Friday, January 10, 2014

Your Writing Questions Answered: The Query and Submission Round-Up

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Feels like a good day to pull out another handful of reader questions. Everyone offered so many great ones that I'm still working my way through them. This time, it's a round-up of some querying and submission questions.
Q: If we have writing/publishing work experience, but it was long ago, should we mention it in a query letter? I was the managing editor of a magazine way back in 2000/2001 and I would like to mention this in my letter, but...I fear it would look like I must have sucked or quit since I'm no longer in that business. The truth is, the turn of the millennium was rough, economy-wise. After 9/11, lots of publications went out of print. I became a lawyer when my final magazine shut down and I got tired of getting laid off. But since one shouldn't talk in a query letter about work experience that's not relevant to writing, my whiny lawyer story will remain untold. How do we explain good, writing-related work experience that is...old?

A: Most of the advice I've seen/read/heard on this is that it won't hurt to say you worked as an editor (no need to add the dates, this isn't a resume) to show you were paid to write/edit, but it probably won't help you either. It's not fiction, and it has no bearing on whether or not your novel is any good. It you wanted to add it, feel free to mention it in the bio section. If you need the space for your query blurb, go ahead and cut it. Go with your gut and what feels right to you.

My personal feeling on these types of things, is that they're opportunities to tip the scales if someone is on the fence about your query. It might get you the benefit of the doubt and get a page request, but only if the reason the agent or editor is hesitating is related to that experience. On the flip side, if the reason is, say, less than stellar editing in the query, and you said you worked as an editor, then it would probably count harder against you.

I'd consider what benefit you feel the older experience might potentially get you and decide from there. Remember, the thing that matters most in a query is the novel itself. That's what will get you the page request, not the experience.

Q: Is it okay if we haven't read some of the "household title" best-sellers when trying to obtain an agent? I've tried to read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and can't get through it. I read every day, even things I don't like, but I haven't read every best-seller. Is that neophite-ish of me, and should I just suck it up and choke some of this stuff down? In essence, do you have a "20 books you have to have read to be able to talk to your potential agent" list?

A: No, you don't have to read all the best sellers. Knowing the top erotica seller is not going to help you with your middle grade fiction. It's not a bad idea to be familiar with the best sellers in your own genre and market, though. And to know your market in general so you know what's being published and what those readers like.

What I find much more valuable, is to read some books on an agent's client list that are similar to yours to get a feel for what she likes. If you can't get through most of what an agent represents, that's a big clue that you're probably not a good fit for that agent and have different tastes in what makes a good story. But if you love all the same books, odds are you have similar tastes in stories. You don't have to read all of them of course, but a couple that fit yours, maybe check out a few others online in the sample pages will give you a better feel for what an agent likes.

Q: When I'm querying an agent a second time (for a different project, of course), what happens to the "I'm querying you because of your attributes X, Y, and Z" line that I put into the previous query? Was it good for my first approach only? Can I include it again because they won't remember anyway? Should I not have it in a query letter in the first place?

A: If the reasons still stand, use them again. If you're concerned they might sound familiar, rewrite them with a fresh approach. And yes, it's good to say why you're querying an agent.

It's also helpful to research your intended agents and see if they've expressed a preference on how they like to received their queries. For example, some like to skip the intro and get right to the hook, others hate rhetorical questions, some dislike non-answer reasons for querying, like "I saw on Agent Query you represent mysteries and I wrote a mystery" types. It's assumed you'll send them what they represent and that you did your research. If they've expressed a preference, tailor the query to that preference. If not, format it how you like it.

Q: What if you're watching TV and across the screen comes a soon-to-be-released movie that is (depressingly) very similar but not at all "identical" to your WIP? Should you scrap your book? Will agents think you simply copied the movie if you proceed? Should you revamp the book and try to take it down another road and keep what you can? More than being deeply bummed, I'm stymied. Not sure if agents will laugh my book to town if I proceed. Unsure whether it's wise to invest the energy in finishing my WIP. In general, if a movie or another book resembles our WIP, what should we do?

A: This one's a toughie because there are so many variables. If you're close to querying, then agents know you didn't copy the movie. If the movie is a huge hit, then having a book similar to it might even help you sell it, as people are looking for more of that success. If it flops, then it could hurt the book, as that idea has already been done and didn't do well. Or it could just hurt any possible movie right sales of the manuscript down the road (and selling movie rights is rare anyway).

If it's been a while between movie release and your submission, then it could look like the movie inspired you, or that you just had the same basic idea. That happens all the time. Unless you copied the movie exactly (which you obviously didn't since you had it before), it'll be clear it's more than just a copycat. If you're concerned, you could spend extra time on the query to show the differences and make sure it doesn't read like a movie clone.

If you want to change things to separate yourself from the movie, feel free, as it will probably make the story feel fresher anyway. If both you and the screen writers came up with the same way to handle this idea, odds are that was the most obvious solution. Digging a little deeper could make the book better overall, but don't feel you have to if that doesn't fit your vision for the book.

If you love your book, don't scrap it. No idea is 100% original and it's all in the execution. If it's a great book, it probably won't matter. There could be timing issues on the best time to submit, but if you want to finish, it finish it. If you don't, and feel like you'd be wasting your time, then set it aside and work on something new. You can always go back to it after the movie is out and gone. 

If you have thoughts or experiences on any of these topics, please share! 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Thanks for answering questions, Janice! Retweeting now :)

    1. Thanks! I love getting questions. So much more fun to answer what folks are wondering about.