An Agency Intern Shares Common Query Mistakes

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.


Today's guest for the SHIT (Submission Hell, It's True) is A.M. Rose, author of ROAD TO EUGENICA who is going to take it from here!

So this time we’re doing things a little different. I’m not a literary agent, but I’ve been an intern with an agency for over the past year and have gotten an in-depth look at the slush. I’m here to offer some insight into the things that I’ve seen on the other side of the submission process.

How many queries does your agency receive a day? 

It really varies on day and time of the year, but I’d say on average anywhere from twenty to fifty.

How many requests do you make from those submissions? 

For simplicity, I’ll break this up into batches of ten. Sometimes zero are requested sometimes as many as three. Now how many of those requests turn into offers is even a smaller number. 

Most of the time when we make a request it’s because the query was intriguing, and the opening pages were good. What we see most often is the middle falling apart. So while it’s important to grab attention in those first few chapters, it’s just as important to have a solid story from start to finish. 

What is the most common mistake you see in submissions? 

Not telling us anything about the book. Seriously. Some people will spend the entire query letter talking about their process or why this book is so important to them, and never tell us what the story is about. 

Remember all your query letter has to do is tell us:
Who is your MC?
What do they want? (Goals)
What stands in their way? (Obstacles) 
What happens if they fail? (Stakes)
(Also include your genre, (age group if appropriate) and word count.) 

That’s it.

Another problem we see a lot are people not following submission guidelines. We ask for a synopsis, and it’s amazing how many people don’t include one. And they are important. We want to make sure you have a complete story arc and most of the time if there isn’t one included it results in a rejection even if we liked the pages. Because without the synopsis we aren’t sure if there really is a story.  

Is there anything an author can do to stand out? 

Yes! Don’t try to be clever or funny. Just write a clean query letter. Keep it short and simple. Consider it a business letter, and while you think being different will make you stand out. It does. Just not in the way you want it to. When you read hundreds of letters a week there becomes a rhythm to it and when that rhythm gets broken it’s hard to get back into it.

Are there any particular trope or story lines you see most often? 

We see a lot of God and demon stories. And recently the number of submission with political references has climbed considerably. 

Do some people try to subvert the standard query for something else? What is the strangest thing you've seen?

Yes, this happens more often than you’d think. The photographs are always interesting, but the strangest thing I’ve seen is a person who spent probably about five pages talking about how amazing their book was, and how it already had a screen-play and interest from Hollywood. They went on and on about how they were going to market it, but never once said anything about the book. Not one word. It could have legitimately been the next best thing, but since they never told us anything about it, (and didn’t follow submission guidelines by including their first ten pages and a synopsis) it was an automatic rejection.

You want someone who’s going to champion your work regardless if it’s going to be the next best thing or not. 

Is there anything I can do to make my query letter better? 

Again, yes. Have other people who’ve never read your story before read your query. If it doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to an agent. Query Shark is a great reference for what to do and what not to do. I also like Agent Query Connect. There you can post your query letter and others will critique it for you. Of course you have to critique in return, but in doing so you’ll get better at seeing what works and doesn’t. 

Do you think having this behind-the-scenes look gave you an advantage when querying your book?

Road to Eugenica actually never went through the full query process. After winning the 2016 PYHIAB contest from the NJRW it was quickly picked up by Entangled. And my next book Not Innocent was also contracted with Entangled without an agent.

However, I do think it’ll help me when I get back on the query train. (Which I’m hoping will be soon.)