You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: Should You Query a Series?

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Ricki,

I’ve been told my WIP is too long.  I am currently trying to decide if I should edit it down to more agent-friendly word count or split it into two books.  The trouble is, if I were to split it, the first book would end on a such a cliffhanger that it would most certainly require a sequel.  I just don’t think it would stand alone.  That said, what are your thoughts on querying a series?

–L.H.

A: Thanks for the question!

In terms of ending on a cliffhanger, I can see how that might be tough to hook an agent as a stand-alone novel.  The first thing I’d say is—certainly—splitting a longer manuscript into two books isn’t going to be as simple as pasting half into one Word document and half into another.

Doing the splits with your manuscript isn't easy!

I’ve talked about this before on the blog: You’ve got to have two plots, or arcs—and you’ll want to make sure the first one is resolved because, in a series, each book must be able to stand on its own.  You also need to make sure you have an overarching arc that lends itself to a sequel or two.

As far as querying a series is concerned, you most likely don’t want to tell agents it’s a series.  Not yet.  Most agents don’t want to know you’ve got a seven-book series in the works when you query them because they want to be convinced the first is worth their time.

Being that there are this many stars in this movie and no one's ever heard of it (have they??) you'd thinking keeping mum wouldn't be a good idea. But in terms of querying a series, it is.

HOWEVER, when Suzi Agent is interested in your book and trends toward offering representation, she will ask you what else you’re working on—usually by way of a phone call—and that would be the time to spill.

Waiting until this conversation for the sequel/series reveal will work for you in a few ways.

First, it shows you’re savvy—you didn’t bombard her with grandiose plans of your multimillion-dollar series, like so many amateurs do.  Nope—you did what you had to do in order to ensure the first book was submission ready.  Go, you! And that tells her you’ve most likely been (or will be) just as careful in developing the rest of the books as you were with book 1.

As well, it shows you’re a hard worker.  Plotting out a series isn’t easy.  If you’ve got the chops to do something like that, it demonstrates you’re serious and tough—definitely in the top 10 requirements for being a novelist.

Hope this helps—and good luck with however you decide to handle your sitch!

Click here. You just have to.

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: What Do I Do When I’m Stuck in Query Hell?

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Hi Ricki,

I have written a book that has received the highest praise from readers all over the world. It even came first in the UKAuthors contest in the Historical category.

In the last 10 years, I have had two agents, both of whom were extremely impressed with my work but could not find a publisher for it. Now even agents shy away from it. I am not giving up hope nor will I stop plugging it. I am writing to ask if you can figure out why a work that garners so much praise should face constant rejection.

—E.J.

A: Thank you for your e-mail!

The (somewhat frustrating) answer is that it could simply be the subjective nature of this business.

We have heard it time and time again: not everything we write is publishable.  Particularly if it’s a first book.  As unsettling as that is to think or hear about one’s “baby,” it’s true.

However, you have a lot going in your favor on this one.  While I am not familiar with most of the reviewers you listed in your e-mail, you certainly do have a lot of them.  And they don’t seem to be your mom/your brother/your best friend since high school praising your book.  It seems you have a wide array of people who see the merit in it.

Another thing you have going for you is that you have had two agents.  Of course, I don’t know the circumstances of why you no longer have them or how long ago that was, but that in itself says you are a good writer—and certainly capable of getting an agent.  In an industry where it’s a painful process to even get one, you’ve had two.  So, you’re that much farther ahead of the game.

As I’m sure you know, getting an agent interested in your book and then getting a publishing house interested in it can be an arduous task because these people need to fall in love with your work—and love it as much as you do.  It could be that you just haven’t found that “right person” yet who “gets” your writing yet.

All that said, there are a couple of things you can do; however, unfortunately, none of them will offer immediate results (but as a writer, I’m sure you know that already).

YOUR OPTIONS

1.  Self-publish it. This isn’t the best option for everyone; however, depending on what you want to do with your career or how well you think you’d be able to sell your book on your own (for instance, if you do a lot of speaking engagements, you could peddle it at those, etc.), you might want to go that route.  If you sell a lot of books and build up your platform a bit, you might even have publishing companies approaching you to re-pub at one of their houses.  This is rare, but it does happen.

Just keep swimming . . .

2.  Keep doing what you’re doing: query, query, query. Look at where in the query process your book seems to be falling short.  Is it the query itself?  Is it after you send in a partial or a full?  Research the heck out of agents, and keep looking for that special (agent) someone who will connect with your manuscript.

3.  Appeal to others. Send the manuscript through a round of critiques with your critique group or a few of your trusted writer friends.  Have each person give you an overall critique, and perhaps give them a few things to be on the lookout for specifically (i.e., characterization, setting, etc.).  Take the feedback you’ve gotten in agent rejections as well as the criticism your crit partners offer and consider having another go at the editing before you query again.  Perhaps the manuscript wasn’t as “ready” as you thought.

4.  Put this manuscript away and write something else. This one makes a lot of sense, but it’s also one that no one wants to hear.  You’ve obviously proven you can write, so write something else and hook an agent with that manuscript instead.  Once you’ve shown you can deliver a marketable product, agents and editors are much more likely to be interested in something they might have shied away from at first.  I’m not saying to sell out or write to trends, but get your juices a-flowing with something else.  Getting your mind off the first one is most likely going to be a welcome distraction when you’re stuck in the depths of query hell.

Thank you very much for the question, and I wish you luck—however you decide to move forward.

Dante forgot to add writers to his ninth circle of hell in his INFERNO.

You Have a Question; I Have an Answer: Where Do I Start?

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Hi Ricki!

I know I haven’t been participating much in the online writer group, and this is honestly because I feel completely out of my depth.  I never worked on newspaper staff, I didn’t major in English, I don’t work in journalism—I took one creative writing class in college and loved it, but that’s about the extent of my training.

I want to break into the writing world, but I really don’t have a clue where to start. Do you have any suggestions for starting points?  I don’t just mean for writing a novel; I’m also interested in freelance or nonfiction writing.

—M

A: Thanks for the question!

First of all, none of this talk about how you didn’t major in English and blah blah blah.  That doesn’t matter!  I’ve been hearing a lot lately, and it’s a little disturbing to me.

Just because Molly happens to be a professor doesn't mean you have to be one!

What matters is you are into writing now and you want to learn the things you don’t know—and that is AWESOME.

I did major in English, but I didn’t always enjoy everything in my program of study.  Nothing against my alma mater—John Carroll University has a great program—but my interests always lay in writing, and I did not get to do enough of it.

Thinking back, it was probably my fault.  I was good at all the analysis and everything, but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in all this that I learned most of what I know today.  Teaching helped with that a lot—and quitting teaching helped with it even more!

The point is, you’re driven.  And that hunger to learn about writing will take you farther than if you were some Waiting-for-Godot-loving (I’m sorry—I hated reading that the 50 billion times I had to read it in college) English major.  So don’t feel hopeless!

But I digress.

As far as getting started with it all, there are couple of things I would suggest.

1) Go to a writers’ conference. There’s nothing like meeting other writers, attending workshops, hearing established authors speak, and schmoozing with industry professionals to get your creative juices flowing!  Although they can be pricey, the amount you can learn in one short weekend or a week-long writing retreat is totally worth it.  In addition to learning about the business as well as the craft of writing, socializing with others and hearing multiple perspectives from writers at all levels can put you on the right path for your own writing future.

Here's a great conference to try!

2) Read about writing. Immerse yourself in writing books, magazines, and blogs.  In terms of your interest in freelancing, I have two book suggestions offhand: Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer and Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing (edited by Michelle Ruberg).  Both of these titles are chockfull of tips on how to generate ideas for articles, how to go about writing them, whom to query, etc.

3) Figure out what kinds of things you can write. Read magazines, newspapers, blogs—find your  niche.  Study the articles that are similar to what you’d like to be writing in the magazines for which you aspire to write.  You’d be surprised at how the ideas will flow.  If you want to try your hand at writing a novel or a nonfiction book, read several types of books until you find one that calls to you.  And when you do?  Read even more of that kind of book.

4.) Find your markets. But once you know what you want to write, you’ll need to check out a book like Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books), which is a reference book published annually (you can also get a Web subscription to it) that lists and categorizes (by genre, region, type, etc.) where you can sell your work, what publications are specifically seeking, what they pay, and how to contact them.

5.) Learn to write an effective query letter. When you’re ready to pitch something, you need to query editors.  You can find several great resources on how to write a query letter (since that’s a whole other animal to attack)—there’s actually a section in Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing that discusses writing query letters.

6.) Actually do it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at first.  But if you’ve got that nagging feeling in your gut that says you have to write, get your be-hind in front of your laptop and start typing.  Join a writing group—online or IRL—take a class, whatever.  Just let those words out before your brain explodes. 🙂

But don't let it make you insane . . .

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: How to Break Up Long Manuscript Using Arcs

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Ricki, I’m currently editing my manuscript (it’s YA fantasy), which many people have suggested might be too long.  It’s intended to be a series, so I’m trying to figure out if I can split it—but I’m thinking I might be too close to it.

In your post on editing last week, you mentioned the word “arc.” You said if you had two arcs, you could maybe split your manuscript into two.  Can you explain this a bit?

–A.C.

A: Thanks for the question!

When I said arc, I was referring to the dramatic arc, or plot.  If you already know this is a series, it sounds to me like there must be some over-arching plot and a lot of little sub plots.  This is good!  It means you have a lot of material to work with, and that will help you in your editing of the first book.

This will probably ring a bell from seventh-grade English, but each story arc is made up of these six basic parts:

  • Exposition
  • Conflict
  • Rising Action/Complications
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution

For instance, let’s look back at the Harry Potter series (and I’m assuming, if you’re writing YA fantasy, you’ve read Harry Potter.  If not, you need to drop everything and read it NOW because you should be using these books as your bible!  Also, if you haven’t, *SPOILER ALERT*).

But I digress.

In the HP series, you’ve got the overarching plot of Harry vs. Voldemort; but, in each of the books, J.K. Rowling focuses on something different.  Although you get that it’s Harry vs. Voldemort, it’s a different piece of the puzzle each time.

In the first one, you’ve got Harry learning he is a wizard, learning about the existence of Hogwarts/this whole wizard world, and learning about the overarching theme (Voldemort is a bad guy, who seeks to return to power and destroy him).

And while “Harry vs. Voldemort” is the bigger-picture plot, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s arc/plot in the dramatic-arc breakdown looks something like this:

EXPOSITION

  • Harry’s an orphan
  • His aunt & uncle are heinous to him
  • Oh yeah—and he’s a wizard

CONFLICT

  • They learn of the attempted robbery of the Sorceror’s Stone from Gringotts Bank
  • This incites talk of why someone would want to steal it (because it has the power to give a wizard what he wants most) as well as who might want to steal it (He Who Must Not Be Named—a.k.a. Voldemort)
  • Harry learns from Ron and Hermione that people say Voldemort is planning to return to power

RISING ACTION/COMPLICATIONS

  • Harry learns the ropes of coming into his wizardry
  • Malfoy’s a pain in the ass & Snape’s not much better
  • Voldemort lost his power after killing Harry’s parents and trying to kill Harry, and he’s probably not too thrilled that his attempt on Harry’s life failed
  • Harry, Ron, & Hermione suspect Snape is after the Sorceror’s Stone because he hates Harry, and they think he tried to sabotage Harry with a spell during the Quidditch match
  • Harry and his friends venture past the three-headed dog guardian of the Sorcerer’s Stone because they believe Snape is going to steal it (the series of challenges they face on the way to the stone, etc.)

CLIMAX

  • Harry finds Professor Quirrell is about to steal the SS—not Snape—and it’s because he serves Voldemort
  • Voldy is feeding off Quirrell’s energy, and he wants the SS so he can restore his power and come back to life—ya know, without residing in the back of Quirrell’s head
  • Quirrell/Voldemort tries to take the stone from Harry, but Q/V burns up when he touches him

FALLING ACTION

  • Harry’s in the hospital
  • Dumbledore tells Harry that Voldemort is likely to return—and he’s probably pissed at Harry

RESOLUTION

  • Harry goes back to his aunt/uncle’s for the summer
  • Even though they’re awful, he’s happier because he knows he has Hogwarts and a whole wizarding world of his own to look forward to in the fall.

My suggestion would be to read (or reread) Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.

You said yourself you’re too close to your book right now to know what to cut, and this can be a good break.  But it’s not just a break from your book—it’s research.

Read those two books and study J.K. Rowling’s use of exposition—how she sprinkles it in.  She really does make each book capable of being a stand-alone, but they each fit into the overarching plot—and that’s what you’ll want to do as well.

I would also suggest, for the sake of your own series, plot out Chamber of Secrets (and maybe even more of the HPs—even if you use Wikipedia summaries for the rest of the series) in the same way I just did above.  This will get you accustomed to figuring out how to break down stories this way—and that will be key in breaking apart your own.

Once you get away from your book and immerse yourself in this task, you’ll have a fresh pair of eyes for the trimming and tightening—I promise!

I hope this helps!

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: Where to Find Script Agents/Managers

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  Hi Ricki. Even though I live in LA and am a screenwriter, I need your assistance in approaching agents from CAA, WME, UTA, et al who would be appropriate.  In other words—a few suggestions?  I got the idea to approach you after reading your interview with Dorian Karchmar.  I need an agent and am clueless as far as whom to approach.  Would you know, and could you help?

–Anonymous

A: Thanks for the question!

I’m not as versed in the area of script agents/script managers, as I’ve only interviewed literary agents and authors at this point.  However, I’m very interested in screenwriting—and I will be interviewing some script managers for Writer’s Digest Books’ 2011 Screenwriter’s & Playwright’s Market—so I guess it’s time to dive into that subject!

*Some* literary agencies handle screenplays - but in my experience, most do not. You just have to do the research to find out!

On the GLA blog, where I’m assuming you read my Karchmar interview, Chuck Sambuchino lists “Screenwriting and Script Agents” as one of his categories located on the left of the blog.  If you click on that heading, he has some interviews with script agents as well as a few other informative posts in the area of screenwriting.  Maybe that could be a lead?

As well, in addition to Guide to Literary Agents, Sambuchino also puts out the aforementioned Screenwriter’s and Playwright’s Market, which is a huge database of script agents among other things.  I’ve got the 2009 edition right here, and one major section of it lists agents/script managers.  Many of the listings even show what genres the agents accept, so that should help you find someone tailored to your (awesome!) projects.

If you can get your hands on one of these babies, you'll be able to find exactly what you're looking for.

Good luck to you!

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: To Query or Not to Query

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q: Does my novel need to be complete when submitting a query to an agent? If not, how close does it need to be to completion?

–E.L.

A: Thanks for the question!

Yes. Yes! YES!

No, I’m not reenacting the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally; I’m saying what every literary agent in the world is thinking with regard to completion of a manuscript and querying.

You absolutely need to complete your novel before querying agents; not doing so could lead to big trouble.

HERE’S WHY

If you’re not currently finished writing your manuscript, that means you’ve got a ways to go in terms of rewriting.

While there’s no hard and fast rule as far as how many times one must rewrite her manuscript, if you haven’t taken an ax to it at least twice since first writing the words “the end”—twice at the very least—then your manuscript isn’t ready.

Agents want your work to be as close to perfect as possible.  If they are going to invest the time to read your manuscript, they want to know you’ve invested the time to edit it.  If you haven’t, they’ll be able to tell—and you’re just asking to be rejected.

Rule of thumb (according to pretty much everyone): If you aren’t sick to death of your novel, you aren’t ready to query.

Get it out, baby.

Now, if you are rewriting and you know exactly where you’re going with the editing (and, perhaps, you’re just getting antsy because you’re sick to death of your novel), you still aren’t ready to query.

The reason being, what if you do so and an agent asks for a partial? Or—gasp!—a full?  Stranger things have happened.

If you have to write back with, “Just kidding!  It’s not finished!  Glad you’re interested, though.  I’ll send it when I’m done,” they’ll more than likely respond with, “Just kidding!  I’m not interested! Don’t bother querying again!”

That is, if they respond at all.

BOTTOM LINE

Agents have very little time, and if you’ve hooked them with your query, you have a microscopic window of opportunity to sell them on your work.  They want to know you can finish a novel, because that shows you are professional and capable.  If an agent is interested in your work and then discovers you queried before you completed it, she might feel betrayed—or, at the very least, annoyed.

SO…

Demonstrate you’ve got what it takes to follow through by writing and rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting)—then query.  That way, you’ll be sending out the best possible representation of your work, and you won’t burn any bridges.

You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: How to Attack a Large-Scale Project

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q: I have a question about seeking representation on a unique project that is a content campaign, which consists of three finished screenplays (the fourth is in the works), two graphic novels (one complete), a novel (mid-way through) and a number of commercials. All share the same origination point.

And I have absolutely no idea how to query an agent about this beast. I am almost done with a 50-page book (I self publish and print a number of copies so I can send them out) that is basically a project proposal with samples of the marketing campaign, the commercials, a chapter from the novel, etc. It will have a lot of eye candy, but for the life of me, I don’t know how to ask…

–R.C.

A: I’m not sure how helpful I can be, as I don’t know much about content campaigns, but I will do my darnedest!

I guess my advice to you would be: Figure out where you most want to go with the project and finish that aspect of it.

For instance, you say you’ve got three screenplays completed.  Pitch to/query ONE of them to a script agent or script manager and go from there.  Do not mention any other part of the project.  (I’ll talk more about this in a minute.)  If the novel or graphic novel is the crux of it for you, finish the manuscript and query a lit agent with that.  (Or, since you already have one finished graphic novel, send that out). Again, do not mentioning the rest of your material.

You aren’t being sneaky here; generally, agents don’t want to know you have a bunch of other books in the series or screenplays, etc. – not in your query letter, anyway.  Save that for the phone conversation where the agent is interested in whatever you’ve pitched and wants to sign you.  That is when he/she will ask you what else you have, and that is when you should be prepared to present all the other stuff.  The agent might have a better idea in terms of market, and once he is sold on the idea, he can work with you on how best to develop all the unfinished pieces.

Make sense?

So, figure out what is the most important, polish it, query the appropriate person with it, and then you and the agent can figure out the best route to take with the rest.  You don’t want to overdo it when you’re starting out.  Get the agent interested in one aspect, and you should be golden.

Here’s a link with lots of info about whom to query in terms of screenplays, etc., should that be the route you choose.

Hope this helps, and good luck!

This dude might look happy, but he got to this point by adding one plate at a time.