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.
Happy Day! Today we have Heather Flaherty from the Bent Agency!
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
- No… it won’t shoot down an ENTIRE query. What it might do, is throw up a red flag. If there’s a couple typos in your query, it could suggest that you aren’t thorough, you didn’t check it closely. And if this query is an agent’s absolute first impression of you, well then what happens down the road when we’re partners and your even more comfy? Also, how committed to this craft are you if you couldn’t tidy up your first impression with a once-over? But mistakes happen, and small ones aren’t held against you – especially if your pitch is solid, your writing honed, and your story great. (These all make-up for silly little blunders).
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
- I always look at pages; always always always. Querying is hard… and it’s a different skill than novel writing. Your query may be terrible, but your writing may be sound. And this just means that you haven’t learned to write a pitch yet. That said, if your query is bad, my opinion will already be slanted… so you’re writing has to be that much better to turn the tide. Thus: Learn how to pitch – don’t rely on the agent reading the sample. (You need all the eggs in your basket you can get!)
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
- I check all my queries myself. :)
Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?
- YES! I probably keep too many MAYBES, especially right now… I’m like queen of the maybes. The problem with maybes is that it pushes your response time back even farther – and it’s already hard to make sure you get back to authors quickly. Let alone if you have maybes. But… I can be in different moods during a day, and sometimes judge a little harshly if I’m pushed for time, etc… those maybes give me a chance to be open. I like my maybes.
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
- I like to see the FIRST pages of a book, even if that means a prologue. Prologues are tough these days, they do tend to be cut most of the time… and for good reason, they normally aren’t needed. But if a book was written distinctly with a prologue, I want to see it. But I also want to see the start of the “story” too. So with sample pages, I would make sure your prologue isn’t ALL you send. Send the prologue, but make sure Chapter 1 pages are there too.
How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?
- They’re handy, but not absolutely necessary. They can help you get the idea of a piece quickly, of course… but they can also be misleading if they aren’t spot-on. Also, you may have something so original it’s hard to comp to it; hey, it can happen! :b
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?
- Lots. We’re a hugely collaborative agency. I love it. That said, sometimes something won’t get passed on for one reason or another, so don’t rely on us to do it. If one of us passes, feel free to query another agent you think would fit you and your ms. J
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
- I tend to like to get straight to the story – but then later see some chit chat. Unless the chit-chat is totally cute, then go for it as the ice-breaker. ;-)
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?
- I feel if the genre is left out, its just a red flag that the author may not understand what they’re trying to do here, amongst all the other people who do, ya know? It immediately says: “really green writer” to me. As for the page count, this doesn’t red flag me as much, I just go: “Uggg… where’s the page count?” But I don’t assume it’s insanely high at that point.
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 mean, for me this kind of specificity in writing a query should just resort back to good ol’ writing in general. If the pitch needs the names, and it works without feeling overwhelming, and it reads well, than good. If having the names bogs down the pitch, and makes the writing feel clogged, then rewrite without or find a better way to write them in.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
- Often changed by either agent or editor, or both! (Don't sweat it, but also don't disregard it. A good title is very catching, and your names should fit your characters).
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 think social media helps the book, but it’s not a dealbreaker in my mind for taking on a client. I personally do like to see a twitter presense at some point, even if it means you start it when I sign you. I will ask, no fail! But I don’t “require it.” I think that can be dangerous. I think the people who are comfy doing it, will do it reasonably well. But those who don’t like doing it, well… that’ll come through, and it could actually be detrimental. And… some people like other platforms better – and that’s cool. Facebook, Instagram, etc… I always say continue with what you like, but at least look into what you don’t know about… consider it, at least.
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, not at all! I’m okay with links… because I do google an author I’m considering… I look at everything you’re doing and you’re on. Those links just get me there faster. I do check the links for spam though. Make sure they’re kosher!
If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
- This is interesting, because this actually happens a lot… and revisions in the middle of the querying process always stick me as funny. I worry that the author sent a manuscript that wasn’t ready. At query level, it’s fine… but when I’ve requested, and am reading, and then get an author saying they’ve revised and want to send me the new version… I have to admit, I get a little deflated. I get it though, I get that an author wants to make their story better, always… but I start to spiral with questions of: Which version is better? Which one should I read? Was it a waste of time to be reading this one if it’s still being worked on? When that happens, I ask an author: 1. Where are the edits coming from? Critique-group? Editor friend? You? Agent? Revise and Resubmit? and 2. If I were to only read once, which one would you have me read?
What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
- Are they in a graduate program, are they in a critique group, are they members of organizations like the SCBWI? I want to know how they are working on their craft, what their commitment to it is.
What does ‘just not right for me’ mean to you?
- IMO, this is a nice way to say “I’m not loving it, personally.” But, and I want to stress this: IT DOESN’T MEAN ANOTHER AGENT WON’T. As agents we have to be fully behind a piece of work to sell it, so you gotta be head-over-heels in love with that book for one reason or another to take it on. (But remember: agents are human, and we all like and want different things… Don’t forget that a writer’s early life is living the first part of their rejection-turned-success story.)
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
- Yes, yes, yes, yupppers, yes and yeah. (ya have to be, I feel – it’s too competitive not to be).
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
- YA Contemporary
- MG contemporary or period
- Unreliable narrator
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
Ooo… so love this questions, always! Favorite movie: Goonies, as well as other nostalgic 80’s movies, or just weird 80’s movies – bratpack stuff of course, Secret of Nimh, The Last Unicorn… I’m also a little bit fangirl, so I heart me some Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, Sherlock (obvi), pretty much all of whatever is being watched right now, I’m binging hard-core. Any comic book hero stories set to screen, love traditional fairy-tales and folklore, so I also love a good retelling, and dragons. Ooo! And pirates.
Favorite book: Watership Down.
Heather Flaherty represents authors who write children's, middle grade, and young adult fiction and non-fiction, as well as select new adult fiction, and pop-culture or humorous non-fiction.
I grew up in Massachusetts, between Boston and the Cape, and started working in New York City as a playwright during college. This pushed me towards English as a focus, and after a lot of country-hopping in my early twenties, I wound up finally beginning my publishing career in editorial, specifically at Random House in the UK. That's also where I became a YA and Children's Literary Scout, which finally landed me back in NYC, consulting with foreign publishers and Hollywood regarding what the next big book will be. Now as an Agent, I'm thrilled to turn my focus on growing authors for that same success.
Currently I'm looking for YA fiction across-the-board, though my heart does sway towards issue-related YA with humor and heart - not depressing, or mopey. I also love love love hard, punchy, contemporary YA that’s got no hesitations when it comes to crazy. I'm also always up for seeing contemporary stories with Sci-Fi or Fantasy elements, as well as a clever respin of an old or classic tale. And then, lastly, really good horror and ghost stories… not gory-for-gory's sake or overly disgusting, but cringing, dark, bloody twisted, and even lovely. That said, the one thing I love above all else in a YA novel, regardless of sub-genre, is a strong and specific character voice. A real person, not another “everygirl.”
As for the Middle-Grade I'm looking for, I want it stark, honest, and even dark; either contemporary or period, as long as it’s accessible. Coming-of-age stories, dealing-with-difficulty stories, witness stories (adult issues seen through the child’s p.o.v kinda thing), anything that makes you want to hold the narrator's hand… for your own comfort, as well as their’s. I am also ok with these stories having slight magical or fantasy elements as well – as long as they're subtle.
In New Adult, I like to see story… not just romance and/or erotica. For me, it should pretty much be a great YA novel for an older audience.
On the non-fiction side, I'm looking for strong teen memoirs about overcoming crushing situations.