Chip MacGregor

January 19, 2015

Ask the Agent: What are you looking for in a query?


I’m getting ready to head out to speak at a writing conference at San Diego State this weekend, and someone who is going to be attending wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what you’re looking for in a query?”
That’s easy: Every time I open a query letter, I’m hoping to see something I’ll fall in love with. I want to see a great idea, supported by great writing, from an author with a great platform. I want to read an idea that makes me go, “Fabulous! Why didn’t I think of that?!” I want to see an author platform that shrieks, “I can help support this book!” I want to come across writing that hooks me from the first line. It’s rare, but it happens.
Of course, the one thing that makes sit up and take notice is great voice. If an author sounds unique and has personality on the page, I tend to pay close attention. (Unfortunately, some editors and agents don’t want to see any writing at a conference — they only want the idea. If I like your idea, I’m going to want to see if you can support it with good writing, so I encourage authors to bring some sample pages with them to a conference.) Again, I’m a sucker for great voice, and it’s the one thing we rarely see. Much of what we see isn’t bad, but so much as it’s the same as everything else. It sounds the same, it reads the same, and it could have been written by anybody. Great voice in writing always grabs me.
On the flip side, the thing that makes me immediately plop the query into my “reject” pile is seeing the same old thing — something that’s trying to ride the coattails of a project that’s already been done in a big way. (Examples include, “I’ve created a story about a boy wizard,” “I’m doing a dystopian where this young girl proves she’s brave and leads a revolution,” and “My lead character has sex on every page, since I couldn’t think of any other way to mirror Fifty Shades of Grey.”) In this business, you tend to see the wannabe’s and Me-Too’s, when we’d really like to see something fresh.

So a great idea (expressed clearly but succinctly), from an author with a great platform, demonstrating great writing. Sounds simple, right?

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1 Comment

  • CathyS says:

    It seems to me that editors say they want “fresh” and are continually buying the same manuscripts, at least in romance. How many women can we have saving run-down inns or operating cafes, coffee shops or ice cream places? For that matter, is it possible to have too many amateur sleuths that are bakers or cooks?

    I’ve only dipped a toe in the submission pool but characters with unique occupations don’t seem to get noticed. Someone grappling with an emotional struggle or a disability that hasn’t been done to death doesn’t garner attention.

    I don’t blame publishers for going with what has a proven sales record. These days they can’t afford to take a chance on an unknown voice, either. Maybe I just don’t understand what fresh means.

    I’m tempted to write a story about a wounded soldier returning to the U.S., who inherits a rundown inn (with her sisters), then opens a diner/bed and breakfast that turns out to have a ghost. Maybe the location could be an Amish community in Lancaster, PA? Cathy Shouse

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