In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.
The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.
These are their stories.
A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.
Agent Analysis – Part 3
Previously on Query and Publish…
Agent Z is a literary agent that posted information about 200 queries on twitter over the last few years.
He is looking for everything under the sun except non-fiction, picture books, children’s books, cook books, graphic novels, novellas, short stories, cook books, screenplays, poetry and presidential tweets.
I analyzed 200 queries from agent Z, and he requested partials from 13 of them, or 6.5%. The request rate is getting worse as my series continues. Agent X requested 13.5% of her queries, and agent Y requested 8%. Take this with a grain of salt – the agents may not have tweeted about all queries they received at that time.
Most of the queries were disliked by agent Z for one reason or another. I’ll look into each one of these categories below.
And now, let’s take a look at the queries genres!
Most queries sent to agent Z were in Romance, Young Adult, Thriller and Fantasy, but not by much. His queries were all over the place. He seems to have a preference for Paranormal since 50% of all Paranormal submissions were requested.
Luckily, agent Z was very specific in his comments, so we can see what types of subgenres were submitted. Unfortunately, the chart is too big, so I broke it into two parts below. You can see the full chart here.
R (Romance), YA (Young Adult), T (Thriller), F (Fantasy), M (Mystery), LF (Literary Fiction), WF (Women’s Fiction). Com (Comedy), Myst (Mystery), Rom (Romance), Susp (Suspense), Dyst (Dystopian), Fant (Fantasy), Para (Paranormal), UF (Urban Fiction), Thrill (Thriller), Lit (Literary Fiction).
So, he likes Romance-Romance, YA LGBT, and Mystery-Mystery.
He requested Horror-horror, Paranormal Crime, Paranormal Romance, Erotica Romance, New Adult-New Adult and LGBT-LGBT.
And here’s a pie chart version of the incoming genres.
Agent Z gave us rich explanations for all his rejections, so I was able to create a complex list of categories for his preferences.
Dislikes: 33 (16.5%)
Queries in this category were disliked, despised or perhaps hated by him. Some are personal dislikes, but others can be generalized. For instance, I suspect that if you write racist fiction you’ll have an even harder time finding an agent.
- Racist query or racist slur. Third agent in a row that complains about it.
- Nasty murder in first chapter, disturbing first paragraph or awful things happening too early with no tension. It’s better to save your shocking scene for later, like Superbowl 2017.
- Unnecessary swearing (although this was not a problem for The Martian).
- MS starts in the wrong place. In some cases, protagonist is only introduced in chapter 2.
- Thriller that starts too slowly.
- MS meant to be funny, but it’s not. Meant to be witty or sarcastic but missed.
- He’s not a fun of retellings in general.
- Erotica dislikes:
- Sex too early. Even in fiction, people like foreplay.
- Character has sex with employer.
- Hot sex with the dead. Ew. I by that, I mean ew.
- Third person, present tense, that reads like narration by Morgan Freeman. What? Why would someone dislike this?
- Female protagonist that’s too angry or too hard.
- Too many genres mashed together.
- No explanation of the world.
- Creepy and disturbing query and not in a good way. It makes you think what’d be creepy and disturbing in a good way: “This is horrible but I can’t stop reading it!”
- Magical terms ripped from other successful novels.
- Too flippant/too nonchalant.
- General dislike, or disagrees with idea/theme of the novel.
- Unbelievable series of events. My guess is that he probably doesn’t like the show Arrow as well. Too bad, I still watch it.
- Ridiculous or offensive premise. I can only guess what this was about, but I won’t say it out loud. No reason to lose readers due to my creepy imagination.
- Others: trying to be meta, no context given, condescending writing.
- English not first language: 2 submissions were from foreign authors and the English barely makes sense. In yet another query, the novel was a translation that was clunky and awkward. He suggests hiring an editor if you, like me, is not a native English speaker, and I totally agree with him.
Bad Writing: 21 (10.5%)
Since he was very specific in some of the rejections, I have different categories for writing that’s too telly and info dump, and one could also considered those as bad writing. This covers the rest of them.
Besides mediocre writing, writing mistakes, derivative writing, unnatural context switches, weird, unreasonable, and poorly writing novel, agent Z rejected queries due to:
- Grammer and, punctuation mistakes everywhere?
- POV changes in the same chapter.
- Several words or several expressions repeated several times several times.
- Not pro level yet. I mean, duh!
- Weird and poorly written.
- Two-dimensional characters.
- The, invasion, of, commas, from, outer, space.
- Nothing but pop-culture references.
- Reads like first or early draft. Rushed.
- No connection between thoughts. Banana.
- “Too much dialogue?” “Yes. In some cases, almost entirely dialogue.” “Talking heads, you mean?”
- Writer claims first novel and it shows. Ouch. I shouldn’t write this series without having a beer, or eight bottles of wine.
Query Guidelines: 19 (9.5%)
Guidelines differ from agent to agent, so study your agent before you submit your query. The comments may not necessarily apply to other agents.
12 rejections out of 19 in this category were due to lack of synopsis. Other than that, the other problems were:
- No chapters.
- No word count.
- E-mail with attachments.
- Subject line doesn’t say query.
- Sent only the synopsis and chapter. No query.
- Already self-published.
In one of the queries, the author could see the other 82 recipients of the query. I cringe just thinking about it. Another one, besides missing the synopsis, misspelled his own book title. People, you shouldn’t query while under the influence. Not again. Not every time.
Saturated: 19 (9.5%)
Like all agents, agent Z has its own list of themes he thinks are already saturated.
- Retellings of myths. Retellings of myths everywhere.
- Premises that have been done a lot, he heard it many times, and in some cases there’s already a TV show and even group counseling for it.
- Ghost stories that are too similar to existing stories.
- Zombies have been done to death. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read this.
- Like the word passé, Werewolves are too passé.
- Dystopian or post-apocalyptical stories.
- Dream + flashback is overdone.
- Deal with the devil, ripped from Supernatural.
- Ender’s game retell.
Here are some tips on how to write in a saturated genre.
Telly: 18 (9%)
18 queries were rejected for being telly or having expository narrative. Agent Z wasn’t short on adjectives for these types of queries:
- Annoying and not quirky.
- Slow pace because of so much telling and no showing.
- Tell, tell, tell.
- Descriptions done in a way that slows everything down.
I can totally see this on the cover of my future novel: “Early draft, full of expository narrative done poorly with bad dialogue, slow pace, and no sense of characters. A must read!”
See my show vs. tell essay blog post here.
Too Long: 17 (8.5%)
A surprisingly high number of novels that agent Z thinks are too long.
Fantasy: 134k, 136k, 254k (he says this word count should only be for phone books).
- YA: over 100k, 117k, 125k, 140k, 163k,
- Thriller: 120k, 150k.
- Historical: 223k.
- New Adult: 152k.
- Crime: 126k.
- Literary Fiction: 122k.
- Suspense: 120k.
- Romance: 133k.
- Other: 144k.
Unlikable Protagonist: 11 (5.5%)
- Unpleasant protagonist in general.
- Creepy stalkerish protagonist, or love interest.
- Conversations between two unlikable men in first chapter.
- Main character seems unnecessarily cruel.
- Drunken wreck protagonist. Oh, no, what about The Shining?
- Hates everything character does, but doesn’t specify what exactly.
- Selfish protagonist.
- Protagonist is not believable.
- Protagonist with no flaws.
- Main character is so unlikable it hurts. Maybe it’s like Dolores Umbridge as the main character.
This blog post explains how to make your unlikable protagonist likable.
Unexciting: 11 (5.5%)
This category are about queries where the agent starts reading them and ends up with him wondering what he’s going to have for dinner.
- Writing mechanics are there, but it’s not grabbing him.
- Nothing of significance happens.
- Writing not engaging enough.
- Interesting story, uninteresting protagonist.
- No world building, so he doesn’t care about the journey.
- Nice protagonist and setting, but story is not outstanding.
- Not special enough in a crowded field.
- Not fun enough to make him want to read more.
- Blah writing.
- Voice is not unique.
- Narrative goes nowhere.
- Good premise but nothing happens.
Check the 9 reasons why your reader is bored.
Info Dump: 9 (4.5%)
This agent received at least 9 queries with too much information dumped on the reader.
- Info dump lost him after the first paragraphs.
- All background and info dump from start to finish.
- Boring info dump.
- Entire first chapter consists of ordinary and boring travel details.
Ellen Brock has a nice post about how you dump info without info dump.
Too Short: 7 (3.5%)
- Fantasy with less than 25k words. And prologue.
- Fantasy with 50k words.
- Psych Suspense with only 50k words.
- Literary Fiction with 42k words.
- Young Adult with 45k words.
- Young Adult with 42k words.
- Romance with 42k words.
If your novel is too short you might try developing your characters more or explore the backstory.
Prologue: 7 (3.5%)
7 queries were rejected because the agent doesn’t like prologues. I can relate: I also don’t like prologues due to the context switch between prologue and chapter. It’s like you’re starting two different books, and it takes some time for readers to get acquainted and interested in a single book as it is.
The reasons he rejected in this category were:
- Prologues that give too much away.
- Prologue of the past, and no sense of protagonist in the present.
- Info dump prologues.
- Expository prologues.
- Bored because prologue.
Too Gross: 5 (2.5%). Horror doesn’t mean gross, gory and disturbing content, too crass for him (and that’s a high bar), blood, so much blood, too much blood. Gross doesn’t equal thrilling.
Doesn’t rep: 5 (2.5%). Short Stories, Children, Novella, Middle Grade.
Bad query: 3 (1.5%). First chapter too short, agent Z’s name misspelled, addressed to a different agent.
Confusing: 2 (1%). Modern day NY, but starting in Ireland in 1988; chapter introduces 11 characters, which makes it unnecessarily complicated.
Agent Z requested 3 Paranormal, 3 Young Adult, 2 Romance, and 1 New Adult, Horror, LGBT, Erotica, and Mystery. Science Fiction is nowhere to be seen.
Therefore, Paranormal and Young Adult are roughly 46% of all his requests:
Agent Z likes funny, witty and comical manuscripts (5 out of 13 requests). However, he also likes dark and fast paced when the voice is right.
Other reasons he requested fulls or partials:
- LGBT manuscript.
- Great writing and voice.
- Teen learning about sexuality with elements of supernatural.
- Fantastic writing and pacing with outstanding voice.
- Writing with elements of depression and treatment.
- Spooky and mysterious enough to grab his attention.
- Quick and witty dialogue.
- Paranormal with tough snarky protagonist and no vampires.
- Good premise, voice and pacing.
Well, damn. There isn’t much else to say except that writing is hard, publishing is harder, and becoming the next J. K. Rowling is starting to look a little far-fetched. Which is weird, since I’ve been doing everything this how-to guide on how to become the next J. K. Rowling told me to do.
Either way, don’t give up. Persistence is the key.
- I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the tweets. Some of them didn’t have enough information, so this study is partially subjective.
- Some of the information here can be generalized to other agents, but not everything – especially the agent’s personal preferences. Research your agent before submitting.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Default Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.