Eight Query Do’s and Don’ts

By Renée Ahdieh

1. DO: Personalize your query. Take the time to look up the agent's name and gender. A "Dear Sir or Madame" will not get you far. Nor will a generic "To Whom It May Concern" or an email blast to fifty agents on a preferred list. That being said, I wouldn't write "Sup, Barbara" atop my query, either. Well, my agent might laugh. Right before she deletes it.

2. DON'T: Begin your query with a question. I know the temptation is there. After all, so many movie theater trailers do it. In fact, the ubiquitous-ness of the rhetorical question in all things pitchy makes it an itch that just begs to be scratched. I mean, why wouldn't you want to read something this awesome, har-dee-har? DON'T DO IT. I've seen the rhetorical question work exactly one time. And that person got EIGHT offers of representation. The moral of the story is this: don't count your agents before they offer. Stay away from questions of all kinds. Especially rhetorical ones.

3. DO: Stick to naming one character. Maybe a villain, if you're feeling lucky. If your plot has two points of view, then name both. Once you start naming the main character's grandma Mae, best friend Aesop, and pet hamster Cheeko, you're in Character Soup territory. Trust me. The agent's lost. And his/her finger is hovering over "Delete."

4. DON'T: Go over a page. Really, I don't think your query should be longer than three hundred words. And that includes the ditty about yourself. I know, I know . . . your fantasy world is complex. But the truth is, we don't need to know why the planet is in turmoil from a nearby star in constant flux. We just need to know who the main character is and why we should care about her/him for 60,000+ words.

5. DO: Show us how you write. I know this isn't always what you might hear elsewhere, but I do think it's important to show your voice in a query. That doesn't mean you should write as your character, but be voicey. Showing and not telling is of tantamount importance here. And the best way to do that is by being voicey. Bonus points for making an agent laugh. Seriously.

6. DON'T: Lie. This seems like a given, but it's amazing how many times I've heard this to be an issue. Agents ALWAYS google potential clients. If you say you've been published in something or that you've sold a gajillion things as a self-published author, please know how easy it is to check this. Don't lie in your query. It won't help you. Maybe an agent might give five seconds more to your pages than they would have given without the lie, but if your writing doesn't stand up, it won't make a bit of difference.

7. DO: Offer comparative titles. This is a great way for an agent to get an immediate appreciation for how your book stands up against the market. It also shows an agent your understanding of the industry.

8. DON'T: Compare your book to blockbusters. For the love of all that's holy, don't say you've written the next TWILIGHT or HUNGER GAMES or HARRY POTTER. Please. It's also unlikely you've written the next LORD OF THE RINGS. Just don't do it. And, no matter how many badass sigils and fire-breathing winged things you have in your near-Welsh-like world, you're not GRRM. Just don't. Mmkay? Be original. Show that you've read beyond the grocery store checkout line.

About the Author :


Renee Ahdieh is a writer of Young Adult books. Her novel THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, a reimagining of The Arabian Nights, will be published by Penguin/Putnam in 2015.
Connect with Renee . . .
Website ~ Twitter ~ Goodreads

Query.Sign.Submit. with Patricia Nelson

Patricia represents adult and young adult fiction, and is actively looking to build her list. Agency policy is to respond to all queries. If you haven’t heard from her within four weeks of sending a query, your email might have gotten caught by the spam filter - please resend!

To connect with and learn more about Patricia . . .

Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

literary agent and authorNow for Patricia’s insight on querying, signing with an agent, and going on submission!


What advice would you give to querying writers?

Definitely make sure that your query is polished, but I do think that it’s possible for a writer to focus too much attention on the query letter. Remember that a query is necessary to catch an agent’s attention, but it is not the end product in and of itself – the book is. I think sometimes writers make the mistake of endlessly revising their query and first 10 pages at the expense of polishing the full manuscript, perhaps because it (understandably) seems like a more manageable project to tackle. Don’t let revising your query letter bring the rest of your writing to a halt – you can write the most perfect query, but the book itself still needs to live up to that promise.

Do you always read a query all the way through? If not, what would make you stop reading?

In general, I make it a point to read a query all the way through. However, there are certain kinds of stories that I’m not looking for right now – for example, it’s unlikely that I would be drawn to represent a YA novel about vampires at this particular moment, given the current market – and other storylines that I know that I’m just not the right agent for in general – e.g. plots that center on sexual violence tend not to be for me. (I would have missed out on GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO for sure!) Usually I can tell if a query is pitching one of these “not right for me at this time” stories fairly early on. I also might stop reading a query before the end if the writing itself is extremely clunky: poorly constructed sentences, multiple misused words, etc.

Do you ever offer a Revise & Resubmit? When would you do so?

Yes, I have replied with a Revise & Resubmit in instances where I loved both the hook and the writing, but felt that something wasn’t quite clicking with the story – usually these are cases where the plot or pacing isn’t quite tight enough yet. When I do offer an R&R, I’ll usually send substantial notes for the author to work from… and I am always really hoping that the revisions will pan out and that when the next draft turns up in my inbox I’ll fall in love! That doesn’t always happen, but if I respond with an R&R, it means that I genuinely believe that the book could get to a point where I would want to offer representation.


What is it like waiting to hear back from a writer you’ve offered representation?

Waiting is always nerve wracking! If I’ve offered representation, it means that I’ve really connected to a book, and I want the chance to be a part of that writer’s journey to publication. Just imagine the butterflies that you feel when you’ve just sent off a query to your first choice agent – waiting to hear back after offering representation, the tables have turned, and I’m feeling that exact same feeling.

Do you sign a client as a career agent or on a book-by-book basis?

When I offer representation, my hope is always that we are beginning a relationship that will last for the duration of the author’s career. It typically makes sense for an author to start working on a new book while the first is out on submission (keeping busy can keep you from going crazy over what can be a long process!), so it’s likely that we would start discussing a next project before the book that I offered on has even sold.

Once a writer has signed with you, what’s the next step?

I’m a fairly editorial agent, so once I’ve signed an author the first thing I’ll do is carefully reread the manuscript, making comments in-text and then writing up an editorial letter suggesting revisions. Depending on how much work a novel needs to get in the absolute best shape possible, we might go back and forth on a couple rounds of revisions, or we might move on right away to prepping the submission.


Do you forward editor feedback to writers?

This is up to the writers – some people like to see all correspondence from editors, and others would find this experience discouraging or even demoralizing. I’ll tend to explicitly ask what the author prefers before we even go out on submission.

At what point might you suggest making more revisions?

If the feedback from editors is all skewing in the same direction and it’s looking like we’ll need to go out on a second round, I’ll likely have a conversation with the author about whether the passes from editors collectively point to something that we feel could and should be shifted, or whether we just haven’t yet found the right home for the book.

Is it okay for a client to check in if there hasn’t been any news in a while?

It’s always okay to check in! I believe that if you don’t feel comfortable checking in with your agent (and confident that you’ll get a quick response), the relationship isn’t working as it should be.

Thanks, Patricia!

See other Query. Sign. Submit. interviews
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Learn about Tools for Writers- like Scrivener!

Posted October, 2014 – Always check for current info and guidelines.

Five Powerful Tools for Writers

Whether you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) or just want some new writing tools to help things along, here are some great ones to try.

1. Scrivener – Well come on, you knew I’d say that first, right? If you’ve never used this amazing program, or have been putting off trying it out, now’s the time to dive in. Head over to our Getting Started with Scrivener post for a step-by-step guide. And if you want some tips and tricks to get even more out of the program, check out the Scrivener posts under Tools for Writers.

snapshots 3

2. Save the Cat – Plotter, pantster, somewhere in between? The Save the Cat method by Blake Snyder is one everyone can use to structure a story and adjust as you go along. It’s written for screenwriters, but works for novels too. On our Graphic Organizers page, you’ll find a couple Save the Cat Beat Sheet templates as well as an Excel doc that will calculate which pages things should be happening on. If you’re not familiar with it, I’d recommend checking out the website and reading the first Save the Cat book.

3. HivewordHiveword is a great tool for laying out the scenes in your story. You input notes on your scenes including characters, plotlines, and settings. You can then sort by any of the above, list scenes in order or filter by things like POV and plotline, and use the scene sorter to rearrange your scenes. And it’s all free at Hiveword.com.


4. Pinterest – Whether you just need a little inspiration or you want to build a board about your story, don’t forget about Pinterest as a writing tool. When you need a break, or you’re stuck on an element of your story, sometimes exploring the visual makes a big difference.


5. Pro Writing Aid – You probably won’t need this until you’re finished with your draft, but it’s a big help and a huge timesaver. You can copy and paste a chapter or two at a time onto their website at ProWritingAid to find things like overused words, repeated words and phrases, and grammar issues. The paid version (well worth it in my opinion) gives you a Word plug-in that lets you make changes right in your Word doc, saving even more time.

pro writing aid

Now you’re armed with some top-notch tools to take your writing to the next level. Have fun!

   *Illustration by duchessa.

Research agents in Query.Sign.Submit. interviews
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Learn about Tools for Writers – like Scrivener!

About the Author :

IMG_8578Dee Romito is an elementary teacher, freelance educational writer, and children’s/young adult author represented by Uwe Stender. Her middle grade debut, SUMMER BUCKET LIST will be published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2015.

Connect with Dee: 

Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Pinterest ~ Tumblr ~ Goodreads

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How to Add Depth to Your Protagonist

Guest post by Angela Ackerman

I love it when a great story idea grips me. Often, it starts with one small thing…a sound or a flash image. Sometimes I’ll get both, something utterly sensory that sends a thrill through me, like the ominous flutter of a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree branch on a windy day. Immediately I’ll start to “know” things. There’s water nearby. A dead body lays in the reeds, a teenage girl. A boy with find her, one who has lost the ability to speak. Snippets trickle in, clues of the story ahead, of what is to come. Excitement builds. I’m sure it’s a similar process for many of you.

There’s always the temptation to rush head first down the rabbit hole, to write that first scene, the one where the mute boy discovers the girl’s body. To leap in and describe it all—how the light dapples the water, the warmth of the sun, the paleness of flesh devoid of life. But the truth is, I’m not ready to write. I shouldn’t write. Because even if I know exactly how the scene will go, what the male hero will do, how he will drag the body onto the bank, hoping, praying the girl is still alive, I don’t know anything yet about who he really is.

The protagonist is the true heart of a story. The immediate events around him—discovering a dead body, pulling it from the river—will keep a reader glued to the page at the start, but the compulsion to read on will fade if something deeper isn’t introduced. What keeps people reading isn’t intense action scenes, but rather the emotional component of the hero’s connection to what is happening, and how it affect him on the inside.

Some assume that emotions are sort of standard…that this situation would make someone scared and that situation will bring them joy. But it really is so much more complex than that. Each person in real life is a complicated and unique being, shaped by their past, molded by what life had thrown their way and how they have coped with challenges, both good and bad. They have motivations for everything they do. People have fears, they have worries, and deeply embedded emotional wounds that mean certain events and situations act as triggers. These triggers may evoke much different emotional reactions (both type and intensity) than they would for someone else.

People have vastly complex personalities, including flaws which have emerged as a type of “emotional armor” as a result of their hurts and fears. And while they believe these negative traits keep them from being rejected, disappointed or hurt again, they actually hold them back from becoming someone stronger, more self assured and complete. Luckily, every person also has a positive side to their personality—morals and character strengths that see them past adversity, helping them achieve their goals, build better relationships and reinforce their individual identity.

The question becomes, if each of us is this complex…don’t we want to read about characters just as layered and meaningful? Of course the answer is yes, but this leads to one more question…to get to know our character in depth, where does a writer start?

You’ll notice this post is peppered with links…why not follow a few to gain a deeper insight about some of these important elements of character building? Then, when you have a deeper understanding of what shapes a character, try out some of the tools below.


The Reverse Backstory Tool: a visual aid to help you see how your hero’s specific attributes, flaws, emotional wound (and lie the character believes about himself), and greatest needs all tie into revealing inner motivation to achieve the outer goal.

Protagonist Goal Checklist: a great Character Arc checklist that asks all the important questions regarding your hero’s pursuit of his goal.

Character Profile Questionnaire: not your average height, weight, hair color type questions...instead, dig deeper into who your character is by asking probing questions about his fears, morals, secrets, emotional wounds, special skills and interests.

A List of 638 Positive and Negative Character Traits: a great starting place to think about how to blend unusual traits to create a truly memorable and unique character.

Character Attribute Target Tool: visualize your hero’s best qualities as they fall into the 4 categories of Positive Traits: Moral-focused, Achievement-focused, Interactive-focused and Identity-Focused, building a well-rounded hero who is capable of winning the day.

Character Flaw Pyramid Tool: organize your hero’s flaws, from minor to fatal, and brainstorm how these flaws manifest through behaviors, especially when stress or fear enters the picture.

Michael Hauge’s 6 Stage Plot Structure for a Character’s Inner Journey: like a bit of structure with your Character Arc? Hit all the highlights for struggle and growth to create a satisfying internal journey.

These tools and links should help you dig deep into your protagonist and his backstory, helping you to better understand what makes him tick, what his demons are, and what emotional wounds from his past they must overcome to succeed.

Happy brainstorming!

image Angela Ackerman is a writing coach and co-author of three bestselling resources, The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. A proud indie author, her books are sourced by US universities and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors and psychologists around the world. Angela can be found at the popular site, Writers Helping Writers, which specializes in building innovative tools for writers that cannot be found elsewhere.


Query.Sign.Submit. with Roseanne Wells


Roseanne represents adult, young adult, and select middle grade fiction, as well as nonfiction. See her guidelines for more specific interests.

She responds to queries that she’s interested in. When an author queries, they will receive an email stating the time frame for requesting more material. It can vary, but she tries to keep it to 8 weeks or less. If you have not heard from her by then, it’s a pass.

To connect with and learn more about Roseanne . . .

The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

literary agent and author


How do you tackle your inbox? Do you go in order or jump around?

I go in the order that I receive them. If I see something that speaks to me, I will open it right away, but I try to read in submission order. I will occasionally scan them as a whole to look for junk mail and invites to LinkedIn or Twitter.

If the query sounds generic or familiar, I will usually skip down to the pages. But if the query is great, I get really excited to read more. Which is why reading the submission guidelines is so important! If those pages that I’m so excited about aren’t there, it’s an opportunity missed.

Is it okay for a writer to nudge concerning queries or partial/full requests?

I really appreciate a nudge with partials and fulls. I don’t request partials unless the material comes from a contest where partials are part of the guidelines. If I want to read beyond the pages with the query, I want to be able to read all the way through. I get frustrated when I want to read page 51, but it isn’t there! I won’t make it through every manuscript to the end, but I like having that option. Because I’m reading mostly fulls, and I try to give some feedback as to why I am passing, it takes a little more time.

I like knowing when you’ve received an offer of rep with queries, but it’s considered above and beyond in my book. I get irked when someone doesn’t tell me they have or accepted an offer when I have the full, but that doesn’t happen very often. With the amount of resources available, I find astute authors (such as your readers!) know the etiquette of submitting.

Do you ever offer a Revise & Resubmit? When would you do so?

I do offer Revise & Resubmits; I’ve gotten clients that way. I think it’s valuable to see your notes in action, and how well the author absorbed them and took them to heart. I mostly do R&Rs when the writing is really good, and the voice is there, but something isn’t quite working. I also do R&Rs when I want to see if our editorial styles will match. If I know it’s going to be an intensive edit from the start, I will look for the edits to be fruitful right away. If they aren’t, then it’s not a good match.


Do you sign a client as a career agent or on a book-by-book basis?

I am looking for long-term, career authors. One of the most important questions when I offer is, “What are you working on right now? What is next?” I want to see that you have skill, stamina, and more than one story to tell.

What is the revision process like when you’re working with a client?

I call my editorial style problem-finding instead of problem-solving. I am the fresh eyes that the manuscript needs, and I will scout for the things that aren’t working, on a macro level (plot, character, pacing, overall appeal) and micro level (grammar, punctuation, word choice, etc). I will also suggest solutions to those problems, and the author and I will find the best solution together.

Do you want to see sample chapters as a client writes or do you prefer to wait until the manuscript is finished? Or is it up to the client?

I like to see manuscripts when they are finished. I also tell my clients that if they are having trouble with a section or chapter, send it and we can work it out together. I have clients who want the privacy to have a few drafts to themselves before showing me, a few clients who want to show me every single version, and some who want to work through some scenes and then show me. I try to adapt style to my client’s needs, so that we can get to the good stuff—the revision work!


At what point might you suggest making more revisions?

When the author and I see a trend in the responses from editors, we start to consider making revisions. If several editors are naming the same reason for passing, they are giving us valuable information on where to start an edit to make the book stronger. If there’s no real consensus, then it’s more likely personal opinion or what works for that imprint/house.

What is the next step if an editor shows interest?

There are several steps between an editor’s interest and a deal. An editor will often ask for peer reads, so she can gauge how others feel about the project as well. Then s/he will get the book on the acquisition schedule, and then s/he presents the book to the acquisition meeting. This includes editing, marketing, publicity, and art departments, and sometimes production as well. They talk about the merits of the book, what markets/demographics it will appeal to, their profit and loss statements, how similar books have done for the imprint/house, how they will market it. If they think it will work, they present deal points. The agent and editor negotiate the deal points, and then the editor or contracts department sends the contract. The agent and editor/contracts person negotiates the contract, and then the deal is signed.

What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?

Write! I think one of the best solutions for submission anxiety is to work on other projects. Not the sequel to the book or the companion novella, but a different project. If it’s the next book we want to sell, great; if not, let’s discuss why. It can be an opportunity to start that next project, or working on craft, write in another genre, or work on articles or blog posts supporting the client’s work. What matters is that it helps the author feel in control by being productive, during a process that is out of their hands.

How much contact do you have with a client when he/she is out on submission? Do you send weekly updates or update as responses come in?

I send updates to clients as they come in, and I encourage clients to stay in touch if they are feeling nervous (and then get back to writing your no-anxiety project). I appreciate a check-in from clients, and if I feel like we haven’t talked in a while, I will send a no-news-but-how-are-you email. I think communication, even if there’s no news and you just want to send cat videos and talk about True Blood or Veronica Mars, is important.

Thank you, Roseanne!

See other Query. Sign. Submit. interviews
Read inspiring stories of writers getting agents
Learn about Tools for Writers- like Scrivener!

Posted October, 2014 – Always check for current info and guidelines.

Teen Speak - Mad

Back to Buzzfeed posts, the word “mad.” 

TeenSpeak_zps9e806523Do not use this.

Rarely will a teenager use this in today’s day and age.

Maybe it happened in the 80s, but not today.

I’m sorry, Buzzfeed post, you are mistaken.*

But, to explain, the Buzzfeed post says “mad” can be used in a sentence such as: “Yo, Sarah is, like, mad chill. She’s one of the coolest chicks I know. I want to ask her to prom.” I’m sorry, but no one says “mad chill” anymore. No one even says “chill” anymore unless telling someone to “Chill out.”

And for that matter, Buzzfeed post, rarely is the term “coolest chick” used anymore, either. Do boys still call girls “chick”? Maybe in other parts of the country/world, but not where I live.

So don’t use any of these debunked words. You’ll be better off without them.

EXCEPTION: I will still occasionally hear someone say “I’ve got mad skills” or some such thing, but that’s a rare teenager.

* Please note: This is all in my experience. So maybe teenagers in Florida or Nebraska say this, but none of the teenagers I know do. After all, words and expressions can change everywhere in the country, but that’s a post for another day.

About the Author :

Kate Kate Bucklein is a clumsy, nineteen-year-old writer of YA epic fantasy living in Northern Arizona, where they really do get snow and the occasional tumbleweed. She's a college sophomore working toward getting her degree in Global Affairs with an emphasis on Intelligence Analysis.

Connect with Kate:@KateBucklein