Sunday, November 8, 2009

Query question

I'm in another airport... I should take and upload photos, but fortunately, I haven't the slightest idea how to do that. :) Anyway, had a thought.

Or a question.

Let's say you've written a great book that happens to have one of those "instant rejection" markers, but really, it's good! And you can't change whatever, because it's important, etc.

Okay, specifics. I had a book that started in Russia. Well, that is, apparently, one of those Kiss of Death things I got away with because it was a long time ago. Anyway, let's say your book starts Somewhere Books Aren't Supposed to Start, or has some important plot element that is sure to antagonize in summary (but works in the book).

And here you are, trying to write a query letter or a synopsis. What do you do? You know the editor or agent might instantly-R this, just seeing that word (Russia, psylocibin, child death). So how do you work around that?

Open discussion thread on that! (And this is why, as an editor, I always skim the query and read the pages-- I don't want to reject the next JK Rowling because she puts "wizard" in the query.)

What do you do then? If you want the editor/agent to ask for some chapters?


Unknown said...

Great question and I'm very interested in what people have to say.

I started shopping around an urban fantasy today... with a gay protagonist. Instant rejection? I hope not.

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, I set a historical romance partly in France, my first time out of the gate, a long, long time ago - (hey, I was young and foolish and pardon my French naive;)) The first agent I sent it to said she loved the concept of the story, but she couldn't sell anything that was set in France. And would I be willing to relocate it and have all of it take place in England? Hmm..half the fun stuff was the heroine speaking English with a French accent attached, so I said: absolument impossible!

But I wasn’t stupid (yeah, right:)). I did cut out the part in the query that mentioned the heroine being French and the H/H meeting in France before she arrives on his doorstep in England, and you know what? I did get requests to see more, but it was like the moment I sent it to them - all the agents and editors were conspiring against me. Imagine, all of them saying the same thing about publishers not wanting to deal with anything set in France even for a measly 78 pages. How did I get around it then? I didn’t. I shelved the book and still haven’t blown the dust off of that one.

So, Alicia, I’m glad you brought this up, because today if I were going to write a query for that project I would go out of my way to point out that although a small portion of the book takes place in France - it’s more for comedic relief than anything else. I think an editor or agent would appreciate that I understand the difficulties to be faced while trying to sell the project because of where it is set - and knowing this stumbling block - I was willing to take a risk anyway. Hopefully this would make them want to see more if only to gauge whether I had the talent to back up bucking the system and status quo. Bottom line? Either I’d hit it out of the park or strike out...


Anissa said...

I think Murphy brings up a great point. Even if you know what would make an agent/editor hit the instant rejection button (and I'd venture to guess a lot of us don't), is trying to hide it really going to accomplish anything but to get that same rejection from the partial?

My initial thought was that anything can be left out of the query, even critical elements. But is that really the best thing to do? I'm starting to think that Murphy's planned approach to acknowledge the issue up front might be the best choice.

I look forward to the discussion.

Robin Lemke said...

My guess is that if an agent looks at pages sent with the query, really good writing will overcome the difficult element.

I remember one of Miss Snark's contest where an entry had a dog die on the first page and she still said she'd request pages, even though she has a firm "no animal death" policy - it was just done so well.

But, it's probably a sliding scale with how *bad* is the bad thing. I know Janet was just saying that some subjects she won't touch not just because they're horrifying, but because she doesn't think there's any way to bring anything new or fresh to them right now.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the key is not to hide "it" but to describe "it" laterally (although this won't help the location dilemma).

So, a movie star hero (surely, they're to be avoided?) might instead be described as the twisted prankster.

For, storm grant. I was given Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains, as a gift. It's hero is gay. The back blurb gives no indication, and it was a surprise for me (particularly given the genre), but it won't stop me reading a good story.

Leona said...

Wow, this is a great question. As always you get us all thinking.

I have a question in response to your question. How do you know the instant 'r'. I know some agents say on their sites now, but I don't recall any saying a locale.

Is that something you 'just learn' or is there a magic place to find this information?

Also, if this is true, then it feels as if the quality of writing doesn't matter... I haven't gotten that impression from this blog, but it makes me wonder a bit.

A lively discussion! I have no idea how to handle it. I look forward to the discussion.

BTW I'm at 19k+ for NaNoWriMo... Maybe that's why I can't think straight. Plus, read my blog for more info on the week that solidified my decision to be a writer. I'm too tired to sit and figure out the why's and whereof's so I'll leave it for later.

On top of nanowrimo I opened live theatre show...

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Buck the rules. Self-publish it.

No, seriously. I think I'd shelve it temporarily with the goal being that once I had a sales record, it'd be a lot harder to turn down.

Yeah, this sets you back a few years since there's probably no other ms. ready to go, but... we're thinking long-term career here.

Or else you can buck the rules and self-publish it. Prove 'em wrong ... or right.

Ian said...

I'm actually curious as to why certain things are an auto-reject. What makes Russia or psilocybin a deal-killer? Why is child-death rejected when it's an event ripe for emotional mining and exploitation (not that I'm advocating it, by the way!)?

I realize agents and editors may have topics that for whatever reason they will not deal with, and that's fine if they post those reasons so authors will know. I'm just curious about rationale. I've seen the crap that's on television, so I know you can sell an audience on ANYTHING if you package and market it properly.

Even Russia.

Unknown said...

I've been wobbling all over the place trying to say the right thing to get certain things past the editor/and or agent. Maybe if I just own it, it would be better. There is the fear of being rejected, but as Murphy points out, you can be rejected even if you try to get around the initial phase. It does beg the question, will an agent/and or editor apprectiate that you KNOW your treatment could create a problem and you decided to work with that knowledge anyway?
I'm going to rework my query and give it a try.

em said...

I think Murphy has a good point. Put the offending issue up front and save yourself time and aggrevation. If they reject based on that move on.:)

Ian, did you write something set in Russia and it was rejected? Just asking...:)

Dave Shaw said...

I'm with Ian here - what's the deal with Russia and France and some of these other seemingly arbitrary instant rejections, and where can a writer find out about them? Are they purely genre-specific? I mean, I can understand not setting serious modern SF on Barsoom, for example. Is the Russia and France thing something someone familiar with romance might be able to make sense of?

Eva Gale said...

Unless it has something specific to do with the GMC of the characters, I would leave it out of the queries. Not that I'm trying to sneak it past anyone, but that a good query is an economy of words and you don't want to go tripping all over yourself on the first page the agent/editor sees.

I'm probably wrong on all of that. :-)

Russia's out? :p You have to read The Bronze Horseman. Make sure you have tissues, chocolate, an uninterrupted 24 hours and, most importantly, the sequel.

Anonymous said...

Hi Murphy! Caught you!:)
Kathy AK

Edittorrent said...

The "instant reject" seems to change all the time. Hard to keep track!But trust me, they exist. And yes, it's not fair, etc. Yes, Gorky Park is set in the Soviet Union, and it was a bestseller. Etc. But this is a real issue. I've seen agents who demonstrate how they get through the thousands of queries they get a year (I remember one said she got 35000, and took only 8 new clients that year). Look for reasons to reject... Middle East setting? Heroine over 35? Movie actor hero? (I actually think that might be cool....) "Reject!"

Now really, don't I sound nicer? I'll reject on the comma stuff, but... :?)

I do think this applies more to editors and agents who just want a query letter, no pages attached. Maybe avoid those anyway if you think your writing is better than a one-paragraph synopsis will show?

Okay, what would I do? I'd probably downplay it in the query or get around it, or mention it only "laterally", as Rachel said. "After several months as an outsider on the Continent...." rather than "The story starts in France...."

Point is to get beyond this stage.
What do you think of advice an agent once gave-- enclose a proposal (chapter and synopsis, or just chapter) with every query. What do you think?

Jenny Brown said...

Submit to agents who read ten pages. Keep the description simple.

I just met an author whose new book was just favorably reviewed in the New York Times. After a lot of rejection she had sent it to an agent who got her a very good deal.

I asked why she'd approached that particular agent. She said, "Because she didn't ask for a synopsis. I hate writing synopses."

So with a book that doesn't describe well, concentrate on those who read pages.

Wes said...

Try pushing to agents/editors living east of the Hudson River a MS that opens in Spanish New Mexico in 1821. They don't know and don't care that European settlements in NM predate any permanent towns in the thirteen colonies or that many of today's social and economic issues in the borderlands have origins from that time period. Then throw in a bunch of nonPC cultural heritage that led to slaving, scalp hunting, and strange religious practices, and I've got an uphill battle.

In my first queries I tried to explain the significance of the history. That got shot down, and I was told to focus on the story. That didn't work, so I pointed out recent bestsellers optioned for movies such as BLOOD AND THUNDER, THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER, and THE DEVIL'S HIGHWAY. That hasn't worked. So I've stopped querying and am focusing on producing the best writing I can. When I think I can't improve it more, I'll query again.

Unknown said...

And now I've received my first rejection on my gay urban fantasy--less than 24 hours. Less than 4 business hours. Hmmm. Hope that isn't indicative of things to come.

Great discussion.

And to rachelcapps, thanks for the book rec. It looks interesting.

(And I'm sure everyone's seen today that Harlequin just announced a new digital imprint that will take gay/lesbian, among other genres.)

Jami Gold said...


I was wondering if I'd see you on this thread, as I know you've struggled with this issue. I'm sorry to hear that you're still having a lack of luck...


I'll let you know what works after I'm successful. :) Seriously, this is a big issue for me as I have all kinds of problems with my WIP - from a prologue (that seems too cliche at first glance), to a chapter one where the MC just wakes up, and on up to infidelity of the worst degree, etc., etc. But these are all things dictated by the story. So I can only hope that my writing is strong enough to pull them in despite all that. I don't mention any of those things in the query, however. :) I focus on other aspects of the story arc.

Jami G.

Wes said...

I'm not discouraged, Jami. There are still 150 agents who claim to handle historical fiction who I haven't queried. Plus I'm still learning my craft, and my writing is improving.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I'd suggest finding books that deal with interesting/difficult historical subjects, and check the acknowledgments and find out who the agent was. And don't forget the regional presses. You won't make bundles, but a southwest publisher (even perhaps one of the university presses) might be a great fit-- and keep it in print for years.

stormgrant, I saw that about Harlequin's new imprint. I hear no advances, though. But a very wide net novelistically! They seem open to most everything, but not YA?

Edittorrent said...

Wes, I'd suggest finding books that deal with interesting/difficult historical subjects, and check the acknowledgments and find out who the agent was. And don't forget the regional presses. You won't make bundles, but a southwest publisher (even perhaps one of the university presses) might be a great fit-- and keep it in print for years.

stormgrant, I saw that about Harlequin's new imprint. I hear no advances, though. But a very wide net novelistically! They seem open to most everything, but not YA?

Wes said...

Hi, Alicia. Yes, I'm doing what you suggested. The author of THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER (which deals with slavery and peonage on a Mexican hacienda) was a house guest of some friends of mine in Santa Fe, and he referred me to his agent. We are corresponding. Also, I've found a regional press that might be a prospect. At any rate, I'm still trying to improve the MS. Thanks for the tips.

Whirlochre said...

If you knew about the R thing in question before you set out, you probably wouldn't have written it, so I can only presume if you get to the R stage it's because you didn't know your Rs from your elbow.

As it happens, I have one of your listed Rs in my WIP.

So am I going to go back and change it?

Answer: no.

The whole thing will unravel!

(Not sure if this answers the question, however).

Unknown said...

I miss livejournal's ability to comment on comments.

So this is in response to Alicia's comment about the new Harlequin imprint. Yes, thrilled that a major publisher is giving e-publishing a real chance. And also that they're open to gay/lesbian-themed fiction. However, as someone else pointed out to me, HQN likes to try new things, but then drops them just as quickly. Guess we'll see. I still want to see SHIFT HAPPENS in print.

Then in response to Whirlochre. Sometimes a person's goals change. At first I just wanted to write the story from my heart. It's a few years later now, and I want commercial success, too. And why not? My heart has more than one story to tell, why not tell the one that's most commercially viable?

I tried changing the protag to female, but the book just lost its sparkle. Guess you can't change genders midstream. Next book...

Joseph E. Lerner said...

Sorry, but I don't get this "instant rejection" markers business (at least in regard to where your novel happens to be set). It seems arbitrary and nonsensical. I've also (so far) found no other mention of such markers elsewhere on the net. Can you point me to another site or page in which a similar discussion has transpired?


Leona said...

dear pepe,

Many agents have instant rejection lists. Many publishers say on their wesites things they will not take (read instant rejection. It is not limited to story content, but it is there.

It's hard to find and as far as I can see, there isn't a big conspiracy list that all editors and publishers go by.

It seems to be something you see by what's on the shelf. However, if anyone "Knows" of a comprehensive list that everyone "Just Knows" I'd love to "Be In The Know."

Edittorrent said...

Pepe, read Query Shark or Nathan Bransford's site. They might not say the term "instant reject," but nearly everyone has them-- how else would you manage to get through, as one agent said she did, 35K queries a year?

You might find this arbitrary, etc. Welcome to the real world. :) I'm just being honest, but if you'd prefer me to pretend that every query gets full consideration by every agent and every editor... well, you've come to the wrong place.

I was soliciting discussion of how to get around this reality, because I think that often authors can make the most jaded editors and agents overcome the barriers-- but you have to get them to the point where you can wow them with your prose or voice or characterization or whatever.

But really, if you can find an editor or agent who has no mental "instant reject" list, let us know!

Edittorrent said...

Whirlochre, I don't actually have those "instant rejects"-- I was merely reporting ones I'd heard of. Mine are more about mechanics, actually, or about inappropriate submissions (cookbooks!).

One agent's instant reject might be another agent's desire-- so shop around. Persistence tells. :)

Joseph E. Lerner said...

God knows there's a lot of awful stuff out there, and I'm not saying that agents don't use "instant reject" markers to separate wheat from chaff. I merely question that they're largely based on anything as spurious as what's been suggested in this thread. And thanks for the links, though I still don't see any mention of Russia or whatever as grounds for an automatic turndown.

Edittorrent said...

Pepe, I was using "Russia" as an example. Each agent probably has his/her own "instant rejects," and I bet if you get them drunk enough, you'll be able to find out what those are. Do some investigation, and I bet you'll find others know about this. Go to the agent blogs and ask, "Are there subject matters or settings that cause you to reject a query letter?" A really fun experience is sitting in a workshop with an agent who does "cold reads" of queries and says exactly when she makes a decision.

My point is-- often you have to get past the query phase, and get your actual manuscript read. Other commenters on the list made suggestions about how to do this, and I said try other agents because not all have the same "instant reject" triggers. Usually it's an aspect that they have identified as being hard to sell. Are they wrong? Maybe they are, maybe-- just maybe-- they know more than we do about what sells. You might think it's "spurious" that they reject when a book starts in a remote place, but if they've tried to sell books that start that way, and haven't been able to, they might actually be fairly rational in concluding that this is a problem (and this is very genre-specific, btw-- an exotic setting in chapter one might not be an instant reject for a thriller, but might be for a cozy mystery).

Check out pubrants and query shark and other such sites-- commenters might supply others-- and ask. Anyway, with all our blog posts, just remind yourself, "This info is worth every penny I paid." :)


Jami Gold said...


Yes, you had it right to begin with, I think. There is no such thing as a "too spurious" reason for an auto-reject when the agent/editor is swamped with hundreds of queries and is looking for a reason to reject so they can get through their inbox faster. That's simply the reality. Yes, agents/editors hope to fall in love with a story, but they are looking for a reason to reject 95+% of their inbox too. :)

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

I think we have to have thick skins as writers, do our research and have faith.

I'm sure there are stories like this every day, but tonight I watched a great story about a new Aussie author on one of Australia's top current affair tv shows, A Current Affair. Rebecca James, a struggling housewife with 4 young children, has received a $AUS1.4 million contract for her teen noval 'Beautiful Malice' (scheduled for release 2010). In the interview, she said she was rejected by every Australian agent. She was rejected by 10 UK agents and she was rejected by 50 US agents.

Really, any agent who rejects your MS for an "instant reject" reason or a "spurious" reason, is not the agent for you. I think Rebecca's story proves we have to keep searching for the agent that connects with our ms. And as Alicia said, that can sometimes mean finding the way to get your ms read :)

Riley Murphy said...

If you knew about the R thing in question before you set out, you probably wouldn't have written it, so I can only presume if you get to the R stage it's because you didn't know your Rs from your elbow.

Murphy says: Hilarious, but, um, no. Now, I'm speaking only for myself here, as I posted a comment about writing a MS set partially in France and was asked to relocate that section of the MS to make it salable. So, with that in mind, I will tell you right off, that true enough, had I known that publishers, agents, or my dear old aunt Harriet frowned on such a thing, I wouldn't have spent the time writing it. But it’s not as simple as that. The interesting thing here? The publishers I targeted had published books set in France (Remember? I’ve told you guys before, the blonde is from a bottle;)) And yes, I did do the research back then, so I was scratching my head trying to figure it all out.

Unfortunately, what I missed in the equation was the fact that publishers, published established writers (of which I wasn’t at the time) and they accepted their stories in whatever country said, established, trusted, popular, and good earning author chose to set them in - and why not France? It wasn’t like there were a whole lot of romances set in France - it gave an established author an edge, actually. And this is where I think the confusion comes in. If you’re new and you see and read a book that you like - set in god knows where, it’s safe to assume that it will be well received at that house. WRONG. Oh, that’s not to say that some lucky new writer won’t beat the odds and land a contract with a tough sell location or plot - but it is to say, that maybe if you haven’t been published before, you may want to try to do the most you can to facilitate a sale to begin with...And if, for instance, you see a particular house publishes 27 romances a cycle and 25 of their stories take place in the UK or America and the other two are set in Russia and France - and hey, by the way, those two books are penned by their top selling authors - you might want to say to yourself, if the other 25 published authors in that house aren’t going there, maybe I shouldn’t either.


Okay: word verification: piensis

Do I need to say it? If I did, it would be with a lisp...

em said...

Murphy:) Word Verification? ROTFLMAO!

Yu make a good point about publishers dealing with published authors as opposed to the unpublished. As Alicia says, each agent or publisher has their own rejection button, but looking into their track record with previously unpublished authors could be benificial.:)