Monday, October 11, 2010

Query Advice from Holly Root - Auburn Writers Conference Recap Vol. 1

I spent last weekend in Alabama, and I have to admit I am absolutely smitten. Friday and Saturday, I was at the Auburn Writers Conference (which was FAB - more on that in approximately one paragraph), and Sunday I spent in Birmingham catching up with friends and brainstorming all the ways I can convince my husband that a move to 'Bama is absolutely necessary. (The good news is, I've converted him to Harry Potter and Hunger Games, so I'm well-versed in the art of convincing.)

But anyway. The conference. Auburn Writers Conference (AWC) was in its first year, and it was just wonderful! It was only a day and a half long, but the organizers really did a great job packing as much information as possible into such a short period of time. The focus of this year's AWC was The Child on the Page, so there were sessions on picture books and teen voice, but there were also sessions on memoir, the publishing industry, and, of course, querying.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Literary agent Holly Root was in attendance at AWC, and she was just wonderful. I'll admit, I think there is a lot of unnecessary agent-worship on the part of unagented writers. But if there was ever an agent who will make a writer realize that agents are just normal people and not some crazy, unapproachable, scary beings, Holly is absolutely that agent. I attended her "Polish Your Pitch" session, during which she dispensed a TON of information about perfecting your query and making it shiny. So instead of further rambling (though you all know how much I love to ramble), I present to you:

Query Dos and Don'ts from Holly Root
Notes I took based on things she said are in italics. Everything else is copied from this awesome worksheet she passed out. I didn't include all of them, just a smattering - so if Holly is ever at a workshop in your area teaching a session on pitching or querying, GO! Then you can get the rest. Which you totally should, because it was useful and amazing.

  • Query widely. Email is great for this. Your "dream agent" might be someone you've never heard of because they don't tweet or blog.
  • Make it easy for agents to see your book as marketable. Don't hide the good stuff. This might mean revealing what you see as a big twist, but it might actually be the thing that hooks the agent. Another thing that she mentioned was that you can't write a book thinking just about money/marketability, but you can't query a book thinking just about art. So write the book to be the best book it can be, and don't worry about marketability. Then when you're done, try to think about the things that will make the book marketable. Look at it from every angle. There is something in there that makes the book uniquely yours. Lead with that.
  • Think in terms of back cover copy. Present the conflict quickly, hook the reader on the world you've created. This is not the place or time to tell me in detail about how normal the character's life was before the perfect the marriage seemed...a complete genealogy of the character's family. Quick and dirty. Holly suggested reading the cover copy of books before you start them, then again after you've finished. You'll notice that sometimes the cover copy will leave out events, or rearrange things into a more marketable order, and that's OK to do in your query, too. It's not that you want to be dishonest, but you do want to paint your book in the best possible light - just because you wear mascara doesn't mean you don't have eyelashes. 
  • Remember that a pass isn't always reflective of your work or a query. Holly has to pass on a lot of great books, and all of her reasons start with "I," such as I already have something in this genre on my list. She gets 200-300 queries a week, but about half of those are just weird letters or queries for things that have no home in trade publishing. Your odds aren't as bad as you think, so what you really need to overcome is timing. Her default setting is, unfortunately, no - it's your job to get her to yes.
  • Send more than requested because "the story really picks up about page 85." If the story picks up on page 85, then page 85 should be your page 1. Try cutting out pages 1-84 and see if you can rework the story to fit with where the plot picks up.
  • Ask a ludicrous question in the first line of your query instead of properly identifying your hook, i.e. What would you do if your job was to kill babies? Also "Imagine if..." and "What if..." Holly was so funny here. She gave an excellent example of how opening with a question can stack the odds against you, because immediately the agent might start answering in their own way and it will never be the way you want them to answer. She said she's much more interested if you get HER to ask the question than if you state it for her. So instead of saying, "What would you do if you woke up one day and the sky was at your feet?" Say, "Jacob Smith wakes up on his first day of school to find that his feet are in the clouds - literally." Or something like that. (I totally made that example up just now off the top of my head so if it sucks, blame me and not Holly, who is awesome and probably had a way better example which I forgot to write down.)
  • Edit out your voice. The voice introduces the agent to your story and gives them a taste for what they'll get in the pages. Don't edit it out!
  • Think that a "no" on this project means never for me with any of your work ever again. No means no to this query right now. Holly told a great story about a client who took four queries to get to sign with her - but in the end, she signed on with Holly.
Holly gave some more advice, and also did a fabulous Q and A, and I'm sure I'll touch on both in another entry where I gush more about AWC. But my fingers are tired from typing up this awesomeness of awesome information, so I'm sure your eyes are tired, too. Plus your brain. So we'll leave that for next time.


  1. I love Holly. She is smart as a whip on all that practical stuff, but she's also like the Oprah of the publishing world - so good at inspiring everyone to be their best self. Back when I was querying, I wish I'd had a better feel for the part about not editing out your voice. I was constantly either editing it out or trying to edit in a voice I thought that particular agent would want.

  2. this was very, very helpful. thank you for sharing it with us!

  3. Oooh, a query-writing post! You know how much I love queries, hardy har-har.

    No seriously though--this is great! Thanks so much for sharing! *jumps back into the query-writing game*

  4. What an informative and helpful post, thanks for passing along the great notes!

  5. This is such awesome advice. Holly sounds great; I may be heading to a writers conference here in PA in November, so hopefully I'll learn a lot too :)

    BTW- the book you're reading (in your sidebar) I've had on my shelf for awhile, but haven't read. Let me know your thought when you're done!

  6. Great advice from Holly! I'm glad she let you share these little nuggets with those of us who weren't lucky enough to attend the conference. I can't wait to hear more about what you learned!

  7. This is fantastic advice! Thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us.

  8. This is so awesome! Love what she pointed out about balancing between art and marketability. Thanks for the recap, Heather! :)

  9. You're so much better than me at the "giving helpful posts" thing! I was just like "Ohmahgah! I met these fab chicks! And they TAUGHT ME STUFF! Ohmahgah!" ;)

    One of my highlights of the weekend was getting to meet you, as well. I can't wait to watch your success!! **hugs**


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