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Thoughts on #millionqueries

January 24, 2013

Today I live-tweeted my slushpile. The live-tweeting got picked up by Choire Sicha of The Awl, and then by Thought Catalog. Over the course of the day I got 400+ new followers. I read about 90 queries during #millionqueries, and made five requests of partial manuscripts. I was briefly put in Twitter jail.

I have a few thoughts about this:

1. This started as bit of a frustration-vent; I wanted to get through a big chunk of my unread queries, and had seen someone do a #tenqueries livetweet earlier in the week. I started out with just #tenqueries. Once I was done, though, I realized that seven out of the ten didn’t include the first five pages that the DMLA specifies in its submission guidelines, so there hadn’t been much variety to what I had tweeted. I was also, at this point, a little irritated with constantly having to tell people to submit the five pages our guidelines call for. So I decided to keep going.

I do think that as an exercise in letting people know the kinds of issues agents face, this was useful, in that it gave some people on twitter a bit more insight into what an agent’s work day is like, and what our email inboxes actually consist of. People were able to ask me questions to clarify what I was saying or what I rep.

2. I avoided giving specific information about the queries I was reading beyond genre and some basic reasons for rejecting something. Some people, especially once this got picked up, found this lack of detail unspecific and unhelpful—looking back, I’m not sure I could have done better. To be more detailed I’d need to give excerpts, or more detailed plot descriptions, or even bits of funny lines from the query letters themselves—while this is hilarious on slushpilehell, it’s less funny when a literary agent does it in public. Several people pointed me towards the #queryfail kerfuffle in 2009, before I became an agent, in which several literary agents similarly live-tweeted their slush pile reading, only with much more snarky commentary.

3. Some of the the pushback wasn’t even about the queries themselves, but being more specific about my reasoning for rejecting something. Yes, “boring” is a bit vague. So is “didn’t pull me in.” This is such a personal business—sometimes I tagged as “detailed pass” works that I could see had potential but weren’t genres or premises I was interested in repping. Sometimes even though the writing was OK it literally didn’t pull me in- I got bored after one paragraph, one page, one sentence. And even though I wasn’t actually rejecting anything in real time—more on that later—sometimes, the answer was just “this person can’t write.”

4. The “not following submission guidelines” thing. On our website, we ask for the first five pages, a one to two page synopsis, all pasted into the body of an email with a query letter. So many of the queries I receive don’t follow these guidelines—they omit the first five pages, they include the entire MS as attachments, they just send me a link to their amazon page where they have self pubbed their book. So I decide on the basis of what they send me. I used to send first five pages requests as a matter of course, but that’s turned into a ton of work. Now I read the query letter or synopsis, and if the premise is good, or if the author has credentials, I reply to the email asking for the first five pages. Someone asked why I do that for some and not for others–basically, I don’t want to waste someone’s time by requesting something I know I’m not going to be into.

5. I keep circling back to the idea of “having time.” When it comes right down to it, I don’t have time to request five pages from every author who doesn’t follow our guidelines, or to write detailed rejections of each of the 500+ queries I’ve received since November (oldest query in my inbox.) I read for my boss, I have nine clients. I handle administrative stuff around the office. In other words, my job as an agent is not to hold someone’s hand and teach them the ways of the world. All those minutes spent writing “Your main character is a bad pastiche of Jack Reacher” would add up.  The last author I signed sent me a query and didn’t follow submission guidelines. She didn’t include a synopsis or the first five pages. Her query letter was well-written, however, and made her book sound exciting. She had an original premise, and though she had interest from other agents, she had seen my profile via Writer’s Digest, had checked out my twitter and my blog, and thought that I might be a good fit for her book. Since she had other interest (and since I knew I was interested in the premise) I decided to skip asking for the first five, and asked for the first fifty. I signed her up in January.

6. Around mid-afternoon the #millionqueries hashtag got picked up by The Awl and Thought Catalog. Choire Sicha framed it as an educational, if sort of horrifying experiment, and I think Thought Catalog thought the same? Both sites framed it a bit as “Go watch this asshole be mean to writers on the internet,” which I understand, because at it’s heart this is a really boring exercise. Reading queries is boring. The bad writing all blurs together until every sixteen year old misunderstood teen girl who one day wakes up from a dream, goes to the mirror and describes her hair, and is then kidnapped by a knight/elf/fairy/vampire only to learn that she is a princess/princess self/chosen vampire starts to bleed into the next. But when I find something that captivates my attention—with a cool premise or a good opening line, good writing or interest from editors / other agents—I take notice. Those things stand out. I requested five partials today. Sometimes—not necessarily with these—I request partial manuscripts knowing I will probably eventually say no, but I can see that there is something about an author’s writing that makes me want to see more, because I want to give them more feedback or see where they take the book. I like to be surprised.

After all this, I’m not sure when I’ll do #millionqueries again. I didn’t actually do much rejecting today—any rejections I sent today were for things that I don’t rep, such as nonfiction or middle-grade fiction—so I still have about 160 rejections to send. (I had been reading queries for hours before I started live-tweeting them.) Sending the rejections as I read the queries felt inappropriate, and any details I gave to the author I wanted to remain private.  I’m really glad, however, that I got a chance to connect with people, as cheesy as that sounds—I know that this business can seem harsh and unforgiving, that agents can seem aloof or disconnected, and I’m glad if I got to dispel any of that even a little, even if for only a few. I hope that I get a query from someone who was watching #millionqueries today—or even someone who wasn’t. I hope that query surprises me and makes me keep reading. I hope it makes me impatiently refresh my inbox to see if the requested pages have come in. Because at the end of the day  I don’t do this for the buckets of cash (lol) or the retweets or the notices in the Awl- although, keep those last coming, thankyouverymuch—I love to read, I love stories, I love to find them sitting quietly and waiting to be found.

P.S. Twitter Jail is a frustrating and hilarious situation wherein I was not allowed to tweet because I had exceeded my daily limit- 1000 tweets in less than 24 hours. I had to wait an hour to start again, and in that time I did some hunting for my coworker Amy Boggs to find a contract. In a giant, unsorted box of other contracts. Livetweeting was much more fun.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2013 3:13 am

    Really an amazing learning day for me on Twitter! I followed much of this throughout the day (somewhat at the detriment of editing). While I can’t say I learned a ton of new information, it was very educational, in more of a “feelings and nuance” sort of way, rather than an “oh geez, I shouldn’t do that” sort of way. All in all, even with as much research as I do on the subject for each query letter, I felt it was well worth following.

    Thank you for doing this. I certainly hope you continue in the future, and hope other agents continue to do similar fests of tweeting advice. It certainly helps more than it hurts.

  2. January 24, 2013 3:14 am

    As soon as I polish my synopsis, I’ll be querying you. I learned a lot today just reading your 1,000+ tweets. (One of the things I learned? That there is a Twitter jail. I pictured a cute little prison cell, guarded by blue birds.) Really though, #millionqueries was great. Thanks for sharing what you did.

  3. January 24, 2013 3:21 am

    It was really a great time learning from the perspective of the agent. However, I have to admit feeling tense as I tried to read between the tweets to find my manuscript query. LOL. But then, that made it all the more exciting. Anyway…I think it’s useful. It certainly helped me as I thought of my current novel and the last novel I finished and what I could do to improve it.

  4. HollyD permalink
    January 24, 2013 3:22 am

    Thanks so much for doing this today. I think we (writers) forget that every agent we query is getting hundreds of other queries at the same time. It was nice to “see” how it works on the agent end. Best of luck. 🙂 Curious to know if you have already sent the requested emails out yet?

  5. January 24, 2013 3:57 am

    Very educational experience today. I learned much about you as a person, an agent, and a reader. Thank you for sharing with us, and some of these insights have really helped me try and fine tune my query so that perhaps when I query you I won’t be just another in the slush pile :P.

  6. January 24, 2013 12:57 pm

    I got to read a little bit of this yesterday, and I was one of your new followers. Thank you. It was a valuable learning experience and one that I will remember when I begin to query.

  7. January 24, 2013 4:41 pm

    I am one of those who sent a query today as a result of reading your live tweets. I found your tweets to be quite informative. I have some interests from agents on my manuscript but didn’t mention that in my query, is that something you like to know upfront?


  8. Paula Adams permalink
    January 24, 2013 5:07 pm

    I really enjoyed #millionqueries and felt I got a lot of useful info. Particularly from your responses to questions (including my own, thanks!)

    Between you and Jimmy Kimmel taking over Julie Bowen’s account for the day I spent way too much time on twitter yesterday.

  9. January 24, 2013 5:40 pm

    I already thought you were a pretty cool person and had been following you on Twitter for a while. I really respect how you handled the #millionqueries and I didn’t find your information too vague at all! I thought it was they were perfect nudges and morsels. I haven’t yet prepped my MS enough to begin querying anyone so I eat these tips up and stash them all away for when I begin the process! You rock Molly!! Fah reaaal.

  10. February 2, 2013 12:18 am

    I was one of your new followers, I LOVE when agents tweet queries from the slush pile, as I find it very useful. It’s a good reminder to follow the submission guidelines, a good reminder to write, re-write, and perfect that query letter, and a peek into what is happening on the other side of the email. Thank you so much for doing the queries on Twitter!!!!

  11. Artemis Grey permalink
    February 19, 2013 1:54 pm

    Super interesting post! And very insightful. Sorry that people took it as you attacking hopeful writers. I’m one of those hopefuls (though I haven’t queried you) and I totally understand how reading queries on one hand is the most boring job ever. Plus, you didn’t put anything out there that specifies WHO you’re referring to.


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