Thursday, August 12, 2010

9 WriteOnCon: Query Critique Chat With Natalie Fischer

One of the most anticipated segments of WriteOnCon was literary agent Natalie Fischer's live chat on query letters. Conference attendees posted their queries online for her review with live commentary.

Queries submitted for this chat session can be viewed here. WriteOnCon founder JenStayrook noted, "Each page has 10 posts, just don't count Shannon's first post as a query. Therefore, page 1: 1-9, page 2: 10-19."

Before we begin, we want to extend a HUGE thank you to the founders of WriteOnCon: Jamie Harrington, Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, Shannon Messenger, Lisa and Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook for providing this amazing opportunity for all writers.

Natalie on word count:
"#'s 38, 40, 45, 46, 49, 50, 53, 54, 56, 61, 66, 68, 81, 82, 84, and 86 are all out - because of word count. I wouldn't even look at them because they (the books in length) are TOO LONG." She did go on to say, "100,000 is still too long for a YA, BUT if I'm intrigued by the pitch enough, I will still read."

"I also noticed a LOT of YA books in the 50,000's range, and MG's in the 30,000's range. This is ok for word count, but on the low side. It makes me wonder, going in, if the plot is fully developed or if the writer isn't fully developed yet."

"Appropriate word counts: PB less than 1,000, usually around 500, Chapter Book - 4-10k, MG 40-60K, YA 60-90k (+/- 5k on MG and YA)."

"I saw a Q about word count being different for genres - yes; if your book is more fantasy, longer is better and 100,000 can be ok, but if it's lighter, chick-lit kind of thing, shorter is better. NEVER is it ok to have a 70,000 word MG!!!!"

Natalie on requests:
WriteOnCon attendee Patricia J. OBrien wrote, "I've read that you often request 50 pages if you like even a line of a query. What stands out in a query?"

Natalie replied, "That's not true. If I like even a line in a query, I'll turn to the sample pages. If the first 5 hold up, I'll keep reading to 30. If those hold up, I'll request the full."

She later noted, "Hook me in your first sentence - I'm skimming through these (queries), and passing if I'm not interested. Think of it like you're entering a line-by-line contest when you write it."

"These are the letters I would have turned to the pages: 4, 6, 9, 14, 15, 21, 22, 24, 26, 32."

Natalie on specific submission policies:
"When sending picture book manuscripts, I like to see more than one at a time. I like to get a good feel for the author's style (and know they're not a one-book wonder) as I am a career agent."

Natalie on specific queries (she warned everyone that she is very blunt):
"Ah hem. So. #1 - your first para totally lost me. She's going to DIE and all she's going to do for the REST OF HER LIFE is paint BIRDS out of her window?! I like spunky heroines. I do like the time setting here, but there are SO many good WWII novels, that it would have to be SPECTACULAR to stand out."

"#2 - ok, made me cringe - I get that your book really may be like VAMPIRE ACADEMY, but you should have left it at the first. Comparing to such big books really raises expectations to impossible levels."

"#3 - I like the tone here, but I'm kind of confused. Are his parents villains? Your query reads more like a synopsis, giving snapshots of the plot, than really giving a hook."
"#4 - great first sentence - I love the reference to plastic flamingos. It gives me a sense of what the main character's voice is like, and I love that in a query."
"#5 - Ok, I already have a problem with motivation. The heroine's mother died at sea, and she just keeps shredding waves? Makes me think she's a bit heartless, or closed off to emotion. I'd start with the second part - personally, any reference to surfing is, for me, eh, since it gives me a stereotypical image. And it's about MERMAIDS! I never would have even guessed that from the first paragraph!"
"#6 - first query to really pop with a personal reference - I don't much care about her having met Sandy, except that will get her a personal response, but she also lets me know she's read up on my interests and what specific interests she's found she thinks her ms is a fit for."
"#8 - another vamp story. Don't see much new here. If you have a vamp, you'd better tell me in your FIRST SENTENCE why I should keep reading..."
"#10 - I'm a romance agent too, and in romance, your story has to be REALLY unique to stand out. No tired plots allowed. So while this definitely intrigues me, it's such a "done" idea that even in YA, I know it doesn't have the chops to stand out."
"#11 - right away, oh boy, I'm seeing that old trend: girl learns she has secret powers on her 16th birthday, there a dark, mysterious boy...yes! So, no, sorry, seen this too many times..."
"#12- dream-reader? What's a dream-reader? Never write your query as if I'm already supposed to know what things are. (I mean, I get it, she reads dreams, but right away, I'm like: wait, so there are dream-readers in this world...but what does that this more reality-based or...?)."
"#13 - has to do with golf, which isn't my thing (in case you missed it on Twitter, I'm a CEO Princess Unicorn Queen) and I don't like that the girl's whole focus for the book is to make a guy like her. I mean, we all try that, but making that the focus of a book means that's like the turning point in her life (in my opinion, a YA book is the big moment for a character, the turning point in their lives, when they develop emotionally etc)."
"#14- again, really great that it gives me the tone of the heroine! I love this kind of snarky, sarcastic voice."
"#18 just mentions why she doesn't know why her life is so unfair. Well boo freakin hoo. Life IS unfair. A lot."
"#20 - This plot sounds so familiar...magic curio shop...her life changing Now this is interesting - a protector who can't lift a sword to save her life. hmm... Although, reminds me a bit too much of Tamora Peirce's LADY KNIGHT."
"#23- if your title has anything like plastic slipper in it...guess what, I'm already thinking: way too close to the original, I'm looking for something NEW."
"O.M.G. #25 - come on. A witch, a vamp, a where-wolf, and a wizard on a road trip chasing their favorite band across the country? Really?"
"#28 - Little Mermaid. Next."
"#29 - wait, bully-slaying teenagers are average? And if they are, why is he still being called a dweeb and teased if he's such a "slayer"?? There's BROOMSTICK COMBAT in this?! Ok, well that's interesting, but..."
"32 - the Matrix. But cool. See, even if your story is like another, if it's one that's been less explored, I'll take a look."
"#33 - I don't like animal protags." 
"btw, we pass around queries in our office, and #36 would go to Taylor. Dark and twisted=Taylor. :)"
"#39 - first line - I am seeking representation for my novel, MEND. - come on. You can do better than that. And what IS it? YA? MG??"
Natalie ran out of time and took someone up on their suggestion, saying she would "finish up on Twitter using the #queries tag." 

In closing, Natalie shared these thoughts:

Putting Rejection into Perspective

If your manuscript gets rejected, consider the company
you are in when you get rejected by an agent or
publisher who lacks the foresight to see just how
great your work may be. The following list is compiled
from Michael Larsen's book, "Literary Agents."

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was returned fourteen
times, but it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead was rejected
twelve times.

Patrick Dennis said of his autobiographical novel
Auntie Mame, "It circulated for five years through the
halls of fifteen publishers and finally ended up with
Vanguard Press, which, as you can see, is rather deep
into the alphabet." This illustrates why using the
alphabet may be a logical but ineffective way to find
the best agent or editor.

Twenty publishers felt that Richard Bach's Jonathan
Livingston Seagull was for the birds.

The first title of Catch-22 was Catch-18, but Simon
and Schuster planned to publish it during the same
season that Doubleday was bringing out Mila 18 by Leon
Uris. When Doubleday complained, Joseph Heller changed
the title. Why 22? Because Simon and Schuster was the
22nd publisher to read it. Catch-22 has become part of
the language and has sold more than 10 million copies.

Mary Higgins Clark was rejected forty times before
selling her first story. One editor wrote: "Your story
is light, slight, and trite." More than 30 million
copies of her books are now in print.

Before he wrote Roots, Alex Haley had received 200

Robert Persig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle
Maintenance, couldn't get started at 121 houses.

John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was
declined by fifteen publishers and some thirty agents.
His novels have more than 60 million copies in print.

Thirty-three publishers couldn't digest Chicken Soup
for the Soul, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark
Victor Hansen, before it became a huge best-seller and
spawned a series.

The Baltimore Sun hailed Naked in Deccan as "a
classic" after it had been rejected over seven years
by 375 publishers.

Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-four times.
The sales of his children's books have soared to 100

Louis L'Amour received 200 rejections before he sold
his first novel. During the last forty years, Bantam
has shipped nearly 200 million of his 112 books,
making him their biggest selling author.

If you visit the House of Happy Walls, Jack London's
beautiful estate in Sonoma County, north San
Francisco, you will see some of the 600 rejection
slips that London received before selling his first
story. If you want to know how much easier it is to
make it as a writer now than it was in London's time,
read his wonderful autobiographical novel, Martin
Eden. Your sufferings will pale compared to what poor
Martin endured.

British writer John Creasy received 774 rejections
before selling his first story. He went on to write
564 books, using fourteen names.

Eight years after his novel Steps won the National
Book Award, Jerzy Kosinski permitted a writer to
change his name and the title and send a manuscript of
the novel to thirteen agents and fourteen publishers
to test the plight of new writers. They all rejected
it, including Random House, which had published it.

Every no gets you closer to yes ...

Thank you, Natalie! This was a wonderful learning opportunity for writers.

Happy querying!


  1. That's great Marissa! It's good info, particularly because when I started doing this you were supposed to aim for 30K for MG and 50K for YA! Things have changed and we have to keep up with the times!

  2. amazing! thanks so much for putting this all together!! :D

  3. Thanks, Marissa! The live twitter was helpful, too.

  4. Awesome! Natalie's chat and insights were fabulous! (And thanks for the shout-out about WriteOnCon. *hugs*)

  5. Brilliant - so brilliant in fact I have linked this post on my blog.

    Thank you to all.

  6. Lisa, it's so true- staying on top of submission policies and guidelines like the ones Natalie mentioned is crucial.

    Tahereh and Stina, thanks! We couldn't believe how much insight came out of this chat event. We wanted to pass it along for anyone who missed it.

    Elana, we bow before you. WriteOnCon has been an amazing experience and we're grateful for the hard work you put into organizing it! Thank you!

    Donna, thanks for the link. Spread the word. Good information is contagious :)

  7. I'm blown away by the info pouring out of writeoncon. I wasn't home for this live chat, but read the pages today. Awesome.

  8. That was great - I especially appreciated the information on word count.

  9. Natalie's session was so amazing. You felt like you were side by side in her office (or on the subway) as she went through them. You just can't get a better education than getting an agent's immediate reaction to a query.


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