letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 114
# of partials requested: 1
# of full manuscripts requested: 2
genres of requests: YA (2), fantasy (1)

Have now read all electronic queries received prior to February 2nd, and all snailmail queries received prior to January 31st. All responses should be en route by the end of business today.

This week’s random thoughts:

* Does it make sense to query an agent right before a conference you are both attending? If they like your pitch (but won’t have time read any manuscript pages prior), you may have something to talk about. If your inquiry is rejected, does this make things awkward? Anyone have an opinion on this?

* Is it harder to see a query from someone who writes very well but doesn’t have good ideas, or someone with a good idea, who clearly has a way to go before their writing is publishable? What do you think? Which one hurts more?

* Also, I discovered what I am giving up for Lent (even though I’m not Catholic). For a bit I had considered giving up alcohol (no snickers from the client list, please). Instead I’ve settled on giving up responding to people who email to argue about my rejections of their query. It will make me feel as if I’m being rude, but I have reluctantly concluded that since their responses tend to be full of negativity (and occasionally downright insulting), that it’s not my burden to bear. This is different from people who get responses where I might suggest future correspondence. This is only for people who have bad manners, themselves, and therefore seem to have sacrificed the privilege of a considerate reply on my part.

* Also, considering what to do about people who keep submitting the same query consistently. This week I got a query for the 3rd time in the last 6 months. While I admire this author’s persistence, the queries have all been essentially identical and I am not sure what this person thinks to accomplish with this approach. Last night I was describing the feeling to my Official Sidekick as follows:

A Writer walks into a bar… Sees an agent and ambles over:
Writer: Hey, come here often?
Agent: Yes, but you know that because you asked me the same thing two weeks ago.
Writer (waits 5 minutes): Hey, agent, what’s your sign?
Agent: Do you at least have a new line to pitch?
Writer (walks away to the other side of the room, comes back): Would you like to come over to my place and see my synopsis?
Agent: (sighs) Listen, I really admire your persistence. It’s truly flattering. But I’m just not that into you. Maybe you should try someone else.
*next night*
Writer: Hey, come here often?
Agent: I just don’t get you. Doesn’t no mean no in your world?

And, yes, it’s Friday and I’m feeling a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I seriously am not sure I quite follow what happens that causes these repeat-offender queries. Is someone out there advocating that an agent will simply change their mind if you ask them often enough? Persistence is all well and good and given the odds in this biz, probably necessary. But being able to listen to feedback (and even a form rejection like mine has a bit) is also key.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that a person shouldn’t query the same agent twice…. either with a revised project (and pitch) or a new book. There are a number of clients on my current list who did just that. *waves* But that is an entirely different thing than what seems to be a repetitive, dogged, not especially useful or efficient approach that I am seeing on the rise lately. If you did this to a girl in a bar, eventually the bouncer might throw you out or she might consider a restraining order….

I have yet to come up with a response that seems firm enough and remains professional. Anyone care to take a stab at it?

And since I’m feeling flippant a bit, here’s an exchange that happened this week….
*Official Sidekick lets loose a blood-curdling scream*
*agent runs into room*
Agent: What is it?
*Official Sidekick holds up query with staples and looks about to faint*

25 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Well, I don’t have answers for all of your questions, but I empathize with you. I think sometimes people don’t listen because they’re far more interested in what they have to say. It’s easier when you’re a third party watching the whole thing because there is no emotion involved.
    I would say create a form letter that has “Proper Etiquette When Dealing with an Agent”, but then again a professional writer should have already researched agents before shopping around their manuscript.
    In regards to your question: Is it harder to see a query from someone who writes very well but doesn’t have good ideas, or someone with a good idea, who clearly has a way to go before their writing is publishable? What do you think? Which one hurts more?
    My guess would be the person with good ideas who is poor at the writing side. And it also depends on whether they are only good ideas or GREAT ideas.
    I think it’s easier to come up with a good idea than to gain the skills needed to become published.

  2. a question of my own
    I know you asked questions of us, and I don’t really have any answers, but can I ask you one? Another agent just posted on her blog that you shouldn’t worry about querying agents by genre, even if they say they only like fantasy (or whatever) because they might just take you anyway. This agent doesn’t rep YA, but said she’d taken on a YA writer anyway because they’d hit her with a killer query and great writing. Do you agree? And is it good for a writer? Let’ say I query someone who says they are looking for fantasy and I send them my fabulous and hilarious chick lit book (not that I have one) and they love it and want to rep me. Is this a good career move? I mean, will they be able to sell to a market that they don’t usually rep? Do they have the contacts? If they’re Super Agent and you know this, are you golden regardless of the genre?
    Thanks and have a great weekend.

    • Re: a question of my own
      I meant is the agent golden, not “you” (the writer). Typo.
      If they’re Super Agent and you know this, are you golden regardless of the genre?

  3. [Does it make sense to query an agent right before a conference you are both attending? … If your inquiry is rejected, does this make things awkward?]
    It shouldn’t, if you’re a pro. People have declined invitations to my parties before, yet I have still managed to do civil business with them. (grin) I think it does make sense to contact the agent you hope to have an appointment with, ahead of time, even if the conference doesn’t have you submit a query or pages. I’ve done this. A couple of times they’ve told me they would not have any interest in the project I described, so that meant I could bring along a different project or swap slots with someone who DID have a project they’d like–saving us all the awkwardness. Once the agent said my project sounded interesting, but that time I didn’t get to attend the conference because my mother-in-law landed in the hospital for a triple bypass the day before I was to leave. I think it would have been fun to have someone actually interested in the project I had in mind. Does that put off the agent? I don’t know from that end. If we’ve e-mailed before, I feel more comfy meeting that person in real life, though.
    [Is it harder to see a query from someone who writes very well but doesn’t have good ideas, or someone with a good idea, who clearly has a way to go before their writing is publishable?Which one hurts more?]
    I can only answer this from the other side of the screen. It hurts more to know that I write well (the complaints I get are never about my prose or my skills, but something about the idea or the setting or some little detail that I felt wasn’t even that big a deal) but can’t present an idea that agents feel they can sell. I know that people who don’t write well (clunky prose, no idea what a metaphor is except for sheep to safely graze, glassy-eyed look if literary allusion passes overhead) CONSTANTLY sell their novels based on ideas that sell, because I pick up those books every day in the bookstore. *weak smile* The definition of “smooth prose” or “a narrative that pulls you along” or especially “cadenced prose” has obviously changed. Look at the _Da Vinci Code_ for evidence that people will plow through clunky, awkward prose without a complaint if they think the idea is compelling.
    I always wish that someone would tell me what it is that they want to read about. I can write anything (albeit with my own voice and personal spin, meaning that the characters will be eccentric and there’ll be wackiness). I just need to know what people want. Unfortunately, they don’t know what they want until they see it! Just like in the department stores when they try on all those clothes and only yell “Aha!” when they actually find “it”! *grin*

  4. * Does it make sense to query an agent right before a conference you are both attending?
    No. It makes sense to me to (if the opportunity to pitch is available) to pitch in person. In my opinion I have a stronger presense in person than on paper and a face-to-face can only strengthen a weak query letter. I also don’t want to sit through the awkwardness of , “Did you get my query? What’d you think of it?” (Well, of the 114 queries I received this week I recall asking for a partial and yours was not it).
    *Is it harder to see a query from someone who writes very well but doesn’t have good ideas, or someone with a good idea, who clearly has a way to go before their writing is publishable?
    From what industry feedback I’ve had I would say I fit in the “good ideas, poor execution” category. And I’m happy with that. Grammar, style, and tone (etc..) can be accomplished with time. Being told you’re execution is flawless but your ideas are trite comes off to me as, “you are boring.” I don’t believe creativity can be taught like grammar or mechanics. Some people are just boring.
    *Also, considering what to do about people who keep submitting the same query consistently.
    Send the same form-R consistently.
    …as far as a professional response: “Look, I’m not the right agent for this piece. However, here is the address to Mr. Simon Cowell who will give your MS the treatment it deserves.”

    • Being told your execution is flawless but your ideas are trite comes off to me as, “you are boring.”
      This is what hurts so much about the pile of rejections I have that say “good writing, the story didn’t grab me.” All the great writing in the world can’t dress that turd up enough to sell.
      Or something like that.

      • You have finished a novel.
        You had the courage to submit.
        You have a stack of rejections which means you have the courage to keep submitting.
        Most aspiring novelists never make it past the point of aspirations once they realize that there is honest labor involved.
        You’re light years ahead of most. It sounds like you just need to learn to raise the stakes to grab the reader. It’s easy to be hard on yourself, tougher to be more forgiving.

  5. I tried to think of something you could tell “psycho writer” but I just cannot think of anything that wouldn’t be down-right rude. Sounds like you shouldn’t stop drinking just yet! LOL. :*) I hope those writers get the hint.
    In answer to one of your questions, yes, I think it would be awkward to meet an agent who already rejected my work. The author should’ve waited to pitch it to you at the conference…
    ~Tyhitia
    http://obfuscationofreality.blogspot.com/

  6. Repeat offenders…
    Clearly, they’re going to keep trying until they get a response that clicks in their brain… why not treat them like a difficult customer, and be polite but clear that the answer is no?
    “Thank you for your determined interest in querying my agency. It is flattering that you seem to feel so firmly that we are the right agency to represent your work. However, we remain unable to represent you at this time or any other. Your work is not right for this agency, and it is now clear that we have very different practices and approaches when it comes to publishing as well. These are not discrepancies that might be resolved for a good working relationship.
    I have instructed my assistant not to open further communications from you. Instead, I encourage you to continue your search for representation with other agencies. You are clearly determined enough that one day I’m sure you’ll find a good fit.”

    • Re: Repeat offenders…
      This will work if they have feelings. When I first started writing eons ago, I was writing a picture book a day! Haha! They’re so easy, right? Anyway, poor Melanie Kroupa (then at Orchard) was the recipient of this stunning work, over and over again. After about the sixth or seventh horrible picture book, she sent me a letter much like the above. I’m still hoping I never meet her in person (fifteen years later) because I was so embarrassed, but it at least knocked some sense into me!

    • Re: Repeat offenders…
      I love this. Well, I would be mortally embarassed to receive it, but it’s a brush-off that feels not in the least like a personal attack.

  7. Is someone out there advocating that an agent will simply change their mind if you ask them often enough?
    I don’t think anyone has to advocate that for many people to assume it is true. I don’t even know when the idiom “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” was started (I’m not going to research it right now either — well, maybe not — damn, you know I will) but anyway, if I had a nickel for everytime I heard it…
    I, too, am a hopeful, and like many, I spend more time than I care to admit trying to figure out what’s wrong with my submissions by cruising the sites designed by and for people like me. Many of those sites seem to collect whiners who spend all their time maligning agents (you know, the very people they later try to schmooze in correspondence by way of the same tired letters). I must at this point reference a certain post by Jim Hines: Request from a Formulaic Hack http://jimhines.livejournal.com/343082.html
    I can only say you have my sympathies for whatever that’s worth. We’re not all that way. Some of us keep lists of who we’ve corresponded with, when it was sent, what the response was, and what approach was used. Some of us even spend time trying to figure out why the approach didn’t work if it didn’t repeatedly. It’s depressing to think that while I struggle along, there are people giving hopeful writers every where a bad image.
    And may I express my shock and dismay that people argue with your rejections. Who are these people? And why do they think insulting you is going to change your mind. If it did, I daresay you’d be a weird individual, and probably not very good at your job. Don’t give up replying for lent — give it up forever. There’s no point giving yourself ulcers over idiots. It’s just not worth it.

    • Is someone out there advocating that an agent will simply change their mind if you ask them often enough?
      Actually, yes. This link has been making the rounds. Check out paragraphs 3 and 4 where the author says he sent his query to a publisher, got a form rejection, sent it again asking for another look, and the book sold. In some circles, writers are debating whether it is a good idea to do this (consensus is no, it’s not a good idea, but I’m sure a lot of writers took the article as encouragement to resend their rejected queries).

  8. answering questions with questions
    You write, “I’m not saying that a person shouldn’t query the same agent twice…. either with a revised project (and pitch) or a new book. There are a number of clients on my current list who did just that.”
    I am in the situation where I have a drastically revised manuscript, and am working up an equally revised query. Sounds like it’s OK to try it out on agents who have passed on the previous query. But here are two questions:
    (1) Is it less OK to re-query agents who requested partials or fulls of the pre-revision manuscript and rejected (without saying anything about keeping them in mind for future projects)?
    (2) In cases where an agent rejected the previous query, does the new, revised query for the revised manuscript mention the revisions, or just start fresh?
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Re: answering questions with questions
      These questions are burning for me too… I’d love to hear some thoughts from an agent on how to handle this situation.

  9. one more thought…
    I have yet to come up with a response that seems firm enough and remains professional. Anyone care to take a stab at it?
    Have you considered amending your rejection with, “This did not catch my interest any more than it did the last time,” or something to that effect? It may sound kind of rude, but it actually might be helpful. Sometimes when I’m submitting and collecting cards that are completely form answers, I wonder if anybody even looked at it. So maybe these “repeat offenders” are just slightly more dazed by the process than me. At least some indication it has been read is better than none — and it might help them narrow down the problem. There are moments I wish some kind of thought came with that rejection card — even if it is “your query made me yawn”. It would be harsh, but at least I might know where to start to fix the problem.
    Just a thought…

  10. I think your response to the persistent guy should be the same as your response to the rude people: no response at all.
    “I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination.” –Dilbert
    The First Rule of dealing with strangers is “Don’t engage with the crazy people.” Thse folks may not be clinical subjects, but they’re not playing with a full complement of brain cells. They may merely have a strange learning disability or slightly-off brain structure, nothing that prevents them from being useful, productive members of society.
    HOWEVER, you are also a productive member of society, and you would like to remain one. This means you don’t have to waste your work-time with people who are apparently not getting the help they need. It is not your problem. You’re a literary agent, not a psychiatrist.

  11. You could always put obnoxious emails in your spam list so you don’t see those messages again. Just an idea.
    Personally, I would query an agent just before a conference. I express myself better on paper than I do in person with strangers (at least until the universe comes with a Control-Z of its own) and I probably wouldn’t talk to you in person anyway.
    As for the requeriers, I suggest asking them to stop, adding a warning that you’ll take note of their return address if they do it again and begin discarding their queries unread. Or something. It might work, even if it’s just a bluff.

  12. Your Official Sidekick is pretty funny.
    *cough*

  13. I wonder how many of the repeat offenders would also be incapable of understanding “I’m not interested in dating you.” You wouldn’t happen to have any stats on the gender distribution of the repeat offenders, would you?

  14. As someone who has queried an agent (not you), only to meet her at a conference soon after (which was an accident; I signed up for the conference late and she was behind on her replies at the time)–yeah, it was a bit pointless.
    She was very nice about it, however, and made useful comments about my manuscript. For me, it was a positive experience. I got a personal critique from a literary agent–something I couldn’t have got any other way.
    Whether the agent considered it pointless depends on whether she sees conferences as a place to find new talent or as an opportunity to educate aspiring writers. I suspect she saw it as both. It was a conference aimed at helping writers learn the craft, and all the agents/editors/published writers invited seemed to take their roles as educators seriously.

  15. I think you need a ‘I’m just not that into your book’ letter. If the querying persists afterwards, you might just want to look into filing a restraining order. lol.
    I am guessing the multiple querying is equal parts persistence and authors not keeping proper track of who they’ve queried.
    As for the choices, I would think both would be painful. I think a truly good writer can make just about anything (even the most tired ideas) interesting though, so I suppose I would take the good writing, unorginal idea.

  16. 3 times in 6 months with the same query? Oy. And here I was feeling guilty about requerying you after a year. 🙂

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