Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “Querying”

Genre Part III, MG, YA, NA and Other Things That aren’t Genre (Essential Categories Applied To Shelf Location)

As the title indicates, I’m acutely aware that the Middle Grade (“MG”) Young Adult (“YA”) and New Adult (“NA”) marketing/shelving categories are not genres. They are based on audience, not subject matter —to some extent, anyway. That differentiates them from genres, which are focused on the content of the books themselves. If you write to one of these categories, though these classifications are as important or more important than genre when it comes to querying. A large and growing number of agents list their interests in “MG and YA” terms instead of genre. While you also want to specify your book’s genre, if your science fiction is intended for ten-year-olds, you should mention that.

MG Versus YA in Broad Strokes:

The essential element here is the target reader. As a general rule, MG is for readers who have just graduated up from “chapter books” (the step above easy readers), which means seven- or eight-year-olds up to about eleven- or twelve-year-olds.  YA picks up from there, in theory, at least, being for eleven- or twelve-year-olds up to seventeen-year-olds.  That said, I was forty something when I read The Hunger Games and my youngest daughter read it when she was eight. But, for marketing purposes, those are the broad guidelines between the two.

It’s not an accident (or an insult) to qualify these as shelving and marketing categories. That’s the best starting point for understanding how they relate to your work. If you know who your target reader is, you know what category you are writing in. If you don’t know who your target reader is, you will have problems that extend beyond correctly identifying what marketing category you fit into. Where the Wild Things Are is one of my favorite books, and has been since I was about three. That said, I would not have enjoyed it when I was three if it had a complex plot and multiple inciting events, and I would not want to read a 100,000 word version of that book without a healthy dose of additional complexity.

I’m not saying MG should be dumbed down, by any stretch. I’m a firm believer in writing the best book you can, then figuring out where it fits. That said, you may realize the best fit requires a major revision (a literal one, a new vision of your book) when you are done, and discover your story with a fourteen-year-old protagonist would be most enticing to a ten-year-old reader. Those considerations, though, I’d strongly encourage you to look at in a rearview mirror, after the first draft is complete.

Nuts and Bolts Differences Between MG and YA

Everything here comes back to the same central question: Who is your reader? Once you know that, a number of differences in interest and ability will clarify what the content should look like. It’s important to note, this is a spectrum. Some books will clearly fall squarely within the bounds of one of these categories, and others may reach or straddle the edge. Arguably, the best books often do just that. Also, while I will list a set of characteristics, note that these are not rules. The protagonist in Life of Pi is a MG-aged child through the bulk of the narrative, but that does not make it a MG book.

The general differences between the categories are:

MG

  • Age of the characters, particularly the protagonist (this is a defining characteristic for all of these categories). Readers want to read about people their own age or slightly older.
  • Length.  Few (but some) MG novels are longer than 100 pages.
  • More outwardly focused. The character responds to things that happen, instead of growing as an individual.
  • Sentence structure and vocabulary should not be dumbed down, but should reflect the reading audience.
  • There is usually a single inciting event.  Meaning plot structure itself is not particularly complex. The world is a sane, predictable place until A THING happens to upset the status quo.
  • Kissing is still gross. Romance is typically not an element.
  • Very limited use of literary devices.  MG worlds are concrete worlds, not built of metaphor. MG cigars are always just cigars.
  • Stakes – YOU STILL NEED THEM. This is not a difference, but I am including it because in my research, I found a number of agents complaining that writers seem to confuse the simple world with a lack of compelling stakes. Two agents separately listed this as the most common mistake they see in submissions.

YA

  • More inwardly focused character development. Much of the angst in a YA novel can come from within a character — precisely the type being experienced by teenage readers themselves.
  • Romance is often an element.  Kissing is not gross, and when you’re looking for angst, what better place to find it?
  • The world is a weird and scary place. That single inciting event from MG is turned on its head somewhat – the world is a complex place, and finding one’s place in it is no simple task.
  • Complexity in the text is okay. The language and sentence structure can, and should be, be more complex than MG.
  • Complexity in theme is okay, too.  You may not want to start whipping out too many metaphorical cigars until you get to “edgy YA” or NA, but more complex literary elements and symbolism are healthy.

While a huge category in its own right, YA is a bridge between simpler books with less complex themes and structure (i.e., books appropriate for a ten-year-old) and adult commercial or literary fiction. The middle ground occupied by “edgy YA” and NA have little to do with that literary distinction, and more to do with sex, drugs, abuse, and other, touchier subjects.

“Edgy YA”

I am including this because it’s a worthwhile warning label. YA books can address adult themes. Kids find themselves in all sorts of situations that we parents might like to wish they never even knew existed. Some writers and agents have taken to adding the word “edgy” to the YA label to separate the types of situations Beaver Cleaver found himself in at sixteen from those Justin Bieber found himself in at sixteen.

NA

Looking at the titles that are actively marketed this way, I think this category could be more accurately called “Young Romance.”

Technically, the characters ages (particularly the protagonist) are key, as are moving out into the real world (or college, which people that age are inexperienced enough to confuse with the real world). That said, a book about a young marine who moves out into the real world by getting into a firefight in Afghanistan on his nineteenth birthday is unlikely to show up in this category.

What does it all mean?

It means what you decide it does. As I said at the beginning, we are dealing with a spectrum, and a great book is likely to stray over lines in the course of becoming great. Harry Potter worked so well precisely because the books had themes that transcended MG and even YA concepts, blurred the hell out of and then blatantly crossed over the dividing lines between categories, and challenged readers. But, as long as librarians and bookstores want to shelve this way and publishers want to market this way, agents will need to approach them this way. Plus, I don’t think you can ever go wrong stopping to put yourself in the reader’s shoes, which is all this really boils down to.

A Real Genre List for Fiction Queries (Or: You can Easily Navigate all this Jargon and Nonsense)

I found and fell in love with my local library during a summer reading program when I was six years old. The first day, they showed us the nonfiction section  with its beautiful Dewey Decimal System. It was like music to my little “algebra brain” ears –so clean and orderly, so wonderfully efficient. An entire system dedicated to helping me find the exact book I wanted:

700s           Arts & Recreation

796             Athletic and outdoor sports

796.5          Outdoor life

796.54        Camping

796.545      Camping Games & Activities

I arrived the next day, giddy at the thought of seeing how the nonfiction section’s beautiful sister—fiction—would be organized. I envisioned something similar. Maybe: Adventure, danger, villains, historical villains, pirates.

What I got was a three-word lecture: “Author’s last name.”

I raised my hand, and when the librarian called on me, I asked:

Image

I doubt those were my exact words, since I wasn’t sent home, but that was the gist of my question. And this was a small town library in Idaho in the 1970s, which hadn’t even divided itself into broad genre categories the way libraries currently do. The non-genre marketing categories based on age, like Young Adult, Middle Grade, and New Adult weren’t even a thing, beyond there being a children’s section and an adult section. Eventually, the librarian showed me the card catalog and taught me how to search by subject and the kind of book I wanted, which–although I didn’t know it at the time–was my introduction to the concept of genre.

SO WHAT IS GENRE?

I think it helps to think of genre, when querying agents, as something akin to a Dewey Decimal system for fiction. There is a broad umbrella category, for example, commercial fiction. That’s fine, but it also narrows the field down to about 80% of all books sold, so it’s nearly useless as a classification in itself. From there, though, we have a few options. How to use those options to best market yourself is the topic of the next post, but suffice it to say an agent who reps a lot of legal thriller writers may be more interested in your commercial fiction if you specify that it’s fast-paced commercial fiction that unfolds in a courtroom.

The point behind this post, though, is to provide a reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process. So, without further ado, here is…

A reasonably complete list of genre classifications that writers can consult during the querying process

  • Action & Adventure
  • African American to Zambian American (Frankly, while the drive for diversity makes this classification relevant, you may want to consider using the book description in the blurb portion of the query to cover this aspect. In either event, I would strongly recommend at least stating the narrative-based genre [whatever else on this list the book really is] in conjunction with this—So it’s a Hispanic American Space Opera, not just a Hispanic American novel)
  • Alternate/Alternative History
  • Biographical (Not to be confused with a biography)
  • Black Humor
  • Coming of Age (While this is a generally recognized category, this is also something I would make obvious in the blurb and not identify as a genre, because it’s a kiss of death to some agents)
  • Commercial Fiction (Another super-broad category, but the content of the blurb should provide the necessary clarification)
  • Crime
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Dystopian
  • Erotica
  • Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology (including new takes on Tall Tales)
  • Family Life
  • Fantasy (This is a huge category, and I would strongly recommend adding a more specific qualifier, like urban, dark, epic, historical, paranormal, etc.)
  • Gothic
  • Historical
  • Holiday
  • Horror
  • Humorous
  • LBGTQ (Let’s face it, though, there is no hetero normative category, so this shouldn’t try to stand on its own, either. This is another place I would strongly recommend finding the genre within the story’s narrative and adding that, because an LBGTQ epic fantasy and an LBGTQ legal thriller are not the same thing just because the protag isn’t hetero).
  • Legal
  • Literary
  • Magical Realism (As a purely personal aside, I recently developed a strong fondness for this category)
  • Medical
  • Mystery & Detective (This can work as a straight genre, but look to see if you fall into one of the genre-specific sub categories, like hard-boiled or cozy, which are essentially opposites, noir, police procedural, international, etc., or if another broad genre applies, such as historical or romance or whatever)
  • Occult & Supernatural
  • Outdoors (This does not show up as a genre on the multitude of lists I consulted putting this list together, but there are some publishers—like the Lyons Press imprint of Globe Pequot—that specialize in this category. Plus I’m an outdoorsman, some of the most wonderful experiences of my life happened in the outdoors, and it’s my freaking list. So here it is)
  • Political
  • Psychological
  • Religious (See the discussion under African American, above. At minimum, identify the narrative genre in conjunction with the religion—an Amish Technothriler is not the same thing as a hard-boiled Buddhist mystery).
  • Romance (Also often blended with another genre, such as historical or humorous)
  • Sagas
  • Satire (I’ll tell you from experience—I write satire, and it’s clear from the first paragraph I have a decidedly satirical bent to my perspective—my request rate in queries using the “S-word” is zero, which makes me think there is a bias against this, conceptually, even if the work itself passes muster).
  • Science (I’m listing this as a separate category from Science Fiction, even though we’re discussing fiction about science. This genre specifies novels with hard science at their core, which means a more descriptive genre or very clear statement in the blurb is required).
  • Science Fiction (Another huge category, ranging from soft (ten years from now, procreating through cloning is popular, but we still use smartphones) to hard (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”) with about a thousand subgenres between.
  • Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Clean, Safe, Renewable Green Energypunk, Biopunk, Splatterpunk, Dieselpunk, etc.)
  • Short Stories (If you’re querying this, good luck)
  • Speculative Fiction
  • Sports
  • Superheroes
  • Thrillers (Again, a more plot/story specific tie-in is probably advisable: Crime, Spy, Historical, Political, Military, Medical, etc.)
  • Urban
  • Upmarket (Some people think this term is dated, although I’ve seen it on several agent genre listings. This is in the gray area where a plot-driven narrative with literary language usage [which DOESN’T FUCKING MEAN FLOWERY LANGUAGE] is in the blend together in a space between commercial and literary fiction).
  • Visionary & Metaphysical (if you wondered why Paranormal didn’t show up in the “P”s, this is why)
  • Westerns (similar to mysteries, a more specific classification would likely help)

 

This list is not exhaustive, and I have intentionally omitted several literary subgenres (e.g., Absurdist fiction, Literary nonsense, Picaresque novel, Experimental fiction, Metafiction) that I am quite fond of, but that will almost certainly never see the light of day through the cold querying process. I’ve also left off age and audience based subcategories, such as YA, NA, and MG, because those are not literary genres. They do, however, relate to use of classifications for marketing purposes, which I will discuss in my next post. I omitted the blatant author/audience based categories (like vile classifications “women’s fiction” or “chick lit”) because I find them offensive and counterproductive. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, it simply means I have no interest in perpetuating them.

Identifying the genre or genres your book falls into is a step in the right direction. But, for our purposes, it is only the first step. The real trick is using genre as a marketing tool in your query. Which is what we will cover next.

Author’s Note and Request to Readers

My goal with this list is to be helpful, and I consulted scores of other genre lists and agent genre listings to compile it. But I am far more interested in being right than I am in thinking I’m right. If I missed something, I would greatly appreciate a comment telling me that. It may be something I have omitted on purpose and for a reason (this post would more than double in size and be far less user-friendly if I explained the decision making process behind every item). If so, a discussion in the comments would be a wonderful annex to this list (or you may convince me I shouldn’t have omitted it, and I’ll amend the list). I may have just left something off, too. And, as my critique partners can tell you, my standard response to showing me I’ve done something wrong is to like you more and fix the screw-up. The point is, I take criticism ridiculously well, so if you see a way to make this list better, FREAKING TELL ME.

Thanks. Next post, we’ll put this list to use.

The Twelve Steps of Querying

1. We admitted we were powerless over querying—that our e-mail checking, agent stalking, and panicked response to calls from another area code had become unmanageable.
2. Realized that we have no freaking power over what agents do, starting the moment after we click “send.”
3. Made a decision to turn our first 50 pages over to an agent, hoping like hell she understands them.
4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of our internet presence and platform.
5. Found out from our CP, our betas, and another form rejection the exact nature of our manuscript’s problems.
6. Were one more form rejection away from saying “screw it,” deleting the whole thing and removing all the defective characters.
7. Humbly edited to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all agents we had queried, and became willing to nudge them all.
9. Sent fulls to such people wherever possible, except when they didn’t ask for them, which was most of the time.
10. Continued to stalk agents on the internet, and when we were rejected, promptly revenge queried.
11. Prayed, meditated, used a Ouija Board, called the psychic hotline, wore our “lucky querying socks” and did everything else we could think of to try to understand this process, praying only for a “revise & resubmit” from an A-list agent and the power to carry that out.
12. In order to keep from going insane as the result of this process, we bitch and moan to other querying writers, who practice these principles in all of their queries.

The Trouble with Prologues

This should really be a five word blog post:

Prologues are trickier than shit.

The end.

Notice there’s no advice. The second rule in Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing is “Avoid Prologues.” At first this sounds like Mr. Leonard is telling us not to use prologues. Until you realize that the Rule 1 and Rule 3 don’t start with the word “avoid.” They start with the word “never.”

Avoid means steer clear of, think twice about, shy away from. Never means, well, never. Ever. Not even once. That’s a big difference. Particularly when Mr. Leonard’s comments about that rule consist largely of a brilliant example of someone (well, not someone, John Fucking Steinbeck) using a prologue.

From a pure writing standpoint, the answer is probably this: If you really know what you are doing and execute correctly, there’s nothing wrong with having a prologue. But remember, prologues are trickier than shit.

So tricky, in fact, I think writers who don’t already have a publishing (by which I mean novels) track record need to avoid them if at all possible.

The Real Problem with Prologues for Querying Writers

I think the entire prologue situation (both the problem itself and the extent to which writers exaggerate that problem) was summed up beautifully by Angela James, an editor for Carina Press (a Harlequin digital first imprint). She said:

Of course, I’m an editor, and if you’ve heard it once you’ve probably heard it from an editor or agent: we’re not always fans of prologues. I think this has morphed into authors saying that we HATE prologues, but that’s not true. What’s true is this: we see a lot of stories come through our slush pile that start with prologues, and 9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.

I’m willing to bet she speaks for virtually every agent and editor in the business when she says it begins – and ends – with “We’re not always fans of prologues.”

That’s far from “never do it or you will immediately burst into flames and the souls of your loved ones will be doomed for all eternity,” which is how a LOT of writers tend to treat the issue. Still, it’s a really good idea to avoid them if you can.

Why other people’s prologues suck (not yours, I’m sure yours is wonderful)

Prologue problems come in two flavors: Problems with the prologue itself (which we will call problems with other people’s prologues, because, seriously, I’m sure yours is wonderful) and problems intrinsic to having and querying a novel with a prologue (which we will call the real problems with having a prologue).

Problems with Other People’s Prologues:

  1. They are often used as info dumps, with all the attendant problems of info dumps.
  2. One of the most common agent/publisher complaints about beginner novelists is that they start the novel two or three chapters too early, before the story really gets going. A prologue adds a fourth chapter of “too soon.”
  3. Readers imprint on the first MC they meet, like baby ducks imprint on the first thing they see and follow it around assuming it’s their mama. The prologue MC usually isn’t the book MC, so readers feel cheated when you switch to your real MC.
  4. Many readers skip them, which means they need to literally be prologues — the story needs to stand on it’s own, completely independently from the prologue. So, by definition, it has to be extra stuff.
  5. If it’s not an info dump, it’s probably backstory, and backstory is generally a very bad way to start a novel.
  6. Compared to working the prologue information in through flashbacks or directly through the narrative, a prologue is an easy way to get it out there (which is why the info dump/backstory concerns are so valid).
  7. Chapter One has to manage to introduce characters and setting and lay a lot of groundwork for a story. That’s hard to do without being boring. Some people use prologues to throw something exciting on the table first, in an attempt to “hook” the reader. I think this fails. It comes off as a gimmick, then you leave the reader with your boring Chapter One (possibly more boring, since you think you’ve taken the pressure off) and the reader goes from exciting prologue to boring chapter and thinks “the first real chapter of this book sucks.” It’s like having a date show up in a Ferrari but then having him drive you to Taco Bell.

There are certainly more, but that gives a decent idea of why, as Ms. James put it, “9 out of 10 times, they’re not necessary.” Worse than not necessary, the things those other writers are trying to do through the prologue – provide backstory and worldbuild, start with something interesting, etc., are the things that separate great writers from the good. Great writers build incredible worlds and provide deep, rich backstories throughout the narrative core of their books.

The Real Problems with Having a Prologue

The real problem with having a prologue, even if it’s both necessary and brilliant, is: Seriously, prologues are trickier than shit.

For starters, they present logistical problems. You’re ready to query and the agent you are querying asked for the first three pages or your first chapter or whatever. Does that mean your prologue, or Chapter One?

According to literary agent extraordinaire, Janet Reid a/k/a the Query Shark, “your first five pages” or “first chapter” obviously means the first part of the novel, not your prologue:

The five pages you attached don’t mention either character or any of the plot you cover in the query letter. It’s as though you sent five pages that have nothing to do with this query.

That’s one of the (many) problems with prologues. When you query with pages, start with chapter one, page one. Leave OUT the prologue.

Nathan Bransford, on the other hand, says that “first 30 pages” obviously means the first 30 pages that are part of your book:

I want to see the first 30 pages as you want me to send them to the editor. If that involves a prologue… let’s see it.

Oops. Those are agents (well, in Nathan’s case, now an ex-agent) who blog a lot about what they expect and want to see, and the advice is diametrically opposed. If I had to guess, I’d say more agents probably agree with Nathan, but that’s a guess. I doubt Janet is completely out in left field, so it’s safe to assume a significant portion of agents agree with her take as well. Either way, having a prologue puts you in a potential “fucked if you do, shitfucked if you don’t” situation.

There’s also the problem of Pavlov’s agent (or, worse, reader). Imagine having 200 queries and sample pages to wade through in a day. Ten of those had prologues, and all ten treated you to boring-ass worldbuilding, backstory info dumps. You open your 200th query, and discover it’s the eleventh to start with the word “Prologue.” At this point, you expect it to suck. There’s a 90% chance you’ll be right. You’ve been conditioned to expect it to suck. Maybe even conditioned to think it sucks.

It’s not your prologue’s fault. It those ten other, stupid, needless prologues that came before it. But you’ve been tainted by association. Now, at best, the reader is looking to see how much of an info dumpy, backstory filled piece of shit your prologue is, not objectively looking at how good or bad it is. Prejudice is an ugly thing, but it’s also a real thing.

The Bottom Line on Prologues?

In this case, it’s also the top line. Prologues are trickier than shit. If possible, you should avoid having one. I don’t think agent’s and editors hate them, I don’t even think most readers skip them (although I’d bet that’s more of an issue with YA readers, for example, than with lit fiction readers). But I do think they bring a host of new problems to the party, even if they don’t suffer from the problems that are endemic to prologues generally.

Put differently, there is the way you dress for a job interview, the way you dress on your first day of work, and the way you dress when you’ve been working the same job for a few years. Prologues are a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Even if that’s how you’ll be showing up down the line, right now you’re interviewing and it’s probably best to clean things up for one day. It certainly won’t hurt.

UNLESS, you absolutely understand exactly what I’m saying here, see the problems, are positive you aren’t providing background, worldbuidling, info dumping, garbage, and know that your story really, really needs a prologue for a very specific reason that can’t be handled through the body of your narrative.

Because there are some jobs – lifeguard, surf/snowboard/skateboard sales, marijuana dispensary clerk and/or gardener – where you just look like a douche showing up for the interview in a suit.

Or, to summarize through the miracle of meme generation:

Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 2: How You Send It.

A couple of worthwhile SNAIL MAIL NOTES here:

1)    I’m assuming you now have a properly formatted, awesomely written query letter (if not, check the archives, because this stuff doesn’t matter yet).

2)    If you are sending it via snail-mail, you need to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). An important thing to remember, here, is that the second “S” in SASE is stamped. If you want to hear back, it’s on your dime (well, couple of quarters). If you want to score a couple of bonus points with the assistant, make it one of those envelopes you don’t have to lick. Do it out of human decency, if nothing else. Can you imaging licking 50 things complete strangers sent you in the mail every day?

3)    Because your SASE is going to be the same size as a business envelope (exactly the same size, since it is one) you don’t want to try to cram it with your letter and your pages or whatever into a business-size envelope. Send this shit by UPS Ground or Fed Ex or (the standard approach) US Postal Service Priority Mail. It’s a big cardboardish envelope that lets you send everything without folding. Your pages and letter and even your envelope show up looking all crisp and neat. On top of that, they are super easy to open and get the pages out of. Believe it or not, that makes a difference if you’re an assistant who has to open 50 or 100 envelopes a day. Not coincidentally, that’s the same assistant who, as often as not, will be the first level of screening for the agent. So why the hell wouldn’t you want to be as nice to her as you can? A nice, easy to open envelope with crisp clean pages and nothing that yells, “lick this, bitch” when she sees it – can’t hurt.

4)    Any Pages or synopsis will need to follow the standard formatting requirements (the subject of the next post). This is a key difference between e-mail and snail-mail submissions. Your first 50 pages will be the first 50 pages of a completed and formatted manuscript (including, but not counting, your cover page).

5)    If you want your pages back, you need to include the extra postage (and a proper envelope) for that. Otherwise, just give them a normal envelope with enough postage to cover a standard first-class letter telling you your pages are awesome and they are writing to confirm the telephone call you just had, in which you agreed to send your entire manuscript ASAP. Or a rejection, but let’s think positive thoughts.

6)    If the agent asks for your first 50 pages and a 3-page synopsis, you include your query on top, the first 50 pages and a 3-page synopsis. If, on the other hand, the agent requests a 3-page synopsis and your first 50 pages, you include your query on top, a 3-page synopsis, and the first 50 pages. See the difference? It’s subtle. For an assistant ripping through 65 queries in a day, just making sure people sent the right shit is a big part of the job. Making that job easier (a) is the decent thing to do; and (b) helps make a good impression.

7) THANK YOU BOWDEN for pointing out my failure to include this: Do not send things to agents that they have to sign for. No certified mail. You’re not just going to get a return receipt back, you’ll get the whole thing back, because they won’t sign for it. With tracking, you can know exactly what’s up with your package via the interwebs, anyway, so DO NOT DO THAT. It’s the snail-mail equivalent of sending an e-mail with an attachment. Either way, it’s not getting opened.

On the E-MAIL END OF THINGS:

1)    Queries are our introductions to agents. Among other things, that means that agents don’t know who the hell we are when we send them. We know we aren’t trying to infect the agent’s computer with a virus to get hold of her banking information, but she doesn’t know that. Agents will not open attachments. It’s not their fault, can you imagine randomly opening attachments on every piece of spam your computer received? It’s the computer equivalent of licking 50 things that came in the mail from strangers. Eventually, they will open attachments to e-mails. That’s when you sent your stuff, the agent liked your stuff, and the agent sent you an e-mail asking for more stuff (usually asking you to send said stuff to a different e-mail address). If you send an e-mail with an attachment, it will be deleted before anyone even opens the e-mail. It will usually be deleted without a human being involved in the process. There is no faster way to get a non-response/rejection than to send an e-mail with an attachment.

2)    That means you need to cut and paste the requested materials into the body of your e-mail. Following your query letter (including your contact information, which should be at the bottom of the query, not at the bottom of the whole submission. It also means things like headers, page numbers, and all the manuscript formatting shit I’m talking about next post will be thrown out the window (except for line spacing).

3)    Raise your hand and repeat after me: The less formatting, the better. Your words are what matter. The goal here is to stop anything from getting in their way. The industry standard is Times New Roman 12 point font. Nobody is going to reject your query because you use Cambria, and nobody is going to bother reading your query if you use Windings. If you think your stupid font is Attention getting, you’re right. It just brought attention to the fact that you look like an idiot. It also took the attention away from your words, probably permanently.

4)    E-mail can be weird. The receiving e-mail and sending e-mail don’t always get along great, and once in a while, what was sent as something that had been bolded is received as something in a tiny font or whatever. In a paranoid, belt and suspenders kind of way, to make sure I don’t have any stupid codes lurking in the middle of a document from an old version when I cut and paste into the e-mail, I cut and paste into a Notepad file. Those are bare-bones, text only files that don’t include formatting. Usually, not what you’re looking for. But in this case, they work as a great scrubber to get rid of any hidden formatting you may have forgotten about. StripMail is a great program for this as well.

5)    The same rule applies here with respect to what order you put things in. Agents decided that this would come before that on the checklist for a reason. Maybe some would rather read a few paragraphs or pages before looking at the synopsis. Others may be more interested in knowing the big-picture before worrying about your sentence structure. Either way, it’s her call. Put things in the order they were requested. If nothing else, you are easier to get right on a checklist.

6)    Because of the runon nature of e-mail (all being one big page) I like to separate things like this:

Dear Agent:

Here is my awesome query letter.

I enclosed all the shit you asked for.

My name.

Contact information.

VELVET FALLS, CHAPTERS 1-3

1.

My first awesome chapter (and then her two friends).

***End Chapter 3***

VELVET FALLS, SYNOPSIS

Here is where I synopsize my book.

***End of Synopsis***

7)    Single space your query, double space your pages, and double space your synopsis if it is over one page long. If the synopsis is one page, single space (with block paragraphs) the synopsis.

Next, we’ll get into the structure and format of your submitted materials (manuscript, outline, synopsis, and firstborn child).

Nuts and Bolts of Formatting Your Query (and the shit that goes with it) Part 1: Query Letter Format.

I’m a little bit tardy posting this. I have the best excuse a writer can have — I was writing my ass off. I gutted (by which I mean deleted to start from scratch) a third of my manuscript. It took a over a month, but there is a new, much better third now in there. The past week has been a writing frenzy, and it’s been awesome. But that’s a story for another post (and one that will come quite shortly, possibly even today).

But, as promised, this series is about formatting your query (and the shit that goes with your query). To the extent I can put anything on paper without being a little bit of a smartass, I will. This needs to be a reference post that you can refer to conveniently. In fact, to make this as convenient as possible, I boiled the entire post into a simple chart:

Image

OK, the don’t be a smartass thing might not be working out as well as I’d hoped. But there’s a reason to joke around here. This shit is simple. So lets get to it.

A Quick Overview of the Types of Materials Requested.

  • Your query letter (obviously)
  • Pages (usually, and everyone asks for a different number of pages or chapters, so pay attention)
  • Synopsis (sometimes)
  • Outline (different from a synopsis and less often requested, more on this later)

That’s it. Until, that is, an agent requests your partial of full manuscript. Also, sometimes one of the items identified above, which was not requested in the agent’s submission guidelines, is also requested. For example, an outline is requested along with your manuscript. Plus, you need to send another letter (cover letter) with your requested materials. That one’s easy, though, once you know the basic query/business letter format.

The overwhelming majority of agents take submissions by e-mail, which is more convenient and easier for everybody. Some agents still require snail mail submissions, though, and an e-mail sub will be deleted — probably without ever being seen by a human. Because of that, I’ll run down the formatting requirements for each. Today, we’re starting with the delivery system for all of it.

Snail Mail Query Letter Format

A query letter should follow standard business letter formatting. That is because it’s a freaking business letter. If you don’t know what that means, Google it, because someone has probably dedicated an entire blog to the ins and outs of business letter formatting. It’s not rocket surgery, though.

Before going straight to the formatting thing, I want to reiterate one point: It’s a freaking business letter. Remember that. You are trying to establish a business relationship, not a friendship. You are not looking for someone to share your love for a book like it’s your child. You are looking for someone to place your book like it’s the most expensive prostitute on the planet. If there’s love involved, it’s mercenary love. Be professional.

In terms of format, it’s easiest to start with a snail mail letter, because it’s, well, a letter. It should look something like this:

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If you can’t read all the shit in the middle, don’t worry. It’s what every other post I’ve done about querying covers.

Just make sure to put (normally right justified) your name (your real, big-girl name, not a nickname or something stupid) address, phone number, and e-mail address (again, if you need to set up a gmail not to have a stupid e-mail, do, but don’t be SparklyUnicorn6@mylittlepony.org or freak_on_a_leash@whipme.net or anything). Then a blank line. Next, the Agent’s name, then agency name, street address, city state, zip. Hard return, centered date, Hard return, RE: TITLE OF YOUR BOOK (in all caps), and the salutation.

The salutation is “Mr. ________” or “Ms. __________,” and I’m serious about getting this right. I cannot count the number of times agents have said they’re tired of people calling them by the wrong gender. And I’m not talking about people named Pat here, either. If the agent’s name is Janet, it’s probably a woman. More to the point, if you honestly don’t know whether the person your querying is a man or a woman, you probably aren’t paying much attention to who you’re querying, period. Pay attention, know who you’re querying, and get it right.

As an aside, I queried an agent whose assistant responded on his behalf with a request for a manuscript. The assistant had a name that is usually a men’s name, but can also sometimes be a woman’s name. I scoured the interwebz for a picture of this person or something, and came up empty. My guess is s/he is in the witness protection program. Anyhow, in that situation, I defaulted to sending my requested materials to Dear [First Name] [Last Name].

Next, spell the name correctly. I’ll be honest here, there are agents out there with some pretty fucked up names. When in doubt, cut and paste from her website into your letter. Seriously.

Then comes the body of the text, i.e., the part every other post about querying has discussed in nauseating detail.

if you want, you can include a closing  salutation (“sincerely,”) above your name. No matter what, you need a line where you sign and your printed name. Then you sign on the line. Easy.

E-mail Query Letter Format

This is even easier:

1) Wait to type the agent’s name into the To: box until you have done everything else. It will keep you from accidentally sending it, which CAN HAPPEN. I just started a list of things to do by telling you not to do something. That’s because it’s really important that you DON’T DO THAT.

2) The subject line in the e-mail should be identical to the subject line in the snail mail version. RE: QUERY [TITLE]. The only time to putanything different in your subject line is if you do those contests and festivals and whatever on twitter or a blog. Sometimes you will receive specific instructions relating to that contest. Generally, those instructions relate to adding one or two words to the standard subject line.

You can skip your information (for now) and the agent’s address, etc., and get right to

Ms. Agent:

Here is the body of my query.

You don’t need the formal formatting and address because the date and stuff is built into e-mail.

3) BUT, (he says, with a bold, italicized, all-caps conjunction, because it’s that freaking important) You do need to include your full name, phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of the query (not the bottom of the whole package you send).

So, after 200-300 words of pure brilliance, the query letter portion of your submission should end with:

  • Your Name, which is not a douchey nickname
  • Your Phone Number (including area code and country code if you’re in Queriers Without Borders).
  • Your e-mail address (that involves your name and an ISP or reasonably good e-mail service and doesn’t make you look like an idiot).

For the query letter part, that’s it!

Predators & Editors Will Survive Dave Kuzminski’s Passing

This is just a short informational note / update on P&E.

If you follow me, you know that P&E is an extremely valuable resource to querying writers, basically working as a free CSI Miami keeping track of predatory scum on behalf of all of us. No agent should be queried before you run him or her through P&E.

Sadly, Dave Kuzminski, the person behind P&E passed away recently. There was significant concern that P&E may not live on without him. I found out tonight (thank you Maia) that Andrew Burt from the Critters Writers’ Workshop has taken over, and will be running the site now. So P&E will live on.

Please Note:

The address for P&E will now be http://pred-ed.com/

My sincere thanks to Andrew Burt, and all of our thoughts go out to Dave’s family.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming…

Of David Lee Roth, Brown M&Ms, and Querying

I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing about how to construct an effective query. If you’ve been reading along, you probably noticed that the overriding theme in those posts, usually bolded, has been: As soon as an agent reads your first sentence, your query has done its job. Aside from containing your contact information, it has served its purpose.

“I’ll see your used-up query and raise you an irrelevant one.” I have heard (though, to be honest, I’m not sure I entirely believe) that some agents don’t even read queries. They request your first five or 50 pages or first three chapters or whatever and skip right to those. My guess is, some agents may read a paragraph or two to see if you are reasonably competent at writing. If you are, I’d be willing to bet they take a quick glance through your query to see if they are likely to be interested in what you wrote. Ignoring the query altogether would seem both incredibly inefficient (most queries get rejected in ten to thirty seconds) and prone to serious errors (Harry Potter was not playing quidditch on the first five pages, and it takes a couple of pages for a good zombie virus to spread).

What I will agree with, though, is that whether the query is read or not, it’s merely foreplay. Given the choice between sending a magnificent chapter with a mediocre query or vice verse, I’ll take the great chapter any day. Plus, all of your queries are (or are becoming) awesome, anyway, so it’s time to dim the lights, put on some romantic music (or Smack That by Eminem, if that’s how you roll) and show what we’ve got.

But, before we get to how to show them, we need to talk about what we show them.

This one is easy: You include whatever the hell they asked you to include. Meaning you go to the agent’s website and look at the submission guidelines and follow them. Odds are, if you’re following a blog on this stuff, or even got here by Googling it, you didn’t even need to be told that. Let’s just call this post a victory lap, because I’ve seen agents claim that half of all submissions are easily rejected because they didn’t follow the submission guidelines.

If you haven’t been through this stage yet, I’ll give you a preview based on my own, limited query experience. This is unscientific (to the point I’m sure it’s inaccurate as hell if you aren’t querying agents who rep upmarket contemporary) but it demonstrates the variance within this group. The various submission guidelines from my first 10 queries requested that I submit:

  • Synopsis and first three chapters.
  • First five pages
  • First chapter
  • Two chapters
  • Synopsis and first 50 pages
  • First chapter and synopsis
  • Query letter only

In other words, who the hell knows what they’re going to want. Ten queries – three wanted a query letter only, two wanted the first two chapters, and each of the remainder was unique. That’s why we read submission guidelines. That, and because of the brown M&Ms.

Which begs the question: What the hell does any of this have to do with brown M&Ms?

Remember the turbo 80’s hair band Van Halen? I do, because they actually played the dink little town I grew up in. They had a brilliant marketing strategy, based on playing shit little towns and underappreciated (which is to say, crappy) venues. They were also the poster-children for SEX, DRUGS, & ROCK & ROLL, BABY! Witnesseth:

image

Van Halen: The bad boys of rock and hairspray.

Legendary hard-core partiers, so spoiled, or addled by drugs and booze, that they actually demanded that their dressing room have a big bowl full of M&Ms waiting for them. Here’s the catch, their contract actually specified that there could not be a single brown M&M in the bowl.

Spoiled rock star prima donnas? Try freaking geniuses.

Their sets were huge – more than a dozen eighteen wheelers worth – and the technical requirements for their equipment were taxing and precise. Plus, we’re talking about electrical wiring, not something you goof around with. Every word was spelled out in the contract, but they still needed to know whether the event promoter and person running the venue were paying attention to every detail of the contract. If a brown M&M showed up in that bowl, they knew their tech guys would have to run a line-check of the entire production. A line check that would inevitably show inadequate amperage, sockets in the wrong place, not enough breakers, or some other technical error.

So that’s what our submissions have in common with M&Ms. An agent can tell a lot from the fact that you sent three chapters plus a synopsis with your query letter. If she asked for those things, she knows that you paid attention to the request, which means this is not a generic query going out to 100 agents simultaneously. She also knows you are reasonably competent as a potential business partner, or at least capable of following simple directions. Also, you can’t be too lazy, because you found out what she wanted and gave it to her. [On a side note, I think I just came full circle on that sex analogy from above].

In other words, no brown M&Ms.

On the other side of the coin, if you sent her the same thing, but she only asked for your first five pages, she knows: (a) this is a generic query you are sending to every agent with a pulse; or (b) you are not smart enough to follow simple directions; or (c) you are lazy. I doubt if she cares which of those things it is or if it’s all of the above.

Brown M&Ms – and you just took two giant steps away from being someone who would be awesome to do business with.

Well, not “you” literally because you are the kind of person who reads blogs about how not to screw this shit up. So what I have to offer you (other than a bunch of sexual innuendo and an awesome story about an 80s hair band – I mean, seriously, who else is working that shit into a blog post on querying) are two key thoughts:

1.     See the brown M&M requests for what they are. This isn’t something that should be frustrating during the query process. In fact, it should make you smile. Half the people competing for the agent’s attention are going to go home without hearing Hot for Teacher and have no clue why. It’s a secret handshake, be glad you know it.
2.     Be prepared to pick all the brown M&Ms out of another bag. Those three “query letter only” agents I queried responded with a partial request, a partial and synopsis request, and a full request. In other words, they wanted a fresh bowl of M&Ms. Even if nobody you are querying asks for a synopsis up front, you should still have one. It goes without saying, you should have a completed (and awesome) manuscript ready to go before sending out your first query. And those things should be formatted correctly.  [Spoiler alert, my next post will have the word “format” in it].

One last bit of context. If agents risked electrocution when we did things outside of spec in our submissions, they would be as picky about them as David Lee Roth was about his M&Ms. But they don’t, so they aren’t. If a chapter ends on the 51st page, go to the chapter cutoff. If a sentence or paragraph gets cut on page 5 and the agent asked for your first five, run four words over that to finish the thought. Being paranoid, I just note that I included the first half of the next page to reach a scene cutoff in my query, which also underscores the fact that I know precisely what they are looking for. In other words, “I intentionally left one brown M&M in the dish, despite Article 245 of the Contract, because I had a reason.”

Scary Agent Vetting Test (in real time)

Someone who has been around the block a time or two recently told me about an agent who sent him the dreaded:

“Your submission is intriguing, but your manuscript needs professional editing. I could refer you to a colleague of mine…” 

The incident occurred without any red flags (to him, anyway), which was discouraging, because this garbage (a) scares the crap out of me; and (b) pisses me off. But I thought it would allow for an interesting opportunity to test out the vetting process I’ve outlined before.

The catch? I’m going to do it as I write this post. Good or bad, I’m just going to go through the vetting process with this agent and agency’s name and post what I find. So, here goes:

Step 1: Google is your friend

Google result for [Agent Name] at [Agency Name]:

  • First result is AbsoluteWrite, which I’ll be going to in Step 2 anyway, so I’m disregarding for now.
  • Second result is his listing in the 2013 Guide to Literary Agents. Not bad. It’s no indicia of quality, but there is a listing (which is better than no listing) showing two agents at the agency. Using the “look inside” feature, I discover:
    • Warning flag 1, they accept queries through e-mail (normal), but their e-mail address is a Gmail account (normal if your business is run out of a school bus).
    • Warning flag 2, they list 10 clients, 5 are new/unpublished. It says they’ve been around since 2009, with 2 agents, so (assuming this is true) they’re making around one sale per year between two agents.
    • Warning flag 3, which is related to the Gmail account for queries – they don’t appear to have a web page.
  • And that’s basically it. Which is not a good sign.

Google result for [Agency Name]:

  • OK, this is a weird one. I get a web page saying:

 In 1999 I inherited the literary agency you were referred from, [then it lists another agency I’ve never heard of] and while I no longer work in that business, I do still refer the occasional book to some of my friends at major publishing houses. I have helped secure a few major book deals over the years through my referrals, so it can’t hurt to get your book information to me. I do not charge any fees unless I am able to sell your book.

  •  We’ve had some warning flags prior to this, but this is our first full-on WTF moment
  • This web page listed under (and the letter is ostensibly from) the guy whose name is on the agency name (it’s his last name), but none of this information is the same as the agency information in the guide Google found us. Nor does he mention any other agents – like, for example, the two freaking agents operating out of the agency that bears his name.
  • Then it gets weirder, with his detailed instructions about how to contact him through his LinkedIn account, and he just asks you to “submit your book.”
  • This isn’t the dude I’m looking for, but I’m still trying to figure out this agency that closed, agency soliciting submissions, dude who wants books sent to his LinkedIn account thing, so I click on “Books,” on his web page. It will be interesting to see what books he’s repped, if nothing else.
    • OMFG. I am literally laughing as I type this. The dude has a pile of books by him on this page, ranging from a cookbook to spiritual self-help stuff to a freaking rhyming dictionary he wrote.
    • So, I just clicked on one and tried to look up the publisher. Never heard of it, so I tried AW and Google and still can’t find anything but the publisher’s web page, which is literally a static web page with the name on it. No tabs, no books for sale, no address or phone number, no links – nothing. Just “Publisher Name.”
    • I clicked his cookbook (because I’m hungry), but it isn’t finished yet. It literally just says that (and lists some tasty smoothie recipes).
    • OK, so here’ a Chicken Soup for the Soul book (the Magic of Mothers and Daughters). Don’t those CSS books have the same publisher? He can’t rep all of them, can he? So I click that, and nope. Doesn’t look like he did it. I just Googled around a little and he seems (or at least claims) to have an essay in one of the CSS books.
    • If you tell me you’ve repped bestsellers in major deals, you’d better have some books to back it up. I don’t really care if you have a heartwarming story about your Nana.
  • I seriously sidetracked myself, since I still don’t know what the relationship between this dude and the agency in question even is, but I got a smoothie and two sandwich recipes to show for it. Because you need a fucking recipe to make a sandwich.

Back on the hunt

Google result for [Agent Name Literary Agent]:

  • I get the same guide to literary agents, and a Writers’ Market for novels and short stories (produced by the same company) that list him. So basically the same listing.
  • OK, I’m feeling pretty good about our process, now. There’s a listing on the Writer Beware blog. OK, it’s just in the comments, so I’m not holding that too, too much against him at this point. No specific allegation of wrongdoing (may not even be the same dude).
  • But that’s all I’m getting (outside the sites we’ll specifically go to below, the hits all seem to be a literary agency with an author who has his last name or another combination that isn’t referring me to the right guy – except white pages listings and stuff like that.
  • We already know this isn’t looking very good from a quality standpoint, even if there isn’t an ethical issue. If your agent’s name doesn’t show up in some kind of agenting related context when you Google it, you’re probably not looking a superstar agent (or minor a league player with potential, for that matter).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

1.     Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but says “No valid sales to commercial publishers yet.” At this point, I’m done. Ignoring all the shenanigans and smoothie recipes and everything else, I’m not looking to be the first book some dude (not from New York, not in New York, and, as far as I can tell, not coming out of an agency or publishing house to start this agency up) sells. Editing conflict/scam/garbage aside, I’m not chasing this bait just based on quality of potential representation.
2.     AbsoluteWrite should be interesting. I just clicked on his entry and the only thing I’ve read so far is someone saying s/he received a request for a partial and wonders if anyone knows about the agency (the post is from March 2011).Before I go any further, are you serious here? You got that request for a partial because you sent a query. Why, in God’s name, would you be sending out queries to agents with no idea whether they are legit, and then start asking about them on message boards when you’ve received a partial request? In this querier’s defense, from later posts it appears he did look at the writing on the wall and run. I just don’t see why you’d wait to do due diligence until after you queried.
Interesting development – they have a web page. There was a link in AW.
                           i.      OMFG – they offer both literary services and in-home elder care. I shit you not.
                           ii.      Oh, wait, not really. The web page is the domain name seller, who has mocked it up to look like you are at a site at that address. Not much better, but less funny. (Sorry about that, but I promised to do this as I went through the process, not that it would be pretty).
So they had a web page once, but have taken it down, because people in the AW community are talking about their bios (which don’t include any prior experience in editing or publishing).
Oh, boy, here we go. An AW member was kind enough to include the text of a letter:

You possess good writing skills and sense of story. However, as you might know, placing fiction in today’s brutal market is extremely difficult. About the only way an unknown writer can get his or her manuscript picked up today is for the writing to be exceptional. I suggest you consider obtaining the services of an editor who can help raise your writing skills to the next level. Don’t be disappointed about my suggestion. All serious writers use editors. If you do not have any editing contacts, I will be glad to give you the name of a talented lady I’ve know for a number of years.

 

Just for the record, it’s officially –DING, DING, DING. The smoke that was too thick to see through has cleared enough to see the raging fire. Even if it weren’t for the prior misgivings, I’m running like hell now.

 
And another one, just for good measure. Same language, same offer to hook up with professional editing help. Still no sales.
 
3.     QueryTracker The dude doesn’t show up on the agent listing. Patrick at QT does quality control, and won’t list an agent with editing fees. I feel fairly confident calling this whole shady as fuck at best and possibly an outright scam at worst. Yes, I’m talking to you Jack Bollinger at the McGill Literary Agency, with no legitimate reported sales but plenty of referrals to for profit editing services.

 

At this point, we’re at least sufficiently up to speed to close the book on this agency. Sorry about the dead-ends and tangents, but they provided some good laughs. Bottom line, though, is we were able to know what the problems were going to be before we had any problems, so that part worked out well.

Happy querying.

How Important Is a Good Query, Anyway?

Whenever my mom was upset, she cleaned the house. If I heard the vacuum when I walked up to the front door after school, I’d often head over to my friend Jamie’s house and call home to say they invited me to dinner and ask if I could stay. My mom was (is) a wonderful woman, and it’s not like I feared for my wellbeing or anything, but that sound told me she’d be grumpier than hell. It made no sense to me at the time.

Then I grew up.

The company I worked for shut down a few years ago. In the midst of job-hunting, it became inexplicably important for me to clean out my garage – as in empty all contents, scrub every shelf top-to-bottom clean the crap out of it, clean out my garage. It felt good. When I was done, I felt good. Sending resumes into the ether may be a necessary part of job-hunting, but at the end of a typical day you either have nothing to look at or you’re looking at rejection. That day, I was able to look at a garage you could perform surgery in. I had accomplished something tangible. I had control over something – maybe not my job search, but something.

Then my mom made sense.

For writers, I think honing query letters is a combination of sending out resumes and cleaning out the garage. There’s a lot we don’t have much control over. The process is daunting. It’s also intimidating. But the query – that’s something we have some control over. So we obsess on it, honing it into 247 words of absolute perfection, knowing that it is the ticket to publication. Except, it’s not.

A great manuscript is the ticket to publication. Good query letters are helpful, in that they increase the odds that an agent will look at our manuscripts. Great query letters aren’t a whole lot better than good ones, and a perfect query letter is no better than a great one. But, as I’ve said before, once an agent reads the first sentence of your manuscript, the query letter has done its job. There might be a slight hangover from a great (or bad) query, with the agent expecting, and therefore being predisposed to think, that your manuscript will be good (or bad) because of your query, but even that’s going to be gone after a couple of pages.

Former literary agent Nathan Brandsford (whose blog you should take a look at to learn all sorts of things about querying and such), held contest called “Be an Agent for a Day” a few years ago. He mixed real queries from bestselling novels in with queries people had submitted to his blog to see how many readers could pick out the “winners.” The results were interesting (which is why I linked to them), but the layer right under the results was fascinating. Here is one of the queries:

Dear Agent for a Day:

I have been seriously writing for nearly two years and am a finalist in fourteen RWA contests with twelve different books, including second place in the Daphne du Maurier Single Title category. THE COPYCAT KILLER ranked second in the Golden Opportunity contest. I’m a member of the Sacramento Valley, Kiss of Death and FF&P Chapters of RWA, and earned my PRO pin.

Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in THE COPYCAT KILLER.

Ex-FBI agent turned fiction crime writer Rowan Smith wakes up one morning to discover someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.

Her former FBI boss fears one of her past arrests is out to terrorize her and insists she hire a bodyguard, or he’ll assign two FBI agents to watch her. Rowan, who relishes her privacy and solitary life, doesn’t want a bodyguard, but reluctantly hires ex-cop Michael Flynn.

The killer systematically goes through each book and chooses a victim, sending mementoes of the crime to Rowan. Michael’s brother, freelance DEA agent John Flynn, accuses Rowan of hiding something and calls in favors to learn enough to confront her. She confesses that her father and brother killed her family. Her father is in a mental institution and her brother was killed trying to escape. They fall into bed needing a physical connection. The murderer kills Michael that night.

John and Rowan deal with their guilt over Michael’s murder as they work with the FBI to find the murderer. They discover that Rowan’s boss lied to her about her brother’s death–he’s in a Texas penitentiary. But when they go there to confront him, they discover that someone took his place.

THE COPYCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements, in the vein of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag.

In addition to THE COPYCAT KILLER, I have two additional single-title romantic suspense novels, a futuristic suspense currently under consideration at Dorchester, and a women’s fiction novel with a ghost as a main character.

A full is available upon request. Thank you for taking the time to consider my story.

Sincerely,
Author

Two key points here. First, this is the query for the novel THE PREY by Allison Brennan. Second, from a technical standpoint, it pretty much sucks. I have no problems talking about how much her query (from a technical querying standpoint) sucks, because I doubt she cares. Which is more or less my point.

The first paragraph has nothing to do with the book, and basically tells us that she has cranked out a mountain of unpublished romance novels and is proud that she belongs to a club. Then she hits us with a rhetorical question, and follows that by telling us that she just asked us a timeless question.

After boring the crap out of us with a bio and committing the cardinal sin of querying (starting with a rhetorical question) she finally gets to her hook. That’s where the query suddenly stops sucking. It’s a pretty good idea for a book. She obviously had to cut and cram to get the basic arc into the number of words she had (although she cheeted, it’s about 100 words longer than a query is supposed to be).

While plenty of agents rejected her query, few, if any, rejected it solely because it sucked. Because, let’s face it, the blurb part doesn’t. It combines two different things that sell books (FBI serial killer hunts and romance novels), covers enough plot twists and straight-up romance to easily pack 100,000 words with interesting stuff, and is written pretty well. Plus there’s sex. Yay, sex.

Being honest, I’m almost certain I would have rejected it if I’d been playing Nathan’s game. Partially because the query was so crappy and largely because, if I were an agent, I wouldn’t be that excited about this particular idea (I can recognize its marketability, but the person selling it has to be interested in the romance writer, romance, and sex angles, which I am not). The phrase “not the right fit for my list” is not (always) a polite way of saying you suck. Some books are, legitimately, not the right fit for that agent.

Even then, I’d be tempted to peek at the pages she included. There’s a reason this query led to a 20+ novel (so far) career. It’s a pretty good idea for a story.

So that’s what puts the “perfect query” dream into perspective. Nathan’s take on it is spot-on:

But more importantly, I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn’t a contest to spot the best queries.

When an agent is reading a query we’re trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We’re evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. I don’t reject people solely because they start with rhetorical questions or their word count isn’t quite right or they break one of the query “rules”. I can’t afford to do that. Nor do I request pages for a book that has a perfect query but whose underlying concept is flawed.

A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form.

Now, a strong query helps your odds and your request rate, which is why we blogging agents spend so much time talking about the “rules”. It really does help your odds to write a good one. When people are writing good queries it helps us spot the good projects. But remember: the most important thing is not writing a good query, but rather writing a good book. A strong concept is so important.

A good query will get you only so far. Specifically, it will get the first sentence of your manuscript read by an agent. That’s it. Then it’s done.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying you shouldn’t send out a perfect query. There’s no reason not to, and it certainly can’t hurt. The key thing to remember in all of this, though, is that a query is there to demonstrate how interesting your manuscript is, not how good you are at querying.

Are there agents who will stop reading if the first sentence is a rhetorical question? Sure. About half of the agents Allison Brennan queried took a pass, maybe even one or two for that reason. But about half of them didn’t pass – and that’s despite the fact that (aside from her blurb) her query was truly awful. And the fact is, with that story, she could have probably been in the 75% or better request range with a better query.

But the moral of the story is: Her premise was solid, her book was marketable, and she lived happily ever after.

For the rest of us – getting from half to three quarters or higher can be critical. More critical if having a really solid query gets us from 25% to 50% and throws a few extra agents into the mix who might be willing to spend some time working with your not-quite, but potentially, publishable manuscript.

It certainly can’t hurt.

And it beats the hell out of cleaning the garage on New Year’s Eve.

Happy New Year!

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