Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

Writing Excuses 10.51: Q&A on Showing Your Work, with Daniel José Older

Daniel José Older joins us for a Q&A on showing your work around. Here are the questions, which were submitted by attendees at the Out of Excuses workshop:

  • What’s the best way to meet editors and agents at conventions?
  • How do you write a good query letter?
  • What do you mention as credentials in your query letter?
  • You didn’t cover self publishing at all this month. Self publishing is legit, right?
  • Can you submit the same work to more than one agent or editor at a time?
  • Can you re-submit a revised work to an agent who previously rejected the piece?

Homework: Write a query letter for a book that you love, but did not write. Then write a query letter for your own work.

Thing of the week: Mystic, by Jason Denzel, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: What’s the best way to meet editors and agents at conventions?
A: Hang out at the bar. Panels! Listen, then talk. Let them bring up business. Ask what they are working on. Do your homework first — find out who is going to be there, what they’ve worked on. Don’t try to do the whole pitch in person. Get their card and ask if you can send something.
Q: How do you write a query letter?
A: Clear, concises, and precise. What is your story, who are you? One page! Character, conflict, setting, hook. One cool concept that makes people want to know more. What are you most excited about? If it is urban fantasy, make sure it says, “Someone is killing all the were-pigeons.”
Q: Should I mention my freelance articles? What do you mention as credentials in a query letter?
A: Legitimate credentials, a little bit about yourself, and mostly about the story. Present it correctly. Relevent credentials. Bio is over-thought and least important. Slim bio is okay.
Q: What about self-publishing?
A: Not covered here. Will try to get a podcast about it.
Q: Can you submit to more than one publisher or agent at the same time?
A: If they don’t say No Simultaneous Submissions. Queries, even sample chapters, may be simultaneous. But full submissions, read the instructions.
Q: After you have made revisions, can you resubmit to an agent who rejected you?
A: Send them a query, but probably not. Unless they asked for the revisions.
[Note: There’s a lot more stuff in there! Read the transcript for details!]

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 51.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Sharing Your Work.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Daniel José Older.
[Yay! Applause.]
[Daniel] [He just left]

[Brandon] And our wonderful cruise members have submitted one last set of questions for us to pontificate upon, regarding submissions. So I’m just going to jump into this. Brad asks, “What’s the best way to meet editors and agents at conventions?”
[Mary] Bar Con.
[Howard] Dressed.
[Brandon] Bar Con… Hanging out at the bar.
[Daniel] Indeed.
[Mary] Seriously, though, a lot of times they are on panels. Go to panels and watch them, so that you actually have something to talk about. When you do meet them, do not immediately say, “I have this manuscript and I want to talk to you about that.” Talk to them about anything except business. Let them be the first person to bring up business.
[Brandon] Conversely, you can… I mean, they are there for business, so I’ve always found if you ask them what they’re working on and they’re excited about, that… I mean, it’s…
[Mary] Fair enough. Don’t talk to them about your business.
[Brandon] But if you ask them, “Oh, I really…” And don’t lie about these things. That’s why you should’ve done your homework. But you can say, “Oh, I really liked some of the books you’ve worked on.” Like when we met Moshe, I asked what he’d worked on. He said, “Oh, I’ve been working on these L. E. Modesitt books.” I’d actually just read some of them, and I said, “I think those are great books.” It was one of these immediate connections because I had actually been reading in my genre and reading from the publishers that I wanted to publish with, and so… Editors and agents will be excited to tell you what they’re excited about.
[Dan] So let’s take a step backwards and talk about some of that homework that you need to do. When we started doing this, the cons that you go to to connect with editors and agents often will have their guest lists posted on the websites. So that’s where you get on and find out which one of those many, many names are editors and then you… That’s how you do it. You look up which panels they’re going to be on, you look up what they’ve worked on, make sure that you… Don’t rely on walking into them having worked on a book you just read.
[Howard] Unbeknownst to our audience here and to Brandon and Mary and Daniel, Dan and I interviewed Mike Underwood and Marco Palmieri about hand selling your work to editors and agents. That episode will have aired just prior to this one. They had lots of great things to say.
[Brandon] Convenient! Wow.
[Dan] Ha, ha, ha. We planned that.
[Mary] Just like someone planned it.
[Daniel] I would also say, don’t feel like you have to do the whole pitch right there in person. First of all, they’re probably tired of hearing pitches. Second of all, that’s exhausting and nerve-racking. You can just get their card and ask if you can send them something. That’s your whole pitch.
[Brandon] Half the time or more, that’s exactly what happens.
[Daniel] That’s how I did it. Yes.
[Brandon] I would say, “Can I send you something?” They would say, “Yeah, here’s my card.” At the time, they’d say, “Give me a pitch.” I would never pitch unless they asked for it. Then I would give them the two line elevator pitch. They would like almost always just say, “Well, that sounds great. Send me three chapters.” Once in a blue moon, they ask for more, and you entered an actual conversation about the story. But you shouldn’t be rea… Shouldn’t be expecting that. Be ready for it, but don’t expect it.
[Daniel] And have that elevator pitch ready. Not to the point that it sounds… You can over-rehearse something. Let’s be honest, where it sounds a little too prim, but you don’t want to stand there trying to work it out in your head right then and there. Have a sense of it, so that you can just throw it out there. It’s important.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s go to another question, because, let’s say you’re not going to the cons, and you just need to write a killer query letter. Erica asks how to write a query letter, partially because I asked her to ask that.
[Brandon] Because no one had asked it yet, and I know we didn’t cover it.
[Daniel] You told them.
[Brandon] Last time. So thank you Erica. But let’s say you’re not going to the cons. That means you just need a query letter that jumps out at them. How do you do that? I don’t know how, because I was always terrible at it.
[Daniel] I think it’s one of the hardest things that we do. In a way, and synopses, I think, are somewhat easier, although some people hate those more. Because synopses, you just have to say what happened. But a query, you have to sell it, and you have to do it very concisely and very precisely. That’s why it’s so hard. But really, I think clarity is king. You just need to get across what exactly it is and who you are in as quick and clear a way as possible. That’s not easy. But you want to also give a little sense of style without being too cheeky.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s tough.
[Daniel] Balanced.
[Brandon] It can only be one page. Don’t let a query go longer than one page.
[Daniel] Exactly. It’s got to be short and to the point.
[Howard] I have a formula that I’ve talked about before, which is a great place to start for these sorts of summaries. Character, conflict, setting, hook. If your book has a dozen different characters, don’t lead with that. Give us a person to attach to. If you’re setting is enormous and spans a dozen books, don’t give us that. Give us a scene that we can see. Put that character in a position. Give us a conflict. Then plant the hook. I don’t know what the hook is. But as you, two weeks ago, Daniel, as you pitched Half-Resurrection Blues… What’s the main character’s name again?
[Daniel] Carlos Delacruz.
[Howard] Carlos… And I’m making stuff up because I haven’t read it.
[Daniel] By all means.
[Howard] Carlos, who collects souls for the Council of the Dead, falls in love with a girl who is the sister of his next target. He thinks everything is going to be cool until his target’s dying breath is, “Protect my sister from the Council of the Dead.”
[Daniel] That sounds like a whack book.
[Howard] It does. See, that’s very, very concise. And even though there’s a bunch of other stuff in there…
[Daniel] No, that was great.
[Howard] I have made myself want to read that book.
[Daniel] Yes. I do too, and I wrote it. But I also think… That’s perfectly said too. If you have a little list like that, and I would say that conflict is probably the most slipped on. Because a lot of people get in the mindset of you’re kind of writing the back of the book. But the back of the book doesn’t usually get too deep into the conflict. It just kind of gives you the setup and, “Oh, hilarity ensues.” Whatever. That’s not helpful. You need to give some sense of… That’s the main way that they are different… Or one of the main ways. You have to give a sense of conflict. It’s hard to do. Because it’s a sketch, really.
[Dan] Yeah. Focusing on the conflict can help you stay away from the trap of describing your science fictional element. I can’t count the number of times someone’s tried to pitch a book to be by saying, “Well, in this world, the magic works like blah blah blah.” I’m like, “Nope, that’s the wrong pitch.”
[Mary] Sometimes it’s the right pitch.
[Brandon] If you pitch at the right way. What Dan just said was a boring pitch. The thing is, you try to distill your story down to one cool concept. Whatever the one cool concept is that is going to make someone say, “I want to know more.”
[Mary] I would actually say when you’re picking the one cool concept, pick the thing that you yourself are the most excited about. Don’t try to pick the thing that sounds like it’s going to sell. Pick the thing that you are the most excited about, because you represent the target market. You represent a target audience. Remember that you don’t need to tell the whole story. If it’s this big sweeping epic adventure, but the thing you’re most excited about is the character journey, and actually the character journey takes up a lot of it and is the significant part of the story, talk about the character journey. Focus on those conflicts. Don’t focus on the sub… Don’t even mention the subplots in your query letter.
[Daniel] Right. Definitely. If it doesn’t say someone is killing all the were-pigeons, it’s not urban fantasy.
[Brandon] We’ll quote you on that one. That goes in the liner notes.
[Daniel] Exactly.
[Howard] Writing it down now.

[Brandon] This is along these same lines. Daniel asks, “Should I mention my freelance articles if they are published in a [Jane Key] website? On a [Jane Key] website?
[Howard] What does [Jane Key] mean?
[Brandon] What do you mention as credentials in your query letter is what this is getting at. Because a query letter does have several things. You do mention credentials, legitimate ones. You also mention a little bit about yourself, and then a larger chunk about the story.
[Dan] A lot of it has to do just with how you present it. A lot of the early stuff I did during and right out of college was I ran what was essentially a game review zine. It was just me and my friends goofing around and playing games, and then writing about it on the Internet. But to cast that as I was the editor of a game review website for five years makes it sound really cool. To be fair, I get enough actual real editorial work and writing on that, that if they followed up on it, I wouldn’t look like a liar.
[Mary] Yeah. When I was trying to sell my YA urban fantasy, which I never sold…
[Mary] But… Because it had first novel problems. But it was… Sorry, middle grade urban fantasy. I mentioned in that one that I was a professional puppeteer who had worked with puppeteers from China on the Monkey King, because it was a Monkey King story.
[Brandon] That’s an excellent credential. Relevant.
[Daniel] Yeah, relevant.
[Mary] Mentioning that I am a puppeteer who’s worked on Monkey King stories with puppeteers from China will not help me sell Shades of Milk and Honey, which is a Regency romance.
[Daniel] I think the bio is probably the most over-thought of and least important part of the thing, of the query itself. Because it can only help, basically, unless you overdo it. But having a slim bio, I don’t think, is going to really…
[Mary] It does not hurt you.
[Daniel] I don’t think anyone’s going to be like, “Oh, this person’s only published once and on Tumblr.”
[Howard] I may be putting too bold of a stake in the ground, but I think it’s increasingly important in your bio to state how many years you’ve been listening to Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] Yes, definitely. Definitely.
[Daniel] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] You can work in Hugo award-winning there. Hugo award-winning podcast, so they see Hugo… No, don’t do that.
[Dan] It’s worth pointing out, this is actually a debate fallacy that’s called out, if you’ve ever taken a debate class or law school or anything like that. It’s called appeal to authority. You need your work to be able to stand on its own. Your editor will like it because it’s good, not because somebody else liked it first. So don’t rely on, “Well, I studied under X,” or “I sent this to Brandon Sanderson and he liked it.” That’s not what’s going to sell it.
[Mary] Actually, let me talk about that very specifically. As short stories… When you’re doing your query letter… Because the query letter for short stories and novels is totally different. For short stories, you say, this is… I’m submitting my story for your consideration. This is how long it is. Here are my credentials, if I have any. That’s it. You do not describe the story. You just… Because it’s a short story. If they can’t figure it out, you’ve got a problem.
[Brandon] Well, there goes Christie’s question. Well done.
[Mary] All right. Thank you. I anticipated it. But in the short story land, the function that the credentials serve is not to say, “I am a great writer and you should hire me.” That’s not it. “I have worked reliably and am not a crazy person.”
[Mary] That’s basically it. That’s all they’re looking for. If you don’t have any credentials, they’re not upset about that. Most of what editors use a query letter for in short stories is to write notes on.
[Howard] If you’re the sort of person who invents credentials, what you’re saying is, “I am a crazy person.”
[Daniel] And a liar. I also want to throw out there… I may be wrong about this, but I feel like one of the over-given pieces of advice around queries is the idea that you should like do all this research on every single agent and then in the query letter say, “Because you represent this person…” I think it’s a great thing to do. I’m not against it. But I don’t think you should not query because you haven’t read a couple books by that agent. I don’t think any agent is going to be like, “Well, they didn’t say that they loved my books, so why are they querying me? Therefore, ergo, I’m not going to…”
[Mary] They can spot when you’re faking it.
[Daniel] That’s what’s more important, I think.
[Brandon] I’m going to point out there are excellent resources on queries online. There are a lot of agents who have blogs who talk about query letters and critique them, because query letters are quick and easy to critique. It’s frustrating, because if you are submitting only the query, it’s not your writing skill the process at least your prose writing skill that’s getting… You’re getting judged on. It’s your ability to write an engaging marketing piece. Which is why so many writers hate queries, and why I’m going to point you at experts online who will talk to you about it.

[Brandon] We’re actually going to stop now for our book of the week, which is actually a book by a friend of mine Jason Denzel. You might know him as the web master of Dragonmount, the main and most important Wheel of Time website. Jason is also an amateur filmmaker and also a writer. He has written a great little YA fantasy book called Mystic. It’s Celtic-themed and has this great young woman protagonist who gets thrown through all these kind of weird trials on her road to becoming a mystic. It’s published by Tor books, my publisher. I read it and really enjoyed it. It’s coming out… It actually came out about a month ago. So I would commend it to you. I think you’ll enjoy it if you like YA fantasy books. It’s Mystic by Jason Denzel, and I do not know who the reader is because it actually as we’re recording this hasn’t come out yet.
[Mary] Actually…
[Brandon] Oh, wait. You… Yes.
[Mary] I am going in… As we’re recording this, I am going in day after tomorrow to narrate this novel.
[Brandon] That’s right. You told me that like five minutes before we started recording, and I have written on my thing that I don’t know who it was. But it’s you!
[Mary] It’s me.
[Howard] Pick up Mystic by Jason Denzel, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal. Writing Excuses… Or, excuse me,…
[Brandon] That’s all right.
[Howard] Start a trial membership, and Jason’s been a friend of the podcast for a long time.
[Brandon] Yeah. He’s a great guy.
[Howard] I’m looking forward to seeing what he can pull off.

[Brandon] So I want to pause here and actually ask a question myself. Another one, because I need the other one go through one of our student. Self-publishing. We are not covering self-publishing at all in this. I think we need to touch upon it, because self-publishing is totally legit these days. The thing is that there is not a submission process, so much as a process of coming up with a cover and coming up with a cover design and hiring an editor. That’s a completely different process from what we’re talking about right here. We are really not the best resource for this. I mean, Howard does a lot of self-publishing. We shou… We will try to get another self-publishing podcast. We have done them in the past. We’ll point you toward those. Today, we’re talking about submitting your work for publication rather than self-publishing it.

[Brandon] Question comes from the audience. Can you submit to more than one publisher or agent at the same time?
[Daniel] As long as it doesn’t say you can’t, then you can.
[Mary] Yup.
[Daniel] Which would be…
[Brandon] There’s a little bit of a caveat here. Generally, when they say… They call this no simultaneous submissions. Most… A lot of editors don’t want a simultaneous submission. A lot of agents don’t care. But if they say no simultaneous submissions, that doesn’t include your queries and things like that. Or even, in most cases I’ve asked them and they don’t care if you submit sample chapters. But if… So it usually goes you send a query, they say great, send me sample chapters. You send sample chapters. They’re like, “This is really good, I want to see the whole thing.” At that point, if they ask for the whole thing and they have a policy of no simultaneous submissions, what they’re asking is I want to see it myself for a short time in full and make a call on it. You can decide whether you send it to them or to… If there’s two other people who say yes, send it to me, and they don’t have that policy, I would probably send it to the two of them, and send it to the one who says no simultaneous last. But a lot of them do say no simultaneous on fulls.
[Daniel] Just make sure it doesn’t go on forever.
[Brandon] Yeah. It doesn’t go on forever. If they keep it too long, send them a polite letter. Like Moshe, my editor, he always takes simultaneous submissions because he knows he’s super slow. Like super slow. So he does note, he’s like, “I’m totally expecting you to submit this to someone else and sell it before I get to it, because I’m Moshe.”
[Dan] So how long is too long? I get that question all the time.
[Brandon] And how do you answer them?
[Dan] I answer them and say, “Iiii… don’no?” Then I usually ask, “How long did it take you?” They’re like, “Seven months.” That’s maybe too long. Around three or four months is when I say definitely pester that editor again and say, “Hey, you still working on this?”
[Mary] Huh. It took me a year to sell Shades of Milk and Honey to Liz Gorinsky with an agent and she was someone I knew.
[Brandon] Yeah, it took me 18 months for Moshe, but Moshe is Moshe. I say that it’s… Yeah, but it’s… Sending a polite question, “Did you receive this and are you still considering it?”
[Mary] Yeah, but also check their website, because a lot of them will have something on their about what a reas… About how long they take.

[Brandon] Excellent. Can you resubmit to an agent who rejected you after you have made revisions? Meaning, after you have made revisions, can you resubmit to an agent who rejected you?
[Mary] You can send them a query letter to say, “I have made revisions, may I resubmit?” But they will probably say no. You can’t just resubmit without permission.
[Daniel] Unless they’re revisions that they gave you. In which case he would arrange with them when…
[Mary] Unless they asked you. Yeah.
[Dan] Unless they asked you. But…
[Brandon] That’s an excellent answer.
[Dan] Speaking as someone who used to work on a science fiction magazine, if we were to reject something and then next month have the same thing back with changes, it just drove us nuts. It made us hate it worse.
[Daniel] But a totally different work, I think, is fine. I mean…
[Mary] Yeah, yeah.
[Chorus] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Mary] Totally different.
[Brandon] In fact, you’ll get a sense for… As you’re getting rejected, how well you’re getting rejected. As you’re getting close, your rejections get nicer, meaning you start getting, instead of the form rejections, you start getting ones that are like, “I liked this aspect of your piece, but I thought it was too slow.” I started getting these about two years before I published. They would send these rejections with kind of explanations of why they didn’t… They decided not to take it. Interestingly, with my guy who became my agent, he… After he picked me up, said, “you know, you really should have asked to resubmit some of these.” Because he was sending me by that point four page rejections.
[Daniel] Wow.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] With lots of detailed notes. He said I couldn’t tell you I’d look at it again because I didn’t want to make false promises or things like this. But once you’re getting that level of rejection, there’s kind of an implicit promise that if you make all these changes and ask, I’ll let you… I’ll look at it one more time and see if you’re capable of making editorial changes. For my agent, that was a big deal. Someone able to make editorial changes and do it in a reasonable speed. So he said I should have asked more often to resubmit.
[Daniel] The danger with that though… It’s true, but the danger is then impatience, because you feel like… You attain this moment where you’re like, “Oh, I’ve reached this level, where now I’m getting these better ones. The end is in sight.” But you can hit a holding pattern, which I did. Hit a holding pattern where I was getting… I was getting really nice rejections actually from [Jump] and I still got rejected 40 times like I said. These are… It’s sort of an expectations game that you’re playing with yourself, where you’re like having hope enough that you continue but not where you’re like, “The next one is it!” Yes, but then when it’s not, you’re like crushed.
[Mary] The other thing that I want to say is that when… If you get a personal rejection, if you don’t agree with it, don’t make the changes. Because an editor who wants to turn your book into something that you don’t want to… Isn’t the book that you wanted to have written is not the editor for you. Don’t be lured by just having a sale. Because you don’t have to sell your books in the order that you write them in. So you can write something else.
[Brandon] I’ve known authors who have been strung along for a long time by an agent or editor who says, “Oh, try this revision.” They do it, and they get it back and like, “Oh, try this revision.” Never giving them a contract. So I agree with Mary. Though I will say, another caveat. You may want to try one of their revisions. There are times where I have gotten feedback back and like, “I don’t like this,” but I’ll give it a try. It was absolutely the right feedback.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Early in my career.
[Daniel] I had that too. I had an agent, who… Nathan Bransford, who is not an agent anymore, but he’s brilliant. His website has great advice about this stuff. He was really into the book, but he was really into the first third of the book. He was like, “If you’re willing to scrap the second two thirds and start from scratch…” Which sounds really radical and it is really radical, but his advice was so sound. His editorial advice really did get it back to the heart of what it wanted to be. I was like, “You know what, I really like where this guy’s brain is, and he would be a great person to work with.” So it was worth it to me. So I made that choice. But you have to be really discerning about. Don’t just do it because there a big agent and you’ll do whatever it takes.
[Dan] Yeah, yeah. I had a really big editor offer to accept I Am Not a Serial Killer if I rewrote it to take out all the supernatural stuff.
[Dan] It would have been a really good deal at a really good publisher, but that’s not the book I wanted to sell.
[Mary] Wow.
[Brandon] All right. Well, we are out of time. I hope that this has been helpful to you. I hope you are ready. Go submit this work and go get published so that we can have you as a guest star on a podcast.

[Mary] To do that, I have some homework for you. You need to write a query letter. What I want you to do is this. This is your basic format. You’re going to have an introduction paragraph. Then you’re going to have a summary of your novel paragraph. Then you’re going to have a tiny paragraph that is relevant biographical information about yourself. Which can just be this is my name. It can be very, very short. But I want you to do this twice. The first time, I want you to write that summary for a book that you love that is not the book that you wrote. So that you are thinking about the things that Howard mentioned, character, conflict, setting, hook, with someone else’s work. Then I want you to apply that, those lessons to your own work. Write the query, the summary, as if it is a book that you love that someone else has written. Because it will help you to get focused on it and not quite be so flaily and trying to describe all of it all at the same time.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.