Ask an Agent - with Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn, from the Bent Agency

Are you looking for a query critique from those in the know? Or do you have a question you've always wanted to ask an agent? This month, agents Gemma Cooper and Molly Ker Hawn from The Bent Agency are offering just that.

Gemma has tackled the queries this month: 

Query One 

Dear Molly and Gemma,  

I am seeking representation for my YA science fiction manuscript, Shift, complete at 86,000 words.  

What would the future look like if biotechnology took astronomical leaps forward? [It’s best not to start your query off with a question. It distracts us and leaves us thinking about the question, while also trying to read on. Just open with the pitch.]

It's the year 4017 and the human race has a new skill set - Shift. [We don’t know what ‘Shift’ is, so this sentence is confusing without an explanation.] From soaring with the eagles to swimming with the sharks, animal mind control has become second nature. [So ‘Shift’ is animal control? Connecting these two previous sentences better would help here.]

But it's not all fun and games - with control comes manipulation. It's amazing what damage an elephant can do in a war zone, or what an excellent troupe of line dancers you can make from fifty cats. Is it ethical? No one seems to know and no one's asking the question. [This is all back story and setting up your world, but not telling us about your plot. Try to condense into two more punchy lines.]

But for 19-year-old Anna, life isn't about any of that. She's stuck in a tiny Northern village with a sister who outshines her at every turn, a brother who's drifting further away the more he grows, and a boyfriend she's never quite sure wants to be there. [Do we need to know all about these characters in the pitch?]

But that's okay. What isn't okay, is Shift. Anna can't. [Finally, we are getting to the meat of the story and how your world impacts your main character.] Dubbed as 'mind-deaf' and stagnating in society's pity [It took a few reads for this to make sense, don’t overcrowd your query with lines like this.], she meets Grigg - tall, dark and nondescript [Does it matter what he looks like?] - and fascinated by Anna's flaw. 

Over the course of a winter the two strike up a friendship and with Grigg's help, Anna starts to push the boundaries of society (whoever heard of a human learning to swim?) [Because we don’t know everything about your world, this doesn’t seem weird. Is it needed here?] and find her own worth. 

It's all going fine until Grigg drops a bombshell. The ethics of Shifting into animal minds may be blurry, but human minds? Now, that's an entirely different matter. [You can hint at a bombshell, but here you have half explained it, but just left us more confused.] And as Grigg's brother Ebbe comes of age and manifests his Shift talent, Anna begins to realise that being stuck inside your own head is not necessarily the worst thing in the world. [Adding another character so late in the query is confusing, and this doesn’t really tie into the last line.] 

Gemma says: Okay, so at the heart of this, you have an interesting story. Humans controlling animals and a girl who can’t. But you are not telling us the stakes for Anna. Why does it matter that she can’t Shift? You have introduced your concept, but not really what impact it has on your main character’s life. 

To simplify this try to write one or two lines on the following: 

Introduce your main character – here you could also pitch the concept of the world. For example, ‘In a world where human beings have learned to manipulate animals through mind control, 19 year old Anna....etc. 

What does she want? What is the goal that is driving her throughout the book? Does she want to learn to Shift or to stop it happening in the world because of ethical reasons? Does she want to fit in with her family? It’s not clear at the moment. 

What is preventing her from achieving these goals? Once you are clear on the goals, you can explain the roadblocks. 

What are the stakes if she doesn’t achieve them? Every plot needs stakes – a reason for the reader to turn the page. 

Query Two 

Dear Gemma and Molly, 

Niri used to be a good girl, only occasionally told off for drawing spaceships on her maths homework. [While this first line does work, it could be a little more exciting and perhaps tell us a bit more about the main character in a voice driven funny way. Drawing on homework is just a bit flat. For example, ‘Niri used to be a good girl, well apart from that one time she dyed her brother bright pink, but that was an accident.’] Then a pirate attack separated her from her family and she ended up alone and stranded on a space station.  There, totally by accident, Niri breaks one of the most important laws in the galaxy. All she does is make friends with a small alien. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a member of an undiscovered species – even talking to him is against the law.   

Niri’s best hope is to make sure that the Guardians – self-appointed parents of the galaxy – never find out what she has done. But a mysterious businessman has been watching her, and he won’t keep her secret for free. His price: Niri must become one of his minions.  If she wants to stay out of prison and have a chance at finding her family, she will have to commit a lot more crimes. [Again, this is a good enough paragraph, telling us the plot and the stakes. But I can’t help but worry if it’s missing a bit of voice and spunk. It’s just a bit flat and with a title like MINIONS, I’m assuming this story is a little bit fun?]             

MINIONS is a middle grade science fiction story, and is complete at 57,000 words. It might be described as STAR TREK meets THE GODFATHER for kids, and I think it will appeal to fans of Dan Krokos’s THE PLANET THEIVES and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s COSMIC.   

I have been a science fiction fan since the age of 7, when I first read A WRINKLE IN TIME, and I even managed to sneak aliens into my philosophy PhD thesis. I’m now working as a project editor at (company name redacted) This is my first novel. 

Thank you for your consideration.   

Best wishes, 

P.S. Thanks so much for offering feedback on query letters here!

Gemma says: As a query, this isn’t bad at all, and would certainly make me read the sample pages with interest. However, if you can just insert some of Niri’s voice and up the excitement, then you will have a more enticing letter.   

Molly has answered the questions this month:

Question One
Dear agents 

My query might seem a little silly and naive but I have had three rejections so far. Each time I examine the rejection email in detail searching for clues. They were very different with some more encouraging than others. I just wondered if they are likely to be standard. For example would an agent say 'strongly encourage you to contact as many other agencies as possible' and 'we have read (your submission) with great interest' if they thought the book was rubbish and did not have a chance of being published. 

I would love to offer my query letter for critique but haven't quite got the nerve. 

When an agent declines a submission, it’s usually with a form letter. Some agents are gentler than others, and most at least try to be polite. My guess is that the lines you’ve mentioned are from the agents’ form letters. If the agent had comments specific to your manuscript that she wanted to pass on to you, she would have referred to your book, or at least an aspect of it, directly. 

But I think you’re making assumptions about why your book was declined. Just because the agent isn’t interested in it, that doesn’t mean it’s rubbish or impossible to publish. You can’t know what the agent is thinking – she could be already representing a project that sounds just enough like yours that they might compete with each other; or she might not even represent projects for the age group you’re targeting. (A shocking number of aspiring authors don’t fully research the agents they approach.) 

Most importantly, taste is entirely personal. You may have a premise that appeals to an agent, but she might not ‘connect’ with your voice. I mean, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has sold a bazillion copies since it was published in 1980. It’s considered a significant modern classic, and everyone I know loves it, but I’m sorry, I can’t stand that book. I suppose that’s not fair; I’ve never been able to finish it. And Lord knows I’ve tried.  But I simply can’t connect with either the characters or the author’s voice. It’s not for me. 

I can’t represent something unless it inspires a spark of connection, an emotional response of some kind that makes me want to make other people read it. Most agents feel the same way, I think. I’ve turned down projects that have gone on to find agents and sell to publishers. And I’ve taken on clients who’d been turned down by other agents and I’ve found just the right editors for their projects. This is such a subjective business. ‘No’ means ‘this isn’t right for me.’  

Take heart -- your journey to finding an agent has barely begun!

Next month, agent Sallyanne Sweeney from Mulcahy Associates will be here for another Agent Confidential and will also be answering your questions. If you have a question for Sallyanne, either post them in the comments, or send them in to 

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. 


  1. Very helpful and constructive advise from both agents.
    I would feel heartened if I had been the writer asking question 1. Molly's response is very encouraging.

  2. Thank you very much, Gemma and Molly! And Thank you too to our two query writers - very brave indeed to send in you queries for scrutiny in public! We very much appreciate it and do hope it was helpful - your stories sound intriguing:)

  3. Fascinating insights. I'll be sure to share this with my querying critique partners. Thanks, Gemma and Molly!

    BTW, I want to be friends with the author of MINIONS. I hope I get to read that book one day.

  4. More good advice!

    With regards to question one, I was just today going through my rejection messages so far for my current book and trying to get a feel for whether each was:

    A) A form rejection
    B) Had been rejected for reasons of personal taste, or
    C) The rejection had structural feedback I could incorporate into the novel.

    Most of them were for personal reasons, as Molly says, although a couple did offer up some stuff for me to work on.

  5. Finally someone else who can't stand A Confederacy of Dunces ....


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