Friday, July 31, 2015

Query Questions with Noah Ballard

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 welcome Noah Ballard from Curtis Brown to Query Questions. Here's what he has to say about his query slush.

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

Summer is better, but really any time is good. My schedule is dictated by the work of my clients. It’s worse to send things at the end of academic semesters because that’s when all the professors start turning in their drafts.

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

Sometimes, yes. The query is evidence that you’re a professional. If you can’t proofread, that’s a red flag for agents.

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

Not always. But people can hook me a lot easier than they think. I think a lot of writers over-write their synopses. All I want to know is Who is this about, Where is it set, What’s the conflict. If I like the gist of the synopsis, I stop reading and go to the pages.

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

No. I do have interns, but I like reading my queries personally.

Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?

Yes. I let the Maybes marinate for a few days or even weeks sometimes.

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

Yes. I want to interact with the book the way a reader would picking it up at the bookstore. If the prologue can be cut and you’ll still enjoy the book, maybe it doesn’t need a prologue.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?

Coming up with comps is ultimately my job to prove to an editor how many copies a book will sell, so I don’t expect an author to do that. But it’s good to see who the author is reading, who they are in conversation with and gauge their understanding of the marketplace.

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?

One agent per agency at a time is a good practice. As most large agencies, typically each agent has a niche, so researching accordingly is important. But I will hand things off if I think they’re more suited for someone else.

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

I like to know why the person is querying me.

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?

In a good synopsis, the author should be able to identify their genre and include their word count. I want to know what I’m getting into. For example, I get “novels” all the time that are “completed” at 25,000 words. Barring some exceptions, publishers want a debut novel to be between 60,000-100,000 words.

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 wouldn’t worry about how many characters someone names. However, a synopsis should only be four to five sentences and tell us the basic premise of the book. Keep it simple.

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

Definitely sweat it when querying. Titles are important—they are the first impression of the book. Yes, publishers (and agents) often change titles, but first impressions last.

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

I’m averaging about 300 per week. I request around 1%.

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?

Being a good literary citizen means communicating with the community. Social media is a great way to do that, and it shows you’re savvy when it comes time to market the book. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s not insignificant.

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?

Links to an author’s homepage (if it’s professionally built) is a good sign of business savvy. But, if it looks bad, it definitely makes a bad impression.

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

Query slowly. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people rescind and resubmit edited manuscripts—it’s someone else’s notes. If an agent is into the book, they’ll sign it and edit. But making quick changes to address passes is not a good move. Make sure a book is done-done before sending it out and then stand by it until that round of querying is over.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

Your bio is your CV. If you have nothing to include—no publication credits, no schooling, no writer/publishing contacts, then you’re probably not ready for an agent. A writer is a job like anything else—you need to build your resume.

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

An author-agent relationship is a lot like dating: Sometimes I fall head over heels for a writer that’s great for me, sometimes I fall for someone who is going to hurt me in the end, and sometimes I don’t fall in love—even though I know they’re a perfectly good writer. But, like dating, you don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t love you, so don’t be too sad if you get that response. It means I see your talent, but the vision for how to represent you wasn’t there.

What themes are you sick of seeing?

Not a theme, but a genre: broken cop with dead wife, daughter, etc. must exact vengeance on ISIS, the Cartel, serial killer from his past etc. and face his demons.

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

Yes. I edit a lot before I send something out. And I warn my clients of this before signing with me.

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

Someone one once opened his query asking if I was afraid of being too successful. (Yes.) Another person responded to my pass by calling me a cock.

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

Funny, female-driven mysteries. Neo-noir. Novels that analyze technology’s impact on our lives.

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

I just reread Jurassic Park. What a great book—and somewhat questionable politics. If there are any writers out there with an idea that simple (let’s bring back dinosaurs) with the chops to pull it off (a background in Chaos Theory), please let me know.


Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency where he sold foreign rights for the agency in addition to building his own client list. Noah specializes in literary debuts, upmarket thrillers and narrative nonfiction, and he is always on the look-out for honest and provocative new writers. Noah has appeared across the country at graduate programs and writing conferences speaking about query letters, building nonfiction platforms and submission etiquette. He lives in Brooklyn.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


This judge was correctly named! Check the comments for the answer. Stay tuned for another opportunity.

Ready for another of our little game of Name that Judge? Let's see if this one goes as quickly. There are 34 Query Kombat judges and are agented or published writers with experience in this business. 

Some have agreed to join me and give away a prize to whoever guesses their nickname. You can find their bios at Mike's blog, SC's blog, and my blog. (No, I'm not providing the links. Where's the fun in that? But look in the May archive.) I will provide the list of judge names. Guessed judges are marked off.

Jessica Kapp
Kathleen Allen
Tracy Townsend
Laura Heffernan
Max Wirestone
Kristin B. Wright
Mary Ann Marlowe
Betsy Aldredge
Carrie DuBois
Natasha Raulerson
Sarah Glenn Marsh
Amy Trueblood
Judy Clemens
Wade Albert White
Tatum Flynn
Kim Long
Jamie Howard
Richard Pearson
Melissa Caruso
Wendy Nikel
Christina June
J.C. Davis
Stephanie Scott
Carrie Ann
Kendra Young
Heather Powell-van Fleet
Amanda Heger
Annika Sharma
Rena Olsen
Cale Dietrich
Sharon Chriscoe
Marty Mayberry
Dan Koboldt
Maragaret Fortune

This judge's nickname was WonderPig
. And they have provided a few hints:

- Is in a mixed Hufflepuff-Slytherin marriage to her HS sweetheart (she's the Hufflepuff) with a Gryffinclaw son & Slytherdor daughter.

- First connected with her agent through Nightmare on Query Street in 2013.

- Taught Korean martial arts before teaching creative arts at "Hogwarts for Hackers."

- She's been preaching the same sermon all #QueryKombat: Tea > coffee. Writing > query. Solid 3rd POV > Tepid 1st POV.

- Describes grammar in terms of math, even though she doesn't "do" math at all.

- Has nailed entries mercilessly for inapt choice of words, and doesn't mind one bit nagging the author about why it doesn't work. (insert 

First one to correctly name this judge gets a first chapter critique! I'll put a time limit of five days on this, but hopefully we won't need to worry about such things.

Other rules. Let's see...

You don't have to have entered or been picked for Query Kombat to play. Anyone may try and Name That Judge. There will be other posts with fresh judges coming up soon. You may enter more than one Name That Judge post. Though to be fair, you may only win once. You may only guess once on each post. You must leave a way to reach you--twitter handle or email address.


Query Letter Basics

Now that Query Kombat and New Agent are over, I thought I'd give a few basics to keep in mind about query letters and how they are generally formatted. I'm not claiming all query letters need to look like this. This is just my opinion on how they might look their best and follow the trends.

Forgive me if you know this already.

I'll do an example query and give a few notes afterward:

Dear Agent: You want to address your query to a specific agent. Do not sent ten or a hundred letters in one press of the button to a variety of agents. Send a single email to each agent. You may address agents as their first and last name or Mr./Ms. last name. But do not leave off their name and avoid misspelling it.

1st paragraph: Set up your main character and their motivation. Tell us something about your character and what they want/motivation. Then last sentence here give the obstacle that arises to stop them. Give your main character's age if the story is young adult, middle grade, or new adult. Age doesn't not need to be included for adult, but can be. Don't forget the hyphens. seventeen-year-old Ramiro 

Often this can be done with two paragraphs with a short sentence or two used as a hook before starting on the set-up paragraph. I never went with hooks but many writers do. Either way is fine. 

Notice there are no indents or tabs in a query letter. A query letter should be single spaced. Your sample pages should be double space (except in a contest). Put a space/hard return between each paragraph.

2nd paragraph: Give more detail about the obstacle and how your main character reacts to it. It's fantastic to end with how the problem gets worse. Show how it escalates.

3rd paragraph: It's okay to put the problem escalation into the 3rd paragraph. That works too. But here you want to iron out the stakes and the choice the main character must make. What bad thing will happen if the main character fails?

There are a few variations on this. Ramiro must do blank or blank bad thing will happen. It looks like this: Ramiro must bring back a witch or his city will burn. 

Ramiro must choose between blank or blank and then bad thing will happen. It looks like this: Ramiro must choose between his dreams of being a soldier or the lives of the people of his city and the wrong choice means losing his head and his paycheck.

Make sure the stakes and choice are specific. Spell them out in detail because that entices a reader.  Don't use cliche phrases like evil, doom the world, or dark secrets without explaining with those mean. You want to keep the outcome of the end choice of the main character secret--Not the choices themselves. 

Word count/genre/comp paragraph: Here's where you list your word count/ genre/ comps. It's a general housekeeping paragraph and can include your bio or that can be a separate paragraph. Do put your title in all caps and keep it simple and clean. GRUDGING is a 94,000 word epic fantasy for adults. Though a stand alone story, it can be part of a series. Fans of xxx book might enjoy it.     

Thanks for your time and consideration,

First and Last Name

email address
phone number
street address

Notice there's is no date at the top for an email query letter. Also notice the contact information goes at the bottom after your name.

A few other things to avoid:

-Do not start a sentence with "My name is ..."  It reeks of newbie.
-Do not use the words "fiction novel." Those two words mean the same thing. It makes agents mad.
-Do not write your query from the point of view of your character. It should have the voice and personality/flow of your character, but be written from your point of view. This is considered a gimmick.
-Do not have more paragraphs about why you wrote the story and its themes than paragraphs showing the story. 

A few things to consider:

-The voice of your query should match the voice of your main character.
-The query should set the same mood as your story. Whether that be humorous or dark. Use words to make it cast a feeling.
-Show us something about the personality of the main character, what are they like?
-A few adjectives won't kill a query letter. It helps illuminate them, but keep it brief.

These are just some tips. Of course a real fantastic concept and sample pages can outweigh a bad query. But it's still better to have a great query to go with great pages.

Hopefully this reminder about query basics helps.

Monday, July 27, 2015

New Agent Request Round


I know many of you thought this day would never arrive! It's here!

We are rolling out the red carpet and shining the spotlight on the best entries for our agents over the next three days.

(Ninja agents are welcome too. Merely leave a request, along with information on how many pages and where to email you.)

There are thirty-two entries on this blog. All fit on the front page but please use the Blog Archive in the sidebar to ensure no entries get missed. Entries are grouped by age category. They are also numbered for ease of keeping track. (Agents may prefer to look at some entries and return later for more.)

Agents can comment on as many as they want and ask for pages.

If you see a problem with your entry like a missing spacing, let me know on twitter at #NewAgent or the contest email address. 

Please the comments are only for agents, but cheer for your favorites and friends, and thank the agents on twitter under #NewAgent.

I'll be there shouting out when an agent appears!

Congrats to all for entering! Let's hope for tons of requests!