General Writing, Queries

Debunking Three Fallacies About Querying

I’ve barely started to query. Yet already, I have found three cases where the conventional wisdom of aspiring writers is incorrect, or a half truth at best.

For instance, the popular assumption is that an agent is a necessity. This belief is so ingrained that several people say they will sign with an agent no matter what. Considering that your agent is important to your career, that is a rash position. However, more to the point, that belief is not true. No doubt an agent, with a knowledge of publishing that you lack, can ease a new writer’s way. Yet early in my planning, I discovered that both DAW Books and Tor accept submissions without an agent. Almost certainly, others do as well. Of course, if a publisher does make you an offer, the first thing you might do is find an agent, although you might get along with the SFWA’s model contract as a guide to negotiation. But going directly to the publisher does have the advantage of removing one obstacle in your journey towards publication.

Another common fallacy is that 95 thousand words is the required length for an adult work of fantasy or science fiction. It seems a good average and target to aim at, yet requirements vary. To use the same examples, DAW Books has only a minimum length of 80 thousand, while Tor will consider works of up to 130 thousand. Unless you have a work in progress whose hardcopy would break your big toe if dropped on it, there is far more flexibility than new writers believe – in which case, you can try the more difficult task of pitching a series instead of a single book.

A third mistaken assumption is that your manuscript must be in MS Word format (.doc or .docx). That may have been true a decade or two ago. Yet today many agents and publishers are a lot more flexible, especially if they use Submittable. .Pdf, .doc, .docx, .txt, .rtf, .wpf, .odt (LibreOffice and Open Office), and .wpd may all be acceptable. Personally, I prefer .pdf, because it sidesteps the problem of font substitution, assuring that people will see your work as you intended. However, you may not have a choice, because, to avoid the possibility of viruses, many agents and publishers require the manuscript be added to an email in plain text, which is a nuisance if you use styles and have to find a simple way to add spaces between paragraphs (Using LibreOffice, I used the Alternative Find and Replace extension, saving myself hours of dull manual labor).

I expect to find even more to debunk as I get deeper into querying. For now, one thing is clear: don’t make any assumptions – especially about issues that everybody thinks they know. Each agent and publisher posts their submission guidelines, which can usually be found quickly. The lack of uniformity may sometimes seem like a form of literary hazing, but you are hopping to be accepted into a fraternity of sorts, and the first step to acceptance is to follow the guidelines.

Queries

10 Ground Rules for Comping

Comping is the comparison of your submitted novel to similar ones in a query. Personally, I have doubts about comping — is everything a hybrid of existing works? — but comps are a quick way to give a sense of your work. In fact, many agents and publishers insist on them. Not being in a position to set the rules, I am dutifully selecting comps for when I begin to query. The process is harder than it looks — much harder, I find, than writing a blurb. So far, while I’ve made some progress, what I have most learned is how not to comp.

Here are the basic ground rules I’ve set for myself:

Favorites may not make the best comp

The point is not to gush over the books I love, but to start the process of selling my book. A basic honesty is required, since I am hoping to start a long-term business relationship (and, knowing me, I would probably get caught if I pretended that I had read a book that I hadn’t), but the goal is to attract attention, to suggest I write in a certain tradition, or have a unique juxtaposition of ideas. Some of my old favorites simply would not fit with the book I’m querying.

Avoid Mentioning Other Media

I have seen some queries reference films, games, or graphic novels. While these references may work with some recipients, I plan to avoid them myself. After all, I am pitching a book, not a film or a game. Moreover, I have noticed that the more aspiring writers reference other media, the less polished their writing is usually is. Possibly, I am overrthinking things, but I want to show my competence with the written word, not with other media.

Comps should be in the genre

Sometimes, genre crossovers work. My favorite example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign, which could accurately be described as Space Opera Meets Pride and Prejudice in a Shakespearean Comedy. However, I doubt that such a juxtaposition would be well-received from a first-time writer. While some recipients might be delighted by it, I suspect more would find it too off the wall, and conclude that I have tried something too ambitious for my level of skill that would be difficult to market.

Comps May Be About More Than Style

Most writers I’ve talked to select comps in terms of plots and themes. However, they can also be marketing potential. For example, my critique partner Jessica, who lived for years in China and is married to Chinese man, is writing a novel set in a fantasy version of China. She is thinking of comping S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, partly because Chakraborty is an American writing about the Muslims and married to Muslim. The implication is if Chakraborty’s background makes her novel acceptable in the age of diversity, then so is hers.

Avoid Blockbusters

It used to be that all fantasies were described as “in the tradition of Tolkien.” You won’t find that on recent releases, though. Tolkien has become so ubiquitous in our culture that the phrase has lost all meaning. If anything, using would suggest a superficial knowledge of fantasy. The same goes for Star Wars, Star Trek, and Harry Potter.

Watch for hidden pitfalls

Selecting some books would simply send the wrong message. For instance, while I generally admire Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, early in the book there are some anti-Muslim comments that are ignoant and hard to stomach. The last thing I would want is for an agent or publisher to think I approve of bigotry — especially if I submitted to someone who promotes diversity. On the whole, I think it’s a good idea to re-read a potential comp, just in case it has some passages that would sabotage me.

A comp can be misinterpreted

I briefly considered Patrick Rothfuss as a comp. What I had in mind was the fact that he tells a long, varied story. However, as my critiquing partner pointed out, most people associate Rothfuss with poetic prose. If I did use Rothfuss, I would have to make clear what aspect of his writing I referred to.

A comp should be comparatively recent

I have read fantasy for decades, and accumulated influences the way a ship hull accumulates barnacles. However, can I trust an agent or publisher to recognize an older reference? Could they take the comp as a sign I am out of touch with the market? At least one of the comps should have been published in the last few years.

Mentioning a major writer stakes too large a claim

I have been genuinely influenced by Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet if I use either as a comp, my choice can be read as a claim that I write as well as those famous authors. I’d like to think I do, being as egotistical as any writer, but the danger is that instead of intriguing an agent or publisher, I may encourage skepticism. “Oh yeah?” they might imply. “Prove it!” And I would probably have the same reaction.

Tailor comps to the recipient

Typically, a query names two comps, or at the most three. However, before I start to query, I plan to have at least half a dozen ready to swap in and out of my queries. Being a recovering academic, I am researching agents and publishers and producing a short list before I begin to query. I fully expect that different comps will appeal to different recipients. If I can anticipate which comps appeal to which, maybe I can increase my chances.

The Question Continues

Am I asking too much of myself? Will I be able to navigate around all these complications? Probably not in a day, or maybe even a week. Yet if I can finish a manuscript and survive critiques and revisions, then I should be able to generate a few comps. Maybe when I have my list of comps, I’ll blog again and explain how I chose them.