My dear agent, Alanna Ramirez, has graciously sent me her answers to your most burning questions about agents, querying, and writing. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question! If you don’t see yours, please don’t be offended – I tried to consolidate similar questions so Alanna wouldn’t repeat herself.
* * *
How important is it to include comparison authors in a query, and is it helpful or harmful to include one that matches my themes and style?
I often like to see comparisons in a query, because it gives me a sense of the writing style, the themes, what type of book to expect. If you write women’s fiction that touches on family relationships or social issues, you might say that you write in the spirit of Jodi Picoult. This is helpful for me as the agent because if I decide to represent the book, you’ve given me a solid comparison to use in my pitch to editors. (Editors like comparisons because it helps them position the book). However, there’s a tricky line to tread here… Let’s face it, there’s only one Stephen King, only one J.K. Rowling… and if you tell me that your novel rivals one of these hugely successful, universally appealing, and widely read authors, you might be setting me up for a disappointing reading experience because I will be expecting a lot.
What makes a good or bad query letter?
A good query letter is actually very simple:1. Spell my name correctly. 2. Do your research and figure out what kinds of books I represent. For example, I do not represent romance. So, if you query me about your heart-pounding romantic suspense novel, I will automatically pass. 3. Keep it short, keep it simple. Provide a short description of your novel or nonfiction project. A paragraph or two will do. 4. For fiction, tell me about any previous publishing experience. Is this your first book? Have you had a story published in a literary magazine? Have you written for newspapers or magazines? Have you been nominated for, or won any awards? Did you attend an MFA program? For nonfiction: What is your platform? Do you have a blog, website? What makes you qualified to write your book? 5. Tell me something interesting about you! For example, you’re a foodie so you decided to make your protagonist a restaurant critic.
What is the biggest mistake you see in manuscripts (especially the first few chapters)? What are the elements that grab your attention in a positive way?
Show don’t tell. In addition to beautifully crafted sentences and vivid descriptions, I need to see action, dialogue, and forward momentum of the plot. That’s what will grab my attention and keep me reading until the end.
If a writer gets strong feedback from their critique partners and instructors, how do they figure out why agents aren’t interested in the manuscript?
It’s often a matter of taste. I could get in a very well-written historical novel about the wives of Henry V, but I’m just not that into this type of fiction, so that project wouldn’t be a good fit for me. There are many agents out there, so keep trying until you find a match. If you’re collecting a stack of rejection letters, don’t worry, there’s value here. Take a look at them closely. Are there any common threads? Are all of the agents saying that they aren’t feeling a connection with your protagonist? Are they saying that the dialogue is overwritten or cliché? If you see that they are all making similar comments on a single aspect of your manuscript, use that as a roadmap for making changes.
If a new author has his first book uploaded to the Kindle store, and it’s selling well there and getting great reviews on Amazon, would this make you more or less likely to want to represent them?
This is a really good question. Try the traditional route first. If you’re not getting any agents to bite, sure, upload the book to the Kindle store and see what happens. I know that agents are definitely keeping an eye on what’s happening with the self-published books that ar
e doing well in the Kindle store. In fact, a few of those authors have even been picked up by Trident.
When do you like to learn more about the main character – right away, or later in the story?
Don’t reveal everything in the first 15 pages. The book should progress at a swift clip, but not that fast! This is a hard question to answer because it forces me to be very general. Reveal your characters as the book progresses but no need to divulge everything up front; you want to keep your reader interested for the entire book.
I know queries should be about only one book, but when does an author mention that they have other projects in the works or finished?
Yes, your query should focus on one title. But, feel free to mention your other projects that you have completed or that are in the works.
I often read and participate in debates on Twitter about first person versus third person. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong answer, but in your opinion, is there a voice that generally works better than the other?
It really depends. Sometimes first person works beautifully. Sometimes the story calls for third person. I don’t have a hard and fast rule for this… Keep debating!
Do you take a writer’s online presence into consideration when regarding him/her as a prospective client?
Yes, definitely. If you’re getting millions of hits on your blog, please let me know. This is your built in fan-base. Your platform. Platform is really important for nonfiction, but it can be helpful when trying to sell a novel too. If you’ve been wildly successful in the online community, this will work to your advantage. People already know who you are, and they will buy your future book.
On average, how many new clients do you take on (in a given month, year, etc.)?
Good question. I think this number will differ from year to year, depending on the state of publishing. But, to answer your question, in the past three months I’ve taken on 1 new client.
If I were to send you two different queries for two different manuscripts, would you prefer that I mention in each query that I had sent them both?
This is my pet peeve. Please don’t send me two different query letters simultaneously for different projects. Pick the stronger of the two and query me with that title. At the end of your letter you should mention that you have another project available and ask me if I would like to see that one as well. If you’ve queried me in the past and I requested your work, but it wasn’t right for me at the time, sure you should mention that we’ve been in contact before.
I’m in a contest through a small press that the prize is the opportunity to get the novel I submitted published by them. If I win, is it better to pass on the opportunity since it is a small press and hold out for a bigger publishing house? Would it count as a credit if I did?
This is an interesting question. On the one hand, it would be wonderful if you won the contest; you would have a published book to your name and industry street-cred. On the other hand, I see why you might waiver. I’m sure you have tons of “what-ifs” in your head. Like, what if Random House wanted to publish the book. Or, what if another publisher offered me a huge advance? So, your decision will depend on a couple of things. Is the small publisher a reputable press? If so, I say take them up on their offer. Did you test the waters with agents before submitting to the contest? If so, and no one offered you representation, then I would say let the small press publish the book. Go back to the agents with your next book. You’ll be a published author, which agents love to see. There’s no right answer here… you’ll have to decide the level of risk that you are comfortable with. If you pull the book from the small press, there’s no guarantee that another publisher will pick it up.
In your opinion, what are the telltale signs of a good writer? When reading a manuscript, what makes you say, “Wow. This person can really write.”?
When I effortlessly read 100 pages or more in one sitting, that’s when I know.
What advice do you have for attending writing conferences?
Don’t be shy. Agents and editors attend writers’ conferences to meet and help writers. Take advantage of all of the resources there. You will develop a good list of contacts that will be helpful later when you are ready to query agents.
Do agents prefer straight-forward submissions for novels, which can subsequently be developed for other mediums? Or would an agent accept a “trilogy” with part one being a series of 6 comics treatments, part two being a novel and part three a 5-episode TV series script?
I don’t know what other agents prefer, but I am interested in projects that fit into one medium at a time. (Trident does not represent screenplays). That said, a novel can then be optioned for film or TV. It can be re-imagined as a graphic novel, or a children’s book. The possibilities are endless.
I have been told that my story fits best in the Middle Grade market. Should I only query agents who ask for MG or should I also query YA/Teen agents?
Most agents who handle YA also handle Middle Grade. But, you will have to research each agent individually to know for sure.
At a book reading/signing, is it necessary for a male author to wear a tweed jacket? Is corduroy kosher too? Are there circumstances when no jacket at all is permissible?
Ha ha! I am cracking up. Tweed jackets are optional.