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!
As promised, here is Lara Perkins from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency to answer her own set of Query Questions. Remember that Andrea Brown accepts only one query per writer so make sure you hit the correct agent for your submission.
Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
Not really. Certain times of year, like the winter holidays or late summer, tend to be a little quieter, so agents may have more time to read queries, but those are also popular vacation times, of course.
So many factors determine an agent's bandwidth at a particular time--client activity, editor activity, contract department activity, conferences, etc.--that it's often hard even for agents to predict how busy they'll be at a certain time of year.
There's also not much upside to trying to query at the perfect time. Even if you query at the perfect time, the only real benefit is that you may get a faster response. The ultimate outcome will be the same because it will still come down to whether or not the agent loves your query letter and pages.
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
Not unless it's a crazy one. If an author puts a comma in the middle of his or her first name or misspells a word in the manuscript's title, then it's pretty clear that the letter wasn't proofed at all. Otherwise, one typo or misplaced comma isn't a problem. I still highly recommend doing everything you can to send a typo-free, carefully proofed query. It's the most compelling evidence you can offer of your professionalism and dedication at the query stage. But mistakes happen, and what really matters is the content and quality of writing in your query.
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I do look at sample pages, almost without fail. If the query doesn't grab me at all or I can tell the author put no time into his or her letter, then I might not read the full sample, but I will still look to see if the first page or so grabs me.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
I check all queries myself.
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
I do want to see the prologue. We ask to see the first 10 pages of an author's manuscript, so if an author thinks a prologue is the best way to introduce a reader to his or her manuscript, then I'd like that to be my introduction, too. If an author feels his or her prologue isn't the strongest beginning to the manuscript, then I'd question the author's reasons for including a prologue at all.
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?
All the time. We're an extremely collaborative agency, and we share queries amongst ourselves regularly. If a query is strong but not right for me, I'll either send to a specific colleague who I think will love it, or share broadly with all my colleagues. This is why we say that a pass from one agent is a pass from the agency.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
If the personalized chit-chat is genuine and shows that an author has done his or her research, then I do appreciate it. Personalization won't make me more likely to offer if the work isn't a good fit for me, but I am more likely to send a personalized response in return. However, I'd rather not have chit-chat if it's just rote or isn't genuine. Really, what I care about is the work. That's what I want to hear about. If an author queries with a fabulous idea, amazing pages, and no personalization, the lack of personalization won't give me any pause about requesting more.
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?
It is a bit of a red flag if the word count/genre sentence isn't included, though not enough to stop me from asking for more if I love the pitch and the pages. Not including the word count makes me wonder if the author is trying to hide the fact that, say, their MG novel is 250,000 words or their YA novel is 5,000 words.
Not including the genre is mildly risky because then the burden is on your pages and pitch to communicate this information clearly (as they should anyway). If an agent reads your pitch and pages and still has no idea what audience or age group you're targeting, that's a big red flag. It's probably an issue with the manuscript that would be noticable anyway, but not including the genre upfront might make an issue like this even easier to spot.
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?
I tend not to think of it in those terms, but I do believe the focus of a query should be on the main character or most central characters--who they are, what's at stake for them, and why the reader should care about them.
Naming a character in a query signals that character's centrality and agency within the story. It tells the reader to pay attention to this character. So if you name a character and it becomes clear they're not central, the reader paid attention to a detail he or she didn't need to. In other words, naming a non-central character is a distraction. For example, if I were to pitch THE HUNGER GAMES, I probably wouldn't name Primrose Everdeen in the query. I'd refer to her as Katniss's sister because Prim never really transcends her role in relation to Katniss--her choices don't shape the story. I would name Peeta because he is central to the plot and his choices do shape the story.
Space in a query letter is limited, so the more named characters you try include, the fewer words you'll have to devote to each one, and the less likely it is that you'll be able to make each character seem real, "round," and worth reading about.
I’ve heard sometimes query letters confuse age category for the genres, just saying YA for instance. Can you explain the difference between category and genres for readers?
Sure. Category is all about the audience/age group you're targeting. So Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Adult are categories. Genre is all about the type of work you're writing, and it's determined by content, tone, mood, style, etc. Genre can be defined really loosely or more narrowly, but it's a description that gives a sense of the type of story you're telling. So some examples of genre are romance, thriller, high fantasy, comedic novel, etc.
For example, TWILIGHT and THIRTEEN REASONS WHY share a category but not a genre. TWILIGHT and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE could be said to share a genre but not a category.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
I get approximately 75 - 100 queries per week. I might request 1 - 3 projects a week. And I might take on 3 - 5 new clients in a year.
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?
I'd only be swayed if an author's web presence is extremely significant, and even then, I'd need to love the work. I don't require writers I sign to start a twitter account or blog presence, but I might encourage them. What matters to me is that a writer shows a willingness to participate in, supplement, and amplify a publisher's promotional efforts in every way possible.
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?
I have no problem with links in an email signature. I have a link to our agency's Illustrators page in my email signature, so I can't throw stones.
What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
A simple one, or none. If there's something about you that makes you the right person to tell this story, definitely include it. But at the query stage, I'm a lot more interested in the work itself. If we move beyond the query stage, then there will be many opportunities to learn more about you. In fact, I often ask for a full bio when I request.
What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
I'm afraid it really does mean "this just isn't right for me"! I wish there was more to it, but this is a very subjective business, and sometimes a good project, a well-written project just isn't resonating for me. It might be because I'm not connecting with the voice or the stakes, or I'm finding the main character hard to relate to, or it's a genre that's not normally my cup of tea unless there's something really unique about the angle taken. I believe in representing work that I not only think is saleable but also wholeheartedly love. Advocating for a project is so much easier if you love it down to your bones, and that kind of connection with a project isn't an everyday thing.
What themes are you sick of seeing?
I'm not sure there are any themes I'm sick of seeing. Treated in a fresh, unique way, I think nearly any subject, nearly any theme can be compelling and evergreen.
What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
Ohhh, I'm no fun when it comes to this question. I worry that someone will recognize their query in my reply and I hate to share queries without getting permission from the author, so I'm afraid I'm going to skip this one. I'm sorry! Wet blanket here.
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
A psychological thriller YA, a la Tana French
A heart-rending, romantic YA with an amazing voice, a la Eleanor & Park or The Scorpio Races
A clever and emotionally resonant MG mystery, a la Rebecca Stead
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
Favorite movies: Hot Fuzz, Dial "M" for Murder, Fritz Lang's M, A Room With A View, Lost in Translation, The Awful Truth, Pan's Labyrinth, Dazed and Confused, Monty Python's Life of Brian
Favorite books (current and perennial favorites in a big mush of categories and genres): George Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, Kazuo Isiguro's NEVER LET ME GO, Ellen Raskin's THE WESTING GAME, E.L. Konigsburg's FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF, Sherman Alexie's THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, Walter Dean Myer's MONSTER, Rainbow Rowell's ELEANOR & PARK, Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME, Gary Paulsen's HATCHET, Kevin Wilson's THE FAMILY FANG, Tana French's THE LIKENESS, Mikhail Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy...and so many more...I can't even start on picture books or this list will never end.
Thank you so much for the terrific questions, Michelle!
Lara Perkins is an Associate Agent and Digital Manager at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She has been with the agency for over three years, working closely with Senior Agent Laura Rennert, with whom she jointly represents a number of clients, in addition to building her own list.
Lara is a fan of smart and raw young adult fiction, character-driven middle grade fiction with a totally original, hilarious voice, and so-adorable-she-can't-stand-it picture books, preferably with some age-appropriate emotional heft. She's a sucker for a great mystery and is passionate about stories that teach her new things or open up new worlds. More than anything, she has a soft spot for the wonderfully weird, the idiosyncratic, and the entirely unexpected.
Recent deals, together with Laura Rennert, include Matthew Ward's middle grade novel, THE FANTASTIC FAMILY WHIPPLE, sold in a two book, six-figure deal to Razorbill, and P.J. Hoover's young adult novel, SOLSTICE, forthcoming with Tor Teen in June 2013.
Lara has a B.A. in English and Art History from Amherst College and an M.A. in English Literature from Columbia University, where she studied Victorian Brit Lit. In her pre-publishing life, she trained to be an architect, before deciding that books, not bricks, are her true passion. She spent over a year at the B.J. Robbins Literary Agency in Los Angeles before coming to Andrea Brown Literary.