Thursday, June 19, 2014

Query Questions with Sarah LaPolla

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've got a great interview to sneak in between Query Kombat rounds. Thanks to Sarah LaPolla of The Bradford Literary Agency for taking the time to answer all these query slush questions! 

Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
- I read my queries in the order I receive them, no matter what. Writers should be aware of the times when publishing is busy or people are less likely to be at their desks - these are the same times as most other companies, so it shouldn't take a lot of guesswork: holidays, end of the year, summer. Responses to queries are going to be slower during these times, but writers shouldn't think they can't query because of it. 

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
Absolutely not! Typos happen. Copyeditors will fix your misplaced comma. But, queries are short. If 5 "typos" and a few grammatical errors happen in a query... that's a problem. Proofread before sending.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
Only if the query is strong. Though, I have looked at sample pages when I thought maybe the query was missing the mark, but I saw potential in the story anyway. 

Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
I'm assistant- and intern-free. I read everything I receive and everything I request, and I answer everything myself.

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
My guidelines ask for the first 5 pages. A prologue would fall under that, so yes. If the sample pages don't include it, and it's there when I request the manuscript, I'd question whether the author really needed it if I was engaged by the opening without it.

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?
It's not a good idea to query multiple agents at the same agencies at the same time. It depends on their policy and the size of the agency, but you can usually query another agent after one agent passes on it. We do refer people to each other though. At my agency, we represent fairly different genres and styles, but in the event I get a query for something I don't handle, but one of my colleagues does, I would definitely pass it on if I thought it had potential. 

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
Queries are a business letter. I need to know what the book is about. That comes first. I like when writers infuse their own personalities too, and I think it's a good idea to include a line or two that personalizes the query. But, sometimes I see writers who wait three paragraphs to tell me what their book is about and by that point I've already lost interest. 

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's not a red flag necessarily, but it does influence how I read the query. If I can't tell what I'm requesting, I'm less likely to request 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?
Only name the characters who directly influence the outcome of the plot. Often this is just the main character and the second most important character (love interest/rival/best friend/family member). For novels with larger casts of characters, stick to only who matters. We don't need to know every friend or person they meet along the way. For the query, we only need the basics.

Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
Titles are often changed so no one should stay married to any particular title, but if I see that no thought went into it or it's something I've seen hundreds of times before (or the name of well-known published books), it colors my judgment a little. I want to know the writer has thought about their novel, even when it comes to aspects that may change, because really, the book itself will be edited too. That doesn't mean you shouldn't self-edit first.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
I average about 100 a week and request maybe 3-6 manuscripts a month. 

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?
This answer is different for non-fiction authors, but I only represent fiction, so I'll answer for fiction writers only. If a writer has a huge, celebrity-level platform, that can influence me, but only if I'm already interested in their book. 5,000 followers and 200 devoted blog readers is a nice presence for a debut author, but it isn't going to influence me at all. All I care about is 1) Do I love your book? and 2) Would we work well together? 

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 think those links are fine to add within your bio or at the end of the query. If a query has too many links though, it might get redirected to the spam folder. So, use caution and good judgment. 

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
A writer shouldn't query their manuscript until they feel it's ready. Once it's sent out, you should probably leave it alone and work on something new. If the revision is major - meaning, the plot changes significantly or a detail about the main character changes how the book is read entirely - then it's fine to re-query. But, an agent may get annoyed that you queried too soon and wasted their time, especially if they already requested the manuscript and started reading it before the major revision was complete. 

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
Day job, where they're from, whether they have a writing degree (which does not influence my decision at all, by the way, but you should still include it), something about them that might directly relate to the book (i.e. "Like my character, I'm the daughter of a small town preacher..."). 

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
Most often it means exactly that. A book can be well-written, have a decent premise, but it lacks the "wow" factor (for lack of a better phrase). I need to be in love with a manuscript in order to represent it, and I also need to have the right vision for it. I could like a book just fine, but that doesn't always mean I have the right editorial eye for it or have the best contacts in order to sell it.

What themes are you sick of seeing?
For YA, bullying, body image issues, and "I'm different and that's OK" themes are very overdone. YES, I know these books are important, but there are so many of them already. If the plot of the book revolves around an "issue," it won't be a strong enough concept for me. I want books that deal with issues in more unique ways and put good storytelling and writing quality at the forefront.  

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
Very much so.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
- Adult science fiction in the tradition of Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick - not a space opera or action/adventure story.
- Literary fiction (adult or YA) that has a strong plot as well as high quality writing.
- YA horror/super dark mystery - psychological plot twists are a huge bonus!

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 
This is a hard question for me because usually what I watch/read for pleasure doesn't fall under genres I represent. More often what I watch and what I read aren't even the same thing. Certain genres work better (for me) in certain mediums. That said, I'm always drawn to character-focused narratives. I have a soft spot for anti-heroes of both genders and women who are in control of their own story. I like characters who can be vulnerable underneath a strong exterior (like Buffy), or secretly strong underneath a passive exterior (like Willow, even before she tried to destroy the world, she was the shy nerd who always had a plan and whipped everyone into shape.) OK, I like characters who aren't from Buffy too, but most of them are good examples of what I'm looking for. Except Riley. 


Sarah Bradford Lit photo

Sarah LaPolla joined Bradford Literary Agency in May 2013. Prior to joining forces with Laura and Natalie, Sarah worked for five years in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, Ltd., and became an associate agent there in 2010. She received her MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from The New School in 2008 and has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Ithaca College.
Sarah represents YA and adult fiction. On the adult side, she is looking for literary fiction, science fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, and upmarket commercial and/or women’s fiction. For YA, she is interested in contemporary/realistic fiction that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of adolescence. YA sci-fi, horror, mystery, and magical realism are also welcome; and she would love to find a modern Judy Blume for the MG market. No matter what genre, Sarah is drawn to layered/strong characters, engaging narrators, and a story that’s impossible to put down.


  1. Great interview. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very informative, I had questions about querying this agent, this interview helped me so much. Thanks Michelle and Sarah for your time.

  3. Haha, except Riley. Classic. Thank you for the advice, Sarah.