Thursday, October 06, 2011

Mystery Guest Blogger: Q & A with An Agent's Slush-Pile Reader

Regular readers know that I facilitate a weekly Writing Practicum whose members are working toward publication. Most have no real publishing credits yet. Quite a few are great at doing their homework, reading online, studying up on the industry & honing their craft, but the aspect of querying (and the dismal acceptance rates from slush pile submissions) stymies them.

I have a friend who worked as an agent's slush reader. She was gracious enough to answer my Writing Practicum members' questions.

I thought her responses were great and asked her permission to share them with my blog readers. She agreed, as long as she retained her anonymity. (She's female. That narrows it down from 8 billion possibilities to just over 4 billion. Anonymous enough...) "I was waxing snarky and I shouldn't," she explained. I honestly thought she was quite kind, but will honor her request and keep her identity a secret.

And now, without further ado... A straight-shooting Q & A with an agent's slush-pile reader!

~Cue theme song & dancing girls~

The questions, in no particular order, follow:

Q:  I've studied websites like Query Shark & AgentQuery. I think I understand how to avoid making the major "newbie" mistakes, but what are some "red flags" that turn you off from an otherwise well-written query letter?

  • Starting out with high word count or very low word count as well and slamming me with adverbs and adjectives.  
  • If you don't do your homework and begin the letter with "Dear Sir/Madam." 
  • Spelling the agent's name wrong is a big no-no as well as mentioning books/authors that have unrelated genres or having nothing to do with your genre.  
  • I try not to be skeptical when the bio reads "first time author" but I've read enough really bad stuff from first timers that turn me off.  
  • Also, be nice.  We are people too.  If you come off as needy or a jerk we will probably be turned off to working with you.  
Honestly, I let a lot of things slide in queries because nobody is perfect.  BUT, if I am in the middle of a query reading day and the query starts out with "XXXX novel is a heart rending tale of redemption...(insert ANY descriptive word of what you think your novel is)" you just awarded yourself a rejection.  Those kinds of queries are a dime a dozen and are usually not written well at all.

Q:  When you've read through a pile of queries at a sitting, what specific aspects pique your interest and make one particular query stand out from the crowd?

A:  Oh geez, this is a toughy.  It's hard to tell.  Sometimes it is the writer's credentials, or if a writer can say they met me someplace, or tweeted me on Twitter (or are a fan of my blog is always nice).  The queries that wake me up out of a glassy-eyed stupor are the unusually creative novels that have amazing main character names, to die for plots, and a great voice.

The camel whispers in my ear what I must write.
Betcha never heard a camel's voice before!

Q: I keep hearing that agents and publishers want to find a writer with "a great voice." What constitutes a great voice? What qualities does a great voice have that makes that writing "work?"

A:  Ah, the elusive voice!  Anyone who knows me, or listens to me talk for that matter, knows that I am a speed chatter with loads of snark and humor.  When I write, my brain goes into hyperdrive and all my inner thoughts spill out on the page.  Some things are better left in my brain. However, THAT is the voice we agents / interns are looking for.  The voice can be sweet, unassuming, bold, masculine, crass, sarcastic, abrasive, brutal -- you name it, it's been written.  Mainly, we want to read a character whose voice matches the writing.  It is a difficult thing to pull off, but not impossible.  It just takes practice.

Q:  I want my query to be memorable, but I'm terrified of inadvertently doing something stupid in my letter that turns an agent off. Any advice?

A:  Short really is sweeter.  If you can't hook me onto your plot in the first paragraph, my eyes glass over.  It is my MAJOR pet peeve to read three paragraphs of why the author chose to write and why their book is going to blow my socks off.  Just tell me the damn plot already!  Get down to business, make it snappy, make me drool and then end it.

Q:  On average, how many manuscripts (or partials) do you request for every 100 query letters you read?

A:  Depends.  When I first started I requested about 6 partials and one full.  I do a little more now mainly because the quality of queries have increased and we are caught up in reading submissions.  My last batch of queries was 78 queries, 5 fulls, 2 partials and that didn't include what my boss requested.

Q: Are you ever "on the fence" about a project pitched in a query letter, or are queries generally easily separated into Requests and Rejections? If you are on the fence, what aspects can affect your decision?

A:  I sit on the fence all the time.  It is easy to dole out rejections when the writing is clearly awful and the query is a muddy mess.

However, there is an increase of decent queries that I am not sure if I love or not.  Usually, I star it and let it sit in my inbox for a few days.  If the plot sticks with me, I request it.  If I forget all about it and I reread it without interest, it gets a rejection.  A lot of the time coming back to it with a clear head on a different day makes me realize that I had been silly for not rejecting it, or glad that it is still around to request.

Q:  When you've requested a manuscript, how do you decide whether it's worth bringing to the agent's attention?

A:  This is going to be a novel length answer.  Many factors go into me pitching a book to the agent.  Just so you know, I pitch everything I've requested to my boss even if I am firm on rejecting it.  I am not an agent, so I am not allowed to reject a book without gaining her approval first.  As the intern I act like a gate keeper who gives the gate owner (agent) a whittled down version of the submission process.

Here are some tips that get you read:
  • Your first five pages need to be awesome.  They need to hook me and keep me reading.  
  • After I have requested a 50 page partial, I want to see a story that moves quickly with all the elements aligned.  The dialogue needs to be engaging, the characters need to be developed and the plot needs to be steadily increasing to a climax. If, after fifty pages, I am drooling for more I'll ask for a full (or keep reading as I give all manuscripts up to 50 pages to impress me). 
  • The full needs to deliver the goods.  There needs to be tension, deep character development, a story arc that has me glued to it, and a chain of events I can follow.  
  • I am not a fan of books that skips around a lot between the past and the present.  
  • When you get to a climax, I want to be plastered to the story and gasping (whether that means happy or sad is up to you) and the ending is crucial.  There is nothing more heartbreaking than an ending that drops me off a cliff abruptly. Very unfair.  
  • In a nutshell, 99% of writers query me with novels that are not ready to be queried.  Either the writing is not polished or the story is flawed, or any number of things can go wrong, like me not connecting with a main character to hating where you took the story (or taking your character through improbable scenarios).  
Not to break your hearts, but I have read three submissions I thought were wonderful.  One, my boss agreed was good, but with the other two she was not nearly as impressed as I was.  It is a matter of subjectivity, especially since a novel I hated and highly recommended she pass on, she loved!  Is it frustrating?  Yes it is, but to ease the irritation, it is just as insanely frustrating for us to root out a story we love as much as it is frustrating for you to get rejected.

Finally: Good luck to all of you!


I want to publicly thank my friend for agreeing to share her insider's wisdom with my readers. I hope you found her insights into the querying process useful.

Keep on keeping on!


Gale Martin said...

Great interview. Lots of news you can use. I wish I knew the agent, so I could query her. Very well done!

Alyson Peterson said...

I think I forgot how crazy the whole query stress can be. It's like a bad memory coming back to haunt. Good thing I have a poor memory!

Keep trucking!

Ami Hendrickson said...

Gale; thanks for the kind words. Happy to be of use!

Alyson; I think that's one attribute of a successful writer: a poor memory. Especially where "query stress" is concerned.

When I started querying, every time I mailed an envelope (yes, it was that long ago) I felt as if I had swallowed my own stomach whole. Amazingly, that does get a bit better with time...

Onward, and upward, you two! :)

Samuel_Clemons said...

did somebody write: "dancing girls" ??

i tweet at @Samuel_Clemons

Richard said...

Doing my homework. Thoroughly enjoyed this blog.

Melissa said...

Ami, I have only attended two of your classes and the information I have taken with me is incredible! I've done all of my homework and bam! I've gotten opportunities I never thought imaginable. Within one day I have been offered a book signing and a radio interview and as of today my books not even out. I find self marketing extremely hard but I'm doing it/did it and it's paying off. So my advise is this; put yourself out there and go with it. If your worried about what people may think then get past that.

Ami Hendrickson said...

The critical part of your success is that you've done all your homework! That's one of the critical things that separates the writers who make it from those who just dream about it.

Congratulations on your successes. I'd love to take credit for them, but you're the one who's making it happen!