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.
Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is an agent and author with the LKG Agency. She is considering young adult and middle grade and looking to build her list of clients.
Is there a better or worse time of year to query?
For us, the worst times are probably early-December to the second week in Jan, and early Sept/mid June. Things tend to get crazy just before and just after the Winter break and when everyone’s starting their summer vacation or getting back in the fall. Think of it like the school year — if class isn’t in session, it’s not a great time. Except for mid-summer through August, which tends to be a good time to submit because things slow down and there’s a lot of reading time…so basically not like school at all, I guess.
Does one typo or misplaced comma shoot down the entire query?
No, of course not. We’ve all had that moment where we realized our email had a glaring spelling mistake just after we hit send. The problem is when there are multiple typos or bad commas, so it looks like you just hammered the letter out and sent it along without even proofreading it once. If the letter looks sloppy, it’s makes me think that the author isn’t willing to put in the nitty gritty work of publishing. And publishing has a lot of nitty gritty.
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I look at the sample pages 90% of the time. Writing queries is hard, and a lot of times how good, or bad, a query is doesn’t reflect how good/bad the story or writing is. And the best thing that can give me a real sense of your book is the writing sample. If I don’t read the sample pages, it’s because it’s obvious from the query that the project is not something I’m interested in — it’s adult fiction, when we only handle YA and MG, or it’s a subject neither Lauren or I are really interested in.
Do you have an assistant or intern go through your queries first or do you check all of them?
We briefly had an intern, but for the most part it’s just me and Lauren checking all of the queries. Sitting across from each other. Usually sharing a bag of Reese’s mini peanut butter cups.
Do you keep a maybe pile of queries and go back to them for a second look?
Absolutely. Sometimes you’re reading queries at the end of the day and you’re tired, and your brain starts going fuzzy on how this whole ‘word’ thing works. Sometimes a query hits a couple of your rejection flags, but there’s something about it that still hooks us and we need some time to think it over. If something isn’t an obvious yes or no, then we’ll put it aside to read later, and then pass over to whoever hasn’t read it so we can get a second opinion.
If the manuscript has a prologue, do you want it included with the sample pages?
Yup! We ask to see the first three chapters, and I’m happy to take a look at the prologue in addition to that sample material. However, the story has to really convince me it needs a prologue — in my experience, a lot of prologues can fit easily and much more smoothly into the main body of the story later on, or they get very info-dumpy. (I prefer my info-dumps to be select and strategic, as if I’m a five-year-old and you’re trying to sneak veggies into my mac and cheese.)
How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query?
For fiction, it’s not really important, though an ‘X meets Y’ pitch, or a ‘for fans of X and Z,’ is always a good cheat sheet for me. For nonfiction, comp titles are pretty important, though it’s not something you have to mention in a query — as long as they’re in the proposal, which should have a Competition/Competitive Titles section, and detail 4-5 comparable books and why your book will fill a need they don’t.
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?
The LKG Agency is a smaller agency — me and Lauren — and we’re both looking for the same kind of books. Which means we pass queries back and forth all the time, debating whether or not it sounds promising, if we like the sample material, and who should take lead if we want to move forward. Often while sitting across from each other, and then debating whether or not to make s’mores. (The answer is usually yes.)
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter, or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
I don’t mind if an author wants to chit-chat, or if they just want to get down to business. But I always appreciate it when they casually drop a few hints to show they’ve done their research on me, Lauren, and the agency. I love to see they’ve put some time and thought into whether or not we’d be a good match.
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?
Yes, but not so much that I’m going to reject a query because it’s not included. Honestly, if the word count’s not included, I start worrying that the manuscript is going to be 300,000 words. (And when something is 300,000 words, I start to worry about how receptive the author is going to be towards cuts, because at 300k there’s going to have to be cuts.) And if I can’t tell the genre from the plot blurb in the query, well, then we’ve got bigger problems than categorization.
That being said, you really should include all of the relevant information about your manuscript. If it doesn’t have everything I need and I have to email back to ask for something, there’s a good chance it’s getting moved to the bottom of the pile.
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?
Yes. But I don’t have a set number I recommend for a query. The important thing is to keep the info in your query clean and concise; if I want to learn more, that’s what the synopsis and sample material are for. But when a query starts go into every Tom, Dick, and Zuul that the main character comes across, my eyes start to glaze over.
Should writers sweat the title of their book (and character names) or is that something that is often changed by publishers?
In my experience, the title is changed about 60% of the time, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they might think it doesn’t reflect the story well. But most of the time it’s because they want a title that’s going to better appeal to your audience, they want to hit certain keywords that tend to make people pick up the book, or they want to avoid comparison with another book that is already out. For instance, my middle grade fantasy was changed from The Extraordinarily Ordinary Tale of Abigail Hale (I’m not great with titles) to Ordinary Magic for all of those reasons — but particularly because at the time Bloomsbury had just published The Extra-Ordinary Princess and they wanted to work the word ‘Magic’ into the title. And while the publisher has final say in the title, they also consult extensively with the author to find a title that everyone is happy with.
As for character names, I’ve never had an editor ask a writer to change them. Though I imagine if you named your character Harry Potter, they’d ask you to change it for obvious reasons.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?
I’d say we get about 30-50 queries a week, and of those we might pursue five.
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?
Again, it’s different for fiction and nonfiction. In either case, it is kind of expected that an author has an online presence of some kind, but for fiction it isn’t going to make the difference between an offer or a rejection. At the end of the day, it’s always about the story. For nonfiction, however, the author’s platform — the publicity they have at their disposal — is very important. I’ve seen nonfiction proposals bought or sold depending on the platform.
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?
Those links are perfectly appropriate to include in the signature of an email.
If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested?
If you’ve made significant changes, then it’s perfectly fine to reach out to the agent and ask if they’d like to see it, whether it’s just been a query or the material’s been requested. But that’s significant changes — if you’ve tweaked something in three chapters then it’s probably not worth reaching out.
What bio should an author with no publishing credits include?
For fiction, they should include any relevant experience, such as writing competitions they’ve won or been finalists in. But, again, it’s all about the story. Don’t panic if you don’t have any publishing credits. For nonfiction, they should include all of their relevant credentials, any degrees they have, letters after their name, or particular experience they have that shows why they’re the best authority on this topic.
What does ‘just not right mean for me’ mean to you?
It means I simply didn’t fall in love with your story. There can be nothing wrong with your story — it can be well-written, with dynamic characters and fast-paced action — but I just didn’t love it. And as an agent, I’m going to put in a lot of time working with you on the story, getting it ready to send out, negotiating the contract, so I need to be passionate about a story when I take it on.
What themes are you sick of seeing?
Dreams. Anything with dreams — meaningful dreams, symbolic dreams, prophetic dreams, magical telepathic dreams in which the main character communicates, and then falls in love with, their love interest. I see that all the time.
Also love triangles. No more love triangles. Please.
Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent?
Very much so. Both because I love working on stories with authors, and because I’m increasingly seeing editors who want manuscripts that are as close to publishing-quality as possible. Plus working on the stories is the fun part!
What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
Stories with really vibrant and unusual settings, diverse main characters, and YA high fantasy.
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes?
I’m a huge Star Wars fan (requisite prequel grumbling), and I tend to find ways to recommend John Wick and Mad Max: Fury Road to anyone I meet, during any conversation, because action and car chases and minimalist storytelling that doesn’t treat the audience like they’re stupid. As for books, basically Terry Pratchett’s entire oeuvre. But I also read Coraline every single Halloween, and I am having a lot of trouble waiting patiently for the next book in Ellie Marney’s Every series. (Seriously, why do they make us wait months between when it’s released in Australia and the US?)
I joined the LKG Agency in 2008, thereby disproving the theory that no English major ever does anything with their degree. Before that I worked at another literary agency, Don Congdon Associates, where I had the behind-the-scenes thrill of seeing Kathryn Stockett’s The Help first come in (and getting one of the first reads). And before that I was getting my Masters in English and Publishing from Rosemont College. I have enjoyed my apprenticeship under Lauren very much, and I am now actively looking to build my own list, which includes (after a surprisingly minimal amount of begging and pleading on my part), securing Lauren’s agreement to open the agency to considering middle grade and young adult fiction.
In my spare time, I am an author in my own right (or is that write?). My first book, Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, which I co-wrote with my mother, was released by Crown in 2009. We also contributed to Jane Austen Made Me Do It, published by Ballantine in 2011. My first middle grade novel, Ordinary Magic, was published by Bloomsbury Children’s in 2012.
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