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Writing Tips for Fiction Writers!


2 free books from!
  Interview with Agent, Jeff Kleinman
by Tina Morgan

At the Columbus Writers' Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking with
Jeff Kleinman, an attorney and literary agent with Graybill and English L.L.C. Mr. Kleinman very generously agreed to do an interview with Fiction Factor. I think you'll find his responses very informative and helpful. Thank you, Mr. Kleinman for taking the time to speak with us.

Fiction Factor: What mistakes should a writer avoid in a query letter?

Jeff Kleinman:
The Anatomy of a Less Than Fabulous Query Letter:
* Appearing desperate (lots of exclamation points are a dead giveaway)
Appearing unprofessional (handwritten, poor spelling, bad grammar)
Rambling (going on for more than a page or so probably means that you're telling too much)
And most important: contacting agents before the material's ready to go, before it's in its best possible shape.

Here are ten helpful tips:

Assess yourself and your project dispassionately. Is this a book with nationwide commercial appeal?  If nonfiction, are you an expert prominent in your field?

Become a fabulous writer.  HONE YOUR CRAFT.

Build your credentials. Every publisher's looking for the next new author whose career is taking off. This may mean publishing short stories in prestigious literary journals, appearing frequently in the media, or getting an advanced degree on the subject. Just imagine looking at the author's bio on the back of the book - does the bio alone induce an unknown reader to plunk down $30 for the book?

Personalize the letter. Let the agent know you're writing to him (or her) in particular - that you've read other books he's represented, that you met him at a conference and you liked what he had to say, that you've checked out her website and felt that she's the kind of person who would understand your book.

5. Don't grovel. Some agents do have extraordinarily large egos, but they should never be addressed as "Dear Subdeity of the Publishing Industry" or by other such appellations.

6. Memorize Strunk & White's Elements of Style - still the best book on the subject. Keep in mind, though, that since it was published, italicizing words or sections is now acceptable - and is actually preferable to underlining, which can get distracting.

7. Don't ramble on about your project. Use one or two - no more - sharp, clear, professional sentences to describe it.

8. Use a computer. No handwritten love-notes, either. Stick to either Times-Roman 12 or Courier 12. Your manuscript should be double spaced, but the cover letter can be single spaced. Don't put an extra space between double spaced paragraphs, and always indent the first line of each new paragraph.

9. Make sure your name, the book's title, and the page number appears on each page.

10. For novels, always send the first pages (or chapters) - never chunks from the center. If the first pages aren't the best, tightest, most well written in the book, then revise the entire novel until they are.

FF: How would you define your expectations of a good query letter?

The Anatomy of A Successful Query Letter

Single Page Letter

Paragraph 1: Catchy but professional introduction (how you heard of agent, great plot idea, etc.)
Paragraph 2: Your experience (credentials for writing the book - can be professional and/or personal experience). Your credentials are crucial for nonfiction, and may be less important for fiction, where the quality of the writing is paramount, but sell yourself. Nobody thinks it's bragging.
Paragraph 3: Description of the project in one or two sentences. If fiction, one- or two-sentence "log line", plus word count; if nonfiction, a brief description of the project, plus finish this sentence: "My book is the first book that ...".
ALWAYS include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), as well as all other means of contacting you (phone, fax, email).
Always include the first sample pages (or chapters) if fiction; sample pages (or chapters) if nonfiction. At the very minimum, include the first page of the book along with the cover letter.

Writing an effective query letter is an art form, I'm convinced - but I'm also convinced that if you write well, and really hone your craft, that ability will come through in each sentence. There's some kind of indescribable page-turning-ness about good writing; agents tend to know it when they see it.

As you write, pretend you're applying for a job - treat an agent the way you would a potential boss looking to hire a new employee. Don't seem desperate - agents can smell the desperation, and run the other way. I once got a letter with a bright orange paper bearing the words: PLEASE READ ME. Candy, balloons, or other gifts (last week someone sent a shirt) just won't help if the writing isn't strong enough, or if it's not the kind of material the agent represents, or if the author's credentials won't support the kind of book he wants to publish - although, to be perfectly fair, my daughter's quite pleased when I open the gift-bearing envelopes at home.  Along the same lines, don't proclaim that the book is the "next best-seller", or is very similar to a brand name author (Stephen King, Tom Clancy, etc.) - no one, not even publishers, knows what makes the "next" best-seller; and brand-name authors are a law unto themselves, so comparing yourself to them may make you seem naive.

In your letter, always focus on just one book - you may have a drawer filled with finished novels, but saying so will only make an agent wonder why the others haven't been published. Finally, proofread all your materials and be sure that there are no grammar, punctuation, or syntax problems - you'd be surprised how many people mix up it's and its, for example. Its horrible when you're mistake comes back to haunt you.

How many manuscripts (partials and whole) do you read in the average

JK- Partials: about 50 - 150, I suspect. - Manuscripts: 2 or 3, if I'm lucky.

FF:  How important is a synopsis in selling a book to a publisher?

JK: I don't have a clue.  I think a synopsis is helpful because it will give the editor an indication of how the entire book fits together, and the editor can use a good synopsis to sell the book to the publisher, but I've sold books without synopses, and nobody ever punished me for it.

FF: How important is it for an unknown author to have an agent in terms of
getting their manuscripts read?

JK: It depends on the publishing house, and the author's contacts.  If the author's going after the big publishing houses, and the author doesn't have any stellar contacts at the publishing house, having a good reputable agent is absolutely necessary.  If the author's going after smaller or more regional presses, an agent may not be necessary at all.

FF:  What qualities must a manuscript possess in order for you to really push
to see it published?

1. Missing Subway Stopness: I must miss my subway stop, reading the book.
2. Gushability: I must gush about the book to any poor slob who will listen (and many who won't).

FF: How many copies would an author have to sell for you to consider
representing a self-published novel?

I think that really depends.  Probably somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, but maybe less.  And maybe more.  It depends on the book, the market for the book, the ability of the author to reach the market, and so forth.

FF:  What are the biggest pitfalls facing a new author in the negotiating
their own contract?

1. Negotiating their own contract;

2. Hiring their brother-in-law the real estate attorney to negotiate their own contract. In general, publishing contracts are fairly arcane, fairly difficult pieces of literature.  If you're going to negotiate them yourself, be sure you've read a book that talks about the publishing contract before you start.

FF: When looking at submissions from unknown writers, how much emphasis do you place on a writer being able to market himself or herself?

JK: A lot - it's helpful to know the writer's a self-starter, or is very promotable, or something along those lines.

FF: Has the publishing industry's views on e-publishing changed much in the
last 3 years and are on-line publishing credits (either in novel or short
story form) taken seriously?

JK: Not as far as I can tell.  It depends on where the piece is published - Salon, Slate, etc. are still very good credentials; but others aren't as helpful.

FF:  What advice would you give the new author seeking publication?

JK: No question about it, this can be a tough business. If your query letters are all coming back with form rejection slips in them, don't despair - but do revise your approach. From my side of the desk, I most often see materials before they're ready: dialogue doesn't quite work, or a plot with problems, or characters who aren't quite developed enough. So before you go out agent hunting, spend some time really honing your craft - take workshops, meet fellow writers and exchange manuscripts, read books on writing: whatever it takes to develop into a writer, not just somebody who writes.

And good luck!

Copyright 2003 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved


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