Thursday, July 23, 2015

Query Questions with Penelope Burns

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.

Penelope Burns is the newest agent at Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. She's also part of the New Agent contest! Now we can get to know her better.

Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
No, but if the entire query and sample pages are riddled with typos, that gives me pause. What really gets me though is when a query letter doesn’t get my name right, especially if it’s the name of an entirely different agent. Obviously I understand that it’s a multiple submission, but there’s something impersonal about an error like that.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
Without fail, always. There have been cases where the query letter was rough, but I was captivated by the writing in the sample pages to request more. There’s a reason I ask for sample pages, after all!

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

If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
Yes, definitely. If I get a sample chapter that’s not the opening pages, I wonder why—is this where the story actually starts? Plus, if there’s a prologue, the writer must have a reason for including one.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?
I love seeing comp titles in a query. It helps me get a sense if the manuscript is going to be in line with my tastes, and it’s always great when I see one of my favorites mentioned as a comp—that’s a clear sign to me that I’ll probably enjoy the manuscript.

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
Personalized chit-chat is fine, especially if it’s a cute little icebreaker (like, “I saw you like hockey, I like hockey too!”) but I wouldn’t want the chit-chat to overwhelm the query letter. Sometimes I think it’s best to be straight and to the point.

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 don’t care if it’s first or last, but it’s a definite red flag if there’s no word count! I can generally get a gist for the genre by reading the query, although I would prefer to know upfront. But I really like to know word count, especially if it’s going to be over 100,000 words and it's an MG novel, for example. That in itself is a red flag! 

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 think it’s important to identify the main characters, but too many characters starts to feel like a list of names, which is hard when I haven’t read the manuscript yet to determine personalities.

How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
I get about twenty a week. Of those, I might request one, maybe two.

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?
In my opinion, no, unless it’s a non-fiction query—then I want to know that the writer has a platform. I wouldn’t require a writer to start a twitter account, but it I think it would be helpful to reach out to potential readers and potentially make some contacts in the publishing world.

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
For me, only if material was requested, because I don’t want to be reading an outdated draft, especially if the changes make the feedback stronger.  

What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
It’s such a subjective statement, but for me it means just that: not right for me. Maybe it just wasn’t fitting in with my tastes, it’s an entirely different genre than one I represent, or I’m not connecting with the characters/voice. I don’t want to take on anything that I’m not 100% in love with and feel that I can fight for.  

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

What’s the strangest/funniest thing you’ve seen in a query?
Someone wrote their entire query as a poem. In both free verse and with rhyming. I still have it saved in my email.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
1) Any YA really, but I’m craving a good contemporary romance or something GOSSIP GIRL-ish
2) A good mystery, adult or YA 
3) MG with humor

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 
Oh man, I could ramble forever about this question! I read pretty much all YA/MG, and favorites include THE DARKEST MINDS series, SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE by Morgan Matson, THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET, and I AM THE MESSENGER. As far as adult goes, I tend towards the more literary, and I really loved TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME and SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS. I’m more a TV buff than a movie person, but KISS KISS BANG BANG is my all-time favorite movie. Reality TV is my not-so-secret guilty pleasure, and I’ve been really loving unREAL lately. I also love VERONICA MARS, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, the amazing quirkiness and astounding twists on THE FLASH…the list goes on and on and I’ll stop here before I start writing my own novel. 


Penelope Burns is the newest member of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners. She came to the agency as an intern after graduating from Colgate University in 2012. Currently, as an agency assistant, Penelope is looking to a build a list of her own. She is interested in Literary and Commercial fiction and non-fiction, as well as a variety of Young Adult and Middle Grade. 

I'm actively looking for YA/MG novels with a unique voice or an unreliable narrator, or an interesting and unique premise. I'd also love to see a YA contemporary romance, or a clever MG with a lot of humor. I am not seeking adult thrillers. 


  1. I would LOVE to query Penelope. My book is MG fantasy with an unreliable MC and lots of humor. But I made the #NewAgent MG team, so what's the protocol here? Would it be okay to query her now, or should I wait to see how #NewAgent shakes out?

    1. For sure wait until next week, Jim. It won't be long. :-)

    2. Good to know. She looks awesome. :)