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Why Ten Queries is Starting to Piss Me Off

sad frustrated writer

When I first got more active with Twitter, I was particularly excited to see how many opportunities existed for writers.

There were contests that allowed writers to pitch their manuscripts directly to agents and editors–and get requests for partials and fulls–in 140 characters or less.

Literary chats, along with the chance to network with other writers and readers, make Twitter an awesome–and distracting–place to spend some time.

And then there is #tenqueries. If you follow this hashtag, you get to regularly see agents wade through ten query letters, say a bit about them, and explain why they’re passing on projects. (There are some requests, but very few and far between, of course.)

When I first discovered #tenqueries, I loved it. What a great idea, I thought. An inside glimpse into what agents are really looking for!

Except, with this industry being as subjective and speculative as it is, all #tenqueries tells you is what those particular agents are looking for. Or rather, what they’re not looking for.

The problems start when big sweeping statements are made: “Paranormal isn’t selling,” instead of “I can’t sell paranormal,” because if you look at the top e-publishers on Amazon and what’s selling like crazy, paranormal still tops the list. But how many writers are seeing these statements and losing hope? How many have already put their manuscripts aside and given up? It worries me.

This hashtag first started to bother me when a writer tweeted that she was afraid one of the query letters skewered on #tenqueries was hers. That’s when it really hit me–how awful it must be to see your novel, this thing you created over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, lambasted for the public’s entertainment. In 140 characters or less, of course.

As writers, we’re not supposed to talk publicly about agents. Those of us who’ve had really bad experiences are supposed to stay quiet, because apparently speaking out will mark us as difficult to work with, and no other agent will ever want to represent us.

I get that. I may not always agree with it, because I think writers should be able to warn others of our bad experiences, but I get it.

This is another reason why it’s so difficult to watch agents publicly trash writers. Yes, I get that receiving queries from misguided writers who get your name wrong, pitch something you don’t represent, and send attachments is irritating.

Still, these aren’t the painful ones. It bothers me when a well-meaning query is publicly torn apart for everyone’s entertainment. Everyone except the author, and every other writer who is thinking, “My god, is that MY submission they’re talking about?”

Here are two universal truths about the writing industry:

1) Query letters are very difficult to write. Most authors will tell you the same. Reducing a 400-page novel to a few paragraphs that are well-written and enticing is a skill that takes a lot of time to develop. And, ironically enough, writers are usually the worst people to sum up their own work in a few neat  lines.

Many writers take rejections as a sign their work isn’t good enough for publication. Or worse, that they aren’t good enough. When what it probably means is their query letter sucks, along with 98 percent of all query letters. Or they got their genre wrong–determining genre is another thing most writers are not great at, especially with all the sub-genres out there. For instance, I’m currently writing a novel where a modern-day Egyptologist winds up in ancient Egypt. While she’s there, she will fall in love. A ton of creepy, scary, perhaps even paranormal things will happen. So should I call this a scifi novel, because of the time travel? A horror? Historical fiction? I know enough not to call it a romance, but you see what I mean. Standing in similar shoes, writers have thrown up their hands and settled on “Horrific historical science fiction with paranormal and romantic elements.” To which most agents would respond, and rightly so, with “Wtf?”

I wish there wasn’t so much focus on genre. Just read the damn book and judge it on its own merits.

2) Where you’re going, there are no rules. This is why I cringe when I hear sweeping statements like, “Paranormal isn’t selling.” Or “If your manuscript is over 100,000 words, forget it.” Um, I guess it’s a good thing no one told Diana Gabaldon that. (Or if they did, she thankfully didn’t listen.) They had difficulty figuring out her genre too. Didn’t stop her from becoming an international best-selling author.

There’s a line of thought that says that it’s easier to follow the rules. That you’ll find success quicker if you write books that aren’t too long, in genres that are easily defined. To that I say: BULLSHIT.

This industry is never easy. Most writers know this by now. And the only way to keep going through the rejections and the bad reviews and the terrible experiences is to write what you love. Write the books you believe in. If you love vampires and want to write about them, I certainly hope you won’t let anyone tell you otherwise, just because “paranormal ain’t selling.” Bullshit. Write a good book, and you will find your people. This is truer today than at any other time, because writers no longer need an agent or a publisher to reach readers.

Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer both found enormous success writing about vampires when vampires weren’t popular. There’s an exception to every rule.

I think #tenqueries and the like are fine if you’re taking them for what they are–the very subjective opinions of a few agents. It becomes a problem when you take what they say as gospel and apply it to your own career, letting it discourage you.

Sometimes a simple form letter rejection is a blessing.

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28 Comments

  1. Well said. Donald Maass (of Donald Maass Literary Agency)–who is something of a genius and the author of my most favorite writing manuals–says exactly this in every one of his books and also in his public appearances. It is refreshing to hear this from such a successful agent. What really matters is how amazing your book is. No matter what fads are passing through or how the Industry changes, there will ALWAYS be room and demand for brilliant, passionate fiction.

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      Thanks, Tyler-Rose. Donald used to be my dream agent, and I still love to hear him present. It all goes back to what I said earlier about finding your people. If an agent is going to dismiss your book out of hand because you called it paranormal or because it’s 100K words, that’s not the person you’d want to represent you anyway.

      I just hate that it’s so one-sided. A writer could never publicly critique nasty rejection letters or respond critically to #tenqueries without feeling like he was hurting his career by doing so.

      Reply
  2. Fantastic. Well said. I know when I first started this journey that every word from a publisher or agent I took as gospel. Now, I know better but now, I’m also pretty jaded.
    Thanks for talking about this. It needs to be shared.
    Heather

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      Thanks, Heather. After a while, it’s hard NOT to get jaded, isn’t it? We so rarely hear anything nice in this industry. But for every “this will never sell” I’ve ever seen, I can find an exception, if not a thousand exceptions.

      The power has shifted, but a lot of the players haven’t realized that yet.

      Reply
  3. Great post. I agree with every point. I’ve long said query letters require a unique skill set, and the ability to write a great pitch or query letter has little (read nothing) to do with a writer’s ability to pen a great book. And God help the writer who dares to write outside genre lines. I understand agents aren’t able to read every submission which crosses their desk, but they do seem to forget there are human being’s with feelings behind those queries. I once had an agent at a conference tell me that Nazi stolen art was a cliche, so I tossed 200 pages and started a new story. That was his opinion, and he was an idiot, but I didn’t know any better at the time. Wouldn’t happen today.

    VR Barkowski

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      Thanks for commenting, VR. We are truly kindred spirits. I think there’s a huge opportunity for an awesome salesperson to set up shop writing queries, pitches, and the dreaded synopsis for writers. There used to be a writer who did this, but she unfortunately wasn’t much better at summarizing my work than I was. You’re right–it is a unique skill set. What makes it even more difficult is that few agents will agree on what a “good” query letter is.

      I’m glad you’ve learned to believe in your own work. I’ve discarded and rewritten so many times based on a handful of opinions. No more and never again!

      Reply
  4. That’s always been a problem. I sat across from an agent at a dinner recently and she was talking about dystopian. She was saying it wasn’t selling so nobody in the industry will even look at it. Here’s the thing–it’s not selling to publishing houses…not consumers. Publishing houses, using whatever formula they have, decide the market is “oversaturated” and let agents know they don’t want anything in that genre right now. My agent will often mention to me things that are really in demand right now and ask if I’m interested, especially if she knows it’s something I can tackle. It gives you a little edge in the market. I believe in writing the book that’s in your heart…but often, unfortunately, timing plays a huge part in it.

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      But that’s the problem…unless you’re a super fast writer and your first drafts are mostly clean, the “in demand” window of time is so small. It works for some writers–John Saul apparently started writing horror because his publisher wanted someone to compete with Stephen King, but he hates horror and is easily scared. So I wonder if it’s worth it to be a writer if you hate what you write…that’s a whole ‘nother blog post though. 🙂

      It’s so funny to me, because the publishers are the ones who oversaturate the market to begin with, in their desperate search for the next EL James or Stephenie Meyer or JK Rowling. It’s not like the people who LOVE romances with sexy astronauts who turn into werewolves suddenly get tired of reading those books because there’s just too darn much out there to read! 🙂

      Reply
  5. One of the reasons I like #TenQueries, is exactly one of the reasons you don’t, but here’s why I like it: When agents make inconsiderate, unhelpful comments, it tells me a lot about what they are like as a person. And therefore, whether or not I would like to work with them. I’ve actually decided NOT to query certain agents based on what they’ve said/posted on social media (Twitter). And besides, if someone is tweeting about not being able to/not wanting to try to sell your genre, they probably aren’t a good fit anyway.

    Also, I believe that growing as a writer means figuring out your own voice – and learning which comments are subjective. Just like one of the comments above, I rewrote/scrapped a chunk of my first manuscript based on what an agent said at a conference and my rewrite was a disaster. But I don’t regret doing it because that whole process provided exponential growth for me as a writer, and to my writing process, and I am better for it. (Even if it caused a lot of angst.)

    But you are absolutely right — no one should ever let #tenqueries discourage them. Learn whatever you can from it – even if it’s that you don’t want to work with the person tweeting it!

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      Welcome to my blog, Natalie! I hope to see you back here, because that’s an excellent point, and one I hadn’t thought of. You’re absolutely right. Originally I was considering sending a query to a particular agent, but once I started reading #tenqueries…oy vey! I think I’ll make it a practice NOT to query those agents.

      The really discouraging part for me, and why I was driven to write this post, is there are so many writers retweeting everything from that hashtag as if it is gospel. “Hear that, writers? Paranormal isn’t selling!”

      I guess you’re right–it does no good to try and protect new writers from useless rewrites and having their dreams dashed, because it is a learning process and it does make us sadder and wiser. There were just so many times I wish someone would have told me, “Um, you don’t need to rewrite that book again. It’s only one person’s opinion, and there’s no contact on the table, is there? Go write something else instead.”

      Thanks for weighing in!

      Reply
  6. Nice post. The subjectivity in publishing can really break a writer’s heart. It’s important to already have people in your corner before you start looking for agents and publishers – they can talk you off the ledge when you do get comments like that. And then they can cheer for you when you do find the agent/publisher whose vision matches yours.

    Reply
    • J.H. Moncrieff

      Thanks for commenting, Elle. I totally agree. Building a strong community of support is so important, as is making sure you’re emotionally ready to submit your work.

      Everyone talks about making sure your work is ready, but people neglect to mention that you have to be emotionally ready as well. Rejection is tough, and it takes a strong person to withstand it again and again.

      Thanks for being in my corner!

      Reply
  7. Really, what aggravates me with #tenqueries is that I have never NEVER gotten a personalized rejection (other than changing the greeting from “Dear Author” to “Dear Brian”)…I’ve only ever received a standard, impersonal, cut and paste rejection. I recently fell victim to this hashtag. I read the email and then, knowing that this agent did #tenqueries, checked to see if my book was on there…sure enough, it was, the tweet posted just a few minutes after I got the email. Only the tweet (in 140 characters or less…), however brief, said exactly what turned this agent off to my submission. It was really the first time that a rejection, excluding like the first two or three, that really bothered me. Like, I said I would stop sending queries if this is how it is now. I just feel that it is a slap in the face to the prospective authors that *make* these agents money and bring them success. I know that nobody will ever know which query on the ten was mine and what date…but, that’s not the point, because I know. And, I also know that I was given nothing, but Twitter followers were given “the scoop” so to speak. I have now made it my own personal policy that if an agent participates in this trend, unless they are basically begging for a book like mine, that I will not query them. Don’t care who they are. For as much as I’m trying to sell my work to them, they in turn are selling their services to me, and that’s a viewpoint that I didn’t have before. So, I guess some good can come out of this, at least for me! Sorry to ramble, but #tenqueries is really starting to piss me off, too!

    Reply
    • JH

      I completely agree, Brian, and welcome to my blog! Thanks for visiting and commenting. I feel the same way–when I see an agent participate in these things, it makes me less likely to query them. For one thing, they might have a bit too much time on their hands. For another, a lot of the time they appear to be heckling the writers for the amusement of other agents. I hate the hypocrisy in this industry–we’re not supposed to say anything about terrible agents and publishers, lest we be blacklisted, but agents can slag writers and make fun of them all over the Internet.

      Reply
  8. Thank you for writing this. I wanted to know how #TenQueries works, and now I know.

    I wonder how much frustration agents feel (lambasting queries) is because of the rise of independently published authors who don’t use/need an agent. Your comment that paranormal isn’t selling yet you turn to Amazon and it’s doing quite well is indicative of this, IMHO.

    Interesting read. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Rick! Glad it helped.

      Reply
  9. I’m coming late to this blog, but I was pretty stunned to see this was a ‘thing’ on Twitter. I’m a longtime professional journalist, I already have a book published with a big publisher, and then I got the idea for a novel and decided to write it. My agent had quit the biz a few years before, so I was looking for a new agent. Some tweets were incredibly helpful – someone looking for something that sounds just like my novel – or close enough anyway. But then to see that queries were being roasted in public – I come from an era where to send something even via email meant it was private. It’s not like these queries were even vague – they were very specific. I too am steering away from these agents in my queries – which are getting a lot of response. They are really doing themselves a disservice – they also sound like they need a break from the industry. As someone who fielded hundreds of pitches a day from public relations people, I was often frustrated with the quality of the pitches, but somehow I knew enough not to excoriate these people in public – to do it with someone who has put their heart and soul into a project – has had sleepless nights, panic attacks, plagues of despair over their project – to then poke fun of it in public, well, it shows me what kind of person you are.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Brisket! And you’re never too late. Congratulations on getting such a great response to your queries–that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

      I agree with you 110% about ten queries. There was one agent who was really fantastic–used ten queries as a learning tool, which it was meant to be, and yet was vague enough not to make a writer miserable. Unfortunately, he quit posting because he was getting too much grief from writers. Too bad–his input was very useful.

      If you want a laugh, look for BadLitAgent on Twitter. She spoofs all these things, and she’s hilarious.

      Reply
      • Ha, yes, I have seen BadLitAgent’s tweets, they are funny.

        There is another ‘flaw’ with the literary agent system that rankles me – while I realize the economics of the industry means they don’t have the luxury of throwing their time/energy behind unproven writers who aren’t earning them money, I feel they should look more at what Hollywood agents do – put their belief behind a talent and potential future earnings. I have received many personalized rejections praising my writing, my credentials, even my concept and plot – but saying they need to be 15000000million percent behind a project before they can take it on. I get that. But this would be like a casting agent seeing an actor give a wonderful audition but feeling he/she isn’t quite right for the role – and then cutting that person loose forever. That doesn’t happen. The casting agent keeps them on file, keeps them in mind for other roles that may be right. That happens ALL the time. That is how it works.

        If someone like me – someone who can write, who has a long history of publishing, who has good ideas – shows up in your inbox, why not try to forge a relationship? Maybe this project isn’t the one, but take the talent. Say ‘Well, I can’t get behind this one, but I have an editor looking for a book about YADAYADA. Is that something you could write?’

        That isn’t how it happens. They simply toss you back. It’s a strange system and eventually I believe it will be the undoing of the literary agent apparatus.

        Reply
        • JH

          Is *is* a strange system, and I’m not sure why literary agents work so differently than other kinds of agents, but trust me–in the long run, you’re better off with an agent who is close to 100% sure he or she can sell your book.

          It’s better than getting an agent who can’t sell your book, but who keeps you hanging for years while they ask for rewrite after rewrite. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…

          Reply
          • Oh god, yes, that sounds terrible. I’ve read too many stories about people rewriting for years only to realize their original conception worked the best!

            Another hashtag that is hit or miss is #MSWL. While the ones that are broad are very helpful (‘Would love a horror story that takes place in a creepy place like a cemetery or mental institution”) others remind me of those people who come up to me and say “Oh, you’re a writer? I have an idea – and YOU can write it!”

            I just saw one where someone was asking if anyone could write him an MS about Haenyo, Korea’s last female divers. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing writers just have hanging around their hard drives. This is a very specific culture/concept that would need to be researched heavily. Yeah, okay, I’ll just go ahead and take two years of my life and write that for you for free on the off chance that by the time it’s finished, you’ll even remember that tweet…. daft. Makes you realize a lot of agents have absolutely zero idea what goes into writing a book.

  10. JH

    Wow. Talk about specific!

    Good luck with that one. I wonder who the agent plans to sell that to?

    Reply
    • Exactly. And if you DID have an agent requesting something this specific, then you pay for it. Simple. I don’t spend my time researching something this foreign and specific without getting paid.

      Reply
      • Sorry, I meant editor requesting….

        Reply
  11. And not to keep complaining, but to keep complaining, LOL. I am trying to avoid agents who ask for a synopsis. And then they request material – and a synopsis! It’s not that I can’t write a synopsis, it is that believe me when I say the synopsis makes little sense out of context, the actions, as written in one or two pages, of the characters are jarring and even possibly nonsensical not in the realm of their inner world. And a huge part of the book is the build up of what is happening and the twists that then occur – if you know of all the twists beforehand, how would you know if the build up works?

    Maybe I just suck at writing synopses.

    Reply
    • JH

      Everyone sucks at writing synopses. It’s universal.

      Reply
  12. Great article, and posts. I wondered how ten queries worked also. More informed now. Thanks.

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Marie. Glad it helped!

      Reply

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