Query quirks

Part of my job as a literary assistant – and a very useful one to me – is reading over all the queries that come in to the agency. It’s been invaluable to me as a writer to see thousands of queries in action.

I won’t rehash all the wonderful advice about writing a great query. I’ll just list some resources below.

But I do have some pertinent advice of my own.

  1. SIGN YOUR QUERY WITH YOUR FULL NAME. Crazily enough, some people write a whole query and never actually use their name. Or any name. How are we supposed to address you when we reply? Use your email?
  2. That brings us to your email address. USE A PROFESSIONAL EMAIL ADDRESS. Ideally, your name. (Pseudonym, if you must.) Not a cutesy “bestwriterever@gmail.com” or worse, “hotmama22@yahoo.com” type of address.  I’d also advise against creating an an email address with your protagonist’s name, book title, or series title. What if that’s not the book that sells?
  3. MODESTY IS A VIRTUE. You may be the best writer since Shakespeare, but it’s far better to let your sample pages speak for you instead of proclaiming this in your query. No sample pages requested? Make sure your query letter shines.
  4. We are not friends. Your query may be clever or charming, but don’t forget: THIS IS A BUSINESS. YOU ARE WRITING A BUSINESS LETTER. While not addressing an individual agent or using a colon after your salutation isn’t a killer for us, it may be for others. Don’t know how to write a proper business letter? Look it up.
  5. Last, but not least, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. Most agencies have a submissions page on their website. Check it out, and if they have specific directions, follow them. If they require you to use a form on their website, do so. If they ask for sample pages, include only the number of pages requested – and please, please, please use the first number of pages from your book. Sending pages from, say, Chapter 3, is not acceptable. We want to read the pages as if we were reading the book.

Agents want to say yes. Clients are how agents make money. No clients, no money. However, because of the vast quantity of queries, a bad first impression means your query is going into the “No” pile.

Yes, the quality of your writing is why you should be signed by an agent (or a publisher). But if you can write a good book, you can write a good query letter. So far, the reverse holds true as well. I have yet to see a horrible query with amazing pages. (Dull? Yes. Business-like? Yes. Bad? No. No really bad queries have had good samples.)

Today’s bonus tip: Like an author? Discover their agent (often from the acknowledgements in the book). Follow their agent on Twitter. That will give you interesting information about the agent’s wish list and their preferences and personality.

Resources for query advice:

Query Shark

Get Published NOW! (Molli Nickell)

How to Write the Perfect Query Letter (Writers Digest*)

How to Write a Query Letter  (Jane Friedman)

*Writers Digest magazine always has articles about query letters. You should take a peek at any classes or workshops for writers in your area. Many SCBWI conferences also offer sessions on querying.




Small surprises

Last week I visited the Met. I don’t go nearly as often as I should, but often enough that I became a member. (I know, it’s a “suggested” entry fee, but I always felt guilty paying so much less.)

Every time I go, I find something new. Not just special exhibits, but permanent ones. Statues, paintings – heck, whole ROOMS – I’ve never seen before. I love the rooms. I love imagining myself hiding in the Met like Claudia, trying out all the beds.

Even when I’m expecting an exhibit, it can surprise me. I knew that Printing A Child’s World was on view, but it was still delightful to turn a corner and walk into the exhibit unexpectedly.

The upper right image is from Randolph Caldecott’s The House that Jack Built. Yes, that Caldecott!

While the exhibit is small, it’s lovely. Especially for fans of printmaking and children’s literature – or both. Like me. 🙂 How gorgeous is this circus scene?


If these images aren’t enough to inspire you, what does? I know November is NaNoWriMo for many, many, many writers, but Kendra Levin’s guest post on Writing Kids (While Raising Them) makes an excellent point for taking November – or another month – off.

Also ending soon is the SCBWI Book Blast – November 18th. If you’re a member of SCBWI, check your email for a note about the Book Blast 10 Plus Club. Not a member? Join now! Or just check out the Book Blast to browse, buy, or enjoy the great books promoted by SCBWi members.

One last surprise from last week: KA Reynolds’ book deal! Congratulations to KA! She was my competitor in QueryKombat last year, and her pitch for this book triumphed (gracefully and graciously) over mine. Her dream came true – just more proof that determination and hard work pay off. 🙂

Labelling books

Eileen & Jerry Spinelli wrote a wonderful book titled  Today I Will: a Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I bought it in Chautauqua during a Highlights Foundations Children’s Writers Workshop. I don’t look into it every day, but when I do it never fails to surprise me with a great piece of advice – usually, but not always, from a kids’ book. Today’s passage was even more thought-provoking than usual:

“October 26

To me, the labels that people gave each other – or themselves – were like invisible name tags. Once you started to ‘wear’ one, everyone was free to make assumptions about who you are.

More than a Label: Why What You Wear or Who You’re With Doesn’t Define Who You Are 

by Aisha Muharrar

So why do it? Why costume yourself like a this or a that and thereby invite everyone to assume you’re so much less than you really are?

I am not a label.

I am not a label.

I am not a label.”

Published in 2002, Muharrar’s book looks at the role of labels & cliques for teens, based on a survey that then teen-aged Muharrar performed while a member of “Teen People News.” It’s still relevant – perhaps even more so – today, given what’s happening in publishing and kidlit. #WNDB isn’t just a hashtag. (Thank goodness! 🙂 )

But it’s also relevant in our libraries: classroom, school, public, and even personal.

I’ve always been a little annoyed by the constant narrowing down of divisions in kid lit. PB, MG, YA… easy read or chapter book? … fiction vs. nonfiction … shelving series separately or with other fiction. Don’t get me started on shelving biography separately from Dewey call number 920.

Volunteers always want to pull out books. Make a shelf for princess books. Make a shelf for holiday books – no, not 394, that’s nonfiction, we want holiday picture books. Why are graphic novels shelved with nonfiction?

Sheesh. Sometimes separating books is a good thing. (Hello, Dewey subject headings and call numbers?) But more often, it creates a morass of shelving minutia that’s hard for new volunteers and new students to understand. That’s the surprise and delight of browsing: finding something you didn’t even know you wanted just because it happened to be by an author whose last name started with K when you were about to re-read one of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books.

And separating books by reader age? Picture books are for everyone, but too many people regard them as only for very young children. Where does that leave the many “picture storybooks” of the past? There’s a clear line between most easy readers or beginning chapter books and middle grade books or YA, but what about the morass that faces the middle school reader or advanced MG reader? Please don’t tell me that now there’s upper MG. And forget about NA.

What happened to integrating all the fiction – assuming shelf heights and space allow – and letting kids discover books for themselves? Did libraries start following a bookstore model, or was it the other way ’round? Was it an outgrowth from the classroom and the now constant leveling of readers? (Stick to the five-finger rule, my friends! Works for all ages, not just kids.)

We make assumptions about books based on the labels they “wear,” just like we make assumptions about people. “That’s too hard for me.” “I don’t like fantasy.” “I want a princess book.” (You try giving a determined kindergartener a ‘real” fairy tale instead of name-your-Disney-Princess-here. Fun!)

I see it in the queries I read for the slush pile all the time. Yes, it’s important to know your audience. It’s important to know your genre. As a literary assistant, it’s very helpful – unless I read your pages and realize that you really don’t know what YA is.

As a writer, I don’t want labels to limit the audience for my book. As a lapsed librarian, I know some labels are necessary so readers can find the books they want. Maybe the folks who shelve their own books by color instead of by genre or alpha by author are on to something. I’m not that brave with my own bookshelves.

As a person, I agree with today’s passage. I am not a label. It’s the sum of the many labels I have worn and do wear that make me who I am.

Instead of dividing books or people – as labels do – let’s start adding.

Pruning away the deadwood

This past week I attended Kathy Temean’s wonderful writers’ retreat in Avalon, NJ. Held each fall, Kathy rents a house and handles all the logistics for a small group of writers and two agents to give each other feedback.

Between the brilliant sunshine and blue skies (at least at first) and the charming company, it was a writers’ dream. Sociability with other children’s writers, good food and wine, and in-depth discussions of each other’s work – who could ask for more?

I did. After a group critique and one by each agent during my session, I paid for a bonus critique by an agent who arrived for the second session.

It was brutal. Instead of the overview and discussion of larger story issues I’d come to expect, it was a sea of red ink washing over my first 35 pages. Line by line, word by word, the agent went over my work with me.

At first, I found myself upset – and I pride myself on being able to take constructive criticism. (And this was constructive criticism.) The sheer volume, though, was overwhelming at first.

But as we continued, and I began to ask questions of my own, we started to better understand each other. The agent thought my work was good – but could be even better.

As for me, I realized it was just like cutting back your rosebushes.

To get lusher blooms and healthier foliage, you have to prune the roses back ruthlessly. All that’s left is a mass of tough canes covered with sharp thorns.


Until next spring.

Then the roses burst forth with thick glossy green leaves and fat buds basking in the sun that open slowly into glorious blossoms.

So, dear agent, thank you for pruning my writing.

Here’s hoping I won’t have to wait till spring to see the results.


(Conservatory Garden at Central Park, New York City.)

What I read this summer

As I wrote way back in June, I’m not headed back to school this year. While I miss seeing my students and setting up displays of new books to share, I don’t miss being on the school schedule. (7:30 AM bus, anyone?)

It was a luxurious summer of settling into my new job and starting to shovel out the slush pile. Which was not only educational, but enjoyable. (Yes, I’m *that* crazy about reading.)

What else did I read? I caught up on some grown-up reading, enjoyed several new mysteries, and of course, treated myself to some kid lit.

  • The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
  • Girl Parts by John Cusick
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • First and Then by Emma Mills  – Emma’s newest is almost out ! Watch for This Adventure Ends!
  • Falling into Place by Amy Zhang
  • Damage Done by Amanda Panitch
  • Forget-Me-Not Summer by Leila Howland
  • The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris

Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale is waiting on my bedside table for the perfect moment, and Betsy Bird’s Wild Things! has moved from the bookshelf to my bedside, too.

I’m thinking I need to read all of Erdrich’s Birchbark stories and dive into the pile of Candlewick advance copies I was so generously given. I meant to read so much more this summer, but much of my time was spent writing my second novel, which is finished and awaiting critique at Kathy Temean’s Avalon retreat.

Too many books, too little time. I never did get around to pruning my Goodreads to-read list. But that’s a good problem to have.

What did you love reading this summer?

School’s out

School’s out – and not just for the summer. After over twenty years as a librarian in special, public, and school libraries, I’m making a sea change.

I’ve loved being a librarian, most especially in public and school libraries. Nothing beats a child telling you that the book you helped them choose is the Best. Book. Ever! But in the prevailing educational climate, I found myself sailing against the wind and battling the tides too often. Not too mention, I’m not a teacher. Teachers are great! Librarians who are teachers are great!

But I’m not one of them. I’m just a librarian. I should say, I WAS just a librarian.

(Is being a librarian like being Jewish or Catholic? You no longer practice librarianship, but you still are one? And how come you never hear of lapsed Buddhists or Muslims or Baptists, even? Something to think about.)

As of yesterday, I am now … drum roll, please… the Assistant for the Dunham Literary Agency! 🙂

I’m looking forward to learning even more about the business side of publishing. The seed was planted a couple summers ago at the NJSCBWI conference. I was chatting with new writing friends, a couple of whom were agented and published, when I mentioned that being an agent seemed  interesting. The new friends agreed, and someone said “You’d be a great agent!” whereupon another new friend said, “I’d be your client!”

I laughed and thanked them – that was quite a compliment coming from a published author – but demurred. I couldn’t do that, I thought. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have the contacts.

But the seed was planted, and it grew. I kept thinking about it. What does an agent need to know? What people like to read. What makes a good book. Who might publish this book. How to negotiate contracts.

Huh. As a librarian, I know what people like to read. Part of the job is spending much of your time reading, reviews at least. (Nope, you don’t get paid to read all day.)

As a reader and a writer, I know what makes a good book. I’ve been reading since I was three years old, and I average a couple hundred books a year. I’ve only written one book, but I’m working on a second, and I take classes and work on my craft in many ways, from conferences to craft books to my critique group. I also spent much of the past year as an intern for an agency, reading manuscripts for a great kid lit agent. The slush pile is a great education in itself.

Who might publish a book? Well, no, I don’t have very many editorial contacts. But I’m willing to network and work on that. Plus submitting a book for sale to publishing houses is a lot like querying agents for submission. I’ve done that. And I can get better at it , especially with mentoring.

Surprisingly, I also know how to negotiate contracts because of my experience as a librarian. As a special librarian for corporations and government agencies, I managed budgets and vendors – my last budget as a library manager was just over a million dollars for a global consulting firm. Again, I’m willing to apply what skills I have and learn even more from the agents I work for.

So, school is out for me for the foreseeable future. (I won’t say for good. I’ve learned to never say never.) As I adjust to my new job and enjoy summer in the city, Z is for Zampetti will be on hiatus.

I’ll be back once I’ve figured out this new direction and an appropriate Twitter bio. (L is for Lapsed Librarian? Literary Agency Assistant.? Hmmm…)

Happy summer and when it’s time to go back to school – I won’t be. But I will be back here. 🙂





Myth busting

A few years ago, I was privileged to be able to attend the Highlights foundations Children’s Writers Workshop in Chautauqua. They’re still helping children’s writers hone their craft, but now the workshops are available year-round in Honesdale, PA at the Highlights Foundation campus.

Courtesy of those lovely folks, here’s a few myths that need busting and a quick blurb for their newbies’ workshop. Not a newbie? You can find something more advanced here.

And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve personally busted myths #1, #4, and #5 in conversations… well, I wouldn’t need a day job! 😉

Highlights Foundation, Intimate & inspiring workshops for children's authors and illustrators
Top 10 Myths About Writing Children’s Books

Children's books written on pebbles

Myth #1
Children’s books are easy to write.

Myth #2
If I write a picture book, I have to illustrate it too (or hire an illustrator.)

Myth #3
Children’s books have to rhyme.

Myth #4
Since my kids/grandkids/class love my stories, they would make a great book.

Myth #5
It’s really important to follow trends, and write about things like vampires and dystopias if you write for teens.

Myth #6
Boys will only read “boy books” and girls will only read “girl books.”

Myth #7
As soon as I sell my book, I can quit my day job.

Myth #8
After my book is published, I’ll be sent on a book tour and be a guest on Ellen.

Myth #9
Picture book characters should be talking animals, not children.

Myth #10
I’ll never get published unless I have an agent.

If this list surprises you, you might benefit from our beginner’s workshop, Everything You Need to Know About Children’s Book Publishing: A Crash Course, November 10-13. We’ll give you an overview of the children’s book industry, give you some writing exercises and share best practices for getting started on your career!

Workshop attendees

Did you know?
Our workshop costs are all-inclusive. Except for your travel costs, we take care of everything! You’ll get free transportation from the airport, lodging, meals, round-the-clock snacks and free wireless internet.

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