Literary agent Kate McKean (Howard Morhaim Literary Agency) tweeted ten things that go through her head when she’s reading query letters. These tweets proved to be so insightful I decided I wanted to blog about them.
1. I really, really, really want this to be good.
Agents want to read your query, and they want to find your work amazing! They do not look at the slush pile the way most people look at the present Fido left behind on the neighbour’s lawn. I think aspiring writers sometimes forget that agents are enthusiastically searching for books they can fall in love with. As rejection after rejection piles up in the inbox, we sometimes fantasize that agents deliberately and maliciously strive to keep us from sharing our soul’s work with the world, when really, they just didn’t fall head over heels. I don’t expect every woman to fall instantly in love with my husband upon first laying eyes on him, so why should I expect that reaction from the agents reading my queries? It’s not realistic.
It should be enough to know agents WANT to love our work.
2. Why would I want to invest my time in considering this query when the sender clearly didn’t spend time researching me?
Ouch. This is a reminder that “query often and query widely” does not (and should not!) supercede RESPECT. There are a number of resources (Writer’s Market, AgentQuery, Query Tracker, as well as agency websites) that provide ample information regarding agent interests and submission guidelines that there is no reason to randomly query an agent in the hope they will decide to represent you. I know I get irritated by telemarketers trying to sell me things I’m not interested in – just because I have a floor doesn’t mean I want to buy a vacuum. The same can be said for literary agents – just because they like books doesn’t mean they can represent every genre ever conceived. I want an agent with connections to editors and publishers in my genre, and I want someone with an interest in the types of books I write.
3. Bitterness is the worst motivation for any character or story.
Good to know! While agent opinions are nothing if not subjective, I can understand why Ms. McKean feels this way. I don’t know about you, but I have worked with bitter people, and they are not all that fun to be around for extended periods. Why would I want to spend dozens of my precious hours following the machinations of someone wallowing in their bitterness? I want to read about characters I can identify with (if not fall in love with), not ones who remind me of the people in my life I normally try to avoid.
4. Good writing on a sentence level can’t save a flagging plot.
This makes sense. No matter how professional and grammatically skilled my query is, if I can’t describe (or write) an engaging plot, I can’t expect an agent to represent my work.
5. This query has told me nothing about the story. How do I know I want to read it?
The Query Shark’s blog (http://queryshark.blogspot.com/) is a phenomenal resource for examples of queries that work AND queries that don’t. Some authors get so caught up in their characters and the overarching themes present in their novels, they forget to tell agents what happens in the book. It might sound grand to say the protagonist embarks on a journey to save her soul, but most agents want to know what happens (i.e., the protagonist flees her corrupt world as a wealthy socialite and, after travelling the continent in freight cars, finds peace in the arms of a failed priest with a lisp). I don’t buy books because the cover advertises a profound character transformation, I buy it because it advertises a story where someone saves the world with a paperclip and some chewing gum.
6. If you don’t have a platform, I can’t sell your diet/health/wellness/business/self-help book.
This is geared toward non-fiction, but is yet another indicator that many authors don’t do their research prior to querying. I haven’t written a whit of non-fiction, let alone queried any, but even I know non-fiction authors have to have a platform and it needs to feature prominently in the query.
7. I don’t care about the answers to all those questions at the beginning of your query letter.
I’ve seen a few examples of successful queries where the author began with a rhetorical question (or questions), but I have read many more articles and agent blogs railing against them – particularly by those agents with a sarcastic or sharp sense of humour. Rhetorical questions invite snide, sarcastic, and downright inappropriate responses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the classroom where students presented with rhetorical questions frequently take them as invitations to explore their more humorous natures. “Shall we take out our books?” can lead to, “No,” or–my personal favourite–suggestions of other things the students would prefer to take out… I can totally understand why agents would react with sarcasm, indifference, or even hostility to rhetorical questions in queries – so why would I risk irritating the one person I’m trying to impress?
8. Your children’s/teachers’/students’/family’s recommendation will not help me sell your book to editors who don’t know you.
They may say they’re being honest, but they’re biased, and unless they have strong connections within the publishing industry (or are Stephen King, Dan Brown, or J.D. Salinger), including their glowing praise in your query simply prevents you from writing more about your awesome book. It also makes you look like an amateur. An agent won’t fall in love with your book because your great-aunt Ida says he/she should. He/She will fall in love with it because your query intrigues them and your sample pages live up to expectations. There will be plenty of opportunities to find people to give your book rave reviews once those first ARCs are sent out. Let Aunt Ida brag to her knitting club or Facebook, but save the precious space in your query for pitching your novel.
9. Strip the ego from your writing. Write looking at your readers, not in the mirror.
Are you writing to tell a great story, or are you writing to show off your skill with words, because the two are not one and the same – especially in commercial fiction. I read books to be entertained by a great story, not to examine the author’s use of metaphor within a construct of post-modern anti-establishment brevity brought about by socratic trends toward sparse prose punctuated with brief cacophonies of intensely minimal emotional aftermaths. What about you?
10. YES!!! An awesome novel! From the slush pile!!!! FTW!!!!!!!!!
This is the one thought all unagented authors hope will cross an agent’s mind when he/she picks up the query with sample pages. The key to triggering this thought is to write the best darned book you can while avoiding the errors, pitfalls, and rhetorical questions that drive agents bonkers. Write your best, do your research, be professional, and–for the love of buttercups–try to enjoy the process!
Agents want to read your work, and while they are discerning in their tastes, we (as unagented authors) need to be discerning in ours – not any old agent is going to pick up and deliver my baby into the world; I want the best, and that means I need to do my research to find the agent who will love my book as much as I do. Those rejection emails aren’t a derogatory dismissal of my writing as tripe fit only to be fed to cats (or maybe they are, but I’m not going to go there right now), they are the results of my interviewing the agents to determine their fit with my novel. It’s not, “No, you and your novel suck,” it’s, “No, I’m not the best person to bring your dreams to fruition, and you deserve to find that special someone.”
From beyond the keyboard,