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!
Big welcome to Thao Le from the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency!
Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
Not really a better or worse, but there’s always a post NaNoWriMo influx around December-February so my inbox gets very bloated around that time and it makes it slower to respond.
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
No, if everything else is great then a typo won’t be a deal breaker. Of course you also always want to your best foot forward so double check for these types of common errors before hitting send!
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I always look at the sample pages first to see if I can get pulled into the writing before I check out the query.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
We do have an assistant who looks at queries for Sandy Dijkstra and Elise Capron, but I look at my own queries.
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
Our submission guidelines states that you should copy-and-paste the first 10-15 pages of your work into the body of your query email, so yes. If the prologue is part of the first 10-15 pages then it should be what gets included in the query.
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?
I do pass along queries or projects that I might think is better suited for another agent at our agency. Especially at conferences where I may represent Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency as a whole. I would keep my eyes and ears peeled for projects that may not be a good fit with me, but might be up one of my colleague’s alley. Jessica Watterson and I also happen to overlap at times over YA and New Adult projects so we share some of our queries and do second reads for one another.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
Absolutely the manuscript. Your manuscript should be the star of the query letter. Leave the chitchat for later. I want to hear about the story. A single line of personalization to let the agent know why you think your work is a good fit for their list would be sufficient.
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?
Including word count and genre is most certainly important and it is useful information for the agent. For instance if I enjoy the writing of a MG novel, but later find out it is 120,000 words… that’s going to be a pass for me because it’s simply too difficult to sell a debut MG novel that is over 100K words. Most MG works are 65K-70K at most and that’s for upper MG readers. Also, if you don’t include a genre then that kind of shows you don’t know who the audience your book is targeting. If you, the author don’t know who the audience is, then how am I or anyone else? Including word count and genre shows that you know that your manuscript is marketable. At the very least you should know if it is fiction or non-fiction and if it is for an adult audience or a younger audience.
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?
Yes, keep the number of names in the query to the essential main cast. I don’t need to know about every side character in the query letter. The query letter should be clear and concise as possible.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
Sometimes publishers do change book titles and character names, but I always say if you have a great title put it in the subject line of your query. That’s the first thing agents will see when they receive your email and if it’s catchy and memorable they will be more likely to be enthusiastic and eager to read your query. It’s to your advantage to come up with a great title.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
Around 100 a week. I usually separate queries by month though so usually I will spend time looking through 300+ queries over the course of several days and then spend 1-2 days sending out requests. Hard to tell how many requests I would make because there are times when the queries are REALLY good and I will make as many as 10 requests at once (that’s quite a bit for me) and other times I can’t find a single one that I like.
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 handle fiction only so platform is not a total deal breaker for me. For non-fiction, it can be different because you need to be an expert on whatever topic your book is about and have a clear audience that trusts your word. But having a strong online presence is always a plus. It shows you have an audience who are potential book buyers. But in the end, the writing has to be what speaks to me. If your writing doesn’t speak to me, it doesn’t matter if you have thousands of twitter followers. I just don’t connect with your work and I would be doing you a disservice to represent you because I’m not passionate about your writing. You can’t sell books without passion. I don’t require my writers to start one, but it is definitely recommended. In this day and age you need to connect to your readers and do some self-marketing.
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 it is fine to include links to your blog or twitter in your signature, but do not ask me to go to a website to look at sample pages. You should be following the submission guidelines in that regard. For instance, if our submission guidelines asks you to copy-and-paste your sample pages and you give me a link instead, I will NOT click that link. So you just gave yourself a major disadvantage because now I won’t see your sample pages. Follow the submission guidelines for each agent you query closely! It’s the best way to get the agent to look at your work. Also, unsolicited emails telling me to check out your amazon page or goodreads page is not a good thing. It’s spam. I delete them and you probably just annoyed me.
If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
Before you send out any queries you should let your MS rest for a bit. Give it a week or so and then go back and look at it. If there are things you still want to change then you’re not ready to query it yet. Make those changes. Let it rest again and then look at it one more time. Once you think you can’t make any more changes THEN you query. Don’t get impatient and hit send before your MS is ready. Because all the flaws that you notice after the fact, the agents will notice right away. That said, if you already sent it out, but you realized your mistake and made changes… simply inform the agent and ask them if they would like to see the revised material. They’ll be able to tell you yes or no. But doing this dampens your first impression so try to avoid it as much as possible.
What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
A simple line about who you are, where you’re from, and that this is your first book is fine. If your job is relevant to your book mention it. For example, if you are a lawyer and your book is a legal thriller, being a lawyer is relevant and you should include that. But if you don’t have many credentials just focus more on your manuscript and keep the bio short and sweet.
What does ‘just not right for me’ mean to you?
I didn’t click with the writing. I wasn’t in love with the plot, the characters, or the world. I am just not passionate enough about the story to read it five times. Because that’s what agents have to do. Whatever project we take on we have to be able to read it five times, ten times even. So if I can’t picture myself doing that with your project I will most likely pass. I just can’t sell what I am not enthusiastic about.
What themes are you sick of seeing?
YA paranormal romance and dystopian are down trending so I probably won’t take any on at the moment. I’m also not a fan of stories where the protagonist is blatantly the Chosen One or is a “special snowflake” who is loved by everyone is clearly VERY SPECIAL AND IMPORTANT. I prefer my protagonists to be more relatable and flawed. And if they are the Chosen One, they have to struggle and earn it.
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
Definitely. I almost always work on 2-3 revisions (usually even more) with my authors.
What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
I’ve gotten a few queries pitching me alien erotica… also a query that opened with a line about masturbating to Free Willy… I’ve gotten some strange stuff!
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
1) Strong friendships/platonic relationships (especially between girls, but I love a good bromance).
2) Multicultural elements with diverse characters/settings.
3) Unreliable, possibly crazy/unhinged protagonists (think Taylor Swift’s Blank Space music video and Gone Girl).
Do check out my #mswl posts on twitter (@agentthao) or my tumblr (www.agentthao.tumblr.com) for more.
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
Recent favorite books: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Recent favorite movies: Looper, Snowpiercer, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Lunch Box
I also enjoy a lot of TV. I’ve mentioned Orphan Black on another interview. I love it. I’m also a sucker for CW shows like the 100, Arrow, and Reign.
THAO LE handles finances and selected contracts at the Dijkstra Agency. She is also an agent.
She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego with a double major in econ-management science and Chinese studies. While interning at the agency during college, she realized where her true love lies -- books -- and joined the agency full-time in the spring of 2011.
Thao is looking for adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror, NA (new adult), YA (young adult), and MG (middle grade). She enjoys both gritty, dark narratives and fantastically quirky stories. She is also looking for light-hearted, funny, and moving contemporary YAs with a raw, authentic teen voice. She's particularly drawn to memorable characters, smart-mouthed dialogue, strong plots, and tight writing. Her favorite books are ones that reimagine familiar tales and tropes in a completely fresh new way and she has a soft spot for multicultural stories and lush settings.
Recent sales include: Katherine Harbour’s fantasy Thorn Jack (Harper Voyager), Lisa Freeman’s surf YA novel Honey Girl (Sky Pony Press), IPPY Award-winning S.K. Falls’ NA novel One Last Song (Forever Yours), James Kendley’s paranormal thriller The Drowning God(Harper Voyager Impulse), and Wendy Spinale’s steampunk Peter Pan retellingEverland (Scholastic).
Thao is not looking for: biographies, business books, cookbooks, memoirs, picture books, poetry, religious/spiritual books, screenplays, self-help, short stories, or travel books.