UPDATE: When I wrote this, Amanda was at Inklings Literary Agency. She’s now at BookEnds Literary, and I went with her, of course. Please check BookEnds for her latest submission guidelines and don’t rely on this post!
Everybody knows the most time consuming part of querying: stalking agents online to find out everything from their favourite movie to their mum’s shoe size and then realising you can’t put any of that in your query anyway because then they’ll know you’re a freaky Stalker McStalkerson.
This process of stalking is so much easier when the agent obliges with a social media presence.
To aid and assist agent-seeking authors in this quest, I bribed my agent extraordinaire Amanda Jain (with Mr Kiplings Fondant Fancies) to answer your questions about querying.
Amanda has worked at Inklings since 2014 and is actively looking for new clients. A profile and details of what she’s looking for can be found on the Inklings website and her Twitter.
I can attest that she has a wicked sense of humour, is wonderfully editorial, loves Oxford commas, and isn’t fazed by dealing with neurotic authors (um… a friend told me that last bit… totally not me.)
Speaking of authors being a strange bunch, your first question to Amanda was:
Q: HOW CAN WE MAKE YOU LOVE US?
In the interests of making it past Amanda’s spam filter and not being flagged as an advert for Fatal Attraction Anonymous, I added: By this we mean ‘what makes a query stand out?’
Amanda: Ah, the query letter. The bane of every writer’s existence. It sounds obvious, I know, but sometimes a query stands out just because it’s followed all of the guidelines, it’s given me all of the pertinent info, and it’s told me about the book. SO MANY queries don’t do these basic things:
1) Give me the category and genre. Know what those words mean and have a firm grasp on where your book belongs on the shelf.
2) Tell me the word count. Really. Please tell me the word count.
3) Tell me who the main characters are. If I get to the end of your query and I can’t tell who the main characters are, that’s a problem.
4) Tell me the main conflict. What are the characters trying to accomplish and what stands in their way?
5) What are the stakes? What happens if the characters’ goals are not accomplished?
By the end of your query, I should be able to answer all of these questions. Be clear. Be concise. Avoid generalizations and emphasize what is unique about your book.
Beyond that, the things that make those great queries stand out are really difficult to explain. It’s those queries that give you that frisson of excitement, that make the hair on your arms stand up. That make it impossible for you to continue your day until you’ve read those sample pages.
Q: Some query advice articles tell us to begin with a logline / one-line pitch. Others say these are irritating. How do you feel about them?
Amanda: When they’re well done, I love them. That sort of “elevator pitch” is a great way to set the tone for your query, and it also shows me that you understand your book so well that you are able to distill it into this one sentence in a way that grabs me and draws me into your query.
Q: What’s an automatic rejection, besides not following submission guidelines? [See Amanda’s submission guidelines here]
Amanda: I am not the grammar police and a typo here or there doesn’t bother me, but if your query is riddled with mistakes, you’re probably going to get a rejection. If you haven’t taken enough care with your query, then I wonder whether you’ve really put in the work on your manuscript.
Other automatic rejections are often for things that show me you don’t understand the market you’re writing for. If you query me with a YA novel where the protagonist is 23 or you query me with a contemporary romance that’s 175,000 words, it shows me that you don’t understand the conventions of your market.
There are also, sometimes, subjective reasons. These are the hardest to explain and are often the hardest for the author to hear, but if I don’t LOVE your book then I can’t really be its champion. Sometimes, I know from reading the query that the book just isn’t for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be what someone else is looking for.
Q: Those rejections really are the hardest–so near and yet so far. Kinda like being on a date and just before you ask him back to your place he says, “Oh, I just have to show you this!” and pulls out his phone and shows you a Facebook status in which he wrote “your” instead of “you’re.”
Anyway, what makes you fall in love with a manuscript and, on the flip side, what makes you stop reading?
Amanda: As you can tell from reading my bio on the Inklings website, I’m an absolute sucker for stories that really give me a sense of time and place. I want to be completely immersed in the story, so much so that I lose all sense of my own time and space. If the sun is shining in your novel, I want to feel it. If someone is baking, I want to smell it. I also want to be thoroughly engaged with your characters. Notice I didn’t say that I want to thoroughly like them. I can love them or hate them, but I want to feel connected to them in some way. And, like everyone, I want to feel like I’m reading something I’ve never read before.
On the flip side, there are a few things that will make me stop reading before I’ve reached the end. To continue what I said above, if I don’t feel engaged with your characters, I’ll stop reading. If I don’t care what happens to them, there’s no incentive to finish the book. If your pacing is off and I don’t feel that we’re steadily moving forward, towards SOMETHING, I’ll probably stop reading. I should feel like the story is constantly pulling me along, like I couldn’t stop reading even if I tried.
Q: Another common piece of advice is that authors must have a dramatic hook in the five pages we include with our query. What’s your take on it?
Amanda: I don’t think that it’s absolutely necessary, but the book should, at the very least, be building towards it. I’m not a huge fan of laying down these absolutes that writers must follow to write a “successful book.” Maybe your dramatic hook fits in the first three pages, maybe it doesn’t appear until page 18. Neither one of those is wrong, because every book is different. Now, if I’m on page 134 of your manuscript and I’m still not sure where you’re going with this or what the point is, then we have a problem.
Q: How important is a unique premise? And where’s the line between, “Wow this is really original, great!” and, “…but nobody’s sold anything like it, so where can I place it?”
Amanda: I think it’s kind of a 50/50 proposition, you know? Every genre has its tropes, and those tropes continue to be employed for a reason. They work. But, you have to find a way to both use them and turn them on their ear. Your main characters can have a enemies-to-lovers relationship, but how are you doing it differently than what’s come before? You can have a haunted house, but what does your story do that none of the others have? Readers want to feel like they’re reading something unique and original, so, yeah, your premise has to have something about it that sets it apart from the others.
It’s definitely a fine line sometimes between original and just too quirky. I think, as an agent, deciding whether to offer representation on a story like that would come down to how much you love the book. If you love it beyond all measure, then your enthusiasm will go a long way to getting it placed somewhere. You have to decide whether to take the chance or not. And, you might be wrong some of those times. But you also might be right.
Q: So there’s hope for us all!
What advice would you give someone whose work crosses multiple genres?
Amanda: I think my biggest piece of advice would be to go back and reread your manuscript with a very critical eye. Make sure you’re not trying to throw too much at it, just to see what sticks. Because, no matter how great your writing is, if agents or editors or booksellers can’t figure out where to place your book on the shelf, then they aren’t going to go for it.
For example, you can write a historical paranormal romance. But then you must have a firm grasp on what your overarching story is, and that’s how you must pitch it. What aspect of the story really drives the narrative and makes it a cohesive whole? Is it the romance? Is it the paranormal aspect? Is it the historical setting? Are the romantic and paranormal aspects strong, but the historical setting seems halfway done and unimportant? Then maybe a contemporary setting would work better. Is your historical setting fully realized, but the romance seems thin on the page? Then maybe you’ve written a historical novel with paranormal elements. Or, maybe all three are strong and you really have written a successful historical paranormal romance. The point is to figure out what drives your story and then to stay true to it.
Q: There’s even hope for my erotica-horror-literary pop-up book!
Is there something you’re seeing a lot of in queries that might be the next trend?
Amanda: Boats. I’m getting all of the queries with boats. Is it because it’s summer? I don’t know.
In all seriousness, I’m still seeing a lot of post-apocalyptic novels in both adult and YA, but those are really difficult, if not impossible, to sell right now. You need to bring something really unique to the table to get one of those off the ground in the current market. I’ve heard rumors that the previously impossible paranormal romance market is starting to gain some traction again and I’ve actually spoken to a couple of editors who are still actively acquiring it. So, if you’ve written one, stay tuned.
Q: I just happen to have a paranormal romance between two boats coming up…
There’s a lot of confusion over what exactly ‘New Adult’ books are, where the line is drawn between YA, NA and adult, and whether NA is a romance-only thing. What’s your view?
Amanda: I think the biggest problem with NA is exactly what you said in your question. There is so much confusion over what it is and what it isn’t, that everyone has a hard time really getting a handle on it. In it’s simplest terms, NA books are those targeted at the 18-25ish (some say 30) demographic, that “crossover” audience, if you will. The books generally deal with those big post-adolescent issues like moving out on your own for the first time, starting a career, and sex and dating. It did start out as a “romance-only” thing, but you’ve seen it try to push out into other genres. Some say this is ok. Some say it’s still only for romance. Some say it’s a dead category. Some say it’s still sellable.
For me, personally, it’s not a category I’m terribly interested in, so I would definitely urge writers to query someone else with their NA manuscripts.
Q: I’ve seen many discussions in the writing community about a general move in fiction towards a simpler, ‘cleaner’ writing style. Do you think this is what editors are looking for, or does voice trump simplicity?
Amanda: Voice, voice, voice. Voice trumps almost everything else. It’s a big part of what makes your book unique and sets it apart from the others. I mean, many people write horror, but who has a voice like Stephen King? Who has a voice like Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiassen? Find what yours is and then stay true to it.
Q: There’s conflicting advice out there about comparison titles / authors. Do you like authors to provide them in queries? Can we comp big names or is that setting expectations too high?
Amanda: I will admit that comps are a somewhat tricky business. Some agents love them, some hate them, and others are completely indifferent. Personally, I like comps because they not only give me an idea of where I might place the book, but they also let me know that the author has a good handle on what they’ve written and that they understand the market they’re writing for. For instance, if you pitch me a MG fantasy and one of your comps is A Song of Ice and Fire, it shows me that you may not understand the particular conventions of the MG market and how to write for it.
I would always avoid comping yourself to bestsellers if at all possible. Everyone wants to have written the next Twilight, or Harry Potter, or Divergent, so everyone comps them, and then the comp becomes meaningless because it’s what everyone else is comparing themselves to as well. The same goes for the classics. Who doesn’t want to be the next Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? But, I’m not selling your book in the nineteenth century. I’m selling it now, and I need to know how you think your book fits into the current market.
The last thing I’ll say on comps is that for me, and for many other agents, those comps don’t necessarily have to be books to be successful. If you tell me that your book is Firefly meets The Dark Tower or Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” meets Emma, I’m still going to have a good idea of what your book is trying to do. TV shows, movies, music videos, songs, etc, can all be successful comps.
Thank you, Amanda!
Amanda is looking for fiction in the following genres:
- Women’s / upmarket / book club
She’s mostly interested in adult fiction but does consider YA and MG projects. To query her, please see her profile and submission guidelines at inklingsliterary.com