Friday, August 25, 2017

Five reasons you heard no and what you can do about it

1. You sent pages and just a brief "Hi we met at such and such" but no actual query letter.
Even if you met me previously, and even if I extolled your fabulous sentences and begged to see your novel, you really need to include a query. A query has some essential information that your novel's first pages do not: word count, a preview of the plot, category. It's like an intro call for your novel. Without it your novel is cold-calling, and since I'm in sales, I can tell you without a doubt an intro is a whole lot better than a cold call.

How you will avoid this: don't skate by thinking you can avoid a query. You can't. Just write the damn thing. A bad query is better than none.


2. You made a wildly inappropriate comment about the agent's photo on the website.
(This is from a colleague of mine.)
There are ZERO circumstances under which this is ok. In fact, this is so not ok that you could have a good book and we'd still say no. This is not the kind of person any of us want to work with.

How you will avoid this: Just don't act like a fucking knucklehead. If you've been told you have knucklehead tendencies, get a second read. From a lady person. And don't dismiss what she says.


3. There's literally more about the author than about the book. 
I don't care about the author, I care about the book. I'm not selling the author, I'm selling the book. This applies to most of you. It does not apply to celebrities, because in that case I am selling the author.

How you will avoid this: Pare your bio to what I need to know. I don't need to know where you went to school unless it was the Hard Knocks School of Deportment for Youngish Agents.


4. You sent me a synopsis not a query. I don't even bother with these anymore.

How you will avoid this: Look at what the agent asks for. Send it.  Yes, I know some agents ask for a marketing plan, and that's stupid, but I ask for a query and pages. Pages is not spelled synopsis. Neither is query.

If following these directions is too much for a writer, it bodes ill for following any other kind of direction, like what to do or not do on social media; do or not do on a book tour; do or not do with the editor.  I like to have confidence in my author's ability to hear and understand things.



5. You sent me a Kirkus review of your book, not a query.
I don't take on books that have already been published. Some agents do. They still need a query. If you just can't resist including a Kirkus review, it's supplemental material to the query not in lieu of.

How you will avoid this: by remembering a review is not a query. A query is a very specific kind of letter. It has very specific information in it that an agent needs. We ask for queries for a reason. If you think "oh hell, I'll send this instead", well, see #4



Most of you won't ever need this stuff, but if by some awful chance you recognize yourself, REVISE YOUR QUERY and resend.  When someone messes up, I don't keep some sort of black list (other than for those who fall under #2) I just read the query and reply.  This isn't a zero sum game. You can mess up and recover.

Any questions?

50 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I was going to write a smartass #6 but decided not to because you scare the shit out of me. I'll behave, really, I promise, you can go to the bank on it. I will not mention how much my mother loved it because, well, she's dead and that's old news. But she did :)

Susan said...

Ha! Carolynn, I always look forward to your comments in the morning. :)

I have a new client for whom I'm doing a heavy edit who sent me his query letter that he's already sent to about thirty agents. It's #3 to the max. Even the part about the premise (which is amazing) reflects on what he thinks of his book,
and his bio is filled with bits about his inspiration for it.

I was able to tell him that all of that bio information can be saved for press releases and marketing plans. What agents want to know about is the book and only the book as it stands. I encouraged him to withdraw all of his outstanding queries so we can start with a blank slate after revisions. It really is a fascinating premise, so hopefully he'll see some traction with the revisions.

But thank goodness for this blog. Janet, you're a mentor to all of us.

Happy Friday all!



Laura Mary said...

I have a question prompted by Monday’s post where you complained about people not sending pages…
So agents like to keep us on our toes, some like a synopsis, some like a query, some like a belly rub, some are strictly scratch behind the ears only. Some ask for pages, some don’t…
Would it be a really bad idea to just always send pages? If you’re sending 100% of the correct information asked for, is it a terrible, terrible thing to send extra? Are you saving time if they want to read more, or are you showing that you can’t follow rules and shooting yourself in the foot?
Now that I’ve written this out, I suspect there is no real answer, it will just depend on the agent, and how good or bad a day they’re having!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

These are such useful posts, such good reminders to not be an asshat and to follow instructions agent by agent.

Happy Friday, Reef folks on this side of planet. If you happen to be on the Australia side of the world, how is Saturday looking?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I get that everybody works differently, but I really don't understand how a synopsis is useful. Or I guess I can intellectually understand; at a glance you can see if, on paper, the book's narrative arc does its job. Or something.

But like....if an agent has pages, and doesn't want more based on those, then what's the synopsis going to do?

I just really hate writing them, obviously. And have done it when requested/required by guidelines. But it also seems a little bit like homework, which I pretty much stopped doing in 5th grade. I in fact got in VERY BIG TROUBLE for it in 7th grade, when they discovered I'd forged my dad's signature on those "your kid didn't do their homework" notifications. But seriously? My homework was frequently 1. read a book I'd already read and answer pedantic questions 2. read a boooooring textbook 3. read a boooooring MATH textbook and somehow magically glean from it the new skills to do the problems at the end of that section. Which I was not able to do. And then that homework was somehow graded? And then the math teacher did his or her job and told us how to do the problems. It was profoundly backwards and also why I failed logic in college and thus why I don't also have a philosophy degree.

AJ Blythe said...

Elise, the weekend is bringing early signs of spring, so it rocks =)

It's fascinating reading the reasons for no. If you can follow the rules you've already moved past half the field.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Rats! You mean, I can't share all the wonderful interesting fantabulous info about me that you don't know and you're just dying to hear?

Thank you for this Janet. Always new things to learn. And at other times, just an affirmation of what I already thought.

Colin Smith said...

In case you didn't see my late-night comment on yesterday's post, I've posted our Julie Falatko Q&A to the Treasure Chest. I hope that's useful to people.

Now, to today's offering... wow... I'm constantly amazed that people still do this stuff despite all the help and advice available for free online. Incredible. Humans are wacky. And I totally represent that remark. ;)

Thinking about Laura Mary's question... trying to put myself into an agent's shoes, I think if I loved the query, I would be excited to see pages, even if I didn't ask for them. But I don't think it would make a difference as to whether I would request... UNLESS I didn't like the pages, then they could turn a request into a rejection. But I wouldn't form reject. So I guess I'm saying the pages wouldn't really make a difference in the long run.

But I'm not an agent, so what do I know? :)

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer: I think someone here recently posted an article on their blog about The Synopsis. Hmmm... I wonder who that was...?? :D

Theresa said...

As for #2: Wow! Why would anyone ever, ever comment on someone's photo? As a lady person, this would cause me to press to reject button, no matter how excellent the query.

Treb and Sara said...

Whew. *wipes forehead* I'm safe this round.

Adib Khorram said...

Regarding sending pages if the agent didn't ask...there are a number of agents who complain about this on Twitter, and for them, it's an auto-reject. If the author doesn't follow guidelines at the query stage, it does not bode well for their ability to work together in the future.

There was a very interesting thread (also on Twitter) in which several agents and well-established authors talked about how useless the synopsis is, "except when it isn't." It takes a lot of digging through layers if replies and quote-tweets but it's pretty enlightening (and amusing at times):

https://twitter.com/michaelbourret/status/856948891781955584

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A touch OT (please don't send me to Carkoon), but have you guys heard about that YA book that scammed its way into the #1 NYT bestseller spot? Kind of made me slightly sick- others in YA community called BS and the book was removed. Still, I did not realize the numbers could be scammed like that? Does this happen very often?

Ok, back to my rodent wheel. I want NYTBS honors to be earned, real, not some meaningless trick manipulated by clever scammers :(

*stalks off to work on query letter*

Colin Smith said...

Elise: I saw that. It's also pretty cool how the YA community effectively policed itself and made a difference. Here's an article that was updated as events unfolded.

Some thoughts from Janet on these "Best Seller" lists, how they work, and why they matter, might make for a good future blog article... :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin - It was cool how YA community saw this and fixed it, but it was a long chase down the rabbit hole. Thanks for the article link. :)

Rakie said...

Quietly staggered about #2, not sure why anyone would think that was a great idea... unless they thought it was a way to "personalise" their query specific to that agent... o_O

Laura Mary said...

Adib - thanks for that :-) Wise words for when I eventually get passed Editing and into querying!

I think the take away here is - Do as you're told and don't try and be clever!

Colin Smith said...

Rackie: What amazes me is people need to be told this. Now, if Janet were to tell Barbara Poelle that she looks stunning in her agency picture, Barbara would probably thank her and buy her another drink. But that's okay, because there's a pre-existing relationship there, and I don't think Ms. Poelle would be at all threatened by Janet's comment. In this context, however, where the agent's appearance is completely irrelevant... I just shake my head. As I tell my youngest daughter, not every thought that goes through your head needs to come out of your mouth. :)

Timothy Lowe said...

It amazed me that, even with all the resources available, people find a way to screw it up this badly.

OT - anyone else read Donald Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel"? I picked it up the other day. It's super!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I would nevah, evah send pages to an agent whose guidelines say not to - always follow their individual instructions (in my opinion).

I made a meme (that I think is hilarious) about queries and writing a synopsis, but don't know how to share it here.

Joseph Snoe said...

Since I'm stressing over writing a query letter, I'm worrying if my query letter is morphing into a synopsis. I don't know why I have such a mental block against query letters. I've written them successfully before even knowing what they were, and the more I learn about them the harder they are to write.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Joseph I am having the same trouble with my query letter. I have myself a full mental block. I was able to successfully pitch my book just fine. It should be easy to turn my pitch into a successful query letter, right?

Ugh! Is it me or is it getting hot in these here query trenches?

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: You've got this. Really. Start over. Clean page. Answer these questions in one sentence (each): 1) Who's the MC? 2) What does s/he want? 3) What's stopping him/her? 4) What's at stake? That's the essence of your query. Now, fluff that up into 250 words of compelling, enticing language, and you have yourself a query. Just remember: the object of the query is simply to get the agent to request pages. You're dangling a carrot, not presenting the whole casserole. Go back over the FTW articles on QueryShark for ideas.

But really, you've got this. :)

Sherry Howard said...

Thanks again Colin for the upkeep of the treasure chest. I don't know if you have official Curator status around here or not, but you deserve it.well, except, I guess every time you go to Carkoon it's revoked, so there's that.

I agree that if you've read every query and every critique on Query Shark that you should be able to write a passable query. I think I went through all (used to be 268 at my beginning I think) of them so many times that I had pages and pages of notes. Then I arrived at that light bulb moment that is empowered by Yoda and saw the light. Good stuff in those mines.

Colin Smith said...
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Colin Smith said...

Sherry: You're very welcome. I am the curator of the Treasure Chest, and the maintainer of the List of Carkoon's Most Wanted. During my last *ahem* visit to Carkoon, I was made the official curator and archivist for the Carkoon National History Museum Dungeon of Ancient Artifacts. But that's because I was expendable... :)

Craig F said...

I have been almost circumspect in making my query list and checking it twice. I say almost because I sent a query to an agent with too many conflicting messages. In some places she was closed to queries and in others open. I sent her ten pages instead of the five in her guidelines. A minor rebellion but I'm not sure I want her as an agent anyhow.

My wonder is about another agent who had been praised here. I sent a query late one day. Rejection came at nine the next morning, from some assistant I had never heard of. Seemed like a lack of respect for writers.

Joseph: It is a fine line between query and synopsis. Queries are meant to accentuate your writer's chops. Distill the essence of your story arc, skip the subplots, throw a hard and short hook at the start and define that arc.

Online critiques help a lot but it is still your burden to bear.

Susan said...

Question for the masses since I'm heading back into the query trenches soon...

When writing the story portion of the query letter, is it wrong to treat it as if you're writing a back-of-book blurb in that you want to entice the agent the same as if you'd want to entice the reader? Or are there more elements to consider in the query (not including the word count, comps, and bio)?

Colin Smith said...

Craig: I'm no expert, but I believe the line between query and synopsis is pretty big and clear.

I saw a good pictorial representation of the difference on a very recent blog article by someone... mmm... They were talking about The Synopsis. Now, who was that...?? ;)

Susan: Back-of-book blub is a good guideline, since it serves the same purpose--entice the reader to dive in. In my experience, what tends to happen is we start writing the query, then feel the need to explain... and then there's that neat plot point... and I love those characters so they need to go in... and all of a sudden we're re-writing the novel! The agent just needs to know what the novel's about, and why they should care to read it.

BJ Muntain said...

Jennifer: If an agent is iffy about anything - the pages, the premise, the query, the author - the synopsis can help them see if reading the full novel is worthwhile. That way, they don't waste hours reading hundreds of pages to find that the novel falls apart at the end. It's a timesaver.

I like writing synopses. It helps me get more comfortable talking about my book, finding out what's good, what's working, what's important and what isn't. And it helps me understand the book better.

AJ: Early signs of fall, here. Heard the Canada Geese honking early this morning. Some will be leaving us soon.

Sherry Howard said...

The part of the query devoted to your book hook is a few paragraphs, and meant to entice, not tell the whole story. A synopsis, on the other hand, will be longer and detail your story from start to finish, but with the focus on main character(s), stakes, and story arcs. It must tell the ending of the story, where your query often doesn't. There are good sources of information on these on the web, and misleading sources, so be sure to read Query Shark for query info and find a reputable spot for synopsis outlines/advice.

BJ Muntain said...

I went to a workshop once given by a NYTBS author. His advice on querying? Just sent the same stuff to every agent: query, synopsis, first chapter. He also had a lot of disparaging stuff to say about the publishing industry. He's since started self-publishing. I've never gone to another session of his, as I don't like his attitude.

Elise: As I understand it, 'buying' a placement on the bestseller lists does happen - maybe not as much in the YA category as in others - but it does happen. Bestseller lists may be great marketing tools, but otherwise they're not super-special or even completely accurate.

Mark Ellis said...

Two thoughts: you have to pay to pitch at a conference; wouldn't pay to play in Twitter pitchfests (I have to do more research on this) separate the dilletantes from the real players?

If your novel is high-concept, is having the query/pitch/idea on public display problematic?

Mark Ellis said...

Opps, sorry, yesterday's post, I'll use the coffee excuse everyone else uses, though I've already had strong coffee.

Amy Johnson said...

I like what AJ said: "If you can follow the rules you've already moved past half the field."

A kind soul here said something similar to me several months ago when I was sortakinda bemoaning the ratio of queries received by agents to manuscripts requested by agents. (Thanks again, kind soul.) The probability of getting a request increases oh-so-much when we do things like follow the rules, study the craft, put in the work, etc.

Susan said...

Colin: That's what I was thinking...the back-of-book blurbs seem to have the same goal (and they get the job done)--and you're constrained by space there, too. It also makes it less daunting to think of it more like book jacket copy than something that has to impress people who can change your future ;)

Colin Smith said...

Susan: Honestly, I wonder if "impress" is even too strong. If an agent is intrigued enough to request your ms., the query's work is done. It shouldn't require more work and imagination than your novel. Just creative marketing skills. :)

Lennon Faris said...

#2 - good grief! I guess you see all types in the business.

Jennifer - I don't like the synopsis either, but I can see its usefulness. It's not to entice but to prove that you can write a story that makes sense. Some agent (can't remember who) once said that a good query letter makes an agent shriek, "I REALLY WANT TO READ THAT BOOK!!!" and a good synopsis makes her say, "This author knows story structure."

Craig F said...

Susan: Housekeeping, including TITLE, word count, genre, and affirmation of completion, is separate from the body of the query. There are two camps on placement, first or last, so it might be good to do both.

A back page blurb is a good start but you have 250-300 words for a query, so you can expand it some.

The simplest eye opener for writing a query is here:

https://johnmcusick.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/a-pretty-much-foolproof-never-fail-silver-bullet-query-opening/

The two differences between a query and a synopsis are voice and The End. A query needs voice and a synopsis needs the end.

A common problem when writing a query is to make it read like a synopsis. That means it needs more voice and emotive power.

Donnaeve said...

#2:

"How you will avoid this: Just don't act like a fucking knucklehead. If you've been told you have knucklehead tendencies, get a second read. From a lady person. And don't dismiss what she says."

I swear, I giggle every single time the Queen uses the F bomb.

Why do I feel they thought they were being funny?

Elise - long as we ain't takin' off our clothes, write that query in a way it burns! (in a good way)

Ardenwolfe said...

All of these blew my mind. Seriously? Hopefuls do this? Just . . . wow.

Susan said...

Colin: Intrigue is an excellent word. I'm aiming for that.

Craig: Housekeeping! That's the word I was looking for! I swear, my brain sometimes...

When I published The Last Letter, I used my original query (which went through a couple of iterations) for the back of book. Now that I'm querying again, I was wondering if I could psych myself up for query writing by applying the same foundation. Thanks for the link--checking it out now!

Lennon Faris said...

Craig, you're a genius. That was an awesome link!

Lynne Main said...

Considering there is a ton of info out there online about how to query agents properly, I'm flabbergasted people do the kind of stuff Janet is talking about in this post. I write YA historical fiction, and I've done my research of people, places, etc. for my book, so you best believe I'm doing the same thing with agents I want to query.

Wow, just wow, on #2--I can't imagine doing that to an agent over their photo. The mind boggles...

Steve Stubbs said...

Question re #2:

I can't imagine making ANY sort of comment about an agent's photo. But I can't help wondering what "a wildly inappropriate comment about the agent's photo on the website" is. Did this querier introduce himself (or herself) as a dangerous serial killer and follow that with "Gawrsh, now that I have seen your photo I can't stop thinking about you? (And by the way I noted the street address of your office from the site. See ya later. I'm still on the loose.)" I read somewhere Charles Manson used to send fan mail to the Beatles. I am sure they were thrilled.

That sounds like an idea for a novel.

Lynne Main said...
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Lynne Main said...

Steve, you've officially scared me. ;)

Considering I'm a Beatlemaniac, that whole bit with Manson majorly disturbs me. And then there was the book called Helter Skelter that gives one the willies.

Seriously, what I can't understand is why the comments about the agent's photo were even made in the first place. I know when I contact an agent, it's all about my book and my writing. Nothing else.

Joseph Snoe said...
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Colin Smith said...
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kathy joyce said...

Saw it, loved it!