Thursday, May 13, 2010

Subtexts, "Hoops," and Industry Standards

I was reading through some disgruntled comments surrounding the formatting of queries (everything from font to phrasings, tag-lines to typos), called “Hoops” by many – even those that approve of them. It got me thinking (which rarely ends well)……..Are these “Hoops” actually a subtext?

If an agent comes across a submission which does not match the guidelines published on their websites, and although they make a decision solely on the story/voice, do the “Hoops” in themselves inform the agent about the author rather than the Novel. “Great book – but they rushed into submitting, so could be a headache to work with.”

In other words, if every query was exactly in-line with an agents specific guidelines would the agent be losing a valuable source of information?? Does the HandForeheadSlap queries make managing the slush that much easier? Obviously, you can’t create an Industry Standard because each agent has their preferences. But what if the Industry Standard was somehow personalised? Is this even a desirable scenario?

The reason I ask is because I’ve thought of a way in which an author is able to always obey guidelines, streamlining their submission process to agents, also finding the RIGHT agents, and tracking results to see what they are doing right, or wrong, with query letter revisions. However, if this simply removes a valuable tool for agents, why bother?

I have two thoughts on your question because it’s a very interesting one.

I think (one of the reasons) guidelines about queries evolved because authors asked for them. When agents attend writers’ conferences or blog, we get tons of questions from authors, and I think the most frequent questions are about how to get published. Back in the day of the typewriter, when authors had to snail-mail submissions, I remember attending a conference at which authors spent almost five minutes asking me the details of what type of envelope should be used to mail in submissions. And no, I’m not kidding. Now queries are the thing. It’s the rare agent who accepts unsolicited material, so your query is your first introduction and, naturally, it’s what authors stress most about.

Another thought. I think guidelines evolved because agents got tired of junk. In other words, we see hundreds of queries every single week. Heck, every single day, and believe it or not we get sick of hitting the rejection button. It really is true that we want writers to succeed, and giving formatting guidelines hopefully takes some of the mystery out of the query process and helps the author. It also streamlines the system for us. Let’s face it, I skim queries. I look for that blurb to hook me in and I go from there. If an author spends three paragraphs telling me her life story, all about her career, her three children, and her travels in Europe, only to finally get to the book and tell me nothing, she’s going to get rejected. I don’t have time to ask her for more information and start a back-and-forth. The one who has lost is the author, so by establishing guidelines I’m hopefully helping the author get her foot in the door and hopefully I’m not wasting my time by reading more queries that tell me nothing.

Unfortunately it’s not the formatting or the nit-picky stuff that’s usually the problem (which is why a form probably won’t help), it’s the blurb, it’s finding a way to excite an agent about your book. That’s what is going to make the query stand out for an agent and that’s what is going to grab the agent’s attention.



Piedmont Writer said...

Thank you Jessica. Always invaluable information.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I think that was a good question and a good answer. Guidelines are there for a reason and I don't think it was a Dr. Evil agent alone in their office- plotting ways of making it harder for us to query. most cases anyway. I just figured if agents ask for things specifically it's because they've had trouble with certain aspects of querries in the past.

Andrew said...

It makes me think of the writing classes I teach, the instructions I expect them to follow and the fluctuations in following those instructions. I make the instructions knowing that there are some students who are going to completely misunderstand them.

Of course, if too many students misunderstand the directions, I need to consider that the directions themselves may be confusing. But if only one or two students misunderstand, then I have a useful tool--I know which students to evaluate as weaker in their reading comprehension.

So it's true that if a system existed that ensured 100% of queries were guideline-perfect, like a system that ensured 100% of my students wrote essays perfect documentation, spelling and grammar, we'd lose some ability to evaluate. But (un)fortunately enough, when you build a better idiot-proof, the world builds a better idiot. There will always be some who are careless with directions, and that gives us a better sense of who we want to work with.

wry wryter said...

They tell me what they want, and how they want it, and I still don't get it right.

It's a little like a guy with a comb-over. We like hair but not that way.

Rick Daley said...

This is an interesting question. It adds to my general question of query writing vs. novel writing, and which is easier. The more rules there are for a query, the easier it should become to get one right, even if the manuscript behind it is awful.

I have an experiment running over at The Public Query Slushpile. I provided a prompt, and have asked writers to submit a query and up to five sample pages based on that prompt.

It will be interesting to see if anyone can put together a slam-dunk query that has no real novel to back it up, jumping through all of the proper "hoops."

It will also be interesting to see how widely the queries and stories will vary. The prompt is fairly specific, but it's still vague enough to fit into multiple genres. Many people are sensitive about other writers stealing their ideas, the sample pages should illustrate the important of voice and execution.

Amy said...

An industry standard would be wonderful! Sometimes I actually wonder if some of the agents I've submitted to know what they are actually looking for (in terms of guidelines).

Some say the query is the synopsis, others say the query is different from the synopsis. Some suggest that the synopsis is 3 pages, others 10, etc. Then some say they want an outline, but if you do an outline, it turns out they really wanted a synopsis. I find that I'm in the wrong line of work. That writing shouldn't be what I pursued, but that of ESP. Because I'm basically having to read Agent's minds anyway.

When I find that my ESP has let me down, and I truly cant' read the Agent's mind, I turn to research, research, research to learn what I can. However, when I research the agents I just come across more conflicting information. In an interview with Joe Blow, the Agent may ask author's to submit their queries to their personal e-mail with five pages, but when you look at their website, it doesn't say anything about that. The website may be very specific and tell the author to submit to a communal e-mail address with nothing besides the query letter. Urrgghhh! So which guidelines do you follow, their interview with Joe Blow, or their website. I feel like I'm danged if I do. I research the agent, but when you conflicting information their really is no point.

Then if nobody gives you a guideline on how long they want their queries, synopsis, etc, you attempt to use other agents guidelines as a norm. That's the wrong thing to do! Even though these agents do not tell you the specific guidelines they want, they still have guidelines they expect to see. So if we followed Jessica's guidelines and submitted a 1-3 page synopsis (or whatever we had on hand) to Miss Super Agent and that's not what she expected to see, then we might as well not hold our breath waiting to hear back.

Why can't all Agents, just give us a break in this one area? Go ahead and deny us if you don't like the work, but not because our format/guidelines are not what you expected. It's hard enough to submit your material to a stranger, and place yourself in a vulnerable situation, but to then be denied because our query was a paragraph to long, or our synopsis was a page short is difficult. Especially because most times I doubt the agent is going to tell you they denied you because you didn't follow guidelines.

Now, I'm not saying I'm constantly denied. What I'm saying is that I've refused to submit to a few Agents because they were so confusing, I had no clue what they actually wanted. I've submitted thus far to 11 Agents, and I've had one rejection (and she didn't say why), one request for three chapters and synopsis, and one request for additional pages. Now, I just have to wait and see if the other 8 Agents are going to deny me because they hate my work, or because I put my address at the top of my e-mail instead of the bottom. Geez, who would have thought trying to tell the world a story would be so dang difficult.

So I say again; Yes, Yes, Yes Jessica! An industry standard would be wonderful. I'm sorry if it takes away the Agents ability to immediately send something to the slush pile. But I have to admit, as many times as Agents are using the "HandForeheadSlap" because they are frustrated with queries, I have my own red marks due to frustrations with guidelines. So yea Jessica! I think you should get your idea out there.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Missed amy's post while I was typing my comment earlier. GO AMY I feel ya!

The more agents I research, the more confused I get. What is whipped cream and cherries to one, is a slap in the face to another. No wonder the query letter makes us break out into a flop sweat!!!

Amy said...

LOL; well this is what I get for reading blogs while at work. After posting, I finally noticed the first part of Jessica's blog was in italics. That was a readers comment, not Jessica's. So I will change my cheering sections, and say Yea Reader!

Anonymous said...

"The one who has lost is the author." What? The agent who doesn't go that extra mile and only skims queries instead of actually reading them is going to miss out on some future bestselling authors. Agents aren't in competition with authors. They are in competition with each other. And those who work longer and harder, read more carefully and dig deeper, are going to more successful.

j. m. lee said...

Good post, much appreciated.

I think I appreciate most the fact that you admit to skimming queries, where I feel most agents rehearse the mantra that they do in fact read every single query (dubious!).

As for "hoops" -- as a writer seeking representation, I don't see these (most of the time) as hoops but rather as professional guidelines. Agents are professionals; not all writers are (or are ready to be. or know HOW to be). And if you want to be a professional writer, you need to act professionally. In most cases agent guidelines simply force you to be formal in an instance when you definitely should be.

I think unfortunately there are a lot of unspoken "guidelines" which are, in fact, hoops -- and not just hoops to test how far and high you're willing to jump, necessarily, but hoops which, if you miss them, land you in a deep dark hole. There are all sorts of "rules" about queries that you only learn when you see an agent #rant about it on Twitter (or wherever)... these hoops, I feel, are adjunct to the reasoning behind professional guidelines and can inhibit the potential of the query as well as the integrity of the agent.

clindsay said...

When I started out as an agent, another agent - one who has been in the business for more than 25 years - gave me a great piece of advice. She said "Colleen, the writing never gets any better than what's in the query." and she was right. I've seen good queries with bad pages, but I've yet to see a great first ten pages attached to a muddled or confusing or badly-written query letter. So, yes, the query letter really does matter to me.

Anonymous said...

Why not adopt a universal standard when it comes to query format? That way, writers can't screw it up and agents no longer have to explain it.

Anonymous said...

A standard would be wonderful if writers would follow it. I've found over the years that no matter how many guidelines I write there are at least 50% who unaware or refuse to follow them. I believe there's always a new wave of writers coming into the profession and that most of them believe if you throw a certain amount of stuff against the wall, some of it will stick and a contract will be forthcoming. So this says that not only do agents need standard guidelines but writers need guidelines as to how to find the standard and I cannot see that ever happening in this lifetime.

Wendy Lyn Watson said...

This is an interesting question (and answer). In my day job, I study the U.S. courts. We talk a lot about how the Supreme Court gets through the mother of all slush piles: the cert petitions (requests for review). They get over 8000 petitions and grant about 100. In the political science world, we speculate that the court has to rely on heuristics -- cognitive shortcuts -- to rule out a lot of the cases. It's not a question of laziness, but of necessity. You've only got so much alertness to use up in a day, and so how much can you spend on separating wheat from chaff? Not that much.

It may seem arbitrary to rely on query guidelines to "disqualify" some submissions, but you have to use something. I'd rather it be "ability to follow directions" than "heroine's name". :)

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Anonymous said...

Amy's post is legend. I've been reading agents' blogs for several years now (no submissions).

Frankly, the more I read, the more confused I get. What the heck is this? It's appalling.

She's dead right: tell us what you want, but be very, very specific - and put the guidelines in a very, very prominent place on the blog.

We want to know *exactly* what you want - and what you don't want - including number of words, style, formats, definitions (of synopsis, outline etc for example) . . . get the picture?