Guest blog from Matt Bialer, Literary Agent, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates

I am delighted and honored the write the first guest blog for Clarion!   I don’t think I have written a blog before, so this is fun.   I also feel like since it is “a blog” and not something more formal, I can just ramble on about whatever is on my mind.

I have been in the book business for 25 years this year.   Sometimes I wonder why I am not strapped down on a table and secured away in a rubber room somewhere.  Well, that still could happen. It is certainly never boring.  And just when I thought I had seen it all, there is always something new that comes along.   Author bailing on delivering a manuscript to his publisher on the day that the book is due (and already in the catalogue, and the publisher’s main feature book at the BEA)?  Yep, had that happen last year.  Publisher was not very happy about that.   Author touring for a book published by an Eastern European book publisher?  Sure.  Except said publisher never actually acquired the rights for the book.  Oops.  Agent supposed to go to London for the London Book Fair except his trip is canceled because a volcano is erupting in Iceland?

My favorite query letter of all time remains one that I received 25 years ago on behalf of my first boss, the late, great Perry Knowlton, of Curtis Brown.  Can’t top this one. Don’t even try.  A mercenary soldier sends a query letter about his true-to-life wartime experiences, and he includes snapshots of stabbing himself with a bayonet and then stitching his wound up.  Just the client I always wanted.  He did get our attention though.   One of my other favorites was one for a nonfiction book on how to identify the kind of bug splattered on your windshield by being able to recognize the unique qualities of their guts.   Nice bedtime reading.

Seriously, I love what I do.   And I think you should all know that everyone in the business is always looking for something new, something good.   I have a few words of advice that I would like to share.

Write what is true to you, yes.  But also be aware of the market.  Look at who is publishing what.  Look at who is representing (agenting) what.  You can often identify the agent of an author or book in the author’s acknowledgment page.  Educate yourself.  So many aspiring authors don’t bother to do that.

If you are a genre author, read other genres so you have some of those “other strains” in your own work.   It helps make your work a little different. Perhaps it helps you have a better perspective on your own genre or helps you add a fresh spin, a curve ball.  I think an author like Richard Morgan got some attention because he clearly read outside of science fiction.  One could say the same of William Gibson.   I represent Tad Williams and I can tell you that – yeah – he knows his Tolkien, Moorcock, Leiber, PKD, Sturgeon, Vance (to name just a few) but he also reads tons of nonfiction and has read GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon a bunch of times (especially right before he wrote the OTHERLAND books).   He’s also read a lot about mythology, knows both testaments of the Bible, knows the in-depth history of California (where he lives).  All of this shows in his work, in one way or another.  Don’t just limit yourself to your genre because you run the greater risk of coming across as derivative.  And that’s not good.   You want new streams coming in.

Right now, traditional SF is a much tougher sell than it used to be.  SF can still work but not so much the traditional space opera. Military SF still has a big audience.  Epic Fantasy is still in, but editors and readers want more rogues and darker, edgier elements.   Urban Fantasy is still the rage but editors are looking for new takes in that area.  Urban fantasy in the Young Adult market is in, as are suspense novels with a supernatural element.

But this can always change.  So – yeah – write to the market, but write a good book.   Don’t just follow a trend.  Own your idea.  Live it.  Breathe it.

I think it is good to go to Clarion.  Good to be in a writers critique group.  Everyone wants to hear about how good their work is, but be in a group that rakes you over the coals, or at least makes you really think about what you are doing, challenges you.

Another piece of advice I can offer is: don’t show your work to professionals too soon.  Most writers need an incubation period, need to make mistakes, write a flawed book.   Don’t rush it.

I think that most queries feel “shot gunned” out to agents.  That can work but the more you tailor a query to an agent, the better the chance of being taken seriously.  Most writers who query me barely know what I do.  If a writer shows some knowledge of the authors I represent or the kinds of books I represent, then I take that writer more seriously because that writer comes across as more serious and professional.

Here is a query I received 3 years ago.  My assistant Lindsay Ribar found this in the unsolicited pile (yes, the slush pile) and it just stood out for us.   The author said all of the right things about herself and her story.  We sold her first two books to Bantam, and we just made a new six book deal for her with DAW.  Her name is Diana Rowland, a graduate of Clarion West and the author of MARK OF THE DEMON and BLOOD OF THE DEMON:

Dear Mr. Bialer:

I am seeking representation for my paranormal mystery novel, Mark of the Demon, which is complete at 90,000 words.  I am presently working on the sequel, Blood of the Demon, and a third book, Kiss of the Demon is in outline form.

In Mark of the Demon, Kara Gillian is a homicide detective with a unique skill: she has the ability to summon demons.  Her arcane talents, become vitally necessary when a killer begins to terrorize the small town of Gallardo, Louisiana, leaving a series of victims who have all been brutally tortured and marked with an unidentified symbol.  Kara soon discovers that the killer is also a summoner, one who is seeking to gather enough arcane potential to summon a Demonic Lord – a potent entity who, if bound, would give the killer nearly unlimited power.  However, Kara has encountered this Demonic Lord before and has been – not so willingly – marked as the Lord’s own.  With the aid of her peculiar Aunt and an FBI agent who may be more than he seems, Kara must stop the killer and keep a Demonic Lord from being summoned, all while defying the same Lord’s demands that she call him to her – an action that make the phrase , “Hell on Earth” seem tame.

Set in the fictional New Orleans suburb of Gallardo, Louisiana, MARK OF THE DEMON blends the paranormal with real-world forensics.  I have extensive personal knowledge of investigations and forensics, having worked as a Detective and a Crime Scene Investigator during by my many years, as a police officer.  I presently work for the Coroner’s Office in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, where I continue to gain first-hand experience in forensic procedures and pathology.

I attended the Clarion West writer’s workshop in 1998, and in 2005 I won First Place in the 3rd quarter of the Writers of the Future contest.  I have also been published in the anthology, The Age of Reason: Stories for a New Millennium.

In researching agents I found that you have an interest in mysteries and urban fantasy and I feel that you can represent this novel well.  I have enclose three chapters, a synopsis, and a bio.  May I sent the complete manuscript?   A SASE is enclosed for your reply.

Thank for your time.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Diana Rowland

This is just a really good query.  But more important – the book was even better.

Best of luck to all you.

Matt Bialer


6 thoughts on “Guest blog from Matt Bialer, Literary Agent, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates

  1. Thanks for the lovely blog post and for being our first guest blogger. I particularly loved what you said about reading widely. One of the many things I loved about my Clarion experience was the incredible reading list I came away with. It was inspiring to see how many ‘genre’ writers love a breadth of work, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, Proust, Phillip K Dick, Virgina Woolf and Ursula le Guin (to name a small sample) mixing and mingling

  2. Love the story of the book query on how to identify the bug splattered on your windshield by the guts. And maybe a nice metaphor for the publishing business?

    Seriously, great post with sound advice.

    — Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books

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