July 02, 2014

Query Tips from Agents

FFheader4.jpgWhat Agents Really Want: Part Two

by Natalie R Collins




Dear Author: 
Your work sounds intriguing. I would be interested in seeing the first fifty pages, along with a synopsis and your original query letter. 

Joe Agent 

Now what do you do? The end of page fifty leaves the heroine dangling precariously from the outer tip of ...

See my point? Should you send forty-five pages, which ends a chapter and has a better breaking point, or should you send seventy-five pages, which ends the chapter you started on page forty-six? 

When a new writer is searching for an agent, all the different submission guidelines can be mind-boggling, and cause many sleepless nights. Not wanting to be labeled a "trouble" client, an author wonders if sending fifty-two pages is going to set the agent off on a rampage that ends with the ritual sacrifice of the writer's beloved manuscript. Or even worse, will the manuscript end up in the trash can without ever having been read? 

Since I long ago gave up trying to read minds, I became much more direct in my approach. Instead of wondering, I started asking. For this question, I went straight to the source. I asked eight agents exactly how they felt about the following questions: 

1. If you ask someone for the first fifty pages, and they send you fifty-two, because that is where a chapter breaks, are you going to disregard their work because they didn't follow your guidelines? 

2. Should a writer automatically send a synopsis? If so, how long should that synopsis be? 

3. How long should a query letter be? 

The answers I received reaffirmed my belief that agents are not as rigid as you might think. What they are looking for, overall, is a professional client who has the talent and knowledge to write a good book, and a winning book proposal and query letter. This is how you present yourself to the agent or publisher. It needs to be the very best and most professional work that you have to offer. 

Overwhelmingly, the agents I asked stated that a writer sending extra pages or a few less than requested would not really affect how they look at the work. I would suggest that you don't send an entire manuscript, however, when an agent has only asked for the first three chapters. I was lucky enough to find a very nice agent when I was a newbie to this publishing game. I was sure she would want to read the whole thing twice, even though she had only asked for the first three chapters. She did read it, but still rejected me. However, she was very kind and understanding, and because of my experience with her I didn't walk away from trying to get published. 

Although the agents I questioned were pretty much in agreement about whether or not you should break in a chapter and stop at exactly fifty pages, they had differing opinions on whether or not to send a synopsis and how long it should be. From their answers I believe that you should only send a synopsis if the agent requests it. All were in agreement again, however, when it comes to a query letter being only one page long. Keep it short. 

Below, I have posted my questions to some top agents, and recorded their responses. Kind enough to respond politely to my inquiries were B.J. Robbins of B.J. Robbins Literary Agency; Liza Dawson, of Liza Dawson Associates; William Contardi, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc; Pam Strickler, of Pam Strickler Literary Management; Simon Lipskar of Writers House; and Linda Hyatt of Hyatt Literary Agency; Jeff Kleinman of Graybill and English; and Nicole Aragi, who recently left Watkins-Loomis to start her own agency. 

Fiction Factor: If you ask someone for the first fifty pages, and they send you fifty-two, because that is where a chapter breaks, are you going to disregard their work because they didn't follow your guidelines? 

B.J. Robbins: No, I would never disregard or reject out of hand someone's work if they sent me a few pages more than I had requested. I ask for the first three chapters, which eliminates this problem. 

Liza Dawson: Of course not! 

William Contardi: Of course not....fifty pages give or take, this is a writerocracy not an agentatorship. 

Pam Strickler: No, that would be fine. 

Simon Lipskar:
 Of course not. If there's a natural break somewhere near fifty pages, then send that many pages. However, if the first chapter ends on page ninety-seven and the agent has requested fifty pages, just send fifty pages. 

Linda Hyatt: Two pages will not break or make a writer. But, when I am overwhelmed with submissions and I respond with "I am not accepting submissions at this time" I do expect the author to heed my statement and try at a later date. 

Jeff Kleinman: I'm a completely crappy person to ask about that kind of stuff, because I frankly don't care very much. I tend to think, though, that writers should try to follow an agent's requests--because there are a lot of completely anal-retentive agents out there. The feeling is that if a writer can't follow simple directions like send X, they'll probably be difficult to work with for editing and editors. 

Nicole Aragi: No, of course not, the fifty-page guideline is just rough. I usually ask for fifty pages, or three chapters, or whatever "cut" seems most logical. Under no circumstances should they send a mix of chapters. It's infuriating to receive a query letter with chapters twelve and thirteen enclosed. Like any reader, an agent wants to start at the beginning. 

FF: Should a writer automatically send a synopsis? If so, how long should that synopsis be? 

BJR: I don't request a synopsis, since I find them tedious to read, but if a writer wants to include one that's fine. It should be short (those twenty-eight-page chapter outlines are a complete waste of time and I never read them) and in narrative form if possible. 

LD: A short one. One to two pages. Short is better. 

WC: [I'm] not that interested in a synopsis, more about the writing itself. Doesn't hurt, but several lines in a cover letter is just as if not more effective. 

PS: I think so. I prefer five pages or less. 

SL: Yes. One to two pages maximum. 

LH: I prefer a pitch letter, with writing credentials and the points of the story so I will be able to tell right away if it is something I can market. A synopsis should be as long as is necessary to work as a selling tool for the novel. 

JK: It never hurts. I rarely read 'em unless I really like the book, and then I always want to see how the book will go. I think you should try to limit it to one to two pages, maximum. Double-spaced, of course. And make it read really, really smoothly, too. (Yeah, right--it's far easier said than done!) 

NA: It can be helpful, but is not essential. Whereas receiving a synopsis without a sample chapter(s) is distinctly unhelpful. Reading a sample of the text is the only way to make a judgment. [The synopsis] should be no more than a couple of paragraphs. 

FF: How long should a query letter be? 

BJR: Query letters should be short and to the point, no more than one page. I want to know who you are, what you've written, where you've studied, and any other pertinent information that will help you stand out from the pack. Avoid cutesy, gimmicky letters or anything overly obsequious or grandiose. 

LD: One page. Unless it's brilliant and there is a lot to say. 

WC: One page-ish with writer credits and a paragraph summation of the book. 

 Short, on one page. 

SL: No more than a single page. Remember, though, if you can't write an 
enticing query letter, agents will invariably assume that you can't write an 
enticing novel. 

LH: A pitch letter can be one or two pages. 

JK: Never more than one page. 

NA: Again, a couple of paragraphs, not more. 

So there you have it. Keep your query letter to one page. Make it concise and to the point. Do not tell the agent his or her business. Rather, let them know what your credentials are, and why they should read your book. Don't forget your hook. Your first line is without a doubt the most important one in the whole letter. If the agent asks for a synopsis, send one, but keep it short. Don't send lengthy chapter outlines. 

And if your fifty pages need one or two more pages to complete a chapter or an important scene, by all means include them. When an agent responds to your query positively, pay attention to what they are saying. Most often, they will tell you exactly what they want. Staying within the guidelines as closely as possible guarantees you the best chance of success. 

Copyright © 2002 Natalie R. Collins

Natalie R Collins is a regular columnist for Fiction Factor, contributing helpful articles about agents and editors. You can benefit from some of Natalie's hard-work and in-depth research on agents here: