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 6
Previously on Query and Publish…
Agent V a literary agent that posted information about 222 queries on twitter over the last few years. I usually limit it to 200, but I couldn’t remove 22 queries easily this time (e.g. in chronological order), so I didn’t.
She’s looking for Romance, Science Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, Action Adventure, Historical Fiction (not WWII) and Fantasy. For nonfiction, she’s looking for Memoirs and Cookbooks, but she stopped accepting queries for the latter due to the high volume of requests she has to read at the moment.
I analyzed 222 queries from agent V, and she requested partials from 17 of them, or 7.7%. For comparison:
Agent X requested 13.5% of her queries, agent Y requested 8%, agent Z requested 6.5% of his queries, and agent W requested 16% of her queries. Take this with a grain of salt: The agents may not have tweeted about all queries they received at that time.
Unexciting queries lead the list, followed by bad writing, dislikes, and query guidelines.
Most queries agent V gets (about 60%) are Historical Fiction, Thrillers, Science Fiction, Mystery and Fantasy. The charts below are hard to read, so click on each chart to see it better.
Part 2 of this chart is below. Again, click on it for more details.
I know it’s absurd, but this is the sixth post in this series and I don’t know what Absurdist Fiction is. It’s probably meaningless anyway. And don’t get me started on Procedural otherwise I’ll have to write it in detail to keep your interest. Procedural is often also a Thriller or a Mystery, but agent V didn’t give any details, which is ironic.
I categorized 38 queries out of 222 (17.1%) as unexciting. This is when the voice is flat or dry, character doesn’t grab her, story or MC doesn’t draw her in or piques (peeks? peaks? picks?) her interest.
- Anthropomorphic fiction that doesn’t grab her. Not sure if she’s talking about dogs or talking pots.
- Premise where one MC is a child and the other is an adult didn’t spark her interest.
- Loves the era (Historical Mystery) but writing didn’t grab her.
- Stakes not dynamic enough.
- Writing has no punch. Ouch, Ironically.
- In many cases the premise is interesting, sometimes the voice is fun, but the overall writing doesn’t work for her.
- Good writing but no connections with characters.
- Sometimes she’s not sure what the major conflict is.
- DOESN’T SCREAM READ ME!
Check Suzanne Purkis’ blog about literary conflict and its three main types: person vs person, person vs. society, person vs. nature.
35 out of 222 (15.8%).
Note: the categories below are not mutually exclusive. One query may have be considered both telly and weak, for instance.
- 13 out of 34 were considered both bad writing (in general) and unexciting.
- 12 out of 34 need lots of work. My guess is that this is worse than “needs editing”. Maybe it needs developmental work.
- 10 out of 34 were telly.
- 7 out of 34 need editing.
- 4 out of 34 had too much back story.
- Others: Weak, cluttered, too much exposition, grammar problems, formatting, head hopping, exclamations, not concise enough.
You should probably check your work before querying it. See Kisa Whipkey’s musings on beta readers, critique partners and editors.
34 out of 222 (15.3%).
- General dislikes:
- Entities: angels, demons, vampires, greek gods.
- Eras: WWII, biblical,
- Themes: biblical, muslim terrorism, kidnapping, amnesia.
- Genres: paranormal, literary fiction.
- MC problems or dislikes:
- Main character’s motivations are not believable.
- Movie or TV star MC.
- MC cheats, or plot requires MC to cheat on his or her SO.
- MC in long coma, saving Earth from aliens after that.
- Too many POVs, she doesn’t know who’s the MC.
- Likes era (Midwest early 19th) but doesn’t like hunting/trapping.
- Too many flashbacks…backs…backs…
- Some points of plot didn’t work for her (she didn’t explain this one).
- Plot requires too much suspension of disbelief.
- Too many POVs.
- Hard-to-swallow time travel method. I wonder what is it? I read a book where the method was to use a cell phone or even a Commodore 64. And the book is fun!
- Too much going on: SciFi thriller with supernatural and magic realism. In WWII.
- Erotic that doesn’t sound erotic. “When was the last time we painted the ceiling?”
- Setting is really interesting, but plot points shift into places she’s not interested in.
Throwing up words (I love the name of this blog!) has an article about how to make your main character real here.
31 out of 222 (14%).
Well, since we’re in part 6 we know almost all the hits here.
- Generic “Didn’t follow submission guidelines”.
- The “I’m already self published but it’s worth a shot” query:
- In one case it was not only self-published, but also already sold to a small press.
- In one query the book had been re-written. This is a new one.
- Memoir already self-published.
- No, I’d never query one already self-published book. But how about three?
Check Ingrid Sundberg’s notes about the dangers of self-publishing here, among other dos and donts.
- The “I know you don’t rep my genre, so I’ll dress it as a different genre instead”
- Agent V can tell you’re trying to query Romance but your novel is actually Literary Fiction which she doesn’t represent.
- The “Can you rep all my personal unpublished library?” query.
- Author queried for three projects at once.
- In one case, author queried for two fiction and one non-fiction project. She doesn’t represent either of those genres.
- The “Can you click this attachment and risk getting a virus?” query.
- Sometimes with no query, just the attachment.
- The “For no reason I’m going to let you figure out my genre” query.
- In one case missing word count.
- Double whammy by including Vampires, a theme that which agent V doesn’t like.
- The “I don’t have a novel yet, but bear with me” query.
- Just a proposal for a novel.
- The “Let me break all possible rules” query type.
- Dear Sir/Madam, no synopsis or sample pages.
- No query letter. Just first chapter. Bonus by saying that “writing summaries sucks”.
- Journal format, lots of telling, premise doesn’t appeal, already self-published.
- I don’t have a novel yet, but bear with me, you’re going to love it: I have an idea in a genre you don’t rep!
And some new exciting ones:
- The “Book? What book? Here’s a link to a trailer!” query.
- The “No query, but do you want to buy my already published book?” query.
- The “You’re closed for queries? Nah. You’ll love this one” query.
- The “I already have an agent but what the hell” query.
15 out of 222 (6.8%) .
Besides “vampire fatigue”, she also thinks the following themes are saturated, overused or cliché:
- Paranormal is not selling very well.
- Paranormal romance, plus vampires.
- Civil War:
- Civil War: There’s a lot of civil war stories out there and this one doesn’t stand out.
- Civil War is already well written.
- New Adult romance.
- Science Fiction:
- SciFi with lots of familiar, cliché elements.
- SciFi Zombie apocalypse story. She likes zombies, but wants something fresh.
- JFK assassination. It’s hard to add anything new to this story.
- Mystery with serial killers.
- It’s tricky to write them in a new/interesting way.
- She loved the era of one of the queries (1960’s are cool), but dislikes that it’s about another serial killer.
- Thriller with cliché elements. Nothing original.
- Plot story too similar to other thrillers.
- Apocalypse fiction is a tough sell right now.
- Speculative thriller that has been done before.
13 out of 222 (5.9%).
She didn’t specify the word count for one Science Fiction/Fantasy query that she rejected due to word count. Here are the others:
- Historical Fantasy with over 200k words. Another one at 250k.
- Mystery at 120k words. Mystery suspense at 174k words.
- SciFi: 160k, 123k. SciFi/Fantasy at 178k words.
- Fantasy: nearly 200k.
- Thriller: 130k.
- Contemporary Romance: 120k.
- Paranormal: 125k.
- Commercial: 176k.
Not for her
10 out of 222 (4.5%).
- Absurdist Fiction.
- Women’s Fiction. Intriguing story, but it’s not for her. She doesn’t rep WF, but specifically requested this query due to #agentmatch (Oddly enough, a lot of real state agents use this tag on twitter).
- Interesting Fantasy story, but it’s too similar to one of her clients’ work.
- Three of the queries here were Memoirs that she liked the idea, writing or voice. But she already has a lot of Memoirs to read.
- Spiritual journey/coming of age fiction.
- Cookbook/Memoir. She likes them, but she doesn’t have the time to read new ones. It’s possible she’ll be open for this genre in the future again.
- Dark Fantasy that reads like Horror. Good writing, intriguing premise but not a fit for her.
- Literary, mythological Fantasy. Beautiful, but not the kind of thing she reps.
9 out of 222 (4.1%).
- Memoirs. At some point she closed her queries for memoirs because she had too many of them to read.
- Women’s Fiction.
- Young Adult.
- Non-fiction religious book. She doesn’t rep non-fiction or religious books.
- Literary Fiction. This one had 9 protagonists and 180k words, so it’s also too long.
- Narrative non-fiction, military. Inspiring and interesting, but she doesn’t rep this genre.
7 out of 222 (3.2%).
She complained about one Fantasy work with short word count but didn’t specify it. The other rejections due to low word count were:
- Urban Fiction: 38k.
- Memoir: 40k, 53k, 58k, 60k.
- Romance: 36k.
6 out of 222 (2.7%).
Here are some that stood out:
- SciFi Romance. Loved the quirky voice, but plot points are LSD weird.
- Two Time Travel Thrillers with cool premise, but confusing synopsis or query.
- Loved the premise (Alternate History Fiction with Vikings), but head hopping makes everything confusing.
- Confusing query, difficult to figure out story.
4 out of 222 (1.8%).
- Queried as Romance, but it’s Women’s Fiction.
- Queried as Romance, but it’s Literary Fiction.
- Historical Thriller set in late 90’s is not technically historical.
3 out of 222 (1.4%).
- Query is a confusing mess.
- Query written from character’s POV. This is not the first agent to complain about this.
- Science Fiction:
- Space Opera: She has a soft spot for it, and that one sounds fun.
- Time travel Romance (no specifics).
- Time travel story that borders on Young Adult, but she’s still fascinated by it to read more.
- Interesting futuristic place with good voice and writing. With the exception of the somewhat subjective “good voice and writing”, this describes almost all Science Fiction books.
- Intriguing premise that sucked her in.
- Intriguing world-building and voice.
- Fairy tale Romance. May be a tough sell, but it’s intriguing enough to request it.
- Cozy Romance where she likes the mashup and writing.
- Hockey-themed romance with good voice.
- Contemporary Romance with interesting story and good writing.
- Political Thriller where the author did not follow query guidelines, but she loved the premise and asked the synopsis and first ten pages.
- Interesting premise with good voice, but perhaps too many POV characters. Still, she requested it.
- Historical Fiction:
- Set in 17th century France.
- Fascinating pre-Celtic time frame with interesting MC and engaging writing.
- Historical Fiction with time travel. “At this rate I’m going to be buried with manuscripts”.
- Loved the setting and premise. Writing needs some editing.
- Amazing and funny voice.
There you have it. It’s obviously better to follow query guidelines, although some queries got through even when they broke a few of them. Story trumps everything. So do your homework and get lots of feedback on your book before querying.
For more articles like this, check my query and publish series here.
- 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.