Monday, June 23, 2014

Writer to Agent: Question and Answer #2

Here is another set of Writer’s Digest Boot Camp questions! This Boot Camp was back in mid-May 2014 and revolved around the lovely, informative agents from Talcott Notch Agency editing the first ten pages of our manuscripts and then providing us, the writers, with a Q&A. The Boot Camps that Writer’s Digest offers are invaluable and I highly recommend them. Here are some of the Q&As that were asked by writers and answered by agents.

The Opening Lines/Scenes:


Q: It's important to start off immediately with the main character in order to grab and hold the audience. Could you offer some suggestions on when or how this Da Vinci Code kind of approach works?

Jessica Negron (JN): Prologues are really hard to pull off. Often, they're sort of a bait and switch, drawing the reader in with some extraordinary event and then starting the real story a chapter later. It's basically tricking the reader and, while that was once a novelty, it's an outdated tactic and there are much more artful and skillful ways to hook your reader. Yes, modern books still do it, The Da Vinci Code included, but--to be blunt--he's Dan Brown. An author with that kind of established following can pretty much do whatever he wants because, at that point, people are buying the name, not the book. See also Stephen King, JK Rowling, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, etc...

The Openings You Should NEVER Use Anymore:

Q: How do you feel about opening a book with a dream? I know it’s not something you’re supposed to do (and I’ve known this since before Boot Camp) and I am willing to change it, but it’s so important to my theme, my story, my plot, everything.

Gina Panettieri (GP): Why don't you open with your character talking about the dream, or recording it in a journal or diary or something? Trying to analyze it or work with it?

Paula Munier (PM): Don't start with a dream because it is so hard to pull off in an original way. Here are some other beginnings that you shouldn't do: Never start with weather, avoid prologues, don’t start with your character thinking alone (not doing anything compelling), and don’t start with a phone call/email/text/tweet/IM/voicemail/skype because they’re just not original.

Bonus content:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, which includes never starting with weather and avoiding prologues, were recommended by Talcott Notch and can be viewed here

World Building/Character in Chapter 1:

Q: What’s the acceptable amount of world building and character development in the opening chapter, before jumping into an action scene or event?

GP: That will certainly depend on the story and how different the world is from the one we live in now. I think readers' patience has diminished in recent years and they're looking for world-building to occur simultaneously with character development and plot development. Wool by Hugh Howey is a good example. Divergent by Veronica Roth is as well. Hook us with your character, with an emotional component, and a great plot hook (high stakes, big change) then build your world gradually on a need-to-know basis.

Too Many Characters in First Few Pages:
Q: How many characters are too many in the first 30 pages?

PM: There's no magic number. You need to introduce your characters slowly enough and distinctly enough for the reader to keep track of them. You also don't want to crowd your hero with so many people that readers don't have a chance to bond with him at the beginning....

Starting Chapter of Sequel:

Q: Do I just jump right in to the sequel novel or should there be more description?

JN: The norm is that even if the book is a sequel, it should be written in such a way that someone brand new to the series would be able to pick it up and get filled in by the first chapter or so without problem. There should really be more there, briefly explaining what and who your characters are. Not in such a way that you're just dumping a whole explanation of back story, mind you. You still have to artfully weave it in. But unfortunately you can't just jump right in, expecting the reader to already know about book one.

Overall Editing and Layout:

Chapter Breaks vs. Sections:

Q: Would a reader be more receptive to a style where there's no chapters - only book sections that have titles and within those breaks are numbered scenes? Opposed to a 60 page chapter…the sections would have 2 or 3 pages.
JN: Splitting your book up in creative ways can work, if it serves a purpose and if you pull it off brilliantly. You have to be aware, though, that as a new writer industry professionals will be wary of you experimenting because they won't be confident you can pull it off. If I saw in a query that the writer mentioned she'd tried an experimental chaptering system, I would be cautious while reading to see if it works. And at that point, an agent an editor will be nitpicking anything that doesn't land juuuuust right.

They're going to put wayyyy more scrutiny on you than someone like Stephen King, who is...well...Stephen King. I mentioned this in another thread but he can do pretty much whatever he wants because he's got millions of people who would buy just about anything he decided to write.

Dialect with Dropped Syllables:

Q: Do you have a preference in the visual of dialect? For example, using the ' to establish dropped syllables.

JN: I prefer the '  to indicate dropped syllables, but that's personal preference. Also, it's important to note that it's not always needed. If you've done your job in establishing the voice of your character, and the reader has gotten used to the fact that your character sometimes drops syllables, then you can just write out those visually difficult lines "That's not what I'm saying." Because the voice has been firmly established in your readers mind (again, if you did your job as a writer correctly) then the reader will actually just infer that's how the character says it, without you even having to point it out. There's a point where readers get so immersed in the books that your little cues are actually lost on them, because they're just going with the voice they set up for that character in their own head.

Try it out next time you read something with dialect. Notice how you develop the character's voice in your own head, and then start ignoring what's written on the page. It's a bit surreal when you realize you're doing it.

Omniscient POV:

Q: Omniscient POV: Is there certain key words that will help me identify when I'm using Omniscient POV? Can you explain a little more on the difference between Omniscient POV and third-person limited POV?

PM: Omniscient POV is God's POV, that is, you as God the author who knows everything that's going on in all the characters' head. This is how people used to write novels, and is out of fashion now.

Third-person limited is third person limited to the head you are in, that is, one character's head at a time.

Number of POVS:

Q: How many POVs is too many?

PM: No more that 6 total is the general rule

Repetitive Words:

Q: Do you have any suggestions of sites/resources that can help me find repetitive words and phrases?

Fellow Writer: AutoCrit and MS’ “Find and Replace” tool

JN: SmartEdit is a free program that does exactly that, and a lot more. I recommend it as a final pass over an already polished manuscript.

The best way to get a pair of fresh eyes on your project is to find more critique partners/beta readers. Some great sites for finding critique partners include Absolute Write,, and

The Cover Art:

Q: For future reference, I understand that the publisher likes to keep authors separated from the cover art/design team. If I have a designer that I like the stylings of and would like to throw her hat in the ring to be considered as the cover artist, would I show her previous samples to the editor? Or would she create a mock up of the cover? How far along in the mock-up should she get (i.e. outlines, color palettes, etc.)?

GP: That would be very much up to the publisher, but highly unlikely. Larger publishers tend to work with certain artists, or their own art departments, and beyond asking the author to fill out an art fact sheet describing characters and facts from the book, don't give the author a great deal of say over the cover in most cases. We have had cases where out of the blue, a publisher used the author's sketch of her own cover, but that was a true oddity. The publisher has their own ideas of what they want to see on the cover, often based on what feedback they get from sales and marketing.


Mainstream vs Crossover:
Q: How do you determine if a book is considered a Mainstream Fiction? Or cross-over fiction? How can you be certain?

GP: It's really based on the themes, voice and plot. If the story is primarily directed at Young Adult with potential for adult readership because the themes and plot are so universal it will have adult appeal, it can definitely be a cross-over novel. 

Mainstream novels will not be largely directed at a juvenile market nor will they have a primary romantic plot.

What Fantasy Conjures:

Q: Have you ever said something along the same lines as this: “I’ve been calling it a Fantasy. By definition, it’s a high concept fantasy. Perhaps an adventure fantasy. But every time I write that it’s a fantasy it feels wrong. It’s not “Swords and Dragons”?

GP: Well, keep in mind that “when you say 'fantasy' it conjures up dragons or hobbits. You need to be tactical about your approach to get the more receptive welcome [from agents and publishers].” 

Fellow Writer: If it doesn't sound like a true, blue-blooded fantasy (which can be a hard sell), you may want to look into alternative genres that it will fit into.

Common YA Mistakes:

Q: What are some of the common mistakes made by authors writing in the ya category?

Rachael Dugas (RD):

o 1. Not writing about teens and calling it YA! (Either too old or too young)

o 2. Really writing MG and calling it YA.

o 3. Inauthenticity, especially in dialogue. Teens will smell that a mile away.

o 4. Writing it because it's "trendy" and not because it's the story you want to write.

o 5. Trying to write YA when you don't READ YA.

o 6. Writing characters you call 16 but that feel about 12.

o 7. Writing an adult novel that happens to feature a teen and calling it YA.

o 8. Dated language--techically, the 90's is the past and stories set then are period fiction.

o 9. Ignoring omnipresent technology, like texting.

o 10. Dumbing your writing down--YA is more of an age range designation than a genre. It doesn't mean YA readers are stupid/underdeveloped.

Multi Genre Author:

Q: Is it hard for a writer to be accepted if they write books in several different genres? Or as long as the content is great it doesn't matter?

PM: It is easier to build a career focusing on one genre, at least in the beginning. (that said, it may take you awhile as a writer to find your niche.)

Agents and Queries:

Queries that Attract Agents:

Q: I know there really is no cut-and-dry way to write a query that will catch every agent’s eye, but what do you look for? What makes it stand out? Is there a great subject line to use?

JN: When I read queries I'm looking for the basic information first and foremost (Title, word count genre), and then I need to know your character, setting, and most importantly: THE CONFLICT. The point of a query is to give me a brief taste of what your story is about, so you can hook me in and I can ask for more.

Every single agent has their own guidelines for how they want their subject lines so my best piece of advice is to ALWAYS read an agent's website/blog/guidelines so you know what they want specifically. A lot of writers tend to think they can be the exception to the rule, without realizing that there are probably specific technological reasons the agents need that subject line to be exactly as they requested it. By not following an agent's guidelines, a writer is hurting themselves. (not maybe, they are, period.) For agents who don't specify how they want their subject line, the basic way to title your email is: QUERY: [Title of Your book]

There are TONS of sites that help writers perfect queries. Here are some of the more popular ones:, Absolute Write Forums, Query Shark

Special Query Advice:

Q: Any special advice about queries?

o 1. Above all else, make sure your query makes your book sound like no other book out there. A story that sounds unique will get my attention. Don't try to make your book sound like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS or THE DA VINCI CODE, for example--if anything, strive to make it NOT sound like big books like that.,

o 2. Always include the basic info like genre and word count. You'd be surprised how many people don't.

o 3. I can't understate the value of a distinct subjective line. Titling your e-mail "Query" basically guarantees it will be months before I read it--along with the other 500 e-mails titled "Query" sitting in my inbox right now. Now, if your subject is something like "Query for YA Novel About the Pressures on Honors Students" or "Query for Romantic Suspense Set in Rome", for example, I have something to go on. I always open those e-mails first.

o 4. Focus mostly on giving me the flavor of your novel--it should be more exciting than a plot summary, but I do want to know what happens. A query is sort of somewhere between the back of the book and a short synopsis--I want to know what it's about, but it shouldn't be dry. It should be written in your own voice.

o 5. Don't forget about competitive titles--but be smart. Don't compare yourself to the blockbuster hits. Pick something in your genre that is known and successful, but not HUNGER GAMES or DIVERGENT huge, for example. It will show you actually read your genre, which is important. If all else fails, don't be afraid to use pop culture references. I am increasingly finding that editors respond well to those, because they are part of our collective cultural knowledge and we can all usually access them.

Important Things Looked at in Manuscript:

Q: What are the three most important things looked at in a manuscript when you receive it? Is there anything for you that sets one apart from the other?


o 1) Good idea and good execution of that idea

o 2) voice

o 3) hero you can fall in love with

o 4) plot

Series or Single Novel:

Q: Do you find that agents, unless they are an established author, will shy away from book series more than just a single novel? Are novels easier to sell than series across the board or depending on their genre?

PM: Agents do not want one-book wonders. we want writers who are in it for the long haul, and have more than one book in them (series or one-offs, whatever)

Querying a Series:

Q: How is the best way to handle a series in a query letter? Or, should the first book in the series be the initial focus of the query?

GP: Yes, the first book should be the focus and the query should say it is the first book of a 'proposed series', and at the end, offer a brief story arc of the entire series.

(Please note, the above question was also addressed by an agent from Kimberley Cameron and Associates in the previous Q & A post. Feel free to look at her answer as well.)

Times of Year to Query:

Q: Is there any specific time of the year when it is best to send querying letters to agents?

GP: Good times are right after the holidays (early January) and again in September when they are returning from the summer lull and everything in publishing is kicking into high gear.

How Many Queries an Agent Receives:

Q: How many queries an agent may typically receive each day/week/month (especially considering the ready access writers have to agents via the web versus snail mail) 

JN: Most agents don't accept snail mail anymore. It's a waste of paper and space. As to how many queries we recieve a day, it really depends on the agent. There are some who get a hundred a week, there are some who get a hundred a day. It varies. Personally, I get about 50 a day.


Q: How big of a factor has marketability become in an agent’s decision to pick up a novel? How long does a trending genre stay “trending”?

GP: It is a very big component. If an agent is hearing a genre is dead, she won't be able to sell it. Trending is nice, but not everything. It's more when the agent is getting negative reports about a genre that isn't selling. That can make moving a new project difficult. Then sometimes it takes revisioning (not revising, ah-ha!) a book into something somewhat different to let it sell.

Large Scope Industry Questions:

How Many Writers “Make it Big”: 

Q: How many writers actually “make it big” (Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.)

JN: Very few writers "make it big." It's not the norm in any way, shape or form. I mean, the reason you hear so much about those huge books is exactly because it's so incredibly rare for a book to have such a phenomenal response from the public! I can't source this, because I forgot where I got this figure from, but I think I read somewhere that the average writer makes less than $5000 per book. That's not just advance, mind you. That's the entire life of the book. Again, I forgot where I got this figure, so take it with a grain of salt because I can't speak to its accuracy.

Books in Each Genre Published Each Year:

How many books in a particular genre are published each year? (How many SF/Fantasy/Horror/Romance,etc.) 

JN: The best way to keep up with this is to follow a lot of blogs of whatever genre you want to track and read about upcoming releases on a regular basis, visit bookstores/libraries on a regular basis to see what's on the "new release" shelves, etc... There's not really a genre report listing every new book ever released. It's a matter of immersing yourself into the publishing community so that you're always up to date. It's a lot of work. If this interests you, paying for a Publishers Marketplace account might be something you can look into. It has a daily report of books bought by publishing houses (they won't be released for another couple years because of the way publishing works, but this is very much how agents and editors keep track of what's going to come out in the future). Even that report isn't all-encompassing because not all agents report their sales

Book Quotas:

Q: Is there a quota or maximum number of books that must be met or may be published each year in a particular genre? 

JN: There are quotas and they vary by house. You see this a lot in romance, especially, because of the volume of books these houses have to release in order to keep up with the market. They try to put out a certain number of books per month because their readers are so voracious. In other genres, it's more about budget. Editors have a dollar amount they have to answer to when thinking about acquiring a book. They can't just go forth and offer whatever they want. As is true in any industry, publishing books is a business and therefore a numbers game.

Reasons New Writers Fail:

Q: What are some common reasons new writers don't make it? Or reasons they don't snag an agent?

RD: Very complex, but a few: trying to please too many people, not educating themself on the process, not reading the genre they are trying to write, not taking advice, taking everybody's advice, sending out work before it is ready, not having critique partners, giving up too easily, not being able to take criticism. As many reasons as writers, though! Just remember, you can always write another book! Just because you can't sell your first one doesn't mean you're a terrible writer--it's a process and you will evolve with time, as with any skill.

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