Thursday, February 13, 2014

Query Questions with Michelle Witte

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.

Thanks so much to Michelle Witte of Mansion Street Literary Management for the interview. And a bigger thanks to her for being so patient while Sun versus Snow was running.

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
If you're constantly waiting for the best time to query, you're never going to do it. That said, tons of people in the publishing world take off the week before and/or after Christmas, so it's a good idea to wait until about the second week of January so your query doesn't drown in the slush that's been piling up for several weeks. Best bet, though, is to glance at an agent's Twitter or Facebook or Website (if available) to see if they've got a vacation or something big coming up.

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

Not for me. My editorial mentor once told me to never read a book you edited once it was published, because you will always find that one typo that slipped through, even though you and other editors read through the stupid thing a dozen times. So do your best, then send it off and let the anxiety go. What will be will be. If you do screw up massively, don't do it next time. It's this thing called "learning" that we must all go through. 

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I always look at sample pages. Query writing is its own special beast and can be tricky to master, which means that a great writer might produce a terrible query. I try to let the writing speak for itself. However, a great query will catch my attention sooner and stronger than a query that is blah.

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
For the most part I read all of my queries. I do enlist help when things get busy, but in general I like sifting through the slush. Some days there are a dozen misses and some iffies but nothing that really stands out. And then there are days when you find something brilliant and you want your inbox filled with similarly awesome queries and SEND THEM ALL TO ME NOW. I've always felt like the slush pile is bursting with potential. Diamonds can get lost in the sea of coal, and the only way to find them is by grabbing a shovel and digging in.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
I'd say that the more important question is, does the manuscript actually need a prologue. High fantasy and full-on space operas can get away with them because they're so complicated, but for the most part, a story is better when it unfolds organically, not in the author telling the reader everything they should know right up front. To answer the original question, I tend to skip most prologues because they don't add anything to the story and are often told in a different voice than the rest of the manuscript. Again, really think about whether a prologue is the best thing for your story. It's usually not.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
I'm fine with authors mentioning why they queried me or if they saw/met me at a conference, but other than that, it's fairly pointless. Get to the plot; I can always Google stalk you later if I need to.

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?
Always include the word count and genre when querying fiction. Since I represent children's and young adult books, those stories can fall within any genre on the spectrum, so I need a head's up on what the plot is about and the elements involved. One note on word count: Anything over 80,000 words for middle grade and 100,000 words for young adult gets an automatic eyebrow raise. It doesn't mean I won't consider the manuscript, just that the writer probably needs to tighten their writing (a lot) before the book is ready for querying. Cut out unnecessary chapters, scenes, sentences, and words. It will almost always improve the flow and pace of the book.

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?

It makes me groan when I see advice that states an arbitrary
 says, "You must do it like this,
 or your query will burn in the furthermost reaches of HELL.
 Instead of worrying about how many characters should be in the query, focus on condensing the plot to its most essential elements. In most cases, doing that will eliminate mention of extraneous characters. Focus on the essential characters (protagonist, antagonist, love interest) and you should be fine.

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
Most new writers don't have a say in the final title or cover, though editors will generally consult with writers before changing character name, though that's usually broached in the editing process. Title and cover changes generally come from sales and marketing. Sad but true.

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 have one client who doesn't have an online presence. At all. I don't think he even has a Facebook page. But his writing is awesome and that's what really matters at the end of the day.

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?
Hardly. It makes things easier when I'm poking about online for info on writers I'm particularly interested in. Less time on the Google for me.

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

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
I come from an editorial background and am very nitpicky when it comes to grammar and writing mechanics, so I do thorough edits on all of my clients' manuscripts before we take them out on submission. The more polished a manuscript is when it hits the editor's desk, the better chance it has of standing out from the pack. Besides, typos drive me crazy, so I'd be fixing them anyway. ;)

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
I generally refrain from mentioning specific things I've seen in queries when I'm online. I can't imagine how horrifying it would be to see something like that pop up on Twitter, knowing full well it was about me. That said, I do trade war stories with colleagues or people I know in real life. The slush pile is a crazy, wondrous thing. 

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
1. I'd love to find some great middle grade stories with magical realism and heart. 
2. YA stories that focus on friendships and families. While I love a good romance, I want to see fiction that explores the other important and defining relationships in our lives.

3. Narrative nonfiction for middle grade and YA, especially if it emphasises people and events that kids can relate to. The best nonfiction isn't dry and boring; it's full of life and captivates while informing.


Michelle Witte has joined MSLM. As a new literary agent, Michelle Witte brings with her a wealth of experience, not only with juvenile fiction, but with the publishing industry as a whole. Over the past seven years, she has worked in a variety of positions that encapsulate the various stages of a book’s publication, from the idea and writing stages, to editing, design and production, bookselling and publicity.
Michelle began her career as a journalist, first reporting and then later copy editing for the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Utah, the second largest paper in the state. From there, she transitioned with her editing skills to nonfiction publisher Gibbs Smith, where she oversaw creation, editing, and production of more than thirty titles, including children’s activity, humor, gift, cookbooks, and a smattering of other topics from blacksmithing to green living.
In her spare time she writes on a variety of topics and genres, though her great love is young adult fiction. Her first book, The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing was released June 2012 by Running Press. Michelle’s second book The Faker’s Guide to the Classics: Everything You Need to Know About the Books You Should Have Read (But Didn’t) will be released May 2013 by Lyons Press.
As a literary agent, she will utilize her knowledge of publishing  to benefit authors both established and new. With her background in editing, she has a keen eye for quality prose and storytelling. But it is her overall experience as a reader, writer, editor, and bookseller that guides her as she searches for enthralling new writers and manuscripts.

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