Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Query Questions with Michael Carr

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 am happy to end September with a fresh Query Questions interview with Michael Carr of Veritas Literary Agency. He seeks Historical Fiction, Women's Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and also Nonfiction.

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

There are better and worse times to query, but they aren’t seasonal, and so sadly, they can’t be predicted by writers. When I’m busy with client manuscripts or have just taken on a new writer, there’s no question that queries are going to be read more quickly and with a jaded eye. My bandwidth at those times is narrow.

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

No, but it certainly doesn’t help. A query should be one page, and if that one page is sloppy, poorly written and edited, you can bet I’m expecting a manuscript that reads like a rough draft.

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

If it’s in one of the categories I represent, I almost always take a glance at the writing. If the query is weak, it might be only that, a glance. A good query earns more of my attention.

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

That depends. We have in the past, or we’ve had agents take turns with the entire slush, weeding out most of them in an initial pass. Right now, I’m reading all of my own queries, but managing workload by being ruthless about not responding to people who are querying me about inappropriate projects. It’s hard enough staying on top of the well-targeted queries.

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

Yes, occasionally. Most mornings, I expect to reject all of my queries. The simple math says that in a given year I can only take on a couple of new clients, so I have to be very selective. Every once in a while, the quality of queries will surprise me, and I’ll have to give a couple of them more thought when I’m not comparing them to a whole batch of others.

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

Sure, if it’s good enough to hook me. If it’s not good enough to hook me, maybe the book doesn’t need a prologue in the first place. And if it’s a great hook, why not call it “Chapter One?”

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

Doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t really matter to me personally.

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 pass along queries that are more appropriate for one of my colleagues. Query one agent, please.

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

Get to the point! There’s plenty of time to chat and get to know each other if I connect with the writing. In fact, I’ve seen writers shoot themselves in the foot with the chit-chat when it’s clumsy or awkward. It’s usually bragging (“I’m going to make you rich!”) or inappropriate comments that make me think this writer is going to be difficult to work with.

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 prefer category and word count up front, but location doesn’t matter all that much. I do like to know both of these things, of course. I can’t sell a 45,000 word epic fantasy or a 375,000 word historical. Round to the nearest thousand words. “86,437 words” gives off an amateurish vibe.

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?

Absolutely. Your job is not to tell me about every character and subplot, it’s to hook me into reading your pages with increased attention.

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

A good title can help attract interest, but they’re hard to do right. I get that. In fact, my two most recently signed clients submitted with titles that we brainstormed into something better before we went on submission.

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

This really varies. The high point of the year might be the flood of queries I get about two weeks after NaNoWriMo ends. Many weeks I request nothing. I probably request 15-20 manuscripts for every author I sign, so if I sign one or two authors a year . . .

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?

Nah, this doesn’t matter to me. In my mind, the best promo for a writer is more high-quality writing. I’m speaking largely of fiction, which is 99% of my queries and 90% of my clients. If you love social media, go for it. If not, keep your head down and write.

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 don’t think it matters all that much. I’d leave them out, I guess, since you’re trying to avoid distraction.

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

Absolutely only if requested. If I want an R&R (revise and resubmit), I will be explicit.

What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?

The best “bio” for a fiction writer is an excellently written book. Don’t worry about impressing me with your accomplishments. In most cases, they either sound unimpressive or they are impressive in non-writing ways. Either way, that doesn’t help. Just hook me with the query and write a book I can’t put down.

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

It’s a polite phrase. Sometimes it means just that, like going to a bookstore and taking a book off the shelf and then putting it back. You’re not making a value judgment about that book, you’re choosing to buy something else with your limited time and money.

Other times—and let’s be honest here—it means the writing is wretched. But why would I say that? Not only would that be unkind, but bad writers sometimes become good writers. If you want to be a writer, I advise setting aside the rejections when they come and keep working on your craft. Obsessing over them won’t help.

The number one difference I’ve seen between writers who make it and those who don’t is word count. Don’t compare your output to other aspiring writers, compare it to working professionals. I can’t emphasize this enough: you’re probably not writing enough.

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

I can be. It depends on the writer. I definitely give feedback, and I try to pay it forward when I can. For this reason, I like teaching at two or three conferences every year.

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

Oh, good heavens. There’s weird stuff on a daily basis. I was asked on a date in a query once. That was . . . unexpected. Don’t do weird stuff. Please.


Associate Michael Carr is a literary agent with a background in editing and writing, working from a home base in the Northeast. He works carefully with clients to produce the cleanest, most professional manuscripts and enjoys teaching at workshops and conferences to help develop emerging writers. Michael speaks Spanish and conversational French and before joining Veritas had professions as diverse as programming simulators for nuclear submarines and owning an inn in Vermont.

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