Queries and Agents and Rejects . . . Oh My!

on April 23, 2009

I love my agent and think she’s the greatest thing since the discovery that grapes can ferment into wine, but she doesn’t have a blog and I love agent blogs. I regularly visit Kristin Nelson at Pub Rants and Nathan Bransford and on occasion BookEnds and a few others.

A few weeks ago, Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford solicited queries from both published and unpublished authors. On a whim (or a completely idiotic moment) I sent him the query I’d sent my agent Kim Whalen in December of 2003, for THE COPYCAT KILLER.

For those who knew me then (Karin) know that THE COPYCAT KILLER was my title for the book that eventually became THE PREY. It was my fifth completed manuscript and I felt that the book had “it” — whatever “it” is. I couldn’t define it, I just sensed that this was the book I would sell.

In hindsight, I think I figured out why it worked for my agent and the editor who bought it, but that’s another blog for another time . . . but at the time I sent the query, I just had the feeling. Can’t explain why.

So you don’t have to click through to read my letter, here it is:

Dear Agent for a Day:

I have been seriously writing for nearly two years and am a finalist in fourteen RWA contests with twelve different books, including second place in the Daphne du Maurier Single Title category. THE COPYCAT KILLER ranked second in the Golden Opportunity contest. I’m a member of the Sacramento Valley, Kiss of Death and FF&P Chapters of RWA, and earned my PRO pin.

Why do some children grow up evil? That is the timeless question addressed in THE COPYCAT KILLER.

Ex-FBI agent turned fiction crime writer Rowan Smith wakes up one morning to discover someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.

Her former FBI boss fears one of her past arrests is out to terrorize her and insists she hire a bodyguard, or he’ll assign two FBI agents to watch her. Rowan, who relishes her privacy and solitary life, doesn’t want a bodyguard, but reluctantly hires ex-cop Michael Flynn.

The killer systematically goes through each book and chooses a victim, sending mementoes of the crime to Rowan. Michael’s brother, freelance DEA agent John Flynn, accuses Rowan of hiding something and calls in favors to learn enough to confront her. She confesses that her father and brother killed her family. Her father is in a mental institution and her brother was killed trying to escape. They fall into bed needing a physical connection. The murderer kills Michael that night.

John and Rowan deal with their guilt over Michael’s murder as they work with the FBI to find the murderer. They discover that Rowan’s boss lied to her about her brother’s death–he’s in a Texas penitentiary. But when they go there to confront him, they discover that someone took his place.

THE COPYCAT KILLER is a 100,000 word suspense novel with romantic elements, in the vein of Iris Johansen, Lisa Gardner and Tami Hoag.

In addition to THE COPYCAT KILLER, I have two additional single-title romantic suspense novels, a futuristic suspense currently under consideration at Dorchester, and a women’s fiction novel with a ghost as a main character.

A full is available upon request. Thank you for taking the time to consider my story.


Nathan asked for the letters for his “Agent for a Day” contest where writers could pretend they were agents and request or reject manuscripts based on a one-page query letter. The “Agents” could only request five manuscripts, and they were told that there were three queries that led to published books among the fifty posted.

The whole thing stemmed from that agent twitter thing that I didn’t follow and still don’t get, except that apparently a bunch of authors were ticked off that some agents were cruel in their rejections.

Welcome to the real world, Neo.

All I have to say to anyone who feels such is to read some of the one-and-two-star reviews at Amazon. Feel free to read what people say about my books. Develop a thick skin and get over it, or you’ll never survive this business with your sanity intact.

So with nearly 300 comments, my query had a 15% request rate. Compare that to the 59% request rate I had when I originally sent it.

Some of the comments about why they were passing:

1) I listed my bio first.

I may be wrong, but I think this is a dumb reason for rejecting a query. Maybe it’s not standard form, but to reject an idea because of format of a letter seems a bit short-sighted.

After the contest was over, Nathan said:

But more importantly, I think this contest goes to show how people may have overemphasized the query itself when they were playing agents. The queries that generated the highest response rate were the most technically precise. They were tidy, they were well-organized, they followed the rules. They were good queries (and some of them may go on to have success stories of their own). But this wasn’t a contest to spot the best queries.

When an agent is reading a query we’re trying to look past the query to get a sense of the underlying book. We’re evaluating the concept and the writing, not ticking off a box of requirements. . . .

. . . A good concept and strong writing are more important than good query form. . . .

Now, a strong query helps your odds and your request rate . . . But remember: the most important thing is not writing a good query, but rather writing a good book. A strong concept is so important.

2) Work sounds too familiar.

I didn’t take offense to these comments because this book was written in 2003, sold in 2004 and published in January 06.

However, how some of the “agents” felt my book was too similar to a 90s movie COPYCAT. I never saw the movie, so I looked it up–though I was comfortable in my ignorance to say that my book was nothing like it. I was right. The movie’s premise was about a serial killer recreating famous murders of the past. (Great idea! I want to see the movie now.) My book was recreating the fictional murders of a crime writer. Since CASTLE just came out this year, I’m pretty safe in saying I had my idea first. But in all honesty, you can give 100 authors the same premise and you’ll still have 100 distinctly different stories. Creativity is truly individual, and there are no new ideas.

On concepts, Nathan said:

One of the reasons that the agents for a day missed some of the actually published works is that the queries did not demonstrate wholly original concepts. They possibly sounded like they had been done before.

But here’s the thing about book concepts: originality is (somewhat) overrated.


About once a generation a Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells or Tolkien or S.E. Hinton comes along to invent a new genre basically from scratch. Odds are you’re not that person (although if you are, I want to meet you).

All the rest of the mortals on the planet, even our best writers, are working within fairly established genres and tropes.

There were detective novels before George Pelecanos, there were dragon and boy stories before Christopher Paolini, there were wizard school books before J.K. Rowling, there were mistaken guilt stories before Ian Mcwan’s ATONEMENT. What sets these writers apart is a unique take on an established trope. And ultimately that comes down to execution.

What is a unique take on an established trope? It varies from book to book. . . .

. . . it’s very nearly impossible to be wholly original. Even when new genres are invented they tend to use classic story arcs that have been around for millennia — the coming of age story, the great man with a fatal flaw, the hubris tragedy, the celebrity memoir. When new genres are invented they just place these stories in a new world.

Unless it is truly out there, pretty much everything is a fresh take on an existing trope. It really does need to feel fresh, but that’s not the same as being completely original. The originality is all about how it’s done, not what it’s about.

3) Comparing myself to other authors.

In the letter, I stated that my book may appeal to readers who enjoy Lisa Gardner, Iris Johansen and Tami Hoag. Why? Because I wanted my prospective agent to immediately see the market I was aiming for. In truth, my books have a bit more romance in them than those three write today, but at the time (early 2000s) they were all writing edgy romantic suspense/thrillers, which is what I was writing. I wasn’t saying I wrote like them, or was better than them, or was the “next” one of them. I simply said that their readers may like my tone, and I still believe this is a great way to show an agent your intended market.

4) “The story sounds as though it might be interesting, but the query itself isn’t.” . . . “I can see where this would be an intriguing story and an edge of your seat suspense, but this blurb doesn’t get me there.”

I think one of the main points of Nathan’s exercise is that agents are trained, through experience and instinct, to pull the story from the query. If they think they can sell the story, if it’s something they have passion or interest in, they’ll request pages. A sharp query letter may get an author read, but in the end, it’s ALWAYS about the writing. Hmm, I wonder if he would have requested mine? Probably not, because I don’t think he represents romantic suspense, even darker RS like I write. One of the queries I would have requested wasn’t the best query in the pile, but it had something special about it that had me intrigued enough that I wanted to see if the author was a good storyteller.

Many authors have been rejected on their first novel. Nicholas Sparks has a great article here on his website about how he found his agent for THE NOTEBOOK. He queried 25 agents and 24 rejected him, even after reading his book.

But it only takes one.

So what did this exercise teach me?

1) I like rejection. I must have been a masochist in a previous life.

2) I appreciate more the experience and wisdom of good agents who can pull the idea from the query, because it’s not as easy as it looks. (I picked only one of the other two published books; only two of nearly 300 “agents” picked all three published books.)

3) I was lucky that my agent got past my imperfect query and thought my concept had merit, because good queries with strong concepts are still better.

4) It’s still all about the writing.

So do you think you could be an agent? Do you think you can look past technical imperfection and find the nugget of a good story? Do you think that agents are cruel in their rejections? Should they give more? What if they don’t know why they don’t want to see it, it just doesn’t speak to them?

Definitely some things to think about.

I also have some good news. My fabulous agent sold the first two books of my Lucy Kincaid series to Ballantine. Woo hoo! I am so excited about writing Lucy’s books. She is such a compelling character for me, and this will be a little bit different (but the same . . . ha!) They’ll be romantic thrillers, but there’ll be a multi-book relationship and two love interests. I’m really excited . . . the first comes out in October of 2010. But that’s after the first two books in my Seven Deadly Sins series (March 2010 and June 2010.)

Comment, share, tell us about your queries, rejections, agents, favorite blogs, or anything else that comes to mind!