An Agent’s Advice: The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent

Kathryn Lilley
@KathrynELilley

The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. 

~~~

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb
Literary Agent
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
(212) 333-1506

Mark Profile at Trident Media Group

Twitter

Facebook

FOR DISCUSSION:

Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.

5+

Users who have LIKED this post:

  • avatar

First Page Critique: Finn Slew

Happy Monday! Today I’m critiquing a first page submission for a novel entitled Finn Slew which begins in Afghanistan and appears to be the start of an intriguing suspense/thriller. My comments follow.

Title:   Finn Slew

MAY, 2011, Kandahar, Afghanistan

The phone was vibrating. Again. Alive and angry, like he’d stuffed a rabid weasel in the breast pocket of his ballistic vest. If Finn was going to be shot, it was small consolation the phone would die first.

The ringer was off. Best not to draw attention on the streets of Kandahar City. If the phone squawked his two soldier escorts, front and rear, would want to shoot him before the Taliban had a chance.

The first four messages this afternoon were from increasingly higher links in the Astral Media chain of command.

The fifth, just now, was a text from his direct boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of his home newspaper, the Vancouver Journal, the westernmost outpost in Astral’s media empire: “WTF Finn? Supposed to file from the base newser on  plans for our troop withdrawal. Major heat from head office AND our publisher. Also fm Major Cahill, at CFB Kandahar, wondering where the hell you are. Call me. Now.”

He ignored that, too.

He’d written the ‘glorious farewell’ story weeks ago, with too much emphasis, in Cahill’s view, on those allies who felt Canada was cutting and running with the job unfinished.

Not that the job will ever be finished. Ask the Brits. Ask the Soviets. Hell, ask the Afghans. 

The news conference would play out as others he’d endured. Cahill, the public relations flack at Canadian Forces Base Kandahar, would lay on what soldiers cynically called “the Full Canuck.” A visiting general with a full display of chest candy would share Tim Hortons coffee and donuts with the troops as he declared the mission an unqualified success.

There’d be a moment of silence for those killed in the service of their country during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, and a nod to the grievously wounded. Not a mention of those tortured souls carrying the war home in a nightmarish loop of pain and fear. Soldier suicides? What suicides?

Then, off to the ball hockey rink at Kandahar Airfield where the big guy would play enough shinny for network visuals before hopping a flight home.

They’d make damned sure a dead soldier wasn’t catching a lift in the cargo hold. Don’t want to go off-message.

No more press-release journalism. Finn was chasing bigger game: misappropriated aid money, corrupt military contractors, black market trade in weaponry. That’s why Cahill’s shorts were in a knot.

Comments:

I think this first page is off to a great start. I’m intrigued by the premise of a Canadian journalist investigating corruption in Afghanistan just as Canadian troops are being withdrawn. The voice of our main protagonist is strong, cynical, and determined and the short paragraphs, clipped sentences and snide comments all fit the protagonist well. This is an easy first page to critique as I don’t have much to say, except well done and I want to read more!

I have only three (relatively minor) comments:

  • The first is to reconsider the title of the book. Finn Slew (to me, at least) sounds strange and a little awkward. I think a stronger, darker title that gives a reader a better sense of the book would work better.
  • The second is to perhaps shorten the 4th paragraph as the reader gets some extraneous information here about the newspaper/media corporation that slows the pace of this first page. Something like: “The fifth, just now, was a text from his boss, Kate Adachi, managing editor of  the Vancouver Journal”  – it would be simpler and the extra information can be provided later.
  • Finally, the last line suggests Major Cahill knows the story the main protagonist is pursuing, and yet in Kate’s text he’s trying to find out where the protagonist is so I’m not totally sure if the author intends Cahill to know (and hence have his shorts in knots) or not. Maybe this could just be clarified.

Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific beginning and I would definitely want to read more. What about you, TKZers, any comments/thoughts?

3+

Can Writing for Amazon Kindle Worlds Be Right For You? Guest Post: Elle James

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

I’m on deadline and in a crunch, but I am honored to have my dear friend, Elle James (aka Myla Jackson for a sexier read), as a guest at TKZ. She’s a USA Today & New York Times Bestselling author best known for her suspenseful military romances. She writes for Harlequin Intrigue, Romantic Suspense, and Nocture, as well as having her own successful indie projects. This woman is busy, but always generous with her time to support other authors. As a former member of the Army and Air Force Reserves, Elle has traveled across the United States and to Germany, managed a full-time job until she eventually quit to write full time. Ask her about what it takes to raise very large exotic birds in the Texas hill country. Take it away, Elle.

Is Kindle World right for you? If you are not familiar with Kindle Worlds, the stories are basically fanfiction you can get paid for. An author agrees to open his/her world, allowing other authors to write in that world and they split the profit.

So, why not just write in your own world and skip the splitting of profits gig? Keep it all to yourself. Here’s why you might want to dip your toe or pen into the Kindle Worlds of other authors.

You can write a crossover from the author’s Kindle World into your own series or world. What that buys you is a door into that author’s readership. The readers who love that author will buy books by other authors knowing they will catch glimpses of their favorite characters in those books. If they like the new author, they will find more of the new author’s books to read. It’s a cross-promotional effort that could expand your reader base.

I’ve written in two other authors’ Kindle Worlds for that very reason. Their stories were Military Romance and Military Romantic Suspense. The crossover made sense. The assumption is that their readers will like my books because they are in the same genre.

I expanded my reader base and now I have my own Kindle World. The beauty of Kindle Worlds is that you don’t have to stick to the same genre. Other authors from other genres can write in your world. An author might pick up readers who typically read other genres than what the author writes. But a good story is a good story and the readers might look for more of that author’s stories.

Writing in a Kindle World is not for every author, but if you’re still building your audience, you might give it a try. Brotherhood Protectors Kindle World is a Military Romantic Suspense genre. Authors writing in my world include young adult, thriller, contemporary romance, military romance and more genres. I hope they all pick up new readers because of their experience writing in my world. I invite you to write in mine! If you are interested, contact me through my website. I’d love to include you in an organized launch.

You can visit my Brotherhood Protectors Kindle World page on my website to see the books already written in my Kindle World or visit my Brotherhood Protectors Kindle World on Amazon to find out how you can participate in my Kindle World. Or read some of the books in my kindle world to get a flavor for what other authors have done. You can get them Here on Amazon. You can also read my original Brotherhood Protectors series. I’d love to have you join the Brotherhood Protectors Kindle World!

DISCUSSION:

1.) Would you consider writing for one of the Amazon Kindle Worlds?

2.) What experiences have you had writing shorter projects between novel length books? Did that experience of writing shorter, allow you the flexibility to try other genres?

3.) What genres have you attempted and enjoyed?

Jordan here: I wanted to add a couple of comments. Amazon Kindle Worlds sets the price for your project, depending on its length. You can write whatever length you have time for, between projects. HERE is a link for the details behind Amazon KWs and samples of their boiler plate agreements and exhibits.

Website

Join my newsletter to hear about my latest releases!
Elle James’s Newsletter

5+

Reader Friday: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Wikimedia Commons

An author friend of mine loves telling the story about when her mother found her sitting in front of her pot belly stove burning old manuscripts she had stashed “under her bed.” When asked why, she told her mom that she didn’t want ANYONE publishing them posthumously. She thought they were THAT bad. What about you?

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

 

6+

Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?

 

 

 

6+

Interesting Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

JordanDane
@JordanDane

I found these trends interesting and wanted to share them here at TKZ. As many of you know, I’ve been writing with author friends on various Amazon Kindle Worlds where they host/create a world and invite authors to write for their series. It’s been fun and I get to explore many topics and experiment with styles and research topics and lengths. Plus the group of launching authors share promotion and benefit from each other’s readerships when we cross promote. So given that, I thought you might like to explore these ideas for your writing goals.

Novellas, Anthologies & Co-Authoring – What makes this growing trend popular is affordability and the recognition of shorter attention spans. These shorter types of books are cheaper for authors to produce and affordable for voracious readers to buy. With people’s shorter attention spans, the shorter format is more convenient. The cheaper price point also allows readers to try new authors without busting the bank. Win/Win. As for anthologies, a group of authors can merge their resources to come up with a top-notch product and also save on production, distribution, and promotion costs that can be shared jointly. Multiply the aggregate authors combined reader base and it’s another win/win.

Changing Book Themes Influenced by an Evolving World – In my latest book (due out June 8th – Vigilante Justice) I explore the topic of conspiracy theories and immigration. I brainstormed my “what if” question on those topics and came up with a story that could’ve been ripped from the headlines. It’s a risk to attempt books on the edge of politics, which I leave out of the story. Instead I focused on the emotional human conflicts that were organic to such a story. Be aware of the realistic elements to our culture and society and the struggles we have to infuse them into your themes. You not only explore your own thoughts, but you can crystallize conflict in such a human way. Such themes may be the refugee crisis, climate change, LGBT issues, terrorism (both international and domestic), and drug addiction. As an author you could choose to write about the stark reality of these themes, or you could provide a Utopian escape for readers to find refuge. Give your world building a dose of reality or provide readers a panacea for what they see on TV or in the news.

Indie & Hybrid Houses – Today, authors have options on how to publish, whether it’s self-publishing or attempting to sell to indie or hybrid houses. The Big 5 Publishers are also an option, but the author would have to consider giving up creative control & handing over copyrights and still be required to promote. Many smaller houses are offering better royalty rates and could give the author a more collaborative approach with more control.

Audio Books – With the growing popularity of products like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, many consumers are gaining access to audio books in their homes, These can be techy types who liked controlling everything in their domain or older folks who (if they can remember Alexa’s name – insert my parents’ names here) like to be read a nighttime story. This kind of technology has enhanced the audio book market and authors can ‘self-publish’ their own audio book format through ACX.

For DISCUSSION:

Have any of you tried variations of these trends and found success? Please share.

Out for Blood $1.99 Ebook

After the Jaguar destroyed his world, former CIA operative Mercer Broderick targets the faceless cartel boss using the Equalizers as pawns in a deadly game to avenge the murder of his beloved wife and child. (Mercer’s War – Book 2)

8+

Show Your Baddie R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Make Them Memorable

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

By Hasaw öztürk – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58145267

It’s easy to focus on the main protagonists of our stories. Heroes and heroines usually pop up in our heads from the start, but have you ever been taken over by your bad guy or your femme fatale? In my latest series, Mercer’s War with Mr. January book 1, I’m obsessed with Keiko Kayakova. She is the devil personified, a remorseless killer, yet she constantly surprises me with her contradictions and what she truly cares about.

A great character is complicated and it can take time to develop them. Why not explore your antagonist with as much zeal as you would for your protagonists? You need to hear them in your head, maybe especially when they are their nastiest, or if they niggle your ear in the middle of the night. Flesh them out.

Questions to ask about your current work-in-progress:
1. What’s your villain’s back story?
2. Why did they turn out the way they did?
3. What motivates them in the present? What are their goals?
4. Have you explored gender for your antagonist? Would your bad guy be more frightening and unexpected as a woman?
5. Have you given them a chance at redemption in your story? Do they take it?
6. What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws?
7. Have you created a bad guy or gal’s bible, like you did for your good guys and gals?
8. Does your bad guy/gal have virtues the reader might find it hard to argue against, like an extreme respect for the law or a need to establish order in a society he or she controls for the greater good?
9. Do they have an unexpected hobby?
10. In the vast sea of literary villains, what makes your antagonist stand out?

Villains want top billing and for their name to be first on the marquee. Have you shown them enough R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Even if you’ve already got a first draft, it’s never too late to add depth or bone chilling traits to your characters. A flat character on the page is never satisfying.

Don’t waste good villain potential by making your character a two dimensional cardboard cutout or a mere roadblock to your good guys. Dare to give them humor or a peculiar hobby or a back story that explains their motivation. Develop a conflict between your antagonist and protagonist that is deliciously enticing that makes it harder for the reader to choose sides.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:
1. The best villains are the heroes in their own stories. Make them real and worthy of their own story line. Develop them with the same care and don’t resort to making them obstacles in the way of your main characters. Even if they’re a train wreck, make the reader interested in what drives them or make them so diabolical that the reader will fear more for your good guys. Do they have a journey in your book? If they have a chance at redemption, do they take it? These types of questions can add depth.

2. Dare to make your villain an anti-hero in his or her own story, giving him or her solid motivation to perpetrate their crimes or cover their backsides. If your antagonist and protagonist are both thwarted by the same bad weather, for example, how do they each deal with it? Do their minds work the same? Of course not. Their reactions can shed light on how their mind works. Bend the norm. Think out of the box to surprise the reader, but that plot twist comes from knowing each of them as their creator.

3. Match or counter the skills between your antagonist and your protag. Where one might have an intellect, make the other one have a diabolical brute force that can overpower your hero in confrontations that showcase their strengths. Make them worthy of each other.

4. Escalate the tension between your antagonist and protagonist by making them have a relationship that used to mean something. Imagine your adversary is your own father or someone in a foreign country with the same ideals as you (except they are your enemy). If under normal circumstances, your two characters might be friends, what horrible situation will keep them apart and what makes things worse between them?

5. Give your villain a face. Don’t hide behind a secret organization or an evil entity? The Hunger Games would not be the same without President Snow. Silence of the Lambs would be FBI’s Clarise hunting serial killer Buffalo Bill except for the memorable diversion of Hannibal Lecter, her white knight.

DISCUSSION:
1. Who are some of your most memorable villains from your own work? Tell us how you made them memorable.

2. What literary villains have stood out in your reading and have those books influenced your writing?

8+

Spaulding Syndrome: Misplaced Clauses

By Elaine Viets
Groucho Marx’s classic line about the elephant in his pajamas could be called “Spaulding Syndrome.” The brilliant comedian knew exactly what he was doing with that discombobulated clause. Marx said the line when he played the African explorer, Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding in “Animal Crackers,” the movie and Broadway musical.
We writers occasionally stumble in the grammatical jungle and trip over tangled verbiage. Here are a few examples of Spaulding Syndrome sighted in the wild:

Her husband is in ladies’ lingerie: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie waited up for her husband who had been out at a party, wearing nothing but a slip.”
Oops! That clause is dangling in the breeze, and shouldn’t be exposed in public. A better approach would be: “One night in 1957, a resentful and slightly tipsy Jackie, wearing nothing but a slip, waited up for her husband who had been out at a party.”

Dead wrong: Singer Gregg Allman was the victim of a celebrity death hoax. False reports of celebrities’ deaths are a favorite pastime of the get-a-life crowd. Rest assured, Allman fans, the 69-year-old singer is above ground. So how did the veteran rocker reportedly wind up dead?
According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Gregg Allman took to Facebook on Monday to let fans know he’s at home on doctor’s orders.
“‘Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting on my doctor’s orders,’ the singer posted on his Facebook page.”
But that message got twisted. “Monday afternoon, a radio station reported that Allman was in the care of hospice, news that was spread on social media,” said the paper.
Allman is alive and well, but guilty of a grammatical misdemeanor. Those doctor’s instructions were mighty tall orders, if they were big enough for a rocker’s rest. Replacing that “on” with a dash was one way Allman might have saved himself from premature burial: “Hey everyone. I just wanted y’all to know that I’m currently home in Savannah resting – doctor’s orders.”

Smoked coffee? Here’s another sentence that went astray: “He smoked his first cigarette along with his coffee.” Change that to: “Along with his coffee, he smoked his first cigarette,” and you get the idea without the horse laugh.

Washed up: “I want to wash my hands and face in the worst way,” a novelist wrote. How about washing them the best way?
Except for Gregg Allman, these clunkers were all written by professionals. Spaulding Syndrome is waiting to attack unwary writers. Forgive us our trespasses, readers.
And ponder this Groucho maxim. It would make a dandy blurb: “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Like forensic mysteries? Fire and Ashes, my second Angela Richman, death investigator mystery will be published July 25. Pre-order it as a $3.99 e-book. http://tinyurl.com/ltfxsyy

 

10+