Querying An Agent with J.S. Fields

This episode of For Love and Money with Rae D Magdon features Querying An Agent with J.S. Fields.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about agents and big publishers! J.S. Fields and I discuss how to write your query letter, and much more!
We discuss:
  • Writing the perfect query letter.
  • Distilling your themes.
  • What an agent can do for you.
  • The difference between small and large presses.

Listen here

J.S. Fields Online


please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect

[Music] hello everyone and welcome to the lesbian talk shows for love and money the podcast where we talk about the business side of selling sapphic fiction today we have a really awesome guest who is going to discuss pitching your work and querying agents the awesome J.S. Fields thank you so much for agreeing to be on the podcast with me today it’s great to be here thank you so much so agents a lot of sapphic fiction doesn’t really use them people prefer to indie publish or query the publishing houses directly what made you decide to start querying agents and how did you begin well I think that’s first of all that’s a really interesting statement because there actually is quite a bit of as you say sapphic fiction in traditionally published work as well it just doesn’t necessarily get billed the same and so I was completely unaware of the more small press side of lesfic when I started writing and I was only familiar with mainstream of which there is quite a bit but again it tends to get buried in science fiction and fantasy and not billed as lesbian fiction and so I started off querying my work and I had decent luck and in the end I actually had two two agents that showed a great deal of interest and then nine star press which is the small press that I have published my myspace lesbian books in also showed interest and I actually just went back and forth between agents and small press for a while trying to decide what was the best fit for me ended up going with small press for the RG Lim series mostly because at that stage I was fairly new to fiction writing I’ve written nonfiction for quite a while but I was new to fiction writing and I had a very specific vision that I wanted for the our Dylan books that was not commercial and I realized that I needed if I really wanted to keep them intact the way they were they they weren’t going to sell as much as a traditional publisher would want and so I chose small press however I then promptly wrote a new book that would work in a commercial market and then went back out and got an agent for that so it’s that’s a long-winded answer to your question I think it’s a great answer and I’m really curious to know what do you think about your queries caught the attention of these agents what what are the what are the ingredients in the recipe of a good query there is definitively a recipe for queries and you there are so many resources online that you can look at but you know you have to learn how first of all you have to know what you wrote about and you have to if you can’t describe your book in under a sentence a sentence to two sentences really then then you can’t be querying you have to be able to distill your book down into its most critical elements to have sort of a tag pitch line and you also have to then be able to summarize the the main commercial grabs of your book in one small paragraph and I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that your your previous writing credentials don’t really matter your ability to put in cute little gimmicky things about how much you know about the agent because you stopped their blog doesn’t really matter what matters is a good solid pitch I’m you can have comp titles if you want a lot of people do use you know this is ash meets Star Wars or something like that if you’re going to use comp titles they need to be something that is fairly recent and something that did well so you’re not going to score any points by using a comp title sadly from something in small press because that’s not sending a very large commercial message unless it did really well like Becky chambers small way to an angry planet is a great comp title if you are looking at the sort of mid mid-range commercial market so calm titles I didn’t have them the first time around and I did the second time I’m not sure how much I’m in advantage they gave but being able again to talk about what makes your book stand apart was usually can go in that that first sort of hook two or three sentences and then you’re you’re sort of blurb it’s the what you would put on the back jacket more or less that goes into your query letter that is absolutely critical I have a lot of agreement with what you just said because at ClexaCon which I recently attended in other conventions I have to convince people to buy my books in like a sentence because that’s all I get before they move on to the next booth so I have to be able to say like this story is Cinderella but gay and that gets their attention could you give us an example of one of your books could you give us the two sentence pitch so people can see what you’re talking about I so this query letter is broken down into three paragraphs sometimes you can get away with four if you have writing street cred which I did I’ve got a number of books over in nonfiction and have done a lot of journal articles and things like that so I would put that information in there but mostly you want to have three paragraphs and they there’s sort of two different ways to do it they don’t necessarily have to be in this order but this is the order I use you know you have deer and then you want to make sure it’s personalized I put in the the books tagline which is the planet that vanishes the planet that sleeps as the ice the hook line and then there’s the sort of mandatory information that you have to have so I’m seeking representation for my it was at that point eighty-seven thousand word science fiction manuscript Argyl I’m first dawn attached is whatever they requested I then talked about my plans for the book so this is the work is the first in a three book series all of which are written which you don’t have to do if you’re trying to get a an agent who subs to too big to big presses having a series isn’t necessarily useful and may be detrimental depending upon the agent you’re querying so you really have to look at that almost everyone will want your first book to stand alone so if it is part of a series what you usually say is you know that this book stands alone but has series potential or something along those lines and then I have the manuscript as a character driven space opera reminiscent of the Rwanda and McCaffrey now I would this is my first query letter and that’s actually that comp is a little too old as I got better at it I changed the comps around a little bit and then I put in sort of my hook information that was based upon what the agent was looking for and so if I was on manuscript wish list or on their page and they said you know they were looking for character driven space opera I made sure it said character driven space opera if they were looking for you know lesbians then I made sure it said lesbians this particular iteration here has the manuscript has characters outside the gender binary which is something that this particular agent was looking for and passes both the Bechdel test and the Macklemore II which again was something that the agent had specifically listed on their site as don’t submit to me if your manuscript cannot hit these well yeah so then this goes into the blurb of the second paragraph and literally this this blurb is just the the back blurb of the book and it it actually for the book the publisher ended up keeping I’d say 75% of this paragraph actually for the black blurb and just cut it down a little bit and the trick with these is a good book has a lot of elements in it that all weave together but you can’t talk about all of those in a query letter because that’s a synopsis and that’s different and so you have to decide what those main thematic elements are and pull those out so you know if we I’m I’m not sure what type of genre readers you mostly have but if we were to talk about say again Becky chambers a long way to a small angry planet that has so many thematic elements in it and there’s so many key of POV characters and so in order to write a blurb for something like that Becky had to focus on either the overarching narrative so there’s a you know a ragtag group of people that are hurtling through space getting to know each other or pick you know sort of the main if there was one and I don’t recall there being a specific main group in that book pick that one and highlight it and it’s the same for a lot of books where you have especially multiple POV characters you have to sort of pick one or pick the main plot theme and highlight that because no one wants to read more than about six sentences in there yeah that seems like it can be especially difficult if you’re writing things of large scope as I do with fantasy and sci-fi you know I love romances to modern-day romances but it seems a little more straightforward with that but when you have a big sprawling world it seems you have to be especially thoughtful about how you narrow in on what you want the main focus to be and be able to convey that to other people it’s really tricky especially in sci-fi and fantasy which is where I write it was easier for our deulim because it was a very straightforward space opera that utilized a lot of tropes and you know all all genre writing has tropes romances tropes science fiction has tropes and not only are they helpful to ground your reader but they can be very helpful in a query because it saves you a lot of time you don’t have to describe your like grumpy space captain that’s a trope that you can just you know assume that people understand when you say space opera and that saves you space in writing you are my new best friend our podcasts about white ropes are actually good Wow and about how they’re helpful to writing instead of you know people have this misconception that tropes are like a bad thing and they’re not original but nothing is original it’s all about the packaging and tropes actually make readers feel like they know your characters and your story even better well they’re so helpful if you’re going to be trying to put in things that will make readers uncomfortable they have to have something to cling to and so especially so in our July my put actual science in there because I’m a scientist and so there’s hard science sprinkled throughout there and I knew that was gonna freak people out and the best way then for me to figure out how to deal with it was let’s make the rest of the book as comfortably tropa SH as possible so that people can find themselves in it and find these very comfortable spaces and then they can deal with the weirdness and I think a lot of books that are successful do that they introduce you to an element but give you enough comfort that you can deal with that new element exactly I mean I actually liked hard science in my sci-fi when there is also enough humanity for lack of a better word or sentence if you’re dealing with aliens to make me feel like I can relate yeah I think that’s a really critical element you’re listening to the news being talk show the lesbians or choke on your hub of podcast information how much control do you actually have over your manuscript in the direction you want to take it when you work with bigger publishers I’ve always been very curious to ask that that really how much control you have really depends but the the short answer is you don’t have as much with a small press and I think a lot of your listeners will be very familiar you actually do have quite a bit of freedom because you know they know you’re not going to be hitting the New York Times bestseller list and so as long as you’re hitting the the important areas within whatever genre you’re writing in it tends to be fine but for larger press even mid-sized press they have to look at their bottom lines and they know what sells and doesn’t you know to some extent there of course wrong just like we can be wrong sometimes but there’s a lot more of them making large decisions and then sending it to you and you being able to say I need you to tweak some things but not really being able to you know if they if they Commission cover art for your book you can’t just scrap it you know unless it’s like really offensive in some way you can’t just be like you already paid this artist and you know but I just it just doesn’t work for me that’s some that doesn’t tend to be one of those things that you can do and your agent in particular you know your first your first interaction with this will be your agent and your agent agents come they run the gauntlet from you know you spend years with them fine-tuning your work before they sub it out and you have really hands-off agents that are just like hey could you just like fix the third act and then you know they don’t read it again and send it out so it really that part you got to find an agent that really works with your writing style if you prefer a deep hands-on versus you know don’t touch me leave me alone let me let’s just go to the the publishers so you lose control but you increase sales and I think that’s I mean I think a lot of people sort of inherently understand that you um your editors will be a little bit more picky on the midsize and large press side I mean no matter where you’re at a nonfiction fiction because again they they have formats that they know work for their readers the publishing house knows their demographic of readers and know what they expect just like how readers you know unless Vic contemporary less Vic expects certain tropes and science fiction readers expect certain tropes if you buy a book from angry robot versus buying a book I don’t know from penguin you know your there’s some differences there they that you’re gonna expect and they know that and so you have to make sure that your you know you have to you can’t argue with them too much I mean you can but it may not go anywhere I want to go back to what you said how agents have different styles what clues can you look for unlike an agent’s website or their online presence to try and figure out if an agent style will kind of mesh with yours how do you know if you’re querying the right agent for your manuscript and for you I I don’t think there is a way to know what the querying process it’s really hard to tell unless they have a blog that you can follow it’s usually the the really deep personality introspection comes after an agent has offered so at the at the querying stage you just sort of are casting a wide net sending out a bunch of queries to agents who look legit you know and who represent the kind of stuff you write which is critical I mean you don’t want to submit a epic space opera to a picture-book agent that’s clearly not going to work out for you you know what kind of agent in do you do how much of an editor are you what are you know those kind of things those are a lot of questions that come when the agent calls so if you you know get an email from an agent saying you know hey I liked your query can I give you a call you know first of all that’s horrific ly nerve-wracking and then they call you and you know that’s when you have a list of questions that you you kind of go down the the neat thing is if you can sort of gather a group of friends who are agented and talk you can you can find out quite a bit about that just from talking to other agented writers most of the time when you talk to an agent if they’re getting ready to offer you can ask or contact for some of their other authors and that’s really nice too because you can contact their other authors and say you know you know what are the what do you like best about this agent what do you like least about this agent you know how do you find their editorial style make sure it matches with what the Edit are with what the agent thinks so yes it can be very hard at the just querying and to figure out if you’re going to be a good fit unfortunately there’s not thing that’s not like a database of agent personalities that you can go through and be like you know this one’s an asshole but sell a lot of books and this one is highly editorial and likes middle gray like there’s just not that sort of thing yeah in a perfect world for authors maybe there would be but I get are you saying I’m so glad that you mentioned talking to other authors who potentially work with the agent you’re interested in and I’m so glad you made it sound like a mutually beneficial relationship because it is I mean I think lots of writers kind of assume if they were to query an agent that they should just accept any agent because having one is better than not having one and that they should you know they’re in a more subservient position so I’m really glad that you described it as I said a mutually beneficial relationship like obviously an agent can let go of a writer if things aren’t working but also a writer can let go of an agent who isn’t helping their manuscript in the way they envisioned so thank you for that yeah and I’d argue that the wrong agent is far worse for your career than no agent I mean you there are plenty of people who do fine without agents not I mean reaching that bestsellers list if that’s your goal can be a lot harder but it’s not you know uh that’s not unachievable but having the wrong agent can really set you back in terms of publishing and it can also make your life miserable like if you if you are someone who you know has a really hard time with comma usage and things like that and really needs someone to go in and really edit your work like deeply edit your work but the concept is good and you get an agent who loves your work and thinks it’s great but doesn’t have those necessarily like deep editorial desires that could hurt you but what would hurt you worse is if your agent you know didn’t really understand your book shopped it to the wrong places there are some bad agents out there that you know can be too aggressive or flat-out lie when they’re trying to it’s really nerve-racking when you get the call and talking to a potential agent but you you have to collect yourself and realize that it’s not just them interviewing you it’s you interviewing them and that you know you get a say in this as you should it’s your book you wrote it you should get a say in it thank you so much for agreeing to be on this podcast and sharing your wisdom with us we’re gonna wrap up now but if you have one piece of advice to give authors who are interested in querying agents and larger publishers what would it be put you on the spot there get on to a site like absolute right or query shark or one of those and get other people to look at your query especially people who have agents because just having your friends and family read it or going through it is not enough you need lots of eyes on it really get it sparkling before you query that’s amazing advice and I’ll put those links in the show notes too so that people can check out those websites but yeah that’s brilliant getting other authors who are already agented and have done this process before to look at your query in advance that sounds like a great idea thank you so much again for being on the show this was awesome yes thank you you’re listening to the lesbian talk shows for love and money with Rae D Magdon and our special guest J.S. Fields we talked about querying agents publishing with larger publishers as opposed to small presses and all sorts of cool stuff about narrowing down the theme of your works if you’d like to continue the conversation please go to the lesbian talk shows Facebook group or check out the lesbian talk shows patreon page where you can find exclusive clips not found anywhere else thank you and have a great two weeks you English (auto-generated)