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Agent Jon Sternfeld On: Breaking Through the Slush

Quite honestly, on days where I have the time (and the energy and the optimism) to go through the slush, I just want something that stands out among the hundreds of email queries. (And I mean ‘stands out’ for the right reasons – fresh, professional, original – the annoying overly-casual queries get deleted pretty fast). One downside of the digital revolution in publishing is that even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write. You don’t see so many people trying to be welders without the skill for it.

Jon Sternfeld is an agent with the Irene Goodman Literary Agency representing literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. Jon’s co-agent, Irene Goodman, offers manuscript critiques on eBay every month, starting on the first day of each month, with all proceeds going to charity. Click on the link for more details on these critiques and charity auctions.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

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Quite honestly, on days where I have the time (and the energy and the optimism) to go through the slush, I just want something that stands out among the hundreds of email queries. (And I mean ‘stands out’ for the right reasons – fresh, professional, original – the annoying overly-casual queries get deleted pretty fast).

One downside of the digital revolution in publishing is that even more amateur writers are giving it a shot because it literally takes minutes to submit to an agent. As I have said ad nauseam to my colleagues, because everyone knows the alphabet, just about everyone thinks they can write. You don’t see so many people trying to be welders without the skill for it.

Also, the process of querying itself doesn’t weed out the uncommitted or lazy writers. In the old(er) days, you’d have to buy (or go the library for) a book with a list of agent names and contact information, photocopy that, make your submission list, type and print your letters, proofread, stuff envelopes, etc. Now, being published is just a click away.

Well, not really. If anything, because of the easiness with which others can query, the standards have gone up for what agents are willing to look at. The pool is that much bigger, we see that many more queries a day, and your query and pages need to be that much better. The irony of the easiness of querying, is that the end result has become much harder. (Think of the shortcut home that everyone uses and now has more traffic than the standard route).

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

Of course, every agent is different so I can’t really give a list of how to stand out. I can say the obvious – follow each agent’s guidelines, proofread your letter (and yes, just because it’s an email doesn’t mean it’s not still a letter!), do your research on what he/she is looking for. Beyond that, compressing your book’s idea always helps – long synopses at the start of the letter are beyond boring and a surefire way to get me to move on to the next query. I’m not a fan of the ‘elevator pitch’ wisdom, but I also don’t want to hear the plot of your book before I even know if I care about it.

Also, work on your tone – it should be a mix of confidence, creativity, and professionalism. (Saying “I’ve never done this before” is the worst way to get in the door. I don’t know why writers keep doing this.) Putting yourself in the agent’s shoes is super useful too. Literally picture someone at a desk reading your letter among hundreds of letters– does it seem interesting? Engaging? It’s hard because a writer’s query is such a big deal to him/her but to an agent, it’s just a nameless email among thousands. Unless you make sure that it isn’t.

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Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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