Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Error in your query? Don't sweat it. Agent and Big Six contract incoming

Recently, Suzie Townsend got very excited over a query sent to her by author Mindee Arnett.  You can read it here.  By very excited, I mean she took time away from a conference and from planning a trip to New Zealand to drop everything for it. That's pretty major, right?  I want you to notice this line in particular from that query:
"Dusty learns that together she and Eli posses the rare ability to predict..."


1. Have as belonging to one; own: "I do not possess a television set".

2. Have possession of as distinct from ownership.

And in Suzie's pitch that she sent to editors at the Big Six that she sold in 16-days to Tor Teen, she also had an error.  You can read it here and I point out the error for you below:
"Now the Dusty has to follow the clues..."
Extra "the" there in case you don't see it.

Scratches head in puzzlement.

I'm not trying to throw eggs on Mindee's accomplishment. On the contrary, I congratulate her for being successful. And the same goes for super agent Suzie Townsend...congrats on her being so successful too.

No, what I'm bitching about discussing today is the lack of actual standards for this industry. It's all subjective.  It depends on mood, lighting, whatever a person ate for breakfast, timing, what they had to drink, did they sleep well the night before, etc.

I think that for the unpublished, unknown author, the single greatest factor in publishing success is LUCK.  Maybe as high as 50%.  Think about that...your chance of publishing is at least 50% luck.
This should read "Avoid publishing unlucky authors. Throw half of the slush pile
in the automatic rejection bin without reading them. What's left are the lucky ones.
Thank God for the form rejection. Otherwise you might actually owe
some of those people an actual response."
I just think that the advice given to authors about writing query letters should be more...I dunno... truthful.  For one, spelling errors don't necessarily matter. If your query letter can get the point across and the agent reading it likes what you've written, then you'll be successful.  Anyone that's written a query knows what a pain they are to write.  A ton of work goes into them.  Maybe if agents said, " can follow the guidelines but get our need to be lucky. Sorry...but the truth hurts."

Here's what I would have on my agency website if I were a literary agent.  I'd have the usual stuff, query formats and whatnot withstanding, but right after the part that says, "Send us only your most polished query letter" would be the part that says, "And if you're LUCKY, you'll get my attention, and I'll get back to you."  That would be honesty.

Random but related thought ==> If Suzie did care about spelling...maybe she actually thinks that "possess" is spelled "posses" and never called into question the quality of the book. I mean, I hear all the time from agents that "an error in your query gives us an impression of how your book is. One error there makes me wonder how chock full of them your manuscript may be. It's an instant form rejection!" So just imagine if the person reading your query thinks a word is spelled one way when in fact it is spelled another and they reject it thinking you didn't spell check. Wouldn't THAT be interesting?

And just for the record...I don't see content-wise why this offering from Mindee caught Suzie's eye.  That's why I say she got lucky.  It seems like a cross between Harry Potter with a wizard "school" via Chamber of Secrets (kids being killed) with that of other tropes like Being Human's ghost main character that watched her former boyfriend sleep and Piers Anthony's "Nightmare" (part of the Xanth series). I mean...I've read lots of "these types of queries" on my journeys through the blogosphere from people getting ready to send to agents that want help on their query letters.

I'm not saying it doesn't deserve to get published. It absolutely does. And absolutely deserves representation. But so do a dozen others that I can name off the top of my head that have queries very similar to this only without any errors, and these authors got nothing but rejections.

And you know what advice people out there give to these writers that are getting rejected.  It's this: "Oh, your query must not be working. It must be bad. Revise and resend."  Basically, they are told to go back to the drawing board, to re-edit, and revise, and send to new agents when they are ready.  However, there is no scientific rock-solid proof that this is the case. I'm an atheist...I need proof to believe in things. There is no proof. It's simply conjecture...guessing.  You know what I say?  I say you got rejected because you just WEREN'T LUCKY.  You got that?  You have BAD frickin' luck? How do you like them apples?  I don't suggest you go and buy a lotto ticket anytime soon. You'll probably lose at that too.

With regard to the query example...I don't see what caused the "OMG...I MUST DROP EVERYTHING NOW BECAUSE THIS IS AMAZING" moment. Especially given the spelling error. "Posses" is plural for "posse" which means a group of individuals.  It's all...just...interesting.

That's my two cents for today.  Invest in some four leaf clovers and some giraffe earrings of amazing juju.  They shall serve you better than a spell check.


  1. Hmm. :-/

    Well, luck and all else aside, I'm thrilled for Mindee Arnett.

    Gets me thinking, though.

  2. Giraffe earrings? Never heard of that before. Is it like a rabbit's foot?

    "Anyone that's written a query"

    Wouldn't it be anyone WHO'S written a query?

  3. Ouch. Like you, I do believe that this lady deserves her success and I wouldn't want to crap all over that; nevertheless, as someone who does her best to check for spelling/grammar errors in her writing, who puts her heart and soul into making sure every "i" is dotted and every "t" crossed (unless of course they're upper case)... ouch. :-(

    Now where did I put that goddamn rabbit's foot???

  4. I like this post. Luck really does play a bigger part in this business than we realize. We hear, "Work Hard. Don't Give Up." But luck is also a factor.

  5. Okay, Mike you convinced me. Luck is the biggest factor.

  6. @Mutt: Not talking about errors in blog posts. I guarantee the amount of editing I put into a blog post pales in comparison to that of a query letter. Do you not see what I'm pointing out here?

  7. Chicken blood can help in Voodoo spells to increase luck. Also, incense.

  8. Subjectivity...that's what it boils down to. Once I auditioned the best out of a dozen other actors, but didn't get the part. "Why?" I asked my agent. "Because you look too much like his ex-wife." See? Nothing to do with my talent.

  9. I thought maybe you were making the error in the post for the sake of irony.

    We already talked about this query on my blog, so I could just cut and paste whatever I said then...

  10. Michael - your bitchiness, I mean passionate discussion, comes through loud and clear, I LOVE IT! It seems we writers need more honesty in the game, and you are here to give it! ;)

    Kudos on pulling the Xanth series of my favorites! Are you a big Piers Anthony fan? I also loved the Incarnations of Immortality. No one I know has ever heard of him, hmmm...I think I need new circles...

  11. So here's what I said before: And when I queried my story about a blind guy who can see into people’s dreams and control their dreams no one was interested. I should have made it a blind teenage chick and used first person, present tense, right?

    Again though you see why obsessing about queries and getting critiques on them is pointless. This person has errors in hers and still gets a Big Six deal! Yeesh.

  12. I don't have giraffe earrings, but I do have a 4 foot wooden giraffe in my "office". Maybe I should start rubbing it's neck before sending out my queries.

    Hmm, we need some lucky recipes to eat for dinner the night before query sending.

    After your email I thought more about my dart throwing analogy. I think we can improve our luck with practice (or simply keep throwing until we hit something), but we have a better chance by fostering friendships with pubbed authors. Maybe getting them to present our query would be just enough luck to make a difference?

  13. Interesting indeed!

    I admit the idea is interesting, but I'm not seeing the "drop everything" motivation either. There were several queries I read at WriteOnCon that jumped out at me more. Then again, we're talking subjectivity here. We're not Suzie. If this concept rocked her world, more power to her. The best we can do is congratulate and keep sending out what we've got.

    Luck has its place in the universe. As does timing. I would hate to be picked up if I'm not truly ready for it. :)

  14. Heehee, I will write a story, and name it "Giraffe earrings of amazing juju"...I'll properly credit you in the acknowledgements, don't you fret!

    In terms of the query/OMGAMAZING response...yes, I think a lot of it does come down to the luck factor, but only because the submission process is so subjective. Each agent is so different, and to get an agent to want your work sometimes just boils down to timing, preference, and a personal assistant misfiling a manuscript.

    As a writer, my response to that "luck" is to work hard each day so that, eventually I can be "lucky" too.

    Thanks for sharing!

  15. Okay guys...the good luck earrings is a tribute to Steph Schmidt. Just so you know! It isn't's like an Easter Egg for her should she read today's post.

  16. Wow, that's really sad. It's wonderful that she got picked up but I know lots of people that work hard (and spell correctly) that deserve a chance. Maybe it was an amazing story.

  17. I want a mini-giraffe like in that commercial. He would be my friend and I would name him Steven. I'm pretty sure I could get published if I had my little Stevie.

  18. See, this is actually another reason I chose to dispense with the whole agent thing. Getting an agent really has nothing to do with talent. I just can't bring myself to be a part of the game of jumping up and down and waving my arms until I get someone's attention. That's all it really is. Like trying to get picked for something out of an audience at a show. "You, with the blue shirt, come on up." Oops... Wasn't wearing blue, today.

    And, yeah, I'd have more respect for the whole industry if they were more honest about how things are handled. Or, you know, if they introduced some kind of objectivity to the process.

    @Mutt -- Actually, "who's" and "that's" are both correct in that context, although "who's" would probably be preferred.

    @Heather -- I'm about to divest myself of a quantity of my old Anthony collection. For a while, when I was in high school, I was on a quest to own all of his books. That probably lasted until the Xanth novels started getting too silly for me to keep reading them.

  19. RE: Luck: If you read "Outliers," and everyone should, you realize that luck plays a far greater role in our lives than anyone wants to admit. Yes, hard work, yes, talent, yes blah blah blah but in the end, being born in the right month makes you a hockey star in Canada and being born in the wrong month means you'll be a house painter.

    Harrison Ford was painting a doorway when he ran into George Lucas, who knew him from "American Graffiti" and told him about this new movie he was making; originally Christopher Walken was going to be Han Solo. So we have Indiana Jones and all those other movies because Harrison Ford didn't call in sick to work that day.

    So, yes, you need lots of luck to avoid being the indie band that gets good reviews at the local bars but never played for a record label.

    In part because agents, like anyone else, are looking to get stuff off their table. They have 500 books a second arriving, and they need to sort them out the way I sort my emails: I'll read this one now, I'll save that one for later, based on sorting criteria that may change from day to day.

    An easy way, on a bad day, to get rid of 500 books is to scratch off all of those who misspell "possess" and send them on their way; that's not a terrible idea because if you didn't take the time to spellcheck your letter, that may indicate that you didn't spend much time on your manuscript. It's not a good idea, though, because an inability to spellcheck doesn't equate to a lack of creativity.

    It's neither good nor bad; it's just what they do.

    An interesting way to test this might be to query the same agent, say, 10 times, for the EXACT SAME BOOK, using different query letters, titles, and names. See if the women get more responses then men. See if the choice of category matters.

    Where are the scientists when you need them? Oh, yeah-- pretending the million monkeys idea makes any sense.

  20. I'd love to see some agents post stats on how many rejections they dish out with reasons why. IE I rejected 40 letters this month based on excessive typos and 30 based on boring sounding plots etc..

  21. I'm with you 100 percent on this one Michael. Luck and timing is EVERYTHING in life.

    Of course hard work does reap it's own rewards, but when it comes to the arts it's a whole other world. It comes down to luck and how you sell yourself.... no, not as a prostitute.. I know you're thinking that. LOL. Perhaps I should rephrase that to present yourself.

  22. I remember how disappointed I was when I found out that no matter how wonderfully written a story is, if an agent/publisher doesn't think they can sell it, then no contract for the writer.

    I trolled the internet long enough to find out how to do stuff and that's where my engagement ended. Follow an agent blog religiously or at all? I don't think so.

  23. @Briane And Harrison Ford got the Indiana Jones role because Tom Selleck was doing Magnum PI and turned it down. Or so I've heard. If so, Harrison Ford might be the luckiest man alive. He lucked into two of the most iconic film roles of the 20th Century!

  24. all true, mike... but NEVER rely on any spell check, 100%, they're just as quirky as agents, editors, and even publishers...

    i use the spell check in firefox, which throws a squiggly red line under words it perceives to be spelled [or spelt, if you're brit... spelt is also a kind of flour, if memory serves] as i type... too often, it's WRONG, but forces me to rethink and check spelling elsewhere

    excellent post, bud

  25. Since I said "I quit" to querying, I haven't been on any agent blogs, and thank goodness.

    I'm all feminist and stuff, and I support women's rights to be girly and love unicorns and rainbows, but honestly a lot of YA-oriented blogs come across as so juvenile. There's a Squee Index, and some of the agents are at a 7 or 8. Level 10 would be a book blogger that is so excited, you can't tell if they're for real with the gushing, or parodying other book bloggers.

    My personal Squee Index is more like a 4. Something to think about.

  26. Well, if nothing else, it gives me high hopes of being able to snooker someone into wanting to publish my manuscript one day. I don't dream of being great - I just dream getting my crappy book accepted by someone. I mean, dammit. Is it so much to ask? Just a little validation, just a little.

  27. This just goes to prove that if you hook the agent, little errors won't be noticed. So, sure luck went into it, but I think the query just struck the right nerve (which is all about luck, come to think of it).

  28. As someone who has read the story in question, I can guarantee that her book and characters are amazing. And yes, luck and timing play a huge part in querying, but no amount of luck is going to get you an agent or a book deal unless you can write and you actually have a great book.

  29. I also want to add, though, that it IS subjective. That's where the luck comes in--finding the right agent for the right story at the right time. But that doesn't change the fact that you have to have a darn good book.

    And if an agent auto-rejects a query on a typo alone, then that's probably not an agent you'd want representing your book.

  30. I particularly liked your closing line (or second last line to be specific) about needing to invest in lucky charms... sometimes if feels like that...

  31. It is all about timing in this industry. I saw someone raise their hand quicker than me when an agent asked if anyone wrote something specific. The girl withe the quicker hand sold her story in three hours. I think next time I'll jump up and dance on the chair to be noticed. LOL

  32. It is all about timing in this industry. I saw someone raise their hand quicker than me when an agent asked if anyone wrote something specific. The girl withe the quicker hand sold her story in three hours. I think next time I'll jump up and dance on the chair to be noticed. LOL

  33. I believe it's all about talent, skill, and luck. Sometimes, you have to "create" your own luck. Someone sends a query to an agent because they've done research and figured out what the agent likes (since it is all subjective). Is it luck that the agent pulled that one magically out of the stack and loved it? Or is it the perseverance and research of the writer that created that opportunity? I have to hope that all three aspects- talent, skill, and luck- play a role.

  34. Oooo, controversial post.

    I recently wrote a potential post about queries I'm afraid to put up. I'm afraid I'll be blacklisted.

    As a writer, it is frustrating to see mistakes in a query that got an offer of representation anyway. I've been told that the world rides on queries. I've read similar - query shows quality of manuscript and if not getting requests for additional pages, revise the query.

    But since I always send the query with at least 5 pages, how do I know if it's the query or 5 pages?

    I've even read an agent will pass if the word "feel" shows up in the first 50 pages. If there's a spelling error in the first 5 pages, the agent will stop reading. There's all sorts of gloom and doom out there.

    Somehow other people (not me) are able to overcome there obstacles.