Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Be An Agent for a Day II: So What Do We Think?

The voting is in, and wouldn't you know: as of this writing the project that received the most votes as a query also received the most votes as a partial.

The query system works perfectly, right?!!

As always: it's not quite that simple.

Without prejudging what conclusions people have reached, there are three main things that I personally hope people take away from the experiment:

1) The query system isn't perfect.

When I read the queries, I thought all of them were strong in their own way, especially for a random sample. In the end though, I thought the two most promising queries were SHORELINE and UNREALITY CHICK. SHORELINE had an intriguing plot but I worried that the description of the narrative felt a little scattered, and UNREALITY CHICK had a compelling voice though I worried that the query relied too much on the voice and lacked plot detail. Since a strong voice is rarer and more difficult to convey in a query, I ultimately voted for UNREALITY CHICK as the best query.

However, I ended up changing my vote when it came to the sample pages. While again I thought all five samples were good in their own way, I thought SHORELINE had the most engaging and polished writing and it had my vote.

So. Even an agent changes his vote from query to sample pages. Does this mean the query system is broken?

Again, not that simple. Even though some queries were stronger than others, I think the strengths and weaknesses in each query did actually reflect strengths and weaknesses in the corresponding manuscripts, just as tends to happen in real life. Is it an exact one-to-one match between query and manuscript? Definitely not, which is why some queries fall through the cracks and why everyone should strive to write the best query possible. SHORELINE probably showed the largest disparity between query and manuscript, which is reflected in the voting. But across the board, my likes/concerns in the queries really did correspond to the likes/concerns I had about the manuscripts.

I think you can also see why I now ask that people send the first five pages with their queries.

Ultimately, while the queries were definitely good, I don't think I would have requested partials in real life, and I believe the partials need some more work and polish before they'd be ready. But very solid efforts all around and keep in mind that...

2) Taste is subjective.

I don't think I'm going to win a Nobel Prize for showing that the query process is subjective, but a subpoint I want to make is: subjective is not the same as arbitrary. Even people looking hard for the best arrive at different decisions and have different criteria for what that means. Everyone who participated in this experiment was approaching with roughly the same goals, and yet even the winning choice in both polls had less than a majority of the vote.

Same thing in real life. When agents talk about the importance of fit and loving a work, this is what they're talking about. Even a group of very informed agents will have different opinions on the same queries and manuscripts, and they're bringing years of expertise and experience to bear. It's not a sign the system is broken, it's built into the system: there are lots of agents (and opinions) in the sea.

3) Time is of the essence.

And the last thing I want to suggest is to consider how long it took to read and think about each of these queries and samples, and multiply it by ten a day and consider that behind each query is a writer whose hopes and dreams are hinging on your undivided attention. It's just not possible to give every single manuscript an in-depth look at 30 or more pages. Some sort of shorthand is necessary.

And all things considered, given the time constraints I still don't know if there's a better replacement out there for a query + short sample, even with its imperfections. Queries really do give an agent insight into the overall work, with the sample pages providing another glimpse.

Queries aren't perfect, but they're the best system we have.


But enough about my thoughts, what do YOU think?

Did this experiment increase or decrease your faith in the query process? How much of each sample did you need to make a decision? Do you have confidence in your choice? Has it changed the way you look at queries?

And of course, one last thanks to the talented participants for offering their query and samples! I'll leave it to each of them to decide if they want to de-anonymize themselves and talk about their experience.






150 comments:

William said...

I'll de-anonymize myself. I wrote I'M A NOBODY. I found this excersise useful. I now know that I really have to work on my query letter. I also have a lot of advice for when I start my rewrite. I wished I had moe time to clean up my writing, it was a first draft.

Ink said...

I think it confirmed my views of the process: it's functional but not perfect. But what is? I found a very strong correlation between the writing in the queries and the samples on four of the five. The fifth was a bit of an outlier. So I like the idea of the sample pages to catch the outliers - and there will always be a few outliers, both good and bad: poor queries with a really polished query, and a mediocre query with fine pages.

I think the query plus sample allows a good balance. I was pretty certain about the writing of each sample very quickly. Five pages would certainly be enough. After that a longer sample could be requested to further evaluate the writing and the story.

Word ver: mouse.

No kidding. Pinky and the Brain truly have extraordinary powers...

Nikki (Shoreline Author) said...

First of all I want to extend a huge thank you to Nathan and to everyone who voted (whether or not it was for me!) This has been an amazing experience and I’ve already spent 48 hours tackling my query letter.

For those of you wondering our (my) reaction, it definitely felt like “Author for a Day” on my end – multiplied by about 100. It was a little overwhelming to get a ton of acceptances and rejections at the same time. And, just like agent responses, it was hard at times to get a vague “eh, it needed some edits”. I wanted to jump up and say “Wait! What needed editing? Where did you stop reading? What mythology didn’t make sense?” Even though I knew not to expect detailed critiques, it doesn't mean that I didn't want them. I obviously want to continue to grow as a writer and make this the strongest manuscript it can be.

Alas, just like the true agent/author process, I couldn’t ask those questions. (Of course I’m here now if anyone wants to respond!)

Again, I extend a heartfelt thanks to EVERYONE that participated – and the other four authors. I loved different aspects of every piece and learned from you all as well.

Anonymous said...

I voted for Unreality Chick for best query (and I'm A Nobody would have been my second choice).

When I read the sample pages, I only needed/wanted to read just a little to see if the writing was there and my attention.

On the sample pages, I voted for I'm A Nobody (with Shoreline coming in as my second choice).

For me, it was close to how I compare the blurb at the back of a book and then the first 1-5 pages.

I need both.

I think, this experiment has shown me how cool Nathan is to request the first five pages too. It's a short but fuller look.

Great job, again, of the volunteers!

asiaintheheart said...

Thank you very much, Nathan, for this exercise. I learned A LOT and I have even more respect now for agents. :o)

Tarie

Thermocline said...

All the comments really reinforced with me how much personal taste plays into this whole process. It MIGHT be a little easier to take query rejections in the future because of this experiment. Maybe my query/sample execution stunk or maybe it just wasn't a fit for that agent.

Thanks for doing this, Nathan!

Julie Weathers said...

I didn't participate in the experiment this year. However, this is perfect timing as some of us were just discussing queries on Twitter. I think the most important things for people to remember are the points you brought up. The system isn't perfect, but it works. It is very much subjective and preference. This even goes to preferred style. Do you personalize the query letter to the agent or not? Does the genre and word count go at the top or bottom? Sample pages are so important.

Thanks for doing this again and reiterating the important points.

K.L. Brady said...

I think the query process, while imperfect, is effective more often than it isn't.

I have a MUCH better understanding of the process and a greater appreciation for just how important those first five pages are. Thinking back to the first draft of my novel, OMG!! It's no wonder it was rejected.

I'm so glad that I picked up Noah Lukeman's First Five Pages. It really helped me shore up those pages.

I must admit that I didn't read through all of the samples in their entirety--sometimes I didn't make it off of the first page. Now, I can understand how you could send out a rejection in 5 minutes. LOL I can see how you could review 25 queries in a day and reject them all. And I understand now that it's OUR job as authors to ensure that we keep the agent engaged. It's not the agents job to stay engaged.

Much greater appreciation for what agents do. I should probably send mine a thank you note. :) You guys need an appreciation day. lol

Joel Q said...

The systems works. But the more I participate-- query letters, writing contests (entry & judging), Nathan's forums, etc... the more I realize everyone has different opinions about the same material. So it is now the goal to find the agent that has an opinion inline with my own about my writing.

Joel Q

Jan (Reality Chick) said...

I found the experience fascinating. For one, I would never had guessed I still had this much ego left in the process. I've had plenty of rejections in my writing life, some really passionate editor reactions, and even a mom who posted online on a message board that mothers should watch out for my published fantasy novel so they could keep their little girls from reading it and being contaminated with evil, I suppose.

So I would have sworn I had no ego left. BUT even though I knew the sample I sent didn't work at all (and I wrote it a lot of years ago) and even though I wrote the query letter in about ten minutes (complete with typo: unexpected storm. ARGH), I still had kind of ouchy feelings over the criticism. That makes no longical sense, but there you are.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much better several samples were over how I reacted to the queries. When I read the samples, I thought...hey, that's good. That's way better than mine. You could really fix that.

Ultimately mine wasn't fixable when I wrote it, which is why I had thirty pages floating around on my harddrive and available for this. I am impressed at the folks who caught so clearly from this short sample exactly the stuff that ultimately killed the story further on. There are some really discerning folks here, even if I made pouty face when I read some of the critiques.

And thanks for all the folks who liked Beck. I like her too. Too bad her book ultimately sucked :-)

Andrea said...

I agree with Nathan that all of these samples could use some revision before being submitted. And there are some good stories here waiting to be chiseled out.

We all know this is subjective, but I think what I took away from this was the odd things people will latch on to that will make them lose interest. I am constantly tweaking my own manuscript, but now I feel even more paranoid about its imperfection. Like if there's a comma out of place I could lose a reader. It makes me think that things have to be pretty close to perfect at the agent stage.

When an agent rejects my query it doesn't bother me like it does when they've rejected my pages. Every time my pages get rejected I think that if my writing was good, really good, then anyone would be able to see it. There must be a reason that these agents are passing. But, maybe I'm wrong in thinking this.

William,

I completely dismissed your query, but ended up voting for your pages. Yes, they need some tweaking, but first draft? Awesome. I don't read YA by any means but when you get published I'll totally pick up your book and finish reading it.

Michael said...

I have a few comments.

About the process: This was an extremely educational exercise. There is so much that goes into an acceptance and it takes so little to become a rejection. Still, I think it works.

For Nathan: Do many agents request the first five pages with query or are you the only one you know of? Also, do you see that as a possible trend to emerge? From doing this agent for a day thing, I'd certainly do that. It gives you sooooo much more info.

For Nikki: I really liked your writing. The imagery was beautiful. I found myself a bit envious of your talent. You did, however, lose me when you described the memories of the girl when she was 5-weeks old. The fact she could remember it as well as the actions she was able to do as a 5-week old didn't feel mystical to me, it just seemed awkward.

Hillsy said...

I went for I'm a Nobody in the query, and Shoreline in the partial.

What I have learned is I don't have a strawberry frig what marketable YA is.

What else I have learned: In a forum scenario anyone can pick nits out of a query. Give it to them whole to say "yes or no" and suddenly the game changes. I will be viewing further query feedback with a spoonful of salt in future.


Word verification - Bachem: What you shout when about to use classical music as a weapon

Lulu said...

William-
I really liked I'M A NOBODY. I could tell it was a first draft, if I was a real life agent I'd ask you to resubmit when it was polished. All of the authors are brave folks. I'm still working up the nerve to share my MS with friends and family, and I know they'll be nice even if it is as I fear, the worst book ever. So congrats to all of you for having the cojones to do this!

J.J. Bennett said...

I was surprised to see my choice be so different from the query to the sample pages.

A huge thanks for everyone who took part in this experiment. I think it was a great way for us to see an insiders view on being an agent. I think it was even better for me to see others works and queries. I learned from the experiance and need to get back to work now... ;)

Nathan Bransford said...

Michael-

I actually don't know that much about other agents' preferences and others here will probably be able to speak better than I about the variance between query procedures. I will say that even if an agent doesn't ask for sample pages to always include them anyway (in the body of an e-mail for an e-query). No one is going to reject you for including them and they could make the difference.

Chibi said...

I think this was an absolutely fascinating experience. I loved seeing the different query letters and how much impact they can have (really underscores the importance of having a strong query letter to me; when it comes time to write mine, I know I'll have to take it as seriously as editing). It also helped me to understand a bit what an agent might be looking for. This was a fantastic experiment and I thank everyone who participated - and Nathan for throwing it.

E.J. Wesley said...

Alright, Nathan, we're convinced. YOUR JOB STINKS! (jk) :) Seriously, this was such an eye opening experience! Thanks again for doing it, and also mad-props to those who participated.

As a wannabe scribbler, here's what I learned, and an extra thought:

1) The query system works to the extent that it def. helps an agent sift through the mounds of pitches. Is it foolproof? No, the case of Shoreline showed me that. However, I (and many others from the looks of the voting) had my thoughts about the queries supported through the pages.

2) There are tons of great story ideas out there. Furthermore, there are also a lot of talented writers. For a quasi-random sample, these were very good. My suspicions were confirmed, however: It's all about the execution. Great writing without great story = not-so-much. Great story without great writing = not-so-much. This is not a judgment of the contestants btw, because I didn’t get to read enough of their writing to say one way or another. At least I hope 30 pages aren’t enough to doom a career … **gulp**

3) **EXTRA THOUGHT** Do you (Nathan) wear an executioner's hood to get in the mood when you go through your morning queries? It'd be so creepy-cool if you did! As I was reading through the offerings, I found that I was picturing myself as Cesar in the Coliseum, the lives of these authors/gladiators hinging upon the movement of my thumb. No joke, it was a total Darth Vaderesque power trip! You’ve got an awesome/scary job.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

This was very fun. I was surprised by some of the writing samples after reading their respective queries. I, too, think Nathan is wise for requesting sample pages in addition to the query.

As to the question about what system could be better... I've been thinking about this since submitting work to WEbook's fairly new PageToFame, and I think--if it became a popular feature frequented by reading groups--it would be a preferable alternative to the agent query system.

Starting with a brief description of the story (like the query) plus the first page, readers decide which books catch their interest. In phase 2, a larger sample is provided, etc. until the entire book is read by professional raters (agents, top raters). In theory, this seems better to me than the agent query situation because 1) there are more people reading and rating in the beginning, so it's not just one person's (albeit educated) decision, and 2) raters are a mix of writers and readers, more representative of the market.

It sounded good to me, anyway. I'm interested in an agent's perspective of this system, though. Mr. Bransford?

Unrepentant Escapist said...

Thanks for giving us the chance to peek into your life for the day. I didn't realize the quality of queries you get was so high...it makes me feel better about my own rapidly growing set of form rejections. From reading agent blogs, sometimes it's easy to assume you'll get to the partial stage if you're not a total idiot (since blogs often focus on the REALLY ANNOYING queriers instead of the "not quite there yet" queries.)

I admire you for going through so many queries when the payoff (one or two new clients, maybe) can be so slim.

Rachel Grant said...

William and Nikki-
Heartfelt thanks to you and the other three authors-for-a-day for sharing your work. William, sharing a first draft is incredibly brave and I envy the advice you've received for your rewrite. I think this group did a fantastic job pointing out why they were pulled from each story and what they found confusing.

I also think this was an excellent exercise in voice, as voice showed so clearly in the first paragraphs of most of the stories, but was only clear (to me) in one query (#5). I'm going to look at my query and try to figure out a way to put voice in the pitch.

Thanks Nathan, for running this experiment and being quick to answer questions throughout the process.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I don't think query alone really works, but query + sample seems to work as well as it can. I liked queries for #1, 4, and 5, but liked sample #3 the best. So this was eye-opening for me.

Thanks to everyone whose work we read, and thanks to Nathan for this experiment!

E.J. Wesley said...

@ William, Jan, & Nikki

YOU GUYS ROCK THE BLOCK!

Suze said...

Nathan - without having to write a whole post on it - can you explain in a few lines why you wouldn't have asked for partials on any of those queries? Or would it have been for the same issues we saw in them? Thank you again for doing this - and kudos to those brave enough to participate.

And Jan? Go back to Reality Chick and revise! Hundreds of people here loved it :)

Emily White said...

I found that while reading the samples, I became less and less patient as I continued reading. So, I was pretty lenient with the first one, but by the time I got to the last sample, I just wanted to skim through. I also had a hard time remembering what it was I liked about the first ones I read as I progressed.

Conclusion: I would be a HORRIBLE agent.

Kristi Helvig said...

I didn't have time to read the pages yesterday, but I liked the Unreality Chick query best.

Ultimately, I think a great query can get your foot in the door but you have to have the sample pages to back it up.

Cameron said...

Interesting - I, like whoever this morning's Anonymous may have been, thought Unreality Chick and I'm a Nobody were the strongest in both query and pages. Interesting to see I'm a Nobody not in the same running, percentage-wise. Maybe it goes to the fact that I'm not a large target-market, or maybe there is something else behind it, but I thought the writing of I'm a Nobody was engaging from the beginning. William - good job.

I'm not sure the title would make me pick it up off the table, but once I read the first few paragraphs, I at least wanted to know what was going on.

Anyway, this is a large sample of good writing and queries, and I'm glad that I got to read through, for sure. Thank you all for contributing - this was fun!

Phoebe said...

Ooh, I voted the same way as Nathan. For some reason, I feel proud, despite the subjectivity of all of this!

Thanks to both William and Nikki for sharing.

Nikki, as someone who loves Greek mythology, I was partially drawn to your query for that reason--but I also had reservations about it for that reason. From your query, and what I know of Greek mythology, it's not entirely clear why Persephone would be the villainess as opposed to some other goddess. My first thought was Athena, since she was Poseidon's nemesis and all--unless you're using a more classical definition of sirens, in which case Maya should probably be a bird more than a sea creature. I've read query critiques where readers implied that you can't assume that an agent has any familiarity with existing mythology, which is fair--but as someone who is familiar with it, this stood out to me enough that it begged for an explanation or clarification, even a very brief one.

Nathan Bransford said...

Suze-

Yeah, I think my reasons were similar to others' that have been expressed, but query thoughts in brief:

I'M A NOBODY: I thought this had an interesting plot idea but "was shattered" is such a common opener, and that combined with the line that begins, "In the 70,000 words of I’m a Nobody Dominic struggles to find a place..." gave me some concerns that the writing felt a little stilted rather than smooth and polished.

I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY: I think the opening paragraph is strong and has an interesting hook, but there is some imprecision in the writing (i.e. it probably doesn't need to be stated that the presence of a serial killer would affect more than just Presley) that gave me some concerns.

SHORELINE: The idea is interesting, but the query doesn't adequately convey the voice and the plot description feels a little scattered.

BLACK EMERALDS: While again, interesting plot, I was concerned that the opening sounds good at first blush but feels just a tad overdone - does anyone really go looking for fate? It left me with the impression that this wasn't quite ready.

UNREALITY CHICK: The voice is strong, but as others pointed out there isn't enough specificity in the plot description to give me confidence about the novel as a whole.

Emily Anderson said...

Some novels don't lend themselves to great queries and some people can write a great synopsis without fleshing out the novel. I think both are important and I'm glad to see you're taking the first five pages now. I think I'll take your advice and always include the first five pages whether they are asked for or not. I try to be meticulous about submission guidelines, but I always wish sample pages were requested. A denial on a query doesn't mean much to me but one with sample pages does.

Meredith said...

This was a very illuminating exercise. While the query system definitely isn't perfect, I think it's pretty effective. To me, the two strongest queries had the two strongest partials. The query-plus-5 system is even better. I whittled it down to just one that I wanted to read more of after 5 pages. If anything, this whole exercise just goes to show POLISH POLISH POLISH. Don't send anything out until you've sweat blood and tears and made sure every word is perfect.

I also learned that I'd make a crap agent, I think. One, I have no desire to hold someone's utmost hopes and dreams in my hands. Two, I'm entirely too high-strung. When I clicked "submit" I held my breath for a second, worried that I made a wrong choice. What if I picked a choice that no one else liked (i.e. would never sell)? What if I passed on something that would go on sell bazillions of copies because I just didn't see it?! Gah! Too much pressure! I would never sleep.

wonderer said...

This was a great experiment. There are lots of places for dissecting queries, but one doesn't usually get to see how the queries and the pages match up. Thanks to Nathan for setting it up, and thanks to the five authors who participated!

I learned that if the query is unfocused or unclear, the pages may be too, so it's important to look beyond the concept at the writing in the query.

With the samples, I only needed a few pages to know that three of them needed a lot more work. (Five pages with the query would be enough for me.) The other two pulled me in quickly: the writing was controlled and it flowed smoothly. Deciding between my two top choices required more analytical thinking. I would probably have requested the full on one of them and given the other author some brief feedback.

scj said...

I agree with what you said about the strengths and weaknesses in the queries being reflected in the pages. I thought Shoreline had the strongest query because even though it was a little scattered, the plot sounded intriguing; Unreality Chick had a great voice but the plot details were thin, so it was my second favorite. And the pages reflected these thoughts: Shoreline's plot drew me in, and the writing in the pages was much stronger than in the query. Unreality Chick again had a great voice, but the plot seemed too thin to carry for a full book.

I guess what this has taught me is that a query does not need to be perfect to represent a great book, as writing a good query is difficult, but a strong query can definitely entice someone into reading the pages. A lesser query may not make an agent desperately want to read the pages, but if a stellar plot is conveyed through the query (which is what I thought when I read the query for Shoreline), flaws in the query may be overlooked in favor of the idea behind it.

I definitely gained some insight out of this experiment. Thanks for putting it together, and thank you to all the writers who submitted queries and pages!

Jan (Reality Chick) said...

Oh, I wanted to mention something else about queries. This is probably the best query I've ever written, typo included. I suck at queries -- no kidding. Now, the plot synopsis part was impossible because I couldn't exactly say, "And at about page 90, the plot falls completely apart and the writer's head explodes" so I had to sort of cram what kind of happened into something that might look a little like it could work.

BUT...the "no stress" of whipping up a query letter for a story I wasn't going to sell to send to an experiment where I totally was sure I would never be picked helped me write a query that was actually interesting and didn't sound like I was probably hemorrhaging at the time of writing it.

I think I'm going to pretend I'm sending all future queries to Nathan's experiment thingies. Really, this could help me. Loosening up and letting go of your inner freak out really is helpful.

Flint (Black Emeralds Author) said...

Nathan rocks! I cannot begin to imagine how difficult his job is.

Thank you so much for all of the feedback! The good reviews are nice, but the bad reviews are how you learn. I couldn't be happier with the overall experience and all of the valuable information.

I think the part I found most interesting is that my own fears were actually what people picked up on. I believe I now have a good idea of what I need to change. Sometimes it just helps to hear someone else say it.

I think the length was the only feedback I wrestled with. After a lot of thought, I came to the realization that it is probably exactly what I needed to hear. Wake up Flint! I'll probably chop the first few chapters and start the story a little differently. (as a beginning to the revisions)

I really thought all of the entrants were very good. It just goes to show that there is a lot of undiscovered talent to compete with. I applaud you for the courage. Nikki, I really loved SHORELINE. I was upset when I ran out of words to read.

Thanks again to everyone. I can't wait for next year!

reader said...

Thank you, brave participants!!

I'd say that SHORELINE's pages being overwhelmingly popular compared to its query, which received far less love, points GREATLY to how at odds querying can be, compared with the book being quieried.

re: SHORELINE -- I read lots of YA, half of the published books I read aren't as well written as SHORELINE's thirty pages.

Also, I beg to differ about the amount of time it takes to read a partial. We are assuming agents are reading the entire 30 pages and I doubt that's true. I made my judgements pretty quickly -- some only needed a paragraph or two, for my to discover the writing, pacing, or characters weren't enough to hold (my subjective) interest. And I imagine agents are much quicker than me, despite their workload.

treeoflife said...

First off, thanks to all the writers who participated. William, I voted for your query and submission, as I thought the plot had the most potential.

As for the query process, I very hesitantly quote Winston Churchill (as Nathan is an agent for several books about him it seems), who said that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Well, you could probably say something similar about the query process.

Writing is subjective, and no process could be perfect. Some good books will always slip through the cracks, and some bad ones will be published. But overall, I think the process will yield pretty good results.

Taryn Tyler said...

A query is like an audition. It gives an example of how we can write and then the partial is like the callback in which the agent can get a more specific idea if this is the right fit. It's not perfect because even brilliant actors (musicians etc.) will have bad auditions as well as horrible ones doing good auditions but writers have the advantage of being able to edit and hone their first impression instead of relying on having the right amount of nerves and connection with the piece that performance artists do.

Nikki said...

Phoebe - that's an interesting thought. I took the mythology of Persephone's being captured while playing with sea nymphs and turned it on its head, making her the source of the Siren's sacrifice. Sort of a payback. So I took 3 different legends and merged them together. I don't know if it's enough to fit in the query though, as some already said mine was a little long. I do explain it in the synopsis (not that many agents ask for it!!)

Marsha Sigman said...

I thought this was great idea, really gives us an idea of what you are dealing with.

I chose the query on 'I would have loved you anyway' because I thought the story was the most interesting. Then when I read the sample pages of all of them, I chose Shoreline. Wierd, because I had no interest in that at all until I started reading and then wow, it was really good!

And I could tell by the third page whether the writing/story was any good or not.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Definitely an interesting experiment.

The same query and pages may have topped both lists, but the people voting for both changed from one poll to the other. That seemed to be the most common comment on the second poll -- "I changed my vote." So, it seems that a large chunk of the people who liked the pages for the winner never would have read them because they wouldn't have requested them.

Joan Kremer said...

Interesting insight I had this morning: I read all five partials toward the end of the day yesterday and I had some trouble "wading" through them. This morning, I reread them just for the heck of it and found I was engaged by and enjoyed them all so much more!

So it may be true, as they say, that even the time of day/agent's mood/barometric pressure, etc., can affect the future of a particular manuscript!

Phoebe said...

Nikki--Of course I'm not an agent. but if I were a mythology-keen agent, and I received your query, it might be nice to just have a bit of a nod that suggests that you're familiar with the mythology and playing with it in a way that's self-aware. For a more concrete suggestion, I might replace the paragraph where you talk about sequel potential (which, I've read in various places, is unnecessary--and from the sound of it, some agents find it presumptuous, too) with something like this:

"A modern riff on three distinct Greek myths, SHORELINE will appeal to readers of author a and author b."

This will also show that you're aware of the market for similar works, which might be a slightly better use of your limited space. You might also consider suggesting Maya's connection with Persephone when you discuss the Goddess: "She is also a Siren, servant of the Goddess Persphone, and must make a deadly sacrifice to appease her mistress," or something along those lines.

I think there are a lot of ways that you can go to add some clarification here--and again, I voted for your pages, and I think the concept is quite strong. But I wouldn't want to see agents get hung up on the specifics like I did!

Kate said...

I chose I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY from the queries because it seemed to have the most complex plot line. SHORELINE was my second in the queries.

However, SHORELINE'S pages brought me in and kept me longer than any other sample. I voted for its sample pages. I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY's beginning felt a little unbelievable to me and jumped from scene to scene without building much.

I was a bit surprised to see how quickly I made my decisions on sample pages (and queries!). I usually knew by the end of the first page or two. I now know I have quite a bit of work to do on my own opening.

UNREALITY CHICK was my second pick based on samples. My last pick query was also my last pick from sample pages. All in all I think the process works.

Thanks for doing this. It was very interesting and educational.

MJR said...

I learned a lot from this--I read the queries/pages as a busy agent would. The ideal query seems to be one that tells you (briefly--no subplots) what the story is about, but isn't a tease like back cover copy.

Also, I would advise YA writers to stick within usual word counts--in my mind I was saying 100,000 words? That means a lot of editing--too much work--next.

I also recommend being careful with factual accuracy. Again, I think agent/editor would say to themselves, the SLJ reviewer is going to jump all over that etc Does this writer really know her stuff..uh oh...too much work there to fix.

And, cf course, we all know the importance of the first few paragraphs (ugh..I have such a hard time with that.)

I noticed a lot of people mentioned grammar/spelling errors. There are lots of great (and even fun) books about grammar--check reference section of bookstore. I would buy one of those before submitting. If spelling is a problem for you, have a friend who is good at spelling read through a hard copy. I wouldn't hire editors--too expensive.

Also, I wouldn't mention in query that this is your first novel. First novels are often (not always) practice novels and that might make agent pause and decide not to request if he/she is on the fence.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I think you did a much better job with this project this time around. The increased standardization better exemplified the subjectivity of the results. I think the endeavor very adequately communicated your position.

Well done, sir.

JTB said...

Such an interesting thing to watch unfold Nathan

thanks

Kimber An said...

My views are unchanged, but I've been reading agents' blogs for three or so years.

Some things have changed for the better in that time.

More agents are accepting eQueries.

More agents have automatic email replies so I know my email got there.

More agents are requesting 3 to 5 sample pages along with the query.

Rick Daley said...

The exercise was both enlightening and entertaining, thanks Nathan and the writers whose work we reviewed.

I think the query system works as intended. Some things may fall through the cracks from time to time, but the truly persistent writers will give it another shot; it not likely that something good will fall through the cracks every single time.

It's promising to see that there are so many who are willing to a) support the existing process, and b) help brainstorm the efficiencies and inefficiencies inherent in it.

Too often we see loud nay-sayers who seem great at pointing out flaws, but are unable (or unwilling) to offer solutions.

Anonymous said...

Think BIGGER. Let the Internet do the query process for you. Expand your experiment, so that folks are selecting at least the top 5% of your queries.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

I thought this was a fantastic experiment--as well as an object lesson in why we writers need to be careful not to query too soon. I found it especially interesting to see the correlation between weaknesses in the query and manuscript pair, and I wonder if this correlates to weakness in overall novel structure.

I would love to see a future blog post on how to tell if you are querying too soon--from an agent's perspective. I've blogged on pre-submission checklists before, but it really took seeing this and doing the math to understand. (Now if I could only find a foolproof method to know if my own work is ready!)

Thanks for putting this together and for all the time you spend helping us understand the submission process.

Nathan Bransford said...

Let me try that again:

anon-

But in this scenario the plurality didn't choose the partial that I feel is the strongest. If I cede control over queries to the Internet how do I know they're going to reflect my own views? I'm not totally convinced that the crowd is better at choosing what is most likely to sell, especially when you bring in the crowd jockeying you see at places like Authonomy. Having the Internet rank queries or partials assumes that everyone is going to vote in good faith and let the system work on its own without trying to artificially influence the voting. I've never seen that actually happen.

Scott said...

I found the exercise interesting and pretty useful in my own efforts to land an agent. I discovered what I felt was the strongest idea led to the strongest writing. That in mind, I might only ask for a simple logline were I an agent, as it would save me time.

Or, I might have more of a form as my submission policy, rather than a full letter. I made up my mind very early in both the letters and the samples, and only read completely through the query whose hook I liked the most (SHORELINE). The sample pages required only a few paragraphs.

I know people go crazy over voice, but I don't find too many out there that are that distinctive. The hook in the blurb and how cleverly it's presented is what tells me an author "gets it", and if they've got a good one, chances are they're experienced in all the right things and know how to conduct their craft.

D. G. Hudson said...

A hands-on approach is always a good teaching method, when it can be used. Thanks for the lesson. My choice was not the popular one, but that's consistent with my reading preferences. Keep working on that first draft, William.

I found some of the stories seemed different than I had expected from reading the queries. What was chosen to be in the queries didn't always highlight what made the story interesting.

IMO, the query system could use some upgrades, so that all writers would have the choice of email or the postal service. It's more cost efficient for the writer to use email. Nathan, why haven't more agents, editors, etc. updated their submission methods (are there underlying reasons)? I'm glad you accept email queries, but is it as efficient or does it allow more bad queries to sneak through?

Margaret Yang said...

Functional but not perfect--that's the query system. But really, that's most things in life, isn't it? My cell phone is functional but not perfect. So's my computer and the quilt on my bed and the school my kids go to.

I'm tired of the query-haters who think that because queries aren't perfect, they are useless. Is your phone useless? Is your quilt?

Anonymous said...

@Nathan

But the crowd did reduce the list to two queries + partials to look at out of your list. If the Internet could source you down to 10-20 queries to look at rather than 300+ each month, then using the Internet might be worth it. Regardless, you'll have to inteprete the Internet results.

Think Digg. You might want to view three or four pages of results, but that's a lot easier than reviewing 10-20 pages of results.

Of course, this approach is also imperfect, but I don't think any one person has enough time for a perfect solution. There are just not enough hours in a day.

Nikki said...

Phoebe - great idea and yeah, I already edited up the query to get rid of that :) Thanks again for pointing that out!

Laurel said...

@ Nathan: Jumping in midstream, here, but I agree that "majority rules" is not the way to go. A few people are always savvy enough to jockey the system. It ends up being like high school, where your design was better but the cooler kid won the class vote for the senior week tee shirt design.

Something that is really runaway amazing will rise, but that presumably would make it through the query system anyway.

Plus, I do not want to be an agent, Sam-I-Am. Not even on a dare. A little piece of my heart would die everytime I checked my inbox and saw 117 new messages.

Jane Steen said...

I don't think my opinion of the query process has changed, but seeing the queries AND the related sample pages, reading other people's comments and then getting Nathan's viewpoint has really helped to demystify the whole business of getting your query noticed and acted on. The comments alone are a superb focus group! I hope you'll do this again, Nathan.

I was surprised at how quickly I was able to come to a decision about which projects would interest me. So if I were an agent, would I have made "the right choice?" Who knows? The least-liked proposal could turn out to be a bestseller somewhere down the line, because it hits something that the reading public (a fickle beast at all times) happens to like.

I would encourage all five submitters to tease out every lesson that can be learned from this, and get those mss finished. And good luck to you all.

Katherine said...

This was an interesting experiment with such powerful lessons.

So we live and die by the query in getting an agent to pay attention. And, my attempts at queries put the fear of failure into me faster than anything else. I'd rather write a complete new novel than deal with queries. Oh, I've done that.

So, the takeaways for me...query agents that take the time to review at least five pages in the initial contact and try in some way to write a better query by distilling the gist of the novel down to the simplest form that conveys the theme of story.

On a side, I'm disappointed to learn that I'm a Nobody is not finished. I really liked this one.

Nathan Bransford said...

d.g. hudson-

Well, e-queries are both more efficient and allows more bad queries to sneak through. In the end I much prefer it because it's way easier to click send than to stuff envelopes, but it's not without its drawbacks.

anon-

The partial results were in line with the two I thought were the strongest, but at the query stage the crowd actually ranked the one I thought was second (but a very close call to being first) #4 out of 5.

And this was a situation where the five people entering stepped aside and didn't try to influence the voting - in real life with real queries at stake I'm not sure I could see that happening.

I'd love it if I could trust the Internet to really whittle things down, but I don't know if I've yet seen how that would be possible. There's just no real way of stopping people from artificially influencing the voting, and it ends up making it more about how effectively people work the system than the quality of their work.

Andrea said...

Question:

Nathan, is that true about mentioning in your query that it's your first novel? Another poster commented that it would put an agent off. Would that put you off in a query?

Nathan Bransford said...

andrea-

No, it wouldn't put me off at all. In fact I recommend that people who don't have other writing credits just say "This is my first novel."

Keith Popely said...

I agree with K.L. Brady above: I really feel much more informed about how the query functions and how a query looks from the agent's POV. Up to now, I've been seeing my query-in-process from my perspective; but I'm going to start over with a blank page and write it again, hopefully, seeing it from an agent's perspective.

Jan: I, like you, wrote a lot of book and then ran into narrative problems that I believed were fatal obstacles. I put my novel away for over ten years and only recently went back to it. The reason I mention this is to assure you that you are not alone and to encourage you to keep going. In my experience, the most difficult thing to accomplish is designing a great character. Plots and stories and narrative structures are a dime a dozen. These are mathematical problems that can be solved with a bit of thought and creative thinking. I'm no expert, but I am in the same boat you are. If I were you, I'd simply come at your story from a different angle; don't be so locked in to the narrative with which you started; seek input from friendly critics (most of which you can and should ignore, but will spark your own ideas), and think your way around your narrative obstacles. The character is everything. If you love yours, then simply...write a different story.

Thanks very, very much to Nathan and the 5 authors.

Keith Popely said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

MJR

100,0000 words for YA is not too long.

Every teen reader I know picks the longer books over the short ones.

Check out the Twilight, Eragon, and Harry Potter word counts. Three of the most popular ever YA books.

Anonymous said...

@anon and @Nathan

WeBook.com is an internet site that does a pretty good job of whittling down the pile. Check it out when you get a chance.

Tracy said...

I can see where being an agent in quite a tricky line to walk. When I first started reading the sample pages I wanted to read through them all from beginning to end so I could make the best informed choice. However, when I came across writing that felt awkward or in need of some deep revisions still, I found myself skimming for another half page and then giving up on the sample.

The only one that kept me engaged long enough to read the whole sample, and want more, was Shoreline.

As the others have said, thanks to all who participated. I DO believe there are great story ideas in there from everyone. I just think some are a little further along on the revision stages than others.

Michael G-G said...

Whew, that Levine is quite a talker...

Now, down to business. I never did read through to the end of either of my requested partials: (UNREALITY CHICK or SHORELINE). Both were good, but I didn't "fall in love with them." As a busy pretend agent with my own clients, my fequent blogging, my delightful but demanding children, and my amazing wife whom I daily thank for keeping the house from falling down around our heads, I have to fall in love with something before I will take it on. (How many times have you heard a busy real agent say that!?) This process did confirm for me the crucial importance of the query, followed by the first few paragraphs of the sample.

I'd like to thank all the writers for submitting their work for a critique by the masses, and wish them all the best in their writing journey.

Denise said...

So I see that I'm basically a horrible agent, but putting that aside, a question for you Nathan, if the query is the first thing that an agent sees, what are your thoughts on getting someone else to write your query? I've heard that some writers have been doing just that. Do you feel that's cheating or does it matter if the writing sample is solid and the query was just a tool to get you to the front of the line? Thanks.

Nick said...

I would definitely still champion the one I voted for. As I said yesterday, I think Shoreline had technically better writing, but if I were some sort of Junior Assistant Agent Person and could only handle like one client, I would take Unreality Chick because I think its writing would ultimately guide it to better sales, and therefore make it easier to get to a publisher, because at the end of the day everything really is about sales. If I could pick more than one, I certainly would have requested more from both authors. Definitely all the samples could have used polish, but as-was, well that's been handled just above.

As to my level of faith, I'd say it stayed the same. Certainly it gave me a bit more insight into the process, but it neither increased nor decreased my faith in the flawed-but-works system of querying.

Thanks for this, Nathan, and thanks for everyone who put themselves out there. Maybe if I have an at least once-edited MS by the next round of this, I'll join in on the author side.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I still think Webook.com has crafted a system worth going mainstream. The author is anonymous and the raters are anonymous. You can try to link directly to your submission to campaign, but it will only generate a random submission for your friends and family to rate. I guess it's possible for them to keep rating other people's work until they get to yours, but it's unlikely that anyone would sit through that. Already, there is a large volume of work there. I really see no way for writers to play the system. Also, there's a box to check if you rate something low simply because you're not interested in the genre or subject.

I don't work for webook.com. I'm just honestly answering the question about what might be better than agents receiving a million e-queries and hardly having time to see the trees in the forest.

Mira said...
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Maya said...

I believed in the query process before, and I still do. It was a fun exercise. It blows my mind how fast Nathan responds to queries/partials. Especially the partials. I didn't have time to read 30x5 pages so I stopped after a few scenes for most of them.

Nikki - I didn't know if the authors wanted to detailed critiques or not. You might try putting your query up for critique in the forums. One idea: after reading your pages, I thought that you should mention how Maya's siren powers don't seem to work on Nate. Saying they get off to a "rocky start" seemed vague. Great pages though - I voted for you both times because I think your concept is so unique and cool!

William - I thought the query needed to stand out more. It reminded me of Looking Glass Wars. I wanted to know how it was different from other fall into another world type stories (same for Unreality Chick). And the beginning pages were confusing to me, and they did feel rough like you said. Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone will ever have a video query system...2 minutes to chat up your book via your computer's camera and then send to the agent. Of course, we'd then get uber professional movie makers, but maybe a chat from the author that is under 2 minutes would give an agent's eyes some needed relaxation and perhaps a different view.

That could have a billion problems too, but I somehow had this idea while reading your post. My mind is obviously wandering today. I'm so not signing my name. :)

Mira said...
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Mira said...
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Toby Speed said...

Thanks, Nathan, for setting up this great interactive lesson. I didn't submit a query, but reading the queries and the partial manuscripts from an agent's POV was very enlightening. As a picture book author, I've never submitted a query before, but that lovely task is heading my way quickly as I'm working on my first adult novel.

Although it can be hard to pinpoint what is the one thing or two things about a manuscript that pushes it back across the line from being considered to not being considered, I think making sure it is the strongest it can be in every way is the best a writer can do. As you mentioned, checkpoints for readiness are strong voice, specificity of plot, precision in writing, polish. And as far as reading queries/samples, the gut feeling is as important as reasoning it out. If I lost interest, for whatever reason, I couldn't vote for a piece.

I have a better appreciation for what goes on on the agent's end.

Maria said...

I think the query system works. I wrote in my earlier comments that I would not have picked any of these for a partial and I stand by my position. Though all of them were interesting - with thousands of queries being submitted weekly (?) - my understanding is that a work has to be a perfect storm of good writing/an interesting hook/marketability to get a second look. None of these pieces completely fit that criteria.

I have been a buyer for a bookstore - and let me tell you, people are picky. They are not going to spend 10-16 dollars on a book, especially from an unknown author, unless it is amazing. If the average american only reads about 8-10 books a year (and I think that's a high estimation), then your book has to be incredible for them to deviate from tried and true authors.

Nathan, you have an incredibly difficult job and I am honored that you gave us a window into your world. Thank you.

Lisa said...

What a great experiment! I must admit bias because Nikki (Shoreline) is in my writing group. I've always thought her writing was fantastic. While I appreciated hearing commenters praise her work, I also enjoyed the constructive criticism. It helped me gauge my own critiquing skills.

Thanks to all of the brave authors who posted their work, especially Nikki!

Maya said...

Jan (UNREALITY CHICK) - Your pages reminded me of my own first novel. I have it sitting in a drawer because I too ultimately decided it was flawed. Great voice and writing style...I'm sure your WIP will benefit from everything you learned!

Mira said...

I took my comments down. I'm not sure what to say about this, so I think I won't say anything.

I mean, aside from what I'm saying now.

Writers - thank you. You should be proud of yourselves for putting yourself out there. I hope you are! I hope you keep on, keep on, keep on!

Ulysses said...

Forgive me if I'm wrong, Nathan, but was there not a time (years ago?) when you asked only for a query without sample pages?

So I'm interested in your opinion of the experience:
Do you feel you have found more good books through the combination? Do you feel that the addition of sample pages has added confirmation to the choice you would have made based on the query alone? Do you feel that the sample pages have prevented you from making a mistake (missing a promising book/ spending time on a work that didn't appeal to you)?

On a related note:
Leaving aside the skewing of votes, I don't think it's a good idea to let internet ranking determine an agent's choice of work to represent. Should the day come when my book is presented to a publisher, I want the person presenting it to believe as firmly in its value and salability as I do. I don't want them thinking, "Well, its ranking on SlushMaster was good, so I'll give this a shot."

Should the day come when publishers buy books because their internet ranking is direct predictor of their sales to the general reading public, I'll change my mind.

Margaret Yang: My quilt is useless, actually. The reception is terrible, the battery life non-existent, and all the voices come through muffled. I've had enough. Next week I'm getting an iBlanket.

Nathan Bransford said...

ulysses-

Yeah, until about a few years ago I just asked for a query. Quite candidly, the biggest change has been that I request far fewer partials (percentage-wise at least) than I did before.

For the projects I've taken on through the query process, I would have requested the partials whether they included sample pages or not. The sample pages were just gravy. On the other hand, the sample pages have stopped me from requesting partials for projects where the query was really strong but where I wasn't connecting with the sample.

That said, there definitely have been a handful (though less than five) instances I can think of where I saw a poor query followed by strong pages and ended up being surprised. So you never know.

Liesl said...

I still think the query system is the best we can do with out limited human abilities.

I felt like I only needed to read five pages to make a decision, and it really wasn't about the "hook" or something really dramatic going on. It was about the writing- the voice, the style, the craft. That all became apparent in the first few paragraphs.

Nic said...

Jan - i think Reality Chick could work - it just needs a lot more work. I know you wrote your story years ago but have you seen Life On Mars (UK or US), i prefer the UK version but its similar although more adult. Copper gets run over and wakes up in 1973!

William - i read the rest of the pages and i really love the story so if you revise and edit it and hopefully it will get published, i would definitely buy it coz i'm really intrigued as to how it pans out.

The Pollinatrix said...

"Subjective isn't the same thing as arbitrary" - this is EXACTLY what I needed to hear today!

Do you ever do this agent-for-a-day thing for nonfiction?

Steppe said...

Jan...
Ultimately mine wasn't fixable when I wrote it, which is why I had thirty pages floating around on my hard drive and available for this.
(...)
And thanks for all the folks who liked Beck. I like her too. Too bad her book ultimately sucked :-)

Its a strong premise.
The old saw/phrase proven wrong.
"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." Nietzsche
The idea that Becky, by facing her fears could end up in a worse situation than dead or stronger; but crippled and unable to awaken.
The firmly premised skeleton is there and maybe this is fates way of trying to get you to rework the premise from scratch. With sincere respect I didn't want to "like Becka" I either wanted to "be her" or "save her." Go down the rabbit hole "as her" or be her "secret companion" who has already survived trying to conquer my fears and failed dozens of times before some twist of fate simply handed me the solution just to make me and my 'survive at all costs attitude' go away.
It's an awesome premise and I wouldn't give up on the story kernel just let the reader and Becka suffer more together as they become one.
"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" comes to mind as a work you might like as a model. You need to bare your soul to write a story like that. Don't give up.

--

Nikki's query skills and Shoreline pages were of matched set quality but I have no skill at evaluating that genre and plan to read it as a study of a female writing a female lead.
As an Agent I rejected it because I wasn't qualified to get behind it.

--

Black Emerald was different and began in the old school way without an explosion or sudden death. Same as Shoreline I plan to read it in full and was not qualified to judge it in a quick pass.
It caused me to think about beginnings because I still like stage setting and opening shots that establish the time and place. But... Its something I think about. Reveal a moment? Then do the establishing shots. A style change I might or might not make myself.
Black Emeralds writer is very cerebral and would make a great crime writer within or without the fantasy shells and framework. Such things are often part of a warped criminals mind where they live in the alternate reality and the detective must try to enter that world without going insane himself.
Your internal verse external action thought balance and adult style are crimped by stories natural boundary.
That's a superficial surface judgment before a complete read for my own study skills.

Criticism is very difficult to get
a good critique is worth about 5000$ or a bottle of someone's favorite poison depending on whether you know other writers or have to pay.
It's worth it to take chances like this type of exposure of your work.
I 'm hoping your Fate character is truly evil so I can get to like her as The Eternal Tomboy Princess Archetype.
Thanks for sharing.

---

I'm A Nobody.

You rock dude.
8-9% is a 12.5% bump overnight.
I'm fifty and the voice spoke to the 15-25 year old in me that went through those doors after the girl and took the beatings and survived.
Keep up the good work and keep taking risks. The whole exercise was based on
a random number generator that Nathan used to pick the queries.

He's in temporal fiction withdrawal without his weekly "Lost" fix.

Thxs 2All for the experience.

ryan field said...

The thing I found most interesting is how important it is to get the query right so the pages aren't ignored. After I read the pages to Shorline, I changed my mind.

Amy said...

I originally voted for I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY, largely on the strength of the opening paragraph of the query letter, but when the partials came out, I changed my vote to SHORELINE. I found I didn't have to read very far into the sample pages to decide which one I liked best.

If anyone wants to experiment further with query letters, I've created a website that functions as a virtual slush pile. It's only recently gone live and is in fact being beta tested, but I'd welcome some more queries for our slush pile right now:

http://www.querytest.com/

What you do is submit a query, then "read slush" by viewing other people's queries and simply saying whether or not you'd request pages based on the query letter. All feedback is anonymous and private. The feedback you receive as a submittor is a percentage--how many people said YES to your query. Reviewers can also briefly comment on your query if they wish.

The site is quite new and parts of it are still under construction, but I've already received 25responses to my own query letter, and the feedback has been really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Nathan sez: "I still don't know if there's a better replacement out there for a query + short sample, even with its imperfections."

I sez: Cold. hard. Sales. Who cares what it's about if it's already been selling, right?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I sez: self-publishing first isn't for everyone, or even most people.

Marilyn Peake said...

I learned a lot from this exercise.

The past few days have been extremely busy for me. I had thought maybe I wouldn’t participate in the exercise, since I didn’t have time to read all the pages in the excerpts. When I read through your instructions, Nathan, saying that we could approach this task like a very busy agent and that it was OK to not read all the pages, I decided to take that approach. The excerpt I voted for after reading only the first page or two was UNREALITY CHICK. The excerpt for which I loved the very beginning, stopped reading when the book slowed down for me with the arguments among the cousins, but captivated my interest enough for me to want to eventually read the entire excerpt was SHORELINE. Interestingly, I didn’t vote for the query letter for either of these books.

After participating in this exercise, I feel that the first five to ten pages should always be requested along with the query letter.

And I learned something else that I think is extremely important for writers. A rejection doesn’t mean that a writer doesn’t have something almost marketable. What a shame it would be if the author of SHORELINE received piles of rejections and gave up, thinking that perhaps they weren’t a good writer! Of course, this would probably be way too much work for busy agents, but it would be awesome if there was a query reply that let the author of a rejected book know when the agent thought the the author was skilled at writing. I read a statement by a successful, published author that said writers often give up just when they’re on the brink of huge success because they don’t realize that they’ve arrived at that point. That author explained that their success happened after many years of struggling to get published.

The problem for the writer...and I’m not saying that a busy agent needs to solve this problem...is that a simple rejection doesn’t provide any guidelines as to the problem with the manuscript. Is the writing horrible? Should the writer give up on ever becoming a writer? Or does the manuscript simply need to be edited more tightly? Is the plot not the best one for the themes presented? Is the manuscript remarkably wonderful, but the agents whom the author queried all temporarily more interested in a different, more popular genre? Is it just the wrong time to be trying to sell that particular book? It isn’t practical for a writer to write fifty versions of the same book in a blind and random attempt to try to fix whatever the problem might be with their manuscript.

Caledonia Lass said...

First, thanks to those who were picked for being brave and submitting! Second, Nathan I do not envy you your job.
Now with that being said, I took quite a bit away with me. I have to look over my query as well as my MS and make them equally strong.
Honestly, it only took me a few paragraphs to make my choice with the samples provided. My choice of query was opposite of my choice of partial. I understand that this can and will happen. I know that if I can't get sucked in within the first few paragraphs, I don't want to read the rest. So the same may be true for my own book. What if someone doesn't get into my first few paragraphs and puts it down?
Food for thought.
Again, thanks for this experiment. It helped a lot!

Marilyn Peake said...

Nikki,

I’m just beginning to read all the comments here, and discovered that you wrote SHORELINE. Congratulations! You have some real talent. I feel your frustration about wishing you could get a more detailed critique. Hope you find success with your book!

Ty said...

Query + book trailer?

Would a "book trailer" accompanying the query have any merit? Obviously the writing of both the query and sample pages must speak for themselves, but wouldn't a glimpse at the author behind the words be worthwhile?

Would it give an agent a sense of an author's passion, marketability, creativity or craziness? Or would it simply be an extra link to click and take time away from other queries?

Though the query process seems viable, I don't think a modern touch would hurt. Then again, seeing 100 cats in the author's house might be a deterrent...

Marilyn Peake said...

Jan said (about her book, UNREALITY CHICK):
"And thanks for all the folks who liked Beck. I like her too. Too bad her book ultimately sucked :-)"

You sound like a writer. LOL. How did you arrive at that conclusion? My impression from the comments I’ve read so far is that, with editing, UNREALITY CHICK could not only get published, it could also be a very popular book. Did I miss something? You go, girl! Don’t give up.

Nathan - I believe, as Ink suggested, that perhaps Pinky and the Brain are exerting extraordinary psychic powers over your Blog. The word verification for my comment this time is "brave". LOL.

curious anon said...

Nathan, I always wonder about finding the right "fit" with an agent. Since most authors don't write the same book over and over, what is the difference between an agent "loving" your book or knowing they can "sell" your book? Wouldn't an agent naturally choose knowing they can sell over "love," since they might not love the author's NEXT book (but still be able to sell it)?

It seems so much of an agent wanting a book is plot related, when it should be quality of writing related. Or, I'm just over-thinking things??

Nathan Bransford said...

curious-

Another way to think of it is, agents love books they think they can sell. But agents don't love (or think they can sell) the same books.

Kelly said...

This experiment was a lot of fun, Nathan. Thanks.

Nikki said...

Ty, I actually have a book trailer for Shoreline! I have never submitted it with my query - and am curious to know from Nathan if this is something worth including or do agents gloss over that?

Wild Child said...

Honestly, sometimes I feel with the query process that the stars have to align, the planets have a synchronistic orbit, and God has to move earth and mountains before we find the right agent, at the right time in the publishing industry, with our book fitting the exact interests of an agent and then an editor and publishing house. It seems overwhelmingly impossible and some days depressing. This experiment just continued to show how subjective this could be and that many things have to fit just right for there to be a published book. I try not to let it get to me, but finding a first agent is hard. Thank you for sharing. What does it take to become an agent? Because I enjoyed that process. :)

Crystal said...

It's funny, because with the query I voted fore Shoreline. When the pages got posted, I read a little bit of Shoreline and got bored of it (it was just too descriptive at the beginning with not much about Maya's powers described). And Unreality Chick's first chapter was very interesting, but as soon as I got to the second chapter in the world Beck was in it was a little too descriptive as well, like describing everything she was thinking. Got very tiresome after awhile.

The one I chose ironicly enough, was I'm a Nobody. That was the only one I read all the way through.

After seeing the polls, I re-read Shoreline. I can see why it got the majority vote, but still wasn't quite for me.

All of these were awesome though, I love this experiment! You guys are all great writers.

Beth said...

yes, I'm here....I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAY. This is the first opportunity I've had to respond today. I really do appreciate the opportunity to participate and all who commented. When I finished my first draft it was 134,000 words...I know! In revision I've struggled with my beginning most. Maybe that's why it seemed to jump around...I was trying to keep some aspect of the first draft and now I can move on. The premise for this story came from a real life experience. Only when my senior picture showed up with a letter (albeit not quite as threatening, but still with a promise to find me)I panicked. My rescuer was an Arkansas State Trooper, but it could have been Reid...at least in my dreams. I know the story will come together. I won't stop until it does. A big congratulations to the other 4 brave souls. I lick my wounds with gratitude. Now back to work.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

I think I should be an agent too!

I voted same as NB, first UNREALITY CHICK and then switched to SHORELINE.

Dale said...

A writer isn't just the words in the manuscript. I wonder if good queries might also reflect writers more willing to jump through the tedious but necessary hoops that a successful writer has to jump through. (Says someone who is awful at queries but needs to change that)

Andrea said...

Making video queries would be scary for us not so pretty people. I would hate to be disregarded for look instead of my writing. Look what television did to politics.

Nathan Bransford said...

Yeah, I don't think I'd go for video pitches or trailers for the same reason I don't take pitches over the phone: I really just need to see the writing.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I absolutely agree with Andrea. If book trailers are done with author images, that'll be the end of judgment based on merit. On the other hand, I've seen some great book trailers that look more like movie trailers. Those could be a nice perk for a query. But I'm not an agent. What do agents think?

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Sorry, Nathan. I just saw your response after I posted my comment. Advice taken. No book trailers in queries.

Kathy said...

This was a great experience for me, and for a lot of your readers. Like most, I have really been working on polishing my query and my book. Rewrites are important, editing is a must, and rejections will be many, so we must all be willing to swallow the medicine, roll back the sleeves and get to work. We have what it takes, we need to endure.
Thanks Nathan for the great lesson. Your job is difficult, but we certainly appreciate your method of teaching us through your blog. Good job everyone that submitted. I enjoyed reading your work.

popsicledeath said...

It was as expected, mostly. Not good, not bad, just is.

The thing I don't like is the drive/desire for queries to have the same 'voice' as the writing. Imo it's not always a good thing that publishing is reduced to nothing but a business. In a perfect world (or one where people try a bit harder and care a bit more), agents would look for writers/people to work with, not works/product.

Right now, I feel overall the process is too much about what will sell an is marketable (and that wanting queries that reflect the voice and style of writing is indicative of that). Of course, it IS a business, but plenty of people make decent livings doing things they love, and giving people chances, and working with people, and sacrificing the bottom line at times for all sorts of other things that imo should matter just as much.

And I'm not saying Nathan, or all agents are just hard-ass capitalists. What I'm saying is the one thing this process taught me is that I saw very, very few people (if any?) say they weren't sure which MS they'd want to 'buy' because they weren't sure who the PERSON writing it really was.

See a manuscript that will sell, want to sell it. Sure, it's the American way, and the 'job' of the agent. But in my world, where I am NOT king, mind you, I'd rather work with a writer who I believe in, and who enriches my life, than simply choosing to work with the manuscript that will make me the most money.

And this is coming from someone who has been accused of being a robot on many occasions. I'm not just some bleeding heart. I just think that the person behind the manuscript is as important as the work itself, especially if deciding to forge a business relationship that is often in fact quite personal too.

So, were I an agent I'd want the queries to tell me as much about the person as the manuscript, and I'm not buying a damn thing until I got a really good sense of WHOSE efforts and struggles went into the manuscripts. And that's something I find sorely lacking in this experiment, and in the industry as a whole at times.

Otherwise I skimmed all the entries and came to all the 'right' conclusions, yawn.

Augustina Peach said...

Two things came out of this exercise for me:

1) In a strange kind of way, it gives me more confidence to approach the query process. Finding an agent is apparently not some unapproachable mystery. A lot of the process is about story and writing skill, although I'll admit there's also that subjective piece that can't be avoided. But seeing how the process worked and how other people liked queries and partials I was lukewarm toward helps take some of the sting out of even the subjectivity. (I agree with Jan, though - it's hard to separate work from ego.)

2) There are ways your job is like my job, Nathan (I'm a teacher). You give rejections or ask for partials based on your judgment of the work; I give specific letter grades based on my judgment of the work. The main difference is that I ALWAYS give feedback (it was hard not to go into that mode when reading the samples, ha ha!). That's part of the definition of my job, but not of yours. Writers, like students, always want feedback. But the sheer volume of work, I guess, precludes that. I can gear up to give detailed critiques for 20 reasearch papers once a month, but not every day, for sure!

If I could work in publishing, I think I'd rather be an editor than an agent.

Thanks to Nathan for putting this together and to the writers for letting us use their work. Best of luck to all of you!

Kate said...

What an awesome experiment, Nathan. Your devotion is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a trip this has been. Not sure it's taught me anything or changed my opinion about it all, but it has been interesting. Very interesting.

http://cornelldeville.blogspot.com said...

What an insightful experience. It certainly made me even more aware and appreciative of the work, and the responsibilities, an agent faces every day. I don't know how you do it.

Thanks for sharing this great experiment.

Malia Sutton said...

Great project. I loved Shoreline. The minute the kid was thrown into the ocean, I was hooked.

Maureen said...

I really enjoyed participating in this exercise and learned a lot. Reading all the submissions was surprisingly time consuming, but I enjoyed the stories. In the end it was hard to just pick one because I really like 2 of the selections (Black Emerald and Shoreline). Nathan, thanks for offering this opportunity. It was an eye-opener.

Mira said...

Marilyn, like your comments, as always.

Okay, I'm still not sure what to say, so I'm still not saying it.

However, one thing I did want to say is I love, love, love the picture on this post. That is the best picture I've ever seen in my entire life.

I want that picture on the cover of my book once I write it. No, I want that picture on the cover of all of my books once I write all of them. And not just the ones I write, but any that I read - or even see. I'm going to take that picture, go through bookstores and put it on every book in the whole place. Just try to stop me. I'm have a mission.

I just wanted to make a worthy contribution to this post. I trust that goal has been achieved.

Thank you, Nathan, for these posts this week. I've had alot of fun, and I appreciate it.

Amy M said...

I never had a problem with the query system, but I've learned so much from this experiment. I really feel like this experience will help me to improve my queries. I read many blogs and always thought I knew how to write a query. But this has helped me to see far better what I need to accomplish.

Thanks again everyone for sharing your work - it has helped so many of us! And thank you, Nathan, for putting in your time on this. It did take me a LONG time to read those sample pages - I can't imagine having your job!

Claire Farrell said...

This has been so much fun. I went with Shoreline on both query and partial but I can easily see how much more critical I would be of queries if I had to go through a mountain of them every day.

I have the same opinion of the query process - it's easy for the good stuff to slip through the cracks and that is a shame. But there is no perfect process, that's a given. I hope that experiments like this encourages those writers who are aiming for traditional publishing to work on their queries if they aren't getting any bites.

Still want to read the rest of Shoreline btw. :)

Claire Dawn said...

I'm really glad you did this. I hope the next time some author is ranting about agents, someone will refer them to this!

You guys are superheroes.

Tori said...

I now feel that agents should not rely on queries alone to tell if they want to see more of a project. They should at least try and read the first page, first paragraph, first sentence...something. Because the query I thought was the best well written and had the best voice didn't do much for me when I read the pages.

For me, I was able to read one paragraph for each and know whether or not I was going to pass on it. I knew SHORELINE was my choice right off. There was no waiting like the first day.

This whole process was a lot of fun and really made me think a lot about how hard an agents job is. They are constantly getting new queries, it is easy to see they might not be able to give every project the attention it deserves.

Tori said...

Oh, and I have MUCH confidence in my ultimate choice SHORELINE. After I saw the pages I knew it was the one. And that just shows me that all agents should at least ask for the first paragraph along with a query. Because you never know.

Anonymous said...

I still think I prefer the British system, where prospective clients use the synopsis as opposed to queries.

Meghan Ward said...

This exercise taught me just HOW subjective the query process is. I found myself skipping on to the next query as soon as I knew it wasn't the type of book I'd read. Doesn't mean it's not a great book, just not my thing. I also found myself most interested in the best-written queries, regardless of the content. And I do think the query process is the best way to go. As much as I hate form letters. I wish there were a way for agents to write a form letter that didn't hurt writers' feelings. I think that would be ideal.

Leis said...

Thanks for letting us have another peek into 'your world' Nathan. I've gained a greater respect for an agent's critical eye: yes, the Query Process works (even if not perfectly).

I also learned that every written piece we authors send out ought to be polished til it hurts. That even when we think we have a 'final draft' it should be set aside for a while; then it ought to go through one or two more *serious* edits before we start querying.

Meghan Ward said...

I mentioned earlier that I thought agents needed a form rejection letter that didn't hurt writers' feelings, and that inspired me to write one: http://bit.ly/c1G78m

Anonymous said...

I didn't learn anything new, but it was a good opportunity to confirm that (imo) the quality of the query bears no relationship to the quality of the writing. So it did remove my last shred of faith in the query system.

mpe

reader said...

I think one thing I learned was that the query that has that "peppy" voice will always win out over one which has a calmer, or more realistic voice. And I think that's too bad. Because if you are reading a hundred queries a day like an agent, you'll naturally be drawn to something with a big peppy voice and pass by the book that has a maybe more mature tone or characters that are layered and nuanced.

For me, it's always been the shy character in the back of the room that has an interesting story to tell, not the carnie worker up front, screaming, "Big prizes, here, win some big prizes!!!"

Angela Dove said...

Thanks, Nathan, for this incredible exercise. I'm sending every aspiring writer I know to this set of blogs.

Nathan Bransford said...

reader-

I don't know that I would be reaching any "always" conclusions after an experiment that involved five queries. In this case the query with the strongest voice happened to be peppy. That doesn't then mean that peppy always wins.

Trace said...

What an excellent idea. You rock.

Anica Lewis said...

I'm sure lots of people know about this already, but if other people are looking for forums to have their queries critiqued, there's always The Public Query Slushpile, and, of course, Query Shark.

I, at least, find that some of the wonderful people who read my work for me aren't always as helpful on queries as on fiction. They give great feedback on novels - after all, they've been reading them for years - but don't really know what to do with a query. That's why these sites are so much help.

Karen said...

Nathan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. What you said made a lot of sense and I had similar thoughts as I was reading them.

Please keep doing these types of activities! They are really helpful!

reader said...

But the desparity of votes from query to pages is pretty stark in Shoreline's case, especially when you consider the number of comments of "peppy voice" being the stated driving factor of the other's initial query requests.

I'm not criticizing, even, just observing, and I don't think I'm too off the mark. Considering that commercial fiction drives the industry, it is only logical that more layered, lit-style fiction, would suffer (as far as requesting partials) compared to the pep of a huge voice query. I like commercial fiction, too, I swear! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about something.

If the quality of the writing is good, and there's a good chance the novel could be pubbed, the query should be just as good.

However, in this case it wasn't. And I've seen, in public, some agents (not you, Nathan :) state that they've never seen good writing with a weak query. And it always surprised me that anyone would actually make a statement like this in public.

I know the general idea is to write the best query possible to get the agent's attention so he/she will want to read the writing. Evidently, though, this isn't always the case.

Maybe there's too much stress on queries and not enough of actual writing quality.

When the query system started, everything was in hardcopy. Some agents back then asked for five pages, but most just wanted the one page query. This was to cut down the slush pile and keep agents from getting overwhelmed. But nowadays, with the ability to read writing samples by just scrolling down the electronic page, I not sure I get the thought process behind queries being more important than the actual work.

There are all kinds of stories about how agents found big books by accident, and usually not with queries. Laurie Liss did it with a phone call. I know luck plays a certain part in all this, and I know that some good books have been published thanks to good queries. But in general, it always seems so futile to read that the query is the only thing that matters. You don't seem to do this, but others do. Their entire lives seem to revolve around queries...frankly, to the point of being annoying.

This was an excellent concept, Nathan. I think writers learned the importance of queries and getting them right, and I hope a few agents who might have read this blog saw the importance of writing samples.

Robin Constantine said...

I learned I don't think I'd cut it as an agent - I think I'd want to help polish diamonds in the rough too much, which can't be all that feasible when you must have other agent duties to attend to as well. A story has to stand apart from the crowd and have that *something* whatever it is (and for each agent that's different) to warrant that sort of commitment. There must be so many intriguing projects/ideas you have to pass on because the writing just isn't up to snuff. And how many can you realistically take on that are "almost there" but not quite. So I definitely take away once again how important it is to polish, polish, and polish some more.

Thanks to the participants! You are very, very brave to let 100+ strangers critique your work. Good luck on your projects!

And thanks Nathan - this felt like a virtual break-out session at a conference.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

It's tough to talk about something so complex in the abstract, so let's assign number values. Let's say 1-3 are weak queries/pages, 4-6 are average queries/pages, 7-8 are good queries, and 9-10 are queries/pages where I'd request more.

I've said in the past that I've never seen a bad query that had great pages. In other words, I've never seen a query that's a 2 or 3 with sample pages that are a 9 or 10, and I think that's what the other agents mean too. Most queries really do reflect the underlying manuscript, good or bad. Not all, but most. The most movement you usually see is maybe a couple of points.

I have, however, very very occasionally seen queries in the 4-6 range with very good sample pages. In other words, the queries may not have been good enough for me to request more, but they weren't bad either. Just average.

I do agree that sample pages can help, but I also don't know that I'd overstate the extent to which there are true outliers. For the most part we're talking about queries and pages that are in pretty narrow bands.

Eric said...

I would like to point out that having garnered many fewer votes, Shoreline had to convince that many more people to change their opinion with the partial. Conversely, Unreality Chick had the advantage of confirmation bias leading those who voted for its query to do the same for the partial.

Not to cast stones...just my highly unscientific observation.

Kudos to all for their fine work and and congrats to each for every vote they caught.

Christina B. said...

This was a cool experiment, and I loved hearing Nathan's thought process on the individual queries/pages.

YA is generally not my thing but I was curious and so conducted my own super duper scientific experiment.

I explained the the whole agent for a day thing to two of my nieces, ages 15 and 14, and asked which pages they'd request based on the queries. Ultimately the 14 y/o declined to request any pages due to the lack of "spies or thieves or something like that." (If you guessed she's a big fan of authors like Ally Carter, you'd be right, though she does read some YA fantasy too.)

And the 15 y/o said no to I'M A NOBODY after she read the words "man," "myth," and "war" in the same sentence. She said yes to I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ANYWAYS because "oooooh serial killer--this could be creepy-good." She said no to SHORELINE because there was "all that stuff from English class and no mermaids." (Yeah, I don't even know.) She said no to BLACK EMERALDS when she hit the words "super powers." And she said yes to UNREALITY CHICK because she wanted to know "why anyone would be afraid of cute guys." I don't think she read any of the queries all the way through.

So what I learned from that experiment is that for anyone who thinks the query system is arbitrary, they haven't seen anything until they've had a 14 or 15 year old whittle down the choices for them. :)

Katrina L. Lantz said...

Christina B., that was brilliant. Thank you for sharing! If only we could all be Ally Carter. :-)

Leis said...

Nathan, I nearly missed the 'down the rabbit hole' inference...

Cool :))

Maya said...

Christina B. - Great experiment! I don't have any YA nieces/nephews but now I wish I did. How interesting that "siren" put her off and she wanted mermaids! I would have thought they are practically the same.

Anonymous said...

I'm anon @8:53

"For the most part we're talking about queries and pages that are in pretty narrow bands."

I get it now...thanks for explaning in depth. And you're right. The queries I read in this project were all good. I'd probably want to read the pages that went along with each one.

Vampires and Tofu said...

This was a lot of fun and altho all five entries showed promise, Shoreline had me from hello =)

Sarah Laurenson said...

Query:
I was caught by the beginning in Black Emeralds - enough that I missed the typo everyone talked about. And typos usually jump out at me. I was also confused by the second half, but figured the story was complicated enough that it was hard to reflect in a query.

I thought Shoreline had the most interesting plot, but the query came in second for me.

Pages:
I read a couple pages for each one, but no more than that.

I'm A Nobody really started strong for me. It was an interesting and different beginning. I lost interest when it got to the "regular" part of the story.

Shoreline kept my interest the longest. Coupling that with the second place finish in the query, I gave it my vote on the pages.

Thanks to all the authors for braving this process!

MBW aka Olleymae said...

The biggest revelation for me was how stress and headaches and work changed the way I read the sample pages. It's different from reading a polished, published book. I actually had to stop reading and come back bc I just didn't feel well.

I kept thinking that if someone's hopes and dreams were riding on my shoulders, it would really suck when I have an off day!!

I admire you, Nathan :)

Also, I thought the strongest voice, most interesting plot in the sample pages was I'M A NOBODY, but query-wise I voted for UNREALITY CHICK.

Tiffany said...

Thank you for doing this! It was so helpful!

GN said...

It must be tough finding a way to say 'no' gracefully on a daily basis simply because of volume. All of the authors who de-anonymised indicated they had found the comments useful and expressed their gratitude for the criticism, just as any self-respecting author would. How much more poignant that these authors, and so many others like them, are given feedback amounting to "I don't feel your work is right for me." Any self-respecting agent must regret the number of times they can't accept work, and the constraints on their time which prevent in-depth explanation.

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