Playing Agent for a Day

Nathan Bransford is running an interesting game on his blog called Agent for a Day. On Monday, he threw 50 queries up on his blog, at random times, to simulate what happens with his slush pile (3 of them are queries that led to actual, published books). Those who want to play need to read the queries and request or reject as if they were an agent, but we're allowed to request no more than 5.

After 4 hours (interrupted by toddlers and a meal or two), I finished all 50. I probably could've done it faster if I just said a quick "yes" or "no" (or better, if I just didn't respond if I wasn't interested), but I also wanted to help those whose queries got chosen. So I left a short suggestion on most of them.

Anyway, here's what I learned about query letters:
  1. Most bad queries were vague with the details. Instead of saying, "Frodo must keep the ring from falling into the clutches of Sauron, the dark wizard," they'd say, "Frodo is up against the forces of evil." Instead of "Meg Ryan finds herself attracted to the arrogant bookstore owner who's running her out of business," they write "Meg Ryan finds love in the unlikeliest of places." This is bad for two reasons: (1) vague is boring, specific is interesting and (2) without specifics, your story sounds like every other story ever written.
  2. Many bad queries were vague with the ending. The premise sounded interesting, but I passed because I wasn't sure if the story delivered on the promise (and there were lots of other queries that did).
  3. The little mistakes that sites like Query Shark and Evil Editor rail against (e.g. mentioning you were a finalist in a writing contest, or putting word count/bio info first) were never a reason for my rejection. If the premise was good and the query well-written, I didn't care about anything else.
  4. Some little mistakes were the reason for my rejection however. For example, if a query, or even a paragraph, was too long, it could make a decent query hard to understand and the story hard to find.
  5. Almost everybody had good ideas. Not everybody knew how to write about them.
  6. Not a single query was perfect. Even the 5 I chose had points against them.
Nathan asked us to look for stories that were publishable, whether or not they were our favorite genre. Even so, it was really hard for me to be objective. Every time I saw a SF/Fantasy hook, I got really interested and gave the query more grace than I might have otherwise.

The game has me worried, though, because I could imagine what my query would look like amidst the slush. I don't know if I can write a query that would stand out, but these tips will help, I know.

The queries are still on the blog, and the game runs through to Saturday. So if you want to play you can (and you don't have to do it all at once, like I did).


fairyhedgehog said...

I've only looked at ten so far and seeing even that many at once has clarified my thinking about queries a lot.

I think what you say about specifics is really important (and I like your illustrations.)

Hilabeans said...

I'm impressed that you made it through all of them. Interesting contest. Made me want to torch my query and start from scratch. :)