Friday, September 30, 2016

Query Questions with Jennifer Wills



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 series 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 from the real expert--agents!

Query Questions is back with a fresh set of questions and more agents. The people have spoken and let me know which questions should stay and which could go. We've got a few brand new situations that writers would like clarified.

I'm happy to share an interview with another new agent that may not be on your radar yet. Jennifer Wills joined the Seymour Agency in April 2016 and is now an associate agent.

Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?
I always read all my queries, including the sample.  You can tell so much from the sample – whether the author has an instinct for where to begin their story, whether the voice is appealing, if they know how to keep the writer’s interest.  A strong sample can overcome a weak query but a weak sample always cancels out a strong query for me.  If I’m lukewarm about five pages, there’s no point reading the rest, right?  However, if you end your sample or your partial on a little mini-cliffhanger, I know I’m in good hands and I’ll be happy to read more.

How open are you to writers who have never been published?
I’m open to unpublished authors, but it’s definitely helpful to have at least an article or a published short story under your belt.  If you haven’t been published, it’s even more important to have a following on social media.  Potential publishers will be considering your platform, not just your manuscript.

How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query? Are movie/tv reference okay as comp titles?
Comp titles are great, if they make sense and are timely, accurate, and original.  I’m still getting Harry Potter and Hunger Games as comps in queries….  The worst is when someone tells you their book is THIS meets THAT, and when you read there are no traces of either title and you start to wonder if they sent you the wrong manuscript.  My first job was as a projectionist at a movie theater, so I love movies almost as much as I love books.  Comps that contain both are a win-win for me.  I especially love it when an author tells me which aspect of their comp titles resemble their book--“the voice of THIS but with the suspense of THAT.”

Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter or would you rather hear about the manuscript?
“All of that chit-chat’s gonna getcha hurt.” --Jared Leto as the Joker

Just joking!  A little personalization to show that the query is targeting me is helpful.  I’ve had some queries where the first line of the query is intriguing, and then they include something personalized later on.  That works, too.  When I offer representation, I’m not offering just for the manuscript.  I’m looking for authors who are in it for the long haul, so I like to get a sense of their personality to see if we would work well together.

When a writer nudges with an offer, what length of time is helpful to give you enough time to consider? A week? Two weeks?
At least a week is helpful, especially if I’m sharing a manuscript with my fellow agents for a second read.  Two weeks would be ideal.

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?
I like to see authors who already have the foundation of their online presence in place because it can take time to get that ball rolling.  If I love the work and believe in the author, I’ll still offer representation even if their social media platform is nonexistent.  (BUT, if there is an existing platform that is problematic, ie unprofessional, hurtful, overly controversial to the point of damaging the author’s brand, I might decide not to offer representation.  So be careful what you post out there!)

If a writer makes changes to their manuscript due to feedback should they resend the query or only if material was requested? Does it make a difference if the changes are from an R&R with another agent?
If I’ve requested pages, I always try to offer at least one constructive comment even if the manuscript isn’t working for me.  If the manuscript was otherwise a good fit, I’ll absolutely invite the author to make changes and resubmit.  If I don’t specifically say I’d like to see the revisions, then it’ll probably still be a pass although I will occasionally take another look if the author asks nicely.  

Do you look at trends or editor wishlists when deciding to sign a manuscript?
If I think a manuscript will appeal to a particular editor or two or five, I’m probably thinking about representation before I’ve even finished the manuscript.  Trends can fluctuate, so I’m more interested in what my editorial contacts have specifically told me they want to see. 

Do you consider yourself a hands-on, editorial type of agent? Does a manuscript have to be sub-ready or will you sign stories that need work?
I love to edit! It is so gratifying to help an author take their great manuscript one step closer to perfection.  I’m in the early stages of building my list so I’m probably a bit more willing to spend time polishing my authors’ work before submission than agents with a full list.  

What is your biggest query pet peeve? Is there anything that automatically sinks a query for you?
Clichéd but true – “Dear Agent” or seeing a billion other agents’ email addresses in the CC line of the email.  It just doesn’t make for a good first impression, and it shows a lack of attention to detail.  If an author can’t take the time to figure out a prospective agent’s name, or send an individual query, it shows they haven’t taken the time to do their homework. It doesn’t bode well for the quality of the query, or the manuscript itself.  I don’t mind as much when people misspell my name; I get a lot of Willis instead of Wills because that second i just wants to creep in there, and an occasional Mr. instead of Ms./Mrs.
I love fantasy/sci-fi queries but it seems like authors tend to cram every detail about their world-building into the query.  You just need to give enough in the query/synopsis/sample so I understand the premise as it relates to the character’s struggle, so try not to throw around a million unfamiliar terms or hard-to-pronounce names all at once.  I will revel in your glorious details while reading the partial or full, don’t worry!  The query’s job is to get me excited about reading more – it doesn’t need to be a reference manual for the fantastic, elaborate world you’ve created.

What three things are at the top of your submission wish list?
High concept non-rhyming picture books. YA/MG with sci fi/fantasy, horror/suspense or contemporary bent. Upmarket women’s fiction with a sense of humor.

What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 
Since the tender age of too-young-to-be-reading-him, my favorite author was Stephen King, particularly THE STAND and the Dark Tower books.  My favorite movie was the Wizard of Oz.  And to this day, those favorites still hold true.  Others, in no particular order: Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE trilogy is up there with The Dark Tower. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE trilogy by Beth Revis.  Also THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins, GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, IF I STAY by Gayle Forman, Harry Potter ofcourse, The Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel, I also love Neil Gaiman, Maggie Stiefvater, Alexandra Bracken, John Green, Emily Giffin, Sarah Dessen,  Jennifer Weiner, Laurie Notaro, and I still have a soft spot for RL Stine, Christopher Pike, Roald Dahl, Ann M. Martin.

Movies/TV: The Walking Dead, LOST, Lucky Number Slevin, Boondock Saints, How to Train Your Dragon, Edge of Tomorrow, District 8, Mission Impossible franchise, all the Marvel films, Christopher Nolan’s everything, anything Pixar, romantic comedies and plain ol’ comedies.

I am probably one of eight people on the planet who wasn’t crazy about Stranger Things.

Jennifer has five years’ experience in some of the publishing industry’s leading literary agencies.  She worked with publishers around the world as an assistant in Trident Media Group’s huge foreign rights department, and with domestic publishers as an assistant at Writers House (where, incidentally, she began her career as an intern).  She joined the Seymour Agency in April 2016, where she has quickly moved up the ranks to associate agent.  Jennifer has always loved helping fledgling authors become NYT bestsellers and she’s ready to be a relentless champion for her own clients’ work.  You can find her @WillsWork4Books on Twitter.