Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Query Points System and Rulebreaking

First off, more big news in publishing -- Jane Friedman is stepping down as CEO of HarperCollins, and Brian Murray is stepping up. And Gawker broke the story. Really big news!

Meanwhile.

So during the contest two weeks back there was quite a bit of angst about rules and the breaking thereof. And one of the things that was pointed out in the comments section by our friend Patricia Wood (LOTTERY out in paperback!!!) was that she broke all sorts of rules when she queried her agent and it worked out swimmingly.

Needless to say, for people who spend months combing the interweb for information about how to write the most perfect, proper, and impeccable query letter known to publishing and then spend weeks drafting a squeaky clean query, such news about successful rulebreaking makes heads explode aplenty.

If there are plenty of stories about people who successfully cast the rules out the window and yet we agents still blog obsessively about things we do and don't want to see in query letters, why should anyone listen to the rules? Allow me to try and explain why all this is so (and it be so).

I think when someone's query is rejected they want to know why, and when people want to know why something happens, they tend to look for that one reason to explain why. It's human nature, I think, to want to find one thing to explain everything. Such as: Oh, I spelled his name wrong. That's why my query was rejected. Or: it was that joke about monkeys, wasn't it?

There is No. Such. Thing. as an automatic rejection. Well, one such thing: if it's screenplays or poetry. Otherwise I'm looking carefully and weighing a host of complex factors, and yes, you can spell my name wrong, write an entire query out of rhetorical questions and/or insult the Sacramento Kings, and I still might request a partial.

Does this mean you should cast all rules out the window? NO!

Once you've set aside the idea that there's only one reason for a rejection, the query points system begins to make sense. Now, just FYI, I'm not sitting at my computer with a pen and scoresheet, but here's what's happening in the back of my mind as I'm reading a query.

Let's say you have to get to 10 points in order to for me to request a manuscript. Here are the categories, which I'm scoring 0-10:

- Professionalism (appearance of query, spelling of name, personalization, absence of strange pictures)
- Book Idea (presentation of hook, marketability, writing style/quality, resonance with me)
- Qualifications (writing credits, celebrity status)

So let's just say someone writes a query letter entirely out of rhetorical questions in purple typeface (0 points for professionalism), the book is one day in the life of a literary agent, told in second-person stream of consciousness (0 points for book idea), but the qualifications section of the query is "I am Michael Chabon." 10 points!! I'm requesting the manuscript!!

Or, let's say the person has no writing credits, wrote an unprofessional letter, but the book idea is incredibly awesome and even involves a jelliquarium. 10 points! Manuscript requested!

But most importantly for the average querier out there, you want to earn points however you can. Sure, you can break the rules if you want, and if your idea and writing makes a perfect 10 you may find success. But your odds are so much better if you earn as many points on the "professionalism" scale as you possibly can. I have requested a large number of partials where the idea did not immediately strike me (let's say 3 or 4 points), but the query letter was so impeccable (8 or 9 points!) I wanted to check it out.

I still say your chances are better if you try and stick to the rules, but I'm also not going to miss out on a perfect 10 book idea just because someone misspelled my name.






57 comments:

Ulysses said...

Thanks for the explanation. I hadn't thought of things this way before, and it makes a lot of sense.

Conduit said...

All my anguishing over query letters came to nothing when my agent queried me, rather than the other way round. Now, from that direction, the Query Points System is fairly simple:

Agent Emails Me = 10 Points.

But the point I'm trying to make is there are no hard and fast rules to this. For every contest here and at Miss Snark's, I'm sure I'm not alone in having read the entries that have ticked the agent's boxes and been at a loss as to why that particular collection of words clicked with that particular agent. There does seem to be an undefinable X-Factor in queries that connect, and I feel it's a subject agents don't blog about so often. They list the tangible aspects of queries, and we lap them up, but there is that whole nebulous unknown thing that makes a query the right one for an agent.

Or something.

Nathan Bransford said...

Stuart-

Absolutely. That's actually going to be the subject of a future blog post -- that "resonance" factor (i.e. whether an agent connects with a project) is completely out of an author's control.

Kristan said...

Dear Nathen,

Thank you for this enlightening post. I think a lot of young authors will really appreciate it. I know I do.

By the way, can we discuss my new idea for a fictional novel? It involves a jelliquarium, for which I have heard you have some fondness. Have your people call my people.

Love,
Michael Chabon

BookEnds, LLC said...

LOVE the point system Nathan. That's exactly how it works. However, I will say, that when the query is purple ink on bright pink paper it is possible it will never be read. Oh, My Eyes!

-jessica faust

Chro said...

Nathan, I think people focus on the 'professionalism' aspect because it's something that can be easily improved upon.

I mean, if given a choice between obsessing over spelling the agent's name right, improving the entire plot of my novel, or somehow getting a slew of publishing credits (by taking courses or writing short stories or whatever), the first option looks much easier and more appealing.

It's also easier to give advice about. When you say 'include a SASE', it applies to everyone. You can't say, "Hey you, AspiringAuthor212, your problem is you have too many PoV shifts in your sample pages!"

Bruce Judisch said...

Nathan,

Thanks. This helps. I've seen such a variance in guidelines/suggestions on different agents' sites regarding content and quality of the query letter. I guess it's like any other first impression: you walk into a room and ten people instantly form eleven different impressions of the one and only you. Hopefully, the cutest one decides you're worth a shot and--if the planets are perfectly aligned--she's an agent.

Cheers! Bruce

Anonymous said...

Great to see this, Nathan. In my very slow, selective and deliberate querying process I've come to learn that if the query itself is clean, professional and includes all the critical elements, the "resonance factor" seems to carry the most weight.

Shelli said...

Makes perfect sense to me.

Sam Hranac said...

"jelliquarium?"

My fish have informed me that this fits into the bad things category.

Irate Teacher said...

I wonder how much of the resonance factor is, "Yep. You can write incredibly well," and how much is "I can point out the few flaws to fix, but this idea really hits home and I wanna know more." That in itself may differ from agent to agent, I don't know. I just wonder.

sylvia said...

I think people focus on the 'professionalism' aspect because it's something that can be easily improved upon.

I think this works in both directions - a lot of the basics (what's wrong with purple?!?!) are so easily fixed, it is frustrating to watch would-be-published-authors get it so horribly wrong. So not only are the authors obsessing (because it's easier to deal with) but the people writing these kinds of helpful blogs are obsessing (because they are still getting submissions where it's just all wrong).

Margaret Yang said...

The resonance factor is also why one must query widely. There really is no such thing as a perfect query. Just do the very best you can and send some out. It is much better than obsessing.

Elissa M said...

There is also no such thing as the perfect book. Aspiring authors should realize the world won't end if their totally awesome life-changing breakthrough novel doesn't get published. Write another one. And query widely.

Natalie said...

Thanks for saying this so clearly. It really helps to see where the points go. And you're right, it's better to grab a few points in the professionalism category than hope your idea will get you all the way to 10.

Dennis Cass said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dennis Cass said...

When I worked for a literary agency, the queries that turned me off the most were the ones that tried way too hard. It's like when you meet someone for the first time, and right away they want to get into a debate about politics, or share their personal problems, or find out what you're doing next weekend. It's like, dude: we just met. Let's start with the basics, and feel each other out, and see where it goes. A query is no different from any social interaction. Everybody like polished, smart and charming. Nobody likes sloppy, weird and needy. Now go score you some points!

JES said...

Really appreciate your laying all this out, Nathan.

It's kinda common sense: take care of everything you can, and don't worry about what you can't. Well, worry maybe -- just don't obsess to the point of immobilization over it. Or read too much into what you hear about others' success (or failure) stories.

Jeez, it almost sounds like you want us to be level-headed! :)

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

I received a rejection once that simply said, and I'm not kidding, "Sounds boring." This was written in pencil on the top right hand corner of my query letter which was mailed back to me. That same day, I received three requests for partials. Initially, I was pretty ticked about the "boring" comment simply because I thought it was rude and unprofessional, but at the end of the day I was laughing and felt more confident about my manuscript. What sounds boring to one agent may resonate quite well with another, and I always try to remind myself of that.

Oh, and no, I haven't queried (nor will I in the future) the "sounds boring" agent again. :)

Vinnie Sorce said...

I'm so sick and tired of people breaking the rules and getting ahead for it. Why even bother... I gave up sending out queries.

julcree said...

i'm surprised you would indicate that professionalism counts so much--mostly because I have a hard time believing you would request something that is an awful idea with no writing credits regardless of clean letter. Professionalism counts, but I would have ball-parked a maximum of 5 points rather than the 8 or 9 you indicate towards the end. Professionalism could get you halfway there, but not completely.

Kristin Laughtin said...

It's all about the resonance factor because everyone's taste is subjective, after all.

I think a lot of the angst regarding the last contest was that the guidelines were short and straightforward, and people thought they should be more strictly adhered to as a result. (I did, even though you seem more easygoing than most contest organizers, but I didn't cry over the outcome either.) With queries, the situation is a bit different, because every agent I've read wants different things. Other agents profess their love for rhetorical questions. Some claim that doing X WILL be an automatic rejection. Some get annoyed if you spell their name wrong. Not sure about the Kings, but I wouldn't insult them anyway--I need to have some hometown pride.

Like you said, I think you'll be better off if you can bring both professionalism and a great idea to the table, and qualifications aren't too shabby a thing to have either. I'm looking forward to your post on the resonance factor, because it'll be interesting to read, even if it's not something you can control.

Nathan Bransford said...

Update -- I'm up to date on my queries, so if you queried me in the last week you should have heard from me.

However, I have 28 partials in my Inbox and more on the way, so please bear with me if you're waiting for me to respond on a partial submission.

Just_Me said...

Thank you, Nathan.

I'm not an agent but I love critiquing queries when agents blog about them. Sometimes, well written (or even loved by the blogging agent) the query doesn't grab me. It may be well written but there's the infamous X-factor.

It is good to know the rules can be broken though. I harbor the secret suspicion that most authors break the rules, if not on their query sheet then in their book. It's what makes them stand out (What do you mean vampires avoid the moon and live on garlic?!?!?).

And I'm very glad to hear that you don't require a perfect 30 before you ask for a partial. It gives me hope :)

Anonymous said...

Good Lord, Agent Nathan... As per professionalized, I'd have as much chance with you as a whisper in a torna'duh!

http://www.jacketflat.com/profile.asp?member=PYXX

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

I think of it this way: Yes, there are people who break the rules and succeed anyway. But they are in the minority. Most of the success stories come from people who do their homework and follow the rules. The unwritten message of a professional query letter is, "I respect you and myself enough to do a good job. I can be trusted with a book contract."

Richard Mabry said...

Dear Nathan,
Thank you for your post. It's quite professional and the concept is very interesting. I'm not sure you have the necessary name recognition to make something of it, but I'll take a chance. Please send me a partial.

Will Entrekin said...

I think there's a little something more here, too, namely that, if you're going to break the rules, you have to be doing so both deliberately and to some end. I think many writers (myself included) have broken rules without realizing it, just because we've been green.

The "rules," such as they may be, are, I think, more than anything, a foundation. A sort of template to start from. "Professionalism: check. Idea: check," etc. But they are a foundation, and I think that writers who break them to accomplish some effect, whatever it may be, can be successful. For example, writing a query full of rhetorical questions in the voice of the protagonist who happens to speak solely in rhetorical questions.

Or suchlike.

There are hard and fast rules, and they were made to be broken, but you gotta learn 'em first, and you can't just break 'em for the sake of breakin' em. That's why they're rules.

Adaora A. said...

I loved this post. But I have a few questions:

What if I was famous for tripping over air - I am in my community- does that count as celebrity status? ^_^

You know what struck me when I read the thing about misspelling names? How a lot of authors complain that their name was missspelled as well. It's like a back and forth thing or something. My name is such a tongue twister I've come to terms with it. I sign up for gift/member cards like The Running Room and they spell my name Adoeara or something ridiculous. Don't know how you can mess up Nathan and Bransford. But I can't help but think that if you really want an agent you'd take the time to double - and tripple - check that you've spelled their name correctly and put in the right address.

You must have read a lot of great queries if you've got 28+ partials. So the tide turns in your favour? More blog readers ticking off your Essentials list before they actually query. Break out the Crystal.

ORION said...

Hey I heard someone was talking about me all the way here in LONDON... Thanks for the mention!
I love this post!
The thing is there were some rules I didn't break (spelling, organization of query letter etc.)
It was interesting as during the Orange Prize Party where I was tripping over literary agents everywhere I turned (including my own LOL!) this actually came up as Dorian was asked how she "found" me...all of them talked about this indefinable resonance that must be present in a query letter.

Kalynne Pudner said...

Another brilliantly useful post! Now, if only the rejections would come with scores for those three areas. Okay, maybe just the first two; most of us can figure out on our own whether we are Michael Chabon.

Whirlochre said...

I don't envy you at all — it must be like sorting blood cells by sheen.

Seems like you have a workable blend of fluid/rigid.

Julie Weathers said...

My editor at the magazine once said she would rather have a writer with natural talent and a teachable mind, than a degree and the latest copy of (insert famous style book) in their hand. Her absolute biggest pet peeve was to have someone fresh out of school, explaining to her the way she writes is all wrong and they will "help" her.

Her theory is you need to know the rules, but, if you have the right style, you can break them creatively.

I doubt many people would get away with multiple pov and massive epic fantasies, but George R.R. Martin seems to have mastered that.

It's all about how well you do it.

Anonymous said...

A question, Nathan. If two agents are reading fulls, and one comes forward and offers representation, say, via phone call, is there a way to give the other agent a chance?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Yes -- you should tell the other agent that you've been offered representation.

Anonymous said...

Rule #1: Life isn't fair.
Rule #2: Get over it.
Rule #3: Follow the rules even if others don't.
Rule #4: Follow the rules even if agents don't request your manuscript.
Rule #5: Never give up.

Look, I have to get back to work now.

Anonymous said...

Hey anyone-

Just started querying agents (queried Nathan first - he said no!) but two agents did ask for fulls and a one asked for a partial...

Now does anyone know what the timeline for a full/partial is? I've heard a month is about average.

Seems to me (after two weeks of dealing with literary agents) that in this business good news travels fast...

How long does it take to read partial/full manuscript?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Picking Up the Pieces

Of writing a good query letter. One piece: Your personality shining through. Who you are. Your "resonance." I recently completed a query letter that had this quality - it may have had nothing else going for it, but it had my personality in it, or rather, my project's personality. Not just my self-enthusiasm, the dreaded 'wishing myself all the success in the world,' tumbling words and run-on sentences spilling out after (or in the midst of) the mind-numbing "day job."

Personality: Thumbs up!
Self-enthusiasm: Run and hide!

Look forward to your post on resonance (I think of pine resin for some reason, that adheres to skin so unpleasantly, usually in a situation at a park or other outdoor area where there is no water available (not that water would help much). I guess that's the bad kind of resonance: "Reading this query letter was like stepping barefoot into pine resin. I apologize for the brusque tone of this rejection, but all my toes are stuck together."

Back to dayjobsville...my eyes adhere to my computer screen, as if with pine resin...

Nathan Bransford said...

Just FYI in case you don't see your comment, I'm deleting all posts about the contest.

For the love of Tyra, people, it was two weeks ago, it was for fun, it's over, it's done with, it's finished, it had a Survivor theme, some people had fun, I said the rules would be subject to my interpretation, take up golf.

Anonymous said...

I just started working at a publishing house and am now reading manuscripts/queries. It's so odd to be on the other side and finally understand what Nathan Bransford (Or Kristen Nelson or Miss Snark) have been trying to communicate. All that matters in the end is a good idea and good writing. Sometimes ideas that could be good get rejected too. Sometimes publishers are on the fence but decide they can't pursue because they aren't sure. Sometimes I just have too much to do to take the time to write out WHY this manuscript doesn't work. In the end, I have rejected a manuscript because:

1. The first page was so boring I didn't want to go on. Ideas or premises are not necessarily boring. The writing did not present the idea well.
2. Good writing, bad plot.
3. Bad writing, good plot.
4. Poor character development.
5. I kept waiting for something to happen but nothing happened.
6. Writing talks down to the reader.
7. Some combination thereof.

What I realized in the end: literary agents and publishers DO CARE. They DO want good, publishable stories. All I want is a story that'll grab me and that'll make me go YES! I found you!

Sophie W. said...

but the qualifications section of the query is "I am Michael Chabon." 10 points!! I'm requesting the manuscript!!

Thanks, Nathan. Now I need a new keyboard.

AstonWest said...

I think when someone's query is rejected they want to know why, and when people want to know why something happens, they tend to look for that one reason to explain why. It's human nature, I think, to want to find one thing to explain everything.

Unfortunately, when little to no reason is given for a rejection, it lends itself to wanting to find that reason.

I actually enjoy the rejections where an agent will explain...for example, "not enthused about the premise" or something similar. That sort of response makes it easier for me to narrow down my query list for later works.

flyswatted said...

Ha. I totally spelled your name wrong when I queried you -- but I sent another email to apologize because I felt rude, not like you'd reject me out of hand for it.

I think a lot of writers end up stressing about the small things like fonts and spelling errors because it's much easier to blame those things than to confront the idea that maybe the book is the problem.

ChristaCarol said...

Jelliquarium? Hmm.....*jots down notes and begins an outline* This just might work.

;)

Thanks for the insight. Makes me less anxious to get that query letter written.

WitLiz Today said...

With all due respect Mr. Bransford, I think it was a mistake to delete the comments about the contest, particularly as you brought it up in your blog and even created a link to it.

And in the future, you might wish to forgo contests if you truly don't understand the validity behind the complaints.

There is rule breaking which pisses people off, and then there is rule-breaking which hurts no one, such as Ms Wood's query letter.

It's the first I'd be concerned about, because it showed a complete lack of integrity and respect on the part of the poster who exceeded the word count by a great margin.

It caused all sorts of problems for you even two weeks later, and for the writer who worked hard to keep the word count to what the rules stated.

Contests aren't really fun, Mr. Bransford. Maybe you want them to be, or at least have the spirit thereof, but in the final analysis they are not fun for the serious writer who puts a lot of time and effort into the entry only to get blown away by a rule-breaker.

When you have loads of complaints you need to respect the writer’s who are making them, otherwise have a contest where there are no rules.

Now that would be fun.

Julie Weathers said...

Contests aren't really fun, Mr. Bransford. Maybe you want them to be, or at least have the spirit thereof, but in the final analysis they are not fun for the serious writer who puts a lot of time and effort into the entry only to get blown away by a rule-breaker.~

You know, I try to be civil on other people's blogs because I feel it's kind of like visiting someone's home. Their home, their rules.

If the hosts asks a guest to stop doing something annoying, most people have enough common sense to stop. Where is it written just because a person is a writer, agent, editor, publisher, that anyone has the right to come into their space and be insulting to them?

If you are this "serious" about your writing, enter contests with prizes, publication and glory.

Some people enjoy the more informal chances to just toss something out there and look at how others handle a situation.

I once entered a rodeo queen contest. These things are usually based on beauty, horsemanship, poise, horse knowledge, etc. This committee decided they would give the most validation to the girl who sold the most advanced tickets.

Fair? Hardly. Crap happens. Move on and get over it.

La Gringa said...

Witliz -

If you don't think contests are fun, there's a simple solution: don't enter them.

Anonymous 12:18 -

It really is amazing the first time you wade through the sea of bad slush, isn't it?

At the publishing house I worked at, they would regularly have slush lunches for the interns and editorial assistants, who would then open the unsolicited manuscripts, reject them and toss them away. Every year some intrepid editorial assistant was determined to try to find the next great American novel out of the slush pile. And by the third or fourth month, after reading so much bad prose, that intrepid editorial assistant was just as jaded as all the others.

:-)

Cheers!

Colleen

Julie Weathers said...

Anon 12:18

I hope you don't mind if I print that out. Good advice.

Nathan Bransford said...

Well, let me just say that the first rule of the next contest is that anyone who is going to take it overly seriously should go play a nice game of backgammon instead. And that rule is going to be followed like it's written in gold.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, you poor thing. THANK YOU for running the contest. And thank you for being so gracious with the complaints. I noticed that one of the entries was longer, yeah. Did I care? No. Why? Because that is real life. Life is not bound by rules and regulations. The entry by the person who had too many words caught your eye. The rest of us didn't. That's real life. It doesn't mean that our life works are any less than this other person's work. Sheesh.

susandc said...

I personally think rule one should be all type As should take a sedative before entering. And I personally prefer agents and others who are willing to accept the human mistakes we all make.

Last year I paid good money to enter a writing contest and got disqualified because I accidentally put the agent's name on my query letter and got a "critique" that sounded like I was written by my 13-year-old. Wow-cool metaphor, good description. Your writing is nice. I will never enter that contest again because their rules are designed to trick you to reduce the numbers.

Another time I attended a writing workshop where we were inundated with daily emails asking us to respond immediately (as if we have nothing else to do all day) and they made us pay extra fees if we sent our submission "wrong" - ie. you taped the envelope shut, wrote in blue in instead of black, had the page number on the bottom right instead of top right. Give me a break! I was ready to strangle the workshop director by the end of the week.

annerallen said...

Interesting that your example of the most boring possible plot is "a day in the life of an literary agent", Nathan. And yet here we all are, reading a blog about a day in the life of a literary agent instead of all those vampire/thriller/romances we're supposed to be scarfing up...

Anonymous said...

It's ridiculous that anyone who writes as poorly as you do, with such awkward sentence structure--seriously, it's almost as if you speak a second language--should have anything whatsoever to do with the written word.

sylvia said...

Nathan may well speak a second language. I speak three; it doesn't actually affect your ability to speak your native language.

But I suspect the issue is simply what you wrote isn't what you meant. I'm sure if you keep an open mind, your writing will improve.

jsph123 said...

I read your FAQs, and I have a question:

I've written a book that I feel is needed, it fills a niche, but I have absolutely no credentials nor any platform.
How do I get around this, or through this, as I query agents?

Thank you!

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Well, you either write a proposal so amazing it doesn't matter that you don't have a platform, or, if your lack of credentials is a true impediment, the book may just not work.

Ethyrical Artist said...

Nathan - in my agent research over the past couple of months I came across your blog. I was sad to see you're no longer agenting as of recently, but wish you the best with your writing!!

I've never commented on your entertaining and informative blog before, but your "jelliquarium" has prompted me to do so now because:

1. I was always jealous and fascinated by the scene in Mickey and the Beanstalk when Goofy jiggles around on the Giant's jello.

2. When I was a bit older and saw a Pink Panther movie, I thought it was awesome and hilarious that Clouseau sent the chief an enormous amount of jello for his birthday. Where could he have put all the jello? The chief wonders, mounting a diving board as he splats onto his swimming pool full of it...

I still remember those scenes with fondness and yes, a twinge of desire :-)

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