Thursday, October 8, 2015

Query Questions with Sharon Pelletier

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 can never get enough of these interview and I hope you feel the same! Now we have Sharon Pelletier from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

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

Not for me, no! In general I look at queries twice a week and read requested material on my commute and on weekends. My response time slow down a little around the winter holidays when I’m out of the office for a stretch – but I imagine that’s true of all agents.

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

No. But you only get one. Kidding! Kind of. When you work hard and pay attention to detail, it shows in your work, and outweighs one or two oopsies. If your query has a ton of typos or is rife with poor punctuation, it suggests that you haven’t worked on your craft enough to be ready for an agent. Or worse – that you didn’t take the time to proofread your query. How then can I assume that you took even more time to edit your manuscript, study your market, and research agents? If your work isn’t worth your time to you, it certainly won’t be to me.

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

If anything at all in the query catches my eye, I’ll look at the sample pages...if I see a great story idea in a poorly constructed query, I’ll still look at the sample; if the story doesn’t seem fresh or interesting but the writer’s query is really smart and professional or they have great credentials, I’ll take a look. Or even if I love the voice in the query itself! (You might be surprised how much we can tell about your voice as a writer from those three paragraphs!).

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

I read all my own queries for the most part – on rare occasions if I’m really backed up I’ll ask our heroic interns to help me catch up.

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

I try to decide on first read and either send a friendly “no, thanks” or request the manuscript and move it right into the To Read pile. On occasion if I really love the story idea in the query but can’t get into the sample, I’ll come back to it another day in case it was just my mood or caffeine level at first look.

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

Yes – though I am not a huge fan of prologues. If I could go right into the story without needing the prologue, why do you have it at all? If the prologue is necessary for setting up the story, why is it separated from the first chapter? On occasion it makes sense, if you have some sort of frame tale, for example, but if you have to wonder whether or not you should send me your prologue, you might need to rework the opening of your book.

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

They’re helpful if they’re specific and focused and recent. They’re pointless if you mention three blockbusters from six years ago. Good comps are also a tip-off that you’ve done your research...and it’s hard to come up with effective comps if your story has flat characters or insufficient stakes, so good comps can be a hint that there’s something special waiting for me in the full. Comps are not a necessity though! They’re a bonus – like when you get an onion ring in your fries at Burger King.

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?

DGLM requests that you query only one of us, period – we’re a tight team and we share projects with each other all the time.

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

If you actually have something interesting and personal to say, feel free! If we have a mutual friend, or if you noticed from my bio or Twitter (or this interview!!) that we have something in common, for example. Otherwise, skip the chit-chat and get to the point: your work.

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?

For me, the real red flag is if the word count or genre sentence you include suggests you don’t understand your market or haven’t done your homework. A 40K-word literary novel or a 190K-word mystery would be cause for alarm. (Unless you are Donna Tartt or Lydia Davis and, let’s face it, you probably aren’t.) Your biographical erotic comedy fiction novel will probably get a pretty quick pass.

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?

If your story is unclear in your query, you likely need to work on how you’re presenting your conflict and stakes – adding or removing named characters won’t help with that!

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

Pick the best title you can come up with, and run it by your critique partners, but don’t sweat it! If I don’t like your title that won’t stop me from loving your book – I change titles all the time – and the publisher may change it yet again. So pick a good title but don’t get married to it.

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

Probably around 25-30 a week at this point, though it can be anywhere from 10-100, really. (Don’t ask me to do any more precise math, let’s just pretend that’s how averages work, okay?!) As a newer agent, I’m still building my list, and I’m a very fast reader, so I tend to request a lot – maybe 2-4 manuscripts a week, depending on how much client work I’m reading and if anything good came my way from a colleague.

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?

Depends on whether you’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, it can help tip the scales if you’re active online in an engaged, authentic, personable way, but the lack of an online presence isn’t a deal-breaker (though an unpleasant online presence certainly could be!).

In nonfiction, platform is tremendously significant, and I’m a lot more hesitant to sign up a fantastic proposal if the author doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of platform a publisher would want to see to support the book and/or the author’s expertise.

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?

Piggybacking on my above answer, links in a query are very appropriate if you’re querying a nonfiction project and have, say, a huge blog following or a lot of articles published. If it’s just a personal, chatty, life-of-a-writer blog, a link in your sig is fine (especially if I would find the blog anyway if I google you!). Pictures of Ryan Gosling and/or hilarious Beyonce gifs are always welcome, though perhaps not appropriate...

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

This is a tough question – I hate to make hard and fast “do this never that” pronouncements about this because there’s always an exception, but sending an agent a revised MS can also present a lot of problems, so I’ll answer at length. My general warning is that this can often give the impression that you queried before your manuscript was ready, or that you rushed to act on the first feedback you received instead of thinking through what was right for your story and rewriting thoughtfully. (Or waiting for opinions from all of the hard-working agents you so carefully researched and selectively queried...!)

If you queried me several weeks ago and didn’t hear anything yet, feel free to requery with the new MS and note in the query that you revised.

If I’ve requested your manuscript and you’ve gone on to revise while I have a previous version, please check in with me to see where I am with it! It’s tricky to switch versions halfway through, but hard to justify the time spent starting over and re-reading. But if I’m really loving your project and already thinking about the editorial work it needs, I will be interested to hear more about what you revised and why.

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

Any of the following:

-Loved your story idea but the writing wasn’t good enough.
-Loved your story idea but you just didn’t quite pull it off.
-Loved your writing but the story didn’t keep me interested.
-Liked your story and writing but there are a lot of problems with the book and I don’t have an editorial vision to fix them
-Liked your story and your writing and couldn’t pinpoint a problem with the book but also don’t care about it enough to read it again ever, let alone the seven or eleven times I’ll read it before it’s published

What themes are you sick of seeing?

The second I put something here, someone will send me an absolutely brilliant book on exactly that theme. But I can’t imagine myself getting inspired about yet another well-educated and/or artistically gifted male protagonist becoming disillusioned with his path in life/being cheating on/traveling the world etc. Those stories have been told and told and told. I want new ones.

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

Yes. I love editing. It’s so much fun to dissect the point at which a plot isn’t quite holding up, or the story starts to lose momentum, and brainstorm how to fix it with the author. And I get a big kick out of seeing the little changes authors make to my vague notes like “this doesn’t sound like real conversation” or “not quite the right word”—authors can pack so much power into even a small tweak, and it’s creatively satisfying to be a tiny part of that process.

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

Oh man, I’ve seen a lot of wild things...I hesitate to share anything specific because, as crazy as some queries can be, I have a lot of respect for the writers who write a whole manuscript – that’s hard work! And send it off for a stranger to evaluate – that’s brave! Even the weirdest querier deserves to be treated with respect and professionalism.

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

-Smart, twisty thrillers and mysteries like In A Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware or Tana French’s Dublin series

-Engrossing, thoughtful women’s fiction like Beatriz Williams’s and J. Courtney Sullivan’s books.

-Narrative nonfiction with rigor and heart like Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland or Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

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

Hate this question! Impossible to pick! I’ll stick to just a few books I’ve loved recently: Home is Burning by Dan Marshall, Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting, The Shore by Sara Taylor, Born with Teeth by Kate Mulgrew.


Sharon Pelletier joined DGLM after working for Europa Editions, Vantage Press, and Barnes & Noble. Born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, Sharon moved to New York in 2009 to work with books in the city of skyscrapers and brunch. She is interested in smart commercial fiction, from upmarket women’s fiction to domestic suspense to literary thrillers, and also would love to see more strong contemporary romance novels. On the nonfiction side she is looking for compelling nonfiction projects that blend personal narrative and thoughtful reporting, and is especially interested in feminism and religion. Sharon lives in Astoria and visits Astoria Bookshop as often as possible.

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