Ask the Agent: What do you look for in a query?
I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…
What are the three most important things you look for in a query?
A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.
How important are queries to your agency?
I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very, very low.
What experience is worth mentioning in a query?
Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.
Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?
Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.
What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?
I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)
Which genres do you think deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?
Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback, now known as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.
Which genres will the public never tire of?
We love romance. We love redemption stories. We love justice. We love seeing characters we like grapple with powers greater than themselves and win against long odds. We love a great, pulse-pounding thriller. We love mysteries getting solved, whether by smart amateurs or methodical types. We love people making sacrifices for something greater than themselves. We love people facing the great questions of life and making choices, then exploring the ramifications of those choices.
So when thinking about queries coming across your desk, should we follow the trends or write what we want to write?
I think authors are given stories, and must write the stories they are given. That said, I think authors who read widely, and who read great writing of others, are given more and greater stories. Following trends might get you a deal sometime, but writing what you want to write will help you create a career. My two cents.
What five things do you consider “must haves” when you are reviewing a query or manuscript?
Great, unique voice. Interesting characters that I like. A story structure I can follow. A significant plot or conflict. A great theme.
What five things guarantee a trip to the trash bin?
Grammar/spelling/punctuation errors. Guaranteeing me this will be a blockbuster, or that God told you to write to me. Weird fonts and formats. An arrogant attitude (particularly people who don’t want to listen to advice). Sending me poetry and other stuff I don’t represent. (True story: I just got an email that read, “While I know you don’t normally represent poetry, I thought you might be interested in my epic poem about…” — yeah, because making it longer will get me to love it.)
How much does a killer first line matter to you? Is it a deal breaker?
It’s not a deal breaker, but I LOVE a great opening line. I collect great opening lines. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of great writing. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It was bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (I could go on.)
What do you recommend for a writer who wants to improve his or her craft?
Write more. (I find most writers write a bit, but the best writers tend to have written a LOT.) Read more. (I find most every writer reads some, but the best writers tend to have read a LOT, and have read WIDELY and not just in their genre.) Learn to listen to advice. Learn to mimmic others, just to see what it’s like to be someone else. (Great art tends to be derivative.) Study great writers, to see what you can glean from them.
What inner qualities do you see in your most successful authors?
What a fabulous question. Um…. a longing for truth. A willingness to work hard. A desire to improve. An attitude that listens and doesn’t get whiny every time somebody suggests an editorial change. A desire to explore the big questions. A boldness to be brave and try something new.
What attitudes are career killers for writers?
I know it all. I don’t have to listen. I can write now so I’ll wait for my muse. My work is better than all those schmucks selling their books, because mine is Great Art.
Do you ever tell anyone they do not possess talent for writing?
Not often. But yes, I have, and it’s always hard. And sometimes I just have to say, “There’s nothing I can really do with this. It’s not a fit for me. Sorry.” Think of this as singing — if the person really can’t carry a tune, or has no sense of rhythm, at some point they need to hear, “You can’t sing — there’s no career here. There’s not even a hobby here. Let me suggest you get off the stage and look for something else.”
Do you believe that writing skills taught are more important than raw talent?
Sure. Raw talent puts you ahead in high school. After that it won’t get you very far. You write more, you train, you improve, you develop your skills. Who wants to be 40 and still a fine high school writer?
How much does an author platform play into your decision to represent an author?
For nonfiction, it’s the first question I’ll be asked, so it matters. And now I’m going to be asked that question of fiction authors. So platform matters to novelists as well. You have to mention it in your nonfiction query — you may or may not in a fiction query. And a “platform” is just a number — how many people read your blog? how many read your articles? your newspaper column? how many hear you speak at conferences? how many listen to you on the radio? how many are you connected to through Pinterest? through your organizations? through [fill in the blank]? Those are all numbers. Add them up, and you have your platform. (And here’s a hint: the bigger the number; the happier the publisher will be.)
If I have a growing platform and a number of 5-star Amazon reviews, how do I make the leap from a small, internet-based publisher to a larger, traditional publisher?
That’s a very fair question, but you may or may not like my response… You either sell a boatload of books and say to a publisher, “See? I can sell a lot of books!” (which may mean you don’t need the publisher anyway; that you can just self-pub and make the money you need), OR you put together a great book and proposal, get an agent who believes in you, and approach publishers with it. But, um, I have to tell you that publishers and agents tend to be less than impressed with five-star reviews on Amazon these days. Too many have been generated by the author (or the author’s best buddies), so that they aren’t genuine. They’re nice, of course, but no publisher buys your next book because your last one got a pile of five star reviews. They need THIS book to be great. (And, of course, the first thing they’ll ask is, “Can you tell us about that growing platform you mentioned?”)
If there are no new ideas for writers, how do we come up with original stories?
Who said there are no new ideas? For that matter, who says we need new ideas? Every romance is about two people meeting, getting pulled apart by something, but needing to be together because… geez, because we ALL want to have a magical romantic story like that. Every health book is about eating less and moving more. Every finance book is about spending less and saving more. I think chasing after the latest idea is a trap. You’ll all be better off becoming great writers, and writing the best story you have, in my view. I hope this helps.
Do you have a question you’d like to ask an agent?
Hi Chip. Some great questions and your answers are appreciated, as always. A question re platform: obviously overall numbers play a huge role, but do publishers have a preference of one channel over another? Do they want to see a following on Facebook/Twitter over a blog? Or conference speaking over a podcast?
Hi Chip! I like how your posts cover practical topics in a realistic and only slightly snarky (yet endearing) way, but still leave me feeling inspired to write. And I have to say – I’d love to see a blog post of your great opening line collection – tantalizing!
Thanks: “Who said there are no new ideas? For that matter, who says we need new ideas? . . . You’ll all be better off becoming great writers, and writing the best story you have . . . “