Posts Tagged ‘agent’

I’ve been here before.

My last novel, an Upper Middle Grade Fantasy, was the first book I ever seriously tried to get published traditionally. I queried well over 100 agents to that end, without much success. I’m now about a dozen queries into the process with my latest novel, ACTUALLY EVER AFTER, another Upper Middle Grade book. However this time, I have some experience under my belt.

What does it mean to “be prepared” to query? You might be surprised.

First, your manuscript

  • Finished! If you’re querying a novel, you can not query a WIP. Agents only consider completed manuscripts.
  • Polished! Do not send off a first draft. Do not send off a draft just read by your mother. Use alpha readers to review each chapter. Use beta readers to review your whole manuscript. Do a pass for consistency. Do a pass for grammar and punctuation. If you’re novel contains sensitive topics or you are writing about a culture other than your own, find or hire a sensitivity reader. Consult experts on your research.
  • Properly formatted. There are plenty of resources to define this, but basically, 1 inch margins, double-spaced, indent each paragraph, no spaces between paragraphs, start each new chapter halfway down the page, 12-point Times New Roman. Each page should have your last name and the page number in the upper right corner. There should also be a title page containing your contact information, your genre, and your word-count.

As hard as this is to accept, the manuscript is only the beginning. Querying means approaching individual literary agents with a pitch for your novel. But there are multiple ways to get agents’ attention. You may go to writer’s conferences and have an opportunity to talk to agents face-to-face. You make want to take advantage of the numerous Twitter pitch events throughout the year. In either of these events, you will want an “elevator pitch” to promote your novel. The standard for this is to describe the key theme, conflict, and plot of your novel in 35 words. For Twitter, you have total 280 characters (including spaces) to do this (however you need to leave around 12-18 characters for the required hashtags). And even if you don’t attend a single conference or intend to participate in Twitter pitches, you still want to develop your elevator pitch. Firstly, many agents specifically request one, but secondly (and more importantly) you want one. In order to talk about your book in a way that will entice agents, you need to be able identify the theme and conflict and express them in a couple of sentences.

This turned out to be a revelation for me when I began to query my last novel. Because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t identify the key conflict — that one thing my hero needed to accomplish, and what would happen if she failed. It’s not that I was blind, it’s that it wasn’t clear in my story to begin with. It turns out this is a major problem and common stumbling block for new writers. It turns out (I learned way too late) you want to have this clearly in mind before you start writing your novel. You can decide this in the middle of writing your novel, too, or even after you have finished if you don’t mind going back and doing a major rewrite. It’s a lot like changing your major after three years in college, or right before graduation. You can do it, but it will take a lot of extra work and you’ll wish you had done it sooner. That’s what I did with my first novel, and I ended up doing several major rewrites in an effort to nail down a clear theme and compelling conflict The fact that no agent wanted to represent that book may be the results of my poor planning.

Here is the elevator pitch for my current novel:

One accidental wish and Clio and Mary are in 1507 Ireland, caught between Cinderella and her wicked faerie godmother. Strength and friendships are tested as the girls must choose between going home or saving Ireland.

And here is one of several Twitter pitches (I settled on 5, because most contests let you pitch multiple times over the course of several hours):

Yesterday Clio & Mary were ordinary 13yo girls. 1 wish later: Clio the faerie princess & Marigold the pixie are caught between Cinderella & her wicked faerie godmother, who’s bent on conquering Ireland. Strength & friendships are tested as they go to war. #PitMad #MG #HF #FTA

Once you have your pitch nailed down, you’re in a good place to begin writing your query letter. Because you want to express that same theme and conflict in a couple of paragraphs, but in such a way as to entice your agent-of-choice to want to read your book. There are many resources on the web for how to write a good query letter, and I could write several long blogs on various approaches, so I’ll leave that up to you. Generally, you want to keep it to 1 page, keep the actual pitch for your novel to 2 paragraphs (don’t give away the ending!), then a paragraph describing your audience and providing comps (books comparable to yours), and a brief biography of your writing experience and why you’re the best person to write the book you wrote.

Here’s where it get’s personal. A query letter shouldn’t be just a boilerplate you send out to every agent on your list, just substituting their name at the top. The best way to get an agent’s attention is to personalize your letter to that particular agent. Show you have done some research and chosen this agent for specific reasons, rather than just pulled their name from Writer’s Market. That means search the web for interviews they have given recently, check the Manuscript Wish List website. Manuscript Wish List a true godsend, and it comes in three flavors. Originally, it was a Twitter event where agents were invited to tweet what they were looking for under the hashtag #MSWL. Now, that hashtag is perpetually being used by agents to share what currently tickles their fancy or what they are on the lookout for. You can go to Twitter and filter by that hashtag, as well as by other hashtags such as #MG for middle grade, or keywords like horror or LGBT or pretty much anything else. Or, you can go straight to and do the same thing. This site makes it easier, though. Things are organized there by keyword and by agent’s names, etc. This eventually evolved into the website I mentioned above, which is where many agents have a profile that details everything they want authors to know — their bio, who they represent, their wish list, their favorite books, and how to submit.

Use these resources! You don’t have to write a thesis on every agent you pitch to, but it helps if you include in your query a sentence pinpointing those specific things they said they were looking for which they will find in your book. For example:

I see from your wish list that you’re looking for fairytale-esque fantasy in a historical setting, and I hope ACTUALLY EVER AFTER fulfills your wish.

This shows the agent you went to some effort to seek him/her out and that your book should be a good fit for them. Both of these will be checkmarks in your favor.

But you’re still not done!

The Synopsis. Yes, the dreaded synopsis. This where you describe the entire plot of your book from start to finish, including the ending. The synopsis is not so much a pitch to sell the idea of your book, but to show that you know how to plot a story and that it hits all of the key elements of a story, as well as the tropes of your particular genre and age group. Some agents want it to be under 1,000 words (about 2 pages), and some require that it be under 500 words. Again, resources abound on the Web for how to so this.

NOW YOU’RE READY. I mean, there is always more you can do to prepare. Going back to polishing your draft, you want to give special attention to the first three pages, and especially the first paragraph. These are your first real impression, query letter aside. These can make or break a prospective agent’s interest, no matter how good your query. Also bear in mind that different agents or agencies have different submission requirements. Some request the first 3 chapters, others only the first chapter. Some ask for the first 50 pages, some want 25, while some ask for just the first 5. So, with that in mind, you maybe want to consider when you write not to leave the really good part for page 45. I knew this when I started my current novel, and made sure there was a really good gut-punch on page 3, and the inciting incident before page 20. Every little bit helps.

If you have queried before and have advice of your own, please share it. And good luck out there. KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON!




There’s been a be it of a debate over at my critique group.  This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Our long-standing debate has been a kind of a glass-half full/glass half-empty philosophical conundrum for as long as I have been a member (three years).

The feature in question is the Hook Queue, in which members can enter the first 1,000 words of their story and get feedback.  This sounds great on paper, and in practice many, many members like it.  I don’t happen to be one of them.

See, here’s the thing.  The whole critique group is based on a credit system; you have to critique the work of others to earn the credits you need to spend in order to submit your own work.  It creates motivation and an atmosphere where giving critiques is as valuable or more valuable than receiving them.  Which is actually true.

The Hook Queue is a little different.  Entering into the Hook Queue costs you 3 credits, but you can earn them back by critting 10 other hook submissions.  Here’s how the queue is described:

This queue is a little bit special. Here the critter is playing the role of an underpaid editor searching for that special perfect snowflake of a manuscript amongst a pile of hopefuls.

Anyone can post into this queue but you must have extremely thick skin. The queue is meant to give you an indication of how good your hook is and where editors might stop reading, and more importantly, why.

The theory is that you should run though these quickly (you are timed) and when you feel like stopping, make a short note explaining why at that spot.  It is quite a contrast to the regular story queues we use for chapters, in which additional points are awarded to critters for making more verbose critiques.

The Hook Queue is only open one week per month.  And after each one the debates roll out anew.  Some people (myself included) want more detailed comments on these all-important opening pages of our story, not a cold brush-off.  We want to know what is working so we can make more of that.  But the entire concept of the Hook Queue is that members are asked to pretend they are editors or agents, when mostly likely none of them actually are.  Critters are only guessing at what an editor is looking for.  These people are writers themselves — an entirely different breed.

The people in favor of this method like to point out (according to everything they “know” to be true about slush readers) that they are all just looking for reasons to reject your manuscript.  One member went so far as to suggest they already have all the clients they need and the slush pile is their lowest priority, so in order to get home to their families they slam through it — just like the Hook Queue is designed.

I’m here to tell you it just ain’t so.

The editors, agents, and slush readers I’ve spoken to (quite a few) express their love of their work.  They can’t wait to find the next great book that takes their breath away, and they invite anybody with an Internet machine to send them their manuscript. But don’t take my word for it.  The other day I ran across an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit, being conducted by a slush reader for a New York literary agent.  He answered questions for hours revealing, among other things, that he does it for no pay because he simply loves books, and would rather read a good story than watch television.  Here are a few of his comments/answers:

Most agents will read nearly 100% of all queries and probably something close to that in full requests. What the readers like me are doing is helping to level them out. We’re making sure that good stuff gets noticed quick, because the agent is racing to find new talent before someone else scoops them up. And we’re leveling the agent out when they fall in love with a book that may have some serious flaws. Trust me when I say this – Agents and readers alike want desperately to be in love with your writing and your story. We live for it. Look at it less as gate-keeping and more as trying to find the gold nuggets in the sifting pan faster because there’s only one giant pan and a thousand gold-hungry sharks swimming in it. More eyes is better than less.


A good slush reader has to be aligned with the agents interests. The agent wants to find great writing and great/talented authors to sign. Slush readers that are just looking for reasons to hate things last about as long as critique partners who like to tell you how horrible you are at writing (maybe a week?). Now, we sure may get a bad rep for pointing out things that we feel are flaws (especially when the writer doesn’t agree) but I can tell you that what we present is opinion and sometimes Agents ignore their slush readers completely and go with their gut and sign authors they simply love.


Anytime a [slush] reader likes a work, it’s good for the author and the agent alike. A reader helps the agent have a pulse on what the “average joe” reads and likes. It gives the agent a more rounded opinion of the work. It can help the agent overcome a gut reaction or objection, and it can point out a flaw that the agent didn’t see.

So, if you are in the query trenches right now, desparing because you think the keepers of the keys to your publishing kingdom only have eyes for your mistakes, buck up.  The people you’re querying want to love your book.  As this slush reader said, “There are exactly 1000 things pulling the attention of an agent at any one moment. If you can keep them from caring about anything but reading the next sentence, you’ll have an agent by tomorrow morning.”

Now, I just need to wade back into the debate and convince everyone that our Hook Queue has got it’s head on backwards.


This is the big one, kids.  The gold standard of pitch contests, and one of the longest-running. There are something like 130 mentor teams participating this year, broken into four age categories: Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult and Adult. The contest runs from today through November 9.

But what is it?

Oh! I didn’t see you there, under that rock.  Okay.  PitchWars is a contest for writers with complete manuscripts and a polished query letter. You choose four mentors or mentor teams (a lot of those this year) and submit your first chapter, query, and contact info. Over the course of the next three weeks, those mentors will review all of their entries and request additional materials from those writers whose manuscripts they like. And by “like” I mean they feel like they can connect to the story and the author, and can offer concrete advice for revising the entire manuscript to agent readiness. These are experienced people — slush readers, professional editors, published authors. Many of them are past PitchWars winners.

Then, for the next two months, the chosen mentees will be in constant communication with their mentors, frantically revising their manuscripts and query letters according to their mentors’ advice.  Then, during the first week of November, these revised pitches and manuscripts will be showcased for participating agents.  There are over 60 of those, this year.  The goal, of course, is for an agent to sign you.  That happened to over 50 people last year, and over 200 in the 4-year history of PitchWars.

Do you have a manuscript you are ready to query?  If so, and you want to enter, the details are here.  When you are ready, the entry form is here.

Good luck!


You’ve either gotten them or you are working hard to be able to get them.  Rejections.  From agents, from publishers, from contest judges.

But there is a huge stigma attached to the word “rejection” out in the world.  I mean, sure, rejection actually means that you have been rejected, y’know, the opposite of accepted.  But it is nowhere near that cut-and-dried in the publishing world.

Rejection doesn’t mean “Failure.”  At worst it just means “No.”  It might also mean “Not for me,” “Not quite,” or “Not yet.”

We’ve received quite a few rejection letters, my daughter and I.  A good portion of them were form letters.  Usually those form letters included an apology for sending a form letter.  I get it; reading and evaluating hundreds of queries a week is hard.  Time-consuming.  Emotionally draining.  An agent can’t be expected to give back as much heart and soul as each hopeful writer has poured into their query (not to mention novel).  And nearly all of these form rejections include some version of the same comment: “This is not a reflection of your writing … this business is very subjective … we hope you continue querying.”  Those are all positive, comforting, friendly sentiments.  And they are all true.  They mean it every single time.

Okay, fine, agents undoubtedly receive and reject abysmal writing samples they wouldn’t wish on any fellow agent, let alone future reader.  Maybe in those cases some agents eschew the form rejection and say it like it is.  But I bet even then, the agent advises those writers to dig in, improve their craft, and try again.

Here’s my point.  These aren’t failures.  These aren’t the end.  They are more like when a door-to-door salesman goes to the next door.  Each time you knock on a door is an opportunity to hone your schpiel and greet the next prospective customer with a slightly better pitch.

Most of the time its a “No.”  Some people don’t even want to hear how great your cookies are.  But that’s no reflection on the cookies, is it?  There’s a sweet tooth on every street, but you have to knock on a lot of doors to find it.  So it is with querying.  For sure, if an agent takes the time to advise you in their rejection on how to improve your presentation, you should consider that advice.  If you do and you steadily improve, and you keep trying, there is every reason to believe you will eventually find a home for your manuscript.  You certainly have a better chance than if you don’t.


My Annual Pitch Contest Calendar now has a permanent home!
See the menu at the top of the page.


Okay, kids – get your Twitter pitches, 35-word pitches, queries, and first 250 words shined up and ready.  Here’s a breakdown of the pitch contests coming up in 2016.

If you’re new to the concept, these are contests for authors with complete, polished manuscripts who are seeking representation by an agent and/or an editor.  These contests are fierce and popular, and the competition is strong and numerous.  But there are several advantages to entering:

1) Putting yourself out there. If you’re new to querying and not sure how to begin, or nervous about exposing your work to strangers, this is a good way to dip your toe in the raging whitewaters of the publishing world.

2) Getting feedback on your presentation.  Theses contests are all about those fiddly bits you use as bait to lure an agent or editor.  It is assumed your book is already finished, edited, beta’d, revised, and polished. You know – what you thought was the hard part. What you may not have as thoroughly vetted and sparkly are your query (including your all-important 35-word pitch) and the first 250 words (roughly the first page) of your manuscript.  These will make or break your first impression.  Even the perfect agent who was born to fall in love with your manuscript will never read it if you don’t hook her with your query and the first page of your manuscript.  Most of these contests have built-in feedback rounds or swarms of freelance editors offering free advice to contestants.

3) Networking with other writers, agents and editors in your genre.  Even if you don’t “win” (I’ve been doing this for a year, and I never have – and neither have most published authors), you will meet other contestants and judges, as well as participating editors and agents.  Most of these contests exist in the Twittersphere (or at least have a corresponding hashtag where those who have enetered can commiserate while they wait for the results).  Follow these hastags and be part of the running conversations.  You will meet other writers with books similar to yours, querying in the same genres.  You will meet agents looking for books like yours in your genre.  You will meet the judges, who are often fellow writers and past contest winners.  You are bound to make new friends and valuable contacts.

One last thing before I get to the list: In case you don’t know what a Twitter Pitch Party is, it is an event – usually lasting 12 hours – where you are invited to pitch your manuscript right on Twitter using a specific hashtag plus one for your book’s genre. Agents are well aware of these contests, and follow them eagerly. If they like a pitch they will favorite it, and that is your invitation to send them a query.  #PitMad is the most well-known and popular of these (and it happens four times a year).  So, to be clear, you must pitch your book using only a total of 140 characters INCLUDING “#PitMad” (or whatever) and one or more category/genre tags:

#PB = Picture Book

#CB = Chapter Book

#ER = Early Reader

#MG = Middle Grade

#YA = Young Adult

#NA = New Adult

#A = Adult

#SFF = Science Fiction / Fantasy

#UF = Urban Fantasy

#CF = Contemporary Fantasy

#HistFic/#HistFan = Historical Fiction / Historical Fantasy

#R = Romance

#Myst = Mystery

#WF = Women’s Fiction

#NF = Non-fiction

#Mem = Memoir

#LF = Literary Fiction

It is important that you read and follow the rules for these, and practice good contest etiquette: Usually only pitch twice per hour, never favorite another writer’s pitch (that is how agents request queries!), etc.

So, without further ado, here is the 2016 calendar of pitch contests.  Some of these have not been officially announced as of this posting, but I will update this post as more information (and more contests) are announced.  Good luck!

February 1: Sun vs. Snow
Character question + query + first 250 words of your manuscript. Open to the first 200 entries received. 15 entries chosen for each team (Sun and Snow). Teams work with authors to polish their entries before posting for the Agent Round.

February 3: #Pit2Pub
Twitter Pitch Party

February 11: #PitMatch
Twitter Pitch Party WITH A TWIST!  #PitMad + #MSWL = #PitMatch.  Between 1pm and 4pm EST, three teams will scour the #MSWL (Manuscript Wishlist) feed and the #PitMatch twitter pitch party, and make matches between what agents want and what writers pitch.  The teams compete for points to see which team gets the most agent requests. Only ONE pitch per manuscript.

February 11: #PBPitch
Twitter Pitch Party – Picture Books only

February 15 – March 7: #SonofAPitch
Query + first 250 words of your manuscript. Three rounds of comments, ending with 50 being chosen for the Agent/Editor/Publisher round the week of February 29.

February 26 – March 11: Pitch Madness
35-word pitch + first 250 words of your manuscript. Team chooses 60 to move on to the Agent Round, March 9-11.

Early March (TBD): Post-it-Forward
35-word pitch workshop

March 5 – April 22: #P2P16 (Pitch to Publication)
Multiple rounds, beginning with authors sending query + first 5 pages to 4 editors (out of 15 participating). Editors will each pick one author to work with on a full manuscript edit, to get their query and ms ready for the agent round, on April 18.

March 7: #SonofAPitch
Twitter Pitch Party

March 17: #PitMad
Twitter Pitch Party

April 1: #AdPit
Twitter Pitch Party – Adult books only

April 1: #KidPit
Twitter Pitch Party – Children’s books only (Picture Books, Early Readers, Chapter Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult)

April 1: #NestPitch Not this year; returning in 2017
35-word pitch + Easter character question + first 300 words of your manuscript. Winners posted for agent review.

April 19: #DVpit
Twitter Pitch Party – created to showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices. This includes (but is not limited to): people of color; people living and/or born/raised in underrepresented cultures and countries; disabled persons; people with illness; people on marginalized ends of the socioeconomic, cultural and/or religious spectrum; people identifying as LGBTQIA+; and more.

April 24: #FicFest (Check for details starting March 20)
FicFest is open to all finished manuscripts and all genres for Children’s Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult. In this contest, each category will have three teams. Teams will be made up of a Team Lead and two team members, who will pick three finalists and one alternate per team. This ensures that forty-five manuscripts will move on to the agent round, with fifteen manuscripts being held as alternates in case one of the finalists drops out of the contest. Once the finalists are chosen, they will work with their teams on revisions for 8 weeks before the agent round. During the agent round, participating agents will be able to request partial/fulls from the manuscripts they want to see. There is no bidding, and no competition for agents. They can request whatever intrigues them, giving everyone a huge opportunity to get requests and hopefully an agent for their manuscript. More rules, regulations, and details will be posted via the host and team lead blogs as the contest begins!

Mid-May (TBD): QueryKombat
64 kombatants in a single-elimination tournament style query-off. Entries will go head-to-head in six rounds until only one entry remains. Agents look at winners of each elimination.

June 9: #PitMad
Twitter Pitch Party

June 16: #PBPitch
Twitter Pitch Party for Picture Books ONLY.

June 23: #SFFPit
Twitter Pitch Party for Si-Fi and Fantasy books ONLY, for all age groups.

July 1-3: #70Pit16
Submit the 70th (or 69th) page of your manuscript ONLY.

August 1: #AdPit
Twitter Pitch Party – Adult books only

August 3: Pitch Wars
Published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions to shine it up for agents over a 2-month period.

September 7: #PitchSlam
Round One – Entrants submit their 35 word pitch to receive feedback.
Round Two – Entrants submit their first pages (first 250 words) to receive feedback.
Round Three – Entrants submit both their pitches and first pages together. These entries provide the pool for team selections.
Round Four – The selected entries are posted for agents to request materials.

September 8: #PitMad
Twitter Pitch Party

October 22: #P2P16 (Pitch to Publication)
Multiple rounds, beginning with authors sending query + first 5 pages to 4 editors (out of 15-20 participating). Editors will each pick one author to work with on a full manuscript edit, to get their query and ms ready for the agent round.

December 1: #PitMad
Twitter Pitch Party

Early December (TBD): St. Nicholas Day 1st 150 Workshop
Open to Picture Books and Middle Grade

December (TBD): #PitchMAS
Pitch workshop and Twitter Pitch Party

Check out the 2017 Pitch Contest Calendar, now live (this is a link).


While a couple of agents and a couple of editors take thier time reading (or getting around to reading) the full manuscript each requested of my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, The Last Princess, I have had plenty of time to contemplate and dream.  This whole journey began when I finally made a decision I had been contemplating for several years — whether to completely rewrite my first novel (which I quite like but is deeply flawed), or start fresh with a new novel.  When the idea for The Last Princess occurred to me, the coin finally landed on tails and we embarked on a new novel.

A big part of that decision was the work of our favorite author, whose middle grade series (featuring a young girl and fairy tale characters) my daughter and I both had read many times.  We used these books as a model for our own, giving us a solid example of a tone and voice and pacing that worked very well.  We have always credited this author with being the inspiration or push that drove us to write our current book, the first in our own series (we expect).

So I had always planned to submit a query for this book to that author’s agent, whom we’ve always placed in the unenviable position of being our “dream agent.”  But you rarely ever get a second chance with an agent, so I was reluctant to submit until I was certain our query and first pages were perfect.  This recent swell of enthusiasm for our book from agents and editors gave me the confidence to finally submit to our dream agent.

But what good could come from it, really?  The others had already had our full manuscript for many weeks — several months in some cases — and at least one had made noises to the effect that she wanted to set up a time to discuss her notes.  By the time our dream agent got around to our query, and if the impossible happened and they got through a partial and actually wanted to read our book, it might be all over.

Nevertheless, last Tuesday I personalized our query letter, pasted in our first ten pages, and hit send. “Nothing ventured, no pain,” I think is how the expression goes.

On Wednesday, we received a reply thanking us for sending the query.  And asking would we please send the full manuscript.  Yes, fewer than twelve hours after I had sent the query, we received a request for a full from our dream agent.

Did you ever forget how to breathe?

Am I Under-Excited?

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , ,


This is all pretty new to me, and I don’t have a frame of reference to tell me how I should feel.  Maybe I should be dancing in the street with giddiness like Fred Astaire, jumping in and out of puddles and swinging on lamp posts.  Or maybe I should keep my expectations low, and stay mellow like Donovan.

Here’s the deal; you tell me: My daughter’s and my newly-revised middle grade novel manuscript caught the attention of a well-connected freelance editor, who loved it so much (her words) that she wants to “champion” it in her free time.  Which appears to mean she is telling all her editor/agent colleagues how great she thinks our book is and some of them have been infected by her enthusiasm enough to request the full manuscript, just on the basis of her recommendation.  This happens all the time, right?

As a consequence of this sudden interest, I took the liberty of dropping a line to a couple of agents who had favorited our pitch during #KidPit back in May, but who hadn’t gotten back to us in a while.  One of them had requested the full manuscript in June, and another had previously rejected our manuscript. I wrote to them and told them of the sudden interest in our improved manuscript, and perhaps they would like to take a look at the revised version now under consideration at a top agency and also at one of the big 5 publishers.

The first agent responded immediately and told us she was happy to see the new version; she had been just about to set up a time to discuss her evaluation of our book, but needed to postpone to look at the new stuff. That sounds promising, right? Then the other agent — the one who had rejected our manuscript once already — wrote to ask us to please send the full manuscript to her “if it is still available.” This is normal, isn’t it?

I took a moment to count heads this morning, and I realized our full manuscript is currently being considered by five different agents/editors/publishers. And several of them seem quite entusiastic; the editor’s agent-friend wrote and said she and her interns were “reading and enjoying” our book.

Okay.  So on one hand, I feel like we are on the brink of our dream coming true, and if I don’t do something all of my skin is going to fly off. But on the other hand, I don’t know … maybe this is pretty standard stuff, and just not big deal. We don’t want to get our hopes up, right? Falling from that kind of height would hurt pretty badly.

All kinds of scenarios play out in my mind — bidding wars, multiple offers, difficult choices…. But I don’t want to go there if it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous, right? I should play it cool and just sit back and wait.

You try it.

Okay, fellow pitchers: if you’re ready to pitch your manuscript (meaning it’s beta-tested and polished, and you’ve got your query letter and synopsis ready), here is a run-down of some contests you can enter in the coming weeks. These are necessarily the best way to get your work in front of an agent (as competition is FIERCE), but many successful writers found their agent match this way. More than anything, these give you an unparalleled opportunity to see your competition, see what’s working and what isn’t, and get some valuable feedback from slush readers and editors currently in the business.


5/22 – QueryKombat 2015
This year’s Kompetition is open to Adult, NA, YA, MG, and Picture Books. Enter your title, genre word kount, query and the first 250+ words of your manuscript. There are over 2 dozen agents participating, as well as many editors and readers. This kompetition is run like a single-elimination, tournament. Entries paired up based on target audience and genre will go head-to-head, round after round, starting with 64 and ultimately ending with just 1. But agents will see all entries after the first elimination – so 32 entries will get seen by agents, then 16 of those in the next round, etc.

5/27 – #KidPit
This is Twitter pitch event, where you pitch your children’s manuscript on Twitter (140 characters or less) using the hashtag #KidPit plus your age group (#BB (Board Book), #PB (Picture Book), #ER (Early Reader), #CB (Chapter Book), #MG (Middle Grade), or #YA (Young Adult) and genre (#SFF (Sci-fi/Fantasy), #ROM (Romance), #FTR (Fairy tale retelling), #MYS (Mystery), #TT (Time Travel) and so on). You can pitch up to 2 times per hour, between 8am and 8pm EST.


6/4 – #PitMad
Like #KidPit, but for all genres and categories, using the hashtag #PitMad. This one also takes place between 8am and 8pm EST, and you can pitch up to twice an hour.

6/18 – #SFFPit
A Twitter pitch event for science fiction and fantasy (including all sub-genres), for Picture Books, Middle Grade, New Adult and Young Adult. Pitch your manuscript up to 2 times per hour (exact start and end times to be announced on Dan Koboldt’s blog).

6/24 – #PBPitch
Another Twitter pitch event, this time only for picture books. Pitch manuscripts only one time before 12 pm and one time after (no time zone specified). Subgenres hashtags can be included: #F=Funny, #CD = Character Driven, #NF = Nonfiction, #C= Concept, #L= Lyrical, #I= Interactive.


7/1 – #70Pit
Despite the name, this is actually NOT a Twitter pitch event. In fact, you do not submit either your 35-word pitch, your query or nor first 250 words. For this event, you submit the 70th page of your novel. This is based on the “Page 69 Test,” which presumes that by page 69 things should really be happening, and this is often a better snapshot of your work that the first page. Different age categories will be submitted on different days over the course of a week, so each category gets equal attention.

7/3 – Pitch to Publication
The submission window is actually June 29 – July 3. Writers choose up to five freelance editors from the 20 or so participating. Each editor will pick three entries and work closely with the writer to polish their manuscript (in various stages) to get them ready for the Agent Round at the end of September. If manuscripts are chosen by agents for representation, there is a further round in October for submissions to publishers. Full details on Samantha Fountain’s blog.


8/17 – Pitch Wars
Writers send in an application (query and first chapter) to the four mentors (published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns) that best fit their work. Each participating mentor will choose one manuscript and work with the writer over the next 2 months to get them ready for the agent round, where agents will make requests from the polished entries.


Like all things pertaining to writing a novel, or just writing creatively, knowing if you are a crazy person does not come automatically or easy. I mean, think about it … you’ve chosen to be a writer. You must be half-way crazy from the get-go.

So how do you know? Talking to yourself? All writers do that. Having invisible friends? Yeah, we do that, too. Making up elaborate stories, including all the behind-the-scenes details and even what everyone was thinking? That’s sort of the whole point of writing.

You see the dilemma. However I think I can help. I recently made a writing decision which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time – a natural decision based on the facts given and the options available to me. But upon reflection this decision clearly indicates that I am a crazy person. So please attend as I explain, and if you find yourself making a similar decision you can rest assured that you are also crazy.

So, my daughter and I finished our first joint novel. As a consequence we have been querying and otherwise carrying on in every effort to secure an agent and, ultimately, publication. To that end I have been reading everything I can get my hands on to help me understand the process, and that includes a great deal of advice from agents and fellow writers who have been published. Some of that advice has to do with what one should be working on next while they query – because everyone agrees, you don’t stop writing.

Now, there are two categories of novel writers: those who have written a stand-alone novel, and those who have written a novel with sequels in mind (in query parlance, we call these novels “Stand alone, with series potential”). We are firmly in the latter category. While we didn’t have plans to write a series when we started, ideas for additional books occurred to us as the story evolved. So now we’re writing a series. Not only that, but I came up with an idea for a spin-off series for a younger audience, following the little brother of the main character.

Here’s where my decision came in.

Some people say you should be well into the next book in your series when you query your first book, to show prospective agents you’re serious and committed (not mentally committed; that comes later). Also, in the unlikely event you actually do find an agent interested in your book, they are going to be more likely to make a deal with a publisher if the publisher doesn’t have to wait forever for the sequel.

On the other hand, many people suggest that your second book should be completely unrelated to your first. The theory here is that if you get a book deal for your first book and that book sells poorly, the publisher may take a second chance on you with a new book, but not with a sequel to a lemon.

So which way does one jump? To sequel or not to sequel? I’m writing in my spare time only, between family and two jobs; my writing time is pretty limited so I have to choose wisely how to spend it. This is the point at which I made the afore-mentioned decision.

I decided I’m going to do both – write the sequel to our first book and the first book in the other series. I’m clearly crazy. And you can see why, can’t you? Clear as day.  It’s too late for me, obviously, but with luck you can stop yourself before you are too far gone.

You’re welcome.

You may not know my name or recognize me as an accomplished author. Nevertheless I write this, I think, with a certain amount of authority. Not a great amount, to be sure, but some amount. I have, after all, written quite a number of novel beginnings.

Just the one novel, of course. But a lot of beginnings.

In fact, I have written two complete novels, and started more than that number. But the first novel I actually finished (many years ago, before I had studied the mysteries of “plot”) had one of the most clichéd beginnings known to Man – the exciting action sequence that turns out to be the end of a story being told by the main character. This is a less common variation of the ever-popular flashback/dream-sequence school of beginnings. I doubled down on that oh-so-clever beginning by ending the novel with the main character starting to tell that same story the novel began with. Because book-ends are cool.

But even before I had finished that book I knew it was not commercially viable. It was too long for a first-time author; no agent would have touched it. It was also not very good. The recent novel I co-wrote with my daughter, on the other hand, is commercially viable (we hope), and because we had every intention of getting this in front of as many agent’s as necessary, the beginning was something we devoted a lot of attention to.

What many unpublished writers do not know is that their entire novel is going to be judged based on just the first three chapters, or one chapter. Or 250 words. That 250 words thing really snuck up on us. As novices we believed three chapters was the standard for agent submissions; as long as we got to our inciting incident by the end of chapter three, we were golden. But a lot of agents specify a much shorter amount of your manuscript to include when you query. Plus agents often read through dozens or even hundreds (!) of queries in a given day, and if yours doesn’t stand out right away, it gets passed over. Busy agents will never make it to the end of three chapters if they aren’t hooked in the first five pages. Or one page.

That’s where the 250 words comes in. That is considered to be roughly your first page. Never mind if it isn’t. This magic number comes up again and again in writing and querying circles. As I have discussed at length here in the past, Twitter is a fantastic resource for querying authors, because that is where you will hear about most of the regular pitching contests, which ultimately serve the purpose of helping you polish your pitch – including your first 250. While some of these competitions are for the prize of being considered by an agent, many of them are for a chance to be mentored or critiqued by fellow writers. Some are both.

One contest – Pitch It Forward – was specifically for critiques, and the winners were all posted where other participants and fellow winners could comment. This is a great opportunity to see what your fellow writers are doing, and see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned about killer beginnings:

• Establish your main character
• Establish your setting
• Establish your voice
• Establish your conflict
• Make a promise to the reader (which you must fulfill before the end)
• Make the reader want to know what happens in the next 250 words – and the next 2,500 words.

What do I mean by making a promise? Every story promises (or should promise) to thrill you, or frighten you, or make you laugh. It may promise to reveal the secret history of the world, or what life is like in space or as a superhero or as a vampire. You want to make that promise (those promises) In the first 250 words.

You have, no doubt, heard a number of rules that you “must” follow:
• Always start with action
• Show, don’t tell
• No info-dumps

You will already have favorite books you can cite that break some or all of these rules. So do I. Don’t count on getting away with it. But these rules are subjective. Action doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a zombie with an ax. It could be news that a loved-one died, or some small thing that changes everything. It is something that hooks the reader and draws them into your story. Talking about your character or their situation rarely does that. Not never, but rarely. These three points are really all saying the same thing.

There are cliche’s to avoid:
• Don’t start with dialogue
• Don’t start in the middle of a battle
• Don’t describe your character by having them look in a mirror
• Don’t start in a dream or a flashback

The problem with dialogue and battle openings are really the same thing. With dialogue you don’t know who is speaking and you can’t properly “hear” the speaker’s voice until you describe them. With a battle, you don’t know why the people are fighting or what’s at stake, so you don’t care. The other two are just overdone and unoriginal. You can break all of these rules, but you must be exceptionally clever or original about it to make it work.

But all of these rules and guidelines and suggestions only work if you know where your book is going and what is it about. If ultimately your book is about, say, “being true to yourself,” you should make that case right up front. This can be subtle foreshadowing or a blunt declaration, but it needs to be there in one form or another. If you can’t put your finger on what that is, you might want to step back from your novel and take some time to nail it down.

The most common mistake new writers make on first novels is starting in the wrong place. If your beginning doesn’t or can’t do what I’ve outlined above you might want to see if you’re starting in the wrong place.

To be sure, you probably don’t need to get every one of these concepts into the first 250 words of your novel, but they should be in place in the first three pages, or about 1,000 words. Then polish those words and make sure every comma in place and every word is the precise one you want to use. And avail yourself of the many, many free opportunities on Twitter to have your beginning looked at by editors and agents and fellow writers who are willing to help you make it even better.