The Truth

I've wrapped up the Query Contest!

We had 616 queries and I finished answering them last night at 11:05 pm.

For everyone who participated, I hope it was helpful! If it wasn't or if you couldn't participate, I'm going to give you a quick rundown of the most common truths I gave out. Hopefully that will be helpful.

Before we start, you should know that I don't read the whole query or the all of the pages. (I suspect this is true of most if not all agents). I read until I know what my decision is. Which means, I might know within the first line of the query it's a no. I might know based on the query and the first few lines of the pages that I want to read more and it's a request. This is why it's so important to be concise in your query and to know that every word counts.

So in your comments, if I mentioned your pages it's because I got to them--that means your query worked. If I don't specifically mention your pages, your query didn't work for some reason. Hopefully my answer explains that reason.

The Truths (I'll start with the easiest ones first)

I just don't. There's nothing wrong with papering the town, but in the end chapter books sort of elude me, same with picture book text, and business books, and inspirational non-fiction. I wouldn't even know if the manuscript is good because I don't read the genre.

If the query lost me or confused me then I didn't have any desire to read more and I passed.

This is the truth that no one likes and I get that, but here it is. A manuscript that's too long or too short is going to get rejections based on that alone.

Too Short
I was reading a query that sounded good and I was ready to jump to the pages when I saw that it was only half of the length that it should be. Right then and there I passed. Here's why: I can only sell that to small or e-only publishers. That's the same amount of work as a regular submission but less money. On top of that, it's hard to sell something that length for foreign rights unless the author is established. Even if it's really good it means there needs to be more plot or more worldbuilding which will mean editing and a lot of work for me to guide the author to get there. It's not worth my time.

Too Long
Again, anything that's too long (especially by 25k words or more) means it's going to be a lot of work. We're going to have to do a lot of editing together in order to get the ms down as much as we can in order to sell it. Two separate times I took on a manuscript that was entirely too long. Both times, those manuscripts were some of the best writing and pacing and characterization that I'd ever read. They were just too good to pass up. But at the same time, I had to do a lot of work with those authors to get the word count down and then the editor took it a step further and got it down more. That means if I don't have the time to do the work, I'm going to pass. And if it isn't the best thing I've ever read, I'm going to pass, because again it's not worth my time.

I'm just sick of them. Angels, werewolves, fairies, dystopian, aliens and clones--I've just seen so much of it lately and it all feels the same.

*There will be exceptions of course, like if you write like Laini Taylor or have pacing like Suzanne Collins I might change my mind. :)

Some of these are just obvious, others are harder to pin down. A number of people got responses where I said, "there's nothing wrong with this, but..." and in the end it just didn't feel like something I wanted to read. I knew zombies creeped me out (yes, I said that to someone) and mermaids creeped me out. Here are a few other things that I realized just aren't really to my taste:
  • Star stories: rockstar, movie star, TV star, country music star, celebrity, socialite, reality TV star, etc...something about them seem cheesy to me.
  • Silly, over the top, or satirical humor. Apparently I'm just not that into funny right now. I'll say that I love books with a good sense of humor (anything by Maureen Johnson is fabulous) but I don't want the humor to be overwhelming or to be more prevalent than the plot, that's just not really me. 
  • Historical time periods that take place before the middle ages
*I have eaten my words about my tastes before. I've always said zombies creep me out and yet I love Hannah Moskowitz's Zombie Tag so there's a chance that you could do something and put a spin on it and I might have to go, um nevermind what I said.

There a number of people that have responses where I say something about the pages. I couldn't get into them or I didn't feel engaged or they didn't stand out. First, congratulate yourself. Your query got me to your pages. Now roll up your sleeves for the hard work. Because if I couldn't get into your pages, it's the writing that needs work. This doesn't mean the writing is bad or that you should quit (don't be dramatic), it just means the writing in this pages needs editing. Sometimes it could mean you're not starting in the right place or it could mean that you need more characterization or your pacing could be off or you could be infodumping worldbuilding or it could be something else. Workshop these pages--it'll be insanely helpful.

There's a great line in one of my favorite books ever (Jellicoe Road by the brilliant Melina Marchetta, if you haven't read it yet, you need to):
“What do you want from me?" he asks.What I want from every person in my life, I want to tell him.More.” 
More. MORE! This applies to queries. It doesn't work if something is just good. For me to want to spend a few hours reading a manuscript it has to feel like it's going to be great. So there are a number of times when I look at the plot or the concept or even the writing and there's nothing bad about it, there's not really any advice that I can give except to say that it doesn't feel like it's enough. It needs that elusive more that will make me have to keep reading. That could be solved by looking at character, pacing or the concept in itself. It could mean a lot more work or going on to a different project.

Yes there were requests. I have no idea how many because with that many queries, I just didn't keep track. I can think of four right now in particular but I think there was at least 2 more that I'm forgetting now. One in particular was so good that I went around stalking the author online for a few minutes--it was a good break from reading queries.

I would say that requests were higher in quantity that a usual week, but that's not unusual with how many queries I was choosing from.

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Chro said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I was one of those lucky few whose query you 'loved', which means I can probably stop worrying about it.

Now I just have to get back to work on the first pages you didn't care for. ;)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Wow, 616! Or should I be surprised there weren't more? ;)

Thank you again for doing this.

Stephsco said...

Such a helpful post!

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

Wow. This is all very helpful. Thanks for doing this!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for doing this. Knowing that I need to sharpen my sample pages, and also that my query at least is working, is invaluable. Thanks again for taking the time to reply to all 616 of us! :)

Unknown said...

This was very helpful:) Thank you.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I didn't participate, but it's always helpful to soak up more advice. Thanks for taking the time!

Alexia Chantel said...

Whew, 616 queries and you made it! What a huge undertaking, especially for a holiday weekend. But in the end you made a difference for a lot of people, including me. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to respond to all of us!

amhoggan said...

Did you request any partial or full manuscripts from the query contest? If so, was it a higher percentage than usual or about the same?

K. L. Hallam said...

Thank you for doing this!
I really appreciated your insight, and the time and you took to help us out here in the trenches.

Yes, were there any requests from "can you handle the truth."

Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks so much for hosting this!
I was just wondering about the length issue, since some of the Harlequin imprints accept only short stories.
Sometimes it's hard to know what to aim for!