Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Query Questions with Shira Hoffman

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.

I'm excited to get in one more Query Questions before the holidays with Shira Hoffman of McIntosh and Otis, Inc.  

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?

Great question! I know this is one that a lot of people wonder about.  The short answer is no, I read everything that comes in, no matter when you send it. 

The long answer is that certain times of year are busier for me personally, so sometimes response times are longer.  This is particularly true in September when everyone comes back from vacation, and in the winter over the holidays, when our  offices close between Christmas and the New Year.  That said, we always try to keep response times as short as possible and pay very close attention to everything that comes in.  Our office has a non-response policy on any query that isn’t requested.  The details can be found here: http://mcintoshandotis.com/submissions.html.  I try to update my Twitter followers on my queries about once a month.  Feel free to follow @ShiraSHoffman for updates.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?

If I see a lot of typos in the first few sentences that would certainly give me pause.  However, I’m looking for the quality of the writing and the originality of the idea.  Typos might make me think twice about taking on an author, but they certainly won’t dissuade me if the project is something I really love.  

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?

I always look at sample pages without fail, even if the query doesn’t interest me.  This is especially true, because I will often pass on promising works to other M&O agents when a project is not for me.  The quality of a writer’s work is what I am interested in, and some writers really struggle with their query letters.  That said, if the query letter doesn’t do a good job of getting the hook across, the first page needs to grab me.  Authors should always do their best to make a query letter clear and concise to give themselves the best possible shot at being noticed.  One main reason I will reject a project is if I feel like I don’t understand the premise or where the story is going, so make that query letter count!

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?

Great question, although to me those two options aren’t mutually exclusive.  I check all my queries myself and read each project.  However, I do also have an assistant who helps me by taking a first or second look and identifying projects she thinks I will like.  This is actually great for authors. It means that you have at least two professional reads on every query you send me. 

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?

As I mention above, I often pass queries along when they aren’t right for me and if I think they would be of interest to other agents at M&O.  Writers should absolutely never query two agents at the same agency at the same time. However, if they want to query another M&O agent once the first agent has passed, they certainly could.     

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

I always prefer to hear about the manuscript upfront.  The only time I’m interested in hearing something personalized is if there is a specific reason the author chose to query me.  For example, if I represent an author whose work is similar that would be great to mention.  Sometimes I’ve had an online interaction with an author or met them at a conference, and that should always be included as well.  The important thing is to keep it short and sweet, and then get to the story! It’s best to save your personal info for the bio paragraph and let the work speak for itself. 

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 do feel keeping the characters names down in a query letter is essential.  There is no hard and fast rule, but the more names you use, the more confusing it gets and the more explaining you have to do.  Don’t get too bogged down in the details in your query letter.  The point is to get the big picture across, so agents know what we are looking at.  Querying is all about marketing yourself and your book, so try to think of an exciting way to sum everything up and get agents engaged instead of giving a blow-by-blow of the plot points. 

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?

It’s true that titles and character names often change from acquisition to publication.  That said, writers should give these elements as much thought and attention as any other part of their book. The character names tend to be less important to me personally in terms of making a manuscript shine.  However, a great title that really fits a book can make it stand out in a crowded marketplace.  Sometimes publishers can help with that, but if a writer comes up with an amazing title it will always impress me.  Not to mention a great title can help editors see your vision for the project right from the start. 

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?

Right now, I think I’m averaging about 100 a week.  It definitely varies from day to day and season to season.  It’s hard to say how many I request in a given week; usually, it’s no more than one or two.  That said, I don’t have any given quota I’m looking to fill.  If I liked ten manuscripts in one week, I would request them all!

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?

The only time a Twitter account or blog presence would tip the scale for me is on non-fiction projects where platform is important.  For fiction, having a built-in audience right out of the gate is great, but it’s something that can be cultivated over time if an author hasn’t already started working on it.  I do recommend that writers use social media or blogging to grow their fan base, but it’s not a requirement. 

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 a signature aren’t offensive.  However, writers should be careful because sometimes emails containing links can trigger our spam filters, which are unusually aggressive.  I’d suggest omitting them when querying M&O, just to make sure your emails get through. 

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?

This is a personal pet peeve of mine.  Please don’t send me revised manuscripts, unless I’ve asked to see a revision or have previously considered and corresponded with you on the project.  Make sure your manuscript is in the best shape it can be in before you send it out.  If you’ve revised in the meantime that’s something we could discuss if I request a full or we are discussing representation. If I see potential in something no amount of post-submission tinkering is going to change that; the same can be said for the opposite.  Since we have often started reading by the time you resubmit, all submitting a revised manuscript does is cause frustration for the agent.   

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?

This is a hard question as that phrase can encompass so many things.  For me, it usually means this is a genre or story that is not something I personally want to focus on as an agent.  So, for example, I am not big on political thrillers or family sagas.  Even if you’ve written a great story in these genres, your book will be “just not right for me.”  Overall, I think this phrase is generally used when an agent is not going to be enthusiastic about working on your book.  Whatever the reason, the agent is letting you know that you should keep looking for the person who is the right fit and is going to be passionate about your project.    

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?

I’m an extremely hands-on agent in terms of editorial work. It’s so difficult to sell a project these days that still needs any kind of editorial work!  That’s why it’s essential to have an agent who will work with you before the project goes out.  I usually go through at least 1 or 2 rounds of edits with an author before sending a book to editors.  That said, if I feel something is ready to be submitted as is, I wouldn’t hesitate to send it out. How much editorial work needs to be done before submitting is a decision I always make with the author on a case-by-case basis.    

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?

I’m still searching for a good contemporary romance with a dash of western or southern flavor.  I would also be really interested in finding a memoir that tells modern stories of women in (or impacted by) the military, something in the vein of Un-Remarried Widow by Artis Henderson, a great book coming out from S&S this January. 

As a challenge, I would be enthusiastic to see a women’s fiction novel or even some kind of a commercial non-fiction project that engages with the backlash against "rape culture" that has been so prominent online this past year.  I feel this last wish would be particularly hard to fulfill, as the subject matter is difficult and the right balance would be very hard to find.  That said, I’m hopeful someone out there will write a book that would increase awareness on this important issue while telling a compelling story.  If you think that person might be you, I’d certainly be interested to see your project. 


Shira Hoffman began her career in publishing as an intern at Tor Books and started working at McIntosh & Otis, Inc. in 2007. In 2013 she took over as M&O’s Director of Subsidiary Rights. Shira is currently developing her own list and is interested in a broad range of fiction and non-fiction in the adult market as well as an occasional YA or middle grade title. Her primary interests include mainstream commercial fiction, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, science fiction, horror and dystopian. She is particularly keen to acquire projects that blend genres in new and interesting ways and she hopes to discover writers with well developed and original voices.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Shira, for sharing part of the agent process with us. And thank you, Michelle, for hosting agent posts on your blog.

    I have a question: I've seen agents on Twitter tweet comments such as: Writing is rough, needs too much copy-editing, or needs too much editing in general.

    How thoroughly edited do agents expect manuscripts to be? I understand we must put our best work out there, but will a few misplaced commas or a stray odd word choice mean automatic rejection? And how much is considered too much editing?