Thursday, August 22, 2013

Query Questions with Amy Boggs

Writers have copious amounts of imagination. It's what makes their stories so fantastic. But there's a darker side to so much out of the box thinking. When a writer is in the query trenches, their worries go into overdrive. They start pulling out their hair and imagine every possible disaster.


Here to relieve some of that endless worrying is a new series of posts called Query Questions. I'll ask the questions which prey on every writer's mind, and hopefully take some of the pain out of querying. These are questions that I've seen tossed around on twitter and writing sites like Agent Query Connect. They are the type of questions that you need answers for the real expert--agents!

If you have your own specific query question, please leave it in the comments and it might show up in future editions of Query Questions as I plan to rotate the questions.

Today's agent is Amy Boggs of the fabulous Donald Maass Literary Agency.  

I’ve heard August is a time when publishing shuts down. Does that make it a better or worse time to query?
Oh if only that were the truth. Sure there are folks on vacation, but on the querying side of things, it doesn't make much difference. The only time that is a bad time to query is when I suddenly have stacks of client manuscripts to edit, on top of new boilerplates to negotiate, and some fires to put out. But it's not like a querier will know when those times are, so don't worry about it. Query when you want.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
I once I had an author whose first line of his query informed me his book was an "urban gantasy." Reader, I signed him. No one ever makes a fuss about occasional mistakes (well, on the publishing side; you do get nitpicky readers), because the actual content is far more important.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
As long as the book is a genre I represent, and the query isn't obviously bigoted, I read the sample pages. One of my co-workers, Jen Udden, actually reads the sample pages first and then reads the query, and teases me for getting all excited over a query only to find the sample pages lackluster. I can't help it really, because I get excited over cool ideas, but Jen's right; in the end, it's the writing that matters.

Do crazy fonts caused by email gremlins make for an automatic rejection?
Naw. If a query is totally illegible due to email gremlins, I just paste it into Word. Wacky email backgrounds and font colors might raise an eyebrow, but really, I'm just grateful the days of glitter-in-the-envelope-queries are pretty much over.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
Personalized chit-chat is fine as long as it's real; so often, though, queriers try to force it because they've been told to do it, and that just feels awkward. If you don't have anything to personalize, by all means, just dive in. My eyes have learned to skim those opening paragraphs for genre and word count, and I only really read them if there's a mention of a book/author I love or represent, or a show I love, or something about my Twitter feed. Regardless, keep it short. And whatever you do, don't lie. I can't eyeroll hard enough at people who say they loved a book by one of my authors when the title they mention is the title it sold under rather than what it published under. (Still not an auto-reject, though.)

Most agents have said they don’t care whether the word count/genre sentence comes first or last. But is it a red flag if word count is not included?
Why not include it? I don't see it as a red flag, because some folks just forget it, but if a querier's word count is so out there that they feel the need not to include it, then they need to stop querying and work on their manuscript. A fact of print publishing is that word counts make a big difference in price and marketability, so trying to ignore a problem like much too short or much too long of a manuscript is delaying the inevitable.

Is there a bias against querying authors who have self-published other books?
No. Some folks are very smart and savvy about self-publishing, and that's great. Some folks think self-publishing is as easy as clicking a button and then realize their mistake, and that's fine. We all make mistakes. It makes things a little trickier if they have sales numbers that interfere with whether or not B&N will decide to stock that author, but even that can be surmounted. Just don't query me with what you've self-published. Give me your next and new.

Do you go through a large group of queries at a time or hold yourself to a few?
I tackle queries whenever I have time. Sometimes that's a bunch at a time, sometimes that's a few while I'm scanning signed contracts. I always reject in a bunch, though. I know form rejections suck, but for me it's the difference between responding to two weeks' worth a queries in 5 minutes or an hour, and I'd rather have that hour to actually read the queries.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
It varies, but around 100 a week. Requests vary even more, but about 1-5.

Many agents say they don't care if writers are active online. Could a twitter account or blog presence by a writer tip the scales in getting a request or offer? And do you require writers you sign to start one?
It would never tip the scales when it comes to an offer; Twitter and blog presence only truly correlate with sales for non-fiction, and I do strictly fiction. Sure they can help fiction sales, but big social media presence doesn't equal big readership, so I have to love the book itself.
It can help on getting a request, although generally this happens outside the query structure. I often follow unpublished writers on Twitter if I enjoy their feeds, and then if I see they're going to start querying soon, I'll ask about it. I've also found interesting manuscripts by hearing someone talk about their manuscript in writer forums. This works both ways; I recently had an author find me through my being a part of #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List). I ended up loving his book and signing him.

That said, I wouldn't force my writers to go out and do social media if they don't like it. I think it's a good idea to try what is out there and see what works for you, what you enjoy. But I care more about the writing itself.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
A line or two about them is not remiss, particularly if it's salient to the work. For instance, my author Holly Messinger, who wrote a supernatural book set in the Old West (THE CURSE OF JACOB TRACY), mentioned her research in such a way that made it clear she knew her stuff, knew the society, and knew the themes and motifs of Westerns. Impressive for one line, but she managed it.
But nothing at all is fine, too.

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
It means I wouldn't be willing to read the manuscript over a dozen revisions and fight for years to find it a publisher. There are some manuscripts that sell quickly in the first round of submissions. There are some manuscripts that are a long slog. As someone who hopes for the best but prepares for the worst, I want a book that I think will do the former but that I will stick with even if it's the latter.

What themes are you sick of seeing?
Chosen Ones, prophecies, destiny. So often these become a plot prop; everything relies on the main character knowing they're meant to save the world or fall in love with Love Interest. Can't characters just want to save the world because it's worth saving? Can't they fall in love because they're awesome and worth loving?
I always like to point to Harry Potter on this one; we didn't even know there was a prophecy until five books in, and even then the emphasis was on the fact that the prophecy was just an option, not an absolute, and that the choices of those involved mattered more. That's an infinitely more interesting story than "I'm doing this because I was meant to do this."

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
1. Non-British Empire or -USA steampunk. Although I use the term "steampunk" here, steam isn't a pre-requisite. I mean it more in the spirit of the idea: take a historical period, ramp up the technology, and give it a twist. So much steampunk I see focuses on aesthetic ("It's Victorian England with goggles and cogs!"), but what interests me more is deeply engaging with the history and riffing on it. There is so much more world history to explore. I often talk about wanting Mayan steampunk, but I'd also love Ottoman Empire steampunk or Hunnic Empire steampunk, or any of the infinite possibilities. Yes, it takes a lot of research, care, and awareness, but that should be true with any book.
2. High fantasy sans war, impeding or otherwise. Not to say I don't want those that explore war, but so much of what I see relies on it to be the main conflict of the book. There are other ways to build tension. Look at Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF. It centers on one country trying to take over another by coercion into marriage rather than by might. (The other books in the series contain war, but in ways that show how it extends outside of battle; and book 3 has impending war, but that is far from the center of the novel. Just read the whole series, for real.) Personally, I love intricate politics more than battles, and oh boy would I love a high fantasy where the villain wasn't an evil king or sorcerer but was someone like OTHELLO'S Iago.

3. Science fictional retellings of classic novels. I admit, I just signed one of these, and it has given me a hankering. It's so cool to see how sci-fi authors can rework familiar characters and plots with brilliant twists and inventive worlds.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
My movies would be terrible examples, because I love movies that center on storytelling, but hate books that do so. I think it's because movies are a shorter format, so I can handle that amount of navel gazing.
Anyway, favorite books:
Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series: An alternate ancient Greece setting with adventures, politics, meddling gods, and a romance that is pretty damn unique in YA. See my love above. :)
Terry Pratchett's NIGHT WATCH: You have to read the Guards series in order for this book to really have its impact, but it's the one I literally pack in my bag for any transoceanic trips, just in case I find myself marrooned on a desert isle. I could read it forever.
And my brain's kinda overloading on trying to pick other books. Too many good books! A terrible problem, I know.


Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek always looking for more things to geek out about. Fortunately, she often gets to do this professionally as a literary agent at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and came to New York City by way of Vassar College. She loves her adopted city, despite its lack of mountains. When not reading, she wanders the streets, museums, and theaters of NYC.
Amy is looking for fantasy and science fiction, especially urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA/MG, and alternate history. Historical fiction, Westerns, and works that challenge their genre are also welcome. She is seeking projects with characters who are diverse in any and all respects, such as (but not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality.

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