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illiterwrite
02-04-2010, 03:43 AM
I guess this is the best place to post this. Alerted by Google to a thread about her here on AW, my agent, Helen Heller, thought it would be helpful to clarify what she looks for in a query letter, and she wanted to address the issue of why she (and others) do not respond to queries.

Here it is!

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Getting my attention is hard! That's because we get a lot of unsolicited queries every day...and well into the night!

Every agent has foibles, and I'm no exception. If a query starts out 'what if...' I will delete it immediately. That sounds high-handed and it is. But I'm allergic to that phrase and all the others like it. I don't like being 'pitched' an idea because I believe ideas are easy and good writing is hard. And it's the writing I care about. So I'm not going to be enticed by a hook. Also, you're asking me to take my attention away from a manuscript that I'm working on or a phone call I need to make in order to imagine some event that means nothing to me.

What catches my attention is the person behind the idea, not the idea itself. Yes, it has to be a gripping premise. But that's a given. I'm starting from the position that the author I want to work with has a great imagination and an unusual idea but I need to know who that person is, what his/her background is, whether s/he can write. I don't want to be told I'm being offered the next Da Vinci Code or whatever. I don't want to be subjected to material that reads like a piece of direct mail advertising.

My ideal unsolicited query does not address me as 'Helen'. I'm 'Ms Heller' until we know each other better. It doesn't make imaginative demands of me. It doesn't bang me over the head with claims of untold millions to be mine if I handle it. It's sober and reticent and tells me the author's background and any and all publishing info. By the way, self-publishing does not count. My ideal unsolicited query does not offer me children's illustrated story books or screenplays, neither of which I handle.

As to replying: well, we don't, as you know. I try to reply when I've asked for a partial but a lot of the time stuff kind of takes over and I forget. And I'm sorry about that! We do try to get to queries quickly. So if you send something off and don't hear from us, please assume it's not right for our list. We do get an awful lot of queries here and we just don't have the time to spend--and I know you're saying 'it just takes a second!' But that's a second I may not have :(

One last thing: anyone who sends me an unsolicited query--and I suspect there are many other agents like me--has about 10 seconds of my time. If an author attracts my attention in that 10 seconds , then I will read through the email (by the way I prefer email) and perhaps ask for the material. If the author turns me off in that 10 seconds I won't even read the rest of it. This does sound a little...er...evolutionary. But publishing is a punishing and Darwinian business.

RainbowDragon
02-04-2010, 06:01 AM
I think there are two kinds of agents - the kind that is actively looking for new clients and the kind that has enough clients and is just slightly open to something earth-shattering.

And many degrees in between. All right, there are more than two kinds of agents. . .

Chumplet
02-04-2010, 06:29 AM
I have Ms. Heller's agency on my Excel file but haven't sent a query yet. Although I was initially turned off by the 'no response means no' policy, I've concluded that it shouldn't cause a good author to write off a good agent and therefore miss a great opportunity.

Nateskate
02-04-2010, 09:03 AM
I have Ms. Heller's agency on my Excel file but haven't sent a query yet. Although I was initially turned off by the 'no response means no' policy, I've concluded that it shouldn't cause a good author to write off a good agent and therefore miss a great opportunity.

I still hate the "no response" thing, because sometimes it simply means they haven't even looked at it yet, or it could be lost.

Inky
02-04-2010, 09:09 AM
Meh. I think it's a two way street. Ask for professionalism; offer it in return.

blacbird
02-04-2010, 12:32 PM
I have Ms. Heller's agency on my Excel file but haven't sent a query yet. Although I was initially turned off by the 'no response means no' policy, I've concluded that it shouldn't cause a good author to write off a good agent and therefore miss a great opportunity.

If they don't respond, how do you know it was a "great opportunity"?

caw

kaitie
02-04-2010, 03:21 PM
She's on my query list as well, though now I know to really expect a rejection. I don't have any qualifications that can prove I write well aside from a contest win from years ago. My whole query is based on selling the idea. I don't really think adding any my educational background would help much.

scope
02-04-2010, 10:37 PM
Obviously, no one can argue with what Ms. Heller's looks for in a query letter. She states her case loud and clear. Whether or not anyone agrees is immaterial. However, I can see how her views might cause some writers to do a second take. Over and over again we hear and read about the importance of hooks, something Ms. Heller couldn't care less about. Now how would we know that unless EVERY agent told us what is important to them-and what's not. I respect Ms. Heller for her candor and hope that her printed guidelines are as forthright. It's refreshing to know exactly what an agent is looking for. Now the impossible job is to get all (or at least the majority) of agents to follow suit in their printed guidelines and elsewhere. Any ideas?

Jamesaritchie
02-05-2010, 12:39 AM
From my experience, no matter what they say, nearly every good agent out there operates the same way as Ms. Heller.

My experience is also that you can't sell an agent or an editor on an idea, a premise, or a plot. Not often, at least. For the great majority, you have to show them you can write well in the query itself, and you have to tell a good story in the query itself.
Not tell them about a great story, but actually tell a great story.

A 'hook" is anything that makes an agent or editor read the next sentence, and the best possible hook is not "what if", it's a really wonderful first sentence.