Monday, August 30, 2010

The Query Letter: The Death of the Dickens?

As I started to ponder the #queries question, I started to ponder on the query letter in general. I don’t know the actual history of the query letter (my strenuous two minute Google search sadly ended in failure), but I imagine that it started when aliens came down and waved a magic wand over every sleeping agent to magically cause them to all require an introduction to manuscript submissions, so they could toss it out the window immediately without having to read 500 pages in before realizing: oh, I don’t like time-travel books.

There’s obviously no one way to write a letter. It is the bane of every submitting writer’s existence to come up with the perfect form-letter-that-also-sounds-personal. Researching all these different wants, personalities, likes and dislikes…

It is undeniable that it is a very time-saving process for agents, and that it is an invaluable practice for authors. Being able to sum up the book not only prepares the author for that inevitable, “so what’s it about?” question, but it also allows him or her to finally sit down after months or years or decades of sweet, hard labor and realize…oh whoops, I just re-wrote Harry Potter.

But is the time saved and the practice gained worth the cost?

Most agents (myself included) insist that the Classics would of course still have been published today. Fine writing is fine writing no matter what.

But I have to wonder. If Charles Dickens had submitted a query and the first 50 pages of David Copperfield to me, what would I have done?

It wasn’t until the very end of my forced reading of that book that I realized the pure genius of it; it is a beautiful character study. Every single page is necessary to flesh out his characters. But 50 pages in?

Dear Charles,

Thank you for thinking of me. I really appreciate your patience in allowing me time to consider David Copperfield.

While I was very impressed with your writing, I’m sorry to say that David Copperfield was just not for me. I found the pacing a bit slow, and worried that there just wasn’t enough going on to really break it out in today’s tough market. The length also gave me pause.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have better news; I wish you the best of luck!


So what do you think? Are today’s literary geniuses being overlooked, or just transformed into more commercial and ADD-friendly authors?

Because again, there’s no doubt there are some absolutely amazing authors today. And writing styles/tastes do change over time. I personally don’t feel we're missing any genius. But do you?

Sunday, August 29, 2010


There’s been quite a bit of debate this week on sites such as SlushPile Hell and #queryfail (read here and here). So far, I’ve only been reading the opposing side. Points:

Who has time to even THINK about these bad queries, let alone TWEET about them!


I will NEVER tweet/talk of personal correspondence, so query freely! It is an ethical faux pas to do so.

To be fair, I understand that. A lot. Both are incredibly valid points, and I agree with both. The majority of people that send the worst letters aren’t even lucid when they press SEND, and for the ones that are, it’s heartbreaking to receive such humiliation.

But (of course you knew a but was coming) I DO tweet about these queries. Do I do it to be helpful? Well, yes. But 90% of the audience reading my tweets isn’t who should be getting the advice.

So why do it?

Sites like “shit my dad says” may emphasize what I’m about to say the most: really, it’s about having a sense of humor. Do I honestly take it so seriously that every time I tweet about a mistake, I’m FUMING and RANTING about the HORRIBLE quality I’m reading? No.

I still turn to the majority of manuscript pages that I tweet about, because I know for a fact that some people just plain suck at writing query letters. But that doesn’t mean they suck at writing. I also think that writers should be aware of the reality of the slush pile. If anything, I feel my tweets emphasize the importance of research, feedback, and continued perseverance and development.

I also DESERVE to be called out on ANY mistake I make. So, fair’s fair. In my eyes.

Everyone has the right to dislike policies and attitudes of other agents. But…just don’t act like your word is final. For every opinion, there is an opposite.

Ok! Onto fun stuff. How about I level the playing field?

Here is MY own PERSONAL query development. Snarky comments welcome; I made almost EVERY mistake in the book! I cringe to look back…

First Letter Ever:

If you mix a fairy, a goddess, magic, and a story, what do you get? A book written about those subjects called The Goddess of Time.

The main plot is set at no particular time, but resembles the middle- ages, with kings, queens, peasants, and other miscellaneous characters. It is fictional, having magic, folklore, and mystical creatures that you may only dream of. The main character is named Shadow, a fifteen-year-old fairy whom is compelled to tell the truth. She is most unusual, with her blue eyes and black hair, unlike all the other fairies who have brown eyes and either brown or blonde hair. Her best friends, Cider and Wheat, always try to make her have fun, and misuse her powers for simple pleasure, ending in a loss of their friendship.

Shadow finds a circlet in a cave, launching her into adventure with the task of rescuing the former Queen Lilly from the clutches of the evil King Smoldren. If Shadow does not succeed, the kingdom and world could fall into King Smoldrens grasp, allowing him all the power and money he could imagine, killing all who come in his way.

Shadow is not about to let this happen, though. With the help of a prince transformed into a squirrel, a nymph that had previously been a walnut, and Lilly’s husband, she manages to come up with a plan to over-throw the wicked king. Consulting first with her own dear king, she sets up a battle plan, proposing to enter through a secret tunnel and rescuing Moonshine, the head of the teaching department, whom had been captured during the battle. The king and his army would swamp the rear of the palace, taking them by surprise, and hopefully winning.

But the battle suddenly takes on an interesting turn, and Shadow finds herself face to face with the vile Smoldren.
In battling him, Shadow sets Lilly free, whom on her return, kills Smoldren and restores her wasted kingdom. Only then does Shadow learn whom she really is, and with that knowledge put to right the traitor that was smuggling plans to Smoldren within they’re midst.

If I have caught your attention in any way, please read the novel for yourself and decide if it is worthy to be published. The book in whole has ----words, and can be sent disk (floppy), CD, or by mail. Would you rather have a general outline, or the book itself?

I know that as an unpublished writer, I won’t have anything to show or assure you that my work is suitable. But that does not mean it is not good; it just means I may have fresh or new ideas.

My phone number is ___, and my address, ___ Brentwood, TN, 37027. My fax number is ___. Please contact me if you wish to consider my book. I know that I may and most likely won’t be successful on my first try, but that does not mean I didn’t try at all. Thank-you for your time and patience with this letter.

(I should have put the thanks for time and patience at the beginning, and yes, this was in the time of floppy disks...)

Biggest Mistakes Ever:

I am a writer. I haven’t come to you asking for proof. As a girl of only sixteen years of age I can’t truly tell you if that’s what I’ll be in ten years. All I can say is that getting there will be a long, and yes, expensive road.

Naturally a writer can’t help but go to the computer and type out a story. Mine happens to be called _____, a ___-word _________ novel.

I’ve been “agenting” for quite some time now, trying to find one to slip my manuscript under your “big, scary door”. The thing is, I am, after all, still learning about how to properly write and polish a five-paragraph essay. God forgive the unlucky soul that tries to take on and read a pitted, grammatically incorrect manuscript that may or may not even be anything more than a big run-on sentence…right? Then again, you have to consider the fact that I have actually picked up a copy of Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents to find your name. It has, unfortunately, become my Bible. You might be surprised at how many tricks a person can pick up after reading a gazillion and one books such as that.

One thing that might have you reading no further is the fact that this is a query letter, a piece of paper that pitches a novel, and I’ve only mentioned the book once. In my experience, it might not be my letter that gets me thrown away but the close-mindedness of adults who can’t imagine a future for a silly little sixteen-year-old girl. That’s why I’ve dedicated this entire cover letter to getting you used to the idea that not all teenagers sit and drool in front of the TV all day.

The thing is, I’m not out for glory and fame. I am surrounded by peers who probably can’t even read. The general audience I’m targeting prefers movies to books any day. Here’s the catch: teens also like to read things other teens have. A book, written by a teen herself? Put yourself in my shoes. I know I would personally go to the store and pay money to check out what this girl has to offer.

What does this girl have to offer? A very dedicated soul. The glossy cover of the bookfront does not blind me; I do know what work goes on to put it there. Editing, editing, and yes, editing are not beyond me, nor are promoting, cooperation, and patience. I offer you my query: please sample it. The taste might just be to your liking.


I currently have a contract with _____ Literary Agency. I am writing you because I wish to find new representation for my novel, Love and Navy Slippers, due to the unsatisfactory representation I have received so far.

Alarm bells, and several questions, should be popping into your head right now. As a contracted author, I have no right to try and find new representation before terminating a current contract on that novel. However, I have been unable to contact my agents for several months now, and I do not wish to sit around waiting for failure. I still want to succeed as an author, and to do so I cannot afford to wait for my agents to find me a publisher when it is convenient for them.

In an effort not to offend, I will not use this space, or your time, to list my complaints about my agents. All I ask is a review of my query and a response. I have enclosed an SASE for this purpose. I thank you most sincerely for your time.

(guess how far the last two letters got me? *snort* My tweet would be: "I will not use this space or your time to list my complaints" <-- data-blogger-escaped-br="" data-blogger-escaped-didn="" data-blogger-escaped-do="" data-blogger-escaped-just="" data-blogger-escaped-t="" data-blogger-escaped-that="" data-blogger-escaped-uh="" data-blogger-escaped-you="">

Last Letter Ever:

How typical of Charlotte Huntington to fall in love with the stable boy. Unfortunately, how also disastrously embarrassing that, after a passionate confession of her love, he broke her heart, coolly dismissing her passion and walking out of her life for good. Broken, Charlotte is shipped off to London for a proper season, where she bitterly decides to never let any man reject her—ever again.

Three seasons, many coy smiles, and fitted bodices later, Charlotte has become the toast of the ton, the most sought-after and elusive woman in all of London.

Until he shows up again.

The stable boy. And every ounce of her carefully trained fa├žade begins to crumble, her heart skittishly surrendering to his very presence. Not that he even bothered to notice; the man barely even acknowledged her existence. He was the most infuriating creature she’d ever come across in her life! Not that it helped that he was, apparently, her father’s new manager. When he’d left her, not only had he rejected her love, but rejected every ounce of his former self, nearly breaking his back for two years to become as ruthless and cold in business as her father, managing the astonishing feat of completely taking over Lord Huntington’s company.

But damn him, she would win. She’d learned a few tricks herself over the years. And Charlotte is going to make him pay for his cold heart. She will make him fall in love with her, and as soon as she hears the words—she’ll run off and marry someone else.

Unfortunately…that’s only if he doesn’t rekindle her weary heart first, which, as time goes by, starts to become a very frightening possibility. Because the more time she spends with him…the more she remembers as to why she fell in love with him in the first place…and the more it feels like she’ll lose, either way she decides to play. Because what she doesn’t know, is that Jake Jennings never intended to leave her at all—because he has always loved her. And he intends, now that he has gained the means to claim her, to never let her go.

Unfortunately…he’s got a new secret of his own. A secret that, innocent and darling as she is, could keep them apart forever.

No wonder it takes an entire book for the two to finally live happily ever after. It’s all the unfortunate reality of Natalie Maya Fischer’s AN ERRONEOUS ROMANCE.

(this was the point I ended up with "great writing, needs plot")


Is this proof enough that I will NEVER “write off” an author just because of a bad query? I’ve had quite a journey. I expect every writer to as well. Development. Happens.

And for the record, using my “agent hat” now, I would have ONLY looked at the pages for the last query. I am SO HAPPY I was not published at age 11!!! The universe knows. Trust it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

In Bad Taste: Horrendously Hilarious Query Contest

As many of you know (via my #queries sessions on Twitter), agents receive a lot of bad query letters. No, not bad; horrendous.

In an effort to share the delightful reaction I have to these letters, and add a little levity to the no-nonsense submission process, I present to you: In Bad Taste: the Horrendously Hilarious Query Contest!

Dear Ms. van Haitsma,

In 1993, an all-male secret society in Tuscany conspired to publish a string of English books about the beauty of the region and the passion of its men. For the next two decades, they reaped the rewards of streams of easy-to-seduce American divorcees. Their plot is discovered by a woman who gets invited to a shack in Tuscany by someone who appears to be a vampire, but is actually God. She meets the vampire while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

My 379,000-word novel is very similar to the new Julia Roberts movie "Pray, Eat, Love." I have never actually been to Tuscany or the Appalachian Trail, but I have Einstein-hair like Malcolm Gladwell, which will convince people that I am a genius, despite doing almost zero research and using people from my personal life as major examples of my ideas.

I have been trying to fit in a group of repressed Muslim women who were empowered by American teachers, but couldn´t quite manage it. I would appreciate any suggestions about where to add them. In the back of the novel, I will include several Tuscan recipes that I downloaded from the internet. I have also added references to many currently popular YouTube videos, in order to enhance the novel´s appeal to younger readers.

I haven´t written the book yet, so I will need an advance of at least $125,000. I think that will be enough to help pay for translating the story into Swedish, then having it translated back into English, so that the cover can say it was translated from Swedish, because I hear that is a hot publishing trend now.


Elva Donaldson

PS: If you want, I can rework the novel to be about zombies.

-kindly provided by Dax Oliver, a writer and recovering comedian living in Queens, New York.

Submission guidelines:

Contest opens Monday, September 13th at 8 AM EST

-post your query in the comments section below the "contest open" post (to come)

Contest closes Friday, September 17th 12pm EST OR after the first 75 entries, whichever comes first

Queries must be no longer than 500 words

Please note that, due to the volume of submissions received, I am only able to respond to those I am interested in.

1st Place: I will WRITE a query for you.

-Yes, that's right; a bona-fide agent pitch, just for you! Query, detailed synopsis, and first ten pages of your manuscript will be required. A critique of all materials sent will also be included.

2nd Place: critique of query, synopsis, and first ten pages.

3rd Place: critique of query

My reading period is .2857 days. If you have not heard back from me within that time, unfortunately, I have passed.

Winners will be announced on Monday, September 20th

Mock your novel; mock a published novel. Mock the industry, mock the guidelines. Flaunt humor in the face of rejection and despair. Rant your frustrations on paper. Whatever you do...get ready, authors, to DO YOUR WORST!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Creating Dynamic Peripheral Characters

This is a blog post I never thought I would write. Why? Because I had no idea, until I went head-first into revision with one of my authors, what to say about it.

But when an editor comes back to you saying she loves the book, but she’d like to see some revision on peripheral characters, well, gosh darn it, you figure out what to say pretty fast!

So here are some tips that I came up with for my author:

Ask yourself: What is their motivation?

One of the most important elements of your novel is understanding motivation. And not just your hero and/or heroine’s. A great exercise for this is to write a piece of the book in each of your character’s perspectives. You don’t have to include this; but see what they have to say. After you give them a voice, go back to your novel, and make sure their motive and perspectives come through without needing to be in their heads.

Avoid black/white characters

No, not physically; your peripheral characters can be purple for all I care. What I mean here is: avoid blanket good/bad stereotypes. Yes, sometimes these blanket characters pop up; epic stories usually have them. But the gray area is always so much more interesting and heartbreaking.

A great example of this came to me last night, when I (re) watched (for the millionth time) Pirates of the Carribean. Captain Barbosa is clearly a bad guy…right? But that last scene, when he dies, and the bright green apple falls from his fingers…you definitely feel heartbroken for the guy, don’t you? That little detail, those darned apples, were a beautiful plot device for making him more dynamic. They were a physical representation of his motive. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad; he was in pain. Yes, he also gets a chance to explain his motive to us, but it’s the apples that really drive it home.

Ask yourself: Are these characters just tools to an end?

Part of what may make a character seem less dynamic is if they only exist to drive forward the plot. Yes, yes; back to the epic fantasy example, sometimes it’s unavoidable to encounter these “extras.” Not every character in a movie needs to run up to the heroine and explain their motivation. I think, perhaps, creating a little map of where each character in your book falls in relation to the hero/heroine should demonstrate the appropriate level of development in your novel:

As the circle widens, the development lessens.

Great; I’ve done the circle and the exercise. Now what?

Good question. Everyone’s approach to revision is different. But to start, think back to the Barbosa example: allow your peripheral characters a chance to explain themselves. Their motivations are going to have to come through via interaction with the hero and/or heroine, if you don’t have multiple POVs (which I never recommend). So go back to pivotal scenes, and give them a voice!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I’m going to tell you a little story about a boy named Theodore Geisel (shh, now don’t interrupt if you’ve heard this one). Theodore had written a picture book manuscript called THE HOUSE ON MULBURRY STREET. He shopped it around. He sent it to twenty-two editors and, after that twenty-second rejection, Theodore decided he would go home, shred his manuscript, and give up his dream.

On the way home, he ran into an old friend of his, who had become an editor. His editor friend convinced him to let him see his manuscript. The editor changed the name of the book to THE CAT IN THE HAT, and Dr. Seuss was born.

My mom gave me a print out of this story when I was twelve years old. I tacked it to my wall, next to my computer, and whenever I was in the midst of any sort of “Why do I suck at life, my writing sucks, I should just give up” breakdown, I would look at that printout – and try again.

There used to be a motto of, “you never know – you may be only 35 cents away from that acceptance.” Now, it’s more like, “you never know – you may be just one email away from ‘the call’” – which is totally even more worth it than 35 cents, by the way.

At the end of my senior year of college, I was convinced I wanted to go to grad school to get my PH.D. in English Literature. I spent months preparing, taking tests – and at the end of it all, I was rejected from every school. I was mortified, disheartened, an absolute wreck. I decided I would just “be lost for the rest of my life.” Being lost was ok, right? Lots of people are lost.

In the meantime, the more practical side of my brain tossed out an email to my old internship, asking them to keep me in mind for any openings. No matter what, I’d spent so many years with rejection (in my querying days, I got over 100 rejections, and still kept going) that I’d built up enough of a spine to not give up, no matter what I was mumbling over shots of tequila.

I could have painfully been making my way through THE CANTERBURY TALES – in old English – and writing papers to the light of the midnight oil at this exact same time this year. Instead, I’m rambling on online conferences, building careers, and reading client work to the soft glow of my Mac computer. I couldn’t be happier. I finally realized that the only reason I’d applied to grad school in the first place was because I was terrified of what to do next.

The universe works in mysterious ways. But it always turns out in the best way for YOU. It may not be what you want, or expect, but if you allow it to throw curveballs at you and don’t stomp off the field and demand them to be thrown straight (maybe a sports analogy wasn’t the best way for this princess unicorn to go…), trust me – you’ll be rewarded in the end.

Don’t believe me?

My client, Roseanne Thong, had her manuscript with her editor for six months. Not a peep. A letter arrived from a very lovely librarian, complimenting her last book with Chronicle. Two weeks later we had an offer.

Agent and writer Mandy Hubbard recently tweeted about how she sent out PRADA AND PREJUDICE to twenty publishers, before she completely re-wrote the book from scratch – and got two offers.

These amazing stories are out there because of perseverance. It takes guts to stick it out – but that’s exactly what you have to do if you want to succeed in this business. You are allowed to cry. You are allowed to rant and moan and bitch and scream "Why do I SUCK at LIFE?!"

Just don’t. Give. Up.

Who knows – you may be an email click away from the next story on my blog. ;)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Cheater's Guide to Requested Materials

Need a quick fix? Or, rather, staring at a blank page and WANT a quick fix to get started? Here you go!


Copy and paste your query into a new document. Add two more paragraphs to finish it and explain the ending.


(name) lives in (state) with her (husband/cat/parrot). An avid writer, she spends her days (job), and contributes to (blog/magazine/newspaper). (Title) was a (second/first/third) place winner in the (contest). (name) is currently hard at work on her next project, (wip).

Query letter:

Here's a template.

(hey, even I get to cheat)

Elevator pitch/one-line hook:

Don’t get too complicated; you don’t need to explain the entire plot. Just get me intrigued. Pick the juicy, unique detail of your plot and blurt it out.

Still stuck? Use the first line of your query letter.

No? Ok, don’t try and make it a sentence. Go with two.

(yeah, these can be hard; maybe just go talk to your closet door about your book until you figure out what parts make you the most excited to say. Enthusiasm goes a long way.)

ETA: a whole post on this here!


On your own, pal. No way to cheat out of finishing that one.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Tragedy of the Creepy Phone Stalker Guy

The phone rings.

“Dijkstra Agency, this is Natalie.”

“Hi, can I speak to Sandra Dijkstra?”

“Can I ask who’s calling please?”

“Uh – can I speak to Sandra?”

Uh oh. I know who this is. It’s CREEPY PHONE STALKER.

“I’m sorry, I need to know who this is; is she expecting your call?”

“Yes, she knows who I am. I submitted a manuscript to her I need to talk about.”

Oh dear lord.

“Well, I’m sorry to say that she isn’t in the office right now-”

“When will she be back?”

“Ah – you know, she’s actually out for the rest of the week.”

“Oh. Well, is there a time I can call when she’ll be in the office?”

“You know, I really can’t say…she works from her home office a lot as well...”

“Ok, but you don’t understand. I need to speak with SANDRA DIJKSTRA. She has my manuscript.”

“You know, I can put you through to Sandy’s assistant; she reads everything alongside Sandy and I’m sure-”

“No, I need to speak with Sandra. It’s very important.”

“I’m sorry…she’s just not in the office today.”

“Ok, look, I’ll call back.”


Two days later. Phone at Sandy’s assistant’s desk rings. “Dijkstra Agency this is Elise.”

Pause. She starts to pick up her pen to take notes.

“I’m sorry, can I ask who’s calling?”

Pen is put down. She sits back in her chair.

“I’m sorry, Sandy isn’t in the office today. But I’d be happy to talk to you about your manuscript….uh huh. I understand. Unfortunately, Sandy just can’t take your call…no, she’s…yes, I understand…ok.”

She hangs up.

“He’s going to call back, isn’t he?” I ask.

She sighs. “Every few months.”

Eventually, we learned his name was Michael. It took several calls to get this information. Finally, he spoke to Elise about his manuscript. Michael is currently undergoing bankruptcy, and is afraid the bank will take his manuscript. It is urgent he speaks with Sandra Dijkstra, so that she will represent him, so he can retain the rights to his manuscript.

Michael still calls to this day. He never gets to speak to Sandra Dijkstra.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Beginning

Once upon a time, there was a little writer by the name of Natalie Fischer. Natalie dreamed of being an author. 200 rejections and a consensus of "great writing, needs plot" later, she landed an internship with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency -- and has been happily immersing herself in the adventures of agent land ever since.

So stay tuned. There's no telling what's next -- or what adventures are to come!