A #querywin Story with Saumya Dave

To lift your spirits and give you a bit more insight into my process, I’d like to share a #querywin with you today. I signed Saumya in November, and after a few rounds of revisions, we’re about to send her book out on submission. Cross your fingers for us!

Here’s Saumya’s query letter, which she sent on October 14:

Dear Jennifer:
 
When Simran Mehta befriends Neil Desai, the dorky journalist she has admired for years, she unknowingly puts her engagement on a trajectory to disaster. Set in Manhattan, Arranged Dating is a 77,000 word women’s fiction manuscript that explores how the ignored cracks in one Indian woman’s relationship widen into rifts.
 
As Indian Americans whose parents had arranged marriages, Simran Mehta and Kunal Patel are the first in their families to date for romantic love instead of duty.  Although Simran happily spends her days making compulsive lists, eating out, and sitting in graduate psychology lectures, meeting Neil compels her to question her privileged but predictable life.  Her doubts are further polluted by Kunal’s meddlesome mother, a taxing family wedding, and a steady revelation of secrets about her parents’ arranged marriage. It takes a spontaneous trip to India to visit her sassy grandmother and witness her work with young girls for Simran to realize she needs to reevaluate what is really important. Unlike her mother, she has the choice to leave when things become tough. But when should she keep working harder---the way her heritage would preach---and when should she let go? Is she truly embracing the best blend of ideals from the contradicting cultures that define her? This story is for anyone who has had to challenge everything they’ve known in order to make a major life choice.
 
Like Simran, I am an Indian American woman whose parents had an arranged marriage. I was the winner of Nicholas Kristof’s 2011 New York Times essay contest, which led to a reporting trip through northwest Africa. I have published additional articles in The New York Times Upfront, Huffington Post, Global Post, and India Abroad. I have written poetry for The British Medical Journal and Feminist Wire.
 
I completed a Creative Writing Certificate at Columbia University and am a physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. Emily Baker helped me edit my manuscript. Author Emily Giffin has offered to write a blurb for my novel.
 
I came across your name on Twitter. I have to mention, your Twitter feed is always entertaining and relatable. Also, your website indicated you enjoy upmarket women’s fiction, so I hope this is a good match.
 
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. I really appreciate it.
 
Best,
 
Saumya

I requested the full manuscript the next day and read it ASAP. I emailed Saumya on October 18 and set up a call. After a couple weeks, she asked to speak again, and we finalized our relationship on the phone November 7.

I know what some of you are thinking right now: “Jennifer, you’ve had my manuscript for months; what the hell?” I hear you! It’s partly a function of what other work I have going on—I got a ton of reading done at the beginning of February, but right now I’m working on three submissions, so I haven’t had much reading time in the last couple weeks. But there were a few things about Saumya’s query that made me prioritize it:

  • Emily Murdock Baker is a friend of mine (and a wonderful editor, I highly recommend EMB Editorial should you have a need), and she mentioned this might be coming my way. Referrals matter—not so much because of the personal connection but because there’s a much higher chance I’ll fall in love with the book if someone whose taste I trust says she thinks I will. 
  • Diverse #ownvoices fiction—I’m always on the lookout for this in every genre I represent. With Saumya’s book in particular, this sort of coming-of-age quarter-life crisis story is a perennial favorite—particularly with multigenerational elements!—and I was really intrigued by how the “contradicting cultures” the query describes would affect the protagonist. 
  • A potential blurb from Emily Giffin is enticing, in part because it reaffirms that this is the kind of book I’m likely to enjoy and in part because it would be appealing to editors. 

Obviously this query got the job done for me. But if I were to be super nitpicky, I’d make a few small adjustments: 

  • I’d put the information about Emily editing and why she’s querying me at the top; if you have a connection to an agent, let them know right away that this is the query they’ve been waiting for.
  • The second paragraph is long for an email; I’d break it into two.
  • I’d also try to avoid the rhetorical questions in the second paragraph. I’m a never-say-never kind of girl, but there’s *almost* always a better way to phrase things.
  • After having worked on Saumya’s manuscript, I would have emphasized different elements of the story. The novel contains intermittent chapters from the mother’s POV, which really enrich the work, but the query hooks in with Neil—and while he’s the catalyst, he isn’t the heart. You obviously can’t fit everything into a query, but make sure you’re focusing on what makes your story special.

I just sent Saumya notes on the second round of revisions. We’ve worked on streamlining the plot (see my previous post on that!), altering a few plot points, pacing, a couple small timeline issues, and doing a little polish on the line. Since she put so much work into this, the manuscript was in excellent shape, but you all know there’s always room for improvement. At this point, there are just a couple scenes I suggested adding. I’ll take a look at the additions when she sends it back, and I anticipate going out on submission shortly thereafter.

It’s a long, slow process, and we’re not done yet—though I hope this story will have a happy book-deal ending. But keep writing and keep querying. The next #querywin could be yours.

3 Problems with Plot

When agents and editors talk about what they look for in a manuscript, the thing I seem to hear them say most often is voice. I’m not here to tell you voice isn’t important; it definitely is. But for me, it’s a little nebulous. Does this sound like it fits in the genre? Or more subjectively, is this a voice I want to spend a lot of time with? 

But as I dive back into my query inbox (I’m open again! Query me!), I’ve realized that the reason I reject is often not voice—it’s plot. 

There are three categories of plot problems:

1. Not Enough Plot
My most common complaint in this area is that there just isn’t enough plot, or more simply, it feels like nothing’s happening in the story. I’ll be honest with you: I like plot-driven fiction, even in books that are upmarket or literary. (And another truth bomb: I think they sell better.) 

When I reject a book on plot-based grounds, I’ll often hear, “Oh, I know…it’s meant to be a character study.” But in my opinion, even in books that are more character-driven, the plot should be significant. One of the best ways to develop character is to show how they react and take action in response to the events around them. In other words, throw some plot at them, and let the reader divine their characters from that. 

2. Too Much Plot
Sometimes, however, I reject because the plot is too convoluted. I see this most often in thrillers but occasionally in romance as well. There’s one twist too many, or the events are too far fetched. It’s a delicate balance between keeping the reader guessing and making her think that your book is ridiculous. What happened in the last five minutes of the Oscars last night, for instance, would probably seem insane in a book. Sometimes life is too implausible for fiction.

3. Non-Arcing Plot
The final issue I see is a plot that doesn’t quite follow the good ol’ grade school plot diagram. Things are happening, and they’re basically the things that should be happening, but the action isn’t rising to a definable climax, the major turning point. This is fixable, and I’ve signed books in which this was the only major problem. But if you can sort it out before you send it to me, all the better.

So yes, I’m the Goldilocks of plot. But let’s face it: agents are the Goldilocks of everything. We’re all looking for the books that are just right for us. I hope this helps you, though, as you look at your manuscripts for the billionth time. Good luck!

2016: The Year in Books

2016, what a year. Both personally and globally, it’s been rough.

I decided to close to queries in November, hoping to open back up at the beginning of 2017. Then the election happened, and like many of you, my motivation flagged. My current clients kept me busy—I even managed to close a book deal right before Christmas!—and I lacked energy for the extra task of reading submissions, especially as I took on new responsibilities with activist groups. You’ll note that I also haven’t posted on this blog.

As 2016 ends, I feel better than I did on November 9. Though I wasn’t able to catch up on requested reading, I did start a bullet journal, begin meditating more frequently, start a new home cooking regime (highly recommend Green Chef), and try boxing as a form of exercise and stress relief. 

So I’m headed into 2017 feeling…not optimistic—it’s going to be a tough year—but more grounded and prepared. I hope to be able to catch up in January; I plan to reopen to queries at the end of the month. I’m sorry to any of you who were disappointed at my closing. 

But this year wasn’t all bad. On the agenting front, I signed six new clients. I closed three deals—two for debut authors. I got to hold advanced copies of my first two sales as an agent. 

AND I was able to read 77 books outside of manuscripts—it might actually be 78 by the end of the day; halfway through THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, and it is so brutal in a good way. 2016 was the first year I decided to track my reading. I did so in part to ensure that I kept reading published books; I also wanted to balance the genres that I read. 

You can see my titles here. (Note that I only rate books that I really enjoyed, and I don’t review—but my choices alone may be illuminating.) My favorites—read if you haven’t yet!—were ALL THE SINGLE LADIES, THE HATING GAME, GIRLS ON FIRE, THE RAVEN KING, ELIGIBLE, MODERN ROMANCE, DIETLAND, and I TAKE YOU (in reverse chronological order).

To satiate my own curiosity, here’s the breakdown by genre: 

  • 10 nonfiction—5 narrative (3 sociology and 2 psychology) and 5 memoir/biography
  • 29 YA—6 speculative, 2 thriller, 1 historical, 20 contemporary
  • 20 women’s fiction
  • 7 mystery/thriller/suspense
  • 5 romance/romantic suspense—1 historical, 1 romantic suspense, 3 contemporary
  • 4 upmarket-literary fiction
  • 1 science fiction 
  • 1 middle grade
  • 1 play

Overall, I’m very happy with the number of books I read this year. In 2017, I’d like to read more nonfiction, more diverse works, and continue to strive for better genre balance. But I got into publishing because I love books. As the act of reading becomes increasingly tied to business, my ultimate goal is to keep reading books that inspire me, that bring me pleasure (even if they make me cry), that remind me why I wanted to work this challenging, low-paid job, why bringing more books into the world is so important. The joy I’ve felt for decades in browsing a bookstore, opening a new title, reading just one more chapter…that’s what I never want to lose. 2016 has taken many things from us, but I still have that.