Archive for December 9th, 2011

What I’ve Learned From #10queriesIn10tweets

First, if you are an aspiring novelist and do not know that hash tag, then head over to Sara Megibow’s Twitter account and hit follow.  She is an Associate Literary Agent at the Nelson Literary Agency which, as quoted from her Publishers Marketplace listing, “specializes in representing young adult and middle grade fiction, science fiction and fantasy, romance (all genres except category or inspirational), commercial fiction, women’s fiction (including chick lit) and high concept literary fiction.”

Don’t write in one of those categories?  I don’t care!  Follow her anyway!  (Please note: this is “follow her anyway” not “query her anyway,” but I get ahead of myself.)

Why?  Because this isn’t about networking, it’s about something she does most Thursdays called 10 Queries in 10 Tweets in which she grabs the top ten queries off her to-read pile, and tweets responses while keeping the details private.  In the end that means ten tweets showing not what people are submitting, but what they’ve done right and wrong when submitting.  Which is something that applies across genres, because the mistakes anyone make to one agent are the mistakes I don’t want to make to any agent.

I first found her 10 Queries tweets in mid-November, which has been fantastic timing as 2012 will hopefully see me querying agents for the first time.  It’s fascinating to see how little it takes to be rejected at the query phase.  For this post I’ve gone back through her five most recent 10 Queries periods, her 50 most recently tweeted query rejections and acceptances, to crunch some numbers about what got rejected and why.  I created a few broad categories, then tried to fit the rejections into them based on her words and my impressions.  Please note, these are my own categories, and my own attempts to fit what I read in her tweets into these categories.

First, I’ll point out that four queries were accepted during those sessions, averaging just under one per.  That’s not four people who have found an agent, that’s four people given the opportunity to send a sample of their manuscript to an agent.  That’s about an 8% pass-through rate within that relatively small sample size.  Of the 92% of the queries that failed, they lumped into three big categories:

Poorly Written Queries (18 queries, 36%).  A stunning percent of these queries are poorly written in a mechanical sense, not a qualitative sense.  Bad spelling, bad grammar, run-on sentences, all of these were cited in the tweets as reasons to reject a give query.  This strikes me as akin to showing up for a job interview in a dirty t-shirt and shorts.  These are people querying a literary agent, someone who is going to represent their writing, and their first impression is a poorly written one.  She says very clearly in these tweets that a poorly written query indicates a poorly written manuscript.

No Pitch (6 queries, 12%).  In one of her tweets, Megibow says she wants pitches to “sound like the back cover of a novel.”  Apparently some authors are coy about including actual plot details.  I was one of those the first time I tried to query a novel, to a contest not an agent, back in the old days when I thought my first Nano novel was good enough to sell.

Didn’t Read the Rules (5 queries, 10%).  This covers a few different sins.  It includes someone who sent a screenplay query to a literary agent.  It includes someone who included a sample with the query to an agent who follows the standard query, sample, manuscript progression.  It includes people sending the wrong genre of fiction to an agent who has clearly listed what both she and her agency represent.

I’m rather shocked by all three of these categories, as they are easy traps to avoid.  Look, I’ll admit, I’ve not seriously queried agents yet, so I can’t come out and say “this is how you should or shouldn’t do it.”  I’m not going to play the false authority game.  But I will give the lessons that I’ve taken out of 10 Queries that I will apply to my own queries when the time comes:

  • I will spell check, grammar check, and even have someone beta read my query letter before I send it.
  • I will pitch my plot.  I will keep my readers in suspense but understand an agent needs to know what he or she will be representing.
  • I will research agents.  I will read their websites, make sure they rep what I’m writing, and not bother the ones who don’t.  I will include attachments only when and where requested.

These strike me as three very rational and reasonable considerations when querying an agent.  However, at least one of these three steps was missed by over half the 10 Queries tweets since the start of November.

In short, if I’m to be rejected, let me be rejected for my plot and ideas, rather than being rejected out of hand over something foolish.



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