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NOTE: At the time of this recording, Devon Halliday was an agent at Transatlantic Agency, but she is now pursuing other opportunities. Stay tuned for additional podcast episodes discussing trends related to agent and editor transitions within the publishing industry.
Devon Halliday, a former literary agent, discusses how she became an agent, working in publishing outside of New York City, the difference between a scout and an agent, how she manages her queries, and what she looks for in new clients. Next, she critiques query letters from three Ohio writers working on historical fiction, memoir, and YA manuscripts, respectively. Halliday offers advice surrounding the structure and content of these query letters, as well as her thoughts on comparative titles, manuscript word count, book proposals, the role of research in memoir, platforms for nonfiction writers, rhetorical questions in query letters, and more.
Halliday recommends Twice in a Lifetime by Melissa Baron, which publishes December 6, 2022.
Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Laura Maylene Walter: Today’s we’re speaking with Devon Halliday, a literary agent at Transatlantic Agency, where she represents a diverse range of fiction and nonfiction. Previously, Devon worked as a literary agent at Susanna Lea Associates and as a scouting assistant at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. She has held internships at Writers House, Maria B. Campbell Associates, Folio Literary Management, and Susanna Lea Associates. Devon studied Comparative Literature at Brown University and, after years in the NYC publishing scene, has returned to Ohio and works full-time as an agent. We’re going to talk to Devon about agenting and also review some queries from Ohio writers right here on the spot. Devon, welcome to the podcast, thank you so much for being here.. Devon Halliday: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited. Laura Maylene Walter: I always start by asking my guests about their Ohio connection, and we already covered that a bit in your bio, but I was hoping you could fill us in: Tell us where you're from and where you are now. Devon Halliday: I've spent pretty much all my life in Athens, Ohio. My parents are professors at Ohio University and so I was raised here. Then I went away for college, tried out Providence, Rhode Island. I was at brown for those years. And then I came to New York city. That was pretty much the hotspot of publishing, still is, but of course the pandemic changed things there. And so I spent a number of formative years in New York, and then when the pandemic hit, I sort of took my chance and returned home to Athens. And I love this town and I'm very happy to be back here. And I sort of feel like I'm part of the local community in a good way. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, I think writers in Ohio will be proud to have an agent like you here on our home turf. So that's great. Can you tell us about becoming an agent? How did you get into this career? Were you always interested in being an agent? How did this come to be? Devon Halliday: When I was in college, I started having conversations about what I could possibly do with my skillset and my interests. And of course they all revolved around language and literary arts and writing and reading and editing. And so I talked to a few people who were editors at publishing houses and they told me that agents existed, which I did not know at the time. I started setting up calls with different literary agents and sort of quizzing them about their lives and their jobs. And it all sounded really intriguing and really fun to me. I told myself that that was plan a to become a literary agent because it sounded like the coolest thing that I had heard of so far at that time in my life. I started applying to different internships. I think this was my sophomore year of college and got a couple internships that summer. And then from there, I just sort of never deviated from the track. So you read my bio, which obviously has this laundry list of different internships and different places I've worked. And that's because I was sort of voraciously curious about the whole industry and I wanted to learn about every facet of it. And so I enjoyed interning at these different places. I did some scouting, I did some agent work and all of it was to figure out how the whole industry fit together and where I might find a place in it. Laura Maylene Walter: That's really interesting. I think it's important to have a holistic view of the industry like you were able to receive from those internships. For anyone listening, who might not know what a scout does...I know this can be kind of a mysterious part of the process even for published writers. So if you could just briefly break down, you know, what a literary agent's role is versus a scout's role. Devon Halliday: Absolutely. Yeah. It's a tricky question. I remember that when I was working at the scouting agencies, they told me that the test of how good of a scout you are is how quickly you can describe your job to someone outside the industry. <laugh> It's totally mysterious to many. So yeah, I mean, an agent is a representative of writers. We're the middleman between the author and the publisher. And so it's our job to represent the writer, help shape the manuscript up for publication and then send it out and try to sell it. And so that's the reason agents do all this editorial work is so that we have a better chance of selling the book. It's easier to sell it when it's polished off and sort of glowing and beautiful. And so we put in a lot of time there, we know people in the industry, we know who to send it to. Devon Halliday: We know where it has the best shot of getting accepted and hopefully we make the sale. And then from there, we sort of help coordinate as the book moves through the publication process and editors are the ones at publishing houses who acquire books. And so those are the main branches. If you're looking at careers in the publishing industry, those are probably the ones you would've heard of, but there's this sort of unknown branch of scouting on the side. Scouts concern themselves with international publishing. So whenever a book is picked up in the States, for example, the publisher holds rights to that book. Included in the rights of when a book is accepted for publication is whether or not maybe the publisher or maybe the agent controls the translation rights and whoever controls, the translation rights is legally entitled to sell those rights to publishers around the world. Devon Halliday: And so you can sell French rights to a publisher in France or in Canada, and you can sell Portuguese rights to a publisher in Portugal or Brazil and so on and so forth. And so Scouts do not handle the selling of rights directly. What they handle instead is they work for a single publisher in a country, for example, one in France, one in Germany, one in China, so on and so forth. And what they're trying to do is figure out what the hottest books are so that their publisher can get to it before the rival publishers get to it. So there's only going be one German translation of a book. And if the book is going to be a smash hit bestseller in two years, of course, by the time it's a bestseller, every German publisher will be fighting over it. And the scout's job is to get to that book first and say, you know what, this one's gonna be a smash hit in two years, you should pick up the rights now for a bargain. And then when it is a smash hit bestseller, their German publisher will be the one in charge of the book. And if that's a bit convoluted, it's because it is a little convoluted, but essentially they are the sort of watchdogs of the literary landscape trying to spot what's going to be a big deal and getting to it first, reading it first, having an opinion on it first and disseminating it to all the clients that they work for internationally. Laura Maylene Walter: I like that: the watchdogs of the literary world. Someone once described scouts to me as the spies of the literary world, which I think is a really fun description. So it makes it seem very mysterious and exciting. And I also remember reading about scouts' jobs and while anyone in this business -- agents, editors, anyone at all on the editorial side -- have to read so much, just so much material, but it sounds like scouts have even more weight put on their shoulders in terms of reading a lot and reading very quickly. So that must be probably a good skill to have in this business as well. Devon Halliday: Absolutely. Yeah, it was hugely influential for me. I remember that during my time working with scouts, there were days that I would read five manuscripts in a row and sort of just pump out opinions on them and let people know what I thought. So it really helped as far as knowing my taste. And it also helped as far as streamlining my taste where I now know within a sentence, if I'm going to like a book and then I read the whole book and I have a more nuanced insight into it, but my judgment got a lot faster. Laura Maylene Walter: That's a really good point that it seems similar to me. I've never worked in publishing, but I do edit a small literary journal. And after years of reading submissions, similarly, I can tell within a sentence or a paragraph, if this might be something that is going to pique my interest. So it is interesting how with time you can really hone those skills and make you a more efficient reader, which is useful. Back to agenting. It's my impression that over the last couple decades, I would say it's more common for agents to be located outside of New York. And I assume the pandemic has really affected that even more. So can you talk about after spending time in New York and now you work full-time as an agent in Ohio, what is that like? What is the landscape like for agents who are outside of New York and what opportunities are there? Devon Halliday: That's a good question. And yeah, the answer has definitely changed with the pandemic. I think something that is becoming increasingly common is not just agents, but whole agencies that work remotely. You know, we've started to see that you can have a central office, but you don't always necessarily need one. You know, you need somewhere to receive physical mail, but there's less and less of that nowadays. And so it's much easier than it used to be to conduct your business from wherever you happen to find yourself in the world. And I think before the pandemic agents who chose to live outside of New York had to make frequent trips to New York and sort of get face time with editors and make sure that they were still part of that conversation and, you know, showing their face at all of the events that happened throughout the year. And as the pandemic, hopefully fingers crossed, winds to a close, Devon Halliday: I think that that might come to be true again, where trips to New York and of course to the book fairs become more frequent again. And part of the job of being an agent, but over these two years of pandemic, I think two years, goodness, who knows, a lot of things have moved on to Zoom and have moved on to email. And so for me, it was actually a pretty precipitous time to make the switch because I was able to meet with editors over Zoom. No one cared that I wasn't in New York, they weren't in New York either. And so now that things are coming back, sort of in person, I feel that I've already made a lot of those connections that would've been quite difficult if no one else was willing to do this whole business online. And so now it's much easier when I talk to my friends who are agents in New York, of course they're doing lunch meetings again and coffee shop meetings, but they're also doing zoom meetings. It's just a blend. And that blend means that nobody is excluded from the process. Now, if you live outside New York, I think it's changed publishing for the better in some ways. New York is an expensive city, and I think it's prohibitive to force everyone to live in New York city on a publishing salary, which as hopefully most people know are not high. Laura Maylene Walter: Tell us a bit about your work. What kind of books do you represent? And when you are on the hunt for new clients, what kind of projects are you finding most exciting these days? Devon Halliday: I tend to love literary and speculative fiction the most. I think that's where I would say my heart is. I'm, At my core, I really care so much about good writing. I'm not quite a snob, but definitely a ruthless evaluator, I would say. And so the writing really has to click for me in order for me to get excited about a project. I know some really wonderful agents can hear a good premise and they're happy to whip the book into better shape for me, the writing has to be there. And if the writing is there, I'm happy to tweak the premise and rearrange the plot and make it a little more commercial and sellable. But I need to feel a really intelligent, clever mind on the page. That's what's most exciting to me. So because that's my number one criterion, I think that it's allowed my list to range out a bit. Devon Halliday: It's more spread out than I originally imagined when I started agenting. And that's because I don't really care what the genre is technically, as long as I love the writing. And so I've started doing a few thrillers. I also have some more commercial, romcom-style books. I have more conventional literary stuff, but you know, I did a cookbook. I've started doing a few children's titles. I did a graphic memoir and all of this is because I really believed in the writer and not because I set out with my sights on a certain genre that I wanted to add to my list. So yeah, in terms of what's getting me excited beyond the writing, I think it's really good to see a writer who is committed to the career of writing and takes it seriously and takes seriously their part in the whole process. It's always good to see writers who have beta readers and they have communities and they're committed to the craft of improving their own work. Devon Halliday: And if I'm their agent, I'm not the first one to read a draft, they've sent it around to all their friends. They've done their very best with it. I really appreciate that because it's, you know, publishing it, you have to be in it for the long haul. It's a slow business. Nobody makes quick money doing it. And so writers who take the long view of their careers and invest time and energy, not just into the writing itself, but into sort of how they shape the narrative around their writing and who they are as a writer. I really value that. Laura Maylene Walter: It sounds like you would be a perfect agent for, I'm thinking like, the writer's writer, that kind of person, someone who really values their words. So I appreciate that. I think that's great. Well, let's talk about querying. This is a process, so many writers go through, so many writers agonize over it and complain about it and have their hearts broken over it. I think most people who listen probably know what querying is, but just in case, it's the process. when a writer has a manuscript, they would like to sell to a publishing house, especially a big publishing house. They need to find a literary agent and to get that agent on board, they need to entice them. And so they send a one-page query letter and often some sample materials from the book to start engaging in that process with speaking with agents. So I'm wondering if you could tell us, I know every agent works a little differently. So how do you manage your query process? I don't know if you can give us a sense of how many queries you get when you're open to them, but can you kind of give us a behind-the-scenes look at what it's like for you on your end, as an agent receiving query letters from aspiring writers? Devon Halliday: Wow. I think calling my query process a "process" is sort of overstating things. I think many agents do a much better job than I do of keeping a consistent approach over time that allows them to stay on top of it. Me, unfortunately, I tend to work in sort of fits and bursts where I get through a ton of queries at once and I'm on top of things. And then suddenly client work resurges and I let things slide. And then I realize that I have hundreds of queries built up in my inbox, and then I close the queries and I deal with them. And then the process starts all over again. I'm really not the type of person who chips away. I tend to do things in one sitting and sometimes there are too many queries to do in one sitting. And when that happens, I just sort of have to let the inbox explode a little before I deal with it in terms of quantity, it does fluctuate over time and I've been closed to queries for the last couple months. Devon Halliday: So I can't say exactly how many I receive, but a hundred a week would be a standard minimum to receive. Queries come in constantly. And some of them you can tell immediately that it's not for you. For example, you know, I know that I'm not really looking to take on too many children's book writers. And so if someone queries me with just a picture book, I'm probably not the right person to represent it. I won't do the best job with it. That's an easy "no" for me, but there are a lot of queries that demand more time and are more complicated and reviewing them, you know, not only does it take hours in a chair, but it takes some, I think emotional energy as well. And that is part of why they can build up is that reviewing queries when you're exhausted and frustrated Devon Halliday: and it's the end of the day, you're not really gonna be awake to some of the great stuff that you might find in there. And so you have to also have the right mindset going in of this sort of optimism of hoping to find the right thing and hoping to find the gem. And so that also can lead to slower response times from agents. And I guess I would say to writers who are, you know, impatient and it's been ages, and they're waiting, just keep in mind that first of all, agents are humans and some humans are disorganized. I'm certainly a bit disorganized at times, but also it's better that the agent takes their time with the query inbox than that they just blast through it when they're in a bad mood and they reject your query, even though it's great. And so sometimes slow response times don't have to be an indicator that the agent doesn't care. Maybe they care a lot and they know that they can't do a good job unless they take their time with it. Laura Maylene Walter: One of my questions was going to be about patience and the wait time, because I know so many writers, I hear from writers all the time who are just agonizing over how long it can take when they query how long it takes to get a response. Some agents don't respond to queries that they are no's on, and it is difficult. And I understand. I've been on that side too, as a writer and feeling impatient and just wanting to hear back immediately. But I also tell writers, once you get an agent, then all of a sudden your perspective shifts and you think I want my agent to focus on me, I'm their client, you know, versus their query inbox. So it is definitely a balance. And by the way, I think your quote unquote process sounds completely standard to me. I don't know how all agents work, but especially as a lit mag editor, that's also how I review submissions, kind of let them pile up and then get to it and do it in chunks so that I know I'm in a good mood, so I'm not just passing on anything. Great. So that makes a lot of sense to me. So I know you're closed to queries right now. I don't know when this airs, if you'll be open or not, but is this just on a rolling basis, you just decide when your inbox gets too full, you close it, which also helps writers get a response versus having like everything pile up. But do you have a certain schedule or do you just take it as it comes? Devon Halliday: So far? I take it as it comes. And one part of it that is maybe more visible to writers is the size of the query inbox. There are sites like query tracker where writers post how long it's been since a response. And so you can get a good sense of how overwhelmed an agent might or might not be from that. But I think the other side of it that can be a little less visible from the perspective of a query and writer is, does this agent have room on their list? And "list" becomes this mythological world in the realm of agenting. We all use it. And it's never quite clear what we're referring to, but you will see some agents who say that they're actively building their client list. And what that really means is that the agent has come to a point in their workflow where they look around them and they realize, you know, okay, I sold these, the writers that I'm working with are revising these books. Devon Halliday: you know, I have a couple books that I'm waiting for in the next two months, but I have nothing to work on right now. And so when an agent hits that point, they start actively building their list again. And they really go out there and they search for clients and they open to queries and they read them carefully. And after a certain point, I think with most agents, you start to take on more clients and suddenly you look around and you realize that you are barely treading water with the amount that you have on your plate. You know, you have six manuscripts to read by the end of next week and you have four submissions to send out and, you know, chaos. And so when you reach that point of chaos, I think many agents take the approach of I'm overextended and I'm no longer actively building my list. Devon Halliday: I think those agents, myself included, will still snap something up if it seems utterly great. But a lot of us also will say, okay, my client list is currently as much as I can handle right now, I'm going to hold off. And so it doesn't make sense for us to be open to queries at that point because we can't stand and take anything else on. We know that we wouldn't do a good enough job with the author, right? There's no point in taking on a client if then we're gonna have to be avoiding their emails for months because we don't have time to help them. So I think there's a pretty serious reckoning that agents do on a monthly basis. How much can I handle? Can I take on more authors responsibly? You know, can I do a good job with more authors? And if the answer to that is no, we might be letting things pile up in the inbox. We might be closed to queries. And that's a reason that you wouldn't necessarily know looking from the outside, but it is a huge factor in how we determine when to open to queries. And so I guess all of this to answer your question, I know some people have a schedule for when they're open and when they're closed. I don't, I let it be dictated by the needs of my list and the amount of overwhelm that I feel in trying to do a good job with the clients I have. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, I feel I have so many other questions I could ask you about the querying process and advice for writers. But I think what might be helpful is if we just dive in and review some actual query letters, so are you ready for this? Devon Halliday: Certainly. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, just so everyone knows, these are some real query letters from Ohio writers that I gathered in advance. We have permission from these writers to read their queries and critique them on this podcast. We are redacting the names of the writers, but everything else in their query letters is as they sent it. And they have given us the green light to go ahead. So we will start with our first query letter and I will read it. And then Devon and I will talk about it. Query number one: Dear Devon Halliday: In 1953, Alice Carver has no time for ghosts, especially not her husband’s infamous first wife, Claire. Her son is missing, and her fractious preacher husband has been arrested yet again for harassing their Kansas neighbors with a Chinese Bible. But no matter what Alice tries, Claire’s ghost shows no signs of leaving. Late at night, Laura Maylene Walter: the two wives begin to speak about their lives in Hainan, a Chinese island built by pirates and imperial exiles. Claire, who Alice remembers as “Mad Mrs. Carver,” begins her story in 1896 as an ambitious young girl married to a fiery missionary she barely knows. Her aspirations clash with the expectations of wives and mothers in a south China mission as war rages outside her windows, inside her home, and even within her own mind. Alice begins her story in 1906 as an unruly eight-year-old girl named Zhi-Lan, who enrolls in a missionary school when the matchmaker refuses to arrange her marriage. Zhi-Lan must navigate a tricky foreign landscape and her brother's revolutionary cause to find her own path. Claire and Alice’s stories intertwine and sometimes conflict. Throughout the night, the wives confront the truth about what led to Claire’s death, and together they untangle the pernicious “gospel of gentility” championed by foreign interests. Laura Maylene Walter: Hundredfold, complete at 110,000 words, is a historical novel with speculative and gothic elements. The book could find its place alongside novels by Juhea Kim, Melissa Fu, Diane Setterfield, and the recent revival of Jane Eyre retellings. Imagine Jane growing older and getting real about Mr. Rochester and Victorian England with the lady in the attic. My Hainanese great-grandmother used to hide snakes in the desks of missionaries, and I know this because she told me. These stories planted the seeds of what would become Hundredfold. My research has taken me to Kansas, Hainan, historical societies, museums, and abandoned asylums. My short stories have appeared in the Crab Orchard Review, Missouri Review and have been finalists for the Jack Dyer Fiction Prize and the Perkoff Prize. The University of Glasgow published a short of mine in an anthology of speculative medical fiction in 2018. I have an MFA from BGSU, where I was a Devine Fellow. All best, [name redacted]. Okay. Devon, what are your impressions about this query letter? Devon Halliday: Maybe we can sort of work through it chronologically in terms of the order of the letter. So my first impression with that initial paragraph is a bit of dizziness, to be honest, there are a lot of details. Fractious preacher husband, Kansas neighbors, Chinese Bible, and ghosts, and an infamous first wife. It's a lot going on in that first paragraph, and my head is spinning a little bit. When an agent is going through a query inbox, if we are confused by something, we don't reread, right? We move on. So my impulse, when I see that first paragraph is, ah, and then I skip ahead <laugh> and so I think the author of this query letter is trusting that the agent's going to read carefully and appreciate every bit of detail included. But if I'm like just charging through queries at the end of a day, I'm probably not gonna read every word here and sort of fit it together. So what I would encourage is more simplicity in the outset. We can get into the details further in the query letter, but I want this first line to sort of serve as a log line that gives me the meat of the story right away. And here, I don't quite understand what the meat of the story is going to be. And I'm curious to hear your impressions there. Laura Maylene Walter: I would say just looking at the query letter and also reading it out loud, I feel there's a lot of plot information and it just strikes me as looking very long on the page. So one of my questions also for you, I know some agents have different preferences, but sometimes, when I've written queries, I like to put the word count the genre and maybe the comps and kind of the overarching tone or premise of the book right up front. I know some agents don't mind if it's down at the bottom as this one is. So do you have a preference or do you think that helps frame a query letter to put it into context more quickly? Devon Halliday: I think you should lead with whatever's strongest. And as I listen to you read this query letter for me, what was sort of getting my interest piqued is, oh, stories appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Missouri Review. I like those journals. I read those journals. That's cool, a finalist for prizes. Great. That's getting my interest. The comps are great, that Jane Eyre comp is good. So that is all really helpful to know. And I agree. I think that would've been better to lead with, especially if we're gonna have this really complex plot that we're trying to compact into this space of a query letter, giving me something to latch onto initially, which is a great, proven writer, short stories have been published and some comps. Great. At least I know that the writer is working within a certain conversation. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And I think it was also clear to me as I was reading it out loud, clearly this is a strong writer. There were many turns of phrase that were sophisticated. And that gave me confidence in the writing ability of this writer. What was really grabbing my interest was the thought of these two women, well, one of whom is a ghost, gathering together and how their stories intertwine. And so I would've loved if it could be condensed into fewer paragraphs. I think this is the challenge with writing queries, just from my experience as a writer. And when I try to help people who have queries is expressing the story in really broad strokes, right? It's hard to not want to get all the details in there. And I felt like you, that maybe this one just had too much detail in a way that made it harder to latch onto the heart of the story than if it had been more broadly described. Devon Halliday: Usually the paragraph right before you sort of bring in the title again, and the comps, all of that, where we're saying: "Together, they untangle the pernicious gospel of gentility championed by foreign interests." It looks pretty and interesting, but it's the kind of thing where I'm not getting any meaning from that on my first read. And if I read that three more times, I'm getting a little more meaning out of it. But I think sometimes there is a lot to be said for clarity and directness -- showing off the writing at points, but also really focusing in on what the heart of the story is and making sure it's a heart of a story that feels relatable and universal. I'm intrigued by the "pernicious gospel of mentality," but I don't know if that's immediately hooking me as something relatable for me as a reader. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. It's not concrete, really. Yeah. I have a few quick questions. One is the word count. So I know if this is a historical novel historical novels can be longer. I know there was recently a whole discourse on Twitter about word count <laugh> and it was surprisingly controversial. And we actually have another episode on this podcast devoted to talking about word count and page count. But when you see that 110,000 words, do you have any thoughts about that? Is that completely fine for a debut historical novel? Devon Halliday: I don't tend to do a ton of historical. And I also have read a lot of very long historical novels that I felt could have been a bit shorter. So for me, my honest response there is, hmm, that's a little long. And I think that an agent who is an expert at historical fiction might have a different response there, but my wheelhouse is more 80,000 standard novel range, literary novels. And so that's looking long to me. And if I am already feeling that this query letter itself is long and the word count is long, I think it's a combined impression of, hmm. Maybe this could be cut before I see it. The reason that word count rules exist is not because they're hard and fast, you absolutely can never break those rules. It's because they mark the parameters of what tends to be wise. You know, what tends to be good quality. Devon Halliday: And you know, when I read historical novels that are 150,000 words, it's not really that the 150,000 words is the problem. It's that the sentence by sentence quality is not quite high enough to sustain my interest for that long. It's really hard to have written a book so good that I want 150,000 words of it. And so when you're looking at word count, I think of course any rule can be broken if you break it brilliantly, but it's so much safer to stick within the general outlines that people suggest just because it improves the odds that the work will be high quality. Laura Maylene Walter: My last question about not necessarily about this query letter specifically, but in general is the issue of representation. So this writer did mention a Hainanese great-grandmother. If that detail were not included...I'm just curious if you get query letters from writers who might be writing outside their own experience, do you Google writers to see who they are? I'm just curious about your take on this. Devon Halliday: Absolutely. Yeah, I do. And that is hugely important. I agree that that's a good section to have in the query letter, because it gives me a little bit of context for how this story came to be. But it's a huge conversation who has the right to tell which stories and as an agent, it's something I'm extremely conscious of because editors are going to be conscious of it. You know, I always check the bio and if the information is not in the bio, then I Google the writer and I check their website. And that's just, I think inevitable as a query writer, you should expect that you will be Googled and it's good to know, you know, and to have a website and to have some control over what appears when people Google you. Laura Maylene Walter: Okay, we'll move on to a non-fiction query letter. Query letter number two: Dear Agent: Two decades after my mother’s early death, I was shocked to learn that her colon cancer wasn’t random bad luck. It was a genetic mutation—and I carry it, too. THE CALM AND THE STORM, complete at 65,000 words, is a memoir that explores my ongoing battle to outrun bad genes and the complex emotional and physical impacts of genetic testing. The discovery of this mutation, called Lynch Syndrome, forced me to take a proactive and, sometimes, heartbreaking approach to my own health. Seeking to protect my children from the motherless childhood I experienced, I made the difficult decision to have a hysterectomy when I was thirty. Annual screenings and preventative surgeries are now part of my life. As millions of people take at-home DNA tests, genetic mutations are uncovered with ever-increasing frequency. More than one in 300 people are carriers for this type of mutation, Laura Maylene Walter: most of whom are still unaware. The CALM AND THE STORM will speak to those coping with their own genetic abnormalities. It is also a story for people who seek to transform their traumas into strengths. I graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in English and creative writing, where I studied under Lewis Hyde and was a student associate for the Kenyon Review. MUTHA Magazine has published two of my recent essays. Based on your interest in [BLANK], I would be honored to send you my book proposal and/or manuscript. I appreciate your consideration, [name redacted]. Okay. Devon, what are your thoughts on this query letter? Devon Halliday: I think this is a really strong query letter overall. I appreciate that it's kept to the point and short and clear. I think all of that is great. I like that opening paragraph, I think is especially good: "memoir that explores my ongoing battle to outrun bad genes and the complex emotional and physical impacts of genetic testing." That seems relevant to everyone, but also personal. It's a good blend in terms of memoirs. I'm always interested in memoirs that combine a personal story with a broader societal perspective. I'm liking all of that. The main thing I would say about this one is I'm having a bit of trouble telling what the balance is between personal story and sort of research and broader societal critique. And so, you know, I'm trying to imagine from this, what the manuscript is going to be like, and it's not totally clear to me how much research will be involved and sort of how many other perspectives will be involved. Devon Halliday: If this is something that takes a personal story and uses it as a springboard, or if the personal story is the central focus. And I think if the personal story is the central focus, that's posing a bit of a yellow flag to me because with memoir, and with all nonfiction, platform can be really important. And so if the memoir's focus is personal story and the author has no platform, the writing will have to be stupendous for me to be able to get it past editors. And so then I will be reading with that in mind of sort of thinking, okay, this writing needs to be really brilliant because if it's not brilliant, I'm not gonna be able to sell it. Laura Maylene Walter: Can you talk a bit about what kind of platform you would like to see for a query like this? What does that entail? Publications, social media presence. What would excite you about a writer's platform? Devon Halliday: You know, I actually do a lot more fiction than non-fiction and partly that's because I don't love scouring people's platforms to see if they're adequate for memoir. It's more forgiving than it is for other non-fiction. So, you know, if you're doing a big picture sort of big idea book or a cookbook or something like that, then social media followers are gonna be really important. And those numbers have to be pretty huge for them to be meaningful to a sales board at a publisher, if it's a little more literary. And if it's on the memoir side of the fence, I do think that other publications are important. It's great that this writer mentions some of their publications, but I also think that if this is going to be a memoir with a sort of science focus, a medical research focus, then I'd be interested in seeing some background in that area or some involvement with contacts in those spaces, just to complete the package of how this book will sit on shelves and what kind of readers it will appeal to and who will help advocate for the book. Devon Halliday: So in this case, I would be interested in probably seeing the proposal here and figuring out which books this author is comparing their memoir to and what audience they anticipate. You know, I love the description of story for people who want to transform their traumas into strengths. I think that's great, but it also is a bit hard to pinpoint demographically. If I'm looking ahead to being at a publishing house on a sales team, trying to figure out where we're going to sell this book, I think comp titles might have helped here to further that impression of not only do I know my own story, I know who else wants to read this story, and I know what else is similar to my story that's been out there in the market. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, that's a good point. Comp titles are missing here, and that could help maybe frame where this book lands on the spectrum between all personal memoir and going into some more universal elements of genetic testing. I like the paragraph mentioning that so many people are taking these at-home DNA tests, because that does hint at a more universal stance, which I think could be helpful for this kind of book. But yes, as you say, it would be helpful to know more about where it lies because it doesn't really go into much detail. And hopefully the writer is taking that opportunity in the proposal, which is a much longer document. Can you just briefly describe a proposal for listeners who might not be aware? What kind of things go into a proposal? Devon Halliday: So a proposal is for non-fiction what you send to agents instead of a manuscript most of the time, and for memoir, that depends. For a lot of memoirs, people write the whole manuscript and send that, but in general, a proposal is an overview of what the book is going to be like for the agent to give them a sense of it and where you envision it selling. So components of a proposal will include a sort of introduction to the book, a combination of pitch and first chapter, a direct blend between those two that speaks to why this story is important, who needs to read it, and what the meat of the story is. And from there, it usually goes into various parts that can be ordered differently, but you're always going to have an author bio. You're always gonna have a section on comparable titles and competitive titles where you discuss, first of all, what else in the market is similar so that you can prove that there's precedent for a story like this selling, but also you want to prove that your book is different enough that it hasn't already been done. Devon Halliday: And so you'll show the ways that your book digresses and diverges from these existing publications. In addition, you're going to have a chapter outline and sort of overview where you break down what's in each chapter, you're going to have a couple sample chapters at the end, which is maybe just chapters one through three. Maybe you're gonna select from different points of the book. And that's so an agent can have a clear sense of your writing and can imagine what the rest of the book will read. Of course, there's also a marketing section where you talk about demographic. You might talk about your own connections. You might talk about podcasts and journals that might feature a book like this, and you can include people who might blurb. It can really go all out in showing that you are not just leaving the job of selling this book up to the publisher. You're going to be an active participant in supporting the book. And to do that, you can show that you've already thought about who's going to buy it. You've thought about who's going to put their name on it as a stamp of approval, and who's going to pitch it and who's going to review it. And the more of that, you have, the more impressive the proposal's going to feel. Laura Maylene Walter: This is so helpful, by the way. Thank you so much for volunteering your time and insights. We have one more query left. This is for a YA novel. And I don't know if you represent YA or much, but I think either way, we can still give this writer some feedback. So query number three: Dear Devon Halliday: Willow Sinclair can pinpoint the exact moment her life fell apart: the day she discovered the body of Peter Lankford, mounted high in the tree branches in her backyard. Willow would do anything to be able to move on from that day, but between the debilitating panic attacks and horrible nightmares, she’s becoming convinced that things will never get better. Worse still, the day after she found Peter, three of her classmates cornered her to find out what she really saw in those trees, and all three of them ended up hospitalized while Willow emerged without a scratch. Laura Maylene Walter: No one cares that Willow can’t explain how it happened or that she didn’t even touch them, her former friends call her dangerous and leave her. Only her friend Mark still stands by her side. If only the killer was finally put behind bars, that would put an end to all of it. Willow knows she will never catch the killer herself; she’s a seventeen-year-old high school student with a severe panic disorder, not exactly FBI detective material. So when she runs into Thomas, the person who attacked her in retaliation for breaking his brother’s arm, and he has no recollection of her or his own brother, she settles for investigating what caused his amnesia. Thomas, she learns, is a part of an online paranormal group that believes that the killer is a supernatural being, and he claims that the creature is stalking him, causing his odd memory loss, persistent nightmares, and constant anxiety. Laura Maylene Walter: He has to be wrong. The killer is human, she’s sure of it. Because if he isn’t wrong, Willow is being stalked too. The more she investigates, the less sense anything makes. And when another kid goes missing, Willow will do everything she can to find the real culprit and prove the truth once and for all. But what do you do when the truth is more than you can handle? PERSISTENT SILENCE is a 95,000-word young adult horror. Like Willow, I also struggle with a panic disorder, but unlike Willow, I am not being stalked by a supernatural entity (to my knowledge). When not writing, I work for Findaway, the world’s largest audiobook distributor, helping indie authors create their audiobooks and pitching upcoming titles to distributors such as Apple Books, Hoopla, and Scribd. Thank you for your time and consideration. [name redacted]. All right. Let's dive into this one. Devon Halliday: All right. Well, there's a lot of interesting material in this query and I think the idea itself intrigues me: assuming something is a human killer and then learning halfway through that it's supernatural. I think that's a fun twist, so I'm interested, but I'm also kind of intrigued by this query and I'm glad we're talking about it because to me, I think the query letter is written quite capably. It's a little long, it's a little complicated, but it basically flows. But I have some questions that are not about the letter itself, but are about the manuscript. And so one of them that I want to look at is this paragraph about Willow, knowing that she'll never catch the killer herself. So she gives up on that. And then instead she investigates someone else's amnesia. To me, this might point to a problem in the manuscript itself because you know, every event in a novel is a link in a chain. Devon Halliday: And to me it feels like the chain breaks there. Willow. We have her motivation. We know that she discovered this body, and then she got blamed for something she didn't do, which was tangentially related to the body. And so she wants to catch the killer, but she can't. So instead, she investigates some other guys amnesia, you know, like there's a lack of causality there that is sort of a little hiccup in the plot. And maybe in the novel it works. But as I read the career letter, I'm thinking, huh, like that might not end up lining up perfectly when it's in the novel itself. And you know, I think this is part of a broader story structure idea where you want everything that occurs to arise directly out of the character's actions. You know, the character wants something and they chase after it. Devon Halliday: And the world throws some obstacles in their way. And the character does something about that obstacle. And then whatever they do ends up causing some other crisis that raises the stakes. And here we have a case where we know what the character wants and the character doesn't take any action, but then takes an unrelated action. And that's what sets the whole thing in motion. And that's how she discovers that the creature actually is paranormal and it loops back. So I don't know if this is making sense, but my worry here is that there are a lot of events stacked on top of each other, and many of them relate, but they don't all relate directly. And as a reader, I would feel a little bit jarred by the switch. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. I think those comments are really smart. And I would say one of the paragraphs that you're referencing about, "Willow knows she'll never catch the killer herself," and then goes into introducing Thomas; I did start to get confused. I started to feel we have so much being introduced and then this detail of breaking his brother's arm, which I suppose was connected to that mysterious incident that we actually aren't told what happens when she's cornered and they're all mysteriously hurt. And so I'm trying to draw these connections, trying to figure out who Thomas is, who these other people are, who's Thomas's brother. And so it is a lot. I actually just wrote a question mark next to that paragraph on the query, because it was a bit much for me to untangle. I know this can maybe sound frustrating to writers, but when you only have one page to share with someone about your book, we don't know these people yet. Laura Maylene Walter: Right? We don't know the characters. We haven't gotten to sit down and enjoy the manuscript. And so it can be really easy to confuse readers if it's not very clear and direct. And I think in general, there was just a lot of information in this query. You know, query letters, correct me if I'm wrong, but are really meant to give, not just a snippet of the book and to entice the agent. But I think of them as a promise, like here is what the manuscript can be like. And if the query feels a little too long entangled, I think it's natural for an agent or an editor to worry that the manuscript is that way too, as you said. Devon Halliday: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it's the same reason that the agent is able to read the first 20 pages and make a description about the full manuscript, which can of course feel unfair if you don't love your first chapter, but you love chapter 14, but you know, it's all about extrapolating. An agent takes the information they're given which in this case is a query letter and thinks, okay, if this is a very polished piece that they're choosing to send to me via email, then I can assume that the rest of the manuscript will resemble this and that doesn't have to be true, but it is going to be the assumption. Cause that's the information we have to work with. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. A few other things, very nitpicky things. And I apologize to the writer for being nitpicky, but I think that's also the point of a query letter where you have such short space that you want to make sure you really go over it and be very, very conscious of every choice you're making. So just as an example, in the first paragraph, "debilitating panic attacks and horrible nightmares." My thought when I was reading that out loud, I like the word debilitating, right? I think that's a strong word. So a debilitating panic attack. I understand what that means. And horrible nightmares though. Horrible felt like such a weak word in comparison. So I thought you could just strike that, right, and really focus on making the words as strong and clear as possible. I stumbled a bit when I was reading the line, "If only the killer was finally put behind bars that would put an end to all of it." And it's such a small thing, but there are two "puts" in that sentence. And I just wonder if the writer would think about how can I construct that same sentiment, that it doesn't have repetition. And again, I'm being incredibly, super nitpicky, but I think these are little tiny things that can add up to an impression. I mean, what do you think? Do you have other thoughts, Devon? Devon Halliday: Yeah, no, I agree. I noticed those too. And I think there are slight breaks in logic that I am noticing as well. And I think it all points to the same idea, which is that the query is throwing a lot of information at the wall, but I think it could do with more concision and a more careful, selective approach. For example, if I'm looking at this first paragraph: Willow Sinclair can pinpoint the exact moment her life fell apart, you know, when she finds this body in the trees, it actually seems to me, rereading this, that that's not the day her life falls apart. It's kind of the day after, when her three classmates corner her and everybody ends up injured. And so that might not be something I notice on a first read, but I think it's something that I notice subconsciously, which is that the story isn't quite chaining together in my mind as I read. Devon Halliday: And if we go down towards the end of the query letter, we have this idea that the killer has to be human, because if he's not human, Willow's being stalked too. And that sounds good at first, but it also, if you think about it more, she's being stalked either way, probably right. <laugh> And you know, it's hard to imagine how the killer's humanity is relevant to the question of her being stopped. I think the writer has opted for sentences that sound hooky, and that kind of works if you don't look too closely. But when I am looking closer at some of these hooky sentences, I'm starting to have questions. And as we've talked about confusion is a recipe for a no, right. You know, if I'm confused, I'm not going to assume that the problem is with me, because I'm an agent reading hundreds of queries and just trying to get through them. If I'm confused at all, I just move on. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And I would like to point out there were a few moments that I really enjoyed the voice, which I felt would probably be important in a YA novel like this. I mean, in the bio paragraph talking about, "I'm not being stalkked by a supernatural entity that I know of." I thought that was kind of funny. And even earlier that Willow acknowledges, he's not exactly FBI detective material. So these little glimmers that I could tell that this is a writer who has a fun voice and the project is definitely imaginative and it does not sound quiet. You know what I mean? It sounds like a lot is happening and there's kind of a dramatic flare here that can be really enticing. Yeah. My last question about this query letter is the rhetorical question right before the word count paragraph: "But what do you do when the truth is more than you can handle?" So I see a lot of writers and agents talk about the use of rhetorical questions in query letters. And I'm wondering what your stance is on it. If writers are using questions like this as a hook, how can they do so successfully? Devon Halliday: I'm not allergic to rhetorical questions. I know some agents are, I think for me, I didn't even notice it in this query letter. And I mean that to say, I felt totally neutral about it. I don't think it added anything. And I don't think I would've necessarily noticed if it wasn't there, when we're looking at this particular rhetorical question, "what do you do when the truth is more than you can handle" that could sort of apply to any book and to any life. You know, it feels general in a way that's not necessarily the strongest note to end on. I want your book to ask a question that can only be answered by your book. I don't think it's a resounding gong crescendo moment for the query. I think there's a missed opportunity there where it could have been more specific and more helpful. And in general, I think rhetorical questions demand an investment of imagination from the reader and you probably won't have earned that in the space of a query letter, you know, just because an agent's reading fast and they're reading tons of these. Devon Halliday: And so am I really going to think my way through every hypothetical scenario proposed by a rhetorical question? Probably not <laugh> which was a rhetorical question itself, of course. But if I'm reading 50 query letters and they all have a rhetorical question in them, I'm probably mentally skipping past those questions because it's not for me to answer. The query itself should be answering it in a way or should be teeing up the novel to answer that question. I would say I'm casually against them though. I don't have any sort of rule where a rhetorical question is an instant. No, I don't care about it that much. Laura Maylene Walter: I should also say I like the detail that the author works for an audio book distributor. I don't know how you feel about this, but it's always nice. I think, when a writer has some knowledge or experience within the publishing industry, so they just have a sense, a little bit, of how it works in the realities of the world. Devon Halliday: Totally. Yeah. I liked the bio a lot. I thought it was strong. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, thanks so much for reviewing those queries. And I should say here, thank you to the writers who submitted their queries. I think that is an extremely brave thing to do. I was thinking about this when I found some writers and solicited some queries. I was thinking, gosh, I don't think I would've done this back when I was writing query letters. I don't think I would've submitted my own query for a podcast. So really, thank you to these writers, because I think hearing Devon's comments about your queries will hopefully help, not just you as writers, but our listeners too. And for anyone listening to this podcast, I would be really curious what you thought of our query letter review in this episode. And if you enjoyed it, let us know because maybe down the line, we'll do other similar kind of editorial things. So Devon, we will start to wrap up out of respect for your time. But before we go, I thought you could just tell us a bit about your favorite part of being an agent. What brings you joy in this business that we all know can be really tough and disheartening at times. So what do you love most about your job? Devon Halliday: Yeah, it's a good question. And it's one, that's easy to answer in a cliché way. You know, of course I love it when I sell a book and I love it when authors are happy and I love it when I get to bring a book into the world that would not have become a book without my help. I think that's what everybody says. The highs are real highs in this job, but I also wanna speak to the parts that bring me joy even on the bad days when I'm not making deals. You know, the days that I get rejections, I think it's important to find joy across the board in the job and not just depend on triumph and success to keep you going, but to find enjoyment in other aspects. So for me, what I've been thinking about lately in reference to the job is I really enjoy the puzzle of it personally. Devon Halliday: I think it's so interesting to figure out how a manuscript can be fixed and improved and how it can be made stronger. I love writing pitch letters and figuring out the best way to position a novel. I love writing emails. <laugh>, you know, even if I'm emailing back and forth with a contract manager at a publisher, and they're extremely irritated with me because I'm asking for things they don't want to give. How I write that email is a puzzle, how I do it delicately but firmly. And so I always look for those moments of just interest and intellectual curiosity that pop up in the job of doing delicate things that require a lot of skill and either doing them well or doing them badly and learning from them. I think that's an important thing for agents. I also hope that writers feel that as well, that when you're writing a query letter, it's not an obstacle in your way, and it's not this aggravating task that you have to overcome in order for success to land in your lap. Devon Halliday: It's a puzzle you have to solve of how best to present your work. And when I call it a puzzle, I also wanna emphasize the point that it's not fixed. There might be multiple ways to solve it and you can get better at it over time. You know, if it's a Rubik's cube to write a query letter, you can get faster and you can memorize formulas and you can also just sort of get the feel for it. And so I really encourage writers always to take everything that happens as a form of feedback, because I know that it can be such a drag to be querying agents and not hearing back. And you feel like there's this silence that you can't do anything about, but the silence itself can be seen as feedback and data and it can help you improve. And so, you know, if you're writing these query letters and you're not hearing back, that means the query letter is a puzzle that you haven't solved yet. Devon Halliday: And if agents are responding to your query letters and asking to see the full manuscripts, but then they're not offering to represent the full manuscript, then your manuscript is the puzzle and you can solve that and you can improve it. And every stage in the process, you know, you can retain your own agency. It's not the gatekeepers who are in charge. You know, you're the one in charge of your own writing. And so you can approach it with that mindset of how can I take the feedback that the universe is giving me and how can I use it to improve my own craft and to strengthen my materials, to get what I want. And that's how I have survived this long as an agent is believing that everything is feedback and everything I do can be done better next time. And that's what keeps it interesting. And every rejection that I get as an agent for my author's books, that's feedback for me too. Maybe we should have edited this project more before we sent it out. Maybe I should have improved my pitch. Maybe I picked the wrong editor to send to, you know, agents do make mistakes, even though we rarely admit it, and using those mistakes as a way to get better is I think the best way to stay proactive and maintain hope throughout the sometimes disheartening business of book publishing. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah. And hearing you say all that, it reminds me that writers when they are querying are so focused often on getting the agent as if getting an agent will solve everything in their career forever. And that agents are almost these godlike figures who can determine your whole career. A Good agent is definitely worth their weight in gold. But I think writers out there who are hoping to get an agent, of course, it's an important step in your career. Of course a great agent is so, so helpful, but there is a bigger literary world and career out there. And that getting the agent isn't the end of anything, it's really just the beginning, which is exciting, but it's also scary. So just keep that in mind. And I know writers put a lot of pressure on themselves during the querying process, but Devon, this is so helpful. Before we go, do you have a client or a book of yours that you would like to shout out? Devon Halliday: Oh, what a fun question. Well, it's on my mind lately because the author's been working on some really brilliant revisions. So I'm going to pitch Melissa Baron's Twice in a Lifetime, which is coming out this December. Absolutely amazing, mind-bending book. I've been calling it a time-travel romcom, but it's a bit more thoughtful and sort of wide-reaching than a romcom. But yeah, it's a really fun story of a woman who gets a text from someone who claims to be her husband. And she doesn't have a husband, nor has she dated anyone in like the last five years. And so she sort of dismisses it as a prank, but the man sends back a picture of them on their wedding day. And she starts texting back and forth with this person who, it turns out, is the man that she's someday going to marry. Devon Halliday: And so they developed this weird texting relationship. He knows everything about her. She knows nothing about him. And eventually she figures out that the reason he's texting in the first place is because in the future, she's no longer alive. Something bad has happened. And so they have to use this bizarre connection through time to try to save her life before it ends. But if they do that, of course, that messes with the timeline. And of course they might never meet in the first place. So really wonderful, totally heartrending read. I fell in love with it. I read it in one sitting when it first came across my desk. Alcove Press is going to publish it this winter and I'm thrilled. It's gonna be a blast. Laura Maylene Walter: That sounds amazing. I will be sure to check that out. Well, thank you again so much for being here and for being so generous with your time. Thanks so much. Devon Halliday: Thank you for having me. It was great. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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