Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

12 Trends in the Query Inbox

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So excited that Stacey Lee’s THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL is finally in the world!

Listening To:

CLEOPATRA by The Lumineers

In July, I attended the Colorado Writing Workshop. I knew I would be asked about what’s hot or trending. So Angie, Maria, and I put our heads together to create a handy list of what we’re seeing in the query inbox. Let me preface this though:

Writers, don’t read too much into this list.

If your current WIP fits into one of these trends, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It just means that you are not alone in playing with these concepts/tropes. It also means that it’s harder to stand out in the query slush pile. That’s just a fact. So you have to work at really spotlighting what makes your novel with these elements special and unique so as to entice the query reader to find out more. Why is this one worth reading over the ten other queries that might have come in the same day with a similar premise?

A tough question, I know! But one worth answering in your query, even if none of the below describes your WIP.

1. The main character is dead or can see dead people. We’re seeing this concept in submissions for both the adult and young adult markets.

2. The main character is trapped in a book, game, or virtual reality. We’re seeing this a lot in adult SF submissions and also some in the YA world.

3. The main character is being sent to live with a relative (aunt, uncle, grandparent), whether for the summer or on a more permanent basis. Lots and lots in middle grade, but also appearing in YA submissions.

4. WWII…still getting tons of queries for WWII stories. Almost all the submissions we’re seeing in this space are for the adult market. For the record, I love stories set in this time period. After all, E.R. Ramzipoor’s THE VENTRILOQUISTS releases in August. Still, it has to be a standout story.

5. Lots of queries for stories set in ancient Rome, or in secondary worlds based on the aesthetic of ancient Rome. Interestingly, we are seeing in both YA and adult market submissions that fit this bill.

6. Lots of villains who are thinly veiled portrayals of our current president. Feels like in every submission we are receiving…but this is cropping up most often in dystopian submissions.

7. Lots of queries featuring pirates. Aye, Mateys! Whether the pirates are fun and whimsical, serious and historical, or speculative (like air-ship pirates or space pirates), we’re seeing pirates galore in middle grade, YA, and adult fantasy.

8. Retellings seem to be slowing down compared to, say, a year ago. But we still see them on a regular basis. Fairy tales, folk tales, classic literature retellings—across all genres for adult and children’s.

9. Teens recruited, conscripted, or otherwise forced to train as assassins, soldiers, spies, etc. I think you guess for which market this is!

10. Teens who must compete in trials or games to save themselves or a loved one, to determine their place in society, or as a means of matchmaking. No extra comment needed here!

11. Main characters who are bullied or abused, or who are survivors of bullying or abuse, and there isn’t another story line to create depth/complexity or to truly drive the plot of the novel. We see most bullying in middle grade, though it shows up in YA submissions as well, while survivor narratives abound in women’s fiction.

12. Post-apocalyptic stories, many of which take place in the aftermath of a plague or virus, or some climate-related catastrophe. Seeing this in the adult and children’s market still.

Happy writing! If you are early into a WIP based on a trending concept, spend some time thinking about whether it’s worth continuing or whether you should tackle a different, more brilliant idea you’ve played with. You might decide it’s better to get cracking on that one instead.

Creative Commons Credit: Andy Wright


8 Responses

  1. Buck Weber said:

    Thanks for the tips. Your suggestion on WW II topics has got me thinking about my parents who met just before the war and fell in love when they were in two different parts of the world. You tip also has finally given mbv e an idea of how I can use a long ago research project to fuel a great war novel.

    1. C.W. Renfield said:

      Just an afterthought here till the next Pub Rants post 6 months from now-writers considering WWII as an historical setting might bear in mind that SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Vonnegut was quietly dropped from most school reading lists about 15 years ago because its attitude and irony were considered inappropriate, and THE BOOK THIEF notwithstanding, (which was what they call a Black Swan in this business) WWII was a dark shadow on the 20th Century most YA customs officials these days want nothing to do with. Tune any manuscripts you have toward an adult crowd for a less skittish response…

      1. Don Hudson said:

        Don Hudson – [email protected]
        C.W. Benfield, I am most interested in your observations of controversial literature. I began my teaching career in a community. half-populated by a religious cult. I mean cult in most circumstances amd very negative.
        we were not allowed to use paperback books…”becuse the quality of printing was to inaccurate and to emotionally disturbing”.
        My first teaching year I was required (not asked) to speak before a group of parents, community members, and some students , to defend using the book “Conrack: The Water is Wide” in my sophomore English class.
        The community, due to the cult (Our Lady of the Matrix of the Woods) and their powerful grip on the ethics and morality of the people that “corrupt outsiders meant to change their (cults) ways with…:with all this progress crap”.
        I started explaining why I choose this book. I stated, first, the book was humorous but timely because of the civil rights activism and I was literally shouted down. My superintendent attended the meeting and was asked why teaching about a bunch of “nigger kids” was part of school curriculum.
        His response was, and I quote, “I’m not here as a representative of the school district, but only as interested parent”. After that, or probably always, I was alone, trying to explain the literary value of teaching a memoir of some kid, teaching on a island of the outer banks of the Carolina’s.
        The leader and founder of this cult, Marriane Van Hoff, was a woman from Appleton, WI. who came to Necedah (WI) because the virgin Mary told her to, and create a church to collect all believers and protect them from a nuclear holocaust coming to destroy the United States. I was given a book at the first faculty meeting, written and published by the Shrine, that conrained a map of the United States and identified all the Russian nuclear submarines planted around the country. Did you know a submarine is hiding under the harbor bridge in Milwaukee, WI,? This information was given to Marriane by the Virgin Mary during a “visitation”.
        This censorship experience, including several similar events over three years, required me to study, deeply, history, function, techniques, effects, psychology of cults and by extension, censorship.
        The day before the “Jonestown tragedy”, three Shrine students were fogged in at San Francisco International airport; they would have been at that terrible event if their flight had nmot been delayed.
        One of the worst effects of cults and ultra conservatives is intolerant resistance to change. “Conrack: The Water is Wide” was dangerous because it was about one person trying to make changes for people who needed knowledge about a different world away from an island of the outer banks of the Carolinas. The irony of the story of Jesus Christ and “Conrack” does not escape me. Did I mention his students were African-American’s, direct decendents of slaves.
        You are completely right, “Slaughter House 5, was QUIETLY DROPPED from school curriculums because violence and war “go away when they are denied or ignored”.
        There is a large website about Mrs Van Hoof with pictures and film of her. At least 30,000 pages and by now much more, I think, In 1950, Marriane annocunced she was going to have a visitation from the virgin Mary on Labor Day. Wisconsin State Patrol has written and filmed documentation of one hundred thousand people that attended her visitation. Of course, no one saw anything except Marriane. But several Rosay beed chains were turned to gold. I was shown one of them. It passed the biute test.
        Mrrieane died in the 1980’s but the “Shrine” still exists and is in operation despite much controversy and legal troubles.
        C.W. uyour post got me all worked up. I haven’t thought about the Shrine and Marriane in several years.
        Don Hudson

        1. C.W. Renfield said:

          Wow… Um, OK-for what it’s worth, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE has quietly been dropped from a lot of school reading lists more as a PC sanitizing trend than anything like the definitely crazy yardbirds you remember, but as long as we’re in the neighborhood, here’s another one- some years back when I was working in Borders, I ran into a customer from some backhills Arizona community who told me that a teacher there got fed up with boring her students with Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN and decided to offer them the option of reading Bram Stoker’s DRACULA instead-which after all holds up much better. A popular choice until an ad hoc coalition of parents petitioned the schoolboard to have it taken off the reading list and out of the school library-Evangelicals thought it was too Catholic, Catholics thought it was too Satanic, and a few atheists thought it encouraged superstitious belief in a God… The lady telling the story got hustled out of the store by her family before I got to hear where and when this was, but I used this anecdote in a WWI-Ibased YA book I shopped aroundfor awhile before later dropping it for reasons we’ve already discussed. Thanks for sharing-go pour yourself a nice glass of sherry and take a load off-you sound like you’ve earned it. Sorry about cluttering up your blog site, pubsters-these things happen………

  2. C.W. Renfield said:

    As tired and cliched as a lot of these themes are, you have to remember that we’re in a serious flat-tire zeitgeist cycle (not as bad as the Teen Horror implosion of the mid-90’s, but still…) and writers are still just trying to send out what they think agents want to see. More than a few agents at conferences after a few zinfandels have let it slip that they’re more interested in collecting a decent spread of midlist sorta-sellers rather than combing the sands for the next J.K. Rowling, and I’ve also heard that some agents have declared themselves “over the whole query letter thing” , which is why writers in response (some. at any rate) have started sending out sample chapters without bothering with a query letter. The proliferation of disengaged assistants and flaming-hoop contact protocols probably has a lot to do with this, and up to 6 months ago, I scoffed and stuck to my polished query letter format. However, much though it grieves my artistic soul to admit it, these days a pyrotechnical flash-chord query will just get you thrown off the premises for “showing off”, so when I shop around, you’ll get a one-sentence greeting line and a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sample chapter, full stop. And that’s the jungle telegraph from my end of the building, film at 11….

  3. GL Cramb said:

    Well, this doesn’t bode well for me. Can’t say that my submission fits into any of these categories!

    I’m opting to not read too much into the list!

  4. Chris C said:

    My WIP is so far removed from these trends but I also see opportunity to incorporate a little WWII into it, as blow the competition out of the Channel.
    The mixture has reignite the manuscript and I’m wasting time typing this…..

  5. Peter Taylor said:

    Thank you for this list. Hoping there’s still a chance someone will like my recently completed upper mid-grade story mixing real-life WW2 Burma Railway history with present-day school episodes…

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