Archive for the ‘Tips’ Category

5 Tips For Optimizing Your Agent Query

WRMainLogo-NEWA big thanks to our friends over at Writer’s Relief for this post on how to optimize your query letter. Writer’s Relief has been working with authors since 1994, and knows a thing or two about what to do (and what not to do) in query letters to agents. Here they share five tips of the trade to improve your odds when querying.

Query letters seem simple: A one-page letter that starts with an opening, continues with a book synopsis, and ends with a brief author bio. What could go wrong? As it turns out, plenty, if you’re unprepared! So read on for a list of our top tips for query letters.

  1. First things first: Start with a great opening line!

Many authors think the first line of their query letter must razzle dazzle and leap off the page with its wild creativity—but this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, a first line that’s jam-packed with too much information is likely to turn agents off. In most instances, a simple first line that presents your book’s crucial info will do just fine: Title, genre, and word count. For example: Please consider my 85,000-word romantic thriller, Killing Lolita.

If your book lends itself to quick summary, consider opening with a logline, which boils the plot down to its main elements as succinctly as possible: Please consider my 85,000-word romantic thriller, Killing Lolita, the story of a picturesque tragic heroine who must choose between evading her murderous stalker and living happily ever after with the love of her life. Successful loglines stay away from vague or disconnected facts about the story (the story of a picture-perfect girl, heartbreak, and saving lives), generalizations about theme instead of plot (a story of independence, romance, and impossible choices), and lengthy rambling.

  1. Make sure your book blurb, or mini-synopsis, is on point.

Many authors have difficulty summarizing their books in a couple of pages—let alone a couple of paragraphs! Unfortunately, that’s exactly the desired length of a winning book blurb, so it goes without saying that the best blurbs use precise language to say a lot in few words. Think of your book blurb as the text on a book’s back cover or inside jacket flap: A successful blurb introduces only the few main protagonists and antagonists. Likewise, your blurb should introduce only the main plot and perhaps a crucial subplot, as opposed to getting caught up in the finer details of your book. You should also be sure to focus on the action of the story—skip thematic explanations. And finally, don’t give away the ending! You want to leave a prospective agent wanting more.

  1. Don’t lose the agent’s attention with your bio.

An author’s bio should be even more succinct than the book blurb—one paragraph at most. Though your bio should, of course, give a taste of your personality, agents will first want to see what makes you author material. First, the bio should list any previous publication credits, writing conferences attended, and interesting writers you’ve worked with. You can also add information on any degrees or areas of study you think are relevant (perhaps you have a degree in gothic literature, which leaves you perfectly educated for penning a book like Killing Lolita).

  1. Stay away from hubris at all costs.

If literary agents had a nickel for every time they read something like, “My book is the next Harry Potter,” they would surely all be rich. So don’t be that writer, especially in your query letter. Inflated promises are sure to annoy a literary agent before they’ve even read your book. Even poorly-placed adjectives (my riveting romantic thriller; my book that you won’t be able to put down, etc.) can work against you.

  1. Don’t presume your book is the exception to these rules.

Ultimately, every author has one goal in a query letter: to get an agent interested in representing their book. Though the tips above may seem too regimented or plain frightening to apply to your book, think twice before bucking the system: Certainly, a daring move with your query letter might make your book stand out, but it could also make a literary agent toss your query onto the circular file.

Writer’s Relief is an author’s submission service that has been helping creative writers make submissions since 1994. Their work is highly recommended in the writing community, and there are TONS of freebies, publishing leads, and writers’ resources on their website. Check it out!

Flash Fiction Techniques: Part 1


“It needs to be longer” used to be a common story critique. However, these days, our editors will sometimes comment that a submission might work better as flash. We’ve said this about experimental stories with a repetitive form, about submissions in which there is simply one interesting, tiny kernel that is enough to carry a story, and about shorter stories that could use some whittling. I’m sure, in the future, we’ll make the same comments about entirely different styles of fiction, too. But maybe, if we may be so bold, we should first answer the question: what makes a flash story succeed?

Flash fiction is being embraced by popular authors from Dave Eggers to Lydia Davis, as well as by esteemed literary publications from Tin House to NANO Fiction. But what is flash fiction, exactly? Other than its length of one thousand words or fewer, how can we characterize the genre?

A better question might be: do we even want to try? It’s impossible to make generalizations about flash fiction and the way it works because, aside from its length, there is really no other description that can even be generally applied to the genre. Statements by authors about flash often contradict each other. In his New York Times essay, Grant Faulkner writes: “Flash communicates via caesuras and crevices. There is no asking more, no premise of comprehensiveness, because flash fiction is a form that privileges excision over agglomeration, adhering more than any other narrative form to Hemingway’s famous iceberg dictum: only show the top 10 percent of your story, and leave the other 90 percent below water to be conjured.” Certainly, there are some pieces of flash that take the iceberg approach to the extreme. However, there are other flash stories that feel complete in themselves; they tell an entire story, and the reader doesn’t feel compelled to fill in the white space, to piece together the larger narrative that the piece implies. In his own essay about flash, Dave Eggers recalls Lydia Davis telling him: “when she begins writing, she’s seeking to answer a question, and if it only takes one paragraph to answer that question, then it seems unnecessary to continue on and on for 8000 words.” For some writers, short shorts are whole, complete worlds. They are answers to questions, not hints at a larger story. For every writer, it seems, flash is an entirely different creature.

In an interview with The Believer, Lydia Davis says: “There is some acceptance of the terms flash fiction, sudden fiction, etc. But I think people may still be expecting a kind of miniature short story when they begin reading a piece of flash fiction, rather than the less usual offering that it might be—meditation, logic game, extended wordplay, diatribe—for which there is no good general name.”

So why even attempt to describe the way that flash fiction works? Because, fortunately, more and more people want to write it. What better way to learn than by looking at the techniques others have used?

In the next installment of this essay, I’ll discuss five techniques used in some of my favorite flash stories. It will by no means be an all-inclusive list, but rather a brief examination of how some writers concoct incredible stories in one thousand words or less.

by Sadye Teiser

Tuesday Tips – Why We Write

9780452298156_p0_v1_s260x420In Why We Write, twenty acclaimed authors discuss the writing process and why they do what they do. Brought to you by editor Meredith Maran, this book examines writing from those who know it best, outlining struggles with self-doubt, lack of confidence, writer’s block, and how to pull yourself out of it. Discussions on craft, process, and the world of writing are just a few of the elements that populate these chapters, each one brought to you by a different beloved author. Whether you’ve written many novels, are plugging through your first draft, or are a writer of any kind, this book is full of wit, wisdom, and the infinitely valuable validation that all writers struggle, and many of them still succeed.

Just look who’s inside!


Tuesday Tips – Submissions and Editing

Blog_Headline_Writing_Tips1Submissions and editing make up two categories that tend to give new writers the most trouble. They’re also inextricably linked. In order to succeed in landing submissions, one must edit and polish their work well.

Today’s Tuesday Tips are brought to you by Writer’s Digest and Galley Cat, both excellent resources for writers. In the following categories we’ve highlighted some very insightful information when it comes to submitting to literary magazines and editing your work. If you want to better prepare your stories for the eyes of editors and readers, check it out:


In Galley Cat’s article, a top editor discusses what it takes to land a publication among the best literary magazines. She says:

“From the literary side, I would have to say the quality of writing, style, and characterization are almost always valued over plot and storyline. Individual aesthetics will vary wildly from magazine to magazine, but if we’re talking about literary publications in general (Tin House, Paris Review, One Story, etc), then there will certainly be a baseline expectation about the quality of writing and depth of characterization. I’m sure these standards and expectations change, however, when you’re talking about genre magazines.”

To read more submission tips from Galley Cat, click here.


In order to edit well you must be self-critical, but not too self-critical, and you must tighten your work, unless of course, that particular passage needs more. But how to tell the difference? Take a look at some of the advice in the following article from Writer’s Digest:

“Not all revision reduces to cutting, obviously. The admonition ‘less is more’ carries the implicit addendum: unless it’s not enough.

This requires an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Sometimes, where you’re weak—be it in setting, pacing, backstory—the text will seem lackluster, wanting. Here especially trusted readers—or an unerring ear—come in handy. They can feel the empty spaces better than you.

But it’s not true that you must master all or settle for nothing. Ballantine editor Mark Tavani urges his writers to ‘forget their weaknesses and attack their strengths.’ No writer is skilled at everything, nor should he try to be, and each will bring his particular virtues to the page.”

For more from the article, click here.

Tuesday Tips – Elmore Leonard

Author Elmore Leonard Portrait Session And Book Signing At Book Soup

Image credit: Hollywood Reporter

Elmore Leonard past away last week after a prolific career as a screenwriter and novelist. It seemed fitting that for Tuesday Tips we’d reference his well-known Ten Rules for Writing. Thank you Elmore for your wisdom. You will be forever missed.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary. (more…)

Tuesday Tips

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

— Thanks, Neil.

Tuesday Tips – Famous Authors on Editing


Ah editing. Some writers thrive with a red pen in hand, while others dread the rewriting, the rethinking, and inevitably, the hours spent on material that never gets used. Regardless, being a good self-editor or having a strong approach towards editing is key to publishing work. Here, we’ve listed several notable authors and their advice on editing.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard

“For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going.” — Karen Russell

“In fact, you know what I threw out this morning? During that time in Germany I wrote 200 pages of my next novel, but because of the other projects, this multi-year, multi-project run, I just now pulled out those 200 pages again and went through them, and worked on them for the last couple of weeks…and I threw them all out today. And I’m feeling light as a feather.” — Nathan Englander

“Remember, when people tell you something is wrong or it doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you are inclined to write ‘very’ and your editor will delete it and your writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” — Edgar Allen Poe

“I often find, I am not constructing a story, but exfoliating an idea that’s usually caught in a metaphor.” — William H. Gass

“After it received 37 rejections, it was purchased for the lowest amount of money my literary agent had ever negotiated for a work of fiction. So keep writing.” — Daniel Handler

“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Valdimir Nabokov

“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity . . . edit one more time!” — CK Webb

And even though we’ve all heard this one before, this bell rings the loudest and often the truest:

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King

Zadie Smith: 10 Good Writing Habits

When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Don’t romanticise your “vocation.” You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle.” All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

Work on a computer that is disconnected from the Internet.

Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

Well said, Zadie.

A Word on Simultaneous Submissions


The issue of simultaneous submissions came up quite a bit during our submissions process this year. (Shortlist announces SOON by the way. Hold on to your hats!) In our opinion, simultaneous submissions are a courtesy from journals. We realize, and recognize, the time and energy you’ve put into your stories and we want that hard work to be rewarded whether it’s with our journal or not. However, there are some magazines who don’t allow for simultaneous submissions. Usually, it’s because they don’t want the time their staff has spent with a story to be wasted because of a withdrawal due to acceptance by another journal. Both points of view are valid considering the time the submissions process takes, and the fact of the matter remains that the process of submitting and landing a publication… and then seeing that story published is a very slow one. To me it speaks to the quality of work journals are trying to produce in publishing stories, but it certainly doesn’t make the timeline any less frustrating for writers.

But what’s the point of bringing up the issue if not to take a stance? The Masters Review clearly states that we accept simultaneous submissions as long as we’re informed IMMEDIATELY if the piece is picked up elsewhere. This probably sounds familiar and in our opinion, it’s only fair. Our beef comes from those journals who suggest that it’s okay to keep stories for weeks — even months at a time! — without allowing for simultaneous submissions. We found an incredible number of journals in the speculative fiction and science fiction genre that abide by this policy and in our opinion, it’s just flat wrong. To suggest that a writer wait up to eight months to hear back about a story but ask them not to submit that story elsewhere is ludicrous. And look, we don’t want to start a fight by naming names, but we can’t help but feel that when writers begin ignoring submission guidelines it might be because they don’t feel like their work is being treated fairly within the submissions process. Perhaps if more journals allowed for sim-subs or were able to expedite their submissions process in some way and still retain the quality within that process we might all see an improvement.

What we’re saying is this: writers, do your part and simultaneously submit where allowed and PLEASE let journals know when a story has been accepted elsewhere. The journals who allow for sim-subs allow for them because they want you to be successful. If you’re willing to let a piece sit with a prestigious magazine for months at a time and they ask that you don’t submit elsewhere, respect those rules. Perhaps in the process the submissions wheel will eventually and slowly unclog and response times will improve. Either way, we’re in this together, so try to return the courtesy journals are extending you by keeping track of your submissions.

Tuesday Tips


You know us. On Tuesdays we post tips. Sometimes the tips are lists, sometimes the tips take form as an essay. Other times the tips are as small as a single sentence. Today we nod our hat to Sarah LaPolla’s Twitter feed. Sarah is an associate agent at Curtis Brown. It stands to reason she sees a lot of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to manuscripts. Today she posted this little tid-bit on her feed:

Writers: Jeans are timeless. Bell-bottom, acid wash, wide-leg, skinny, etc. are not. Specifying a style will date your book for no reason.

And while she’s being rather specific about how this detail is dating the work, it falls perfectly under the Strunk and White moniker “Omit needless words.” Think about what you’re writing, skinny jeans and all.


Tips: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Please note this was originally published via tweets by Emma Coates, a former Story Artist from Pixar. Eventually this lovely infographic was made. We’ve seen a lot of writing tips, but these concrete and approachable tips are some of the best we’ve seen.

Pixar 22 Rules of Story

Agent Interview – Miriam Altshuler

Agent Interview

Many thanks to Miriam Altshuler of the Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency for taking the time to sit down with us and answer some questions about her experience as an agent.

Miriam Altshuler established her own agency in 1994 and was an agent at the Russell & Volkening Literary Agency for twelve years prior. She represents literary and commercial fiction, as well as non-fiction. We asked her what it’s like to work with new authors, the importance of social media platforms, as well as for some advice about queries. There’s some great info here for new authors, especially those who are looking for agents.

Take a look…

First of all, how did you become an agent?

I have always loved reading and working with people. When I finished college in the early 80’s I did not know much about the world of literary agencies, but knew I wanted to work in publishing with books and writers. So when I moved back to New York City and was looking for a job, I was fortunate to talk with someone who suggested I work at a literary agency and use my skills working with people and as a lover of books and reading. I applied for an assistant job at an literary agency, got the job, and after being an assistant for a couple of years, I became an agent. The firm was Russell & Volkening, and I had the pleasure of working with such amazing writers as Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud, Barbara Tuchman, May Sarton and many others. The list goes on and it was an incredible introduction to both literature and the joys of working with such talented writers.

What types of books and authors do you most enjoy representing? Aside from the specific genres listed on your site.

I love literary/commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction, and young adult and middle grade fiction. In fiction, the characters and voice are particularly important to me, as well as the writing. In nonfiction, I have come to see that all the nonfiction I represent has to have real heart. It needs to matter in some concrete way and help to make a difference. With children’s books, I want to read books that I wish I had when I was a child. The world of YA literature has opened up so much. I represent Walter Dean Myers (our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) and his books really touch his readers and make a difference in their lives. YA and middle grade can be sweet or edgy but it is the message and the heart that really makes a difference to me.

Over the course of your career have you represented any first-time authors? If so, could you describe a project or two?

Yes, quite a number. I love finding new writers and selling their work. Working with first-time writers to help build their careers is a particular thrill for me. Many of the authors I work with are first-time authors (or were, when I took them on!).  I just sold an amazing debut novel by Maya Lang to Whitney Frick at Scribner, entitled The Sixteenth of June. It is the story of a young woman and her relationship to a wealthy Joyce-obsessed family living in Philadelphia.

For first time authors, the querying process can be daunting. Do you have any advice for those currently shopping their work? (For example, what common mistakes do you see. I know this is broad, but what makes a query successful in your eyes?)

This is a BIG topic and one I can go on and on about. I talk a lot about this at the writers’ conferences I attend. I will try to answer in a manageable length but this is an area that I wish new writers understood and paid more attention to. It would help them — and agents — a lot. First of all, email has allowed writers to send out queries much more easily and cheaply, and in larger numbers. I get somewhere around 300 queries a week. It is a full time job to go through these. It is inevitable that agents miss a lot because of the sheer number. It would help greatly if writers researched each agent before sending them a query. The number of queries would go down by at least a half (if not more) if I did not get queries for books it is clear from my query guidelines on my website that I do not represent.

Try to personalize your query. I promise this will help make you stand out in an agent’s eyes. Maybe you like a writer or book I represent, you heard me at a conference, I was recommended by another writer or editor, or you visited my website and researched the kinds of books I represent. Something to set you apart. I am definitely more willing to read a writer’s query (and hopefully their manuscript) if I know I am not a generic submission and they are coming to me for a reason.

Write a good and thoughtful query and PROOFREAD it. I know this sounds obvious to some, but so many queries and manuscripts come with so many mistakes. I think many agents shy away from letters that are not well written or have mistakes. If a writer cannot write a good query, then chances are their book will not be any better. All agents have limited reading time, and I am much more prone to read the manuscript of someone who can write a great and thought provoking query.  Another piece of important advice is that authors should check every agency’s website for their submission guidelines before submitting their work. Agencies have different guidelines for submitting queries and ask to see different materials, and it is best to follow each agency’s request precisely or agents may dismiss your query. For example, we ask for a cover letter and the first chapter of a manuscript pasted into the body of an email (many agents will not open attachments because of virus concerns). Agents may not want to have an email with a person to ask for material that person should have sent in the first place had they read through the guidelines.

Many first time authors aren’t sure what to expect from an agent interested in their work. Can authors expect to receive editorial feedback from you on their manuscript? How important is this process to you?

I believe most agents will help on the editorial side, though some more than others, and this can be part of the discussion with an interested agent. Some books need more work than others, so it is important to bring this up early when talking with a prospective agent, and make sure you are both on the same page in terms of the work that needs to be done. Discuss with the agent how much work they expect and how involved the agent will be. It is important for writers to ask questions and understand how the relationship will work with an agent. Agents can work differently and it is important to understand the relationship before signing on with anyone.

Working with a writer is very important to me, but I need to know that they have realistic expectations of what is necessary. Sometimes a number of drafts are necessary and I want to make sure the author is willing to commit until the work is ready to be submitted, and I know they want to make sure that I share their vision for the work that needs to be done. A book, whether it is a novel, memoir, or a nonfiction proposal, needs to be as finished as possible to sell, so it is a very important part of the process and of the author/agent relationship.

How important is a writer’s platform to you? Does online presence (social media, websites, etc.) make a difference in the success of a book? Or perhaps more specifically, in an authors ability to land an agent?

To me the writing is and will always be the most important thing in taking on a writer, but with that said, a writer’s platform is very important, especially in nonfiction. A nonfiction writer has to have a platform in the field they are working and writing about, and social media is a must. With fiction it can help, but it is also very important that a new fiction writer has sold stories to reputable reviews and magazines and is working to build up a readership. If a writer does not have a social media presence or following, I do want to make sure they have the interest and understanding to begin the process and to have a presence as soon as possible. It is an integral part of the publishing process and I want to know they are willing to participate in it.