Here it is! Your ask the agent question of the week and it’s a goody answered by fab agent, Elaine Spencer of The Knight Agency. Thanks again to Elaine.
Have a wonderful week full of many words on the page or am I just projecting now? Sorry.
Now to the question:
What things keep you reading when a requested partial has been submitted to you? What parts of a query letter are most important in your eyes?
This question is actually harder to answer than it sounds. It is so difficult to put into words exactly where the magic happens in either a query or a submission.
I’ll start with a query, since it’s the first piece of the puzzle. What is most important to me is a simple display of competence. I want to see that they have done their homework and are familiar with how a query should be presented and submitted. I want to see quality grammar, solid writing, and fabulous content. I think a lot of people out there think “its just a query letter” and try to short-cut steps or break the rules as a way to stand out. I advise against this.
In regards to query letters, write what everyone tells you to write. Follow the format of the standard three paragraph, introduction, pitch, summary letter. This gets my attention right off the bat by showing me you are a professional and you’re serious about getting a foot in the door.
The only area that you really need to stand out in the query is with the content. While I discourage anyone from deviating from the traditional style I encourage authors to really find away to pitch their novel in a creative way. Pitch us the story in a way that we can’t help but stop and think “that sounds amazing” or “what a brilliant idea”.
Sometimes I request chapters because the heroine sounds like a cool gal, or there is some setting element that really interests me, or the subject matter just sounds ground breaking. Sometimes I request because I’ve just heard a fellow agent or editor say they were really looking for something that this particular query might describe. Sometimes the author seems really qualified and so I assume they are going to bring me a well written sample. On other occasions the author finds a way to infuse their voice and style into the query that make me really compelled to see how it translates over on the written page.
There are a ton of things that make a query stand out and warrant additional material requests. At the end of the day remember that your query is a reflection of your manuscript. Try to keep them on equal footing in terms of tone and appeal.
In terms of a partial, in my eyes I am looking at the material from a totally different angle, so its a very different question, however my ability to pin-point exactly what works is just as difficult.
Again, at the top of my list, the most glaring thing is the quality of the writing. I want to have a sense that I’m working with a professional writer, or at least someone who is pretty darned close. I want to see grammatical competence and a familiarity of what “Publishable” quality writing is.
In many, many instances I start reading and the writing is just not publishable. I can’t tell you how often I stop and scratch my head and think is this author crazy? They have to have an idea that this isn’t yet up to par, so why are they sending it to me? That sounds harsh, but its frustrating how cavalierly many people treat our valuable reading time.
I think that with the ease of email and how accessible many agents are, a real lack of accountability has shot up. In many instances people send off their material at the drop of a dime without proof reading, without editing, without facing the reality that their product is not on any equal footing with the book you would pick up at your local BN.
Yes, I know that titles still have to go through an editorial process, and those folks up in NY etc. certainly do know how to really make a project shine. Still, before an author sends any material off, the submission should be as clean as an author can possibly imagine it being. There should be zero room for improvement.
So, that being said (and boy did I get side-tracked) what makes a submission stand out. Quality writing. A great voice. Opening pages that have a real “hook” in them. A character who instantly is in my head. A setting I automatically start envisioning.
There is something really magical when you have found that special submission and is hard to put into words. You just know. I’m currently reading a submission that I absolutely love. I know I’m not going to take the project on right now because it needs additional work, but still, I LOVE the manuscript. Despite the flaws in the manuscript, the voice and the characters have totally engaged me, I really want to know how to story unfolds. I used the term “compellingly readable” earlier in the week to describe the project.
That’s what the magic is, when we forget that we are reading an unpublished manuscript, whether it be at our desks at 10am or in our beds at 10pm, but yet we can’t put it down. When we get carried away by jaw dropping revelations, heart wrenching character developments, and laugh out loud dialogue we know we have a winner and we can’t help but keep turning the pages.
Now ask away. See you next week for more Ask the Agent!!
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