Write a Winning Query, Part Two

Last week, I posted the great advice from Elizabeth Evans of Jean V Naggar Literary and Jess Regel, Foundry Literary & Media, which they shared at Mount Mary University‘s first Publishing Institute.  If you missed it, you might find it helpful to read Write a Winning Query, Part One first and then click back here.  Elizabeth and Jess have seen – and unfortunately, continue to see – the following common query mistakes. Learn what they are and avoid them!

Common Mistakes Agents See in QueriesScreen Shot 2014-11-25 at 11.10.47 AM

The query….

*is too self-aggrandizing    ..Don’t exaggerate your own experience or achievements.

*includes bad endorsements. …It does not matter what your librarian, pastor or aunt thinks.

*reveals too much of the story.

*is rude or aims to shock to gain attention. (Yes, apparently this happens.)

*is poorly formatted.

*is too artsy.

*is too plot-focused.

*uses too many questions.


Ready to send? Final Query Checks

*Run spell-check and have someone else proof it.

*Did you include all your contact information?

*Did you address the query to the agent you mean to be approaching? Have you spelled his/her name correctly?

*Have  you followed the agent’s submission guidelines exactly? Exactly. No wiggle room here folks.


Many thanks to Elizabeth and Jess for sharing this information at the conference and letting me pass it on to all of you here.




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Write a Winning Query, Part One

10423819_10152533870826420_4104195169088167053_nMount Mary University in Wisconsin hosted its first Publishing Institute on Saturday. I attended one session “A Simple Guide to a Winning Query,” with some angst. I’ve attended similar sessions in the past. Would this one offer me anything new? Well, as sometimes happens when you revisit a topic you’re familiar with, there were reminders and new angles that proved helpful to me. I hope the same for you. Our presenters were Elizabeth Evans from the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc. and Jess Regel from Foundry Literary & Media. The information that follows comes from my notes – I will do my best to present their information as clearly as they did.



A Simple Guide to a Winning Query


First paragraph

Stick to the basics – give the title, genre and word count. If you are uncertain about your genre, you need to figure it out and work it in. So, in my case, the novel I am shopping is definitely in that nebulous “literary” fiction style, that my book club friends love – character driven. But literary fiction doesn’t work well as a genre to pitch – bookstores and libraries need something more specific. Therefore, I say that my novel will be classified as “historical fiction” – and it will – but in the way that BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin or GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson or SARAH’s KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay are classified as historical fiction – and that clears it up. An agent would understand exactly what I mean – the history in my historical fiction is not another character. It is important, don’t get me wrong, but the characters and relationships are more important. If you are a debut novelist or memoirist, it sounded like the “sweet spot” word count is around 85,000 words – and the range to stay within is 65-110,000 words. You hurt your already not great odds by straying outside of that range.

Other things which might appear in the first paragraph, when they are appropriate: Why are you approaching this agent? How did you find her or him? If you admire one of their authors (only if you really do!), let them know.

One great AVOID THIS TIP: Avoid the Eeyore syndrome — don’t put yourself or your book down. And, yes, to my amazement, people do this in queries.

Places to find agents? Publishersmarketplace.com   agentquery.com Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents BUT in all cases: follow the agency’s guidelines EXACTLY. Do NOT rely on the “find the agents” websites or books for the latest information. ALWAYS double-check the agency’s information and follow the latest guidelines posted there.

 Second Paragraph

This is where you will briefly describe your book. Jess Regel encouraged us to remember this is ..”not a synopsis, just a teaser.”  And, she recommended using a movie voice when practicing, “In a world where…” Elizabeth Evans said here it can sometimes work to do a book comparison, her example, “It’s THE LOBSTER CHRONICLES meets WILD.” What else belongs in this paragraph? (NOTE: when using titles for comparisons or comps, try to have them be from the last 8-10 years.)

*Introduce the main character(s)

*Give an indication of the key conflict

*Present important themes — how is the book bigger than its plot? Why is it significant? How will it be universally appealing?

Third Paragraph

This where you toot your own horn, within reason. Lately, working on the anthology,  Done Darkness, I’ve seen so many authors go crazy here. No, every degree, job, citation or award you’ve received does NOT belong here. This is not your c.v. or resume. Here are things that could – appropriately – get worked into this paragraph according to Evans and Regel:

*A little about you and your qualifications (Yes, if you have an MFA or MA with a writing emphasis, that would be appropriate. If you’re pitching a medical memoir and you’re a nurse, that would be appropriate. A Vietnam veteran pitching a war novel with a plumbing license? Maybe not necessary.

*What inspired you to undertake this project? You might mention where the germ of the idea first came from — again, only if it’s interesting and fits.

*Recent meaningful writing credits (So, in my case, when I’m pitching a novel or anything else, no one cares or needs to know the magazine articles I did twenty years ago.)

*Your background/platform (note – critical for non-fiction)

Things to know/remember — Don’t make the mistake many writers do of not working on building a social media presence until they are trying to land a book project. As Elizabeth Evans said, “You need to have “arrived” before you get your book.” Both agents emphasized that they google authors they are considering working with.


Hope you find these helpful. More soon from their presentation on Common Query Pitfalls to avoid and Final Query Checks in Writing the Winning Query, Part Two.



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Transition Times

My mind has been fluttering around the idea of transitions recently. Perhaps it’s inevitable as Wisconsin is sliding into winter from a lovely autumn. On our street, the maples have refused to drop all their leaves. The city trucks have come and plowed all that we could rake into the street into large piles, which are now frozen, snow-covered and home to post-prime pumpkins. Need an image or two?

I’m not sure how the giant vacuum hoses are going to handle frozen pumpkins, so I’ll simply shrug and snarkily think, “Not my problem.” The leaf pile in this photo is actually one of the smaller ones on the block. It must have been raked out to the street after the plows had already come.


In the next shot, you’ll get a better idea of the size of most of the leaf piles around here.


Yes, autumn leaves refusing to drop, leaf piles awaiting pick up and snow. As I was working on this post, a friend messaged me about these pictures with a soundtrack for the post, Joni Mitchell singing the Circle Game.

It’s not just the temperature and the change of seasons which has me pondering transitions. The calendar is also zipping toward the Christian season of advent – that time of inward reflection and expectant waiting which has unfortunately also become an embarrassing time to be a Christian. Perhaps it would be a good time to revisit a popular past post, Intentional Waiting and Writing.

My husband and I will be living in Glasgow, Scotland from January through June of 2015 — did I say I was thinking about transitions?

But, I’ve also been thinking about transitions as a writer, not in the usual way, not in smooth movements between sentences and scenes. No, no. Transitions in the stages of a writer’s life, career, experience — whatever word applies. I attended a Publishing Institute at Mount Mary University on Saturday and was struck by a number of thoughts about transition throughout the day. I knew many people in the room, mostly women, and I was struck by how few of them had transitioned from fear of submitting and putting their work out there, to actually doing it. I find that so discouraging. More on that another time.

For now, I must post this and get on to some follow-up work coming out of the conference and preparations for our upcoming move. Watch for posts coming soon with thoughts from Bret Anthony Johnston and some great query-prepping advice from two agents, Jess Regel of Foundry Media and Elizabeth Evans of Jean Naggar Literary.

Happy #writing


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Facing Facts

2014 is rushing toward its conclusion. I’ve chosen to return to Facing Facts — my monthly check-ins of progress I made on stated writing goals and setting goals for the next month. My writing goals between October 8th and November 5th were declared as follows:

1. Novel

Let the novel rest in the hands of agent and meet with other prospective agents at Mount Mary University’s Publishing Institute on November 15th.

2.  Done Darkness

Time to select, winnow, send acceptances and rejections. Prepare for agent meeting at Mount Mary.

3. PamWrites

Give this space more attention and time. Invite some guest posts.

How did I do? Well, first, the novel is sitting in the hands of an agent in NYC. I am crossing my fingers that she will represent me, and checking with her assistant about the kosher-ness, propriety, whatever, of contacting another agent or two.

For Done Darkness, Kathy Lanzarotti and I have been choosing and winnowing, but have not sent acceptances or rejections. That is a high priority in the next ten days.

I checked in a little more frequently with the blog – and got great feedback here, on Facebook and Twitter for a few posts — especially the announcement of a flash piece up at Digging Through The Fat and a very recent post on Stumbling on Happiness.

Some other things that happened in my writing life the past month that weren’t stated goals were:

1. Read an essay at a public reading in Milwaukee

2. Revised and sent that essay to NPR (after the great feedback I got at the event)

3. Submitted some essay proposals to Wisconsin Public Radio.

4. Helped a writer friend revise a query

5. Encouraged a writer friend struggling with insecurities

6. Drafted two new essays


I’m pretty pleased with my effort and production this past month, therefore, I give me two of my favorite dudes, Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon, singing “You Rock, Pam Parker.”



As I consider my goals between now and December 5th, I must keep in mind that Thanksgiving is coming, Christmas is coming and holy Celtic-crapola Batman, Scotland is coming!! If all falls into place as hoped, my husband and I will be living in Glasgow from January through June next year. Am I excited, you ask. Yes. And anxious. There are things to get in order here, and there, as much as possible in the coming weeks. So, bearing those things in mind, I must keep my writing goals realistic but optimistic. There’s no sense in choosing to do nothing when writing is what I WANT to do! Therefore, my goals through December 5th are:

1. Done Darkness

Make final selections and update submitters of their status. Continue contacting indie presses. Get one lined up. Discuss with agent at Nov. 15 Publishing Institute?

2. Novel

Follow through on other agent contacts, if appropriate after contacting assistant of agent with manuscript now. Discuss with agent at Nov. 15 Publishing Institute.

3. Submissions

Prepare submissions for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters contest.

Continue working on essays to consider for submission.

4. Encouraging Others

Blog. Email. Facebook. Twitter. Be a positive presence.


If you are doing any self-evaluating, I hope it is productive and you’re not letting it become self-flogging. Acknowledge what you are getting done and keep at it. As previously shared, remember this:




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Stumbling on Happiness


One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days….      

   ~Willa Cather


I was in New York City this weekend, visiting our son, his partner and my old college roommate and her husband. Being in their collective presence was certainly ripe for happiness, but it was one of those trips where things went so smoothly – each plane, train, bus and subway was on time. Each meal ordered – or homemade – was yummy and appreciated by all. We visited the Tenement Museum, something I’ve wanted to do for years. And though I’d been anxious whether everyone else would enjoy it, all did. We took the sweatshop workers tour. On this tour, you are inside an original tenement building on New York’s lower east side. After being condemned, it was purchased to be turned into the museum, a work-in-progress, something the artistic side of me loved. The museum is evolving, adding exhibits as funds and research allows. We first visited an apartment left to show how the building looked after condemnation. We could see years worth of different types of linoleum on the tiny kitchen’s floor. Ripped away wall boards revealed layers of paint, or in the case of the parlor, layers of wallpaper and paint. The square footage of the one bedroom apartment, which often housed 6-10 people, was about 350 feet.

The historian and writer in me didn’t want to leave. In a previous draft of my novel, a Polish immigrant couple, Lydia and Pawel, had spent a brief time with a relative in an NYC tenement before moving on to their own apartment. Lydia was on the tour with me in my mind and I was delighted to have her join me. To a non-writer, this experience might sound a tad “off”, perhaps “crazy.” But, writers will understand. Lydia, who took in mending, after she and Pawel had moved to Brooklyn, was a little jealous of the dressmaker’s sewing machine set up in the parlor of the small tenement. She adored the pink dress with black trim.

Levine Parlor, Tenement Museum, NYC

Levine Parlor, Tenement Museum, NYC


And though Lydia’s life and story in my mind are laden with sadness, I appreciated her presence on the trip. I felt Lydia and Pawel whispering in the parlor at night, huddled together against the draft from the window, stealing quiet kisses, hoping, dreaming, planning a life of smiles. That would not become theirs, but in that space, they did not know that. I had stumbled on their happiness, glad to have been invited in to that moment.

Other moments of happiness on this trip were not so imaginative. I am cursed – at times, Lord knows I’m not perfect! – with the ability to spot typos. My son got that curse too and pointed out a typo as we visited an architecture exhibition at the Cooper Union, which he needed to see that weekend for grad school. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to it that much – wasn’t expecting it to “do much for me.” Well, so much for my low expectations. Besides this fabulous typo ….



…. (if you missed it, it’s dead center: New York PUBIC Library) …… we also saw fabulous renderings of architectural models and blueprints. One of my favorites is below, the Cathedral at Chartres, France. See more photos from the Drawing from the Archive: Analysis as Design exhibition here.


So, there too, I stumbled on happiness. Happiness doesn’t always arrive when we plan for it, but it’s often there when we aren’t expecting it. Wondering where I’ll stumble on more in the days ahead.


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Flash Story Up

I’m proud to say that my flash piece, Papa’s Handkerchief, is live in the Stories feature at Digging through the Fat ripping the heart out, a great online venue to discover some tight, leave-‘em-wanting-more fiction. I share the front page today with a great piece by London author, Adrian George Nicolae, Nightmare Drill.

Thank you to Digging through the Fat’s Founding Editor, Gessy Alvarez for the opportunity to share a snippet from my novel.


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Cancer or Depression? Are they siblings?

We all know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. If you’re a regular reader here,  you also know how I feel about the whole pinkifying of our world. (If you are unaware, or would like a reminder, please visit my essay, The End of Pinktober, on Wisconsin Public Radio – um, it did win first place in the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association awards, so it might be pretty decent. :-) )

But, did you know that October is also home to Mental Illness Awareness Week, Depression Screening Day and – depending on what link you check, some sources also call it Depression Awareness Month. For me, depression and the cancer experience were definitely linked. I had clearly suffered seasonal affective disorder for most of my adult life and I’d had bouts of depression that I’d managed in college by excessive drinking, but I didn’t descend into the black curtain of clinical depression until about 9 months after my cancer diagnosis. I remember going to my internist and saying, “I shouldn’t feel this sad. I know it. I should be glad. I’m one of the lucky ones. They caught mine early.” (sniffle, sniffle, embarrassed nose-blowing) And he looked at me with warmth and caring – zero “what the hell’s the matter with you, lady?” – and said, “Didn’t anyone tell you that many people become depressed after a cancer experience?” Um, no. No one had.

It makes sense though, that it affects some people that way. Not all, to be sure. But some have the experience I did which was to mourn my life before the diagnosis. I wanted that life back. I didn’t want the scar, the radiation burn, the follow-up meds. I didn’t want the awareness that for the rest of my breathing days, I had another label. I had joined the big C club, and the big D club.


The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers some thoughts on their website about the link between cancer (all, not just the pink one) and depression:

Depression is not regularly linked with cancer, and there is no proof that one disease causes the other.2,3 However, when faced with a diagnosis of cancer, you may feel extreme stress, anger, sadness, or a number of other strong emotions. While these feelings usually lessen over time, they can develop into depression.

So, why go here again? Because October has rolled around again and where we live, we’re over the hump of the beautiful part of the season and definitely on the downslide into the bleak November. It’s a tough time to keep the smiles up, even if you’re not a person prone to depression. And, if you happen to be a breast cancer patient or survivor, you can’t escape the pink-ribboned world.  This October though, my focus is shifting to Done Darkness, the anthology Kathy Lanzarotti and I are compiling. We’ve received some phenomenal writing about life during and beyond sadness for the book (s) and we are excited as we begin the final selection process. We both dread having to send rejection letters; it seems the ultimate cruelty to have to decline someone’s work that they’ve submitted about depression, but we know, we will have send those “we’re sorry” letters.

Seems wrong to say #happywriting, but that’s my usual sign-off, so, if not happy, at least #writing.

May your day be as bright as possible.

May you be strong and healthy.

May you smile whenever you can.



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Self-Evaluating #9,458

Just kidding on the 9,458 in the title. Sometimes when the fifth of the month comes and goes – my intended time to self-evaluate – I seem to delay it even longer. But, this month I was intentionally delaying it to finish a revision of my novel.

Last month, on September 8th, I posted another round of Facing Facts — my monthly public self-flogging. :-) No, not really. It’s my way of sharing what I’ve committed to working on, my progress, my self-evaluations and my goal adjustments, if needed. My focus points last month were as follows and my self-evaluation for each point follows in italics:

1. Novel

– Finish the final touches on the novel. Bring it to the Washington Island conference to re-read and decide if it is ready to got to the agent.

The novel was not quite finished by the conference, but is now. I am printing it out today for one more read through and expect to send it to the agent within the next couple of days. She is waiting.    A+, go me. :-)

2. Done Darkness      dreamstime_m_34926106

– Continue evaluating pieces for selection. Draft rejection letter(s). :-(   Review marketing plan with Kathy.  Set up schedule of publishers to contact.

I did continue with evaluating some pieces. We did extend the deadline for fiction and non-fiction submissions. Kathy and I did not sit down for the two last points above, but will meet this week.

3. Deadlines

– calendar deadlines for novel, D.D., blog, travel course online and Scotland to do list.           Um, not so much.


My focus areas from now through November 5th will be:

1. Novel

Let the novel rest in the hands of agent and meet with other prospective agents at Mount Mary University’s Publishing Institute on November 15th.

2.  Done Darkness

Time to select, winnow, send acceptances and rejections. Prepare for agent meeting at Mount Mary.

3. PamWrites

Give this space more attention and time. Invite some guest posts.


I hope you are being kind to yourself in any areas you are striving to move forward in. These monthly self-evaluations should not be torture – if you are honest, you will identify areas of forward progress as well as areas that you may be avoiding. I hope the days are crisp and lovely where you are and that your creative pursuits are gratifying, satisfying and moving onward.


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Contest Surprises

Last Saturday I attended the Wisconsin Writers’ Association fall conference in Wisconsin Rapids. The whole experience had a bit of a high school tournament feel to it. I don’t mean the conference, but the getting out the door. First, I was picked up at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday — in the dark, before I’d had coffee. Bruce Campbell driver and friend from Red Oak Writing, drove us a half hour to a park ‘n ride lot to pick up Kim Suhr. Off we went, admiring the sunrise behind us as the amber waves of corn stalks waved alongside us.

I’ve been in a heavy duty push for my novel, as some of you know, and needed to use some of the Saturday workshop times to keep writing. I did attend a couple of sessions, but they were geared more for beginners. Not the end of the world, but not exciting. Saturday night, at the awards banquet I was so pleased for two of my fellow Wednesday morning group writers. In the essay category, my friends Joel Habush (on right below) and Bruce Campbell (left) took second and first places respectively. Yours truly was surprised by a third place in children’s writing — not a category I’ve done much work in — yet. A certificate, a small check and some validation. Was it worth entering? You bet. We looked pretty happy after the fact, eh?


Photo by Kim Suhr

Photo by Kim Suhr

I hope September found you often at the keyboard. It’s my favorite time of year in Wisconsin. Hoping it’s colorful and wonderful where you are too.

#happy writing


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Facing Facts (on the 8th)

The resurrection of Facing Facts on the Fifth is not exactly off to the smoothest of starts. I completely forgot about updating last week! Yikes.

My goals for life/writing life from August 5 to September 5 were:

1. Making Money

Complete and submit application for substitute teaching by the end of this week.       I have my first two days subbing scheduled for next week. :-)

Complete more online travel writing class assignments — one by end of next week.       Not done.

2. Novel

Block minimum one hour a day next 10 days and see where that gets you. Then re-evaluate time – can you give it more from the 16th through Labor Day?                   Um, not a total fail, but….not done – however – touched base with an agent I’ve previously had contact with who is interested once I’m ready to send it.  Still at it.

3. Done Darkness

Write to publisher had preliminary conversations with – update regarding number and quality of submissions in hand. Begin discussing next steps. Meet with Kathy re other publishers too?      Done.

Continue to read and rank submissions and pass work on to review board.      Ongoing – and going well! Had to close to poetry on August 31st. The final deadline will come before the next Facing Facts.

4. Deadlines

 Wisconsin Writers Association contest deadline = August 15           Done.

 Black Warrior Review contest = September 1               Decided not to, but entered StoryQuarterly’s contest.


Some other opportunities came up in that time period and I have registered for some low cost educational events:  a local, free one hour presentation on the Foibles of Publishing; the Wisconsin Writers’ Association fall conference in WI Rapids; the 2nd Annual Washington Island Literary Conference and a one-day Publishing Institute at Mt. Mary University, where I have signed up to speak with two agents.

My areas of concentration for now through October 5th have not changed significantly, although our upcoming move to Scotland is occupying time in planning and preparations. So, focus areas will be:

1. Novel

– Finish the final touches on the novel. Bring it to the Washington Island conference to re-read and decide if it is ready to got to the agent.

2. Done Darkness      dreamstime_m_34926106

– Continue evaluating pieces for selection. Draft rejection letter(s). :-(   Review marketing plan with Kathy.  Set up schedule of publishers to contact.

3. Deadlines

– calendar deadlines for novel, D.D., blog, travel course online and Scotland to do list.

In the midst of all of the above, I will take a trip to Massachusetts to celebrate the swearing in of my brother-in-law as an associate judge in western Mass. So, so happy for him! He’s a great guy and will be a wonderful judge.

I do hope whatever you are working on, in writing or other areas of your life, you are continuing to move forward, whether its by leaps or baby steps.


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