Friday, November 4, 2016

Query Questions with Amanda Jain

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.

Hey Chicago, what do you say the Cubs--whoops. I guess I've been a little distracted lately with the Cubs winning the World Series and all. But I've got a new agent interview to share from Amanda Jain from Bookend and she just happens to be a giant Cubs fan like me! 

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

I am *generally* pretty good at keeping up with my query inbox, so, for me, I wouldn't say there's a particularly better or worse time. It generally has more to do with how much client work I have pending rather than what time of year it is. For example, I just had six client projects come in at the same time, so queries and requested manuscripts had to go to the back burner for a bit.
Do you look at sample pages without fail or only if the query is strong?

Queries are hard to write, so I tend to give authors a bit of leeway in that regard. I will always look at the sample pages if the premise in your query is something I find intriguing, even if the query itself is not as strong as it could be. However, if the premise of the novel isn't something that particularly appeals to me, or the query is just an absolute mess, then I probably won't go on to read the pages. 
How open are you to writers who have never been published?

Very open! It doesn't matter to me whether this is your 1st book or 31st book. If you can draw me into your story and keep me there, that's all that matters.
The dreaded rhetorical question in a query. Are they as taboo as the rumors say?

I am not a fan of rhetorical questions because they often tend to be non-specific and don't really tell me what is unique about your story. "What would you do if . . . ?" doesn't tell me anything about YOUR characters and their motivations. It doesn't matter what I would do. I'm interested to know what your protagonists would do.
How important are comp titles? Is it something you want to see in a query? Are movie/tv reference okay as comp titles?

I like comp titles because they add another layer to my understanding of your book, and they also often show me that you are knowledgeable about the market you're writing for. And, yes, I think almost anything can be a good comp: movies, tv shows, music videos, songs, etc. But, do your research and choose comps that really tell me something. Don't just comp your book to a bestseller to try to grab an agent's attention. In the end, it isn't going to work, and it shows me that you haven't actually done your research.
Do you prefer a little personalized chit-chat in a query letter or would you rather hear about the manuscript?

Honestly, I'd rather just hear about your work. If we've met at a conference, or you're responding to a #mswl tweet or something, then point that out. It's always good to know if there are specific reasons you're querying me. But don't waste valuable query space on chit-chat that doesn't ultimately draw me into your story. First and foremost, get me to read your pages. We can talk about the other stuff later.
How many queries do you receive in a week? How many requests might you make out of those?

I probably receive about 50 queries a week, with spikes after #mswl tweets or after contests when authors see me fave-ing pitches that might be similar to their manuscripts. On average, I would say I might request 1-2 manuscripts a week. 
How do you feel about writers nudging on full/partial requests? At what point is it appropriate? 

Most agencies will have guidelines on their websites for queries and nudges, so always follow a specific agency's requests. In general, and for me specifically, I would say wait at least three months before you nudge. I know the waiting is hard, but the less time agents spend answering emails about when they're going to read something, the more time they can actually spend reading that something. Of course, if you get another offer of representation, we'd like to know that right away so we can prioritize.
When a writer nudges with an offer, what length of time is helpful to give you enough time to consider? A week? Two weeks?

We'll always take as much time as you can give us! If you can give us two weeks that's great, but try to give at least one full week to get back to you if possible.
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 wouldn't go so far as to say we REQUIRE writers to have an online presence, but we strongly encourage it. In today's publishing world, much of the marketing and publicity work falls on the author. The more ways you have to engage with readers and get them interested in your work, the better. If I'm interested in offering representation to someone, I definitely hop on Twitter and Facebook to do a little digging. It not only tells me how engaged they are with the publishing community and how they might work to promote their book, but it can also tell me whether this is someone that I think I could have a good working relationship with.
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?

For me, I think only if I've previously requested material, unless the revisions are so astoundingly, profoundly book-changing that it would really show in your query and sample pages. It wouldn't matter to me if the changes were due to an R&R from another agent. Presumably, the author also saw the value in making those changes and the manuscript is, theoretically, now better than it was before. 
What themes are you sick of seeing?

I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm sick of it, but, because I focus a lot on historical fiction, I get a ton of queries set during the Civil War that aren't really offering anything new to the reader. If you're writing on a topic or time period that's received a lot of focus, you have to bring something new to the table. What can you say that's different, that the reader hasn't encountered a hundred times before? If your soldier is going off to war and his wife is awaiting his return, how is their story different from all the ones that have come before? Make me see the Civil War or the Tudor monarchy or the French Revolution from a different angle, a different perspective.
Do you look at trends or editor wishlists when deciding to sign a manuscript?

I don't pay much attention to trends, really, because usually by the time something is trending in the marketplace, it's already difficult to place new manuscripts that fit the type. The market tends to get over saturated pretty quickly, and then there's this glut of manuscripts that can't find homes. I definitely keep track of editors' wishlists, especially when they align with my own. I wouldn't say that it affects whether or not I sign a particular client, because the preeminent factor in my deciding to offer rep to someone is whether or not I'm IN LOVE with their manuscript. But, it makes the submission process a lot easier if I can target my pitch to editors that I believe will love the manuscript as much as I do.  
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?

We are definitely a hands-on agency, and we work with our clients to make their work the best it can possibly be. This is another vague answer, I know, but signing a story that needs work really depends on what state the manuscript is in, how unique and original the premise is, and if I think the author and I can work to get the manuscript where it needs to be. All three factor in, to varying degrees in each case. If you have a fantastic premise but I can tell that what you're sending me is really a first draft, I'm probably going to pass. If you have a fantastic premise, I can tell you've done lots of polishing, but maybe the pacing is dragging a bit in the middle, well, that's something we can probably work on together. A manuscript doesn't necessarily have to be sub-ready, but you must show that you've put in the time and effort to get it pretty close before you start querying.
What is your biggest query pet peeve? Is there anything that automatically sinks a query for you?

I think my biggest query pet peeve are the ones I receive that are one or two sentences about the book and then four paragraphs about the author. I think it's great that you have four children, 11 grandchildren, 3 dogs, you've loved books since you were 5, you've had two careers, etc, etc, etc. But your query is not the time or the place to tell me these things. I want to hear about your book. What's the conflict? What's at stake for your characters if their goal is not achieved? What makes your premise unique and original? How do you think your book fits in to the current marketplace? These are the things I need to know, not that you have a pet snake named Buddy and, unless you're pitching me a guide to yoga, I don't need to know that you do it every day. Sell me your book!  

There are really only two things that would automatically sink a query for me. The first is a query that is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. If you haven't put in the time and effort on your query letter, I'm going to assume--fairly or unfairly--that you haven't done the work on your manuscript either. The other thing that will sink queries immediately are any that include anything that's racist, sexist, homophobic, or pretty much anti-anything. We have a zero tolerance policy at Inklings for anything along those lines, and you can expect an automatic rejection.

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

1) I am on pins and needles waiting for a submission that blends the tropes of historical fiction with the psychological suspense so popular today. If you have Jane Austen meets Gillian Flynn, I want to see it!
2) More nonfiction, especially that dealing with social history, material culture, or travel / literary subjects. Think Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life, Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail, Deborah Lutz's The Bronte Cabinet, Caroline Weber's Queen of Fashion, Kate Colquhoun's Murder in the First-Class Carriage, or Marilyn Johnson's Lives in Ruins.
3) I would also really love to see adult or YA fiction with very grounded / realistic magic. I had a random thought the other day about a Revolutionary War or Civil War nurse that uses magic in her healing and haven't been able to stop thinking of that idea since. So if you have that, or something else where the magic is very grounded, I'd love to see it.
What are some of your favorite movies or books to give us an idea of your tastes? 

Some of my favorite books are the Outlander series, The Eight by Katherine Neville, Stephen King's The Stand, and anything by Susanna Kearsley, Jennifer Crusie, Tony Horwitz, or Bill Bryson. Some recent books I've loved are Brittany Cavallaro's A Study in Charlotte, Adriana Mather's How to Hang a Witch, and Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border, which was staggeringly, amazingly, tune-everything-else-out good. I just started Alison Goodman's The Dark Days Club, and it promises to join that list. 

Amanda came by her love of reading honestly, inheriting it from parents who always had books close to hand. She began her career in publishing at W. W. Norton, where she spent seven years before pursuing a masters degree in history of the decorative arts. She rejoined publishing shortly thereafter at Inklings Literary Agency, and is excited every day to encounter new writers and their stories.

Amanda currently reps adult romance, mystery, women’s fiction, and upmarket fiction, with a special emphasis on historical fiction in all genres. She also represents narrative nonfiction, especially projects exploring the literary world, art history, material culture, archaeology, food history, or social history. She loves projects with a strong sense of place and those that create a completely immersive world. She is particularly interested in books that add something important to the conversation, that explore stories we haven’t yet heard, and that introduce new voices to our reading experience.

Amanda currently lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband and two kids. When she’s not reading, she likes to cook, root for the Cubs, and spend as much time outside as she can.

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