Pub Rants

Category: queries

Got Conflict?

STATUS: Wow it’s late but I’m finally getting around to writing this entry from home. Long day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DOWNTOWN TRAIN by Tom Waits

Over the weekend, I read about 100 queries (and in case people take notes on this sort of thing, we requested sample pages for 36 out of those 100 queries). That’s actually rather high (so great job on those queries folks). The number is usually around 15 or 20.

But as I was reading all these queries, something became pretty crystal clear to me. I would finish reading the letter and then ask myself, but what is the story?

If I had to ask that question, it was a NO.

So let me expand on what seemed to be the issue. Since I can’t really talk about any one query specifically, all I can point to is general elements.

Most of the queries end up following this structure:

Paragraph 1 describes the setting.
Paragraph 2 highlights the character traits of the main protagonist and who he or she interacts with, and maybe a little bit of his or her back story.
Paragraph 3 details the villain, the love interest, a second protagonist, who they interact with and some back story.

Then there might be some reference to them tackling a conspiracy, an issue, a mystery, or a need to reach a destination (etc.) together.

Now all of the above are great things to have in a query (make no mistake) but ultimately, these details are all set up and don’t answer the question, “but what is the story actually about?”

What is the main conflict that will make this story about these characters worth reading? Be sure that your query letter answers that question. As a reader, we need to know what is at stake. Without it, it’s a lot of frosting but no cake. Now I love frosting as much as the next person but it’s the cake that gives a query substance and is often the deciding factor between a YES or a NO.

So, got conflict?

Author Comparison—Don’t Let It Backfire

STATUS: I’m feeling a little bummed. Everyone I know is going to be at World Fantasy in Austin this weekend and did I decide to go this year? Nope. Sigh. I went last year and loved it but the November timing just didn’t work for me. Next year…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HAVE I TOLD YOU LATELY? by Van Morrison

I have to say that, in general, I really like when writers include in their queries what I call author comparables—which means a listing of a maybe two or three already published authors and their comparable books (as in same type of tone, same genre, same audience etc.)

It let’s me know that the writer has contemplated the market and where his or her book is going to sit on the shelves. Readers of these authors will also like what this new writer has to offer. It can be very savvy. It’s an instant context for the agent and hey, that never hurts.

But recently I got a query letter where the writer compared the work being pitched to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Now it’s fine to say it’s similar in theme or in the same vein but this writer took it a step further wanted to show how the two differ.

Now this in itself isn’t a bad idea but the writer is now moving into risky territory. Why? Because sometimes it’s hard to talk about what is unique about your book without implying that it might be lacking in Neil’s. (And to even imply that your book might be “better” than Neil’s is pretty ballsy.) Not to mention, the agent might be thinking, “Yep, I know how these two will differ in a big way because how many people in the world can write as well as Mr. Gaiman. Don’t even go there.”

It can backfire.

I actually don’t think that was the query writer’s intent so I didn’t “read” it that way but it takes really careful phrasing in the comparison paragraph to not have it come off that way.

Just heads up that if you are using this approach in your query, proceed with a little caution.

From The Query Inbox

STATUS: I can finally hear out of my left ear! This may not sound amazing but try living without for a week. Anyone talking to me on my left side constantly got an annoying “what?” In other great news? That YA author decided to sign with me. Yea! Welcome aboard.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SEVEN YEARS by Natalie Merchant

1. Here’s a query with a first sentence that highlights that the heroine loses everything because of addiction, betrayal, and loss of control.

And yet the heroine has a whip-smart comedic tone.

Can’t see how that’s going to be pulled off so it’s a NO.

2. A romantic suspense query. Woman in jeopardy plot outline. Very common so I’m looking for something that will make it stand out. Oops. Phrasing misfires and yes, they do stand out but I was thinking more along the lines of a hook.

We have a “malevolent machinations of an assailant” and “arresting passion that burgeons.”

I’m thinking “malevolent” and “burgeons” probably shouldn’t both be used in the same sentence.

3. A query for a novel that specifically targets the non-reading pre-teen and early teen boys. But it’s 100,000 words.

Eyebrow raise.

4. This writer describes the novel as a romance with historical, thriller, and fantasy elements. It has chick lit elements but is also highly literary.

Folks. No. You cannot label your work everything but the kitchen sink. If uncertain, commercial mainstream can work just fine.

5. In this query, the writer has created an alternate world sans cars as a setting for a romance.

I can’t tell why this story needs to be told in this alternate reality. It should somehow be central to the romance unfolding or why it is needed becomes the big question.

I also read two fantasy YA queries that I literally had to read twice because I couldn’t follow the convoluted plots that were outlined.

And normally, I wouldn’t read it twice (time constraints and all that) but it’s a little late, I was a little tired, and I thought maybe it was me.

Nope. On second reading, the two queries were just as unclear.

I know fantasy query pitches are often the most difficult to capture as you have to sum up the story and the world in a very short bit of space but don’t try to cram too much in. Confusion might be the result.

Happy querying!

24,000 Queries A Year

STATUS: I have a bad head cold, and I’m so ready for it to be over. Usually I read in the evenings but since I’ve been so tired, I’m asleep by 8 p.m.. Ah, the crazy, wild life of a literary agent.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHY DON’T YOU DO RIGHT? By Sinéad O’Connor

And I’m going to blame my bad cold for not being particularly clear in yesterday’s post. It sounded like I have several different form query rejection letters and it’s only for #4 that you get the “although your work sounds intriguing” line.

Nope. I don’t have five different form letters. We can’t. Time-wise it’s just not feasible in terms of responding to 500+ queries a week in a prompt fashion. We can’t expend extra time by toggling through five different letter versions in order to send out the “right” one for any particular query. You guys know this because you read it on every agent blog currently in existence. Our time is spent on current clients and for authors with projects who will actually become our clients. The volume is too overwhelming for anything else.

Think about it. 500 queries a week multiplied by approximately 48 weeks in a year is 24,000 queries.

And out of that, how many new clients does an agent take on?

For me, in a good year, I take on 4 or 5 new clients—and I’m actively looking. Really looking. Like attending conferences, reading lots of partials, and really making myself available to writers kind of looking.

So you can see that sifting through 24,000 queries for 5 clients isn’t overwhelmingly productive.

That means one letter for all queries period. I include the intriguing line because some of the queries we do receive really are intriguing and will totally float another agent’s boat. For the others that don’t really fit into #4, well, we think it’s polite to use that line because our goal isn’t to crush aspiring writers…

We literally don’t have time for anything else.

Although Your Work Sounds Intriguing…

STATUS: This Monday was crazy but productive. We had to play catch up from the power outage on Friday. I did call and offer representation to an author for her really awesome YA project. She has a couple of other agent’s interested so now I have to wait and see if she chooses me. Choose me!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BAD, BAD LEROY BROWN by Jim Croce

For those of you who love agent blogs, I’ve stumbled on a couple of more that might be worth a read.

The Rejecter is an anonymous blog from an assistant at an agency. Definitely somebody with a perspective from the query trenches.

The other is from, in their own words, “the opinionated folks” at the Dystel & Goderich Agency.

Might be worth checking out.

Now on to my rant. Agents take a lot of drubbing for their standard query rejection letters. We have to say something and as y’all know, I prefer to be polite.

So what does it mean when I say, in my form query rejection letter, “although your work sounds intriguing…”

In means exactly that. It very well might be intriguing but it’s not right for me. Queries fall into five basic categories:

1. The obvious NOs because the query is for genres we don’t represent or something similar.
2. The other obvious NOs for well-done queries for projects we don’t represent.
3. The NOs for queries for projects we do represent but the query itself is poorly written
4. the NOs for well-done queries for projects that could fit for my agency, are intriguing, but I would never pick up that book in a bookstore so it’s not right for me. I can totally see another agent digging it.

For the most part, it’s for the Queries of number 4 that we include the standard phrase of “although your work sounds intriguing…” because this biz is so subjective. It really might sound intriguing for another agent who will then ask for sample pages, maybe a full, and then go on to rep this writer. Commenters on this blog alone have mentioned being rejected by me in the query phase but have then landed representation elsewhere.

It means their work was intriguing—but just not to me.

5. Well-done queries that knock our socks off so we ask for sample pages. These folks get the “request for pages” email letter.
To sum up? One agent’s “so intriguing I must see sample pages” is another agent’s “ho-hum and not right for me.”

So don’t get in a stew about the wording. It’s a NO. Tweak if you need to (especially if all your responses are NOs—that could signal the query letter/pitch hook being at fault) and then move on. Your agent might be around the next email query corner.

If You Have a Few Moments…

STATUS: If I were paranoid, I might think the world was conspiring against me to keep me from working. Network down for two days. Sara and I just get into a groove this morning and the power for the entire building went out at 11 a.m. It didn’t come back on until 7 hours later. I guess it just wasn’t my destiny to get a lot accomplished this week.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SEXUAL HEALING by Soul Asylum (and yes I know it’s a remake but I kind of like this bouncy version)

I hate it but I can still feel guilty when a writer responds to a query letter rejection with a lovely and polite request for more info about what might be wrong with the query since we are declining to ask for sample pages.

The requests usually begin with “If you have a few moments…”

And I have to say that the requester has actually hit the nail on the head. We never have a spare few moments.

Of course y’all are thinking but you have a few moments to write this blog? Why not give this nice lady a little bit of feedback on her query letter that could make the difference between her query getting an agent’s attention or not?

Well, the truth is, it often only takes me a few moments a day to write up an entry. Average time is 15 minutes. Sometimes it takes longer if I’m having some fun with it.

If we responded to all those lovely requests with a query critique, it would take a helluva lot longer than 15 minutes. The amount of queries receive often make responding in general a heroic feat for us (and I never want to be an agency that states that we’ll only respond to email queries that capture our attention since that would drive me crazy if I were a writer and never received a response). We simply haven’t the time to give feedback.

And here’s where my guilt comes in—it’s the Midwesterner in me. When those lovely requests come in, they just get deleted and the poor requester never receives a response from us. I hate that but we can’t take the time to respond to that either.

So, I guess I’m just apologizing en masse if you have sent a request like that to us and never received a response.

I’m just darn happy that we respond to all our email queries in 5 to 10 days usually (when we aren’t having network issues and power outages that is!).

Phrasing Misfires

STATUS: Praise be. Finally, a completed contract, ready for client signature, came by FedEx today. By the way, this deal was done in mid-July. Three months. I hate to say it but that’s about normal.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FADED LOVE by Patsy Cline

I imagine that most writers read their query letters until they are blue in the face before sending. I imagine they also run it by a few trusted readers for feedback before sending (and if you aren’t, time to rethink that). And yet, despite all your good efforts, typos happen, don’t they?

I don’t even want to think about the number of grammar mishaps I’ve had on this blog, so I understand. Don’t worry overmuch about that. It happens and I have to say that most agents are pretty forgiving. We’ll allow a typo or two. It’s just when the English language gets away from a writer that it raises an eyebrow. As agents, we assume you’ve mastered the tools of your trade—like sentences that make sense, or appropriate and powerful images, or even using metaphors and similes correctly.

When you miss, it really stands out so I’m recommending you go back and give your query another close look. Make sure what you wrote conveys the right image or is actually what you meant to say.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are some recent examples culled from query letters.

Something sinister is brewing right under Jane Doe’s feet, and it threatens to ruin her– for good.

It’s okay that something sinister is brewing, but I’m just not sure it can happen under her feet.

Soon the two have passion for each other and a romance starts to bloom. And so does a stalker.

I guess a stalker can also start to bloom (which would be a rather innocuous turn of phrase if you think about it), but I’m pretty certain that’s not the tone or sentiment the writer really wanted to convey.

Phrasing misfires is what I call it. And if they are in the query letter, I don’t want to risk reading them in a partial.

Yep, you guessed it. Even if the story idea is sound, that query is getting a NO.

Referrals & Recommendations—It’s All About Context

STATUS: You’ll never believe it, but I was a holiday shopping maniac today. I promised myself I would get it done early and this is the first time in years that I kept that promise. I feel so jubilant.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? And there wasn’t even one note of holiday music anywhere.

Ah, yesterday’s post got the query world panicking. Obviously I need to do some clarifying about referrals, recommendations, and all that stuff in between.

A referral is when a client calls or emails me and asks, “May I send this writer your way?”

It’s straightforward and I’m on the lookout for the query. The person being referred knows that the current client is going to contact me etc.

A suspect name drop is really obvious as well—it’s usually from a writer who has a project in a genre I don’t represent. Or the wording of the query is odd and open for interpretation. Don’t worry that you are mistakenly sending out suspect name drop queries because the difference is pretty clear.

However, it’s the gray area in recommendations that’s causing consternation, so let’s tackle that.

A recommendation can be done in passing at a conference as in “my agent is terrific, you should query her” or “yes, it was lovely to meet you and yes, you can use my name when contacting my agent so-n-so.”

The trick for using these types of recommendations appropriately is simply in how you word it in your query.

Don’t use “Previously Published Author recommended I contact you regarding my project.”

This is accurate, true, but it doesn’t give any context to the recommendation. Context is what makes the difference in the query letter when name dropping.

I’ve gotten the above so many times and when I’ve asked my clients, most of them said something like, “oh yeah, I met that person at XYZ and they asked who my agent was.”

That was the extent of the conversation and then that writer interpreted it as having permission to use my client’s name in the context of a recommendation.

It’s a stretch.

Do use “I met Previously Published Author at such-n-such conference and she suggested that you might be interested in my project because you rep XYZ genre. She gave me permission to use her name when contacting you.”

It’s honest, in context, and I will take your query seriously. You’re not over-playing the name drop in any way.

You can also use “I met your client INSERT NAME at the such-n-such conference and she had nothing but positive things to say about you, which is why I’m sending you my query…”

It’s not a recommendation per se but it’s the reason why you decided to query me. I like that. It’s straightforward.

I’m a Midwesterner. We like forthright.

So what I’m saying is that as long as you have included the appropriate context regarding the recommendation, then you aren’t going wrong with the name drop. You won’t be considered suspect.

It’s just those queries that are stretching the definition of recommendation that are problematic. And trust me, those are so obvious they might as well come with a neon sign that says “suspect name dropping.”

Name Dropping

STATUS: I actually worked a good portion of the morning but now I’m off to have a little fun.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I could totally use a little music right now.

None of my blog readers would ever think to stretch the truth—as in writing “requested material” on a submission package that wasn’t requested or name drop one of my clients and pretend that person recommended them. You guys are fun, savvy, and honest. So really, this blog isn’t really for my loyal readers.



But it happens anyway so I want to let you in on a little secret. If you’ve ever been tempted, don’t do it. You won’t get away with a sneaky name drop. Why? Because, when clients recommend a writer to me, they call or email me to give me a heads up.

All other name drops are considered suspect. The writer may indeed have talked to my client about me but that doesn’t mean my client offered a personal recommendation. And yet, I receive name-dropped recommendation queries often enough (and if I were to chat with my client, he or she would more than likely be horrified that their name was used).

And here’s the flipside. Perhaps you have received a legitimate recommendation offer from an agent’s client. You need to coordinate it then. Have the client contact the agent first. Once that step has been done, and you know it has occurred, then you call or send your email (for me, it’s usually by email).

Because then I’ll actually be awaiting your contact and will recognize the name immediately upon arrival. That query will get first look over all the other queries awaiting attention.

And yes, there is a lot of power in a client recommendation. I do give those submissions prompt, serious consideration and in fact, not four weeks ago I took on a new author because of a client referral.

As for suspect queries, if they are obviously not a match for me (so why would my client refer such a person?), it’s an auto NO. Sometimes I check with my clients to be certain before responding (and usually they are mortified). If that’s the case, well then, the writer has started off on a dishonest note and I’m not real open to moving forward—even if the project might sound promising.

And that’s something to think about.

Four Months Too Late

STATUS: I’m on vacation so I’m enjoying myself. I went to lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in a while.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? Nada

When I’m out of the office during the work week, I always call in to check messages—just in case an editor tries to reach me by phone instead of by email. Sure enough, an editor had left a message so I got in touch with her via my mobile phone. There’s always a little bit of work that needs to be attended to—even on vacation.

But there was yet another voicemail for me. It was from a person who had equeried me back in early July, had never received a response and was now calling, four months later, to see if maybe it had been spam blocked.

Ah, a good moment to be educational I think (and if you truly believe that was my first thought, I’ve got some great property to sell 50 miles west of Naples, Florida…)

Always check the agency website first. Some agents only respond to email queries if they are interested. All others go unanswered. Or, many agencies have an FAQ section on the website with the answer to this question, as I do.

For example, on the Nelson Literary Agency website, it says quite clearly that we respond in 5 to 10 days to queries, sometimes it may take longer. It’s not going to take four months longer. There’s even an FAQ for the problem of not receiving a response from us.


If you’ve sent a query four months ago and didn’t receive a reply and you know the agency does respond to all email queries, what does your common sense recommend you do?

a. Call the agency and ask if we remember reading your query four months ago and did it get spam blocked


b. Simply assume the query was lost or the response not received and simply resend the query by email

Oh, good readers, this politely ranting agent would like to suggest answer “b.”