Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Query letter stats

I recently took a whack at the query stack and here are some of the reasons I said no to about 50 queries in an hour:

Thinly disguised novel that's really a memoir and thus, egad no: 1
Most people don't live interesting enough lives to be good candidates for a memoir. If you're writing a novel drawing from the "interesting events of your life" you'll need a pretty stringent assessment of just how interesting that is. Assume it's not, and work on persuading me.

Recitation of events - not enticing: 1
Have you ever asked a little kid about his or her day at school? They can't tell things in narrative form yet so there's a lot of "and then this, and then that." Fortunately they're kids, and thus not querying me. When you query me, you really need to be able to describe your novel more enticingly than a kid describes a field trip.

Interesting concept/query so over written it boded ill for novel: 1
Less is more. Let me say that again: less is more

Spent so much time telling me what the novel isn't, didn't tell me what it was: 1
These are the guys who are going to fix everything wrong with fiction today, genre by genre. Well, ok, but what the hell is the book about?

ewwww: 1
Yes, you can gross me out in queries. But we're also done when you do.

I think the author is seriously deranged: 1
And not in a good way.

sadly out of touch about publishing time lines: 1 I'm selling books for 2011 and 2012 now. Mostly Fall and Winter 2011. If you have a book that's perfect for 2010, you're too late. And you're probably too late for 2011 too unless it's such a fiercely hot topic of interest I can sell it quickly. Figure at LEAST two years between sending a query and seeing a book on the shelf.

Sadly out of touch self-help book: 2
Some problems were big in the 70's. That doesn't mean I want to read about them now.

Non-author submission: 2
I don't care who you are or what relationship you have to the author. If you're not the author, don't query me. This includes all material for people who are dead.

blatant ripoff of another popular book or movie: 2
I don't live in a bubble. I've seen Star Wars, and Avatar, and if I haven't, the people in my office who read submissions certainly have. "Fresh and new" means I didn't pay $12.50 to see it at the Bijou recently.

Don't want to read this/cliche characters and plot: 3
Shadowy billionaires, reclusive blonde bombshells, beautiful female anything. Yawn.
Down on his luck private eye; renegade cop; Islamic terrorists; granola swilling eco-slime.

Now a blonde bombshell granola swilling shadowy billionaire private eye--that interests me.

Nothing compelling or enticing about the novel: 3
When my response is ho hum, that doesn't mean yes.

Nothing fresh or new with usual elements of a novel: 3
In other words, not bad, but not good enough.

Bad writing: 3
All writing is bad on the first draft. The trick is not to send the first draft AND to be able to edit yourself. It also helps if you know some basic stuff such as why "try and do" is incorrect. (If you don't know why, ask me)

Misc: 3
Reasons too specific to the query to list here, but I was tempted to call this category TSTQ for a reason.

Don't want to read this: 5
This is where the subjective part comes in. Some novels just don't interest me. Nothing bad or wrong with them, just not for me.

No idea what the novel is about: 11
And let's assume I'm not stupid, ok? I can read. I can follow a string of sentences and extrapolate information, and have been known to actually draw the occasional conclusion.

What this category covers are the people who tell me about themselves and their marketing ideas, and give me a brief concept statement. That doesn't tell me what the novel is about.

A string of events, particularly if it's backstory is NOT what the novel is about.

This is one of the hardest things to figure out when you start writing queries. I've been known to make my authors write the pitch letters for their novels cause I couldn't describe what the novel was about (yes, I read it!) This is HARD. Practice is essential. If you ever track me down at a writing conference, this is the class I teach most often. And if you want to talk to me about this at a conference, this is one thing I'll help you with any time.

Here's the good news:

referred to another FPLM agent for consideration: 1

requested fulls: 2
(categories were women's fiction and crime novel)


pmrussell said...

Now this in an interesting post. Not too many agents care to share. I like the way you categorize your rejects. Gross, clueless,copycats, etc. It isn't as easy as some people might think. Thanks, by the way, for sharing your thoughts with the rest of us.

Derek Whisman said...

I love that you actually keep up with all the reasons so you can break it down like that! Thanks for the great info. That should be everyone's query goals from now on. May I never gross out an agent.

Margaret Yang said...

Thank you sooo much for pointing out the "try and" construction. It's my current grammar pet peeve (edging out adding an s to the word toward).

Have you also noticed it's a regional thing? It's more west coast but has crept as far as Denver.

Run, Janet! It's coming for us!

Tina Lynn said...

TSTQ ~ Nice:)

David said...

Didn't Yoda say something about 'there is no try, just do'?

Debra Moore said...

This post is informative. And it’s all so simple.

1. Write well.
2. Have a completed, well-edited novel of appropriate length that is (a) not a copycat of anything on television last week, (b) not a retelling of films nominated (or not nominated) for Oscars, and (c) not my life story.
3. Present premise of story, overall goals, conflicts and motivations of novel characters and hint at pace and tone of novel in interesting, compelling fashion.
4. Be professional—don’t beg and don’t compare my writing or myself to anything including the words “star power” and “blockbuster.”
5. Be patient.
6. Be willing to graciously accept “no” as the answer this time but more than willing to try again and again.

I mean, really. How hard is all that???

I think I need more coffee.

Sandy Shin said...

Thank you for sharing the stats with all of us. It's interesting to see the detailed reasons why some queries work and others don't.

Dorchester said...

I wonder which one I was ...

Peter said...

Dear Agent-Type Personage;

My 174,321 word debut masterpiece details the trials and tribulations of Erikka Smithfordson as she tries and does all the trials and tribulations of her life. Ericka (during different times in her life she spells her name differently to be 'cute') is a glamorous blonde who lives on granola and stirred, not shaken, vodka martinis that she drinks through a curly straw she carries with her at all times for 'martini emergencies.'
After inheriting a billion dollars from a reclusive uncle she'd never met, Erickcka becomes involved in trials and tribulations. In order to try and do these trials and tribulations she has to go undercover as a private eye. Fred (during different times in her life she REALLY spells her name differently to be REALLY 'cute') stumbles upon tribulations and trials while undercover as an eco-slime politician's Islamic renegade cop who's down on his luck because of previous trials and tribulations dealing with shadowy billionaires, reclusive blonde bombshells and a beautiful female massage therapist/criminal psychologist currently working for the Hope, Arkansas crime scene unit.

My personal favorite writing technique is the run-on sentence because I, personally, believe it challenges the reader to keep up and if the reader can't keep up they don't deserve to know what's going on in my writing; this has lead to a number of lawsuits as I have been forced to sue ignorant readers who have inflicted mental suffering and anguish (and a couple of bruises) upon my personage when I have berated them for failing to grasp my point in a timely and efficient manner.

I look forward to hearing from you. If I do not hear from you within a reasonable amount of time (6 minutes, 23 seconds or so) please accept service of lawsuit when served.

Thank you for your time.

Caitie F said...

I just started doing the first reading of queries for an agent (where I am it goes intern - assistant - agent and no matter what I as the intern says, the assistant looks at it too) and I have noticed all of these things.

In just a few weeks, I have seen several books that say they are a fresh take on Star Wars...but the query makes it sound like it is just Star Wars with different names. There have been two or three books like The Shack and countless Dan Brown or Twilight wannabes.

I am starting to understand why agents complain...

Lynne Connolly said...

"Thank you sooo much for pointing out the "try and" construction. It's my current grammar pet peeve (edging out adding an s to the word toward)."

If you're English, or writing British characters, eg in a historical, then "towards," "backwards," "forwards," etc is correct. Leaving off the "s" is an Americanism, and perfect for American characters. I have my US autocorrect set up for that one.

Christi Goddard said...

"Now a blonde bombshell granola swilling shadowy billionaire private eye--that interests me."

Ah ha! I shall start this illustrious tome immediately.

I love the breakdown of the rejections.

Kate Halleron said...

I really don't understand copycats.

Why spend all that time writing something that's already been written?

OK, maybe for practice, on your own time, while you learn how to write. But why anyone would think anyone else would want to publish it is beyond me.

Shelley Sly said...

Thank you for sharing this. When a writer receives a form rejection, there are usually so many questions going through his/her head (unless he/she is the arrogant type who just says "They don't know what they're thinking!") I haven't queried you, so I don't know if you send form rejections, but whether it's a rejection from you or any other agent, it might be helpful for writers to look at their queries and this list side by side to pinpoint any changes that they could make, if any.

atsiko said...

Really interesting breakdown. It's good to know some of the reasons you might have gotten a rejection.


I hear that allthe time in Missouri. It's not just a west coast thing.

amy34 said...

Avoiding copycatting is pretty hard for an author. I had that kind of feedback from a critique partner once--"it's okay, but it's been done a thousand times." That made my heart sink. But I'd never seen it done ever, and I read a hundred books a year. There's so much media out there now that nobody can possibly read/watch everything. Those of us who don't copycat deliberately probably wind up doing it by accident.

Trinity said...

I think I understand the copycat thing. When you write something truly original -- there's nothing else on the market like it -- it becomes difficult to define and I suspect agents and editors fear stepping too far out on a limb as much as authors do.

We all want to earn a living in this business, so we look to what's already been done successfully. These "I'll write for the market" thoughts creep into my brain occasionally too, but they demolish originality.

It's tough to spend years writing a book and not get paid for it. It takes a lot of things to make it as a writer: talent, creativity, passion, attention to detail, discipline, business sense, persistence, and in our visual multi-media world, even good looks may ond day become a requirement! The faint-hearted need not apply.

Kate Halleron said...

Amy34, I know it's hard to be completely original (maybe impossible). What I don't get is copying deliberately.

It's another Star Wars! It's another LOST! It's another Casablanca!

No, it's not. Star Wars is Star Wars. A copy is just a copy.

I'm still of the opinion that good characters make good fiction, even if there are only so many plots to go around. Every person is unique in some way, so every character should be. At least every main character.

Josin L. McQuein said...

All right, now I'm curious as to what squicked you out so bad it rated an "ewwwww" and just how deranged the deranged author was. Things like that make me wonder if you're the only one who gets those or if they're blanket submissions out there terrifying all agents simultaneously.

I'm also wondering if you've fielded any queries written by the dead for the dead. Could make rewrites a bit dicey.


Gilbert J. Avila said...

TSTQ? I give up; it's something I've never heard. If it's too naughty can you use asterisks?

JS said...

I am not Janet, but I will say that "TSTL", for "too stupid to live," is a term of art in the romance-novel blogosphere.

Susan Quinn said...

You ROCK for sharing this kind of info with us. Thank you.

Healing said...

That’s great!!!

Christi Goddard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Haleyknitz said...

Peter lol

i don't think i understand the "try and do" thing...?

but this was a great post!

MelissaDavis said...

Query letter writing is not a skill I was born with; it takes thought, practice, decision-making, presentation, showmanship and a lot more thought and practice. Every novel is different, so every query is different as well.

The ability to competently put together one hundred thousand words that are spelled correctly, obey the rules of grammar and make sense does not entitle you to a publishing contract. There has to be something in all those pages that is going to provide serious competition for TV, movies, the internet, video games, and texting. If there's not, it likely won't sell.

In a sense, a query is like an agent all on its own: it serves as a pitchman, a sales force, and a PR rep. I'd never send some smelly, lazy, loud-mouthed slob in a wrinkled suit to sell my book, and I don't want to make the mistake of mailing off the query version of that.