Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Query Questions with Christa Heschke

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!

Here to shed clarity over the query process is Christa Heschke of McIntosh and Otis, Inc.

Is there a better or worse time of year to query? Not particularly for me. Summer is our “slower season” so it can be a better time. I would say querying between Thanksgiving and the holidays is one of the worst times. We’re all scrambling to get things done before we head off for break.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query? No, definitely not, but if your query or first pages are filled with typos I’m going to stop reading. It looks like you didn’t take the time to proofread.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong? Most of the time I look at the sample pages. The only time I don’t is if the query is in an area I don’t handle or the idea sounds too familiar/overdone.  In the end, it is still important to have a strong query as It will excite me to read the pages right away.

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them? I have my assistant and intern look through them and sort them first, but I look at all my queries.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages? Yes.

Some agencies mention querying only one agent at a time and some say query only one agent period. How often do you pass a query along to a fellow agent who might be more interested? We ask that you only send your query to one agent at a time at our agency. We all have different tastes, so it’s important to pick who you think is the best fit. I do occasionally pass along queries to other agents here, but honestly, not very often, as I’m the primary children’s agent there’s not a lot of overlap. But, one of our adult agents does do some YA.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript? I like a little personal info, but I’d keep that at the end of your query. I want to know more about your manuscript and what makes it different from other comparative titles out there. One query, which I’ll never forget, made me laugh out loud (the writer ended with a personal witty statement) so the personal can help make it stand out as long as you don’t go overboard or push it.

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 one component is not included? I wouldn’t say it’s a red flag, but it’s important to include somewhere in your query. I might think you didn’t mention it because the word count is too high/too low for your age group and you’re trying to hide that fact or you’re writing in a genre that’s tough to sell at the moment. But, once an agent requests the manuscript or reads some of your pages these things will be revealed so why hide it?

Writers hear a lot about limiting the number of named characters in a query. Do you feel keeping named characters to a certain number makes for a clearer query? Yes, I do not need to know who every character is in your story in the query letter. The part of the query where you’re telling me about the story should only be a couple paragraphs so you have to tell me what’s most important and why I should read on there. Naming characters without background info can be confusing, so keep it to the most important characters.

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers? I wouldn’t worry too much about the title it does often change and I don’t focus on it much when I’m reading a query unless it’s really bizarre or long. Even then it wouldn’t keep me from reading, but a really great title can get my attention in the subject line of my query emails before others. As for names, also wouldn’t worry. If it’s hard to pronounce let us know how to say it, other than that I don’t think it matters too much unless it’s distracting.  For example, your character’s name is five names hyphenated together or 20 letters long and you always refer to them that way. A nickname or a shortened version can help.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those? I’d say close to 100 a week. It’s hard to say how many requests I’d make out of those. There are times where I’ll make several requests in one week and others when I won’t make requests for a few weeks. It depends on what I’m seeing that week.

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? Having a great online presence will not make me more likely to offer representation. I have to love the writing. It’s a bonus, sure, and if I sign the author I will mention it to editors when I submit the project, but it’s not something I’d require. I do recommend it though. Having an online presence has become increasingly more important for self-promotion and can really help with your sales down the line. I’d say if you do have one keep it current. If you don’t take the time to do that, it may be better not to have one at all.

Some writers have asked about including links to their blogs or manuscript-related artwork. I’m sure it’s not appropriate to add those links in a query, but are links in an email signature offensive? No, links in your signature are not at all offensive…I don’t mind them. I’ll generally click on them if I’m interested in the query/sample pages to see what else the author has done and what their online presence is like. You have to be careful here and make sure you come off in a positive light. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re hard to work with.

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested? Personally, if I reject a manuscript and I am interested in a revision I will specifically ask for one. Sometimes the project may not be a fit but I like your writing and in these instances I will ask to see future work. If I send a rejection without saying either of these things, it’s not to dissuade from sending future work, you certainly can, but with revisions please only send if I ask.

 What bio should an author with no publishing credits include? I’d talk about why this project is special to you. What inspired you to write it? Where are you from? What’s your background? There’s nothing wrong with saying this is your first project and I always like getting to know the author a bit through their query.  It can give me a sense of what it might be like working with you.  

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you? It can mean many things. It can mean the voice/writing didn’t appeal to me or the execution of the premise itself didn’t fully engage me. Generally, this is when I can’t pinpoint specifically why I’m not loving it. Sometimes I like the idea and the writing, but I just feel that something is missing for me to fully love it.  Generally though I give some editorial feedback for manuscripts I’ve requested.

What themes are you sick of seeing? These aren’t really themes, but I am getting sick of love triangles (I think they’re overdone) unless it really keeps me on the edge of my seat re: who the protagonist is going to pick. Paranormal and dystopian aren’t really things I’m looking for nor am I looking for another Bella Swan. I like my female protagonists strong and independent! I like real conflict so I don’t particularly like when all problems are solved by the power of love (although I enjoy a good romance, just a realistic one with bumps along the way).

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent? Definitely! I am very editorially-minded. I work on revision with all of my clients before submitting from project to project. Sometimes it’s more minor, but either way I always like to provide some feedback.  Editors want to see more polished submissions, so I think it’s becoming more important.

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query? I alluded to this above, but one query writer told me that phone or email may be best for a response as they’re from Australia and the postal system there is run by koalas. That gave the query a nice dose of personality and humor. I also have the sense of humor of an 8 year old :)

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list? All things MG, chapter books, contemporary YA romance or mystery/thriller or a YA humorous contemporary (I know that’s more than three :) But bottom line is I am really looking for all things contemporary at the moment!

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Awkward. (TV show on MTV), The Hobbit (book) and the Lord of the Rings (movies), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Perfect Chemistry (Simone Elkeles), Pride and Prejudice, The Fear Street series (R.L. Stine)…I could go on and on.

Christa Heschke graduated from Binghamton University with a major in English and a minor in Anthropology. She started in publishing as an intern at both Writers House and Sterling Lord Literistic, where she fell in love with the agency side of publishing. Christa has been at McIntosh and Otis, Inc. in the Children's Literature Department since 2009 where she is actively looking for picture books, middle grade and young adult projects and is currently building her list. She is a fan of young adult novels with a romantic angle, and strong, quirky protagonists. Christa is especially interested in contemporary fiction, horror and thrillers/mysteries. She is also looking selectively for steampunk and fantasy (urban and high), that pushes the boundaries of what's currently on the shelves, perhaps a new take on these genres that has yet to be seen.  As for middle grade, Christa enjoys humorous contemporary, adventure and magical realism for boys and girls. For picture books, she’s drawn to cute, funny character driven stories.


  1. Great interview! I've been away from my computer since NaNo, but am glad I stumbled across this. I think Christa is great and am very impressed with the way she presents herself. Definitely happy to get to know her better...and she has given some awesome advice! Thanks :)

  2. Lots of helpful details. I'm working on my query and synopsis for my children's book to submit to Ms. Heschke. Thank you for this! If my work is accepted I will be back to celebrate and to thank you again.