So, I enter Zorya into the “Pitch+250” contest, where everyone enters a pitch and then the first 250 words. I got cut in the first round, but they sent me a detailed scorecard (which was pretty cool of them) and this comment from the judge:

“This could be a really good story but I didn’t get enough sense of what happens or the stakes from the pitch. Since I’m guessing most of the action happens when Zorya’s exiled, I wanted to know more about this and the stakes to her.”

Everyone had to cut their pitch to 100 words for the contest. Much of what I had to cut was the action during Zorya’s exile.


E-mail query hazards (the Invisible Goofies)

I got a rejection back yesterday, the normal polite variety, but the editor added a friendly and cautionary note about the screwed-up formatting of my e-mail.

My original query was copied on the bottom of her reply, and boy, was it ever screwed up. I’ve had issues in the past with e-mail queries, usually involving line spacing problems at the other end. This time not only was the line spacing wrong, but all the apostrophes and quote marks in the query and writing sample had magically transformed into spaces, which was a new one on me. The result was almost indecipherable, especially the dialogue sequences.

I’m aware that most agents and editors don’t have the time to pass friendly corrections back to authors. This one was a welcome exception, thank goodness. I have six queries out now. How many of them ended up at the other end looking like they were typed by archy the cockroach? For all I know, half a dozen agents are out there now looking at gibberish and not telling me!

Well, nothing to be done about that now, but I’ll be more careful in the future. My own fault–I got lazy, and didn’t rigorously follow my own rules.

Formatting E-mails:

Almost all agents want to see e-mail queries now. This is almost a complete reversal of what things were like only a few short years ago when hard copy was the rule, and only a few agents took e-mail. When you write a letter and print it on paper, you can be pretty sure it’s going to show up on the agents desk without all the spacing and fonts mysteriously changed. Not so for e-mail.

Formatting is tricky. If you copy something into an outgoing e-mail from a word processor, almost certainly something invisible and goofy is going to be copied over too. Even if you compose the e-mail directly in your e-mail program, if you get too fancy about formatting the same kind of “Invisible Goofy” errors can sneak in. Sending test mails to yourself is a good idea, but not foolproof. The gibberish e-mail I sent to the editor transmitted just fine to my own address in tests, and still looks perfectly normal sitting in my “Sent” file.

Here’s how you go about making sure you have a “clean” e-mail, or at least as clean as possible (my example uses Microsoft Outlook, but most e-mail programs should have similar functions):

– Compose the e-mail, query, synopsis, writing sample and all into one e-mail. Almost all agents will want to see these things in the body of the e-mail itself, not an attached document. There are very few exceptions, and they’ll mention it on their websites.

– If you must import text from another application, use “import as plain text” when you can. In Outlook, this is done under the “Paste Special” function, which has a line called “unformatted text.” This will take any complex formatting and fancy fonts and paste it in as plain text.

– When you like the look of what you’ve got in the composition window, play it extra safe by converting the entire e-mail to “plain text” format.  This will strip any remaining Invisible Goofies out. Yeah, your nice formatting, including italics and boldface, will disappear with them. In Outlook there are three format options in my New Mail composition window under, well, “Options.” They are “Plain Text,” “HTML,” and “Rich Text.” Picking Plain Text on this menu does the stripping job.

– Now switch the e-mail format to HTML, or whatever the simplest step above Plain Text is in your particular e-mail program that allows access to things like italics and boldface.  I don’t like “Rich Text,” which has the highest level of formatting flexibility, but in my experience also has the highest probability of slipping Invisible Goofies into your e-mail query.

– Edit your e-mail inside the composition window to restore things like italics and boldface that were stripped out. Refer to another copy of your query, synopsis and writing sample to make sure everything you really need gets back in there. If an agent likes the writing sample double-spaced, you can fix that in the composition window too if the format command to do it is available. Be careful restoring your basic formatting, but it’s better to have an italicized word sneak through as plain text than to have all your apostrophes turn into spaces.

The resulting e-mail should be okay to send.

Yeah, it’s a pain to strip a long e-mail down to Plain Text and then go to HTML (or whatever) and rebuild just the few format bits you need. Remember I said I’d gotten lazy–I’ve just been copying old queries from previously-sent e-mails into new ones, and it seemed to work just fine, but that’s just what I did to create the recent Mystery Mess, so there you go.

When in doubt, do it the hard way. Twenty minutes more of your time may save you from looking like a dork at that big agency you’re trying to impress.

Invisible Goofy

Balancing the pitch and synopsis

You can walk into a room and tell who the writers are by yelling the word “synopsis!” and then watching to see which ones dive behind the furniture.

Writing a synopsis is a royal pain, particularly when so many agents and publishers want to see only one page. Cooking a 98,000 word novel down to one page can be done, and it’s a great learning exercise, but it’s still like shoving an elephant into a spandex leotard.

But once that’s done, there’s another step I have to work on: matching the pitch and synopsis so they’re complementary, and don’t just repeat the same information. Every first draft synopsis I write tends to start with a lot of the same phrases that are in the pitch.

In my experience, every agent/publisher wants to see a pitch of some kind, but not all of them ask for a synopsis. So never leave anything really important out of the pitch and just assume the synopsis will pick it up. (As an aside, the same goes for sample chapters. Not every agent wants to see samples right away, so don’t assume your first three chapters will fill in for your pitch).

Conversely, I’ve never seen anyone ask for a synopsis that didn’t want a pitch too, so the synopsis can skimp a bit on information that’s already in the pitch. Which is good news if you’re still trying to cook the darn thing down to one page.

Use the pitch for important background, character introduction, and your theme. Your pitch is your “hook,” and you shouldn’t need much storyline. Focus on plot and character development in the synopsis. When you’re done, your pitch should be like a line drawing, and the synopsis should be the added coloring.

Easier said than done, right? As far as the mechanics go, I usually print them both out, set them next to each other, and attack both sheets with a pencil. And yeah, a little repetition is okay.

Elephant Bunhead

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Agent feedback: rare and valuable

I’ve been sending out queries for my second book, a middle-grade fantasy called Roger Mantis.

I’ve gotten a bunch of rejections so far.  Usually these are very polite form rejections, or worse, no responses at all.  But today a rejection came back that was different.  The agent wrote a letter that actually explained why she didn’t think the book would work for her.  I’ll quote from the letter:

The length of Roger Mantis was a major determining factor of this decision. These days middle grade novels must meet a minimum of 40,000 words for a publisher to consider accepting them. At 28,000 words, your submission is just not long enough for middle grade, which means it will be tough to find representation. Perhaps you mean it to be for younger children? Regardless, I strongly encourage you to work with an editor to find places where you can expand and flesh-out the story. It would be worth spending the time on revision to ensure that you’ve done everything you can to make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it again.

As you look to revising and expanding your work, I suggest that you get your hands on a copy of Tracey E. Dils’ book You Can Write Children’s Books. In it, she explains the middle grade market and gives tips to writing for young readers that might help you add length and depth to your story.

Anybody who has been in this business knows that an agent who actually takes the time to personally respond to a cold query (and add valuable critical comments!) is a rare thing indeed, and in my case highly-appreciated.

I do wish I’d gotten this important feedback before I clocked in 48 other rejections, but now that I know about the length issue maybe I can expand the story and have a better shot next time around.  Who knows…maybe some of those agents will be willing to take another look. Anyway, I’m putting this query round on hold for now.

To the agent who took the extra time to help me out?  Thanks!