Give ‘Em What They Want

Give ‘Em What They Want
Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook
(Writer’s Digest Books, pp 244)



giveemwhatAudience: Fiction and nonfiction writers seeking traditional publication

Scope: Query letters, synopses, outlines, pitches

Overview: I’ve talked recently about attending writing conferences. So how do I prepare? I print business cards, read up on the agents and speakers, and polish my manuscript. (Okay, I also get my nails done and plan my outfits.) But that’s only part of it. A big perk of conferences is the chance to meet with agents and editors. I also make sure my pitch is solid, succinct, and memorized and that whatever else they may request of me—my query, my bio, my synopsis—is ready and on hand.

That’s where Give ‘Em What They Want comes in. I picked up this book to assist me in that preparation. Here’s what I liked about it: It covered all the bases with real-world examples and easy-to-follow checklists. Here’s what I didn’t like: It’s woefully out of date (published in 2005.) The entire second chapter, Your Publishing Options, is obsolete. I also thought the prose in some of their examples could have been more crisp, vivid, and specific. Despite these flaws, the core of the book has value. Here are some of the highlights:

Key Points:

  • “We should give editors and agents exactly what they want, exactly the way they want it.”

This seems painfully basic, but I’ve heard from many agents they still get a lot of submissions that don’t follow the guidelines. Their response? Delete. I always take an extra minute to be sure I’ve gotten it right. (Including the spelling of the agent’s name.)

  • “Be prepared to be in this for the long haul. Finding an agent and getting published is not a speedy process.”

Researching potential agents takes time. Writing the perfect query takes time. And that’s just the front-end work. Agents need time to sift through their emails and read manuscripts. Editors need time to edit. When I begin the querying process, I simultaneously begin my next project. It makes the waiting more bearable.

  • “The [query] letter should be entertaining, intriguing, and informative.”

This is your (one) shot to make a good first impression. Make each word count.

  • “A query should give the reader a good idea of who your hero is and what his core conflict is.”

What to put into the query? What to leave out? This piece of advice helped me focus my query around what’s truly important: character and conflict.

  • “Have your pitch polished.”

I memorize my pitch, but try to deliver it with an extemporaneous feel. I also consider questions an agent or editor might have beforehand and think through my responses. Remember: genre, title, word count. Get to the main conflict.

  • “You must select only the high points for your synopsis, perhaps leaving out entire subplots.”

This is hard but essential. Too often I read synopses bogged down with extraneous characters and details. A one-page synopsis is bareboned. Occasionally agents will ask for longer chapter-by-chapter versions, but that’s rare.

  • “You need to provide a sense of your main characters’ motivations.”

Here the authors are speaking about synopses, but this holds true for pitches and query letters too.

  • “‘No’ means ‘no.’ No more and no less. It doesn’t mean you should quit.”

It’s hard not to take rejection personally. I do. I’m sure other authors do too. But I don’t give up. Susan Spann said at a class I recently attended, “You have to be willing to hear ‘no’ in order to hear ‘yes’.”


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