Driving 2000 kilometers for a glimpse inside the minds of 3 agents and an editor

On the weekend, I went to a one-day writing workshop in beautiful Belgrade Lakes, Maine. (2000 km return). There were a couple of agents there who are otherwise closed to queries, but after such a workshop, there’s a window when participants can submit to them. Hence, my motivation, and I’ve never gone to any writing workshops south of the border, so this seemed fairly close (before the endless driving). I met lots of great kid-lit people, and there was a ton of useful information offered at the workshop. (which was very well organized, with about 40 writers there as well as 4 agents/editor – Rubin Pfeffer, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Amaryah Orenstein and Christine Krones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I scribbled down lots of notes, and I thought some of the points might be valuable/interesting to other kids’ writers.

One section of the day was devoted to a “gong show.” A reader read the opening lines of several “blind” submissions, and the panelists put up a hand when they would have stopped reading had this appeared in their slush pile. Only one story was read in its entirety – I was surprised that all four panelists were in agreement most of the time. Here are some of their reasons for refusal, as well as a few other tidbits I took away from the workshop.

*confusing, hard to follow – opening has to invite the reader into the story world; has to be a strong hook.  Don’t scatter too much information in opening pages and confuse the reader just because you know exactly what’s going on.

*1st person is hard to do in a picture book; younger sibling saving the day overdone; keep the same tone throughout a picture book; visualize the art even if you’re not an artist

*slow, didactic openings a no-no. Avoid telling in favor of showing. Avoid repetition and don’t give entire story away in opening pages.

*avoid cliché openings, familiar tone, passive rather than active story. READ A LOT in your genre

*check and re-check for typos, punctuation, etc. These errors aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but off-putting just the same. DO NOT DO A MASS SUBMISSION – personalize your query as much as possible

*in a query letter, start with a short snappy pitch, rather than publication bio. Keep it brief, and state genre and word/page count in the query. (ex. middle grade contemporary, 40K words). Think of your query like a movie trailer – read the  jacket flap of books similar to yours, don’t reveal spoilers. Practice by reviewing your book as if it was a NYT book review. Limit the characters mentioned in your query; stick with the protagonist and the essence of his/her story.

*avoid over-dramatization; don’t break building tension with seemingly mundane details (that may be relevant later, but not in opening pages, please)

*surprisingly, a couple of them said they like puns!

*23,000 short for a MG – should be 30K plus; 14 year old protagonist is on the high side for MG

*one agent said she can receive 500 queries a week! (which means you have a 1/10,000 chance of being picked up by an agent, I suppose, if they only take on one or two new clients/year)

* they all said a great story trumps commercial potential as they’re choosing projects to acquire

*PB must be “read-aloudable;” slow narratives don’t work these days.

*avoid changing POV, stick to one voice

* in writing non-fiction, find the story within the facts to keep it interesting

*unless you’re writing something re pop culture, a writer’s social media presence isn’t as important as the story they’ve written.  Submissions by famous people don’t always get accepted:) (if the writing is poor)

*there are so many steps to a book being acquired by a publishing house – marketing, sales, design, etc. The editor spoke of costing out each element of a book’s production. Ultimately (and sadly), publishing is a business.

*follow trends, but keep in mind that books are published a couple of years after the contract is signed, so you have to almost be ahead of the trends.

*it’s important to be upfront and honest – tell the person to whom you’re submitting if it’s been submitted elsewhere (publishers or agents), and especially if you get another offer! A publisher won’t be happy if you’re about to sign a contract and suddenly an agent appears.

*If you’re looking for an agent, best not to submit to publishers at the same time as the “ground is already scorched” if that agent then approaches publishers with your manuscript. (the big 5 publishers are open only to agented submissions anyway)

*one agent said she only skims the query and goes straight to the pages. If she likes those, she’ll then read the query in more detail.

*in query instructions, they all asked that we indicate the number of pages in the complete manuscript rather than the word count

Hope you find some of this information useful!

4 thoughts on “Driving 2000 kilometers for a glimpse inside the minds of 3 agents and an editor

  1. mirkabreen

    All of this^ information is useful and spot-on. Also, all the agents you mentioned are very strong ones. The sheer number of queries is what necessitates the brevity and the surgical precision of the pitches, and the powerful grab-hold of first pages.
    Some years ago. when I was querying publishers, (before I was agented) someone said the odds of traditional publishing offer from slush was around one in twelve thousand. I decided to query as if I had never heard this. The number you gave for one of the agents (one in ten thousand) isn’t even a publishing contract, but for an offer of representation, only some of which may eventually lead to publication. I’d suggest trying to forget these odds and do your best.

  2. Hi, Mirka – I got some really great feedback from one of the agents post-Belgrade Lakes. I kept that advice in mind and did another re-write last week, shaved 2500 words, and ultimately have a stronger manuscript – so that in itself (possibly) made the long drive worthwhile. So far, I seem to be doing okay without an agent, but it would be nice to crack that broader US market one of these days…

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