Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How Would I Know What I Like Until I've Read It?

Very closely related to the hoop jumping complaint about the query process is the lament that agents often have vague guidelines about what they're looking for. Thus, an author may have to waste time querying agents who may not be a proper fit because they inadvertently send something that just happened to not be up that particular agent's alley.

Well... yeah.

Let me first say that some agents are wonderfully specific about what they're looking for. They can tell you their preferences right down to the general plot points.

I am not this way. I never know what I'm going to like until I've seen it, and thus, am open to queries for pretty much anything.

But let's set that aside for a moment and pretend that I am obsessively following Publishers Marketplace and looking at what is selling and could tell you precisely what I wanted to acquire, down to the genre and spirit of the book. Let's say you write that book in six months. Let's say it takes a couple of months to sell. Let's then say it takes a year to come out (because it will). That's still a minimum of a year and a half from idea to publication.

Who in the heck knows what's going to be popular a year and a half from now?? We could all be wearing levitating hats by then. (See my other trend watching admonition here).

Trying to time the market based on what's hot right now is kind of like trying to drive down a highway while looking through a rearview mirror. By the time you see something it's already too late.

If you're even going to try and time the market the only thing you can do is lick your finger and hold it up in the air to see which way the cultural winds are blowing. Think a couple of moves ahead, and take your best guess about where the world will be in a couple of years. Or crash land yourself on the island on Lost. Either way.

And, again hypothetically, let's say I could spell out precisely what I wanted, right down to the shade of your protagonist's eyes. Is this really a world you'd want to write in? Even if I were more specific in genre and plot terms, wouldn't you rather write in a publishing world where we're not dictating to you that you should write what everyone else is writing?

Admittedly, there are times when a story misses the cultural mark by just a couple of years, and stories that might have worked in 2005 don't work in 2009. The culture is always shifting.

But the great stories are not timely: they're timeless.

I can't tell you what to write, and I can't tell you in advance what I'm going to like. Just pour your heart into telling a great story that you want to tell, and let the gods of culture and publishing take care of the rest. I just want to represent great stories that the author is passionate about. Isn't that the way it should be?


Anna said...

almost makes me want to drop a query your way just for the sake of it...

Marybeth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


Don't publishers know what is going on their lists today for releases they've schedule 18+ months out?

Isn't 'tomorrow' being bought and scheduled today?


Dori said...

Thanks for reminding me of the simple truth by writing this line in your post... "Just pour your heart into telling a great story..." I needed that :)

Marybeth said...

Sounds like a good plan to me :) I'm glad I have done exactly that!

And it is nice to know there are agents willing to look at anything as long as it's a great story! I commend you for being indecisive ;)

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, they are, but they're usually guessing from a year out, and it's easier to make a guess a year out than two to three years out.

But they also aren't usually just piling on what's already out there. It happens some, but you hear editors say that they're looking for fresh new voices as much as you hear agents say it.

Christa said...

Well said!

JohnO said...

Dear Agent,

I'm looking for representation for SARDINES ON THE STOCKTON 30, a multiple language and POV YA horror/thriller about life on everyone's favorite SF Muni bus line ...

Word Verification: impress. I guess that one was wasted on me, eh?

jimnduncan said...

Yep. Sound advice. Yet, writers are constantly wanting to know what's hot right now. I'll admit to some trend following. I've got a half dozen projects parked on my computer, so I have some flexibility with regard to what kind of story I can try and get into. That doesn't work as well as I would hope, since my motivatioin for a story doesn't always follow any practical logic.

But aren't editors and publishers basically doing the same thing you've described here? That is, holding up their finger to the cultural winds and hoping they can guess good enough to hit the mark 18 months down the road? Admittedly some trends do last a while so there is a certain window of time but one always runs the risk of missing it. If one just writes the story that truly calls to them, then you have it there at the ready when that window comes along again. Because trends seem to be cyclical. What's hot cools off and then returns again, perhaps in a slightly different form. Writers would do well to follow your advice here.

Bane of Anubis said...

I like vague guidelines or "open" agents - probably b/c I tend to write less cookie-cutterish stories (well, maybe cookie-cutterish, but not common cookie-cutterish).

Rick Daley said...

"But the great stories are not timely: they're timeless."

You should trademark that. I want to get it engraved and hang it above my computer as a reminder.

Douglas L. Perry said...

Nathan, actually it would be a whole lot easier for me if you write the book. That way I know for sure what you are looking for.

Snarkiness aside, I agree that a good story is a good story, and they don't often fall in clear cut genres that you can spell out.

Bane of Anubis said...

How many queries this week will include the word timeless...?

Over/Under 25: I'm going over

Anonymous said...

So all the monkey books should be hitting the shelves next year then?

Nathan Bransford said...


Sadly I am still waiting for the advent of the monkey era. We can only hope that it comes sooner rather than later.

Jael said...

I think complaints about "I don't know what you're looking for" also track back to some writers' sense that effort leads unerringly to publication. In that ideal scenario, you would say "I want a 75K-word novel about a tap-dancing muskrat", and they would say "Yes! I happen to have a 75K-word novel about a tap-dancing muskrat!" and send it to you, and you'd agree to represent it, and all manner of things would be well.

But even a 75K-word novel about a tap-dancing muskrat could be too flippant, or too savage, or overwritten, or confusing, or disjointed, or just plain bad. It might have a subplot about terrorism or eating babies or floraphilia or something else you don't want. Just because it's technically "what you're looking for" doesn't mean you want to represent it. This frustrates the cr*p out of some people. They figure they gave you what you asked for, and you're required to respond in kind.

Other scenario: you're intrigued by the concept and they send a partial, and you pass, saying "well, it's not as funny as I thought it'd be," they'll say "Well, you should have TOLD me you wanted funny!"

So many options for discontent. None of them your fault.

Kat Harris said...

I'm with Rick. You should trademark that maxim.

Great post.

susiej said...

Yep, we've all heard the story- a certain English writer being told "no one wants to read anymore stories about English boys in boarding schools."

Laura D said...

Amen, Nathan. I march to the beat of my own drum anyway. I couldn't right a pop story for it's own sake, cause agents would see right through me and know I was faking it. And I'm not that desperate, yet.

The First Carol said...

Waaaaa. Now we have to relate timeless emotionss? I am so dead.

DebraLSchubert said...

Sounds like porn - you know it when you see it! (Or so I've heard...)

Alan Orloff said...

Are levitating hats:

A) hats that hover above one's head, or

B) hats, when worn, allow the user to levitate?

If I get to vote, I'd go for B.

Nathan Bransford said...


I vote for both, which will benefit both transportation and fashion.

Scientists, get on it!!

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

Too bad most agents aren't as COOL as you, Nathan ;-(

Myra said...

I pretended to be an intellectual a couple of weeks ago and did some research on Depression Era entertainment. It seems the leaders were slapstick escapism or grim realism. Do you see any signs of trends heading that way? Is this why all those "sparkalay" vamps are so appealing?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I personally think that in the next year escapism will come back to a certain extent and that you'll see more lightness and humor, along with darker narratives that expose the problems of the last era.

But that's just my own wild guess. It's really tough to predict where trends will go, and I don't really base my representation decisions on them, as I outline in this post.

Jen C said...

Alan Orloff said...

Are levitating hats:

A) hats that hover above one's head, or

B) hats, when worn, allow the user to levitate?

I was imagining A...

RE: the topic, I'd rather be a trendsetter than a trend follower.

Jen C said...

PS thanks for the LOST reference Nathan! /uberLOSTgeek

Marilyn Peake said...


Wow! Loved your blog post today! The type of writing and publication process you describe allows for creativity, the most important ingredient in literature. In painting, it would illustrate the difference between great art and paint-by-numbers. Too many rules and formulas, and you basically get paint-by-numbers. I agree with everything you said about the world and the publishing field constantly changing, and liked your suggestion that "We could all be wearing levitating hats by then." Sounds like fun. :)

Annalee said...

I don't think the people asking for more specific preferences are actually planning to write books to them (or at least I hope not). I think it's more "If I know an agent has a particular interest in $foo, and my book contains $foo, that tells me we might be a good match. That makes me more likely to query them sooner."

It can also have an effect on the way we personalize our queries. For instance, say my science fiction novel has a gay MC. Since my book isn't an LGBT book, and sexual orientation isn't really central to the story (at least not central enough to include in the hook), I might not mention that in the query. But if I know an agent has a preference for strong LGBT characters, I'm going to be sure to mention it as a reason I think my book might be a good fit for their list.

With eye color, though... I'm going to have to go ahead and hope that's hyperbole, because I'm not sure why any agent or writer would find that information helpful.

Steena Holmes said...

Interesting topic Nathan! So do you write for the masses, what you know is 'hot', or do you write that story that is burning inside and just HOPE agents will look at it despite it going along with the 'day's fad'?

Damien Grintalis said...

Thank you for another great post!

I've tried to write something to 'fit' into a popular mode and it was horrible. I tell a better tale when I let it come out in whatever form it wants to take.

Laurel said...

In fashion and music the old farts with the money observe the trends in the fringe teenage crowd to predict what will be hot in 3 to 5 years. This used to be the "alternative" folks but that label really doesn't mean anything anymore.

At any rate, trying to write what's hot sounds like trying to beat the stock market to me. Too many variables. One major news story can make an idea hot or "too soon." What if someone wrote a novel about a group of terrorists attacking the US with airplanes and a rogue CIA agent trying to stop it in 2000? And it was scheduled to hit stores in October 2001? Would it be a bestseller or would the non-publishing industry think it was gratuitously trying to cash in on a tragedy?

(Sorry for the semi-rhetorical question.)

Mira said...

Oh thank goodness. I agree with every word Nathan said. No arguing today.

What does interest me, though, is the person who sees writing as craft and wants to do it as a profession. For example, romance novelists who write several a year, etc. Those people may or may not see writing as artistic expression for them as well, but they definitely see it as their bread and butter.

I guess for those people, rather than trying to guess the trends, they could stick to something tried and true. Like romance, that sort of thing.

Because you're right, Nathan, predicting the way the culture will shift is neigh impossible.

Ask anyone trying to play the stock market.

Anonymous said...

I think if more agents allowed authors to submit a snippet (*half a page even.*) along with the query, it'd make both sides happy. But that's just me...

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I don't know about writing to trends. I do know I want to be a well-rounded writer. For instance, if I had my way, I'd sell all epic fantasy. Alas, it's not something that sells well. So I've challenged myself to expand, writing mysteries and sf and noir and even some erotica. So far most of that stuff has sold, so I'm getting where I want to be--a selling writer rather than an epic fantasy writer with no sales.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan said:
"Sadly I am still waiting for the advent of the monkey era. We can only hope that it comes sooner rather than later."

Well, I do have a genetically altered time-traveling monkey in the science fiction novel I'm writing – very minor part of a futuristic world. I guess I should finish writing my novel before the monkey era begins in earnest.

Kristi said...

Good post but still no mention of picture books...sigh. Even one about escapist monkeys?

Marilyn Peake said...

Whoa. I think the future has arrived ... again. An astronaut ... I kid you not ... is sending Tweets from outer space on Twitter: here.

reader said...

Thank you!

A different agent blog (which shall remain nameless) did a post a few weeks back listing what types of books editors at the London Book Fair wanted. You know: Thirty-five year-old Houswife Goblin or Boy meets Girl literary YA.

I wonder how much of the time they really get what they want -- because in writing the execution is everything.

Anyway, I agree with your post.

Rowenna said...

It seems like quite a bit of the grousing about vague guidelines is for another reason entirely--the submitters who get a response saying "Sorry, not my thing" or "This just isn't for me." They read the agent's guidelines, their work fit the broad spectrum of what the agent liked, so they submitted. And were told "Not my thing." So, my question is--does "not my thing" really mean what it says (for instance, "I don't represent paranormal romance with gender role reversal as a theme") or is it simply a nice, nonconfrontational way to say "Pass"?

Richard Lewis said...

What do Lisa McMann's WAKE, Ally Carter's I'D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU..., and AS King's DUST OF A 100 DOGS have in common?

Well, I just read these three YA novels, and even though they are coooompleeetleeey different one from the other, what they have in common are powerful imaginations presenting a story with compelling originality. You know, the kind of thing that agents and editors are always telling us they are looking for.

While it's true that there is nothing new under the sun, and all stories are in some ways always a retelling, these three novels are definitely not the usual standard derivatives of hot YA trends. They are unique…that's the one thing that really jumped out at me.

(They are also exceptionally well executed in terms of traditional craft.)

I reckon this applies as well to adult fiction & may well be, in my humble and remote opinion, even though I am neither agent nor editor, the one single most important factor in getting a first novel published these days. Correct me if I'm wrong!

Chris Eldin said...

Wow, there aren't a hundred people here yet, so perhaps I can get a word in!

Love this post...I think it's always important to be flexible and think outside the box. Especially in today's environment.

Nathan Bransford said...


It's a nice way of saying "pass."

Jason Crawford said...

Great post Nathan...I love your approach to agenting.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

To all those thinkin' Haste yee back's lost his mind...

BIG SORRY... here's the right stuff.
Go to,


Click highlighted link containing words (because it's here online for free)
It's a five page interview with four agents contributing.

Please, oh please, someone teach me how to link. Seriously, I don't know how.


Haste yee back ;-)

RB Ripley said...

I believe that this kind of honestly is such a strength and admire you a lot for the approach.

Leslie said...

I would totally buy that tap-dancing muskrat book if someone were to write it.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Don't know what else to say other than "amen!"

Although if I did crash land on the Lost island and traveled back to the 1970s, I would do exactly what Hurley attempted!

Rebecca Knight said...

I have run into a few writers on the intarwebs talking about how they are writing Paranormal YA, etc, because "that's what's hot and makes lots of money right now."

So, sadly, I don't just think it's folks trying to hook up with agents who rep what they've already written--there is definitely trend chasing.

I can't help thinking these people are either:

A) More talented than I am (I can't force out a novel in a certain genre I'm not comfortable with), or

B) Crazier than I am. Doesn't that seem like waaaay too much pressure?

I like writing what I want to write, and trying to make it the best I can :). It's comforting that it seems to be the way to go. Thanks for the great post!

Amber Argyle-Smith said...

I still think most agents could be a bit more specific. I recently queried one. He liked the MS, but said he had a client that wrote that genre and so didn't want another. Well, save me the time and put it on your website.

Nathan Bransford said...


But something like that could come down to style. I'm guessing what happened is that he didn't realize it was too similar until he actually read it. He wouldn't have taken to the time to request it if he already knew it was too similar, and that's not something you would have known if he simply put it on his website.

Lisa Melts Her Penn said...

Hear, Hear, Nathan! Speaking as an editor and a writer both, I agree completely. The description of a thing isn't really what's important anyway (though that's the intro to it), it's how it comes to life. Thanks.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks, Haste Yee Back! Here's how you make live links:

First you write:
< a href=

Then you attach the actual link to that, leaving no space after the =.

Then, with no space after the link, you type: >

Then, with no space after that, you put in whatever name you want to appear, e.g. HASTE YEE BACK WEBSITE ... Spaces between words in your title are O.K.

Then, with no space after the name, you add: < /a> ... BUT WITH NO SPACE AFTER < .

And that's it ... I think.

Anonymous said...

To play devil's advocate (because that's my favorite position), I just don't get the need for an agent to be passionate about anything except the sale and the delivery.

I'm not passionate about most of the content I write in my day job, but I'm damn good at it. No one cares if I have passion or not as long as I get the job done - and get it done better than the other guy who may or may not have more passion for it than me.

I think I would choose skill over passion any day. Passion strokes the ego, but skill puts a check in the bank.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I don't know, Nathan. I've seriously considered querying you, but you just don't seem to be interested in my kind of writing.

You say you're interested in "pretty much everything," but really, that's not the impression I get from your blog. I'm basing this on what you say you want on your blog, and in the contests you have for writers (the winners always seem more literary to me), I get the distinct impression that you are way more interested in literary fiction, than in commercial. Are you really interested in "pretty much everything"? Or am I misreading that and what you really want to say is "pretty much anything that is literary fiction"? Or what?

Just curious. Love your blog.

Molly said...

Great post, Nathan. Sometimes we need those little reminders that it's all about the stories we love to read and write and that the business/publishing aspect is just an aside.

Nathan Bransford said...


Particularly with a novel, which has a more uncertain path than nonfiction, if I'm not passionate about it it's really difficult to effectively sell it, and I think most agents would say the same. So the two are intertwined.

As I've said previously though, I'm passionate about selling. There's no separating the two.

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm definitely interested in both literary and commercial fiction, and actually think the contest winners I've chosen have had pretty commercial appeal. Conduit went on to sell a crime novel, terryd sold a science fiction novel... and some of the things I represent are decidedly commercial.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nathan, for the quick reply. Thanks for setting me straight on the literary thang...

Justine said...

I say kudos to agents who are willing to keep thier minds open to what they want. To be totally honest, if angents only picked out a genre or two to go with I'd probably be screwed. Really, no one would buy my books because they're a fantasy series and they don't sell as well as 'real life' stories.

That, and I look at the books I've read and the different genres I enjoy and think to myself, "how can you know you like or dislike it if you don't read it?" Agents probably feel the same way, don't they?


Nathan Bransford said...


Upon further reflection though, I do think you're right to spot a bit of a literary lean. I do tend to prefer commercial fiction that's just a bit different. So I guess what I'd say is that my sweet spot is often the intersection of literary and commercial, but I'm open to everything.

This is why I don't usually bore down into my taste though -- I also loved GOSSIP GIRL and have a healthy respect for THE DA VINCI CODE, so you tell me.

Anonymous said...

So if I rewrite my novel, turning all the characters into monkeys with levitating hats, can I resubmit?

Word verification: actio. It stopped short of actual action!

Anonymous said...


A polite "pass" tells you nothing. It is meaningless. It could very well be the agent does have a personal problem with 'gender reversal' - but it could also mean many many other things.

What it really means... is just move on to another agent... for multitude of potential reasons.

You will find the right agent and the right fit... or you will eventually reevaluate your manuscript.

I think Nathan an author said worry about his query or ms if he hasn't gotten any bites after twenty-five? I am not sure how literal he was being.

Myra apparently sent her query to 10 agents. Four passed... but what's really important is six (six!) asked for the full ms.

Don't worry about the ones that polity said pass... concentrate on working with the ones who are working with you.

D. G. Hudson said...

How indeed? If a novel comes to you that crosses genres or redefines them, how can you predict that?

I prefer to query an agent who is open to nearly every type of manuscript, it usually indicates an open mind as well.

Thanks for being specific about not being specific.

terryd said...

Well said, Nathan.

I'd need the opposite of a levitating hat to write a clean manuscript in six months!

Victoria said...

Just as an aside, I've noticed two writers here commenting on how difficult it is to sell fantasy...

Um, guys? Take a look at the top ten bestsellers. Commercial bestsellers, I mean. There's a lot of fantasy in the list, if you include urban fantasy, epic fantasy, YA fantasy and sci-fi.

The Twilight series is responsible for 15% of all books sold in the US in 2009. Okay, sure it is urban fantasy, but still... there's a lot of fantasy doing well out there.

(Just a thought to cheer up all you fantasy writers that think the end is nigh.)

And more on topic...

Thanks for the thought provoking post, Nathan.

I know a lot of writers who follow trends and I actually know a few who have made it work for them. A couple of years back, I had friends writing vampire novels and the like and I was convinced the craze would pass. *sigh* I'm still not going to write a vampire or werewolf story though. Not my thing.

I'm just writing the story I want to write. The nod I give to the market is to try and make the story I want to read as commercially appealing as possible.

Vic K

Litgirl01 said...

Very wise indeed! ;-) I'll tell you what...I'd query ya! lol

Justine said...


Yes, there's a market out there for fantasy- particularly urban and ya. Overall however- fantasy is a harder sell than others out there. Especially since self help is on the rise. But no ones complaining... well I'm not complaining. I enjoy the challange and will make it work one way or the other. Just like any other I'll query to my heart content.


Victoria said...


Great to hear! I must admit, I write fantasy myself (the epic kind) and I do think it is just a matter of writing the best work you can.

Best of luck with your work in progress!

Vic K

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Let's see...Hmmm..Vampires this year, taking old classics and zombie-fying them next year...How did we skip werewolf paranormal romances? AHA! "A lonely Egyptologist finds the ancient sarcophagus of Im-Po-Tent, a priest of Anubis. Pricking her finger on a scarab, a drop of blood falls on the remains and revives him. Can they find a love that will bridge the ages? Find out in "Mummy Dearest," coming soon to your favorite spinrack."

Justus M. Bowman said...

"I just want to represent great stories that the author is passionate about."

Great stance and great post. Great!

Haste yee back ;-) said...

LOL, thanks for the info. I'll have to study that. (I wish you could just click and drag whatever it is into the Leave your comment box).

Anyway, I hope you found the interview.

Hey! I can sight in a rifle in three shots however!

Haste yee back ;-)

KK said...

Your comments are all well and good, but with an agent like you who devotes himself to a 24-hour turnaround, I don't see how you can get people's hopes up that you truly, truly look at what they are trying to convey. Every writer, and I mean EVERY writer writes from the gut, which includes their blood, sweat and tears. Writing is very personal.

I wish I could sound more "Yay, team!" here like the other comments, but sometimes I think this blog and a lot of other sources over-complicate what we are supposed to be doing. If you like the story, you like it and you will ask for pages, end of story.

From your side of the dais, it's all well and good with guessing about what's wanted for the market. From ours, it's another day in the Shadowlands, hoping to get out from the shade.

Your blog is interesting at times, even though it doesn't get here until after 4:30 p.m., but advice isn't as helpful as just doing.

Being persistent is the best thing of all, never forget that, folks.

MzMannerz said...

I thought it was more about what you could sell than what you like? Didn't you say that recently - maybe in the SuperAgent Contest posts?

I'm probably remembering incorrectly - very common.

Mira said...

Haste - I copy and pasted Marilyn's instructions to a page on my computer. I just pull it up when I want to link, and follow the instructions. They work.

I read the other thread first, and pasted Marilyn's instructions there. Please ignore that.

Sex Scenes at Starbucks? Are you around? Could you e-mail me when you have a second? Click my profile, it's right there. Thanks

Marilyn Peake said...

Haste Yee Back,

I found the interview, and it was fascinating. Thank you! Someone in a writers' group showed me how to make links live, as I was completely baffled. :) Here's the interview with a live link:
Interview with Agents and Editors

M. K. Clarke said...

Hear, hear, Nathan!

Great storytelling never follows or looks for trends; they make them.

Great stuff. Thanks so much.


J. Rupe-Boyd said...

My genre is middle school magical realism. Hummm, I wonder? But you did say you were open to anything.

Laurel said...

Thought it might be worth mentioning that Nathan isn't reporting the news, he's blogging. And he's on west coast time. So really, I don't see that having the daily fix turn up at 4:30 p.m. is cause to dock his pay. He gets paid for this, right?

weissbcm said...

Didn't Michael Crichton write a book with a transgenic monkey in it? Too bad no one took the hint.

Your blog is useful as ever, Nathan. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten us.


Jabez said...

I wonder how much overlap there is between the groups of writers who (1) don't want agents to tell them what to put in their query letters because it's just another "hoop" to jump through, and (2) want agents to tell them what kind of books they should write.

PurpleClover said...

You had me helLOST! You've piqued a couple of us Lost junkies' interest. You really ARE a SciFi guy right??? Right??? It's okay you don't have to tell us out loud. But we know. ;)

Thanks for a VONDERFUL post.

But I do have a question. :D

Let's say hypothetically an aspiring writer isn't complete with her, I mean HIS, novel. What if HE thought of two really great endings and is in the process of writing numero uno. Should he ever think to write the alternate ending in case the agent would prefer it (the ending could maybe...change the genre...hypothetically)? or would that be considered weak?

Nathan Bransford said...


Oh, I'm a major Lostie.

And it's up to the author to choose the best ending. I know there is one! Even if both are pretty awesome, there can be only one.

Vacuum Queen said...

I So agree with all you said here. I get very tired of reading comments on agent blogs where the writers all are begging to know what to write. Who's doing the writing? If the agents know exactly what they want, they might as well do the writing themselves. :)

I mainly wish you repped picture books. I'd love to query you.

Love your blog...I've only been reading for a couple of weeks. It's my newest "can't miss" blog.

PurpleClover said...

Apparently you are a Highlander fan too. Because that's the second time in a week you said that. ;) (I swear Mira stalks you not me...we just hang out at the same bars is all)

Okay well don't tell me about the last two weeks on LOST. We moved and had to give up the DVR and have yet to get a TiVo so now I need to go to the website to watch. WAH! I'm pretty sure I'm missing someone dying or lying or alternate time-flying! (I'm sorry I'm a bit of a dork sometimes)

And I would have totally rewritten and pitched Star Wars like Hurley too!

PurpleClover said...

Oh and hypothetically there is one ending that seems to be calling to her--eh HIM.

Nathan Bransford said...

Well, I said it on a different blog so I claim amnesty.

And the last few weeks of Lost have been pretty spectacular. To say I'm excited about tomorrow night is an understatement.

ANTM and Lost finale on the same night? I believe it was Belinda Carlisle of the Go Gos who said, "Ooh, heaven is a place on earth."

Marc Vun Kannon said...

"How did we skip werewolf paranormal romances?"

I didn't! That's my latest MS, the one I need to invent a whole new style of query for.

PurpleClover said...

DANGIT. I HAVE TO GO TO ABC and get updated on LOST now. NOW. NOW. I'll have to do it in the am when I should be unpacking. Grrr. I'm MISSING SOMETHING!!!

Seriously?? ANTM AND Lost?? Where have you been hiding this info?? I never knew!

Move over Mira.

I don't suppose you like the...Unusuals by chance? or Fringe?

You're favoritest agent ever!! lol.

Nathan Bransford said...

Whoa... you're the second person to tell me about the Unusuals. The first was the famous author who I will have an interview with on Thursday.

And that's what they call a teaser in the TV business.

Mira said...
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Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PurpleClover said...

See! I have things in common with agents and famous authors. That makes me special and important. Now I can go to sleep and dream big things with my big brain.

Now who is this author?? may come to me in my dream. If I could take a WILD guess... I would say Dan Brown. But that is so wild and it would ruin Thursday if it was him.

But if it is...tell him I said "Whatup!" Oh and his movie is coming out on my B-day. How crazy is that?

And if it isn't should totally interview him. hehe. Okay I'm apparently over tired and need to go to sleep now. Cause I'm rambling.

Mira said...

Actually didn't want to interrupt.


Marilyn Peake said...

I love LOST, but am seriously behind in watching it since discovering BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Love both shows.

Jil said...

Loved your post!
I once thought I'd write a Harlequin so I read a few (each one was the same as the last) and sent away for their guidelines. Talk about being told what to write! Even down to how the heroine bathed.
I'm not knocking those who do it but I sure couldn't. I would have been miserable - so hooray to the freedom to write what we want with being published the icing on a delicious cake!

Fire_eyes007 said...

"...more lightness and humor, along with darker narratives..."

Yay, I'm on the right track!

Nathan, would a manuscript filled with a lot of profanity (nowhere near Stephen King, mind you) be a turn-off to the average agent, or is it something that would be perfectly acceptable in a book aimed for the adult market? It is a fantasy/sci-fi, and typically, they are a bit clean.

I have to say that I fully enjoy this blog, but it does consume more of my time than it should. I'm probably losing my job in a couple of months, though... is it bad that I'm actually a little excited, since I will have more time to write?! Sigh, paying the bills, that's another story...

KathyF said...

Well, I must say that when I complete my novel (which will be the end of this year or so), I plan to send Nathan the first query because he says

"Query me first."

and because he's great at telling us this stuff.

I expect him to pass on my novel, of course, because I don't see him really liking my genre/story. But just in case it's something that he likes, I'll query him first.

Cuz Nathan is just awesome.


T. Anne said...

Cool, my new YA is all about levitating hats. I suppose we're a great fit now. The full is in the mail.

knight_tour said...

This is why your blog is the first one I go to each day - you keep nailing the very things that have been passing through my mind. I worried whether you had any interest in my genre.

I also honestly believe I see one trend coming in the next few years. I hope it won't hurt to mention that in my query (once I am done editing!) to you.

Jen C said...

All this LOST talk makes me so happy. After writing, LOST is my favourite subject. I even spell it in ALL CAPS because it's far too important to have just one captialisation.

LOST LOST LOST LOST LOST... wait, what was the blog about again?

Mary said...

Great post.


Jada said...

The best books start trends, not follow them.

I'd also like to add that I don't think agents who tell the world on their blogs what publishers are looking for are expecting authors to then go out and write in those genres. If you have a manuscript in that genre, great, but if it's not yet written, then by the time it is the publishers will have moved on to something else.

The Journalizer said...

I respect your laissez-faire attitude.

PurpleClover said...

Oh wow. So after re-reading my posts from last night I've decided. You know those little breathalizer thingies they put on peoples' cars that have had a DUI so that they wont start if they blow and have alcohol on their breath? Well they need to have something on your computer for that (alcohol), to measure how much sleep you've had, and to see how angry you are. If you register the slightest bit elevated - the computer shuts off so you can't blog or comment when you're being a babbling idiot. :)

Why in the world would ever tell Dan Brown "Whatup" is beyond me. YIKES. I would say "Hello" and then shift my eyes downward while I poke my toe in the floor sheepishly.

Mira - I'm not sure what you said but an interruption would have been fine! I'm sure it is something to do with my comment! ;)

Marilyn - I tried to get into BG but somewhere along the line I got over it. LOST has always been with me though. :)

Jen C - We're kindred sisters. :)

Like right now. I'm pretty sure the computer shouldn't be on because I'm stupidly tired from getting no sleep last night but yet here I am...probably rambling again. ...yep.

But now for a shameless plug: I just posted my chapter one of my wip to my blog if anyone wants to read (with contest!). I'll refrain from using a linky link. :)

Melissa Mcinerney said...

I get it, I GET IT! Very good post, very good comments. Now I see that it's as hard as girls flying through hoops (did anyone notice the poor thing hit her head but the men were too busy congratulating themselves to notice?).

anne said...

I think what people are really upset about is that a query letter is so different from a ms that there's a lot of slippage between what you can derive from the letter and what might be in the ms.
If you like metaphors, there is some overlap between surgical skill and ability to do housework, but I can't think of too many surgeons I know who would like to have their salary determined by the quality and efficiency of their housekeeping. A friend of mine calls it "mission drift."

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Marilyn, Mira and anyone else interested... there's more interview. go to --

Now, in the search box write, Jeff Kleinman, Folio.

Scroll down until you see, Q&A Ferris, Kathleen Kent, Gina Ochsner, Jeff Kleinman, Folio

(I liked this interview even more, especially after they'd consumed several bottles of wine)!

hope you find it. I'll work on linkin'

Haste yee back ;-)

SirBruce said...


I agree with most of what you said, but I have three thoughts which I think clarify the issue somewhat:

1. If publishers don't follow trends, why was there a huge explosion of YA fantasy after Harry Potter? Why is half the shelf now vampire/werewolf/zombie romances? I'm sure the slush piles are inundated with copycats -- but I still see those copycats being published, because that's what's "hot" right now. Of course, it creates a vicious cycle when that's what's selling because that's what publishers are pushing the most and the hardest...

2. I'm not interested in just pouring my heart into a great story; I'm interested in actually being able to sell it. So just telling the author to write whatever isn't sufficient; I want to know what you think you can sell. Yes, great stories are timeliness, but not every story is a great story, and yet they still get published and make scratch. Not every great author writes a great story every time out, either.

3. The flip side of this is that if you truly didn't judge until you'd read it, you'd read all submissions. You'd read manuscripts regardless of queries, and you'd read several chapters before deciding, not just 10 pages. But since agents don't have time for this, authors are forced to resort to trying to determine what you like and to provide that in as straightforward and upfront manner as possible in order to get your attention.

Anonymous said...

Hey there Nathan, Literary girl here my next question is this: if you received the first chapter of the Da Vinci code, not knowing what you know now, would you have said, "Wow. This is going to be huge?" Or would you say, wow. "Fell in a heap? How does one man fall in a heap?"

You've said before that it's all about the writing. As much as I respect Mr. Brown, writing is not his biggest strength. No slight to him intended, but come on.

My point is, I guess, is it really all about the writing? Or could it be all about the story? And the writing, too?

I don't envy your job at all. To sift through that many QLs and then try to pick which ones will get a publisher must be daunting. No wonder you drink!

Scott said...

Nice response, Nathan, and I totally see many of your points. But I still see other legitimate ways of looking at this issue from an author's point of view.

For starters, we would have a guide to glean from. We may not write exactly what an agent says they would like (and in some cases LOVE to see, as whimsical as the idea may be) but we might catch a tone, a pulse, something to draw from. When it's nothing at all--when we have no feeling for the persons who hold our professional fates in their hands--we don't know who we're dealing with and we can't channel any infinite number of shifts a sentient author can make to give an an agent something they will love to get behind.

Conversely, we might include some comparatively unimportant element that turns an agent off. I remember the "funny" anecdote given by one agent (not sure who) who explained how you might be unlucky to send out a great query for your book about a dog, and the agent you've sent your letter to just had their dog pee on their new Persian rug. Um...yuk yuk. Of course, this is an exaggerated example, but I'm sure it isn't too difficult to find a more "real-world" one that applies.

And I agree that it's unwise to try and guess trends to the extreme, but if we try and we're wrong, we're just back to where we started anyway so what's the difference, right? But if we're right, or close, and/or we give an agent something they would love to read at least at the outset, we've got that much more advantage in the marketplace plus an agent who may become really stoked about a project. That counts for more than trends in my mind, anyway. It's passion that quite often ignites trends.

So I suppose an agent can be 100% reactive and let it flow in, handling umpteen queries about stuff he or she would never like or could never get behind (because they're reacting to a query and not a full story anyhow) or they can set some loose guidelines, reveal subtle instincts or convey sudden, gut feelings to their submission requirements and possibly find an exciting match. Nothing that exists at the moment has to stop, but there might be someone out there who has written or was thinking about writing something that can "fill the void", as it were.

I guess the question is, "why not?" Ideally, it's a suggestion that could possibly build a better funnel for publishing professionals who might be able to more efficiently concentrate on their niche of the marketplace and therefore free up some time and resources for newer voices. It really comes down to greater communication, and I can't see how that could negatively alter anyone's position.

Nathan Bransford said...


Well said, and I think it shows how the most important thing is to query widely and to be yourself. I passed on a book that went on to be pretty big because the author made a joke in the query that didn't resonate with me. I probably wouldn't have been the right agent for that project, even if it was worthy.

And I really don't know useful the information you're asking for would really be. Even when you know an agent backwards and forwards it's nearly impossible to predict if they're going to be the most enthusiastic advocate for your work.

I personally wouldn't want to pin down my interests too strictly. Yeah, I tend to gravitate toward projects with both literary and commercial appeal. But I might really love a book that is purely commercial or purely literary simply because I connect with it. If I specified my interests too directly I might miss out on it.

The only thing to do is to query widely and see who is connecting with your work, and the only thing I can do is an agent is ask to see almost everything. Yeah, this means that I get way more queries than I would if I were more narrowly focused, but I'd rather see too much than miss something.

Nathan Bransford said...


There are definitely trends, and yes, publishers will follow them. But bear in mind that they're picking among projects that are already finished. So it's not that they went out and told authors to write something like HARRY POTTER, it's just that the authors who happened to have been writing something similar might get a boost.

And then there are longterm trends like vampires, which have had quite a run. But even there, publishers aren't really looking for something exactly like TWILIGHT. They're looking for something fresh and original.

You write: "I'm not interested in just pouring my heart into a great story; I'm interested in actually being able to sell it." These two things are inseparable. I don't think you'll be able to sell it unless you've poured your heart into it. You need to pour yourself into a book in order to make it good enough to sell.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I think I would kept reading after the first chapter of THE DA VINCI CODE. Is it perhaps the most technically precise or literary writing? No. But he tells a gripping story, the pacing was fantastic,

Keep in mind too that in order to become THE DA VINCI CODE there was an entire house of publishing professionals at Doubleday, from the editorial side to the sales and marketing side, who all believed it was going to be huge. They all saw the loose manuscript pages and said, "We should get behind this, it could be huge."

Whether it's about "story" or "writing" depends a lot on the particular project. To make a very generalized point, in commercial writing the style tends to be more in the plotting and characters rather than in the prose, whereas with literary writing the prose itself tends to be unique and stylistic.

So for THE DA VINCI CODE it didn't really matter that it wasn't the greatest prose in the world. What matters in suspense is the storytelling.

Laurel said...


Good point on being enthusiastic about the work. I can sell like hell if I believe in the product but if I don't I feel slimy trying to con someone into sinking their money into it. Agents sell your product. Why anyone would want one who doesn't gel with the work you've produced is perplexing. An interesting question: Would a best seller picked up by an agent who loved it be a trade paperback if it was picked up by someone who just thought it might sell okay?

To the writers: if you are lucky enough to pump out a sellable product on demand then pick a franchise or a genre, get their checklist, and go for it. Sounds stable but not very fun. Otherwise, don't quit your day job until you land your bestseller and just enjoy writing. Some of it is just dumb blind luck and there's no way around it. Query widely to pre screened agents and you up your luck.

Scott said...

Thanks, Nathan. Good stuff.

Laurel, can you explain what you mean by "checklists" and "pre-screening". I'm assuming the first one is just researching agents that rep specific genres. What's the second one about, exactly?


Janny said...

Me? I want the levitating hat. Those of us who are vertically challenged could use it SO many ways...


Mira said...

Cool, thanks for the link Haste Ye Back

So, I found the second word. For the book I'm writing for Nathan. I had the first word: The.

It's a pretty good first word, but I don't think Nathan will represent me on just that.

But how do I find a second word? Call me bonkers (some people do) but how do I know what to write? I need input. So, I decided, in the spirit of this post, to poll people and ask them what my second word should be.

I hit up a random selection of the population, and asked them. Here were the top three contenders for the second word of my novel:

1. Bonkers.
2. Ostrich-pickle.
3. Bug-off.

In terms of the second choice, I was deeply concerned about potential sexual connotations. But my sample assured me there weren't any, so we can all relax.

More than half of my sample said number 3. Of course, not everyone would say that asking 5 people is statistically significant, especially when 3 of them chose "bug-off", but unless they show me statistics on that, I'm ignoring those spoilsports.

(Besides, I didn't actually ask anyone anything, I'm making this whole thing up. But I figure this is what people would say, so close enough.)

Anyway, obviously, I can't go with 'bug-off' or bonkers. Those are a verb and an adjective. In case you didn't know, 'The' needs to be followed by a noun.

Ostrich-pickle it is.

Laurel said...

Hey, Scott!

No, pre-screening was researching agents. Everybody posting here seems to totally get that they need to do that but it's a little overwhelming trying to guess what an agent might actually like, especially in a query letter, so we all want a secret handshake or something. A formula for what they want would be super, right? But you write from the formula and the story is flat so they still don't like it and then what?

Checklist was in reference to some of the brands out there, like Harlequin, where they have very specific guidelines about what they want. I don't read straight romance and suspect I would be terrible at trying to write it since straining bodices make me giggle. But if you want very specific information on what to write that seems to be the way to go. I bet some of the franchises out there have some formulaic suggestions, too. I'm thinking of the Star Wars and Star Trek books, but I don't really know.

Otherwise, you just have to write what you're good at, send it to the people your research tells you would be the most likely to like it, and buy a lottery ticket.

Sorry if I was unclear. I've been in sales a long time, though, and every kind of sales success story has a combination of work and luck. A little scary, but there it is.

Scott said...

Thanks so much, Laurel. That's much clearer and I appreciate you taking the time to explain it.

And I agree with the downside of being issued formulas. What I would love, though, is to be given something close to a formula--a rough outline with setting and several character sketches--and be told to run with it, break it, bring "me" into it.

When I first started writing, I was all about extending my stories and themes as far away as possible from what I'd seen, in many ways to discover and/or generate my own "style". Back in the day, that was what was the most important thing: zigging when the rest of the literary world was zagging. Not so much, anymore, it seems, but that's another song.

Then, as I wrote and wrote and wrote, I found my "voice" and discovered my instincts for storytelling, which became my "style". Now, I relish strict parameters because it's a rewarding challenge to set my stories apart by my individuality. It's the small things, now. It's my dialog, my turn of phrase, and the depth of character and theme I can wring out in a measured space.

So even if I was told to write from a specific outline, it would have "Scott" in it. In fact, it couldn't be any other way at this point, and that's what I love the most about writing. It's a bit like how different Hollywood directors can tell the same story but in completely different ways.

Okay, that's all. I just referred to myself in the third person and that's a good cue to quit. :)

Thanks again.

KK said...

Bloggers get paid???? Hmmm...never heard that before.

Apparently being on west coast time means servers work at different times. Being that I'm also on west coast time, I have to read this blog at the worst time of the day or the day after. I would unsubscribe if it were that big of an issue to me.

I happen to find most of Nathan's information interesting. I'd use the word helpful if I were published. I'll change that word when I am.

Nathan, I'm sure this blog is very fun for you and you definitely have a fan club here. I find your insider information interesting, but just like everything else, it's all guesswork. For you, EDUCATED guesswork. What you like someone else won't. It's a matter of who the agent is and timeliness of the material. Timelessness is helpful, but only if the agent can see it.

At least that has been my experience. Sure would be helpful if agents would open their minds more. When it's new and fresh, which mine is, agents should be thinking of that reality and know they are the ones who can help it be big or not. That's how marketing works. You know you'll have the cooperation of the writer in the marketing when the team goal is global domination. Why leave any stone unturned? Plan on learning new languages so your book tour is less confusing while you sign away in Thailand.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I found this advice so reassuring. Thanks for the reminder.

Laurel said...

Hey, Scott!

I get where you are coming from. Some of the funnest assignments I ever had came with the strictest guidelines. They seem impossible but when you get going it forces more creativity.

Sue said...


Why would anybody write anything less than what s/he is passionate about writing. . Don't gauge the market, Write what's in your heart.


SirBruce said...


That's why I included the word "just" when I made my statement. I can pour my heart into lots of projects; that doesn't mean they'll sell. Agents can help if they say they're tired of vegetarian dragons or vampire romances so I don't pour my heart into one of those.

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