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?
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.