Monday, November 03, 2014

Query Question: what to do when an agent clearly misunderstands

I was merrily reading queries the other day and came across one that sounded terrific. A great story, about a women in revolutionary war times, one about whom not much had been written.

I got to the end of the query, saw "manuscript" and "word count" but no, that would not deter me! No no! I donned my SuperQueryShark cape and swung into action.

My reply:

Hi guys (the non-gender specific use of the word)

For non-fiction like this, you need a proposal, not a finished ms.

1. Do you have a proposal?
2. If you do not, do you know what one is (many writers do not, it's ok)

3. If you do, send to me as a word .doc attachment.

4. If you don't, and you don't know what one is, let me know.

5. If you don't, and you do know what one is, I need one (see item #3)

Questions? Of course you have questions. Fire away

Some 48 hours later, a reply landed in my mailbox. It practically quivered with gentility.

As we tried to explain to you in our initial query, TITLE is historical fiction, usually defined as fiction based upon historical facts whose main character is fictional.

I could hear her socks knocking as I read.

And sure enough. The initial query didn't try to explain. It was a bald-faced statement at the start: THIS IS A NOVEL (caps are mine)


I can just imagine the scene when the querier got my reply.

Email bell pings.
Reply pops in mailbox.
Querier opens email.

That dawning dread of realization that Something Is Very Very Wrong Here.

Is the agent insane? Has she lost what few marbles she had?

Was the query (oh dear godiva, what if OTHER agents think this??) unclear???
Hurriedly examining query.

Yes, it's right there at the top of the query: A NOVEL.

What to do???

1. Email agent to suggest remedial reading lessons?
2. Email agent to suggest she is a dunderhead and should consider work as a box of rocks very soon.

3. Reply to email with "um, it IS a novel, you dunderhead."
4. Pretend the agent is not a dunderhead, and perhaps just maybe, she forgot to read the first sentence.

Should this happen to you, that an agent has clearly missed something important (as in this is a novel, not non-fiction) this querier's example is the one you want to follow:

1. She wrote back.
2. She did NOT say "you're wrong"
3. She did not say "you dunderhead" although clearly that was the case.
4. She did not put A NOVEL all in caps as though to say "you dunderhead."
5. She called my attention to the fact this was a novel, without telling me I'd made a mistake.

In other words, she handled this like a pro.
And boy, am I glad for that, cause I feel like anything but.


french sojourn said...

To err is human,
to forgive is divine.

or sublime?

not rubbing one's pointy teeth in it is just Darwin-esque tactic's.

Joyce Tremel said...

I hope you requested it after all that!

LynnRodz said...

That's what I love about you, when you swim around the pool one too many times and you chomp off more than you can chew, you admit it!

Colin Smith said...

Do sharks eat humble pie? Perhaps CHUMble pie? :D

Seriously, we all mess up, even in our professional lives. Handling it professionally is key, as it seems both you and the querier did. Thanks for turning an "oops" moment into a lesson for all of us, Janet! :)

Inkworthies said...

This is a clear flag for a good client - I can think of so many writers who unfortunately would have fired off a response in:

a) panic
b) anger
c) sarcasm
d) all of the above

The fact that she did none of these things, and clearly realized that you've got so many things to read through in a day that they occasionally blur together, means she seems to have a good handle on being professional about her work.

Gosh, I hope the story is good. It sounds promising - here's hoping another fabulous client is swimming your way!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You mean to tell me that an agent may mistakenly dismiss my brilliance because he/she is a dunderhead? And I thought I was the only one with that title.

All that means is that agents ad infinitum have missed the clarity with which I have described my work. Too bad for them.
Okay I'm back to walking the dog and wondering how I can fit all his brilliance, and mine, in one of those little bags which are so poopular now.

Susan Bonifant said...

Agents! They're just like us!

What a relief.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

We all put salt in our coffee sometimes.

Kitty said...

How Emily Litella of you ;~)

Anonymous said...


Knowing me, I'd have freaked at 1) having a personal response, while 2)falling prey to insecurity, such that I would have taken your word for it (how can QOTKU be wrong???) and start slamming out a proposal for my historical fiction - now called hysterical fiction, i.e. the state I would enter at that very moment.

Seriously, here is what we know, The Shark is human - with a big, squishy heart.

Janet Reid said...

Oh Angie, that salt in the coffee story remains one of my all time faves.

Karen McCoy said...

During a formal dinner at a rich aunt's house, my uncle put salt in his Rice Crispies cereal instead of sugar. Similar uncomfortable swallowing ensued.

Ardenwolfe said...

I must agree with Renald. I hope you looked at it anyway. ;)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

When faced with too-bitter-to-countenance-even-with-sugar coffee (Gevalia in my freezer, I'm lookin' at you), I do add a teensy pinch of salt. It somehow makes it balance enough to go all right with the rest of the cream and sugar regimen (with occasional cinnamon).

Really, I'm glad you sent a "So, is this how you meant to query?" because I frequently see (in #tenqueries and suchlike) "didn't follow sub directions, form R" or similar. With a form R in that instance, there's no way for either party to divine the agent has potentially erred.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Great stories: today's and the salt-in-the-coffee. And excellent example for how to behave when it seems like pink elephants are dancing in front of your eyes.

Good thing none of us are perfect. (Though many have been the times I'd have love to give embarrassment a pass.) It'd be a pretty boring and dangerous world with nothing to inspire writers, or laughter.

Jed Cullan said...

Dunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Soooo - Janet: Did Brooks get his raise?

LynnRodz said...

Lisa, that sounds like a great non-fiction contest. Tell your most embarrassing moment in 100 words or less!

DLM said...

"Quivering with gentility" is my new favorite use of the English language ever. Damned near titillating!