Query Letter: A Success Story

I’ve recently had a few friends come to me for advice on starting the wild ride that is traditional publication. My advice: Step One is, of course, finish the manuscript. Step Two: Write a kick-ass query letter — which is harder than it may initially seem. Querying was the theme of today’s #17Scribes Twitter chat, and at the end, I flung down a gauntlet: for anyone brave enough to share the query letter that landed them their agent.

So, my own challenge accepted, here’s the query I sent to Connor back in 2013:

Dear Mr. Goldsmith,

An assassination attempt forces Latona, an elemental mage, to unleash her latent powers, demonstrating potential that far outstrips her training. When the dictator who threatened her family dies, she determines to take this opportunity to change the course of her life, but she quickly discovers that ambition has a high price.

The city-state of Aven is a place where elemental magic shapes the rule of the land as strongly as law and war. In the power vacuum left by the dictator’s death, the conservative old guard clashes with the populist liberal faction over the best way to shape the nation’s future. Latona and her sister Aula, a widow whose frivolous nature conceals a scheming mind, use charisma and cunning to manipulate advances for the populists. Their paths intersect with that of Sempronius Tarren, a rising politician who dreams of a vast empire growing from his beloved city. He believes that the gods have equipped him with the necessary skills and thrown down this challenge – but in order to achieve his goals, he will have to break some of his civilization’s most sacred laws. Custom dictates that no mage may attain the highest political offices, but Sempronius, who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. Aula sees in Sempronius a man with an extraordinary vision for their nation and the greatness to make it a reality, and she pushes her sister to cultivate an alliance with him. As their friendship blossoms, Sempronius encourages Latona to learn to wield the extraordinary magical power that is her birthright – but Latona’s husband objects to the idea and the alliance, and Sempronius’s secret could ruin them both and destroy their faction’s chance to reform the city.

Aven is a completed 106,000 word historical fantasy with series potential, inspired by late Republic Rome. I write professionally for the education department of the American Shakespeare Center, where I have worked since graduating in 2010 with an MLitt. from Mary Baldwin College. My undergraduate degree is a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. I blog both professionally and personally, and I am active on major social media platforms.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Cass Morris

There’s a lot that amuses me about this. For one thing, the idea of addressing Connor as “Mr. Goldsmith” is now pretty hilarious. He is now, definitely, “Connor” to me, “Agent Connor” if I have to explain who he is to other people but which does make him sound like special ops or something, and often but only in my head “Cooooooonnnnnooorrrrrrrrrr” if I’m having a flail. That initial word count is amusing, too. (The tale, as Tolkien said, grew in the telling). I can’t believe, in retrospect, that I didn’t mention having found him through one of his #MSWL tweets. Fortunately that didn’t seem to impair my chances; Connor got back to me within 45 minutes of my having sent this query, requesting the full manuscript. And, of course, the title’s changed, but y’all have been with me on that crazy ride. 😉

This was the thirty-first query letter that I sent out, and the letter did evolve over time — when the first ten or so didn’t work, I did some more research and rewrote a bit. Query Shark is a valuable resource, but I also learned a lot just from following agents on twitter and watching things like the #10queries lists.

And yeah, it was a frustrating process. For all the advice that’s available out there about writing query letters, so much of it is contradictory, making it hard to know if what you’re doing is right or wrong. Ultimately the whole process just seems like inscrutable sorcery — not least because so much of success may have less to do with the letter itself and more to do with that letter arriving in front of the right eyes at the right time.

But what’s super interesting to me is that, for as much as the book has changed over the past three years — and boy howdy has it — this query letter is still a fairly accurate description of the story. The main characters and their motivations are the same — but working with Sarah, I spent a lot of time turning up the saturation levels, so that those motivations are both clear and captivating. The revisions have also focused on what gets the characters from one emotional point to another — and a lot of that has meant upping the stakes in the action to match the dramatic language that catches the eye in query letters (and eventually on book jackets). So, so much has changed — but the heart of the novel has been constant.

Why You Should Bid on #MS4MS

MSawarenessSo, my literary agency is doing something super-cool for its anniversary: #MS4MS, where agents are auctioning off manuscript critiques to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

My agent, Connor Goldsmith, is one of those offering his services in the auction, and y’all, you could not do better than bidding for a critique from him. Connor has been a wonderful editorial agent for me — he has a great eye not only for seeing what’s good about a story, but for seeing what it needs to make it great. He’s particularly great when it comes to pacing and stakes. He knows his genres well, knows what they demand, and knows what’s selling and what’s out of favor in them right now. Connor’s also the author of the Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel, a superb resource on structure and pacing. I demur from speculating how many items were at least partly inspired by the process we went through revising Aven (because I definitely recognize some of my own bone-headedness in there) but I’m definitely referring back to it as I work on The Seventh Star to make sure I’m hitting the right notes. Plus, he’s an all-around great guy. ;D

This is a disease I have a personal stake in. My grandmother has suffered from it for a good long while now. Growing up, it wasn’t really ever explained to the kiddos, but we could definitely see that something was negatively affecting her life. I think, more than anything, it affected her ability to participate — by the time I was a teenager, her mobility was becoming more limited. I really started to realize how big the impact was when she was no longer joining the family tailgating at college football games, but had to stay in the house up the hill. She’s wheelchair-bound now, and has been for a while, but for all of that, she’s made it into her 80s and is still fighting.

For my grandmother’s sake, I wish they’d made progress against this disease decades ago; for the sake of everyone living with it, I hope they’ll make progress as fast as possible. And you can help with that — and get a manuscript critique for yourself! Total win-win.

So.

MS Critiques for MS. Get to it!

In Praise of #MSWL Day

Tomorrow is another Manuscript Wish List Day on Twitter, and I just wanted to take a moment to praise this concept. I cannot recommend highly enough that aspiring writers follow the #MSWL tag. Without it, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to find Connor. I’m sure I would have, eventually, through sheer process of elimination as I worked through everyone in the industry, but #MSWL led me to him a lot faster. Though I didn’t end up sending a query letter to him until several weeks later, as I was in the process of re-drafting my query letter, following him during that time really cemented my feelings that we would be a good agent-author match. What he tweeted on #MSWL day not only told me that he might be interested in my manuscript, but also that our senses of humor were compatible, which was, to me, a good sign. (Fortunately for me, he agreed!)

#MSWL also led me to follow some agents who I either didn’t submit to or who ended up rejecting my query, but that makes for a great resource, too — it’s nice to see what’s going on in the industry, who’s talking about what, and what sorts of tips and tricks you can learn just by following a lot of agents, even if they’re not necessarily right to represent you. For example, the tag led me to follow @SaraMegibow, who does the fantastic #10queriesin10tweets — a wonderful insight into how agents evaluate query letters. There can be a lot to learn even from agents who aren’t in your genre, or even if you’re looking to self-publish rather than go the trad route.

#MSWL can be overwhelming , though. The tag fairly erupts with not just the agents, but with conversations and other add-ons. So, here are my tips for navigating the madness:

  • Actually follow the tag on Twitter.com, not on something like Tweetdeck. I admit this is personal preference, but it’s because I find the auto-refresh on Tweetdeck impossible to keep up with in a busy tag. Following it via Twitter allows you to get through a number of updates, then choose when to refresh and see a new batch, which I find much more manageable.
  • Favorite Tweets from agents you might want to follow up with later. Don’t worry about trying to locate their detailed information right now or about contacting them right away. Favoriting the Tweets will give you a nice list to follow up on at leisure. You can research them, prioritize who you’d like to go after first, and make sure you’re targeting your queries well.
  • Check the blog. If you’re worried you’ve missed something in the throttle (or if you, not unreasonably, just can’t spend your entire day watching a hashtag feed), there’s a Tumblr blog that aggregates all of the wishes from agents, not just from this #MWSL day, but from previous days as well. It’s organized by genre and by agent, so it’s well-worth the look.
  • Don’t write to the trends you see on the tag. Alternately: Look for someone who wants what you’ve already got; don’t change what you’ve got to fit what they’re looking for. Writing to fit a trend won’t actually get you anywhere, not least because by the time you’ve finished something, the trends will have changed. I know it can get a little frustrating if it seems like no one’s looking for what you’re offering, though, so…
  • Think outside the genre box. So maybe you’ve got something a little quirky and odd, and no one’s asking for precisely that. That’s okay! Agents who are wishing for something similar but not quite spot-on might still be interested. Think broadly, and think about what their wishes might have in common with your work. If an agent says she’s looking for, say, “urban fantasy set in Istanbul”, and you’ve got historical fantasy set in British-controlled India, it might be worth going for — you’ve got the broad genre correct, a non-Western-European setting, potential culture clashes, etc. I think the #MSWL tweet that led me to Connor basically said he was looking for a diverse cast, powerful but flawed women, and SF/F with a political edge. Did he specifically say he wanted epic fantasy set in ancient Rome? No. But Aven had elements of what he was looking for, I liked his Tweets on the tag, and further research indicated that, yeah, he might just be interested, so I took the chance, and it paid off.
  • Remember: the worst thing that will happen to you is a rejection letter. And that’s not the end of the world. If you do take a chance on an agent and it doesn’t work out, c’est la vie. I’ve written before about the element of serendipity there is with querying. Obviously you want to target your queries as best you can, but you might take a shot and miss. In fact, you probably will. The nice thing about rejection letters is that they’re private. No one will publicly humiliate you for having taken a chance. And besides — you won’t know unless you try. It also might be a signal to re-evaulate your query letter. If you think your story really is exactly what an agent said he or she is looking for, then you might need to make sure that your query letter is accurately representing your manuscript. (Query letters are bugbears, and I can’t even tell you how many drafts mine went through).
  • Do. Not. Pitch. On. The. Tag. There are other days on twitter when pitch tags are a thing. This isn’t one of them. It’s bad manners to invade a tag that has a specific purpose (which is part of why I’m posting this blog the day before, not the day of!). Just sit back, relax, and see what the agents have to say.

So — Happy hunting, everyone!

On Perseverance

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11, but as a teenager, I went through a period of time where I also wanted to be an actress. I’d always liked performing — I’d been in church pageants and school shows since the age of four, I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare at eleven, and in high school, I was getting a taste of “the real thing” (insomuch as that exists in a high school drama club). But when I was 15, my mother sat me down and said, “Honey. You’re a good actress. You’re never going to be a great actress.”

Now, at the time, I of course handled this with exactly as much grace, serenity, and wisdom as any hormonal, melodramatic fifteen-year-old would. In the years since, however, I’ve recognized what my mother was getting at, and I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate it. What she meant was that, given the choice between two pipe-dream-style careers which hinge as much on hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take a blow as they do on inspiration and talent, I needed to focus on the one that I was tough enough to endure. And she was right. I never cared about acting enough to do the things you have to do to make it as an actor. And I didn’t care in the right sorts of ways. While I liked being on-stage, liked memorizing lines and playing with characters, I could never get as much into the different techniques and methods behind that madness. I would not have done well in a conservatory. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think my ego could have taken the rejections, and even if I’d met with some kind of moderate success, the cycles of tension would probably not have been good for me. Actors always have to have an eye out for the next job, and I don’t know that I could have stuck with it enough to deal with those conditions.

For writing, though — for writing I could face all of that.

I care enough about writing to have spent I don’t even know how many hours improving my skills over the years. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t know that writing is ever something you truly master, but I’m sure I’ve spent those hours and well beyond by now. As a teenager and college student, I filled dozens of five-subject notebooks (Mead 5 Star only, I was very specific in my preferences). I still have them all, living in a box under my desk, ready to pop out and embarrass me someday (or perhaps not. I remain perversely proud of my eighth-grade Star Wars fanfiction). I got into text-based roleplaying because it flexed similar muscles. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I loved it.

The hardest point, I think, was after grad school. I’d fallen out of the habit of writing fiction, because so much of my energy had to go into academic writing while I was pursuing my degree — and then my job after school used those same skills. Making time to write creatively was hard, but finding the energy was even harder. I began to understand how people can come home after an 8-hour workday and just zone out in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. But I pushed through it. I made myself write a little each day, even if it was just 100 words, whether fanfic or original, even if they made no sense. Even if they sucked. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike — because inspiration is a lazy little tart who generally needs a good kick up the backside to get going.

Gradually, that built up. Gradually, I was able to push myself back to writing more each day. In 2011, I won Nanowrimo for the first time in years — and that story was the earliest incarnation of Aven. And then I kept going. I used to marvel at Stephen King writing two to three thousand words a day, six days a week, wondering how it was possible. But sometime in the last year and a half, I realized that, on days when I didn’t have to do anything else, 3000 words was a breeze. (In fact, when I’m at the beach — my most relaxed environment — I can bang out three or four thousand words and still have time for a lie-in, sunbathing, a bath, and a nice dinner with the family). So I did that. I finished a draft. I edited it. I pitched it in-person to a couple of agents at a convention. Based on their feedback, I edited some more, and some more, and some more.

And then, the querying. My ego, which is an admittedly tender thing and would have been pummeled in rounds of auditions, found it could miraculously sustain itself through the querying process. Maybe it’s because the rejection feels less personal this way — the agents never see you, of course. I was able to summon the requisite dispassion to acknowledge that, no, not every project is for everyone, but I was able to keep the optimism that, yes, someday, someone was going to want to fight for this project as hard as I did. That doesn’t mean there were never moments of crisis, never moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. There were plenty of them, in fact. Those “what if I’m just not good enough?” thoughts creep in even when you’re trying your damnedest to keep up the optimism. But I was able to fight through those, and, after almost a year of polite form letters and more than a few dead silences, it paid off.

Now, having cleared that hurdle at last, the path is requiring a different sort of toughness. Editing is a difficult beast, and for the first time, someone else’s opinions and experience have to matter, too. Which is brilliant. Having someone else whose ideas can provoke me into making my manuscript even better is fantastic. It’s honing a different skill set — focusing the somewhat haphazard creative energy that typically contributes to my writing process. That focus helps me get a lot done in a short amount of time. I had a “day off” on Monday, and I spent at least eleven hours of it working. Some of that was editing old material, some of it was creating new material, some of it was poring through reference books, and some of it was just plain staring at the Scrivener corkboard until I figured out how I needed to re-arrange the puzzle pieces. And it was a good day. It felt like a good day. I went to bed exhausted, but I felt so positive about that.

So the point of all of this is that my mother was right. It’s not enough to have talent or desire. You have to choose the path that you care enough about to fight for. Trying to make it as an actress would have been a tremendously frustrating path for me to take, and one that probably would not satisfy me nearly as well even if I did meet with some moderate level of success. Trying to make it as a writer, though, has only pushed me to be better. It’s only made me want it more. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin, I’ve learned to bounce back, and I’ve developed a real sense of duty about what I’m doing. I am not a dilettante, and this is not a pipe dream any longer. This is what I work at, what I’m willing to pour countless hours of my life and brainpower into.

And, as it turns out, I do still get to act sometimes. 😉

An Exciting Announcement

Now that things are official and contracts are being signed, I feel it right and proper that I make this announcement here (and on attached platforms):

I am now being represented by Mr. Connor Goldsmith of Lowenstein Associates. He’ll be shopping Aven to publishers as well as working with me on future projects. I’m tremendously excited about this, and I’m looking forward to all the possibilities this opens up.

The phone call that decided this was also one of the more decidedly surreal experiences of my life. Connor wanted to talk with me on Friday — when I happened to be at Busch Gardens Williamsburg on a retreat with my boss and coworkers. I determined to find a relatively quiet place to take the phone call, which meant that I had the conversation in New France, pacing next to the empty queue line for the Le Scoot Log Flume (out of operations for the fall season), sandwiched between the dulcet tones of French Canadian country music blaring from a speaker on one side of me and the delighted shrieks of park patrons on Alpengeist, wafting across the river, on the other.

Given the strange and bewildering circumstances that have accompanied most major moments in my life thus far, it really seems only appropriate that this one be just a little bit bizarre, too.

A thought on subjectivity

When, in the space of a week, one agent tells you, “love the concept, but the writing didn’t grab me” and another agent tells you “love the writing, but the concept didn’t grab me”, this could easily turn into a rather depressing line of thought. After all, how can you win that game? How do you know which actually might need improvement? How can you feel confident in either, hearing that both have somehow failed? And when everything is so subjective, sometimes it can just feel like you’ll never know the mystical secret that will get you noticed in the right way.

Being essentially optimistic, however — early attempts at being sophisticatedly cynical never did quite take for me — I choose to look at it differently.

What it means is that both the writing and the concept have something that people do love. I just have to find the right person who takes to them both. After all, there are plenty of books I wouldn’t enjoy reading, even though they’re perfectly good from an objective standpoint, either because it’s not my preferred style or not my preferred kind of story — so I can hardly fault an agent for feeling the same. And I wouldn’t want someone who only felt lukewarm about my project. I want someone who loves it, all of it, like I love it. So I choose to see subjectivity as my friend.

Thoughts on #MSWL

Today was another round of the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter. #MSWL stands for Manuscript Wish List, and the idea is that agents and editors post the sorts of things they’d love to see queried — be it specific genres, specific types of characters, certain tropes used or smashed, certain themes explored. The first one I saw was back in June, and I thought that it was great — I practically doubled my “agents to query” list based on what I saw in the tag. Some of them I knew I could query right away for Aven; others, I added to a backlist for some of my works-in-progress, or for the buds of ideas that haven’t even begun to fruit yet. I may not have written that historical romance set during the Georgian era yet, but someday I might, and when I do, I’ll at least have a place to start querying. Some agents ticked more than one box — I can try them on Aven, and if they don’t bite there and I’m still unrepresented when I finish The Antares Project, I’ll try again. The tag also gave me some great agents to follow on Twitter — it’s always nice to see that side of the industry, how the cogs whirl behind-the-scenes. And, a lot of them are just charming, funny people — a lovely addition to any feed.

There’s a downside, too, though. If no one’s asking for what you’ve got, it can feel so discouraging — even knowing that, obviously, not all agents in the world are participating in the list. (The flip side of that, though, is — if you know you want an agent who’s social media savvy, then, yeah, you probably do want someone participating). Seeing the trends can start to feel like a weird pressure. Everyone’s asking for YA urban fantasy, or for NA contemporary romances — should I be writing those instead? If I’m not writing those, am I screwed for finding representation? Do I need my main character to tick every possible demographic box in order to appeal to agents looking for diversity? (Answer on all counts: No. Of course not. But I think any writer perusing the feed today could be forgiven for having those knee-jerk reactions).

And, of course, it’s frustrating when the feed gets clogged with maddeningly unhelpful things. There’s a joke/troll account that I’m sure thinks he’s being funny, but mostly it’s just vaguely insulting clutter. There are the hoards of clueless writers using the tag to pitch. There’s the mass influx of people promoting the tag… which has the effect of cluttering the tag. There are the writers using the tag to whine about how no one wants what they’re selling, or humblebragging to try and get some attention. There are the writers asking questions where, if you have to ask, you probably shouldn’t be doing this. There are the editors who are looking for exactly what you’ve got — except no agent seems to want to promote it to them. There are the agencies participating in a Twitter meme, who unbelievably don’t accept email queries, or whose websites haven’t been updated in over a year. And there are the publishing companies perfectly willing to accept unrepresented queries — whom you then check out, and find that they’re little better than vanity presses. The whole experience can be as easily depressing as inspiring.

Ultimately, I think #MSWL, like so many other social media games in this industry, needs to be taken with a pretty liberal dose of salt. A useful tool, but not something you can let take up too much space in your brain. I just have to remind myself to write the stories I’ve got in my head, write the stories I’d want to read, and not try to fit myself to the crowd. After all, what most of the agents really say is that the thing they love the most is the thing they never knew they wanted till they read it — so I can’t let myself get in a twist over the Twitter hype.