I am absolutely thrilled with this awesome review of my latest novel!
Overdrawn is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Overdrawn-NJ-Crosskey/dp/178955022X
Author of Poster Boy (April 2019) and Overdrawn (September 2019)
I am absolutely thrilled with this awesome review of my latest novel!
Overdrawn is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Overdrawn-NJ-Crosskey/dp/178955022X
The journey from the blank page and blinking cursor to successful author with books on shelves is a lot like mountaineering (or, as close to it as a decidedly NON outdoorsy person like me is ever likely to get). You’re constantly striving for that peak, head down and ploughing on against an onslaught of unforgiving headwind. All you can do is keep on keeping on. One foot in front of the other, barely able to see the path ahead. And when you reach that coveted peak? Well, you quickly discover that there’s another, even more insurmountable, mountain straight ahead.
My debut novel Poster Boy will be released exactly two months from today. It’s safe to say, I’ve scaled a few slippery peaks to get to this point. And yet, I’m always looking at the next, seemingly unreachable, summit instead of taking the time to appreciate my current surroundings. And from talking to other authors, it seems we’re pretty much all guilty of that.
So today, instead of staring at the next obstacle and feeling ill-equipped to conquer it, I’ve resolved to stop and look around at the view I have already achieved for myself. And wherever you are in your expedition, I encourage you to do the same.
This time five years ago, I was still at base camp. Tapping away tentatively, writing and submitting short stories, finding my bearings and trying to acclimatise. It was time well spent, and when I embarked on climbing my first peak (completing a novel) there were already other footsteps in the snow beside me – in the form of the critique partners and friends I had found among the writing community. Going out in such hostile conditions completely alone would be madness, after all. By pooling resources and expertise, we all stand a much better chance out there.
This time four years ago, I had scaled Mt Finish A Novel. But I quickly slid down the other side and landed on my arse when I realised I had NO idea how to turn that 120k word story into something resembling a structured novel, or even what freaking genre it was. Yup. I’d been climbing with my shoes on backwards and paying no heed to my depleting rations. So, Changing Skies never saw the light of day (Or rather, never darkened an agent’s inbox). It sits on my hard drive still, any maybe one day I’ll revisit that first mountain, better equipped to tackle its pitfalls.
So, I then found myself at the bottom of the second peak, Mt Write-A-Better-Novel. But this time, I was much more prepared. I’d learned what supplies I would need, put my shoes on the right way, and improved my climbing technique. Plus, there were even more footsteps in the snow around me than before. After a couple of years of pushing ever onward, with the occasional fall (thank goodness for the safety rope that is my writer friends!) and more than a few ‘I can’t go on!’ moments, the first draft of Poster Boy was complete!
But there was no time to sit atop the mountain exclaiming ‘huzzah’ and drinking lashings of ginger beer, oh no. For now I was faced with peak three – the formidable Mt Edit-That-Shit. The tricky thing about Mt Edit-That-Shit is that it doesn’t follow the standard ‘just keep heading up’ format of Mts Finish-A-Novel and Write-A-Better-Novel. Oh no. Mt Edit-That-Shit is a tricksy mistress. In order to reach its peak, you have to do a lot of walking backwards. You have to be prepared to undo what seemed to be progress in order to make real progress. And let me tell you, it’s the peak on which many a story meets its demise. The paths are littered with the corpses of the manuscripts that refused to be restructured or rewritten. If you listen carefully, you can hear shrieks of, ‘But it’s the best scene in the book!’ on the wind. It’s a cold, harsh mountain to climb.
But climb it I did. And there I set up camp, and may very well have ended my expedition, so scared was I to attempt the next challenge, if my fellow travellers hadn’t shoved me off the top and sent me hurtling to the base of peak four – Mt Query-Agents.
Although Mt Query-Agents has its challenges, to say the least (those avalanches, otherwise known as ‘form rejections’ can make you lose your footing if you’re not ready for them), it does follow the keep-on-keeping-on rule. With an occasional rest stop to re-evaluate your submission package if you’re not making any progress, of course. Plough on, plough on, side-step the falling snow, negotiate the black-ice of the schmagents and ghosters, on and on and ever on, until you make it to the other side of the communication dead-zone and a friendly voice radios in to tell you that you’ve made it. From now on you’ll have a guiding voice helping you navigate. Which is just as well because, after a brief respite at the oasis of revisions, it’s on to the most treacherous peak yet.
Mt We-Do-Not-Speak-Its-Name (it’s On Sub, guys. Mt On-Sub 😉 )looms tall and foreboding. Shrouded in dense fog, few travellers ever speak of the horrors they encountered there. When you’re climbing all the previous peaks, you can send postcards. You can shout about your journey on social media, get words of encouragement when you face rejection and whoops of joy when you have success. But not Mt On-Sub. For, tis not the done thing to speak of it. Occasionally, you might reach out in the dark and find a fellow climber, whereupon you’ll whisper good wishes to one another before disappearing back in to the swirling mists, hoping to meet again at the top. Now and then, your radio will hiss and your heart will thump, but it’s just your agent telling you you’re at a dead end and suggesting a change in direction.
Mt On-Sub is the final resting place of many a valiant manuscript. But those who make it to the summit of Mt On-Sub find themselves in possession of the very thing they never thought possible back in the days of blank screen and blinking cursor – a publishing deal.
And that, my friends, is where I sit today. Already I’ve forgotten how much I once coveted the view I now have, so consumed am I with making preparations for the next climb. But just for now, just for once, I’m going to take a moment to look back across all the terrain I conquered to make it here, and hold my past-self tight and tell her she WAS good enough, all along.
Wherever you are on the journey, I encourage you to do the same. Take a breath. Take a look around. You’ll miss this mountain once you’ve conquered it, I promise you. Think for just a moment of all you’ve achieved thus far, count the footsteps in the snow beside you – and thank your travelling companions.
I can’t stay still for long. Mt Make-A-Successful-Career is calling my name. I have no idea how to conquer her and I don’t feel capable, or equipped, to begin. But, guess what? I felt that way about all the peaks that came before too…
OK, so I’ve been a naughty girl and I haven’t updated this page in a LONG time. But, in my defence, it’s been a very busy year!
For those of you who don’t already know, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I have now signed a two-book deal with the mighty Legend Press!
My debut novel Poster Boy will be published on April 1st 2019, with my second book Overdrawn following hot on its heels on September 1st 2019.
If you’ve been following my journey for the last few years, you’ll know that this is a dream come true for me.
So for the past few months I’ve been a busy bee, what with working on edits for Poster Boy and writing Overdrawn simultaneously! But, I’m back. I’ll be giving this site an overhaul soon, and in 2019 will be keeping you all up to date with the latest news on book releases and promotions, as well as offering critique services and lots of (hopefully) helpful insights and advice for writers at all stages!
Thanks so much for being here, please stay for the journey – 2019 is going to be a BIG year!
If you’d like to check it out, Poster Boy is already available for pre-order (paperback or ebook) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1789550149
Or you can drop in to your local bookshop to place your order!
Enter by January 6th 2018 for the chance to win Query critiques!
Are you gearing up to query agents in the new year? Would you like to win a critique of your submission package?
Once your manuscript is polished, it’s always helpful to get some fresh, impartial eyes on your query package. Before I began querying, I was lucky enough to have the help of other authors who had already been through the process. So, as a way of paying-it-forward, I would like to offer help to those about to embark (or those who have been trying without success).
I wish I could offer help and critique to everyone reading this, but unfortunately between my own writing, looking after my family, and working night shifts I simply don’t have enough hours in the day (even on the days when I’m on the go for the whole 24 hours!)
SO, I thought I’d run a little competition. I’m hoping it will be helpful to EVERYONE who enters because, even if you don’t win, it’s an opportunity to practise your pitch! (And I will attempt to give useful feedback on every pitch – depending on how many entries there are!)
First Prize: A thorough critique (overall feedback and in-margin comments) of your WHOLE submission package (Query Letter, Synopsis and First Three Chapters)
Second Prize: A thorough critique of your Query Letter AND Synopsis.
Third Prize: A through critique of either your Query Letter OR your Synopsis (you choose)
I will give the winners these thorough critiques privately, via email, so no need to be shy.
However, I will give feedback on the entry pitches within the comments section – so please request ‘no feedback’ if you don’t want me to do so. (Otherwise I will assume you are happy for me to comment publicly, and for others to do so as well. Many eyes giveth the best feedback!)
Pitch me your manuscript in the comments below, in 150 words or less.
Include your Twitter handle so I can contact you to exchange email addresses if you are a winner (and make sure you’re following me: @NJCrosskey, so I can DM you)
If you’re not on Twitter, you can still enter. Just make sure you follow my blog via email so I can contact you (I will NEVER send marketing emails or DMs)
This competition is open until January 6th 2018. I will contact the winners directly.
I will pick my favourite pitches on January 8th 2018. This is entirely subjective. But then, so is publishing in general…
I am not an editor, agent, or other expert. I’m just a fellow author looking to help out others – so please take all comments/critiques in the spirit of helpfulness in which they are intended.
I reserve the right to cease communications, at any stage, with anyone who is rude or offensive. (Responses to my past critiques have ranged from ‘Oh my God! This is so helpful, thank you so, so much!’ to ‘What do you know, bitch?!’ – Guess which types of people are now in my contacts as writers I will ALWAYS help out, and which ones are blocked? 😉 )
If you’re querying/about to query agents, I’m going to assume you want honest, to-the-point comments. If you don’t, don’t enter.
If you and I have already had correspondence via email, you are not eligible to enter. This is because I consider you a friend. So just go ahead and ask if you want me to look at anything, silly billy! 😉
Good Luck! SO excited to read your pitches!
OK, so by now you’ve made sure you’re ready (emotionally as well as physically) for querying. You’ve done your research and now you have a list of super-dooper agents who are looking to represent the type of awesome manuscript you’ve written.
Now, let’s look at the last of things about the query process that you can control. HOW you query.
I cannot stress this enough. For the rest of this post, please imagine I am hollering the words ‘FOLLOW THEIR GUIDELINES!’ at you through a megaphone.
Different agents have different guidelines.
Yup. It’s a total pain in the posterior. Feel free to curse about it. Rant at your partner, or your cat, or even the pot plant that has withered and died because you’ve been so consumed with changing your standard submission package twenty-seven-gazillion times, to accommodate the whims of these aloof beings known as agents, that you’ve forgotten to water it.
By all means throw a hissy fit, consume your weight in chocolate, scream at the ceiling. BUT FOLLOW THEM ANYWAY.
It does rather seem like a power trip, making hopeful authors jump through even more hoops in the vague hope of catching crumbs of attention – but there is a good reason for it. IF they sign you, you’re going to have to be able to revise as per instructions. You’re going to need to follow guidelines, keep deadlines and all that jazz. If you can’t even follow the basic instructions on their website regarding submitting your work, it doesn’t bode well for you as someone they can work with.
But, yeah. When you’re sending out thirty plus of the damn things, it’s a nightmare. And yes, I did deliberately leave agents whose guidelines varied too wildly from the ‘standard’ off of my first-round list. (Especially those who wanted a synopsis that was 300 words or less… Getting it down to 500 almost put me in an institution…)
I can’t possibly detail all the little quirks and foibles every agent might have when it comes to how you submit to them, so let’s just look at the ‘standard’ submission package.
If you have these three things in place, MOST agent guidelines will simply require a little alteration to them. (Possibly fewer pages, or more. Some may only want one of these things initially, others may want two. Some, of course, want you to dance on the head of a pin whilst reciting your times tables… but I didn’t query any of those 😉 )
SO, here are the basics of your submission package:
First Three Chapters
But can you still hear me bellowing through that megaphone? Good.
It goes without saying that these need to be as strong, and as polished, as you can possibly get them.
But, what authors sometimes forget is that you really do need to do the same for the rest of the manuscript as well.
I’ve heard lots of stories of authors who got their first three chapters so shiny that agents went blind from their magnificence. But, they didn’t keep to the same standard throughout. So, these authors got full requests on a scale most of us can only dream about – but no offers. As soon as Mr or Ms Dazzled-Agent got to chapter 4, it all went downhill.
It’s really tempting, when you start querying, to see nothing beyond getting a full request. And yes, I’m not going to lie, I know lots of authors who have queried for years and never received one. It can become like the gold at the end of the rainbow. But bear in mind, it is NOT the end of the journey. Not even close. (Even getting an agent isn’t the end of the journey…). So please, remember the ultimate goal here: It’s an offer of rep, not a full request (as great as they are!) so make sure that, if you pass through the first gate, you’re equipped for the rest of the journey.
It’s also tempting to look at how long agents can take to respond to queries, and assume you’ve got plenty of time to edit the later chapters while you wait. ASSUME NOTHING! I had one full request within 24 hours, another after three days, another after a week, and one TWO HOURS after initial query. Be ready. Please.
Most likely the first thing an agent will see. If you don’t nail this, they probably won’t look at your chapters or synopsis. Bear in mind some of them receive hundreds of these a week, so grab them instantly, or they’ll keep on scrolling through their inbox. No pressure…
Now, there are lots and lots of resources to help you write the perfect query letter. My absolute favourite, by a long mile, is Query Shark. But I strongly recommend you set aside days, weeks even, for researching and drafting/redrafting/ripping it up and starting again…
That said, for those of you who have no idea how to start, I’m going to give you a few pointers that might help you cobble together a basic query letter (which you can then adapt/polish as required).
The basic structure of a query letter goes something like this:
Business/nitty gritty paragraph.
A bit about you, and your reason for querying this agent in particular.
What about introductory preamble, you ask? Well, do you have a compelling personal reason for querying this particular agent? By this I mean an ACTUAL connection, not a fangirling squeal of ‘you’re so great!’? If so, begin with that. If not, GO STRAIGHT TO THE HOOK.
Always remember they receive hundreds of these. You have to stand out. Do not start with wishy washy preamble.
Introductions that merit starting with include:
Dear Agent (but actual name!)
We met recently at a conference, and you expressed a desire to look at my work.
Thank you for your interest in my Twitter pitch, please find my query below as requested.
I have been speaking with awesome-agent-Mrs-X and she recommended I query you directly, as she feels my work will be of particular interest to you.
Let’s assume you do not have a personal connection, haven’t been personally invited to submit, and haven’t had another agent recommend you. An agent does not particularly care who you are, or why you wrote the book, unless the book itself is of interest to them. They do not want to wade through pleasantries, they’re too busy. IF they like the pitch, then they will want to know more about you and the project. But, you really do need to produce ‘the goods’ first.
Let’s consider Bob. Bob has written a book about a new superhero who needs to save the world, and get the girl. Let’s forget for a moment that we’ve seen that trope a billion times before, and look at how Bob ought to go about presenting his work in his query letter.
Here’s an example of what Bob should NOT do:
Dear Awesome Agent X,
My name is Bob, and I live in the hills with my three cats and seven budgies. I have been writing since I was a child, and also enjoy long walks on the downs. I have written a book that talks about a superhero and his struggles, and which will leave the reader breathless with excitement. It also has themes of friendship and love, and lots of exciting fighting. I think you will like it, because you like books about heroes and historical books, and a bit of this book is set in the past.
The book is about Dullas Dishwater. He is an ordinary man who somehow gets superpowers and then falls in love with a girl. He then has to fight the evil villain and save the world and he ultimately wins. It is thirty chapters long, and there is nothing else like it out there at the moment so it will definitely be a bestseller.
YAWN! Do you reckon busy agent even read past the first paragraph?
Here’s the same concept, presented a little differently:
Dear Awesome Agent X,
Fabby Protag has less than three hours to save the world, and the girl he loves. After a freak accident at the helium factory leaves Fabby with superpowers, his life is turned upside down. But, before he can fully come to terms with his new identity, the evil Dr Nastyguy holds the planet to ransom. Fabby must use his new abilities to travel through time and disarm the biological weapon that threatens to unleash a flesh eating virus on the world.
Epic Story (80,000 words) is a work of science fiction and adventure. With its combination of heart-stopping action and slow-burn romance it will appeal to fans of Bestselling Book and Other Bestselling Book.
Now Bob lists his previous experience and writing credits (if any) and briefly gives a little info about himself and why he wrote the book. He then tells the agent why he queried him/her (e.g. ‘because of your interest in books about superheroes and time travel’)
See the difference? In the second example, Bob launches straight in with his hook. He tells the agent about his protagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Then in paragraph two he gives the agent the nitty gritty (title, word count and genre) and demonstrates that he has a realistic idea of where his manuscript will fit in the current market by citing other similar, and current, books. In the third paragraph (once the agent has already decided they like the sound of the book – or not) he gives his credentials, and a little personal info.
Hook them. Give them the basic info. Tell them (briefly) about yourself.
It’s that simple – and that hard.
When I’ve critiqued submission packages for other writers, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about what a synopsis is, and what is isn’t.
What a Synopsis Is
A blow-by-blow spoiler filled account of the plot of your novel, as it is written.
What a Synopsis Isn’t
A place to discuss themes, character arcs, interpretations.
An opportunity to use teaser questions (‘Will he be able to overcome?’)
Anybody reading your synopsis should be able to follow the main plot easily, and know exactly how it ends.
Think of your novel like a movie (and check out movie synopses on IMDB for ideas). Start by describing it, chapter by chapter, as succinctly as possible. Then go through and cut out anything that isn’t relevant to the main plot.
The finished synopsis should be approx. 1-2 pages in length (megaphone time…) so you’ll probably need to leave out those tasty sub plots and just focus on the main arcs.
Now, once you’ve done that, get somebody who doesn’t know your story to read it. This is VITAL. I know you love your beta readers, but if they’ve already read the book they CANNOT tell if the synopsis makes sense to someone who hasn’t. Their mind will fill in the blanks/explain confusing sections to them because they already know what you’re saying. So get FRESH EYES on it. Seriously.
Thanks for reading! Happy querying!
It’s often said that the agent-author relationship is a ‘business marriage’, and it’s certainly true that querying literary agents is a lot like online dating. You read their profile, and get that tingly feeling that maybe they could be the one. So you take a deep breath, and send them a message.
Sometimes they don’t respond. Sometimes they politely say thanks, but no thanks (‘Thank you for your submission, which I read with interest. Unfortunately…’). Sometimes, they want to get to know your book better (‘I would be grateful if you would send me the entire manuscript’) – but ultimately decide not to hook up. Sometimes they’ll say they’re just not that into you (‘I wasn’t passionate enough about it’) sometimes they’ll say it’s not you, it’s me (‘Unfortunately I just don’t have room on my list’). But sometimes…. Sometimes… the planets align, the fireworks ignite, (‘I’ve now finished your manuscript. Please can we arrange a time to speak on the phone?’) and then it’s time for your Mum to buy a new hat.
As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot about the query process that is out of the author’s control. But, we can give ourselves the best shot by paying attention to the things we can control. The second of these is WHO we query.
Bachelor number two enjoys nights at the opera, long country walks, and fine dining.
So why the hell would you send him a message asking if he’d like to go to an inner city rave and grab a McDonalds? You wouldn’t, right?
It should go without saying (but judging by the amount of literary agents I’ve seen ranting about it on Twitter, it doesn’t) don’t send your query to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre. It’s a waste of everyone’s time – including your fellow authors, who have to wait even longer for responses because agents are sifting through completely inappropriate submissions.
If an agent is seeking ‘cozy mysteries’ – don’t send them sci fi. You may be thinking, ‘but they just haven’t read the right sci fi. If only they read MY sci fi, they’d change their mind.’ They won’t. It’s not just about personal taste, though obviously that’s a big part of it, agents who rep certain genres do so because that’s the market they know. They know the editors who might be interested, they know the current trends. Even if you send Ms Lit Fic Agent a contemporary erotic space opera, and by some miracle she actually reads it and loves it, she is NOT going to offer to represent it, because she doesn’t haven’t the contacts/market knowledge to do so effectively.
So, do your research. Most agents list the genres they represent, and often the type of submissions they are actively looking for, on their web sites. You can also look at their existing client list which can give you a good idea about whether they’re a match for you and your manuscript.
Don’t over-research. For your own sanity.
Imagine you are sending a hopeful ‘hello’ message to a potential love match. It’s a good idea to have checked their profile, made sure you have stuff in common, first. (And BE SURE they are legit – see ‘Schmagents’ below) But, it is NOT a good idea to have looked for every single scrap of information about them that has ever been posted online, ever.
It’s far too easy to build a particular agent up as ‘the one’ before you even send an initial query. So, think of it in dating terms. If you knew a person’s entire life history, the fact that they tend to eat at Nando’s on a Thursday, the names of their five dogs and the tube they take every day, before they’d even replied to your ‘hello’ you’d be considered a little bit stalky, no? Moreover, you’d be waaaay too invested in an image of them that may not even be true – and the rejection/lack of response is going to hurt much more than it should.
Thing is, we writers tend to be quite good at research. We have to be, to make sure our stories ring true. I once spent hours ‘virtually’ walking through London streets (thanks to Google Street View) in order to visualise the route my character would take. I’ve bugged various tourist boards with odd questions. I’ve got a search history that would leave the FBI severely bemused. But, before you send an initial query, just focus on what you really need to know:
If the answer is yes to all of the above, send them a query (according to their guidelines). Then try to forget about it. The time to do a little more research is if they ask for a full – that way if they offer representation you will be prepared with all the questions you need answers to before you accept/decline. If they show interest, it’s a good idea to look at their ‘dating history’ (current/previous clients). Are they the type that likes long term commitment (repping an author for their whole career – come what may)? Or are they more into casual hook-ups (repping on a book-by-book basis)? Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong – but it has to match your needs.
If something, deep down, tells you that you wouldn’t feel happy working with a particular agent if they offered, just don’t query them. You wouldn’t send a flirty message to someone you had no interest in. You don’t have to be completely sure they’re The One (you can’t be at this stage!) but you need to at least feel there’s a possibility.
Equally, if they show interest, remember that this is a two way street – just like dating. You are not required to jump into bed with someone just because YOU were the one to initiate conversation. A query is a ‘Hey, you seem nice. I’d like to see if there might be a connection.’ – It’s the equivalent of offering to buy them a drink. If they enjoy having a drink with you (reading your submission package) maybe it’ll progress to dinner (full request). Maybe the dinner goes well, and conversation flows. But, none of this means you have to say ‘yes’ if they propose (offer representation). Similarly, they don’t owe you anything – not even an explanation (though hopefully they’ll give you one – but often not) if they don’t want to take things further. Even if they seem really keen, sudden ghosting can and does happen – a lot.
These are the catfish of the querying world. They are the exotic princes who are totally in love with you, and if only you could wire them your life savings they can come and live with you forever. They’re the twenty-four year old CEO who wants to wine and dine you, but when you turn up at the restaurant they’re really a fifty-six year old laybout who wants someone to wash his pants.
Reputable agents will not charge upfront fees. Reputable agents do not charge you for editing. Legitimate agents charge commission (typically 15% domestic 20% foreign – but this can vary) meaning they don’t get paid unless you do.
Be absolutely sure you are not querying schmagents. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than getting ‘the call’, only to find out they are actually trying to sell you their editing service? (Hint: These types likely make ‘The Call’ to EVERYONE who queries – they’re making their money from selling their editing service, doesn’t matter much to them if you get published or not. And it’ll likely be not if you sign with them).
If an agent ever asks you for money upfront – run a mile. And shout it from the rooftops on the sites dedicated to protecting authors from scammers (e.g. Predators and Editors, Writer Beware, Absolute Write)
Also, check out this excellent blog post from Rights of Writers to help you avoid falling for the top six scams targeting writers.
So, now you know what to look for in an agent, and what to steer clear of, WHERE are you going to find these potential literary soulmates?
Here’s a list of some (not all) of the best places to find literary agents who are seeking clients:
Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook – My absolute favourite resource (and where I ultimately found my agent). It’s not free – but worth the investment I think (or put it on your Christmas list!)
Manuscript Wish List – A list of what agents are currently looking for. Plus search #MSWL on Twitter for updates.
Query Tracker – designed to help you keep track of sent queries, but also great for finding agents who rep your genre
Writers’ Digest – Often features agent profiles, and new agent alerts.
Thanks so much for reading, happy agent hunting!
Welcome to the first post in my ‘Query Theory’ series!
Querying for the first time is not unlike taking all your hopes and dreams, wrapping them in ribbons, and throwing them off a mountain in the vague hope that, beneath the swirling mists, there lies a fabled creature called ‘The Right Literary Agent’ who will catch them, cradle them, nurture them and raise them into something magnificent. Whilst all the time worrying that your precious bundle will instead be ripped apart by the ever feared ‘Rejecting Agents’, or worse (yes, worse… if you don’t believe me now, wait until you’ve been querying a while) simply disappear into the ether, being too unimportant for the pack to even bother sniffing, let alone savaging.
In short, there’s a lot about the query process that is beyond the author’s control. Which tends to bug us, quite a bit. Up until this point, we’ve been the masters of our own dreams. We (literally) wrote our own stories. We gave life to characters with a tipitty tap of our fingers, and cackled maniacally as we erased whole lives from existence with CTL X. We like control.
Don’t believe me? Why do you think there are so many resources out there for querying authors? Tools for tracking your queries, whole sites devoted to listing agents and their preferences, pitching contests on Twitter, blogs, tips, forums all devoted to the process? They help us to try to gain some sense of control. Try to find some reason/pattern/logic in what is, ultimately, a highly subjective experience that is unique for everyone.
The harsh truth is, there is very little you can control once you launch that bundle off the mountaintop. Once you’ve sent those queries out, all bets are off. I can tell you over and over again that studying Query Tracker, or rereading agents’ Twitter feeds ten thousand times, will do nothing but drive you crazy; that there is no pattern or logic to be found, but you’ll do it all anyway.
So, let’s focus on the things you CAN control.
You can control WHEN you query, WHO you query, and HOW you query. Today, let’s look at when.
You are the master of your queries, until you send them. Do yourself a huge favour by making sure you are absolutely ready before you hit that ‘send’ button.
A lot of writers fall into one of two traps.
Some, in their eagerness, query before they and/or their manuscript are truly ready. This can be disastrous, especially if they send to every possible agent all at once, leaving nowhere to go once they finally accept that more work is needed.
Others never feel the work is good enough, and will revise, tweak, edit and curse at their manuscript until they grow old and die; unless someone snaps them out of it. I am one of these. If it wasn’t for my critique partners screaming at me, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was ready, and threatening me with painful death if I dared shelve it without querying, I would still be rewriting odd sentences and periodically declaring myself to be ‘a useless, shitty, writer’ without ever having even tried.
As far as I can tell, the ONLY cure for writers in the second camp is bossy critique partners – so get yourself some if you’re of the it’s-never-good-enough variety of authors.
But for those who are worried they might be in the first camp, here are some questions to consider:
This is not to say, ‘is your work perfect’ because, NEWSFLASH – it’s not. But is it as close to perfect as you can get it without industry help? The WHOLE manuscript? Because, it’s tempting, when you hear stories about how long agents take to respond to initial queries, to send off your submission package when there’s still work to be done on later chapters. For the love of God, don’t do this! Yes, sometimes they take an eye-wateringly long time to respond, if at all. But, most of my full requests actually came within days. My agent’s request came within hours. Don’t chance it.
Not just your mum, partner, friend, sister, cat etc etc (though obviously their opinions are great to have too!) have you had honest, preferably harsh, critique from beta readers and critique partners?
Please, please, don’t submit your manuscript as soon as you finish it. You’ll read it back a few weeks later and want to bash your head against a wall. There are ALWAYS problems we can’t see when we’re still very close to our words. Give yourself some distance, because with it comes objectivity, before doing that final read-through. Please. You will save yourself the anguish of discovering problems when it’s too late to fix them.
Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it certainly helps an agent’s immersion if your material is correctly formatted – and therefore easier for them to read. And we all want the agent we sign with to have been completely immersed in our words, right?
I’m not going to insult you by asking you if you can handle rejection. You already know it’s inevitable. And nobody really knows how they’ll feel until it happens. Even if you’ve had short pieces rejected, having your book baby dismissed with a copied and pasted ‘Dear Author’ email is a whole different teapot of tadpoles. It’s unavoidable, and one of those things you have no control over. But there are other ways to tell if you, as an author, are ready.
Not just about the query process, but about agents in general. Do you know what they do, and don’t do? Do you know what type of agent (large agency, boutique, lone agent) you’d ideally like? And the pros and cons of each? If you’re not sure, talking to repped authors is a great way to work out the type of agent experience that would be the best fit for you. If you don’t know any, just try approaching some on Twitter. Authors are generally a pretty friendly bunch, and we love talking about writing and publishing. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? So maybe they won’t respond? – Well, frankly that’s just good practice for querying anyway 😉
Even if an agent loves your book, it is highly likely they will want revisions. In fact, a lot of agents discuss revisions with you BEFORE they offer representation. In no small part, this is because they need to be sure you are someone they can work with, someone who is open to making changes. Sometimes these changes will be obviously beneficial to the book as a whole, sometimes they may be changes that will make your book more marketable.
We all dislike criticism when we start out. But, by the time we’re ready to query we actively seek it, and embrace it (the constructive kind anyway). The first time I had to make revisions after feedback from a beta, I sat staring at my printed out pages, feeling like I was up against a wall. I couldn’t see what to do, couldn’t fathom how I was going to make it all flow again.
But by the time my agent called to offer, my mind was like an episode of Sherlock (when it came to my manuscript anyway. In real life I still couldn’t organise my sock drawer). When she made a suggestion, I could instantly see the parts of the book (even the very sentences) that ought to be changed, and the tendrils that connected those parts to other parts that would then need altering, and it was exciting. Her suggestions made my brain spark, and revision became a thing of possibility, not dread.
Do you know your manuscript that well? Do suggestions for improvement fill you with dread, or excitement? You are not going to get from finished draft to traditionally published book on a shelf in Waterstone’s without making revisions. As uncertain as the whole process is, I am certain of that much. So, this is a biggie. If you can’t bear to change a single word, you’re either not yet ready for traditional publishing, or it’s not the path you really want to take.
Perhaps the most important question of all. Once you hit send, you’re going to need some seriously indulgent sustenance!
Thanks so much for reading, please feel free to leave comments/questions.
Next post: WHO to query (researching agents, making the right choices, avoiding schmagents – there are some shark infested waters out there!)
In case you missed the Twitter announcement, I am absolutely thrilled to say that I am now officially represented by the very lovely Emily Sweet (Emily Sweet Associates.)
If you’d have told me two months ago (when I was deep in the emotional turmoil of the dreaded ‘Query Trenches’) that I would be writing one of these blog posts – the type I devoured to try to distract myself from constantly refreshing my inbox, I would have laughed. Or cried. Or stared at you with wild eyes, twitched a bit, and then hoovered up anything vaguely chocolatey in the vicinity. Because querying was like being in some kind of limbo-esque parallel universe. You smile and nod, you make the right noises in your daily interactions, but your brain is somewhere in an agent’s unread inbox, and your fingers constantly twitch – compelled to check your email, even though you’ve got your notifications set to ‘Sonic Boom’ so there’s no way you could have missed an incoming message… But, that little old lady’s trolley wheel was a bit squeaky, maybe you DID miss it? Better check…
So why did I put myself through it? Well, if your goal is to be traditionally published, chances are you are going to need an agent. The majority of traditional publishers do not accept submissions from unagented authors (unless they’re running a particular competition/open submission period). Given that there are vastly more agents than there are publishers, and that many of these agents receive hundreds of submissions A WEEK, you can kinda see why. But, an agent (a good one anyway) is more than just a book seller. The right agent can help you get your manuscript ready for publishers, advise you on all aspects of your writing career, and hold your hand when it all gets a bit much.
So, my stats (because I know that’s what all the currently querying authors want to know 😉 )
Queries sent: 28
Full Requests: 5
Form Rejections: 5
Queries withdrawn/not responded to: 18
Offers of Representation: 2
Initially, I sent just five queries, to agents I had seen active on Twitter who seemed like they might be a good fit. Two of them came back within days asking for the full manuscript. I was elated, overjoyed, bouncing off the walls… and naïve.
I reasoned (disclaimer: querying authors have no sense of reason. Do not trust your reason when you’re querying) that it would be foolish to send any more queries until I’d heard back on the fulls. What if there was something glaring wrong with the book? If I’d already sent it to all and sundry I could keep getting rejected for the same thing. So I waited.
Hint: There is a lot of waiting involved in the query process.
Summer holidays came, and I tried to put my non-pinging inbox out of my mind. But when September came around I decided I’d waited long enough (FYI, I never did hear back on those fulls). So, I resolved this time to take a more methodical approach than just querying agents I had looked up (OK, stalked…) on Twitter.
Out came the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, and I went through the list of literary agents, looking at their websites and researching their preferences and submission guidelines. Finally, I had a list of twenty three agents I thought might be interested in my humble manuscript. One of whom was Emily.
I sent twenty three queries in two days. This is no mean feat. Yes, lots of agents ask for the ‘standard’ submission package (query letter, synopsis, first three chapters), but plenty don’t. Some want differing lengths of sample material, some want you to copy and paste into an email, some want a bio. Some want your first born child gift wrapped in scented paper – OK, I made that one up. Emily’s website asked for just the covering letter initially – so I duly sent that, and continued on with my marathon query sesh.
About an hour later, while I was busy cursing an agent who wanted the sample material formatted COMPLETELY differently to anyone else, (WHY?) my inbox chimed. It was Emily, and she liked my pitch. She asked for the first ten thousand words and synopsis. Fortunately, by this point I had approximately ten squillion different files with every length of sample material you could ever wish for, so I located my ‘first 10k’ file and sent it off.
I didn’t expect to hear anything quickly… or ever, to be honest. But to my surprise, a couple of hours later she replied again, complimenting my writing and asking for the full manuscript. After the months of deafening silence, I MAY have screamed a little bit…
After squealing at my husband, and cursing Windows 10 for choosing THIS moment to do an update, I composed myself and sent off the manuscript. Shortly after, more full requests rolled in, and were sent off. Then, I prepared myself for the long wait.
Which, as it turns out, wasn’t long at all…
The day after I sent my manuscript to Emily, I received an email from her – late in the evening. She’d already read the whole book! And what’s more, she described it as ‘incredible’ and wanted to arrange a time to speak on the phone! I was at work at the time (on a nightshift) so my poor colleague had to put up with me squealing, crying, and swearing at my phone for its lousy internet connection. We arranged to speak the next morning. I mean, there was no way I was going to be able to sleep, even after a long shift, until I’d heard what she had to say.
I tried not to get too excited. I had heard tell of ‘The Call that is not The Call’ – agents calling authors usually means they’re thinking of offering representation, but some poor souls have received calls only to be told all the reasons why the agent can’t offer…
But, it was indeed ‘The Call’ – after a long chat about the book, possible revisions, and future career, Emily said the magic words, “I’d like to offer you representation.” She was so passionate, so lovely, and I could already see how her suggestions would improve the book, I wanted to say ‘Yes!’ right there and then… But somehow I kept my cool. I was already out on full elsewhere, and I had to give other agents a fair chance to make counter offers (not that I expected any!). Emily didn’t give me a time limit for my answer (yet another reason I felt she was ‘the one’), but I promised to get back to her within two weeks.
My dead-as-the-grave inbox was in for a big surprise when I started notifying other agents of an offer of representation.
At this point, I had a good hard look at who I had queried, and (not wanting to waste anyone’s time) wrote to withdraw my submission from most of the agents. For those I felt I would still consider an offer from, I simply notified them and gave them a ten day deadline if they wished to counter offer.
All of a sudden, I went from a never-changing-inbox to having more emails than I could handle. Notified agents replied almost instantly, promising to get back to me ASAP. Even agents I had withdrawn from sent congratulations ‘to you and your agent’! It was a little surreal.
In the end, I did receive a counter offer – and from an agent who was one of my top picks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest decisions of my life (more about multiple offers in a later post), but in the end I went with my heart. Emily’s passion for my novel, and the gut feeling that we were simply a better fit personality wise, drew me to her. And then I found myself in the very topsy-turvy position of being the one to make ‘The Call’ to an agent, and having to send a decline to the other.
In the end, after months of waiting on other agents, I went from initial query to offer in less than 48 hours. And signed two weeks later.
But, the query process is different for everyone. One of the best things about the writing community is its ‘pay it forward’ camaraderie. I learned everything I needed to know about querying from other writers, and will be passing what I’ve learned on to other authors who are yet to query, or who are currently in the trenches.
Over the next few weeks, I will be writing posts on every aspect of the torture that is trying to secure a literary agent. From writing a killer query letter, and doing your research, to how to cope with silence, and what to do when you receive more than one offer.
I’ll be compiling some of the best resources for querying authors, and even offering some query letter critiques to my followers – so watch this space!
Someone once told me you have to treat time like money.
It makes a lot sense, when you think about it. We all have only a finite amount of it to spend after all. And we all have ‘time expenses’ we can’t wriggle out of – direct debits from our hours, if you will. Once you deduct those bills (sleeping, working, eating, showering and so forth) you’re often left with very little to spare.
So then, you have to budget. You’ll want to spend a fair bit on your family, particularly your children. Friends too, and hobbies, and relaxation, and Netflix, and Facebook… before you know it you’re overdrawn on your hours. You’ve gone from having a little bit of disposable time to being overstretched, and owing more than you can feasibly pay.
If you’re trying to fit serious writing in as well, it might feel like you’re continuously in the red, and no one will offer you a loan.
As well as the finite nature of time, there’s another hard truth facing aspiring writers: no one takes you seriously to begin with. If you’re lucky, a few close family members, and your critique partners, believe you are going somewhere. Everyone else thinks you’ve got a cute little hobby. So you feel apologetic, embarrassed even, when you try to carve out some time for it.
But when you start to view time as if it were currency, it becomes a little easier to stand firm. You wouldn’t buy every product someone wants to sell you, or splash out on new clothes before your bills are paid. So, if you want to write seriously, you have to ring-fence your time in the same way you guard your pin number. No one else is going to protect your hours. It’s your responsibility.
Another piece of advice, one that has stuck with me over the last few years, is that you have to treat writing like a job if you ever want it to become one.
So, I don’t draw my writing time from my disposable hours. It has its own account. The fifteen hours a week available to me to write are immutable. I am, to all intents and purposes, at work. OK, I’ll have a coffee break and check my social media… maybe I’ll take a long lunch sometimes, but I won’t allow those hours to be eroded. They’re too precious. They’re an investment – in myself.
For the last two years I have spent those hours working on my novel, When Jimmy Saved London. I have been absent from the blogosphere during that time, because I found it too distracting from the task in hand. I’ve learned an awful lot, and worked closely with some awesome writers who have helped me bash it into shape through several redrafts. Now, I am gearing up to finally submit.
When people ask me if the time I’ve invested will pay off, they mean in a financial sense. And I honestly don’t know. But when I consider for myself whether those hours will pay off, I think of everything I have learned, the critique partners I have worked with, the sheer accomplishment of having written the story that yearned to be told – and I can’t help but feel they already have.
No, not that sort of flashing – get your mind out of the gutter! If you’re expecting a discussion about the virtues of going commando under your best anorak, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. But don’t worry, this is the internet, it won’t be hard to find what you’re looking for 😉 . I’m talking, of course, about flash fiction.
People keep asking me when my next short story will be out. In case you missed the announcement on Twitter (and let’s face it, if you’re following more than a couple of hundred people it’s impossible to keep up with everyone!), the lovely people at Page and Spine have recently published my flash fiction story ‘Dearly Departed’. You can read it for free here:
However, I’m afraid all will be quiet on the short story front for a little while, as I really need to focus my efforts on getting the first draft of ‘When Jimmy Saved London’ (my current novel in progress) finished. I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support of my fantastic alpha readers, who have so generously given their time and expertise to help me with this project. There are very few people willing to have in-depth discussions about explosives, hypothetical economic crises and theoretical new technologies with a slightly insane writer, so I count my lucky stars I found three of them! Gary, Steve and Ash, I am forever in your debt, and I couldn’t possibly do this without you!
So, seeing as I keep being pestered for new shorts by some, and moaned at for writing them when I ought to be working on the novel by others, I thought I’d try for a compromise. Below are some flash fiction pieces previously written for various competitions, (and a link to my very first interview – eeeeek!) I hope you will enjoy them. As always, comments are very welcome 🙂
Be patient my pretties, the novel will come… if you’re very good (or very bad, he he) I might share some excerpts soon…
Just Maybe… by N J Crosskey (Winner of MicroBookends 1:27)
Silent treatment, that’s what she accuses me of. Then it’s all: You Never, You Don’t, You Aren’t.
Well maybe I don’t and maybe I’m not. But maybe Glynis, just freakin’ maybe, YOU don’t and YOU aren’t either.
And maybe, just maybe, you sound like a flock of constipated pigeons. Maybe you’re a shrill, controlling harpy who kicks me when I’m down, so MAYBE, just maybe, I Don’t and I’m Not because of YOU.
Maybe I’ll smash your skull in with a freakin’ shovel. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll bury you on the hillside with the other cows…
…Or maybe I’ll just turn the sound up so I can hear the film.
You can also check out my Winner’s Interview here: http://www.microbookends.com/2015/04/21/who-is-n-j-crosskey/
‘Losing Coral’ Honourable Mention – Flashmob Writes wk 7
Losing Coral (499 words)
I’m wearing a cream blouse.
The air smells of lavender and bleach. The woman beside me kisses my cheek.
“Bye Mum,” she says, and I realise it’s Meghan. Silly of me, must be the new ‘do. She looks so different.
I forget things sometimes. That’s why I’m here; I think… a word flies across my mind so quickly I can’t hold onto it. I chase it, but it’s gone. So has Meghan.
I walk down the corridor to the lounge. The fraying, floral chairs are occupied by people much older than I. The woman beside me must be ninety if she’s a day. I’m only… well, I’m not sure exactly, but I’m much younger.
She smiles at me, I smile back. “I’m new,” I say.
“That’s nice,” she replies. “Have you ever been to Storrington? I’m from Storrington. Course I didn’t work there. I always caught the number thirty-seven into town-”
She talks, a lot. I listen politely as she tells me every nuance of her life. It’s not until she says, “I must telephone my father, he’ll be dreadfully worried.” that I realise she’s crazy.
I look at the others more closely. One of them polishes a teaspoon, frantically, with her jumper. Another gets up, sits down, and gets up again. They’re all crazy. That word I was chasing rushes forward, belts me round the head. Dementia. I’ve heard it a lot. I’ve heard it said about me.
I’ve got dementia. The memory kicks me in the guts, I struggle for breath. I’ve got dementia, and it’s going to consume me, take away everything I am. I look at them all, locked inside their bubbles. Like scratched records, stuck in one groove. How long before I am the same?
Someone starts to wail. I realise it’s me.
I’m wearing a blue nightdress.
The air smells of smoke. My house is on fire! I flee my bedroom, race to the front door. But it’s locked. I can’t get out! I scream, hammering my fists in vain.
“Help me! I’m burning alive!”
Footsteps thunder toward me. Uniformed arms grasp mine, stopping me from hitting the glass pane.
“Coral,” the young lady says, “look at me.”
I’m shaking, but I obey.
“It’s Okay.” She speaks slowly, deliberately.
“My house is on fire!” Why isn’t she panicking?
“No honey. Not now. You’re safe.”
She leads me back down the corridor, sits me down. She tells me things I half remember, things that seem like whispered dreams.
I left the stove on, burned down the house.
“That’s how you came to live with us.” She says.
I’m wearing a green jumper.
I must change before my date tonight. I pick up my mirror to check my lipstick. A shrivelled face, covered in burns and framed by grey hair stares back at me. I scream.
I’m wearing a purple dress.
I sit next to a woman much older than I. “I’m new,” I say.
“That’s nice,” she smiles. “Have you ever been to Storrington?”
Honourable Mention and Special Challenge Winner – Three Line Thursday wk 27
Viscous secrets, sparkling champagne.
Some things, once opened, cannot be closed.
“Don’t pry, little girl.” Mama poured out another.
‘Heaven’s Gate’ Special Mention – Flash! Friday vol 3-18
Heaven’s Gate (210 words)
I’m never drinking with Seraphim again. Bastards. Getting into a theological debate was a bad idea. Taking the bet was worse.
It’s not that I don’t support the Watcher’s strike. But, closing the gate, forever? My species can’t have got that bad.
Raziel just laughed. “Alright,” he said. “You try. I’ll grant one last place. Just one. And I’ll bet you can’t even fill that.”
So here I am. Scouring humanity. And I’ve probably lost my own slot, what with the coat stealing. But, those gilt-winged gits dropped me here buck naked. I’ll plead entrapment, Pete’s a good guy, he’ll understand.
And I’m losing. Raziel was right, things have changed. The city is a cold sea of scowls and selfish aspirations, drowning kindness in its tide. The crowd may move as one, but they live apart.
A man slumps beside me on the bench, cloaked in dirt and body odour.
“You look like shit,” he says. “When’d you last eat?”
I shrug. I don’t think “fifty years ago” would go down well.
“Ain’t much, but here…” He offers me a half-eaten sandwich. “Reckon you need this more than me.”
I smile, and press Raziel’s crumpled ticket into his hand.
“Buddy,” I say, “you just became the richest guy on Earth.”
The Day Maker
“If I left tomorrow, would anyone even know?” The Day-Maker asked his wife, as he collapsed on the patchwork sofa.
She looked at him, and smiled. He worked so hard, so tirelessly. Whilst all the world slept he toiled. Weaving dappled sunlight to greet their sandy eyes, brewing gentle breezes to kiss their cheeks, or distilling cleansing rains to water their crops.
But lately, the shadows had darkened around his sparkling eyes. He winced as his muscles screamed in protest and rubbed at his back. He needed a rest.
“No,” she whispered as she stroked his long grey hair. “I don’t think they would.”
He breathed a sigh of relief and fell into a deep, dream-filled sleep. And tomorrow never came.
When at last he awoke he was refreshed, invigorated. He gave the birds a brighter song, the sun a more vibrant hue. He hopped and skipped his way through the day’s ablutions. His wife’s heart was filled with joy at the sight.
“Oh my love,” she said, “I think you should skip a day every year! Nobody would miss silly old February 29th anyway.”
He frowned, and thought for a moment.
“I’ll work one in four.” He said.
Party Games (360 words)
“Ziro points for originali-ti-ness you bastards.” Rhys yelled. He pulled at the cuffs holding his hands behind his back. They didn’t give. When he looked down the cracked pavement was spinning, a kaleidoscope of pinks and greys. When he looked up, the streetlight overhead flooded his retinas with a sickening orange haze. He groaned, the bile churning in his guts. What had been in that last pint?
“What’s up mate?” Ed yelled from across the street. “Feeling a little WOOLLY headed?”
The pack of Neanderthals he called colleagues roared, slapped each other on the back and disappeared into the bar.
At least the inflatable sheep strapped to his middle was covering his (now painted green) modesty. But seriously, how predictable. Welsh name, Welsh parents – doesn’t matter if you’ve never actually lived there, you will, on the eve of your nuptials, end up with a white plastic effigy on your groin. It was horribly inevitable.
God, he needed to scratch his nuts. The thick seam tickled his inner thigh. He wiggled a little, hoping to alleviate the itch. Then stopped abruptly when he realised how his gyrations might look to passers-by. Just have to bear it. They wouldn’t leave him here long, surely?
The minutes lolloped by. Couples joined at the hands sniggered as they ambled past. An old lady tutted, yanking her spaniel away as it tried to cock its leg up his lamppost-prison.
A gaggle of high pitched shrieks approached, all tutus and deely boppers. A young woman wearing a ripped veil, and an oversized “L” plate ran up to him, squealing like a saw drill.
“Hey girls, get this!” She sidled up to him; he could smell the vomit on her breath. She pulled down her top, thrusting her breasts at him, wiggling her yellowed tongue.
Her coven of harpies reached into their bags and pulled out their phones. All at once the true horror of his situation hit him.
YouTube – another crashing inevitability.
He groaned, and cursed himself for his folly. Old Etonian buddies or not, you should never, ever let a member of the opposition organise your stag do.
He’d never get re-elected now.