Saturday, May 13, 2006

Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled pages longing to be read

In my last post, I talked about my Great Expectations, and called myself the Miss Haversham of writing. I thought I was clever, but judging by your comments, my bitter frustration with the process must have shown through my witty repartee. I didn't mean for the story to focus so much on me - rejection is a part of this life, and I walked in with both eyes open. We all deal with rejection, and with the accompanying self doubt. I hope that by sharing my own experiences, I can help someone else deal with their own doubt and frustration when it finds them - and if they aspire, it will.

Since I focused the spotlight on my partials, I think it might be a good idea to talk about what I actually send out when an agent requests a partial. I don't take a haphazard approach to my writing, or to my interaction with other professionals in the business. I want them to know that I'm a professional dedicated to both the art, and the business, of writing. I also want to grab their attention, and get them coming back for more.

When I put together a packet for an agent, I want it to look as crisp and as professional as anything they'd receive from their attorney. If you want be treated as a professional, it's important to look and act that way. Enough on that, I'm sure you've read it all before. Lets talk about what they get when they open that crisp, manila envelope.

Depending on whether an agent requests the first three chapters or the first fifty pages, I send very specific packets. First, they get a brief cover letter on top-quality letterhead. Most of my cover letter is drawn from my query letter - and from previous incarnations of my query. I want the agent to remember me from my query, but this is also an opportunity to tell him or her things I didn't include in my query (like the comparison between my book and Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys). I'm a little braver in my cover letter than I am in a query. If I screw up on the cover letter, I have a backup right there in the agent's hands - the first pages of my book. The query letter has to stand alone.

I have a two-page, single-spaced synopsis that I send if -and only if - the agent requests it. I don't have a one-page synopsis, I don't have a five-page synopsis, and I don't have a chapter breakdown. If an agent asks for a synopsis, they get two pages that tell the who, what, when, where, why, and how it all ends. If an agent asks for a five-page synopsis, they get two pages. If they ask for one page, they get two. This is the one writer's neurosis I refuse to adopt. Do so at your own risk, but so far I've had no complaints (I've also had no offers of representation, but I doubt my synopsis is holding me back).

I always include my prologue (the single most revised ten pages of writing in the history of mankind). Prologue means what came before, and mine stretches the boundaries of the definition. Chronologically, much of the story takes place earlier, but thematically it sets the stage as surely as Shakespeare's narrators. It is all story - not a recitation of facts. If your prologue is one of those dry back-story encyclopedias, the kind that are so popular with fantasy and science fiction writers, I wouldn't recommend you include it with a partial submission.

Transit Gloria is written in third person but the prologue is in first person, quickly creating an intimate connection between you and the narrator. I hope it draws you in until you're sitting with your face too close to the page - and then jolts you out of your seat.

The first chapter opens like the sky in the eye of a hurricane. After the violence of the prologue, everything seems calm (and it is after - years after). Immediately, the story begins weaving its web of deception and denial - the hallmarks of the American family. As your eyes follow the web toward its center you are drawn into the past. By the end of the third chapter, I've introduced you to every major character, and I've shown you the scope of their story - the thirty years that will take them from a loving family, to one that is torn apart by adultery, divorce, and murder - and then back together for their last chance at redemption.

If I'm going to send fifty pages, I get to carry you, the reader, a little farther. I get to take you to the edge of the abyss and show you the dark chasm below. I don't let my submission close arbitrarily at the end of page fifty, I make sure the last paragraph you read leaves you wondering, What's next?

Using these formulas, I've progressed to that level of hell where the rejections you receive come with nice, pesonalized responses. Based on the expert opinions of those who've gone before me, that's a good thing. From the bucket-o-reasons that agents dip into for rejection slips, I'm getting notes telling me how talented I am, and how much they like my voice (and they're using my name in places other than the salutation - please!)

Is what I'm doing working? I don't know. I'm a results oriented guy. When I get an agent, I'll tell you it worked. Until then, I'm just telling you what I'm doing. If you learn from me, excellent. If you can teach me, I'm listening. As one of the instructors in officer candidate school told my class of young mavericks, "Many are called, but few are chosen." One other thing I learned in the army is that sometimes the guy who wins the battle is the one who refuses to quit fighting.

One final note: Although there are times online when I should slow down, hit the spell-check, or proofread one more time - the same is seldom true about writing I send out to publishers and agents. I'm very careful. I read it twice, and if it's something new (even a revised query letter), I ask someone else to read it. I double-check the agent's name and address (a lesson learned the hard way), and make sure it is the same on the envelopes and letters - especially important if you are preparing multiple packets at once. I can imagine nothing as disheartening as receiving a rejection letter from agent A in an SASE you prepared for agent B, because you know the other rejection letter is already in the mail.

Mark Pettus,
Saturday, May 13, 2006

11 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Dawno, Blogger Bernita, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Erik Ivan James, Blogger DAVID THAYER, Blogger S. W. Vaughn, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Mark Pettus, Anonymous Kelly Parra, Blogger Mark Pettus, Blogger Naomi,

Let me know what you think

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at 11:14 PM Blogger Dawno said...

Well and smartly done plan. Will continue to watch with interest.

Wow - you've got a lotof buttons over there - how's your traffic?

at 8:22 AM Blogger Bernita said...

I also include a copy of their request for the partial/full.

at 9:06 AM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Dawno - I've got a lot of buttons over there. Full of sound and fury... yada, yada, yada

I get more traffic as a result of visiting and commenting on other people's blogs than from any other source.

Bernita - Thanks. That's a good tip.

at 12:45 PM Blogger Erik Ivan James said...

Good post, Mark. You have a "strategic business plan", which you follow. I suspect most don't. My experience is that people who have a plan---follow it, modifying as circumstances indicate---will eventually reach the goal.

at 1:37 PM Blogger DAVID THAYER said...

The first fifty pages observation was astute; hey, send 'em fifty one.

at 7:03 PM Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Good strategy, Mark. I like the synopsis idea. Synopses are such a pain in the a**, and everyone wants something different. Don't see why they should grouse as long as they get what they want: a succinct and compelling overview of the whole story.

Keep us posted on the progression of the hunt! :-) And thanks for the inspiration.

I see you've got your Genny award posted... :-)

at 1:16 AM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

Great strategy, Mark. Although I always sent what the agent asked for. Yeah, I've heard other writers say, if they want my book the agent will go to special lengths to get it...but why chance it?

This is my thought process, I'm glad yours is working for you. But agents are pounded with queries and submissions everyday, sometimes they are just waiting for a submission to let them say, "Rejection". =)

at 10:09 AM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Erik -
Plan your work
Work your plan
Shut your mouth
Drink your beer.


David, S.W., and Kelly- Thank you.

Content is king. If they're not in love they won't buy no matter how perfectly you follow the guidelines. If they are in love, an extra page isn't going to chase them off.

I've read interviews with scores of agents, and interviewed a half dozen myself. I remember very few who fret about the details. Almost to an agent, they tell the interviewer they like those things, but wouldn't turn down a book they liked because the author didn't use the correct font, or sent fifty-four pages instead of fifty.

I'm not recommending anyone ignore guidelines, but I think most writers (me included) get neurotic when submitting to agents. They're people, business people, and we've all done business before. Be professional, be responsive, and expect them to do the same.

at 12:03 PM Anonymous Kelly Parra said...

True, if you they request a one-page syn and you send them two, that probably doesn't matter. =D

My concern is when they request the longer syns...5 -10 page. Usually if they ask for the longer ones, they want to know more meat to the story. But I think it may mean more when submitting to an editor, than an agent. The editor really wants to know what's going to happen before they make an offer.

Either way, I'm rooting for you to find the right agent, Mark. =)

at 2:25 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Kelly, I regretted writing my last comment as soon as I posted it. I didn't mean to argue with you - you've been extraordinarily helpful in my search for representation, and I want you to know how appreciative I am.

I can't wait for the opportunity to start complying with editors' requests. At that point, I might actually write a real chapter by chapter outline.

at 4:08 PM Blogger Naomi said...

Good post, Mark. Lots of useful stuff in there for me, beavering away on elegant query letters and as close to a concise synopsis as I get...


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