letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 123
# of partials requested: 1
genres of partial requested: women’s fiction (1)

random notes:

No matter where or how many times you say what you do not represent (in this particular case, children’s picture books, which are a much different market from YA novels), there’s at least a few submissions every week — for example, two picture books about cats, from the same author.

First Star Trek query in a loooong time.

From a query: “My background is probably a little different from that of your typical author” — which led me to wonder what *is* the background of a “typical” author? Or, more particularly, what might one assume it is?

Something that got my attention at the end of a query: a reference to an old colonial cookbook and a comment about my cooking blog. It was in a p.s. so it was extra just for me. That’s personalizing a query and will get it a closer look. Of course, it wasn’t just for show, either — the cookbook actually fit in the reference material for the novel. Personalizations that are obviously just tacked on have the opposite effect. For example, mentioning a favorite author from my list and then saying something that makes it quite clear that it was a random choice and not actually based on reading anything.

Things not to do: email a link to your online novel and/or cc many agents all at once.

Favorite tunnel vision view of the week: The query that arrived with an explanation in the opening paragraph of how the author had visited the DMLA website, knew that their material was not something I represented, but decided to query me anyway. Why? You tell me.

34 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I have a question for you – though I completely understand if you don’t have time to answer it!
    Exactly how personal is too personal?
    I’ve tried to personalize my query letters in general; I explain why I picked that agent, any particular reference points (interviews I read or heard, authors on their list who reccomended them, etc.), but now I’m wondering if that’s personal enough or if it would sound a little too Google-convenient.
    On the other hand, the last thing I’d want to do is come across as scary-stalker-I-know-your-whole-liiiiiife author. Any suggestions?

    • I did get a scary stalker query once. And I ended up taking down old entries off this blog on account of it. It mentioned things about my family and it went to a creepy level of detail.
      I think what you mention sounds fine. I think you just have to apply courtesy and consideration and make it professional-personal rather than personal-personal (if you get what I mean). Mention things you might have seen on the blog and liked (someone referenced a particular entry recently), mention meetings at conferences, mention authors on the agent’s list you admire (but be sure you actually have read at least one of their books so you don’t sound like you’re making it up). And you can keep it small — one or two items is more than enough to show you are paying attention. You certainly don’t need a whole paragraph or anything (so my clients Bear, etc. will label you an unsub).

  2. Writers come from all walks of life, but a larger-than-average-proportion seems to have worked in an astonishing variety of jobs and gained life experience that way.
    The idea that someone who *doesn’t* know the market for a book would be an ideal agent is one of these ‘huh?’ moments.

  3. what *is* the background of a “typical” author?
    English lit degree, natch. Has been wanting to be a writer since being in utero, possibly earlier. Wrote first novel aged 7 (Kitty Puss Goes To The Zoo) though has since moved away from illustrating own work. Has several old copies of Writer’s Market, amply annotated and highlighted. Keeps a journal. Wrote poems in high school and got a few published in the lit mag. Was, possibly, editor of said lit mag and/or the yearbook. After college (during which, interned at university’s lit journal), worked in crappy low-paying temp jobs struggling to keep body and soul together while furtively writing new novel and pretending the outline is an Excel spreadsheet. Etc.
    knew that their material was not something I represented, but decided to query me anyway.
    If only everyone did that material as well as THEY did, you would represent it. Therefore, they are giving you a Golden Opportunity and by turning it down you are just being a big ol’ meanie.
    Am I close?

  4. Don’t send emails that might be bordlerline creepy-ish to editors and agents.
    Even if it seems like a good idea at 3a.m. . Even if you’re intentions were well-meaning. Wait until the next day to see if still seems like a good idea.
    This is the neutron.
    That is all.
    Carry-on.
    **innocence*

  5. Thank you πŸ™‚
    I didn’t want to send this as an email as I’m sure you are overwhelmed with email already, but I did want to say thank you for a very nice rejection letter.
    I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond to my query, especially when you are getting 123 a week!
    I wish you the best of luck in all your agenting in the future, but I’m sure you don’t need it πŸ™‚
    -Alisha

  6. Quick (and probably silly) question:
    Do you honestly consider books written with proprietary characters? (StarTrek, etc.)
    I know one of your clients once did a Marvel piece (Butcher), but wasn’t it by invitation and collaboration, and not just, for lack of a better term, elevated fanfic?

  7. Colleen Lindsay at Finepoint posted about this today — she gives a fairly thorough run-down of what is copyright infringement in this area.
    Sounds like this writer queried a number of people in the sff arena.

  8. While the usual answer to why someone would send you something they knew you didn’t represent involves some combination of idiocy and hubris, a relevant and less negative possibility involves your periodic statements about learning and growing as an agent and finding new interests and branching into new genres.
    I haven’t looked at your site. If you don’t already, you might consider grouping genres into “Yes”, “You’d Be Much Smarter To Send It To Someone Else But I’ll Have A Peek If It’s A Slow Week”, and “I Will Automatically Throw It Into The Trash Without Reading It”. Then at least you can be sure that the person is in fact just an idiot. πŸ™‚

  9. Hi Jennifer
    Hello. Just wanting to say hi. I like your website and I’ve submitted a query to your email.

  10. query widely
    To answer your last question, in the revered words of Miss Snark: query widely. I had always taken that advice to mean if you write fantasy, query every agent who reps fantasy, even if they don’t seem a perfect match. But as I read more entries by Her Snarkiness, she makes it clear to query even those agents who don’t rep your genre. (Unless they make it clear they do NOT want that genre.) She says the reason is you never know when they’re looking for something new to branch into.
    My first reaction to this was “Huh? What a waste of everyone’s time.” But let me tell you my little agent-hunt story.
    My first batch of queries went to 10 agents. They were my ultimate fantasy in agents for a multitude of reasons. (You were on that list but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be.) From that group I received a request for a partial from a top agent at a top agency. She ultimately passed on it, giving only praise, no criticism, and saying it just wasn’t right for her list. (Evil Editor would say the translation of that is simply: “I didn’t like it.” He’s probably right, but how should I know?)
    Anyway, her encouraging letter sustained me because the only responses I got after that were form rejection letters. Close to 30 of them. (Egads.) I wanted to quit, but I had worked far too hard and long on that manuscript to quit just yet. Still, I needed to move on and was finding it hard to write my next novel while all this was going on. So I took a month off of writing to send out as many queries as I could (instead of sending a batch, waiting, sending a batch, waiting, etc). I wanted to get every query out there that I could so I could be done with it.
    When I got to the end of my list of fantasy agents, I felt defeated even though I had close to 50 letters awaiting reply. Rejection seemed inevitable. Tales of famous authors getting rejected 100 times gave me little comfort because really crappy writers get rejected too, and these form letters weren’t telling me which I was supposed to be. Is the writing bad? The idea bad? Is it good but really not “right” for that agent? No idea.
    In a moment of desperation, I decided to follow Miss Snark’s advice and query other agents too. I didn’t query anyone who specifically states they don’t want fantasy, and I only queried through email (not wanting to “waste postage” on such long shots). I drafted a letter similar to the one you received, explaining why I thought my book was appropriate for a general market (something I’ve believed all along, though I would trust an agent’s opinion on this more than my own).
    That very evening I got a reply from a top agent saying she was impressed with my letter and wanted to see the entire manuscript.
    Are you as shocked by this as I was? I allowed myself an evening of glee (because who knows what she’ll say in the end) and since that time I’ve been calmly waiting. (Did I say calmly? Silly me.)
    Regardless of her answer, I’m glad I queried widely. If other agents are puzzling over my letters to them, they can see Miss Snark about it… if they dare.
    πŸ™‚

    • Re: query widely
      Congrats to you on your success with the query and I hope you hear back soon!
      To answer your last question, in the revered words of Miss Snark: query widely. I had always taken that advice to mean if you write fantasy, query every agent who reps fantasy, even if they don’t seem a perfect match. But as I read more entries by Her Snarkiness, she makes it clear to query even those agents who don’t rep your genre. (Unless they make it clear they do NOT want that genre.) She says the reason is you never know when they’re looking for something new to branch into.
      The thing is that I think I have made it clear that I don’t rep the genre in question. It’s on our site, it’s on agentquery.com and yet this person queried me. I have less of an issue with the action itself than with the demeanor displayed by their statement that they *had* done the research and *knew* I wasn’t accepting this kind of work. Even though it’s true that I have expanded my list into both the mystery/suspense genre and also into YA over the last couple years, and I am interested in trying new things. It felt like this person was saying they had no respect for me or the other writers, regardless of what they were writing.
      Respectfully, query widely and query indiscriminately are not the same.

  11. I think a lot of people query agents to test themselves, before really attempting to be exposed or published. Almost as if they are seeking validation or justification for what they’ve written. A great writer may never be discovered simply because they could care less about being published. They see the true passion in what they do as their craft, their portal of communication and their outlet. Once someone has chosen to become seek representation, they’re turning what they do into a business and attempting to profit from their craft. They have to see if an agent will readily accept what they have or if they will simply ignore what they offer. This calls for an agent who is strong at reading through inflated garbage and finding what is true and pure in the writing.
    I’ve found the query to be extremely difficult to write. Not only because of my intention , and my desire to be published, but trying to grab the attention of someone’s wandering eye without falling off the high wire- if you will.

    • You said a great writer might see the “true passion in what they do as their craft, their portal of communication and their outlet.” To me, that’s what publication means. Afterall, who am I “communicating” to? Not my file cabinet, that’s for sure. πŸ˜‰ As far as the “profit” of writing, I’ve read enough agent/writer blogs to know just how dismal the money is. I DO care about publication. I want my stories out there in the hands of readers. But any money that may or may not come from it is a mere sidenote. Truth is, I’d do it for free.
      But I’m not trying to mince words. I see what you’re saying and I think you’re right: it’s passion that drives the writer. We simply can’t help ourselves.

      • To me, that’s what publication means. Afterall, who am I “communicating” to? Not my file cabinet, that’s for sure.
        That’s why it’s important to write for someone specific rather than a nebulous “everybody.” If you can hand your manuscript to the one person you wrote it for, the book’s done its job whether or not a publisher buys it.

    • I think a lot of people query agents to test themselves
      To some degree, that seems to be expected, and I dont’ know where the ideal balance is. On the one hand, you’re supposed to have a realistic judgement of your writing (rather than an inflated opinion), on the other, you need to really believe in your work and your own skills, or nobody would send out the fiftieth and hundredth query of their lives, if that is what it takes.
      I would have an easier time with the whole querying process if I had gotten into the habit of writing queries and collecting rejections _for works that I was certain were not quite there yet_. At the time, I felt I’d be wasting the time of agents and editors submitting, but I can’t deny that from a purely egoistical point of view, I’ve missed a learning opportunity.

      • I think you can learn just as easily from work you do believe in.

      • I’m not clear on exactly what you’d be learning. That the work wasn’t ready yet? You already knew that.

        • The two things I’ve learnt from querying are a) the organisational side, and b) how to make a project sound attractive.
          The first is having a database and a submission procedure that works and that you’re comfortable with, and unless you’re already skilled at this type of work, that won’t come overnight. To submit, you need to find agents, research their submission procedure, keep at hand the material they want (first three/five/fifty pages, chapters, synopses in varying lengths, author biography etc). You also need to decide what kind of agents you want to submit to, how many at once, how soon to follow up, how to approch rejections etc. And much of that is highly ideosynchratic.
          I’ve found that I tend to query when I’m feeling positive and particularly serene, which means that inevitably the rejections come back when I’m a bit blah and more stressed and hit me quite as hard – if I were querying on a regular schedule, they’d be spread out better!
          And then there’s the writing of the actual query letter/synopsis, which are *not* trivial. Yes, it’s writing, but it’s not something that necessarily comes easy to a novelist, just as short stories or poetry aren’t automatically acquired. It can be learnt, but it’s something you need to work on – particularly if you write multi-stranded, coming-of-age or comedy-of-manner stories in which the World Does Not Get Saved. Some stories are, indeed, easier to summarise than others.
          And closely related to that was the eventual realisation that it would make sense to choose, for the next thing to write, an idea that sparkles in the short form, because that will make it easier to sell. I’m not saying that what I’m submitting right now is a bad book – it’s not, it’s tightly plotted with lots of unexpected twists, set in an interesting culture, and a good read – but it does not seem to be what the market wants, and compared to the next in queue – archaeological expedition to Faerie – it is much harder to raise interest in.

      • I would have an easier time with the whole querying process if I had gotten into the habit of writing queries and collecting rejections
        That’s one of the benefits of writing and submitting short fiction, I think. Rejection is a bitter pill to take, but I think I’ll be a bit more prepared when novel rejections come because I’m already familiar with it, thanks to those magazine editors who’ve rejected me. I actually did a blog post about this a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

  12. Well said. It’s very hard to find the balance between demanding the most of your skills or your passion, and then driving forward with the push to be published. Someone may love to garden, but yet they kill everything they plant. The same goes for writing. They may think they’re a great writer until the pen is pushed to the paper, and what they’ve produced is something no one will want to read. Or purchase. Perhaps the agent or the editor is there as a good reality check to say: You know what…you’re not that good.

  13. Why would someone send a children’s book to an agent whose website specifies NO CHILDREN’S BOOKS? At first glance, this does look like a head-scratcher, but it fits into this catch-all explanation of odd human behavior: People tend to assume rules don’t apply to THEM.
    On some level, they assume that a) you were talking about other’s people work, not theirs, and/or b) their work is so fabulous that it will immediately convert you to the cause of children’s books. This sort of presumption can easily be dismissed with a breezy, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
    I’m between agents at the moment, and haven’t had much time to devote to an agent search. One of the factors slowing me down is the need to find an agent who represents all the catagories I’m currently pursuing. I’ve got a background in shared-world fantasy, some urban fantasy, and a paranormal coming up. More of the same in the works. I’m currently co-writing a sf thriller with a former research scientist. I would like to expand to YA fantasy, as well. That’s a lot of real estate, and unless an agent is interested in all these fields, why waste his/her time with a query?
    Which leads to anyother reason why people tend to query agents about inappropriate projects: They’re not thinking past the “getting an agent” landmark. Like a dog chasing a car, they don’t stop to think about what they’ll do if they actually CATCH their quarry. What if the agent who has spent a career representing screen plays agrees to take on your non-fiction book about personal economics? He or she might be able to sell it, but it makes a lot more sense to query people who have contacts and context.

  14. I’m so excited.

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