letters from the query wars 7/16/2010

# of queries read last week: 92
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: n/a

# of queries read this week: 153
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: SF

oldest query in the queue: June 28th

Phrase in a query letter that struck my funny bone: “it must be a tedious task to pour over letters all day” As if an agent had whole days to read submissions…..

Less amusing to me: Reply to a query response in which I am told that I declined because the author was unknown and not from the U.S. — Setting aside the tone (which I didn’t find friendly but that’s neither here nor there), I suppose I can understand trying to find a way to externalize this process. But as I have already signed a debut novel this year, and already represent authors who do not live within U.S. borders, this is obviously not a factor for me. I only paused for a moment on this one because I felt it was a shame that, in this case, the reasons assigned were flawed. Especially as they focused on what I consider to be irrelevant characteristics, and not what they had written.

As anyone who reads these letters frequently knows, these kinds of responses are not all that rare. Definitely, not rare enough. And they are typically as narrow-minded as they accuse others of being. Sad, it is. I don’t reply to these kinds of emails. But I suppose they do provide fodder for general commentary.

So. For the record. I will certainly consider queries from outside the U.S. I will certainly consider debut novels. I am interested in a diverse reading experience which includes exploring cultures and perspective — old or new, even those that might initially seem alien-feeling to me. On nearly every agent panel I’ve participated in at conferences, one of the inevitable questions seems to be: “what are you looking for?” It’s a question I have struggled to find a more specific answer for but seem to come back to: Great stories that I also think I can sell. Because ultimately my goal is to get that story in a position to be read by as many people as possible.

Gentle reader, let me turn that around a bit — What about you? When you go looking for a novel, what are you looking for?

33 responses to “letters from the query wars 7/16/2010

  1. What I look for in a novel
    I’m looking for a great story that I can justify spending twelve bucks on.
    And, as for the knuckleheads that clutter up your in-box, I can’t help but encourage them to continue. They only make my hopefully sane query stand out all that much more.

  2. I am looking for what Longinus called “the sublime”. I want to find a story that is so moving, so affecting to me personally, has so much heart that I become so immersed in it I either (1) forget entirely that I am consuming some form of media and am not actually right there with the characters, and/or (2) feel like there is something indefinable missing once I finish viewing/reading/listening.
    I also have my very specific storytelling “kinks” for lack of a better term, that will make a work more or less likely to be the kind of thing I’d hope or expect to accomplish the former, of course. Those tend to be: strong and well-written female characters, ensemble casts, smart dialogue, at least some action, and high stakes.
    I’m a bit of a tough critic, as you might imagine.

  3. I just want to be entertained 🙂

  4. Lately? A known quantity. Books are too expensive and I have too little time to take a risk on something.

  5. A little of this, a little of that
    Sometimes I want escape (Dresden Files). Sometimes I want to be utterly engrossed (Ken Follett or Margaret Atwood). A truly good book will do both: sweep me up and take me away and put me back with a few new thoughts in my head or angles on my perspectives. Those are the kind of books I love, so they’re also the kind of books I try to write.

  6. What I look for in a novel
    My needs are simple: an engaging story that carries through to the end, one that mesmerizes me so I don’t have to force myself to keep reading because I paid for the book or an ARC where I’ve committed myself into doing a review.

  7. Something well-written and immersive. And I’ll know it when I see it. 😉
    I usually read the back of the book, and the first couple of pages to see if I like the writing. Also, I’m more inclined to buy on recommendation of people I know.
    This is why I don’t get too bent out of shape when my work is rejected. Everyone has their tastes, and with agents, it’s not just whether the book works for them, its whether they love it *and* they feel they can sell it. The stakes are higher.
    I have my own tastes, and I reject books all the time, just in a different context. If it doesn’t spark my interest and hold it there long enough, I don’t buy it.

    • I look randomly into the middle.

      • Random middle checks are my preference, too. Sometimes the first few chapters are highly polished but the rest isn’t.
        Also, if I can be caught up in a story when I don’t even know what the hell is going on, that’s a sign that the writer’s style and my brain match up very well.

  8. A great story!
    So great I hound my husband to either (a) finish the damn thing so I can read it next or (b) he needs to finish the damn thing so I can talk about the spoilers.
    I highly recommend the Dresden Files for couples’ therapy.
    Suzan H.

  9. Characters I can care about (not necessarily like, but it’s helpful) and writing that doesn’t make me want to roll my eyes. I’m not that picky, I will read cereal boxes if I don’t have something else, but characters I can care about will have me calling the local bookstore to see if they happen to be open at midnight or going online to see how fast I can get the next book.

  10. Adult-level SFF. Other than Dresden books, I find only Buffy knockoffs and simpering teenaged vampire lovers. Yii. Give us women something to sink our teeth into that isn’t blood!

  11. A great story that totally absorbs me. Often I want something that makes me think – a mystery to puzzle out, something unexpected and maybe twisted, thought-provoking ideas that linger. Other times I want to escape into worlds of adventure or into a subtle emotional journey.

  12. I’m always looking for (ya) stories that suck you in. That make it physically painful to put down the book. Books that have wit and humor and just a way of picking you up out of The Real World and bringing you into Their World. Make you feel for them. That’s the kind of book I’m looking for.

  13. In science fiction: I want stories about possible futures. I don’t want anything which makes me think the writer intends to Discuss The Important Problems of Our Time.
    For anything about war — sf, fantasy, historical, etc. — I want to get the feeling the writer has been there. In sf, if starships are supposed to be like ocean-going ships, I want to feel that the writer has been a sailor.
    I want governments to be realistic. For example, a fantasy government in a feudal society should not be an absolute monarchy. And it should not work as effectively in practice as 20th/21st century governments were advertised to work — at least, not without very powerful magic and a complete lack of dissident magicians.

  14. I want a story that glues my fingers in place and exerts a gravitational attraction on my nose.
    Or, to put it elsewise, I want an immersive story with an engaging narrative, and I want to care about the characters and to see them carry the story to a satisfying conclusion.
    Which…doesn’t narrow down very much besides quality, does it? If I were an agent, writers would be find me frustrating.

  15. I read many genres, but these days, mainly urban fantasy. So here are my criteria for that genre: Clever world-building with lots of cool stuff. Kick-ass heroine or hero: I’m okay with Mary-Sues or Marty-Stus, prefer the protagonist’s vulnerability to be emotional rather than practical. Even (or especially) if it’s gritty, humane. Action-oriented plot with a win at the end; a downer ending turns me off the author for good because I feel cheated.

  16. Strong writing, characters, plot, humour/sarcasm – I usually prefer the novel to have at least two of those. I’ve read things well apart my usual topic range because they were so well written 🙂
    I just need a novel that won’t let me go to sleep until I finished it or fell asleep on the book.

  17. I look for a story that catches me. This requires two things:
    1. A writing style that meshes with my brain. There are many fine books that I can’t read because the style is just more work than I want to deal with.
    I can get past a writing style if enough people urge me to, with promises that the book really is the sort that will appeal to me (most recent example: Anne Bishop’s Daughter of the Blood). It’s a question of my brain learning what the author’s doing. Some authors will never appeal to me (the Brontës), while others need a little time to worm their way in but are often my favorites thereafter (Shakespeare).
    2. A story that interests me. I need characters who are interesting (they don’t have to be “likable,” though that is better) trying to accomplish something that is not guaranteed to happen. Major bonus points if the setting is new and fresh, and materially plays into the characterization and plot.
    I’ve determined I read for the end of the book–I want to see how it all turns out. I love it when the ending has nasty surprises of the “Angel gets his soul back but Buffy has to kill him anyway” variety.

  18. I want a fresh story. I want a character with character. And I want a writer capable enough in his/her craft that I can learn something by reading (or at least be entertained and escape writing as work rather than get overwhelmed by all the flaws in the work).

    • I have been exceedingly disappointed in a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately. The character that already knows everything and must engage in the most ultimate mission or the character that already knows everything and mentors a like character that knows nothing is so standard as to have become boring. Where is imperfection? Where is personal growth? Where is the person that says, “I have an idea of what to do but I could be wrong”?
      I’m tired of the super-bad-ass character with an answer to everything.
      (I read predominantly fantasy and this kind of character isn’t new. The outsider learning his/her power is a standard of the genre, but sometimes it just feels like the author lacks any kind of self-esteem and has written a character that they wish they were.)
      So when I say a character with character, I want to read about a person with limitations and challenges.

      • I’m tired of the SBA too . . . I don’t mind such characters existing in the fantasy world, but I don’t want them to be the focus of the book. I don’t want to follow them around, and watch things unfold through their eyes. They’re just not interesting.
        I’m a fantasy reader as well, and SBAs seem to show up more often in that genre.

  19. What do I like?
    Characters that I can associate with. Characters that have flaws. There is not any real person that is completely good or completely evil. Every person is a shade of these too extremes. I write in the fantasy genre, and many people say that the genre has become static, nothing new, but I don’t believe that’s so. There are still amazing worlds out there for people to read about, writers just have to create characters that we care about. Characters that are so real that they almost become real to us and you imagine yourself living the journey with them. I find writers today tend to be generic. The trolls, elves, wizards, are never too different from Gandalf and other Lord of the Rings characters. Make a cacophony of characters that read as real, and I will want to read all the book.

  20. What do I look for in a novel?
    Oddly, I read this question then the celebration of Elizabeth Bear’s HAMMER…because I read it shortly after it came out. The age of the character intrigued me. Space and the future is populated by the young most of the time and here was someone my own age! Not a superdrone or an “extended life trillionaire”, but someone similar enough to me to grab me. And Canada? Growing up in MN, Canada has never been a “northern state of the US”. Looming as it does with a naked border and crossing over through intense checkpoints more than once in my life led me to believe deeply that Canada is a FOREIGN country. So: HAMMER drew me because it was a twist on my everyday life, connecting my here and now with a fascinating future. Julie Czerneda does the same for me as does David Brin. So…I look for a connection between my mundane present and the possibilities of a fascinating future.

  21. Queries
    Tell us–what do you “pour over” the queries while you pore over them?

  22. what am I looking for in a novel
    Sometimes I don’t know until I see it. Often, but not always, the first sentences sets me up. Still remember the catch in my breath when read the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
    Still remember starting One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch at the kitchen table at nine at night, and not moving except to make more cups of tea until I had finished.
    So much of what I look at in bookstores, despite the fact that quite obviously what I care about doesn’t matter as much as what masses of people will buy – vampire nonsense ad nauseum – seems so inconsequential.
    I’m rereading Raymond Chandlar this summer. Some of his best stuff is so solid, so substantial, that I want to take the three hundred and fifty thousand word cycling novel I’ve worked on for ten years and throw it in the trash along with the towel.
    I want something that will take my breath away. And again, most of the time, I know it when I see it.

  23. When you go looking for a novel, what are you looking for?
    Honestly, I’m looking for a twist, on the things I’ve seen before. I like discovering a new world, or realizing the one outside my window isn’t as tame as I thought.
    I want characters who are larger than life, but with a sense of reality, and flawed (and, often.. heroic, because of those flaws)
    When Im scouting for a totally new book, I usually start with the publishers who “usually” publish things I like.
    then, I find a title that catches my eyes (again, something unusual, preferably not some witticism(looking at you Kim)… not sure why those bug me).
    Next, I crack open the book somewhere in the middle, find a chapter heading and read a page or two, to see if I like the writing style.
    Lastly, I’ll open to the first page, and read the first paragraph.
    if it passes all those, I’ll give it a shot. I rarely end up with a book I don’t enjoy reading while it lasts.

  24. Things I am looking for in a novel:
    A protagonist about whom I care. Without at least one of these, nothing else will be enough. Note: care does not equal identify, and identify does not equal resemble demographically.
    A protagonist who takes intentional action. One of the reasons i hang in the genre ghetto and rarely venture out is the prevelance in mainstream fiction of entirely passive, reactive characters who bumble from one externally imposed situation to another doing not much. That’s not to say they can’t screw up royally. Just that I like them toat least try to do something on purpose.
    Decent writing. Great writing is, well, great, but decent writing is a requirement. I must not be thrown out of the story by obtrusive badness.
    Worldbuilding that makes sense. I prefer fascinating, layered, rich worlds that feel like the extend far past the edges of the page, but I’ll settle for something that doesn’t feel like you rolled it up in D&D or search replaced country for planet. As part of this, diversity of climate, economy, age, etc. Unless class stratification is a plot point, I don’t only want to see white engineers in their 30s.
    Theme, as well as plot. I enjoy a fast, plotty beach read as much as the next girl, but every book I have ever really loved had a strong theme and tone, not just lots of stuff happening.
    A subtle or non-existant Hand of God. I made this term up, because I don’t know what else to call the thing in books where the author’s worldview is so apparent that all the characters who share a particular political or religious mindset are always factually right or fortunate or both, while all the ones who disagree with them turn out to have severe character flaws. Being human, I find this much more obstrusive when the rewarded mindset is at odds with mine, but in an ideal world there will be worthy and unworthy characters on every side of the question.
    Related: No Mary Sues. By which I mostly mean characters who are universally beloved or perfect or both. I don’t know the author, so if its an authorial insertion I won’t be able to tell.
    Plot twists, if any, that work on rereading. In short stories I don’t care, but I’m a big rereader of novels, so I prefer ones that aren’t wholly dependent on the fake-out or element of surprise.
    Related: lack of unsurprising/cliched plot twists that were never surprising in the first place. I tend to put all “he was secretly a girl/she was secretly pregnant/the supposed artifact is ALIVE” in this category. All fine as story elements, just not surprising.
    Believeable relationships. Which, to me, means at least some people have lots of friends, and not all romances divide up into failed and soulmates. Not every true love has a happy ending. Good sex, or even true love, does not fix all emotional problems. Some people stay in touch with their exes. Some people are estranged from their birth families, and not just over Big, Lurid Abuse that will define their story arc.
    Then their are my personal narrative kinks: I like chosen families and bittersweet endings.

  25. I want someone who tells the truth. I want the characters to stumble and mutter, have bad breath, forget to shave (face or legs,) belch, whine, misspeak, forget, yell when they should whisper, laugh when they should cry, say the wrong thing, pay their bills late, clatter teeth instead of kiss, trip, fall, get up again, and otherwise be wholly human, then still, by the power of their will, and despite all their faults, triumph over the rotten circumstance that threatens to crush them and all they love.
    That’s not too much to ask, is it?

  26. Intelligent writing, a fresh voice, characters I love, and a story that whisks me away to another place.
    That combination of qualities is really rare.

  27. I want something that fits my needs at the moment: Sometimes that’s an action-packed thrill-ride, sometimes it’s detailed science fiction, other times a heartfelt story about the trials of everyday life. At all times, though, the author’s passion needs to show in the writing. I want to feel as strongly about the story as they did; I want to be intrigued by their writing and voice.

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