Would you guess: Proofread your manuscript? Or, write an excellent query letter?
Yes, you should do those things, but there’s something else…the Secret Sauce that could make your cheeseburger into the next Big Mac.
Know Your Category
Most of us have a general idea, but problems crop up when we assume our general idea is specifically what agents are looking for. In this day and age the marketplace is filled with genres and sub-genres that didn’t exist ten, or even five, years ago.
For instance, if you’re a Fantasy writer you are probably already familiar with some of these sub-genres:
Sword & Sorcery
Yes, they’re all similar but sometimes similar doesn’t cut it with agents. If an agent is looking for Urban Fantasy and you send them Sword & Sorcery, they’re not even going to look at it. That’s wasted time and energy for you.
Knowing your specific category is the first step in making thoughtful, targeted queries to agents.
Let’s say you’ve been using plain old “Fantasy” as your category, using this terms as you look for agents on Google. Lots of agents probably come up. Quite possibly, you copy and paste your query letter into 30 different emails using that particular list of results. But because you used such a broad search term, you didn’t realize that most of those agents you just emailed are looking for Urban Fantasy—a category that’s on fire right now and consequently at the top of Google’s “Fantasy” pages. However, let’s say your writing isn’t Urban Fantasy at all. Your story takes place in a medieval world full of knights and wizards.
Because your search term was too broad, you just sent 30 query letters to the wrong people.
But okay, let’s say now that you’ve nailed down your category. You are confident that you’re writing work that could fall into Arthurian Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, or Sword & Sorcery. But when you type such specific search terms into Google, you only get a few leads.
This is where we combine “knowing our category” with our writer-research skills.
Now you’re going to Google: Agent Interviews, Fantasy. This is where you will find agents saying what they’re looking for in their own words. So while they might not specifically mention categories like Epic, S&S, or Arthurian, they may very well mention that their favorite book is The Hobbit and they love anything with Gandalf-like characters in it.
Bingo. That agent should go on your list.
The goal of knowing your category through-and-through is to build your common-sense skills about which agents are the best choice to represent your work. Also, just because you feel your writing falls primarily into one specific sub-genre, doesn’t meant that everything else is closed off to you.
For example, I have a manuscript I’m about to shop around that has some magic as part of the main storyline. First I researched Magical Realism, a category with more of a literary bent to it than most Fantasy. That means action is not the central focus of the narrative. Magical Realism tends to deal with the inner world of the characters and their inward journey. Love in the Time of Cholera is an example of Magical Realism.
Then I researched Urban Fantasy, which is particularly centered on action and events. We usually find a battle of Good vs. Evil, and lots of sparks, adventures, and a healthy dose of romance in Urban Fantasy. And of course, one of the key elements is that the story takes place in an urban setting, somewhere in our Modern World. The Sookie Stackhouse series (which the TV show True Blood is based on) is an example of Urban Fantasy.
My story has a main character who takes an inward, mostly spiritual journey with not that much focus on action or adventure. There is a slight tint of romance, but it isn’t central to the storyline.
Obviously, I decided on Magical Realism as a category…but…I didn’t throw out Urban Fantasy. Because my story also involves magic happening on the streets of modern-day Seattle. And Seattle is an urban setting.
So now when I’m researching agents and reading agent interviews, I’m mostly looking for agents interested in Magical Realism, but if I find an agent who says they’re scouting for Urban Fantasy but really love getting more into the characters’ heads than reading thrilling chase scenes—well, I know I might have a chance with them.
Know your category. Do your research. Keep a running list of agents.
Here’s your exercise for today: Sit and brainstorm on categories. Write down the category, sub-genre included, that fits your work the best (for example Fantasy: Swords & Sorcery). Then write down two more categories/sub-genres that could also describe your work. Post your list somewhere front and center in your workspace.
Look up your categories and agent interviews and do your research. Use the online tools at your fingertips to tilt the scales in your favor.
Now get Googling!
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