at once, or waiting for a response before querying the next potential agent. And if you're going to query a group should you go with your favorite agent(s) first, followed by the second and third level agents? Or does it make more sense to approach them in reverse order, starting with your least favorite, (but perhaps more available) agents first then move up the scale?

My suggestion is to approach it in this fashion. Send out your queries in batches and begin with the most likely agent(s) to accept you. They may not be your first choice, but there is a reason for using this strategy.

Whatever you do, never query 100 or more agents all at once. I wouldn't even do as few as 30 at one time. Bad move. Here's why: You have to look at your query as a work-in-progress, as something that can always get better. Consider your literary writing. Have you ever written something, let it sit for a while, then returned to it and found so many things you wanted to change? Things that you knew would make it stronger. You might even find mistakes or errors which you didn't catch the first time. The same is true for your query letter. So, copy and pasting a flawed and/or weak query to every agent you're interested in could be a huge disaster.

There's also the possibility that your original query approach is all wrong or weak and needs to be overhauled. You'll discover this after you've sent your query out to 30 or 40 agents with no positive responses. If you think your query is as good as it possibly can be and you've sent it out to 40 agents who are interested in the type of story you've written you should get at least one positive response. If that doesn't happen, you really should reconsider your query. A total rewrite might be in order.

My experience has been that a query or pitch can almost always be improved. You never quite arrive, if you understand what I mean. A query pitch is always being honed and sharpened continuously over time. Your best bet is to discover this incrementally on the basis of testing. You might, however, want to start over from scratch for a fresh new perspective. For this reason, you can see that it is unwise to send out your first query to too many potential agents right from the start.

The opposite approach of sending them out one at a time and waiting for a response is simply impractical. Seeing as agents take (in real life) at least 4 weeks to respond, if you planned to query 40 agents you're looking at 160 weeks before you hear back from all of them. Like I said, impractical.

The number "40" is used in the above example because when cold calling agents you can only expect about 2-3 percent to respond positively. A one out of forty responding positively is a success rate of 2 1/2 percent.

So, those are the reasons sending queries out in batches is the best approach to take. But, having said that, I still wouldn't blindly copy and paste each query you send out. Finding your pitch errors early on is still to your advantage. That means you should read each and every query before you send it out. After reading 40 query letters, you really should find most, if not all, of the fundamental flaws. Even better, have a significant other review them for you. Other people catch errors that you, as the author, are blind to since your brain and eyes are the same brain and eyes that wrote it.

As for sending out your batches first to your 3rd level agents followed by 2nd then 1st is that your 1st level agents are going to be those that work for the highest ranking agencies. These agencies get an unbelieveable number of queries. They have a much larger quantity of good material to choose from than 3rd level agencies. The level of competition on the fist level is obviously greater. It is better to have your very best quality material being sent when you decide it's time to inquire at this level. (Of course all this changes if you end up being recommended by someone to one of these top level agencies. In that case, you definitely do contact the top level agency first.)

The best way to beat the competition when you apply at these top level agencies is to approach them with an offer already in hand. I know this sounds smarmy, but it really does get their attention.

So, once again, here's how the strategy works: Send out queries to your 3rd and/or 2nd level agencies. If you receive an offer of representation move immediately toward the top level agencies and tell them you already have an offer in hand, BUT, you want to consider them (a top level agency) because you really prefer them and their agency and don't really want to go with the other agency unless you have no other choice. Whatever you do, don't reveal the name of the agency that has made you an offer. The hope is that they will assume it is a top level agency like themselves. After all you contacted them, it is safe to assume that you are contacting other top level agencies and that one of them made you the offer. In any case you don't want them to think or find out that the other agency is a single person little known shop.

Don't assume that pitting one agency against another is breaking some rule of agency etiquette. Agencies themselves do it all the time when they pitch books to publishers. They're more than happy to have an auction spring up. I knew an author who had a firm offer from Doubleday, but instead of signing a contract with them he immediately wrote to four other top level publishers and in his pitch informed them of the offer from Doubleday. All four publishers sent him contracts begging him to sign with them. He essentially created his own auction. He eventually went with McGraw-Hill.

Hopefully these strategies will be of help. Good luck everyone!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


By Phil Dunphy

1. Always look people in the eye, even if they’re blind. Just say, “I’m looking you in the eye.”

2. If you get pulled over for speeding tell the police your spouse has diarrhea.

3. You only get one chance at a first impression. I suggest Julia Child because it’s easy to do. “Save the giblets.”

4. The most amazing things that can happen to a human being will happen to you if you just lower your expectations.

5. Dance until your feet hurt, sing until your lungs hurt, act until you’re William Hurt.

6. Take a lesson from parakeets. If you’re ever lonely, just eat in front of a mirror.

7. Never be afraid to reach for the stars because even if you fall you’ll always be wearing a “parent-chute.”

8. Marry someone who looks sexy when disappointed.

9. Older black ladies make the best iced tea.

10. Success is one percent inspiration, 98 percent perspiration, and 2 percent attention to detail.

11. You can tell a lot about a person by his biography.

12. Watch a sunrise at least once a day.

13. If you love something set it free, unless it’s a tiger.

14. If you’re ever in a jam, a crayon stuffed up your nose makes a good pretend mustache.

15. When life gives you lemonade, make lemons. Life will all be like “What?”

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Having trouble at school and wonder if you'll ever make it as a great author? I don't see why not.

1.                JACK LONDON

Famous for Call of the Wild, he worked a variety of odd jobs, including being an oyster pirate (whatever that is). He dropped out of school at 13, but continued to read books. His first collection of short stories were published when he was just 24.

2.                H.G. WELLS

Famous for early science fiction, including The Time Machine. He was pulled out of school when he was 11. His father was a professional cricket player who fractured his thigh, forcing his children to take up apprenticeships. Wells worked as a draper and hated, though his experience later inspired novels like The Wheels of Chance and Kipps.


Famous for plays like: Pygmalion, and Man and Superman. He dropped out of school at age 14. He had this to say of formal education: “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today,” he once wrote, “are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”  

4.             HARVEY PEKAR

Best known for his dyspeptic comic series “American Splendor,” begun in 1976. Graduated from high school in 1957 but later dropped out of Case Western University after a year because “the pressure of required math classes became too much to bear.”

5.                 MARK TWAIN

The author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn dropped out of school at age 12. When his father died he and his siblings had to help support the family. He worked with his older brother as a printer – and of course later as a steamboat captain. He worked with his brother for a while before breaking out on his own.


The author of Grapes of Wrath was already writing as a teenager (just poetry at first). He didn’t care much for school and dropped out at age 15. Even though he didn’t have a high school diploma he managed to get into Ole Miss as a special student at the age of 22 – his father worked there. But, he dropped out of there too after only three semesters.

7.            JACK KEROUAC

This underground celebrity who help found the beatnik generation, a progenitor of the hippy movement, penned such classics as On the Road, and Big Sur. When in high school, however, he was a jock, not a poet. As the star of his football team he won a scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately he and his coach didn’t get along and he was benched most of his freshman year. His football career ended abruptly when he cracked his tibia, so he dropped out of school.


With such classics as A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations (not to mention A Christmas Carol), it’s hard to believe that Charles Dickens was a dropout. But at the age of 12 his father was tossed into debtors’ prison and he was forced to out of his private education to work at a boot blacking warehouse. He worked ten-hour days making six shillings a week. His father eventually got out of prison thanks to an inheritance and Charles was able to return to school, but his time in the factories colored almost everything he produced.


An American memoirist and comic essayist, he is best known for his New York Times bestselling memoir Running with Scissors. Augusten wanted to drop out of school at age 13, and his mother actually helped him do it. Together they faked his suicide. By 17 he got his GED and changed his name. No sooner had he enrolled in Holyoke Community College than he flunked out. Later he moved to New York and worked in an advertising agency then published his first memoir, Running with Scissors, when he was just 37 years old.

10.            HARPER LEE

You might remember a little story called, To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper loved literature during high school, but once she got into college pursued a legal career. By her junior year she had the opportunity to start her law studies while concurrently continuing with her undergraduate work. She ditched it all after a couple of semesters and get this, moved to New York to become a writer…and so she did.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Outlining Your Book and Re-Writing

The following is taken from a lecture by Elana Johnson, who in turn used information from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

1. Beat Sheet       2. Write Novel         3. Board it Out          4. Revise                   

1. Beat Sheet 
Start out by printing out a "Beat Sheet."  Then just fill-out the following 5 major beats:

     1) The Opening Image
     2) The Closing Image
     3)  The Midpoint
     4)  Break Into 2
     5)  Break Into 3

Just fill in a couple of sentences that briefly describe what you have in mind for each beat.

2. Write Novel
Write the book. Experiment, let things grow organically. Work toward the Midpoint and the breaks. You don't need to necessarily outline any scenes (unless you want to) or fill out character worksheets or anything similar.

3. Board it Out
Once the first draft is complete, there will be problems - it's a first draft after all. This is the point at which you need to story board your novel.  Fill out 15 cards (one for each beat). Go through your story and identify key scenes that represent each beat. You may also want to put page numbers on the cards so you get a feel for where they are falling. Put all these cards up in order on a board where you can look at it and analyze it.

4. Revise
After identifying weak spots, start your revisions. There will be obvious mistakes - anything from sentence structure issues to holes in your plot. But also be working out your story structure. Ensure that each beat fall in the proper place. Does each one lead up to the next one? Later revisions can then focus on character, word choice, setting, voice, world, etc. But each of these features will be easier to work on if your story had been correctly structured.