Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pitch Perfect

There seems to be a lot of chatter out there on how to write a cover letter.  How long should a letter be? Do you include comp titles? What if you have no "platform"?  And of course, every agent out there seems to have different submission guidelines which makes this whole process all the more labor intensive. 

Last year, I received the following query.  I'm sharing it here because I think it's pretty damn good. In fact, it was so good, I used 90% of it as my pitch letter to editors and ended up selling the book in (agent brag!) record time at auction last week.  So, here it is:

Dear Ms. Weed,

The work of your client Lynne Griffin reflects themes and sensibilities similar to mine. I'm writing to ask if you would like to take a look at my contemporary women's novel, The Underside of Joy.

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family's market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.

The Underside of Joy is not a fairy tale version of step-motherhood pitting good against evil, but an exploration of a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the "real" mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars -- both physical and emotional -- to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.

I'm an advertising copywriter and brand consultant. I also work as the senior editor and writer for a newly launched eldercare website, But writing fiction is my passion. I was accepted to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference in 2006, and attended, by invitation, Elle Newmark's Lake Como Writers Conference in 2009 with author Janet Fitch. I was granted a residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in 2004 and recently served as a judge for the San Diego Book Awards short story competition. 

The first chapter of The Underside of Joy is pasted into this email. The completed manuscript runs about 82,000 words. Would you like to see it? Thanks so much for your time and consideration.

Warm regards,

Seré Prince Halverson

With Seré's letter as example, here are the top 5 things I think a writer should convey in his or her cover letter:

1. Personalize--By mentioning another client's work, in this case Lynne Griffin, the writer shows that she's done her research on the agent she's submitting to.

2.  Think jacket copy--This first paragraph sounds like it belongs on the back of the book.  And guess what? There's a real chance it might end up there! Seriously. Seré is thinking of the book and how it would sell to readers, which is kind of empowering for a writer when you think about it.

3.  Discuss themes--In the second paragraph, Seré lets me know what, beyond the plot, the book is about. In this case, it touches on several themes--motherhood, depression and family secrets.

4. Tell me about yourself--The author doesn't have an MFA or stories published in journals, but what she does have is a passion for writing, which she tells me, but also shows through her attendance several conferences, applying for a residency, and being actively involved in the writing community.

5 Be nice!--Seré is polite and professional and sounds like someone I want to work with.  I am a nice person and I prefer working with nice people and I know this sounds weird, but from experience reading letters like this over the last 12 years, I can spot people that are going to be really difficult. There, I said it.  My favorite was one last week where the author pitched me and asked that I be in touch with what books I'd worked on in the past and why I would be a good fit for her. Obviously in that case, I didn't need my sixth sense to find the delete button, but you get what I am saying... (you can and should ask those questions once you have an interested agent and are deciding if it's a good fit. More on that later.)

Oh, and for those of you who are frustrated with all the different submission guidelines out there, I want to point out that my guidelines don't ask for the first chapter but Seré sent it anyway, and I am so glad that she did. From the first paragraph, I knew she could write, and I requested the entire thing and read it immediately.  So I am going to add one more rule of thumb here:

6. Don't get bogged down in all of these rules and guidelines. You know your book best and how best to make it shine. I suspect Seré knew that if I read a bit of her work, I'd be hooked, and she was right.
With that, here's the first page of The Underside of Joy:

I recently read a study that claimed happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics -- a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can only be as deep as your gene pool.
For three years, I did back flips in the deep end of happiness.
The joy was palpable and often loud. Other times it softened -- Zach’s milky breath on my neck, or Annie’s hair entwined in my fingers as I braided it, or Joe humming some old Crowded House song in the shower while I brushed my teeth. The steam on the mirror blurred my vision, misted my reflection, like a soft-focus photograph smoothing out my wrinkles, but even those didn’t bother me. You can’t have crow’s feet if you don’t smile, and I smiled a lot.
             I also know now, years later, something else: The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chatting with Sarah Jio and What it Takes to Be a Productive Writer

Today I am chatting with Sarah Jio, debut author of The Violets of March (Plume, April, 2011).  Sarah never ceases to amaze me or her editor. She is the mother of three young boys (Colby is three weeks old) a journalist, a blogger, a cook, has already written her second book (now under contract with her publisher) and is working on her third one.   Yes, she makes the rest of us look bad. So I wanted to talk to her about how she does it all, and if life in the magazine trenches helped train her for this busy schedule or if she was just born that way.

Q: You come from the magazine world, which is how you and I met (Thank you, Allison Winn Scotch for the introduction!)  Do you think your background as a magazine writer helped your fiction writing? And how?

A: Yes, absolutely. I think writing for magazines these past 11 years has definitely prepared me for fiction. You have to be enormously creative--and quick--to do well in the magazine world (which is so competitive these days), and I’ve made it my business to keep churning out good ideas and creative copy at a rapid pace (for instance, I write 5-7 blog posts a day for, so I have to be quick, or else I’d be writing all day and into the night!). I also think it’s helpful to have my head in the news every day, following trends and current events for the articles I write. This also helps feed fiction ideas—everything from character quirks to plot.

But after reporting for magazines for so long, I have to say it felt like a vocational vacation to transition from strict reporting of facts to writing novels, which is basically making stuff up entirely. When writing THE VIOLETS OF MARCH, I absolutely luxuriated in the fact that I could let my story go wherever my mind wanted to take it. That was very freeing and fun for me, and made the process feel more like a hobby than work. I think this is ultimately why I tend to write so fast (that is, why I write first drafts so fast--there is always an editing process, as you know!). I just find the whole process of putting a novel together so enjoyable and satisfying and I can’t wait to get the concept to the page. There are grueling parts, too, yes, but 80 percent of the time I love it.

Q: A lot of authors ask me to help them break into magazines. To me it seems so hard, especially now. What advice would you give book authors trying to break into the mag world?

A: I get several emails a week from people who want to break into the magazine world. Some are stay-at-home moms who dream about writing articles while their kiddos nap (been there, done that, um, like today!); others are new college grads who want to become freelance writers. I always try to offer a few encouraging words, but the truth is that it’s very hard to break into magazines these days--hard, but not impossible. I had the advantage of starting out with a degree in journalism, but when I set out to freelance for major magazines straight out of college, I had little more than some good ideas and determination. What worked for me, and I think can work for book authors, too, is just to reach out to editors with excellent, well-thought-out story ideas. Speaking to book authors specifically, there really are many opportunities in major women’s magazines for first-person or essay-type pieces. Think about what unique experience/advice you can offer and craft an un-turndownable pitch that will hook a magazine editor. Also, it may sound minor, but having a terrific headline and subhead for your pitch can really help sell your idea. I’ve sold stories based entirely on the concept of a great headline (true story!).

Q: You manage to write for magazines, keep a blog, raise three boys  and write books at record speed. 
I often joke that most of the authors I work with have superwomen capes in their closets, but you take the cake in your ability to manage it all. (And if you've read Tina Fey's piece in the NYer, I do not mean this as an insult. I am truly in awe!)

I have a 4 year old, a 2 year old and an infant, a more than full-time load of magazine work and then my novels, so yes, it’s a wild and busy life. I have no magic skills or superwoman powers, unfortunately. Oh how I wish. My secret to getting it all done probably boils down to a crazy work ethic (AKA, no life), and my motto to get my butt in my chair and write whenever I have a bit of time away from the kids (which frequently boils down to naptime and nighttime). I’ve also trained myself to write in fragmented bits, which as many writers know, isn’t easy. But, I’d rather hammer out a few pages here and there—as annoying as it is to start and stop—than get nothing done. I also happen to have an amazing husband who is very hands-on with the boys, and I tend to do a lot of my fiction work on the weekends when he’s here to be on boy patrol. I can also say that I watch very little TV (except my guilty pleasure: The Bachelor), see my friends less often than I’d like, and frequently work late into the night, which is the only time when the house is truly peaceful (then again, now that we have a newborn, that’s not entirely true!)

Q: You have been very busy these last few months, doing an amazing job laying the ground work for The Violets of March, contacting bloggers, getting into magazines, and getting advance endorsements from authors such as Jodi Picoult and Beth Hoffman.) How did you do it?

A: It helps that I love what I do so much that this all hardly feels like work—truly! Just as I loved writing VIOLETS, I’ve found that I’ve really gotten a kick out of the pre-press marketing and publicity work. It’s been fun reaching out to my magazine contacts as well as book bloggers and so exciting seeing early reviews and buzz building for VIOLETS. As for advance praise, I (shyly) approached some authors who I admired about reading my book and was fortunate to get some incredible endorsements from Claire Cook, Beth Hoffman, Sarah Pekkanen, and Kelly O’Connor McNees. I approached Jodi Picoult, too, and nearly passed out with joy when she emailed me back to say that she’d like to read VIOLETS. You guessed it--I marched myself down to the UPS store that day and expedited an ARC to her. I held my breath for about a month, and then she emailed to say she’d finished the book in time for our first printing and included her beautiful blurb. I called my editor (after calling you, Elisabeth!) right away to read the blurb to her over the phone. I loved hearing the excitement in her voice. It was such a memorable moment for me! If I’m ever fortunate enough to be an established author in the years ahead, I hope to be as generous to an up-and-coming author as Jodi Picoult was to me. 

Q: I don't see any signs of you slowing you think having an infant will change things? Seriously, how do you do it?

A: An infant in the house is chaos, but I’ve been through this process twice before and know that things do calm down (at least, this is what I tell myself!), so I’m confident that I’ll return to my normally productive place soon--and I have to! THE VIOLETS OF MARCH comes out in late April, my second book (already written) needs to be edited and turned into my editor this spring, and I’m eager to jump back into my third novel, which is already in progress, as soon as possible (those characters are absolutely haunting me!). I’m excited for the challenge of the year ahead. I may not get a lot of sleep, but I know I’ll love the journey. And I have a great new Nespresso espresso machine to keep me caffeinated. That helps too.

Thank you, Sarah! To read more about Sarah and The Violets of March (and watch her awesome book trailer, go to

Next I'll be posting a great query letter and the reasons it worked. Very excited that the publishing world agreed and that we sold it yesterday. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Do Agents Do All Day?

What do Agents Do all Day?

My hope was to talk today about submitting fiction to agents but I am going to put it off a week because I want to use an example of a great cover letter—something that came to me, via the slush last year—that I am in the process of selling this week. Yippee! The letter was pitch perfect—so good that I basically used it for my submission letter to editors.  Fingers crossed that I can tell you all about it very soon.

So instead, in true navel-gazing form that is that of a blogger, I am going to answer the question, “What do agents do all day?” I know, fascinating stuff. But I get asked this a lot. People outside of the publishing world usually proceed to offer their own answer: “So do you like just read at your desk all day?” Um. NO.  No one in the biz does. And I think we are a little bit like proud, harried (insane) new mothers who brag about how little sleep they get. We sort of thrive on the fact that we have no lives because reading is done at night and on the weekends.  Yes dear authors, we are working really hard!

However, when I am asked this at conferences and the like, my go-to answer, with a giant, enthusiastic smile plastered on my face because I fear public speaking in a certifiable way, is something like this: “Every day is different!  One day you are selling a book! One day you are falling in love with something you discover in the slush pile! Or you are going out to lunch with your favorite editor!” But, my dear friends, I fear that may be the movie version  of my life. It's the one in which I am also  have clean hair, great clothes and my unscruffed high heels (because I am not wearing converse in this movie montage) also happen to be resting on my beautifully organized  Philipe Stark desk, adorned with white peonies and a piping hot skim latte…but I digress.

I decided to answer that question honestly, and picked last Wednesday to document what exactly I did with those hours that I wasn’t  reading: (Yes, did I tell you this was going to be a naval gazer)

 8:45 am-I got to the office early so I could finish a published book in peace and quiet. (It was We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver and it is probably the toughest book I've read. A week later and I am still thinking about it.)

9:30-11:00 Answered emails (mostly author questions—I am always telling my authors to feel free to remind me of things that need following up on. I have no ego about admitting that I need help in this department. There is simply so much every day stuff to keep track of, and it's too much for me to do it alone. 

11-12 Galley mailing-I wrote a letter and sent galleys for a great memoir called Paris, Baby!, pubbing in June to my magazine contacts. (Yes a publisher’s publicist should be doing this but when you know people, it absolutely does not hurt to send along as well. )

12-1   Ate a sad lunch at my desk and read Twitter feeds.

1-2 Got the best call of the day!  A book of mine was optioned for film!  This was a particularly exciting call because it renewed my faith in Hollywood. I had met with a producer months ago as he was inquiring about rights for another book I repped. Those rights had already been optioned so I told him about this book instead. He spent the next two months getting a writer, a director and their agency on board, and optioned the book with a great plan. 

2-3 Galley mailing for a memoir called Breaking Up With God, for blurb requests. Everyone hates this but for some reason, it needs to be done.

3-4 Crafted an editorial letter to an author who is at work on her fourth novel

4pm Grabbed a coffee and gabbed with my office mates about absolutely nothing work related.

4:30-6  Read slush/passed on projects with the help of my colleague, Stephanie/decided on what I wanted and needed to read that night/paid bills and paid some authors royalty checks which means a book earned out woo hoo!

Okay, so basically, I did NONE of the things that I said I usually do when asked at a conference. Obviously there are days when you are falling in love with a new voice, selling a book at auction (I wouldn’t be in biz without those days) taking an author to meetings etc but more often than not, you are just staying on top of things, being a squeaky wheel for your author and frankly, making sure everyone else is doing their job. No, it's no glamourous, but I love it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Power of Perseverance: An Interview with Jael McHenry

I am delighted to be talking with Jael McHenry about her road to publication. It was a longer-than-average road -- she went through two agents and three novels before she came to me and we sold The Kitchen Daughter, which is publishing this April. And we didn't even sell her book on the first try -- so, I thought it fitting to talk with the her about the power of perseverance, asking the right questions and, in her words, being "discouraged productively".

 So how did you find your way to me?

It's kind of a long story, but I'll try to make it short: I wrote a book and got an agent and it didn't sell; then I wrote another book and got another agent and it didn't sell. Both of these near-misses were disappointing, obviously, but also really good learning experiences. And my "debut novel" isn't even the third book I wrote -- there was another one before that, which you read, but didn't love enough to represent. But you, and other agents, liked it enough to say that you were interested in seeing whatever I wrote next -- which was The Kitchen Daughter. And that's where things went crazy in a good way, and I got to choose from a pool of interested agents, and you were my favorite. Obviously.

I'm glad you brought this up because I recently watched my sister in law go through her own "beauty contest" in choosing an agent (I wasn't one of them.  I don't rep family.)  Obviously it was a great position to be in, but I didn't envy her having to make the decision. Can you talk a bit more about that?   How did you know? (And truly, I am not asking for you to compliment me specifically) I really want to know what tools you used to decide. 

I know agents hate the beauty contest with a passion, but as a writer, it really is a blessing. I’d done my research in advance so I knew what everyone’s particular strengths were, and I knew I’d be happy working with any of the agents who offered. (There’s no excuse for not doing this research these days – it’s so easy now, compared to the old days of the hard copy Writers Market.) But talking to each agent about my long-term plans and their vision of the book took it to a whole new level. I had some questions ready – who do you think this book will appeal to? What kind of changes do you think it needs before we go out on submission? Have you sold books like this before? – and you were really great about taking the time with me to make sure I had what I needed to make my decision. Plus, you put me in touch with some of your other authors (thanks, Allison and Therese!) and they absolutely raved about you. At the end of it all you and I just talked about the book, and I could really tell how enthusiastic you were about it, and we just meshed. We wanted the same things for the book, we saw it in the same way. And that’s huge.

And then we took it out on submission and it didn’t sell!  I for one felt like a giant loser.

It didn’t sell! That was so frustrating. I was on a complete writer high from getting the multiple offers of rep and having all these conversations – that all happened within a week of sending out the manuscript, it was incredibly fast – and I was thinking “Now I get to be the overnight success! This’ll be a great story!” And there was lots of interest, but everyone had trouble with one aspect of the book or another, and after the fog cleared, no one loved it enough. And we looked at it again, looked at it harder, and I dug back into revisions. Then when we were finally ready to take it back out again, we got a pre-empt from Lauren McKenna at Gallery – and the week before, Gallery hadn’t even existed. So in a way, the timing turned out to be perfect. And it helped me put all the earlier setbacks in perspective.

You must have been discouraged, though, along the way, right?

Oh gosh yes. During that stage and all the other stages. Rejections hurt. Laboring over a manuscript for months or years, writing and rewriting, and in the beginning you have all these hopes, and you watch the doors close one at a time -- that hurts. But every experience is a learning experience, and looking back, if my first book had sold I don’t know what I would have done. I was completely unprepared to be published. And it turns out that learning how to deal with rejection in the query and manuscript stage is a HUGE help even once you’ve gotten an agent and sold the book. Even after the book sells, it's not like you're never going to hear a negative word again. You need to know how to deal with that. There might be bad reviews. There might be disappointing sales figures. And there are other books after the first one, hopefully. You need to learn how to be discouraged productively, if that makes sense.

Can you talk more about that? Being "discouraged productively"?

You can choose how you address a setback. When I sent my first queries out to agents and got rejections back, my first reaction was always, "Well, this person didn't like it... man, no one's ever going to like it. I'll never get published." And that's not productive. I was making newbie mistakes. I was sending to agents who only represent category romance, and my book wasn't a romance. It wasn't about the quality of the query or the book itself at all, it was just a lousy mismatch. The reason I say "discouraged productively" instead of "optimistic" or "confident" is that you have to learn from mistakes like that. Or sometimes it's not even a mistake, it's just something that requires more work when you thought the work was done -- another round of edits, maybe -- and you can't just sail through and ignore that kind of thing. You should be optimistic, but you should also listen. The right reaction to a rejected query isn't necessarily "I'm a failure and I'll never get published," but it's also not "Obviously that agent is a chucklehead who doesn't appreciate my genius." It's information. You look for patterns. You learn from the mistake or setback or whatever it is, and figure out where it fits in the big picture, and whether or not you should adjust your approach. That’s what we did when The Kitchen Daughter didn’t sell right away. We didn’t say, “Those editors are chuckleheads.” We said, “Are we getting a clear message about what needs to change in this manuscript for the book to really catch fire?” And the book is so, so much better now. I am in love with this book.

Your book is coming out in less than three months.   I feel for authors during these months between having their mss accepted and having them published. There should be an unwritten rule that you can throw yourself a book party when the galleys hit or something. How are you coping with this weird waiting period?

Well, you know me. I’m quietly freaking out. But I’m trying to freak out productively! After so many months where there’s nothing the author can really do – between the sale and the first set of edits, and after the last response to copy edits goes in – it’s kind of nice when things start to ramp up. I’m getting my website built out, putting more content on my blog, biting my nails while we wait for reviews, working with my publicity team to get ready for the launch. And one of the big reasons I’m glad it took me so long to get published is that I absolutely adore social media, especially Twitter. So I’m talking to other authors, and still learning, and of course working on the next book when I’ve got time. But basically, I'm fluttery and excited and nervous, and April 12 can’t come soon enough!

Thanks so much Jael!  The Kitchen Daughter is coming out from Gallery Books in April. To pre-order, go to

Next week I am going to be listing my Top Ten To Do list for querying and submitting fiction to agents.