ten to fifty pages

Sometimes I think of myself as a "novelist," which is a person who writes novels. I have actually written some novels. You probably didn't know that. One of my novels is called Mona in the Desert. It's a family story spanning sixty-odd years, etc. Cervantes, witches, Shakespeare, cigarettes, sex. The synopsis is not important. What is important--to me at least--is that I'd like Mona in the Desert to be a published novel, and so I have begun to send emails to people called "literary agents." Literary agents market manuscripts to editors at publishing companies. Publishing companies purchase the right to publish (that is, edit and design and print and distribute) editions of books. Many publishing companies will only consider purchasing the rights to manuscripts brought to their attention by literary agents. They will not consider manuscripts brought to their attention by people who actually write the books. There are many reasons for this state of affairs; we won't go into that.

The emails one sends to a literary agent, soliciting her services as representative of one's manuscript, are known as "queries." "I am querying William Morris with my latest piece," one might say. I am querying a variety of literary agents with my novel Mona in the Desert.

The form of a query, or query letter as it is sometimes called, is pretty standardized. Salutation, brief mention of personal or professional connection to the agent, statement of book's marketing niche (or genre). Then follows a brief (three-to-five sentences, usually) paragraph of advertising copy describing the Most Interesting Thing About the Book. This is known as the "pitch." An author's pitch will often find its way onto the cover of a published book, having traveled with the manuscript all the way through the publication process. A fragile pitch cannot survive this journey. After the pitch is a listing of the writer's previous publications (called "pub creds" in the business), any relevant biographical information, and the author's wish to hear from the literary agent soon. That is a query, bounded in a nutshell.

Frequently, one is invited to paste a portion of the novel into the body of the query email. This portion will range from ten to fifty pages, or from one to three chapters. This sample, always the beginning of the novel, is called a "partial." If a literary agent requests the full manuscript to read, they are looking at the "full." Sometimes literary agents will wish to be the only literary agent reading your full, and they ask for an "exclusive." To this request, it is always best to say yes. "Yes" is easily said.

I have been pasting the first ten-to-fifty pages of my novel Mona in the Desert into the bodies of query emails. I have been reading random paragraphs of the novel, and making minor changes here and there. This does not mean that the novel is still in need of revisions. It means that I cannot keep my hands off of things, and will always wonder what the prose would look like if it were different here or there. This means that I am sending out many slightly different versions of the first part of the novel. I don't think that really matters very much. I am never finished with a piece of prose; I am always merely between rounds of tinkering. Progress is, after all, just a myth; all we have is ongoing difference, change, fussing.

I continue to think that Mona in the Desert is a beautiful and startling and very good book.


  1. This one is the novella that grew, right? How long is it? And how did you pick your agents, or are you just jumping off the cliff? I've had two but never looked for one, as they both just appeared, and I think that I probably could bear the process. It sounds dreadful. But I probably ought to have one again.


    1. This is the novella that wanted to be big, yes. It's 81K now. I have told it that 81K is plenty long enough! Last fall I cut it back from about 86K, just to show it who was boss.

      I've also had two previous agents. The first one repped a couple of books I liked, so I queried him and within a few days we were working together. He is a very nice, intelligent man but we never saw eye-to-eye about what the book was. The second one I met via backspace, if you know what that is. She is also nice and intelligent, but young and in her first job as an agent, which career turned out not to suit her. I sold the novel on my own and haven't had an agent since then.

      What I'm doing now is researching agents via the internet, reading profiles, looking at lists of authors represented, looking at interviews and blogs, etc. I'm going pretty slowly and carefully. I know some writers just use the shotgun approach, emailing every name on AgentQuery, but I'd rather pick and choose.
    2. You already know what it is to have an agent who doesn't fit, so why would you want scattershot? My first agent found me while my book was in galleys--I don't even know how that works. Then my second was essentially given to me by Louis Rubin. So I've never gone through the hunt, and don't know if I ever want to do so. Even though I should, I suppose...
  2. There is always the direct to publisher without agent approach, or is that old fashioned and unworkable now? In any case, I wish you quick success.


    1. Few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors these days.
    2. I would have thought at least some small-house indies would still tolerate something tossed in through the transom. Just shows how out of touch I am with almost everything in publishing. I'm still thinking in terms of big houses, Max Perkins, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Ah, the good old days.
    3. Some of the indies accept unsolicited queries, but these days most indies have a very narrow focus. Most of the narrowly-focused indies I'm interested in will only look at agented works, of course. I'm submitting manuscripts to any open-door indies that look appropriate, of course. The response time from those houses if very very long, because naturally they are inundated with manuscripts and generally understaffed in the acquisitions departments.
  3. difficult procedure; sounds like dealing with the business end is even harder than writing the book! hope you get good news soonest...


    1. It's certainly less interesting than writing the book, I'll grant you that!

      Hopefully I won't post about this again. I figure it's like reading the diary of a recent grad who's mailing out resumes. Almost interesting, but not really.
    2. i find it interesting: a world i know little about...
  4. Although I had good luck with an agent a decade ago, I really do find it nuts that this is still the process by which writers are expected to find readers. For all the changes we've seen in the past 20 years that should have made it easier, I can't help but recall the old Soviet cartoon about peristroika, in which two dogs with empty bowls console each other by acknowledging that now they can at least bark as loudly as they want. I wish you well as you navigate this archaic labyrinth. (Alas, I expect to enter it again in the next year or two.)


    1. In other words, you're working on a new book! That's exciting.

      "Nuts" is right.
  5. Best of luck with it, as always.
  6. Off-topic postscript: Scott, I've moved all blogging activity to a new address -- Beyond Walden Pond.
    I hope you will stop by every now and then to visit with this world-weary descendent of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.

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