Query and submission tips on Labor Day!

September 1, 2008

Hi there – and happy Labor Day to anyone reading this in the USA. Sympathies to you Brits, who are back at work right now – no doubt not having the kind of weather we’re enjoying today in Virginia.
To any of you affected by Gustav – just to say I’m thinking of you a lot. Take care. I’ve only experienced one hurricane – the legendary British one of 1987, which did so much long-term damage to ancient woodland, and which meant that a certain weather forecaster named Mr Fish (yes, really) would never, ever recover from the embarrassment of having got the forecast so fantastically, appallingly wrong!

It’s been a great Labor Day weekend so far for me. I’m still proud of my kayaking achievements – eight miles down the Shenandoah River in faster-moving water than I’ve experienced before, including several Class 2 rapids and a little drop called The Ledge. I could also show you the egg-shaped lump on my head from a close encounter with a fallen tree, thanks to certain ‘navigational issues’ pertaining to the Greenhouse Husband. But let’s not go there. The journey downriver was fabulous – the lofty, silent mountains above, hawks wheeling overhead, great grey herons flapping out in front of me, and hundreds of snapping turtles slipping off their rocks and branches as we paddled past. What an amazing country this is – I am incredibly lucky to be here and experiencing such things.

There have been changes out in the yard, with the final erection of the Purple Martin House. For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about these birds, I’m told they eat the mozzies, which sounds excellent since I seem to be a favourite mozzie target. But the accommodation we are offering the PMs is quite superlative: a pagoda-like home about 18-feet from the ground, offering stylish modern living for up to twelve birdie families, complete with mini-railing lest they topple off while sunbathing. If any of you has experience of PMs and their habits, do please post a comment.

HOWEVER. I am a busy literary agent and you are busy writers, so having softened you up with my Labor Day fun, I shall now move on to more serious issues. Yes, this is a good-cop, bad-cop blog!

Greetings to any of you who have found this site having seen the Greenhouse listed in Writers Digest recently. That listing appeared the day I left for ‘vacation’ (note quote marks), and I didn’t know it was coming. As a result, several hundred submissions have poured in during the past two or three weeks. Thanks for these – I’m trying to deal with them as efficiently as possibly, though apologies are due to some of you whose full manuscripts I promised to read a while ago but just haven’t been able to get to yet. Sometimes the volume is a bit overwhelming, but I know how hard it is to wait when you’ve work out on submission to an agent.

Most of you send me great emails or letters – well constructed, clear, interesting, and often very charming. However, there are some repeated issues that I want to point out if you are thinking of submitting to me. In due course I’m going to be making some changes to the submission info on the site, but here are ten tips for now:

1. I don’t represent picturebook texts, which would include very young rhyming stories, counting books – or anything else pre-school. I also don’t seek overtly religious work, writing for adults, or illustrators. I’m also not looking for short stories. Yes, I am in theory interested in young chapter books, but the truth is it would have to be fantastic and probably a character-based series (the market is so crowded and overpublished).

2. I am therefore most interested in middle grade or teenage fiction.

3. I know you want to be sure your submission has arrived safely, but PLEASE don’t send a package by a means that requires collection or signature on delivery, or that can only be returned via the Post Office. I may be away, or out, and I won’t drive miles to collect or return your package. Sorry, can’t be done. And I don’t prioritise work that is sent special delivery – I invariably take submissions in date order (exceptions being if I’ve met someone and already have some relationship with them, or if a submission really leaps out at me).

4. Yes, you can send either by email or snail mail, but I’d actually prefer email because I’m set up to deal with it swiftly. I am probably the only agent in the nation who currently accepts email attachments. I am reviewing that, but will let you know if it changes.

5. Many of you only send ‘queries’ – ie, an email or letter with no sample writing, despite me offering to look at your material. If your query is emailed then fine, I can get straight back to you if I like the sound of it. It it is snail-mailed I’ll almost certainly reject it – I can’t spare the time for back-and-forth hard-copy correspondence.

6. PLEASE BE CAREFUL when you email. I receive emails that get my name wrong, that are cc’d to other agents, that are clearly bulk-sent, that don’t even make it clear what you are asking me to do. Can you imagine how badly this comes across? I try to spend time carefully reading your communication. Why should I if you aren’t careful in addressing me or if I’m very obviously just one of hundreds? Don’t submit your work before you’ve revised and revised, and then strategise your choices of agent very carefully. I can tell an enormous amount about you and your attitude to your work from your initial enquiry.

7. PLEASE BE CAREFUL when you snail-mail. I’ve had packages that contain no letter, or no SASE (and no email as an alternative means of response). In these cases I don’t reply.

8. Please do not send me multiple submissions (eg, two manuscripts in two packages at the same time). And please don’t whiz me another story the instant I’ve rejected your first. I have to presume you’re sending me your very best work first time around. If I’ve sent you a really encouraging reply than fair enough, send me something else a few months later, but don’t immediately respond ‘Actually the thing I sent you first was rubbish, so now I’m sending you what is REALLY my best writing.’ I try to be fair to everyone and take submissions chronologically, and it isn’t fair to everyone else if one person inundates me.

9. Don’t try to be clever-clever in how you introduce yourself. I don’t respond any better to sassy, provocative statements (in fact, that really puts me off), so just set out your wares clearly and concisely. I’m reading fast and trying to get rapidly to the kernel of what you have to tell me.

10. Phew, I’m just about at the end. So here’s my final tip: Be careful and considered in all the ways you approach your writing. Yes, I know there are examples of people submitting to 250 agents and then being taken on by #251, but those must be incredibly rare. If you are being rejected constantly then take time out and review your writing – perhaps going back to your critique group or sharing the manuscript with trusted writer friends. Be prepared to make radical changes or even start again. Professional writers, and writers who get that fabulous first deal, nearly always have to do extensive revision, so start getting used to that now. Read a lot, write a lot – and only submit a long way down the tracks.

Have a great Labor Day, Americans. And happy Monday, Brits. And to all of you with children, good luck as you get them back to school for the new year. I know first hand how vital for work those hours can be once you’re back on the school schedule. New school year, new beginnings – good luck with the writing!

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