letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 271 (a new record since I started tracking them)
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 3
genres of partials/manuscripts requested: fantasy, women’s fiction, SF thriller (the SF thriller was an upgrade from a requested partial to a full)

# of queries left to read: around 600

This week’s interesting (or perhaps confounding) tidbit: I’m past amazed at the number of queries arriving with either the title or the paranormal race in the book being called “Guardians.” Seriously. What’s up with this?

This week’s query wars casualty: The person who sent the code for an embedded YouTube link as their query. Not only does this not work on my email program, but oddly enough, I’m not going to go look it up either.

Dear Authors:

As many of those reading this blog know, our submission guidelines ask for a query letter, a synopsis, and the first five pages of your novel. They also specifically state that we do not open unsolicited attachments. Of course, not everyone reads the submission guidelines (as I can very easily see every week from the number of queries that arrive for types of books that we say we specifically do NOT represent). So, every week, there are a few queries that show up with attachments and some snailmail ones that show up with much more than five pages, or sometimes even the entire manuscript. I’m not a rules lawyer type, so if it’s seven instead of five because that’s the end of a scene, I’m not going to have some sort of breakdown and need comfort food to make myself feel better about the whole thing. (mmmm…. comfort food….)

However, when it becomes obvious that the first chapter is thirty pages long and/or the author points out somewhat smugly in their query that it doesn’t cost any extra to send a somewhat longer email than the guidelines indicate, I have to admit it doesn’t make me more pleasantly inclined towards the work in question. Why? Because somehow it feels like they’re taking advantage of something. And, given the constraints of time, it suggests they feel their query should get more of it than someone else’s. In my view, they are disrespecting the other authors submitting.

And when a person replies and says: “If only you would read my book (not just the five pages), you would see what a great work it is. After all what do you have to waste but a few hours of your precious time?” — well…. I’m not denying the fact that there is a possibility they are correct (though I honestly don’t feel it’s much of a probability). And I understand where their frustration is coming from. However. They are making an assumption that there is a pile of free time sitting here not being used. And what’s more, if there were, I wouldn’t want to “waste” it (their word, not mine).

And then there’s the question of what’s fair and what’s right in terms of trying to evaluate the rising tide of submissions. Based on today’s numbers, how many “precious hours” would it take to just read 270 or so books, rather than try to make the fairest assessment I can on each one based on what I know represents only a soundbite version? Let’s say it takes 3 hours to read and assess a full manuscript (that’s just an average — naturally some read faster than others). That would be over 800 hours of reading for this week’s queries alone. And there’s only 168 hours in a week (counting the ones where a person is supposed to do things other than reading). So, um, well, the math there just doesn’t work. Particularly since my clients would probably have me committed over it.

Despite what some may think, the query system wasn’t devised to keep the agents and editors from reading great books. Instead, it is intended to maximize their exposure to same. Unfortunately, the laws of the solar system and the spinning of the Earth as well as various physiological limits have conspired against everyone in this case. If I had more hours to read, I’d take ’em. Definitely. I am, after all, an addict.

If you had three hours of “extra time” granted to you this week (like roll-over minutes, I guess, from some other week where you magically didn’t use them all up), what would you spend them doing?

43 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Probably writing, I said dismally. I need a hobby. πŸ™‚

  2. I get asked to pass along manuscripts all the time, and I tell them the same things. And I often get back “The first five pages don’t really get you into the story…” or a variation of that.
    I always ask, why don’t you focus on making that first five pages ESSENTIAL to the rest of it? Make it ALL great. Make it sing from the VERY FIRST LINE.
    And answer other than “okay” just means they don’t really want to do this.

    • I sent a query to with what were, in retrospect, the wrong first five pages.
      Eventually, I figured this out and cut the first chapter, and carefully tweaked and edited the first five pages to end on the BESTEST CLIFFHANGER EVAR (if I do lolcat so myself), and another agent wanted the partial! And then was astoundingly kind and told me some of my huge flaws that make me too bloody over-wordy and I’ve been chainsawing (or bonsaiing, depending on my ability to confront) ever since.
      Or, in other words… focus on making [those] first five pages ESSENTIAL. O:>

    • I have one story that has a long lead up like my favorite book of all time, “Bardic Voices 1: Lark and Wren” by Mercedes Lackey. And although I can tighten it up a little bit, I don’t want to throw the action in first and have all the details get shown in flashback.
      I think the effect will be more moving to the reader if they experience the collapse of the main character’s world along with him. So I’ve put that one on the shelf once more and am playing with a prequel story that can and does start right in the middle of the action.
      Terry Brooks points out that his “Sword of Shannarah” story would never sell today because the tale meanders for so long. So I am trying to bear that in mind as well. But it is difficult to balance the amount of back story needed to keep the reader from being utterly lost in the world you are crafting and keeping the story from bogging down too much.

  3. Wait…someone actually said, “After all what do you have to waste but a few hours of your precious time?”
    People really need to listen to what the hell they’re saying.

  4. If I had extra time, I’d use that time to write even more, read even more for pleasure, and research for my novels. Oh, and make more cheesecakes since they are requested from me so often. πŸ™‚

  5. On the one hand, I understand their frustration. They do all that work, and it comes down to 5 pages? Granted, it’s not like you sprung it on them; first 5 pages is pretty standard, so you think they’d cotton onto the idea that the first 5 pages should be amazing and not about the weather. But still, 5 pages doesn’t feel like a lot. I’m sure there’s great books out there with mediocre beginnings. Of course, I can’t think of any because I don’t buy those books, but that doesn’t negate their existence. πŸ™‚
    On the other hand, I bet you occasionally get a similar response from people who had their 50-page partial read. “Gee, I know the first 50 pages aren’t spectacular, but there’s a whole 400 pages you didn’t read, and those are fantastic!” So it really isn’t the number of pages you read. These people like to think you’re not giving them a fair chance; that way, it’s not their fault they’re not the next Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer. That way, they don’t have to actually revise and rethink and truly write a great book. Whining is a much easier way out.

  6. Argue on the Internet, probably.

  7. I have a dumb question related to this, though. Obviously, I always follow guidelines – if they say five pages, they get five pages. If they say three chapters, they get three chapters. Professionals follow the rules, and maybe that’s the best reason for the current system – to see who’s a professional and who’s not.
    But I’ve also thought that in the age of e-subs, the small initial query was in itself counterproductive, from the agent’s standpoint as well as the author’s. If I send the whole manuscript, nothing says the agent has to read past the three chapters. If it’s not grabbing them, they stop reading and send a rejection. The rest gets recycled.
    If, on the other hand, s/he likes what I’ve sent, then I get to send the whole thing. Yay! But then there’s the wait, which may or may not be significant depending on whether it’s snail mail or email. By the time the whole thing arrives, naturally the agent or editor has moved on to other things. The agent has to read the same three chapters over again to remember why s/he requested the full in the first place. I’m assuming, of course, that agents have better things to do with their time and memory than perma-store the details of every submitted manuscript. πŸ™‚
    Wouldn’t it be more time-efficient, then, to allow authors to send the whole manuscript at once? Still just read the first three chapters, but if you like them, the rest is right there to be read. Less time, less postage, less waiting. What am I missing?
    As far as what I’d do with three extra hours? I’d like to say “writing,” as I get little enough time for that. But the reality is probably “sleeping.” πŸ™‚

    • The obvious answer is “why kill trees you don’t need to?” But in addition, you’re missing the concept of “space.”
      I’ve never seen an office in any aspect of publishing that wasn’t piled to the walls with papers and books. I imagine most agents are no different. Many of them work out of their homes, and while I would like to think they all live in suburban palaces, the odds are that those in NY are squeezed into small apartments and possibly do the bulk of their reading on their living room sofa.
      I know I can barely get it together enough to carry out the little stack of advertising fliers that grace my doorway once a week. Even three manuscripts per week would add up. That might be 1500 pages–three reams of paper.
      E-subs wouldn’t have that problem, obviously. However, each writer would have to send their whole manuscript as an attachment, which opens the door for pernicious viruses.

      • I should have clarified, obviously it makes a difference in terms of simple storage if we’re on the dead-tree submission track. A friend of mine who used to work at Tor once joked that they would burrow into the slush pile when they got cold. πŸ™‚

  8. Another one for my picks of the week.
    Thanks for sharing:)

  9. I’d uhh catch up on sleep…and wonder if it’s a sad thing that what I took away from the rest of the post being that should I instead spend these rollover-minutes by inflicting myself with a task of writing — that I should enclose a bribe of gift coupons for chocolate in the submission?

  10. What do you have to waste but your precious time??? Sigh…
    The self-absorbed idiocy running rampant in the world is ever and insanely interesting.

  11. The only time I feel somewhat shortchanges is when an agent wants no pages at all, because I do think you can see different things from pages than from queries alone.
    If I had three extra hours, I’d read.
    I’d read the book I’d forgotten I owned and couldn’t quite recall why I’d bought it until I read the first paragraph, all 84 words of it, and they were working pretty hard. In that first paragraph, I got a mood, a situation, the technology level, a hint of antagonists, a story question, and a general idea of the shape of the story.
    I don’t know whether I’ll love the book, but it is definitely well written, and I don’t need to read another 49.6 pages to work that out.

  12. I don’t know, but I do know that I would spend them out of my office and away from the college. You betcha.

  13. … what would you spend them doing?
    Jeez, I’d finish this damn book. Or get a little closer to the end, at least.

  14. I’m one of those authors with the title of Guardians–so I’d like to apologize to you in advance for the obviously unoriginal title! I don’t think you’ve gotten to my query yet, so please don’t hold it against me. (I did, however, manage to follow the submission guidelines correctly)
    –Jessica Leake

    • Excellent – thanks for following guidelines. I always appreciate that. And, no fear, on the title. I just occasionally start to notice patterns and wonder about them. One year, half the suspense novels at the agency seemed to be titled “Fade to Black” and it was just peculiar. Since publishers often will suggest new titles anyway, it’s not really an issue or anything. Just curiouser and curiouser.

  15. 3 extra hours
    Ooh. I’d spend an hour writing, an hour on the harp, and an hour sewing my steampunk Victorian gown. Bliss!

  16. I’d settle down with a nice fat book- either to read or to write, depending on the day.

  17. I have a question that relates to this post, even though it’s not Agent Manners.
    My book is told via two first person narrators, which switch back and forth. The first narrator’s section in ch. 1 is 11 pages, but I feel like I should at least show the agent both character’s narrative voices. So would sending 15 pages get my ass kicked in this regard, just so I can show what I need to show? Or would you generally be all right with this because it seems necessary with the way the narrative is lined up?

    • I’m going to suggest an answer, and if our dear agent disagrees, then…well, she does.
      If the first five pages don’t make me want to learn more, then the presence of anybody showing up later is irrelevant. While your structure might be very appropriate, and even necessary, it won’t change the reader’s tendency to glance at the first pages when making a buying/reading decision.
      You could easily explain the situation in the query letter, but it likely still won’t change the fact that five pages should hook the reader.

  18. Hi,
    Should I be worrying if my query was sent the first week of July and I haven’t heard back, yet? I’ve been trying not to think about it, but if I need to kick AOL mail, I’ll gladly do so. πŸ™‚

  19. I would spend any extra time alloted to me by the magic fairies of the universe doing everything I’d cut short doing the week before. While I /should/ spend them doing something constructive like cleaning my house or (gasp!) writing, using them to catch up with friends, spend time with my children or talk about nothing with my husband sounds so much more interesting and enlightening and … just better.
    If I were a more self disciplined sort of person, I’d say I’d spend them working out or organizing my linen closet but quite frankly, I’m not the type and I’ll reserve those activities for days when turture is required to round out my agenda.

  20. Free time? Work started back up (I work for the school district) and my writing class begins next week, so the only free time I have is this weekend. On tap- the Green Day concert tonight and the fall issue of Vogue tomorrow with morning coffee.
    Have a good weekend!

  21. If you had three hours of “extra time” granted to you this week (like roll-over minutes, I guess, from some other week where you magically didn’t use them all up), what would you spend them doing?
    Catering to the household animals, of course. Or plotting my next trip, which I would be able to take, guilt-free, if I used my extra three hours wisely and got all my work done…
    As an aside: spent yesterday morning with new client, among other things explaining the basics of How to Submit Her Work Professionally, so’s Not to Annoy Agents. Gimmie a cookie. πŸ˜‰

  22. Time is the one thing in limited supply, you cannot buy an extra second no matter how rich you are nor recapture a moment no matter how swift you are. When someone says “it will only take a moment of your time” I point out that what they are REALLY saying is that they want to use up some of my life, and that I place a HIGH price on that. I don’t care for telemarketers…does it show? πŸ˜€
    Extra time? Probably reading or eating ice cream or something equally decadent. Maybe I’d manage to spend at least a fraction of it spending more time with family…

  23. i think i am in the middle of these three hours, and i am:
    1. debating whether an appendectomy has any place in a fantasy story.
    2. formulating an argument for a promised “philosophical discussion” tonight with my boyfriend, in which i am meant to prove that off-white is not white.
    3. knitting a triangle that will soon become a shawl too big for my needles.

  24. Definitely spend it finishing this damn book. I swear, I never even think about anything else any more.

  25. I’m infinitely grateful I’ve stumbled across your livejournal. I found you while searching for agents online, just to get an idea of who was out there in and who I should try when I seek an agent. I hope it’s all right that I add you–your entries clearly are going to be a monumental help to me, and I’d love following them.
    This entry in particular has given me a better idea of how *not* to behave in query letters–not that I’d be so smug or rude as some of these people…

  26. I would start reading the stack of non-work related books on my nightstand. Or possibly go see G-Force. (I know, I know, I can’t help myself.)

  27. Someone once said…
    “… we’ve arrived at a time and place in our society where the first duty of intelligent people is to re-state the obvious.”
    Thanks for pushing on.

  28. Out of curiosity (I promise I do NOT have a query in that pile of 600), do queries ever ‘jump the queue’? I mean, do you scan the list of newly-arrived queries for names you recognize from conferences and/or really intriguing titles, or is it strictly first in first out?
    I’d guess anything forwarded to you by another agent in your agency would get priority, but I don’t want to assume.
    As for the question you asked: a whle back I read about a poll where people swore that if they had an extra x hours a day they’d read intellectual books, or help in soup kitchens, or whatever, but then if you looked at what they actually did during the day and FOUND x hours that could be put to better purpose, they were actually just watching more television….

  29. Over the years I’ve judged a lot of chapter contests for RWA. And I KNOW exactly when I want to stop reading many of them, most often it is by page two. Usually the writer needs more experience writing, but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where the problem lies. You’re lucky that you can stop and send a ‘no thank you’ note, but as a judge we have to slog our way through thirty to fifty more pages, PLUS comment along the way. Sometimes I’d rather jab a red-hot poker in my eye than finish reading some of the entries.

  30. LOL, one of the writers in my critique group is writing a fantasy with a race called the Guardians πŸ˜›
    Not really sure what I would do with extra time–probably be lazy and watch a movie or something πŸ™‚

  31. Found hours?
    I’d write, of course.
    … Is this a trick question?

  32. Sorry to be an Anon, I don’t have a live journal account. A while back I wrote a flash fiction story about time vampires. They stole your day before you even knew it, bottled it and resold it to rich old people. If you were savvy you knew they were coming by their tag line, “you have nothing to lose but a few minutes of your time.”
    You were obviously being targeted by a time vamp. However, this one was obviously behind on her quota because she tried for 3 hours in one chunk and not very gracefully either. Good for you for avoiding her.
    As for me? Right this minute the 3 hours would go into our upcoming move. But, I’m commenting on blogs instead! Terri

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