Jul 232014

Josh Getzler


This week, I was lucky to have one of my newest clients, Nikki Trionfo, visit our Chelsea offices. Nikki has written a terrific, searing young adult novel about a girl in California who’s trying to investigate her sister’s death. The girl, Salem, is the daughter of a peach grower in California, and the novel, called Shatter, brings into play the conflicts among white middle-class growers, Hispanic migrant workers, unions, and gangs.


One of the things I enjoyed about Shatter is the way Nikki brings in characters of different races and socio-economic statuses and shows their interaction in a natural, unforced way. When I took her on, I told Nikki that one of the more sought after elements in fiction these days, both in children’s books and books for adults, is Diversity. My colleagues on both the buy and sell side of publishing are actively looking for books that address cultural, racial, and sexual diversity, and I felt that when she finishes her revisions and we go out on submission, we will have a very enthusiastic response from editors.


This afternoon I was looking on Nikki’s website, http://www.nikkitrionfo.com/, and I saw her latest blog post. It was fascinating. In it, Nikki brings up this conversation, and how it took her aback. She hadn’t thought she was writing a book with a Diversity theme in it at all. Rather, she was writing from her own experience growing up in the orchards of California, where different cultures mixed all the time—it felt so natural because it was.


Often, we spend our time in our own bubble of similar-looking and –behaving communities. And often writers, working off their own experiences, create homogenous casts. And part of the need for diversity in literature is to give future readers and writers role models to look to—so sometimes we strain ourselves looking for diversity. (And that’s not a bad thing, and has great cultural relevance and worth.) Which is why I’m so excited when I get a book like Nikki’s where the diversity is so second nature as to be that much more powerful. I can’t wait to see where it lands.

Jul 212014

Jeff Cohen

My children, who are in their 20s, do not really grasp the idea of episodic television.

Oh, they get that there's a new chapter in a television series every week, and that they have to wait until the next one is aired (or if they're binge-watching, 15 seconds)  to find out what happens next. They get, mostly, that the story doesn't just play from beginning to end in one shot.

But they don't know very much about the way television was back in my 20s. When the same characters showed up every week, but for the most part they dealt only with the problem posed by the current episode's writer(s), they solved it, and they they disappeared until a whole new set of challenges showed up seven days later.

On shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or  1180207320_1F Troop, there was no concept of a story arc. There was a story and that was it. Next time there would be another story. That's how television worked.

Things changed in the early 80s when Hill Street Blues and shows like it challenged viewers with continuing storylines that were not concluded at the end of the week's show. You'd have to wait to see what was going to happen, and sometimes it could take quite a while. Characters would recur from season to season. Viewers were rewarded for their attention with callbacks to previous episodes.

Now, television (particularly in one-hour drama) is almost entirely made up of stories that stretch over longer periods of time. And like most other things, it has some good and some less than good to it.

The new show  Halle-Berry-ExtantExtant is an example: Starring Halle Berry, it tells the story of an astronaut in the elusive "near future" who returns from a 13-month mission to discover that she is pregnant despite her belief that such a thing is not possible. Not surprisingly, answers to the main story questions were not provided at the end of the first episode.

And I'll tell you, I'm just tired of the whole thing.

Lost was the breaking point for me--years of hints, quandries, theories, suggestions, and in the end, the answers given were just as irritating as not knowing. I have avoided some you'll-never-guess shows since then, and not avoided others I wished I had.

You're wondering what this has to do with crime fiction publishing, and you have a point. Consider this: each novel in a series--and I'm trying to complete the second book in one series so I can start the seventh in another--is an episode of a television series. The same characters usually reappear, a new plot is introduced for them to confront, and their relationships will possibly shift or change depending on the circumstances of the story.

Except: I solve the mystery at the end of each book. The reader (who finishes a book it takes me around three months to write in an odd number of hours) is not asked to wait a year until the next installment shows up to (maybe) get some answers to the burning questions.

At the same time, though, there is continuity. Characters grow; they develop. I don't have patience for a character who is the same in book #5 as in book #1. If the silly bugger didn't learn anything from the first four experiences, I can't expect him/her to be any smarter about the situation now. 

Sometimes a character will show up as a minor player in a book and I'll realize s/he has something that can be interesting in the series. 9780738741512_p0_v1_s260x420Two books later, it would be a major omission to the reader if that character weren't involved in the action.

So there is both the Old Television and the New Television in mystery series. On the one hand, people will develop and change. On the other hand, they won't change a lot, at least not very quickly. Because that's the way life is: People tend to evolve rather than have an epiphany every time something happens to them and completely change their personalities in accordance with their new self-understanding.

On the one hand, the story will conclude at the end of the book. On the other, the characters' lives are (usually) not over, and that means their stories go on to the next installment. (In the Guesthouse books, they can go on even after the character dies, which adds a level.)

The one thing I won't do is introduce a story that is huge to the characters and make a reader wait until the next book to resolve it. I won't leave a pregnant Halle Berry wondering what the hell happened for however many episodes Extant will go on. That's not how I write.

Oddly, my children do read my books, and it doesn't seem to bother them.


P.S.: Of course we're sorry to see our pal Ben LeRoy leave DEAD GUY, but this Thursday we'll be thrilled to welcome the wonderful Terri Bischoff of Midnight Ink to the fold! Make sure you check out DEAD GUY this Thursday (and every one thereafter) to welcome Terri and get her distinctive perspective on the publishing scene.

Jul 142014

Jeff Cohen

I hate timelines.

In every book I've ever written--and a few that I haven't--I've run into problems with the timeline. And they are the most difficult adjustments I have to make every time I face my final pass at the pages, which I'm currently hip-deep in doing for a book you won't see until December.

Sure enough, here comes a timeline inconsistency again. It's a wonder I have any hair left.

The idea when writing a novel, of course, is to create the illusion that the work was done all at once, in order, the way the reader is expected to experience it. An author does not want the reader to be aware of the effort and the time that goes into the creation of the story because it might decrease the amount of enjoyment the reader gets, and that reflects on the author.

Getting all this?

The seams aren't supposed to show, but the fact is that even a relatively short novel takes months to write. I set myself a goal of 1000 words per day. So a book the size of E.J. Copperman's Haunted Guesthouse series would take a little short of 90 days to write. The average reader will consume (through the eyes) the story in a matter of hours.

So consider this: Somewhere around Week Eight, what one wrote on Day Three might lose a little of its detail in the author's mind. So whether something happened on Tuesday or Wednesday might be just a trifle difficult to recollect seventeen chapters later.

Wait, I hear you saying, don't you reread the whole shebang before you unthinkingly ship it off to your editor? And you have a point. Yes, I do read the manuscript from stem to stern before I'll even consider hitting the "Send" button. Usually, more than once.

But I'm thinking about that character moment or that logic problem or whether or not that red herring is too obvious or whether the dialogue is getting too cute in this section here or whether, heaven forbid, the reveal of the solution to the mystery makes no sense.

So even though I know for a fact that I'm going to have a timeline problem somewhere along the line because it's happened in every single other example of my work, I am pretty much guaranteed to miss it no matter how closely I read. So when those pages show up on my screen for one last pass (accompanied by the inevitable timeline chart), I get a chill up my spine in anticipation of the brain work that will encompass the next few days.

I waded through this last one, and made some changes, but I'll be totally honest with you: I'm only pretty sure it solves the problem. It's entirely possible my brain, which obviously does not function at a high level on such subjects, has overlooked the whole issue again, or complicated it even further.

What I ask of you is that you concentrate on the other aspects of the story, and if a timeline doesn't work for you, just change the day mentioned to whichever one works. I trust your judgment.

Because I can write dialogue and develop characters. I can come up with ideas for stories that have enough nuance to keep a person reading for 300 pages or so. So far, six novels in the series have made it through the process, and I'll begin work on #7 within a month or so.

I'll make some timeline error in that one, too. Please. Consider all the other things I do better, okay?

Jul 072014

Jeff Cohen

There are questions you are asked when people find out you write for a living (the one they should ask, "Why would anyone want to do that?", is never one of them). They want to know how you got your first book published (through sheer chance and luck). Some want to know where you get your ideas (K Mart). Others will ask who you'd like to play your character "in the movie." (WHAT movie? What have you heard?)

Then there are those who ask, "Who are your writing heroes?"

I am really bad at this one. I tend to stammer, look embarrassed and mumble something that doesn't really answer the question. I claim to be reluctant to leave out someone and offend that person, so I say nothing.

It's all crap, of course. I actually don't have any writing heroes, at least not of mystery novels, and maybe not of any novels. You're just not supposed to say that, and it's a problem.

My writing heroes were always screenwriters. Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest, perhaps one of the six greatest films ever made). Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show, and what else do you need to know?). Mel Brooks (everything up to and including High Anxiety). 

Larry LarryGelbart_photo_webGelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tootsie, M*A*S*H).

I learned from television and film, and once I realized that someone actually wrote down those things for the actors to say and do, that was what I wanted to do. So I started writing what I thought were screenplays. As early as 10th grade I was writing screenplays.

I wrote 24 (or 25, even I can't keep track) feature-length screenplays after I got out of college. And I have documented their various degrees of no success. Comedies. Dramas. Thrillers. Science Fiction movies. Baseball movies. A trilogy of intrepid-reporter stories. Two superhero movies.

Don't bother looking on IMDb. I'm not there. None of those scripts was produced.

That's okay, now. I fell into writing mystery novels by accident, and I have been happily doing so now for 15 years and--depending on how one keeps score--13.5 books, two novellas and one "short" story of about 10,000 words. I'm very satisfied in my "new" profession, and don't have the overwhelming obsession with being represented on the big, small, or these days, iPhone screen.

But I never really gained any novelist heroes. I admire a good many people who write books, and when I read for pleasure (something I do almost exclusively when I'm not writing), I have favorites whose works leave me awestruck. There are some great talents out there doing what I do.

Do I want to be any of them? No, I don't. I'm trying to be the best novelist version of me that I can. 

When I was four, my hero was Superman (the 2025820-geGeorge Reeves version). When I was seven, it was Mickey Mantle (because, um, he was Mickey Mantle). At 17, Woodward and Bernstein. At 18, the aforementioned Mr. Brooks.

Now? I don't really have heroes. I really look forward to the works some people produce, and I will follow them pretty much anywhere because I know the ride will be emotionally fulfilling and fun. I read some authors because I've met them. I read others because I just need a fix of that kind of writing.

But ask me to name one currently active writer whose work I will drop anything to experience and I will name Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Newsroom, SportsNight). Is he my hero? No. He's someone whose work I admire.

My hero is the writer I'm hoping to become. Haven't quite gotten there yet.

Jun 302014

Jeff Cohen

If you think getting accepted by a publishing company is tough, try adopting a rescue dog sometime. 

Don't get me wrong: I understand that shelters and adoption organizations have to be very careful about the families to which they give animals that need homes. I'm not complaining about any questionnaire, reference call (my best friend called up and said, "You want to be a beagle parent?") or adoption donation. I'm not. But it is an interesting process, and one that I recommend anyone who likes having a pet around the house should give a go.

So here's the latest addition to our household: We're calling him Toby (partly after everyone's favorite character in The West Wing and partly because of the bloodhound Sherlock Holmes would sometimes employ in his investigations), but his name used to be Bagel. We felt having a dog with an edible name might give off the wrong message in our house (that's a joke).


He's a 2-year-old (we think) beagle who came from a "kill shelter" in one of the Carolinas to a more hospitable one in Pennsylvania, where he spent about a month with a foster family before we came along and drove him to New Jersey following a tearful farewell.

Toby's a little skittish, but that's understandable considering all the tumult in his life. We're expecting that after a while in one place, he'll relax a little more. He's already part of the family. I'll keep you updated.

Meanwhile, back in the publishing business, I went to Maine a few weeks ago for a long weekend, and because it was Maine, I had dinner with Julia & Methe wonderful Julia Spencer-Fleming (and we talked about publishing, IRS!), her equally adorable husband Ross and their extremely interesting (I mean that in the most complimentary possible way) children. And that made me think: 

If I'd been going to Michigan, I would have looked in on Robin Agnew. Had we decided to vacation in Virginia, perhaps we'd have had dinner with Ellery Adams/Jennifer Stanley/JB Stanley. Or perhaps Meredith Cole would be home.

Were we lucky enough to be vacationing in England, I would have gotten in touch with Lynne. Upstate New York? Maybe Toni L P Kelner would have been available. We were going to get in touch with Rosemary Harris on the way to Maine, but time didn't allow it.

I know my friend Leann Sweeney lives in some Carolina or another these days. I could certainly get in touch if I were in that area. Going to Massachusetts? I definitely would hope Hank Philippi Ryan could find some time.

If our dream vacation to Australia ever becomes plausible, I'll look up my pal Fiona Marsden, who says she's my biggest fan. In two years when we take our trip to Hawaii, I won't be able to go without looking up my good friend Cynthia Chow. I'm leaving some people and places out, but I think you get the idea.

The point is: Nobody should get into the whole "author" thing expecting to become unspeakably wealthy and remarkably famous. But if you measure wealth by the fine people you meet along the way, there are few better, more enriching professions. 


Jun 252014

Joe Newman-Getzler

(Note From Josh: I welcome once again The Boy to take over as Temporary Tuesday Dead Guy. Joe's been working at HSG for a couple of weeks, reading manuscripts and generally hanging out looking Publishing-y. I believe that while he speaks for himself, Jacob and Rachel, our other Biblically aptly named interns (HA! Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph...) and many other interns, would probably find Joe's thoughts pretty familiar. And note to authors: Interns do read manuscripts, but (at least at HSG) are not entrusted with decision-making authority. Next week I'll go through Jeff Cohen's Better Query Letter.)




So, the summer has begun. Freshman Year ended for me almost a month ago, and words cannot describe the joy I felt when I finally exited my last final. I was all set for a summer full of rest and relaxation, and taking the time to watch the world go by and soak up the sun.

Well, while I will get to that, I had to work for my dad first.

Now, for a teenager, there are fewer things that appeal as much as money, and working as an intern for my dad at his literary agency promised at least a few dollars. Plus, I have a chance to spend the day doing what I love to do: reading and hanging out with my dear ol’ dad. So, I agreed to work for him for 6 days over the course of 2 weeks. Each day, I get up early and have two coffees with Dad (a hot one at home, and iced one once we’re close to the office). We hitch a crowded Subway, each partake in either a Metro or amNewYork (then switch when we’re finished), and get out at 34th Street.

At HSG I get to read, alternately, the 50-page excerpts that my dad and his assistant Danielle get on a regular basis, or one of the huge manuscripts that, were I not doing this for a job, would probably finish in a month. This can be either fun or taxing, depending on the manuscript. I must admit, until I started working with Dad, I had no idea how much action an author can cram within 50 pages, and I end the Partial wondering how long the actual manuscript must be, and how much more action must take place.

The best of the 50-pagers are like the best carnival barkers. They reel you in with promises of excitement, adventure, and altogether stellar storytelling, and once you reach the end, you’re almost falling over yourself trying to find out more; begging on your knees to sample more of the carnival's wares. At worst, it’s like you can already see the shadow through the tent that makes it clear that the “rare mermaid of Worcestershire” isn’t much more than a Barbie doll’s torso pasted to the tail of a fish. The writing is on the wall that there’s no desire to forge onward and that further reading will drain rather than enthrall. My initial reading has resulted in a balance of better and worse, and the happiness I feel when I give the “OK” to a good manuscript is proportional to the guilt I feel when I dismiss a bad one. But to me, it’s the journey, not the destination. My dad likes to say that when an author ties up a book nicely, they “stick the landing,” but the actual routine needs to impress me as much as the landing.

At the end of the day, it really is the principle of the thing. While I'm giving my opinions about real people's blood and sweat, I’m doing it in service for the dad I love. I’ve seen how hard he works: the man’s on the phone so often it’s a wonder his ear doesn’t fall off. He and I share the common goal of wanting a book to succeed. We both share the desire to never give up, and rather improve to a point where it can be either passable or perfect. It’s really been working with my dad that helps me understand how to edit and pass proper judgment without being nitpicky or cruel. Many books don't work, but how great it feels to help a book get better! Such are the thoughts of an intern desiring to help more books succeed, and ready to take on the next batch of possible success stories.


Jun 232014

Jeff Cohen

Two weeks ago, we (or more specifically, I) discussed common mistakes made in writing a cover letter meant to interest an agent, editor, or other big deal in your writing (and Josh pointed out just where I was wrong). This week for a refreshing change of pace, I thought we'd look at how to do so in an effective manner. It's meant to be helpful without the layer of snarkiness.

Be gentle. It's my first time.

Let's start with a (fictional) example:

Dear Ms. Agent: (Don't get too familiar with someone you don't know. "Hi" is out of the question. "Dear Sally", not much better. This is a business communication.

Ernestine Hawthorne is facing a difficult decision: Her aging mother Bernice is confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living facility, but is mentally sharp as a tack. At least, that's what Ernestine thinks until she hears her mom's story of ghosts in the building warning of coming violence.

She consults the facility's medical staff about possible dementia, but is told her mother is essentially a very healthy 77-year-old. 

Then her mom's friend dies, seemingly of natural causes, and Bernice insists it's murder. Ernestine has to make a decision--assume her mom is hallucinating, or start asking questions that someone might not want answered.

Notice that the first three paragraphs don't mention the writer at all. That's because the agent cares only about your story, so that's what you're selling here. Never mistake a query letter for anything but what it is--a sales tool. The product is your work. Sell your story, not yourself.

That's the premise of my new 85,000-word mystery novel, ASSISTED DYING. As she gets deeper into the investigation, Ernestine will encounter doctors, administrators, psychiatrists, patients, residents and caregivers... and each one will have something to hide. All the while, she'll be balancing each new revelation with the possibility that her mother is fading mentally, and might be imaginging the whole thing.

You've introduced the idea that this is the plot of a novel, but you're still telling--or more accurately now, describing--your story. You are the last thing this letter will discuss, and the least.

All the while, she'll be threatened anonymously, insulted to her face and intrigued by the attentions of Dr. David Patel, the handsome gerontologist whose interest in Ernestine is clearly not professional--she isn't old enough.

Can't hurt to have a little romance thrown in.

ASSISTED DYING is the first in a series of Ernestine Hawthorne mysteries. In each novel, Ernestine will be reluctantly looking into a crime while dealing with the problems of life in today's world: her mother will require watching, her friend Nancy's husband will be showing signs of straying, her job might be in jeopardy. But she'll persist with a wry sense of humor and more than a little attitude.

Now you're showing ambition. Note that it doesn't say the book will be the first in a PROPOSED series and the word "hopefully" does not appear anywhere in this letter. Confidence, not arrogance (see the previous post).

The book represents my newest work, although I have written short stories that were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and several articles on crime fiction for bookstuff.com. I am currently hard at work on the second Ernestine Hawthorne novel, BURIED UNDER A TBR PILE.

Finally, you get to talk about yourself. A little. Very little. Nothing about where you went to college or your day job at the Walgreen's. If the author in this case had some expertise in an assisted living facility, it would make sense to say so--any connection to the material that lends credibility is good. But NEVER mention directly that this is your first novel; let them ask when they're interested. The job here is to GET them interested. And by the way, I completely made up bookstuff.com.

I believe ASSISTED DYING might appeal to you because of your work with Samantha Bezlowitz, and because your firm has always had a practical, realistic approach to the publishing business. I would love to discuss any possibilities with you, and hope you will be interested in representing my work.

You've done research on their agency. This is a little blatant in its pandering, but it can't hurt to show you didn't simply copy the agent's name off a list. Do the work and know your prey.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Don't call every day asking for an update. From your research, you should know the agent's policy regarding submissions, and many will state how long it usually takes to get a response. Wait that amount of time plus at least two weeks to get in touch.



 A query letter is a first contact. It's meant to be an arm waving in the air and saying, "Hey, look over here!" But that's all it's meant to do. Nobody ever asked for the rights to represent a query letter. Make sure you have the goods before you offer them for representation or publishing. Don't ever promise what you can't deliver. And never, ever, lie in a query letter--just leave out the pieces of information (like it being your first novel) that you don't want the recipient to know.

Jun 222014

Jessy Randall

OxfordRosemary Herbert, ed. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford University, 1999.

Despite being published in the nascent days of the internet, this book would still be of great use to anyone writing detective fiction. I can even imagine such a person keeping this book by her bedside, dipping into it or reading from cover to cover, gleaning, along the way, basic information on the history of the police in the U.S. and England, mystery tropes such as the gentleman thief and the locked room mystery, and the origins of terms like red herring or whodunit. The entries are signed and contain references for further reading.

I spot-checked Wikipedia and found the information in the Companion generally superior. The book scoops Wikipedia by four years on the etymology of whodunit, with a reference to a usage in 1930. It's got carefully researched entries on topics like the spinster sleuth and the slicks, which would be difficult or impossible to find online. Most important, the Companion is slated to writers. The exact kind of information a writer might need on smuggling, sex crimes, or bribery are in the Companion; I found no online source with succinct, writerly overviews on these topics.

Winner: the print book.


Jun 162014

Jeff Cohen

I know; I promised this week would be the antidote to last week's post, in which I would show you how to write a really good query letter to an agent. And I still will post on that, even after Josh's rebuttal last Tuesday (which made very good points), but not until next week. If you were waiting with baited breath for that one... it's possible you need to reprioritize.

Instead, I felt the need to vent a little on the "holiday" of Father's Day, which if you're keeping score at home, was yesterday.

Today, Father, is Father's Day

and we're giving you Necktie-The-Best-Collection-Men-Necktie-Formal-And-Poly-Silk-Tiea tie.

It's not much we know;

it is just our way of show-ing you 

we think you're a regular guy.

You say that it was nice of us to bother

but it really was a pleasure to fuss.

For according to our mother,

you're our father.

And that's good enough for us.

--Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, "Father's Day"

Just a few short weeks ago, Americans (and for all I know, people everywhere else) celebrated Mother's Day, a holiday designed by florists and greeting card companies to exalt the concept of motherhood and move some inventory. 

I have nothing against Mother's Day, nor mothers in general. I think they should in fact be exalted and recognized for the impossible job they do raising children every single day. And that is exactly what happens on Mother's Day. You can see it in the respectful, reverent advertising that goes on for weeks before the Day itself:

Square_200_5922d8805ef7921354a78930 Tokyo-lebanon-mothers-dayKhoury-home-Mothers-Day-Ads-in-Lebanon

Mothers are, then, then, to be honored and celebrated on their day. Bravo (brava, actually). A nice idea. I always felt bad before the holiday at school for the kids who didn't have mothers while the rest of us worked on a card that (supposedly) looked like a flower, but okay. 

Good for you, moms. More power to you, and thanks for all you did and do.

So imagine my delight when this lovely specimen arrived in the mail days before fathers were to be equally well feted:


Father, Groucho Marx once said, is the town schlemeil. (That's something of a buffoon, Gentiles.) And while I could easily dispense with the once-a-year Hallmark fest because I have two children who show they love and respect me all the time, it's the presentation that rankles a bit.

Father-fruit-loom-hed-2014     Wearable-Sleeping-Bag-10-Fathers-Day-Gifts-So-Bad-Theyre-Awesome

Yes, that's right. All Dad wants is bacon in bed, a remote control, and a nap. Or a sleeping bag he can wear. (?)

The image of fatherhood has taken a pretty harsh beating since he Knew Best in the 1950s. Of course the antiquated idea of a man's home being "his castle," (which one assumes means he should have a crocodile-infested moat around it and parapets from which to pour boiling oil on rampaging Visigoths) has been swept away, and that's good. The family unit gets stronger when everyone has a voice.

But what's happened in addition to that is that fathers have become comic figures, and not heroic ones.  (I subscribe to the theory of Heroic Comedy, and this ain't it.) They are figures of ridicule, cliches, easy and fair targets. Make fun of mothers and you're a beast. Turn Dad into a grotesque figure who just wants to sit on the couch and drink beer, and you're the showrunner of a sitcom, making millions in Hollywood.

Oh, and by the way: Buy this Double_34855power tool for the old man. It's what he REALLY wants. (No, it isn't.)

So Father's Day? Eh. We didn't do much. Errands, mostly, some for my mom, some for my spouse, one for my daughter, recently back from wandering Europe following her graduation before starting work in August. The baseball game wasn't worth watching.  The only gift given was to my wife, whose birthday was a few days ago (we waited until the whole family was on the same continent). It required some assembly. Guess who did that.

And when you think about it, that's how fathers should spend Father's Day--reiterating the idea that we are essential, useful, and worthy of respect and love.

Maybe it isn't such a bad gig after all, huh?

Jun 112014

Josh Getzler


I PROMISED myself I wouldn’t do it. I would read Jeff’s post and leave it alone—after all, he’s a smart guy, published many times, a client and friend, AND he got me this Tuesday gig. So I should really shut up. But I can’t, and so I’m going to tweak a couple (but only a couple) of elements of his Query Letter post.


First, though, the part that is 100% correct (we agents always start with the good news. Right. RIGHT?): Yes, when you write a query letter, you must say what your book is about, and in Jeff’s straw man letter, the author didn’t. Now, mind you, most of the time the problem is not that there isn’t enough about the story, but rather that there is too much. But no matter: it is important to say what your book is about. I’ve done this before in this space: You need to say whether the book is:


  • fiction or nonfiction (and if a genre, which);
  • an adult book or if for kids; picture book, chapter book, middle grade, or YA;
  • how long is it (honestly, I don’t care if you round it a bit. I don’t care if it’s 84.375 or 85,782 words. If you say “approximately 85,000 words” that’s good enough. What I’m looking for is whether you are an outlier (a YA novel of 425 words, a mystery at 300,000 (I’ve had both));
  • whether it’s contemporary or historic;
  • where it takes place.


This can be done in a sentence or two: “My novel, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, is a 75,000-word historical thriller set in the forests of 19th Century Bavaria. Our protagonist, a crippled, miserable castrato known only as Moz, must save his mother when they are both buried alive by evil, jealous, but brilliant lutist Johannes Marr. ‘Oh Mother,’ he says with what he thinks is his last breath, ‘I can feel the soil falling over our head.’”


Quick, no? And with only a little self-indulgent wordplay.


Where I disagree with Jeff, however, is with respect to your biography. He indicates that you basically should put nothing in—it’s about the story and whether you can write. And that’s very true, and if we had a blind reading, it would be irrefutable. But I’ll take a step back: If you have something in your biography that makes you particularly qualified to write your book, by all means include it. My client Sam Thomas is able to get away with being an American man writing in the first person about a 17th Century British midwife because he wrote his Ph.D thesis on 17th Century British midwifery. It was in his bio and gave him immediate credibility. Sheila Webster Boneham has that much more credibility in writing her Animals In Focus mysteries because she’s written something like a bajillion nonfiction books about animals. So while Jeff’s right in that you don’t need to tell me how many cats you live with or the names of your children, if you are a bartender and write a series of cozies set in a pub, that matters to me. How Jeff could write about ghosts in the attic of a B&B…well, he didn’t include that in his bio.


Ultimately the old saw about query letters being around a page long, with the first paragraph being the basic stats about the book, the second (and sometimes third if it’s really complex) being a quick summary of the plot, and the third (and shortest, most of the time) being about yourself is about right. And you should ALWAYS address the letter to the specific person, not Dear Agent or (God Forbid) Dear Sir or (Heavens!) Hi. And even better is to say how you knew that I might be interested in your book (but I KNOW I’ve written ad nauseum about that), and where you saw my name.


Then get to the sample—and know what the agent wants from you. I, for example, want five pages (can be four, can be six, but around five) so I can figure out whether you can write. It’s the most basic test: will Danielle or I like the first, presumably most impactful bit of the book well enough to ask to read more. And we ALWAYS want to. It’s what we love most about the job: We want to find something wonderful, ask for the full, love it, sign you, and sell it.


OK, Jeff, back to you!