Thursday, August 15, 2013

Query Questions with Pooja Menon

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 terrific agent is Pooja Menon of Kimberley Cameron and Associates. Thanks for visiting with us today, Pooja!

Is there a particular time of year that is better to query?
1) There isn't any particular time as such. Agents are looking for great manuscripts all the time. In most cases, if an agent is going to be out of town or on vacation, they usually close their inboxes for the duration of their trip. However, I would advice authors to be patient with regards to response time. Agents get overloaded with submissions every week and it's quite possible to fall back on reading, no matter how fast we try. This is particularly possible during the summer or other holiday seasons/times. So give us two months at least before writing and checking in.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
2) No. But misplaced commas and typos (more than one) would make me wary. I would rather see a thoroughly polished and revised manuscript than a first draft, and too many typos or mistakes could indicate to me that the author hasn't gone through the MS enough or revised it enough.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
3) Only if the query is strong. Sometimes, if the query has potential but hasn't been written as well as it could have been, I will look at the first few pages.

Do crazy fonts caused by email gremlins make for an automatic rejection?
4) I can only speak for myself, but crazy fonts tend to be distracting for me and some fonts in particular can be really annoying. Even fonts in different colors can be itchy for the eyes. In my opinion, Times Roman is the best font to use and the color black is just right.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
5) I think a traditional query letter has the first few lines introducing the name, word count and genre of the manuscript, along with comp titles, the second paragraph would be the pitch, and the last paragraph would give us some personal information about the author. I would prefer this same format, and in the personal information, I would prefer to know more about the author in terms of her writing credentials, education, and publishing credentials, etc. A line about the author (place, profession, etc) is fine too. But the query letter as a whole has to be really concise, so only add what is important.

Does it matter whether the word count/genre information is first or last in a query?
6) I prefer it at the beginning of the query letter so I know what I'm getting into before I read the pitch.

Is there a bias against querying authors who have self-published other books?
7) No bias. Now, if a self-published author is querying her self-published book, then this is a different ball game. I would be interested if the book has documented sales that are on a large scale and is on a bestseller list (or two) of some sort (Nook best seller list, B&N list, etc). For eg: Selling 30,000 copies in two weeks on Amazon/Smashwords/etc, then my interest would perk up. But a book that has poor sales, since it's already been published and hasn't done well, this makes it harder to take on and sell to editors.

Do you go through a large group of queries at a time or hold yourself to a few?
8) Well, I go through queries based on interest first. If something really interests me, then I transfer them to a box labeled 'read first'. If something interests me but on a more toned down level, then that goes into a box titled 'read second'. Every agent works differently, but this is how I work. Now getting through submissions can be tough if I'm reading queries I'm interested in, or if I'm editing submissions I'm planning on signing on, because that can be time consuming. Basically, I try to look at the pitches as and when they come in and then arrange them according to my interest level.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
9) I receive anywhere between 200-500 submissions every week. Sometimes it's on the lower end of the spectrum, sometimes on the higher end. Out of which I might find many interesting based on the pitch, but the number keeps reducing drastically as and when I read more pages. If a manuscript keeps me hooked until the last page, I'm intrigued. But this happens 1%-2% of the time.

Have you form rejected great projects you think could be accepted elsewhere or do you try to give some feedback?
10) If I really loved a premise and the pages fell apart, or if I really loved a project but couldn't sign it for some reason, then I try and give as much feedback as possible. Sometimes I even ask to see their project again once it's revised. If it's a rejection for a project that I could not connect with from the beginning, then I'll send a form rejection. I wish I could give feedback to everyone, but time is always a problem.

Many agents say they don’t care if writers are active online. Could an active/known online presence by an author tip the scales in getting a request or offer?
11) No. To be honest, good writing is first and foremost. If the writing blows me away, then I am willing to work with the writer to help her build a platform. It's important for a writer to have some kind of a social platform today, be it blogs or Tumbler or Facebook or Twitter. Mainly because it's a place where they can network and connect with other writers, participate in pitchfests (possible place to catch an agent's eye), and build a following. This following or network of friends/writers can be a great place to look at when they're looking for good critique partners who write in the same genre as they do. It can also help when they are trying to spread the word about their projects, or help when their book is coming out soon and they want to organize blog tours. There are a lot of perks to being active. Moreover, writing does not have to be isolated. If you find the right kind of friends online who GET your project the way no others can, this can be very motivational and help keep your spirits up. However, if a project is a non-fiction project, then I think a platform is mandatory. And the platform has to be strong, and has to revolve in some kind of way to what the author has written about. But this is a whole different ball game of rules and before non-fiction writers go out there to find an agent, this is something they need to work on.

What does ‘just didn’t connect enough’ mean to you?
12) Just didn't connect enough: this could mean that the voice of the character was too snarky, sarcastic or superficial for me to really relate to her/him and want to follow him/her through the whole story. Or it could be that the writing wasn't sharp enough (didn't have enough attention to details and settings, lack of strong dialogue that has the ability to say a lot but hold back enough so we can try and read between the lines, etc). It could also mean the story was just not my cup of tea. Or it was something I saw done before but better. Or it could mean the pacing was all over the place so I felt it was too fast/slow and therefore I had a hard time feeling what the character was feeling and experiencing.

What themes are you sick of seeing?
13) To be honest, I'm going to go a little wide on this. I think one thing I've seen a lot lately is the lack of originality of plot. Most of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy submissions that come into my inbox sounds pretty much the same, with the characters either going to be kidnapped by an organization that wants to use them for some reason or another, and once kidnapped, they find an ally that will help them escape, and usually this ally is someone who's extremely good looking but they can't stand, and eventually they fall in love and the organization catches up to them. In fantasy, it has to do with a prince or princess who has to save their kingdom- either they get usurped from their throne or they have to escape to avoid some catastrophe... I know every plot has been tried before, but the way that time-told plot can be spun can definitely be different and fresh (Think CINDER). I definitely want to see a lot more contemporary that is raw and emotional and with some humor in it. I would also love to see more fantasy that has a fresh angle that I can sink my teeth into.

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
14) Strangest...hmm... I wouldn't say this is all that funny, but sometimes people send me long (and I do mean long) queries where their manuscript defies the normal word count, and they make it very clear to me that all their relatives and friends love their book, so I must love it too, and they compare it to works of legends or writers who no longer exist, rather than choosing more realistic options, and if I send them a letter saying I don't look at manuscripts that are above a 100,000 word count, or that the pitch email was so long I couldn't find a pitch, or just that their story has some issues with it, they get really angry and defensive and lament how they wish they didn't have to deal with 'our kind'. Again, I don't think this is funny. But I do think writers need to realize that we work super hard for our jobs because we love what we do and we love good stories. And we would never pass up on truly strong and well-revised/written projects. But this is a profession, so writers do need to be professional, which means they need to follow the traditional rules of submission and word count, and if they do get a rejection, instead of getting angry, they need to reevaluate why they got so many rejections. Perhaps the book isn't original enough? Perhaps it requires more revisions? Perhaps getting it critiqued or professionally edited might be a good idea? Perhaps the book isn't right for the market? Agents are only as successful as our authors are. So, truly, we're not trying to be horrid or spirit-crushing. And most importantly, we get rejected too (by editors, by authors with other offers, etc). So we do know how you feel. I think the sheer number of emails that are carelessly submitted is the strange thing for me, considering how there are so many blog posts and advice guidelines on agency websites that state the rules clearly.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
15) My wishlist :) Ah, this is hard. One: A strong multicultural story set in the US, dealing with cultural themes that bring up questions of identity and what it means to be a teenager while trying to fit both these different sides of her personality and life together, etc. With a dash of romance, of course. Two: A strong contemporary story that deals with serious issues (think John Green), but has a dark, humorous tone to the voice. Of course, I don't mean this has to necessarily mean dealing with a serious health affliction. It could be anything that would turn a young girl or boy's life upside down. Three: A have a strong love for Fantasy (Contemporary or otherwise- think Daughter of Smoke and Bones or Shadow and Bone or The Mortal Instrument Series). Something fresh, dark and allows me to escape into a new world with different challenges. These would be among by top three. I'm going to throw in a Fourth too, an adventure/thriller manuscript along the line of Indiana Jones, but with a young protagonist. I LOVE stories that have hidden treasures or dangerous curses (think some far flung myth or legend that hasn't been used over and over , along with a dash of historical information to back said myth/legend) and are set in locations that are exotic and shady at the same time.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
16) Another dangerous question! I have a wide range of books that are my favorites. In YA, in the last year, I've read and loved the Mortal Instruments Series, Daughter of Smoke & Bone series, Shadow and Bone, Out of the Easy, Grave Mercy, Anna Dressed In Blood, Stormdancers, Fault In Our Stars, Hate List, 13 Reasons Why, Speak, Cinder...I could go on. But these are books that I like to read again and again. Of course, Harry Potter will always be my prime favorite, along with Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy, another all time favorite of mine. My tastes are all other the place, to be honest, but what I'm searching for is that voice that's going to hook me into the story by page one, and a story that's going to keep me turning pages. And in the case of Fantasy, etc- setting is important to me, to feel like I'm in a different world (even if it is Contemporary fantasy).

Pooja Menon

Pooja Menon joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates as an intern in the fall of 2011, with the aim of immersing herself in the elusive world of books and publishing. She soon realized that being an agent was what she was most drawn to as the job was varied and challenging. She represents both fiction and non-fiction for Adult and YA markets.

Her passion for reading inspired her to acquire a BA in Literature and Media from England. Her love for writing then took her to Los Angeles where she pursued an M.F.A in Fiction from the Otis School of Art and Design.

As a new agent, Pooja is looking to build her client list and is eager for submissions by debut novelists and veteran writers. She's looking for writing that has an easy flow and a timely pacing, along with a unique perspective and a strong voice.

In fiction, she is interested in literary, historical, commercial, and high-end women's fiction. However, she's most drawn to stories with an international flavor, vibrant characters, multi-cultural themes, and lush settings.

In fantasy, she's looking for original, layered plots with worlds as real and alive as the ones that were created by J.K Rowling and Tolkien.

In non-fiction, she's looking for adventure & travel memoirs, journalism & human-interest stories, and self-help books addressing relationships and the human psychology from a fresh perspective.

In YA, she's looking for stories that deal with the prevalent issues that face teenagers today. She is also interested in fantasy, magical-realism, and historical fiction.

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