Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Ask an Agent: How Not to Write a Query



In our Ask an Agent feature this month, agents Molly Ker Hawn and Gemma Cooper from the Bent Agency have written a post about what not to say in your query, and why.


No one has been quite brave enough to send in a query for critique — yet — so we thought we’d do a little post about what not to say in your query and why. These are just made-up queries, but we really do see things like these in our inboxes...

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to submit my manuscript for submission. It is a 250,542-word MG fantasy, the first in a proposed seven-book series. I have already finished book 4.

I know it says in your submission guidelines to paste the first ten pages, but the story doesn’t really get going until chapter 3, so I have attached the best chapters, which are 4, 7, and 11.

The book has been described by my children as a gripping work of genius. I would describe it as an epic journey, where Jake, the main character, learns all about the difference between good and evil, and who to trust. It really looks at the bonds of friendship. I hope kids will learn how important it is not to bully other people.

I know this book will grip you from start to finish, and I think it could be the one to really put your agency on the map. It would make a great movie and here is the link to the Pinterest board with the actors I want to play the main characters.

I am a member of Sewing Anonymous, a big group of people who sew in the church hall at weekends. I’m also a sign language teacher and fluent in Portuguese.

I will call you tomorrow to see what you think.

Best wishes

A

So, where did "A" go wrong?:

Dear Sirs, (Please direct your query to the person you’re sending it to).

I am writing to submit my manuscript for submission. It is a 250,342-word (first, this is far too long for a debut MG. Remember Jennifer Laughran’s word count post? Second, do us a favour and round up your word count to the nearest thousand) MG fantasy, the first in a proposed seven-book series. I have already finished book 4. (We’d advise you not to start writing book 2 of a series until you have sold book 1. It might be that your publisher wants to change something that could have massive ramifications throughout the series. As agents, it would make us worried that you’re so glued to your story, you might not take editorial advice).

I know it says in your submission guidelines to paste the first ten pages, but the story doesn’t really get going until chapter 3 (So what happens in the first three chapters? Your opening is important; it sets the scene, gives us the main character’s voice and hooks the reader. If it’s so boring you don’t think it will hook an agent, how will it hook a reader?), so I have attached the best chapters, which are 4, 7, and 11. (How can we judge your project until we know what’s going on in the story? Reading random sample chapters doesn’t tell us what we need to know).

The book has been described by my children as gripping, and a work of genius. (Your children love you. They’ll love anything you read to them! Their opinion doesn’t make a difference to an agent, so don’t mention it). I would describe it as an epic journey, where Jake, my main character, learns all about the different between good and evil, and who to trust. It really looks at the bonds of friendship. (But what is the story? What actually happens?) I hope kids will learn how important it is not to bully other people. (Kids don’t like being preached to, and although some terrific books have messages like this, they’re cleverly layered into the story. The fact you say you want to teach kids would worry us that the tone of your book is too didactic.)

I know this book will grip you from start to finish, and I think it could be the one to really put your agency on the map. (We’re very happy with our current clients and how great they are – don’t be disparaging about the agency) It would make a great movie and here is the link to the Pinterest board with the actors I want to play the main character. (Things like this are fun to do with your writing buddies and critique partners, but we’d worry you were running before you could walk in mentioning it here).

I am a member of Sewing Anonymous, a big group of people who sew in the church hall at weekends. I’m also a sign language teacher and fluent in Portuguese. (Are these relevant to your book? If you are member of a writing organisation, tell us. And if your story is set in France, and you lived there for three years, then great – but keep it relevant!)

I will call you tomorrow to see what you think. (Never call an agent to chase up on a query unless her submission guidelines specifically say you should.)

Best wishes

A

Here's another example of how not to write a query:

Hey,

I have written three chapters of my untitled novel, but I can quickly finish the rest if you want it soon. This book is going to be as big as Twilight and The Hunger Games.

I know from reading a blog interview that you don’t represent thrillers, but I thought my book would make you think differently about them. I couldn’t find the submission details on your website, so I’ve just attached what I’ve written so far. It’s a bit rough, but you’ll get the picture. I bet you probably won’t read it though. I’ve found the search for an agent to be fraught, and I’ve begun to think there aren’t any professional people in publishing left. I’ve had 50 rejections – none of them helpful. I mean how hard is it to just send me a nice email explaining what you didn’t like about my book and giving detailed editorial tips. Seriously! I do hope that I hear from you and you will be the one good person in this whole stupid industry.

Email me back at lovesgiantteddybears@cuddles.com.

Laters

B

So, what could "B" have done differently?:

Hey, (Because agents are all over Twitter talking about what we ate last night, it can be easy to be informal when emailing us. Remember: this is a business letter.)

I have written three chapters of my untitled novel, but I can quickly finish the rest if you want it soon. (NEVER query an unfinished book. It’s so frustrating for us to request a full manuscript and find out it’s not available. And usually our full request means the manuscript is finished quickly and rushed. Edit and polish your book before you query. We’ll be here – what’s your rush?)

This book is going to be as big as Twilight and The Hunger Games (Don’t compare your book to the big books. If you mention comparables, show us you’re well-read in the genre you’re querying. For example, for a voicey animal-protagonist MG, you might say ‘This book would appeal to fans of 'The One And Only Ivan.’)

I know from reading a blog interview that you don’t represent thrillers, but I thought my book would make you think differently about them. (If it says we don’t represent a certain genre, then don’t think that you have written the one book that will change our mind. We will have good reason that we don’t rep that genre. You need an agent who is passionate about the genre you write in and who has the right editorial contacts.)

I couldn’t find the submission details on your website, so I’ve just attached what I’ve written so far. It’s a bit rough, but you’ll get the picture. (You only get one chance to make a first impression. Why send something unfinished and unedited? Also, if you’ve found our email address, you’re capable of finding our submission guidelines on our website.)

I bet you probably won’t read it though. I’ve found the search for an agent to be fraught, and I’ve begun to think there aren’t any professional people in publishing left. (Don’t bad-mouth other industry professionals to us – we’re a tight group and we have a lot of respect for each other).

I’ve had 50 rejections – none of them helpful. I mean how hard is it to just send me a nice email explaining what you didn’t like about my book and giving detailed editorial tips. Seriously! I do hope that I hear from you and you will be the one good person in this whole stupid industry. (It’s hard for us to be enthusiastic about working with someone with both an unrealistic view of how the industry works and a bad attitude.)

Email me back at lovesgiantteddybears@cuddles.com. (Use a professional business email address, ideally yourname@ )

Laters (Would you really sign a business letter this way?)

B

Okay, so that was a fun look at some common mistakes that crop up in our submissions. So what makes a good query letter? Our advice: don’t overthink it, keep it simple, and make us want to read your book.

Dear [Agent’s Name],

I am seeking representation for my [age - MG/YA etc.] [genre] manuscript [title] complete at [word count rounded to nearest 1000 words].

[Insert Pitch - 1 or 2 paragraphs explaining your plot. Introduce your main character. What does she want? What’s preventing her from achieving those goals? And what are the stakes if she doesn’t achieve them?]

According to your submission guidelines I have [consult the specific guidelines for the agency, posted on its website. For the Bent Agency, you’d say, ‘pasted the first ten pages of the manuscript below.’]

I am a member of [any writing organisations] and have won [any relevant writing prizes]. [Then add anything relevant to your role as the best person to write this book.] Thank you for your time.

All best,

[your name]

Simple, right?

If you are ready to start submitting to agents, but would like some feedback on your query from Gemma and Molly, then email your query to writers@britishscbwi.org. Submissions will be posted anonymously. Alternatively, if you have a question you would like to put to our agents, email us at the above address, or post them in the comments below.





@gemma_cooper 
@mollykh.
Gemma Cooper and  Molly Ker Hawn represent authors of books for children and young adults. For more information about Gemma and Molly see The Bent Agency website and blog. 



10 comments:

  1. Thanks - this is helpful (and amusing).

    RE: Your point about not writing the later books of a series until the first sells. I try to follow this rule myself, but I have seen situations where a writer has sold two or more books straight off the bat and the publisher has liked the fact that they had the others ready for editing. With shorter books (9 years and under) is it always a bad thing to write more than one?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Nick, my aim is always to make you laugh.

      Like all 'rules' with this sort of thing, there are always stories of people having success doing the exact opposite! A famous one being Stephanie Meyer querying Twilight at 130K words, when we all say 100K is max for a debut! (quote - http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/twilight.html)

      It's not the worst thing to have other books in a series written, but you have to face the fact that an agent or publisher may suggest such dramatic changes to book 1 that you may have to almost re-write book 2 from scratch anyway. And often when you are really glued to a story, this can be hard to hear and mean you are less open to changes. Maybe this doesn't happen and the publisher jumps on both books as they are perfect - but this will only be the case for a very small percentage of books.

      I personally don't believe any words you put on paper are a waste of time because it's all good practice, but this is time you could spend working on something new. Also, you can still plot out your series and come up with a chapter outline for books 2 and 3 - this means you are ready to go as soon as the deal is done!

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    2. And I thought it was supposed to be my aim to make you laugh ;-)

      I agree about the outlining for later books, I think that can also help you shape the series more effectively than just plunging into the sequel. I still have a terrific outline for book 2 of my zombie series which makes my fingers itchy every time I read it. But I remain strong and perhaps one day book 1 will see the light of day? So many books, so little time...

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  2. Thank you for an entertaining look at query writing. I really appreciate your advice on writing a good query letter.

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  3. Lots of really helpful points, thank you Gemma and Molly - how can we go wrong!
    And this is a an especially good reminder: "Because agents are all over Twitter talking about what we ate last night, it can be easy to be informal when emailing us. Remember: this is a business letter."

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  4. Great info for writers! I'm always amazed at people that clearly violate the submission instructions and send what you don't represent in a format that you don't accept wasting everyone's time. As far as sending unfinished manuscripts, it does make sense to not query until you're done. I did read somewhere that THE HORSE WHISPERER was unfinished when it was queried and accepted. I think people ready stories like that and think they can do the same thing. Good info!

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  5. On that topic -- a few weeks ago I polled a few editorial directors about whether they'd recently bought any projects based on 'partials' (unfinished manuscripts). They ALL said 'Once, and I'll never do it again.'

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  6. Thanks for the laugh! And the very informative post. I sincerely hope I haven't done any of the above but I'm not looking back through my files, just in case.

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  7. Thanks for the top tips. I am considering sending in my query letter for anonymous critiquing. Would a picture book query be OK?

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