Today’s interview is going to work a little differently in that I’m not going to post Ms. Coursey’s query. Ms. Coursey was balancing several projects at the time she signed with Mr. Necarsulmer, so looking at a single query letter made less sense. Instead, she’s going to share a little bit about her querying journey, and then Mr. Necarsulmer will fill in the gaps from his point of view.
Ms. Coursey’s answers will appear in orange, and Mr. Necarsulmer’s will appear in blue.
KV: Ms. Coursey, how did you first come up with the idea for ENCRYPTED?
KC: The idea for ENCRYPTED came from a simple writing exercise that I perform whenever I run through my neighborhood. As I pass by houses I select a single object visible from the sidewalk, then formulate a story around that object. In the case of ENCRYPTED I chose Buddhist prayer flags. I wondered what would happen if there were encrypted messages in the prayer flags, perhaps hidden in the guise of mantras or images, and from there I created a story in which these flags foretold the rise of an ancient Tibetan demon. This idea became the basis for a YA mystery, in which a teenager struggles to keep the prayer flags safe.
KV: You mentioned on your blog that you and Mr. Necarsulmer are going to focus on another project, AILLEA'S CARDS, at the moment. What's this one about?
KC: AILLEA’S CARDS is set in seventeenth century
KV: Tell us a little bit about your querying experience. How many queries did you send? Did you send them in batches or all at once? Did you ever pull back and revise your query and/or your manuscript, and if so, why did you make that decision?
KC: I sent out about 35 queries for ENCRYPTED. The manuscript had already undergone revisions, as had my query letter, so I didn’t bother with multiple query batches. This method worked well for me because I received most of my requests/rejections at the same time.
Overall I queried for about two and a half nerve-wracking months, and in the end I received an offer of representation from Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh and Otis. Six agents offered in total, but I ended up going with Edward because of his experience and enthusiasm.
KV: How did you learn about Mr. Necarsulmer? What made you decide to query him?
KC: I had heard about Edward through various websites, but I chose to query him because I received a referral from his client Alane Ferguson. Alane raved about his skills as an agent and all the authors I spoke to seemed to love him. He kept me in the loop throughout the submission process, both by phone and through e-mail, and when he finally offered I knew we would make a perfect team.
KV: And now for a quick introduction from Mr. Necarsulmer.
EN: One thing I notice time and again, is that writers (at all levels) are subject to what appears to be an endless amounts of “advice.” This “wise sage” seems to spring eternal from conference faculty, critique groups, the blogosphere, generous family and friends, professors and not to mention an entire shelf at the library of books on writing books. All of this guidance can be overwhelming (and with the exception of Anne Lamott) varied…especially advice from an agent. That said, I am grateful for the opportunity to refine some words of advice in this decidedly welcome setting.
KV: It’s always nice to hear from an agent who recognizes what a shadowy and convoluted place this querying jungle is:) All right, back to the questions!
Mr. Necarsulmer, when you received Ms. Coursey’s query, what caught your attention?
EN: What struck me about Ms. Coursey's query was that she indicated "Complete at 90,000 words." All the info was right there. I knew the manuscript was finished and how long it was right off the bat. She presented the entire picture and left nothing crucial out.
Even though there was no writing sample in her query page, I got a sense of how she writes in her intro paragraph. It’s set up with a beautiful hook before she dives into the rest of her query. It was obvious what kind of novel she was presenting--the conflict and resolution were stated in the same sentence. Without being verbose, I knew details about the character, the setting, and what sort of genre it falls under. It’s a very, very good query letter.
Also, her spelling and grammar were impeccable and I think we can all agree that an elevated attention to detail is indicative of the kind of precision and seriousness imperative to standing out in a crowded discovery pile, inbox and, later, shelf. It’s not so much about being sloppy or lazy (although it is) it’s really just that in today’s unforgiving market there’s no room to skimp on the easy stuff. It’s essential if we’re even going to consider fighting the big battle.
KV: Obviously, the manuscript met--or exceeded--your expectations. What did you love about ENCRYPTED and Ms. Coursey's other projects?
EN: Yes, naturally Kate’s projects did indeed exceed my expectations. What I loved about them was multitudinous. First, her writing gave off a very self-assured, but not too self-satisfied vibe. There also was a discernable hook, which is essential. That said, the novel’s olfactory prose was quite clearly not written in service of the hook.
It caught my eye that you had asked about projects in the plural. In fact, this was something that was very impressive about Ms. Coursey. I read one novel right away and was enamored. Kate astutely alluded to other projects in her letter but most certainly did not behave like she was trying to entice me with her used CD collection at a garage sale.
Sure enough, when I did inquire, not only was Kate prepared with a synopsis of the next completed manuscript, she even presented me with a teaser of yet another project--a work of literary fiction, no less. I was intrigued. She had the passion and the focus of craft that a number of the successful writers I’ve had the good fortune to work with seem to have in common. At the same time, she possessed the discipline and variability to work across genres. It seemed she knew the appropriate times when to reveal what when based on my increasing degree of interest.
Kate presented herself as a real writer and did so unabashedly. While Kate’s approach in no way was overconfident, she seemed content to let the work do the talking…the longer the conversation went, the more work she brought to my attention and consequently the more impressed I became. In my experience, the people who seem to be achieving their goals are not the ones hesitating, qualifying or wondering how their first novel fares before embarking on their next project…but continuously working on something new that excites them. Rarely do they discuss unfinished manuscripts or wonder aloud for feedback about whether to go the distance before making the commitment.
When Kate approached me, she had already asked herself if she was ready for an agent. Attempting to ponder it objectively about oneself, I would imagine, can be rather complicated. By the time it reached my desk, Kate’s work appeared serious and very polished without any mistakes that raised any red flags. I saw no references to things that a teenager wouldn’t recognize or wouldn’t want to know and spotted no 29 year-old protagonists in the YA novel. The point is, Kate’s novel thwarted the banal and stood out while seeming to understand that the universe was not likely going to create a new shelf for her (yet).
KV: How quickly did you read Ms. Coursey’s manuscript? Is that pretty typical of your response times on requested material, or do those vary?
EN: How quickly I read a manuscript really does vary due to circumstance. It all depends on what the environment is like at the moment and what other projects I’m working on. If I’m negotiating a contract when something ends up on my desk, it will take time to really give it a look. It also holds that manuscripts with a referral are read quicker than unsolicited manuscripts.
Between managing the careers of my clients and constantly looking for new talent, it’s a perpetual balancing act. I know I’m not always the best juggler on the
If I recall, Kate had a few completed manuscripts. I believe that I was already asking to see more just a few short months after being mesmerized by the first one I read. (More on submitting full manuscripts for fiction in the tips section).
KV: Ms. Coursey, now that you’ve reached the querying finish line, what do you wish you had known when you were back at the start gate?
KC: You know those crazy overnight success stories where someone signs with an agent in less than five days? Well, it probably won’t happen to you. As I said before, I queried for nearly three months before receiving six offers of representation, and many writers go out for up to a year before getting any significant interest. It doesn’t mean your writing is bad, it just means agents are very busy. They put most of their energy into client manuscripts and it often takes them months to get through the slush pile. Patience is the key, and although it would be awesome to send out queries and sign within a week, don’t expect agents to respond so quickly.
KV: Mr. Necarsulmer, what querying tips do you have?
EN: I know this is nothing groundbreaking, but, for me, the focus is really on the strength of the writing. If experience has taught me anything it's that with writing that sparkles as a foundation, the rest will follow. This is why my submission guidelines call for a five (5) page writing sample along with the standard query letter. Of course, I understand five pages will never be enough to truly internalize many projects but it can, I hope, give me a sense of whether I'll be captivated from the all important opening pages.
Despite varying guidelines across agencies, the core of a good query is universal: Find a way to showcase your writing and spirit, even if it’s just including the first few lines. For example, all D.H. Lawrence would have had to include in his query for “The Rocking-Horse Winner” would be the first two lines: “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust.” At the least my curiosity is awakened and at the most there is enough imagery, allusion, and, elegant prose on which to base an entire seminar in a creative writing program. In fact, they do.
As far as capturing the attention of an editor or agent right away, I feel for the writer. Really, I do. I touch on this because it is one of the biggest things people ask about at conferences: “Do I move the action right to the forefront to catch an editor’s attention right away?” Then I’ll often hear from that same person, “I moved x to the beginning at so-and-so’s suggestion and then showed it to an agent at the next conference and she recommended I build the character and set up the crescendo because it read too abrupt.” This is a tough one…the key is to care about the character and what’s happening to them. When you can make that “urgent” or “immediate” then where it literally appears will be of less consequence.
To add to my comments above on Kate’s approach, I suggest querying an agent with a finished manuscript. For me it speaks to professional judgment and shows (to put it simply) that the potential client can do what she/he claims to aspire to. You’re querying an agent to see if they’ll represent you in writing (full) books for Publishers. Unless there is some extraordinary prevailing reason to get your book to market (chasing a current event, trend etc. for a non-fiction proposal) it would stand to reason that showing you can complete a full manuscript would be important.
KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?
KC: Workshop your query like crazy, and don’t send out materials until your manuscript is complete. I received my first full manuscript request within thirty minutes of sending my initial query. If your book isn’t in tip-top shape, contacting agents is a bad idea, and you might find yourself in the position of scrambling to finish a story just so you can press send.
Other than that, keep at it! Querying is a long, grueling process, but the payoff is worth it in the end.
EN: In addition to the very general notions of not giving up and doing what you feel in your gut and pursuing it below are some words of advice I can offer on the market in general:
We often can’t sell something that we could have five years ago. For better or worse, I would describe today’s market as not just tough, but unforgiving. By that I mean if your manuscript is familiar in any noticeable way, I strongly suggest changing it. Think about what makes your novel different from every other book in the genre and let that difference carry it but never define it. Despite fewer risks being taken by the trade houses, I continue to believe that if you write something superlative and make a concerted effort, it stands a chance of getting published.
When it comes to rejection letters, do keep something in mind about the critiques you’ll receive: I’ve been all around the world and have never seen a statue of a critic. In short, just because one agent does not like your material doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it. Opinions will certainly vary…same goes for those of editors on the submissions I make. The key is using the “criticism” from the letter that resonates with you inasmuch as using it strengthens your manuscript. If I had to guess I would guess the trick is allowing yourself to “filter” the commentary of those qualified (and not) to offer it and internalizing it as part and parcel of your vision.
I hope some of what I’ve offered is useful. Keep in mind it may not be useful to everyone, which is only further proof of the importance of making the right agent and author match. Every agent is different, which is a good thing, because I think we can both agree that there is no more rarified group than authors. I will say that when the connection/union does work, it can be a relationship as rewarding as Kate Coursey is talented. Again, thank you so much for including me, Krista.
No, thank YOU, Mr. Necarsulmer and Ms. Coursey, for sharing your insights and encouragement with us. It was a pleasure to have the two of you on the blog.
Last but not least, if you’d like to employ Ms. Coursey’s editing skills, she and a fellow teenage writer maintain a critiquing service, the appropriately named Teen Eyes. Ms. Coursey and her associate, Taryn Albright, are both teenage writers, so if you have a YA or MG manuscript that could use a good thrashing from a pair of writerly teens, definitely check out their website.