Occasionally I receive questions from writers (thank you!), so I thought it would be easier to answer them here on my blog so that others can see the answers as well. Below are the last three questions I've received.
Question: The Olswanger website indicates that you want only completed manuscripts. Is that true for nonfiction as well, or is a full proposal sufficient?
Answer: For me, I would like the manuscript to be complete so that I can see if I'll be a good match for the project before making a decision. Other agents may only require the proposal.
Ghostwriting / Help Writing a Memoir
Question: I guess my question for you is how do I go about getting my story out? I believe I need a ghost writer to help because I’ve tried to write this story myself but I can’t seem to get my experiences written in a way that truly depicts what my children and I went through.
Right now I’m not financially capable of hiring a ghost writer
Answer: My recommendation would be to write your memoir and seek out critique partners and/or beta readers who can offer feedback. There are also lots of free online resources to help as well that provide tips and ideas for how to write a memoir. Checking out memoirs from the library and reading them can also help you get a feel for how to write your story and get critical moments down in a way that help readers connect to your story. Writing takes lots of practice, so I hope you'll keep at it!
An Exception to My Query Policy While Closed
Question: I have carefully read your wish list and believe you would be the ideal agent to represent me. You talk about science fiction, military, and space opera. These words resonate perfectly with my book. I know you don't accept queries. I was wondering if by any chance you would be in a position to take an exception.
Answer: Unfortunately, I was not able to make an exception. The reason I close to queries is so that I can catch up with the queries and submissions I currently have, and so that I can focus on my current clients. I am always happy (and excited) to take a look when I reopen.
Sometimes I'll be reading a query and get a couple of lines down and think, "I don't know what's happening - I wasn't paying attention." So I start over - it's then I realize it's not me - I'm not zoning out, it's because nothing is really being said - everything in those lines is just generalized information and there are no specific details to help me get a clear picture of the characters or the plot. This happens while reading manuscripts too.
This is a problem with specificity. Here are some reasons for this:
1. Being specific helps make each moment feel real.
If the writing only includes generalized descriptions, it feels glossed over, and in turn, your readers are going to gloss over it - in other words, they're going to skim it. It's not interesting or exciting, so why should readers spend any time on something that doesn't sweep them into your world. Readers naturally know when to skim and when not to skim and one reason for this might be because specific details are lacking.
2. Being specific helps readers connect more to the story.
Providing only general descriptions, events, actions, and feelings doesn't allow readers to vividly imagine or experience what's going on, where it's going on, how the characters feel, or what the world looks like. If readers don't know how your character truly feels or what they're experiencing in every moment, and especially in critical moments, your reader is not going to care about them.
3. Being specific helps readers remember details.
Without concrete descriptions of your world, the actions, the character's feelings, or what's happening, your readers are not going to remember the details later on when they come into play again - it'll take them out of the story trying to figure things out and they'll get frustrated.
Not using specific details earlier on might also feel like an afterthought and that you just suddenly added the information on page 78 to make the story work when that might not be the case at all, but it still feels like that to a reader because the previous events, worldbuilding, emotions, etc. were not specific enough to help readers remember those details.
Time for an example query to show what I mean (totally made up & might be horrible but I think it's enough to get the point across):
Alyssa is sad and heartbroken, and after a huge fight, she falls into a strange world she knows nothing about. She meets a few people and discovers they have many secrets and bad intentions, and she doesn't know who to trust.
Then after a devastating event in her new town, she is cornered by the evil man who's been manipulating her and she must make the right decision, or her life will be altered forever.
In all actuality, the above made-up-on-the-fly query tells me nothing. Sure, things happen, but what exactly?
What I really want to know from this query:
Why is Alyssa sad and heartbroken?
Who did she have this huge fight with?
How did she fall into a strange world?
What kind of world did she fall into? How exactly was it strange?
Who are these people she met? What kind of people are they?
What are the secrets? At least provide a general idea if you can't show the secret (and may need to come in the form of the MC noticing odd behavior - show that)
What are the bad intentions of these people?
Who exactly does she not trust?
What was the devastating event that happened?
Who is the evil man in this world?
How has the evil man been manipulating her?
What decision does Alyssa make?
And more importantly what are the stakes - how will her life be altered if she doesn't make the right decision?
That's a whole lot of questions without specific answers, and this query would be a pass. Even if half or a quarter of those weren't answered specifically in the query, it would likely be a pass if I can't figure out what the story is about.
You want to engage readers, make it exciting, make it feel like the reader is experiencing every worldbuilding detail, every emotion, every action, and every single moment that's happening to your characters, so be super specific with your details in every way. This doesn't mean you need pages or even paragraphs of description. It means state things using specific details and description. You may only need to make different word choices or add an extra sentence or two to make it sparkle and shine.
Alrighty, so if you've made it this far, I have a challenge for those that want to participate. Take the above example query, and using the questions I have, write a query and post it in the comments below. The query that sings to me (using the tips in this post) will get a critique of your query and the first 15 pages of your manuscript. This mini challenge ends on midnight EST on Sunday, November 20th.
I'm seeing several query submissions where the story doesn't start in the right place. The query shows the inciting event - but the author is starting the pages after the inciting event has already happened.
As readers, we lose creating a connection to your main character (MC) when you start with the inciting event rather than just before it. We don't get the chance to learn a little about the MC while they're humming along in life prior to the inciting event. We don't know what it is they want out of life, what their fear, flaw, or misbelief is - what they're struggling with internally or externally. We don't know what's important to them or what they love or hate.
Knowing your main character and how they live in their normal world will help readers connect emotionally to them so that when the inciting event occurs, we really feel for your MC and want to follow along to see how they're going to handle this terrible thing that has just happened to them - the thing that's ripping them out of their comfort zone.
If you're starting with the inciting event on the first page (or the first couple of pages), you'll want to back up and show the MC in their normal world. Give readers a small look into what their life is normally like (including their internal struggle and biggest want) so that when the inciting event happens, readers can see how they handle it, what decisions they make, and how this new world they've just been thrust into will change them and their lives as the story progresses.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, if you want readers to be able to really connect with your main character and your story, start just before the inciting event and show us your character in their normal world before everything goes to hell.
Let me give an example (that I just made up off the top of my head) to help illustrate what I mean.
Let's say our main character is named Bennie. He's had a terrible string of bad luck searching for a job. He needs a job because his parents are going to kick him out because they're selling their house and moving to Hawaii. He has bills to pay (car, insurance, student loans, etc.). Bennie also has this big dream - he wants to save enough money to buy an RV and travel the U.S. to do nature photography, one day he'd like to be able to live on the income he makes from his photos.
Well Bennie's been to seventy-two job interviews over the past three months and still hasn't gotten a job offer (might have something to do with the fact that Bennie doesn't believe in himself and subconsciously sabotages the interviews - this will be what he struggles with throughout the story - his arc of change will show by the end that he learns to believe in himself). Then, suddenly, a month after his parents have sold their house and moved (and Bennie has been living in his car) he gets a job offer.
If you were to start your story with Bennie getting the job offer, readers miss out on all the important information about Bennie, about his dreams and his emotional struggle (not believing in himself). We don't get to experience all those emotions he's going through as he gets rejection after rejection. We don't get to see how he's sabotaging himself, and we don't get to experience what Bennie experiences when he finally gets a job offer. We wouldn't root for him as hard as we would if we knew everything that was happening in his life prior to finally getting the job (of then which new problems arise because he still doesn't believe in himself at this point - it will take the whole novel for him to get the point of believing in himself).
Also, this isn't the greatest example, but hopefully it gives you a good idea.
WOW, I opened to queries and you all delivered. I thought I'd put my first month stats here for those interested, and I want a record of this phenomenal month for future reference.
In my first 24 hours of opening, I received 450 queries. By day seven, I had received over 700 queries. The incoming queries slowed down after that. I had only anticipated receiving between 30-50 queries on that first day! I am grateful for every query I received.
In the month of September, I received a total of 1095 queries.
I also received 8 notifications of offers. Five were publisher offers and three were agent offers.
The genre breakdown for the queries I received:
Chick Lit: 8
Family Saga: 14
Mystery Cozy: 20
Romance Contemporary: 48
Romance Historical: 18
Romance Paranormal: 5
Romance Regency/Victorian: 2
Romance: Thriller/Suspense: 18
Science Fiction: 223
Women's Fiction: 42
How To: 1
Memoir Survival Story: 15
Natural Health & Healing: 1
Science & Technology: 1
True Crime: 2
As you can see Fantasy is astronomical and Science Fiction is close behind.
I still have 81 undecided queries in my inbox as of writing this.
I requested 30 full manuscripts. The breakdown of those I requested are as follows:
Cozy Mystery: 3
Romance Thriller/Suspense: 1
Romance Contemporary: 1
Romance Historical: 1
Romance Regency/Victorian: 1
Science Fiction: 4
Trends I noticed:
Stories set in the 80s (lots!)
Cults in some way, shape, or form
Comps I noted were used often:
Gideon the Ninth
A Memory Called Empire
I've learned a few things about my tastes and what I don't gravitate toward. For example, I'm not as fond of stories with paranormal creatures or fantasy creatures such as elves, fae, vampires, or werewolves. I'm also not as fond of stories where the politics are too close to our own since we live it every day. I like to escape and experience politics in other worlds (can include important topics of our world though!) and in unique ways and how the MC deals with it there.
As you can see, I've been super busy and have spent a ton of time in my query inbox (it still hurts A LOT to send passes and I actually say, "I'm sorry" every time).
In the month of October, I hope to focus a lot more time on my full requests because I have so many amazing manuscripts to read.
I just have to say how much I love all your bios! Some make me smile, some make me laugh out loud, or gasp, or tear up, or all or multiple of those things. Some have me looking over my shoulder with your professions.
I love reading about your jobs, your dreams, your accomplishments, your families (I don’t mind one bit reading about your families and your pets or your hobbies and passions as long as it's a quick sentence or two).
Some bios are short and sweet, some are incredibly long (at least one or two pages!) that's far too long though – you only need one short paragraph with your most important publishing credits or writing credentials and/or a short personal note about you – you can discuss all the rest with the agent on a call or put the remainder on your website if you feel it's important.
Some of you are excellent gardeners (I can tell), and a couple of you are terrible gardeners like me – I’m glad to know I’m in good company.
Keep up the excellent work!
P.S. I'll be posting my query stats for September soon, so watch for that in early October.
UPDATED for Clarification - October 20, 2023:
The elements, genres, and tropes listed below for my wish list are all things I'm looking for and would love to see, but ultimately, it is the specific premise, writing, storytelling, and execution that will help me decide whether I'm a good match for your project.
I know it's tough to submit to an agent when your project seems to match their MSWL only for them to pass on the project - but all of these elements are critical and part of my decision-making process.
Below is the #MSWL I posted on Twitter today (8/30/22).
First and foremost, I’m looking for manuscripts from all voices and backgrounds for the genres specified on my list. The following are MSs I would be especially interested in and only means these will go to the top of my reading list (if I’m not already caught up).
Even if your project does not fit the MSWL elements I list below, I would still love to see it if it falls into one of the genres I represent! The list of genres can be found on my Submissions page or on Query Tracker.
Science Fiction / Fantasy
Cozies / Mysteries / Thrillers
In Any Genre
In all things, I love enemies to lovers, enemies to friends, lovers in denial, reluctant heroines/heroes, underdogs, close family bonds, faux baddie, I’m missing a ton, but there’s only so much space – I love a lot and the premise and strong writing will be what ultimately hook me.
Again, these are just the manuscripts I’d be super interested in, and this is not an exhaustive list, so I hope you’ll query me!