Agent-Author Day at Backspace–What I Learned

I got a good night’s rest and starting working on revisions…but I wanted to recap more from the Agent-Author Day at  the Backspace Writer’s Conference.

The “Query Letters That Work” panel did a great job covering what genres they accept and what does and doesn’t work in a query. It helped to be reminded that they read hundreds of queries a week, which means the less said the less to critique. They like 1 page queries with 4-5 paragraphs at most. But reminded us to err on the side of brevity by keeping it short and sweet. They also reminded us not to send attachments.

As far as openings and closings, word count, genre and title are helpful in the first paragraph though some prefer it in the last paragraph. My advice? Check out Chuck Sambuchino’s blog Guide to Literary Agents and click on the Successful Queries section and see if the agent your querying posted there. Then you get a better idea of individual preferences.

They stressed the middle paragraph’s importance in creating a sense of story and CONFLICT. The query is to entice the agents to keep reading. One warning was that if you are going to compare your work to other writers in the query, make sure you deliver on it in the writing. Referrals by a published author are always useful too.

Most understood the need for simultaneously querying, but expect to be notified if a partial (part of your manuscript was requested by another agent after you queried them) is out to other agents. Also it is very important to keep track or what editors have read and rejected you work. Titles are frequently changed by the publisher–just an FYI.

Another question came up about querying a series–is it better to mention or not to mention in the query letter? Some agents like to know, others will ask if they like your book. It’s okay to mention briefly but keep in mind you are querying this book not the series.

By the way, writing up my notes, the comments start to click in my head and I have an Aha! moment. Hence the pic. 🙂

Onto the actual Query Letter Workshop. I was in the Mystery/Thriller Group. First off, my group rocked. Awesome people, great writers–big hello to Leon, Beverly, Susan, Nora, and Wendy–who also hung out with me throughout the  rest of the conference. 🙂

We had Natanya Wheeler and Jeff Kleinman as the agents reviewing our queries. Some of the tips/comments they made during their critiques included:

  • No passive voice in the query letter (e.g., she is xyz)
  • There is no necessity for a log line. It can be worked into the pitch paragraph
  • The query should have a clear distinct voice and be to the point
  • There is no right way to do it, but you have to get the agent to want to read the first page of your manuscript
  • Get in fast and dazzle people
  • Agents are desperate for great stuff
  • Keep adjectives to a minimum
  • 60-85K is a good length for a mystery
  • Writing is rejected usually because the writing isn’t strong enough or the premise isn’t interesting
  • Agents want tight brief letters
  • A 100,000 word manuscript=scary in a first time author

In the afternoon session, we read our first two pages to Lois Winston and Kristen Neuhaus. General comments included:

  • First time authors make the mistake of thinking in terms of movies, having a panoramic scan of the landscape and then zooming in on the character
  • You do not need to engage all five senses in all scenes, only have the senses that are important to the scene
  • Only describe what is important to the scene
  • Writers don’t finish manuscripts they abandon them
  • Don’t have info dumps/backstory

Then it was on to the next panel: The Wow Factor

Every agent talked about the need for brevity and directness in the queries and also the importance of doing your homework to know what the agent represents. Check the query guidelines on the website. Agents want to be drawn into it. Agents read literary journals as another source of potential clients to represent. Becoming a referral is also another good route to an agent.

Next was the Keynote Address by Lorenzo Carcaterra. Highlights included:

  • Make it your business to know your business
  • Research editors–know their hits and flops
  • Be well read because it all feeds into the process (books, blogs, publishing industry magazines/websites, etc.)
  • You get rejected 95-98% of the time because “No” is the easiest thing to say. “Yes” sets things in motion and can require money (especially if it’s an editor “Yes”)
  • Pitching is like a military maneuver. You only need 1 “Yes” for an agent and a book
  • If you believe it is a good idea never ever give up on it. Eventually it will sell
  • Timing is everything–you need the right guy at the right time in the right place
  • Getting the first agent is harder than falling in love

I stayed for the optional Polish Your Pitch workshop. This is specific to an oral pitch. Here are some things that were discussed:

  • Pitch=what your book is about
  • Pitch should be clear, concise and compelling
  • Pitch length=3-5 sentences
  • Pitch goal is to tell and sell it to an audience. Talk about the protagonist, the basic plot and the catalyst
  • So what? Who cares? What’s in it for me?=3 main questions answer in pitch=who was it about? what happens to him/her? what is at stake?
  • They recommended reading How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart
  • The recommended thinking about old TV shows like the Odd Couple or Brady Bunch–the theme songs functioned as the pitch
  • Tell what the story is about, show what it’s about. Use very few adjectives
  • Pitch=premise and plot
  • Oral pitch should have short punchy sentences, so it can be immediately taken in by listener
  • Think Nightmare on Elm Street pitch–Do Dreams Kill?

Stayed tuned tomorrow and Wednesday for summaries of the next two days of the conference.

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7 Responses to Agent-Author Day at Backspace–What I Learned

  1. Emma says:

    Oh my God, how did you manage to write all this down in your notes?! Again, thank you so much for sharing all this—great job!

    • LOL. I used to be an auditor in my day job. So I learned to take notes super fast using a combination of Chinese characters, mathematical symbols, and my own unique abbreviations. This means that my notes are virtually unreadable to anyone else.:)

  2. Pingback: Reblog: Backspace Conference Lessons in Querying « Kourtney Heintz's Journal

  3. Kourtney, this is really well written and comprehensive. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. klynwurth says:

    Thank you, Kourtney for so freely sharing what you’ve learned through investing yourself. You are a generous soul.

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