Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Query Questions with Lana Popovic

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 happy to have a new Query Questions with Lana Popovic of Chalberg and Sussman.  

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

January and September are so busy for us that I’d recommend not querying during those months, although timing doesn’t make that much of a difference. An excellent query will always get noticed.

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

If the rest of the query is fantastic, definitely not. However, consistently wrong usage of commas has always been a pet peeve.

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

Our online form doesn’t allow for sample pages, so I only see them if I request a partial. I request partials when I’m intrigued by the premise but not entirely sold, based on the quality of the query, that the writing will be strong.

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

I check all of them myself!

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

If I were to have sample pages, definitely 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?

My colleagues and I do pass queries on to each other if we think the subject matter is better suited to another agent, although I’ll usually at least look at the manuscript itself first. Even if it’s not my usual speed, if something is exceptional I’ll still want to represent it myself, or possibly offer to co-represent with another agent at ZSH.

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

I quite like personalization—it shows me that the writer has done their homework and knows at least a little about me and what I like.

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 definitely strikes me as strange if the genre isn’t included, and I like to have both components in a query. I prefer to see them first, but don’t mind at all if they come last. Also, this is such a small thing but makes a big difference to me: always present your title in all caps. This immediately sends the impression that the writer is professional and knowledgeable when it comes to querying.

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?

Since agents are eternally pressed for time, I always recommend minimizing confusion as much as possible. Three or four named characters are all we need.

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

Both are frequently changed by publishers, but in terms of attracting an agent’s attention, a captivating, beautiful title can certainly make the difference between a request and a pass, so I would definitely recommend spending that extra time work-shopping titles. Also, overly fantastical character names invariably make me grind my teeth.

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

It varies considerably from week to week. Some weeks I get close to a hundred, and others only ten or fifteen. With that range, it’s tricky to tell how many requests I make, but I’d say I request about 20% of the queries I receive.

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 like seeing writers tweeting and blogging, but that’s never been a deciding factor in whether or not I offer representation. I do encourage authors to build up an online presence if this is something that seems like a natural and good fit for them, as publishers do like to see that an author has self-promoting capacity, but it doesn’t sway my decision to sign one way or the other.

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?

Nope, link away! No problem at all.

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

I’d say only if the material was requested, unless the changes were so major they would have altered the query itself significantly.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

A very simple one including any other credits—involvement with writer’s groups, education, contest wins—they might have.

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

That one covers a multitude of sins! It can mean anything from me not liking the way the premise was executed, to the voice, character development, and the quality of the writing itself. Unfortunately, like most agents, I don’t have the time to provide personalized feedback on why I’m passing on a project, unless I think it’s really excellent save for one concern too major to be handled by a request to revise and resubmit. And sometimes, “just not right for me” means I didn’t think the writing was exceptional, and this isn’t feedback that any aspiring writer wants to hear.

What themes are you sick of seeing?

Girls with prophetic dreams and girls who wake up on their sixteenth/seventeenth birthday with a magical ability. In general, I would also strongly recommend against starting a manuscript with either a dream or a car accident.

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

Definitely! I go through at least two rounds of edits with all of my clients, and usually more rounds than that. It’s my responsibility to make sure the manuscript isn’t submitted until it’s as gorgeous and perfect as possible.

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?

There are, as you might expect, lots of contenders for that one. But one of my favorites was a writer—also clearly not a native English speaker—who spent a full paragraph extolling the virtues and beauty of my first name. The following query was almost like an afterthought to the Ode to Lana.

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

      1. A gorgeous contemporary fantasy that draws on Slavic mythology.
      2. A YA contemporary or fantasy set in New Orleans. I don’t know why I want this so badly, but there it is.
      3. A historical fantasy with romantic/erotic elements that could be likened to Jacqueline Carey’s KUSHIEL’S DART series.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 

I love Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Orphan Black, BBC America’s Sherlock, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Shameless, and House of Cards. I adore Dexter and Hannibal in theory, but in practice they give me fierce nightmares, so I can’t ever marathon those. And books, so many! SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley, THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman, urban fantasy by Jim Butcher, Richard Kadrey, and Mike Carey, THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss, anything by Tana French and Gillian Flynn, and NORTH OF BOSTON by ZSH author Elisabeth Elo.


Lana Popovic holds a B.A. with honors from Yale University, a J.D. from the Boston University School of Law, where she focused on intellectual property, and an M.A. with highest honors from the Emerson College Publishing and Writing program. Prior to joining Chalberg & Sussman, Lana worked at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, where she built a list of Young Adult and adult literary authors while managing foreign rights for the agency.

Lana’s clients include Brittany Cavallaro (A Study in Charlotte, forthcoming from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins), Angela Palm (Riverine, forthcoming from Graywolf), Leah Thomas (Because You’ll Never Meet Me, forthcoming from Bloomsbury), Rebecca Podos (The Mystery of Hollow Places, forthcoming from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), Michelle Smith (Play On, forthcoming from Spencer Hill Contemporary), and Marie Jaskulka (The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl and Random Boy, forthcoming from Skyhorse).

With an abiding love for dark themes and shamelessly nerdy fare—Battlestar Galactica and Joss Whedon are two of her great loves—Lana is looking for a broad spectrum of Young Adult and Middle Grade projects, from contemporary realism to speculative fiction, fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. For the adult market, Lana is interested in literary thrillers, horror, fantasy, sophisticated erotica and romance, and select nonfiction. An avid traveler, she has a particular fondness for stories set in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, although she also loves reading about American subcultures.

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