Agent Monday: Don’t tell me how I’ll feel…

Businessman Midair in a Business MeetingHappy Monday!  Did you miss me?  Yeah, I kinda dropped off the map for a few Agent Mondays. Sorry.  That’s what a major Hurricane, a 5-day blackout, followed by a big snowstorm, with a dollop of contract negotiations and a heavy dose of book pitching, etc. can do to a girl.  How does this make me feel? It makes me feel like giving out another query tip to writers trying to find an agent. Today’s tip: Don’t tell me how I’ll feel!

Okay, here’s what I mean. Sometimes, now and then, well, actually pretty darned often, I get queries that contain things like the following: This is the best book you’ll ever read. This book will be a sure bestseller. My novel will make you weep. My manuscript is so special that publishers will be throwing money at you. This story will be made into a movie and will change the world. This book is hilarious, moving, earth-shattering, stunning, brilliant. It is the greatest story ever told. This is a love story that will never be forgotten.

Really? Hm. Sometimes I feel like Judge Judy. Short, a tad sarcastic, and about to say, “You think you can tell me how I feel?” Actually, Judge Judy is more inclined to say, “You think you’re smarter than me?  I’m smarter than you’ll ever be in your entire life!” Which is why I watch her and find her hilarious…but I digress.

Then there is the “someone else said it so it must be true” stuff in queries: I read this to my children and they just laughed and laughed. Two fifth grade classes heard me read it aloud and they just loved it. My critique group read it and thought it was extraordinary. My family loves this novel. My friends think this is the best book they’ve ever read.  I took a class with such and such and he said this was superb.

I bang my gavel and say, ” Heresay! Inadmissible in court!” Er, actually, what I think to myself is: whatever. Who cares? I’m the judge of the moment, and I like to form my own opinions, thankyouverymuch.

Which gets to the heart of the problem with these statements. It’s back to the whole tell vs. show thing writers must struggle with in their novels. In queries, the same rule applies. Don’t tell me all this stuff, present your query to me in a way that makes me come to the conclusion all by myself.  If you do it right, I’ll start to think, hey, this sounds pretty terrific! I think a publisher will snatch it up…I can imagine the movies…I bet kids will love this!

Then you are doing stuff right.

Also, this needs to be said: If you tell me that your book is the greatest thing since creamed spinach, I’m gonna think your ego is a bit inflated and that’s not too cool.  If you tell me that your kids, etc. LOVED this book, I’m gonna think, well duh. They love you, even a classroom of kids will love you. That doesn’t make their opinions translate to what matters to the market. So you’ll seem a bit of a greenhorn with statements like that.

So, basically, if you are sounding like the adoring reviewer of your own novel, then you need to give your query a rewrite.

What is acceptable and helpful? If your novel, or a portion of it won a prize? Yup, I want to know. If you received a professional review from a respected source, say a top editor judged the manuscript in a contest and praised it, that’s cool to add in too.

If you don’t have anything like that? That’s also cool. You have your novel. Present it to me in a way that’ll make me fall in love with it.

And I’LL tell YOU how I feel about it.

Case closed!


*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

21 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Don’t tell me how I’ll feel…

  1. Marie, I felt exactly the same way when I was a dance critic—the more the advance hype, the more my stubborn streak would kick in with “Oh yeah? Prove it!” Still feel the same way about movies. My worst spoiler alert: “I loved it!” There is something so satisfying about making that find all on your own. I’d go so far as to guess that’s the biggest intrinsic reward of agenting—finding that diamond in the sludge (oops, slush). Writers rob the agent of that joy in numerous ways more subtle than those you mentioned, such as, “this is the gripping tale of…” or, “with a twist sure to surprise and move the reader,” that are just as troublesome, right?

    • Hi Kathryn!

      I think a well-placed adjective is fine, since it sets up the tone of the novel I’ll be looking at. But saying “humorous” works for me better than saying “hilarious,” which is going into the judgement-zone for me. Even “gripping” isn’t so bad, since it tells me the story is suspenseful. It’s those superlatives and ultra over the top stuff that will backfire, though. Hope that makes sense!

      • Darn! I have a phrase in my current query: “dump them at Newark Airport with just the clothes on their back, and watch hilarity ensue.” But it’s the only such error–The Book Doctors taught me never to tell the agent how to feel.

  2. But what if the query tells you who and why a specific group of people are likely to buy the book? Not just a general statement that it’ll do well. A few months ago (May) the Economist had an article why a novel becomes a mega best seller and great writing wasn’t not mentioned.

    • Hi Giora,

      Good point! It’s fine to say something like: This novel will appeal to readers of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and d who are looking for novels that blend history with a passionate forbidden love. Or to say something like: Cancer survivors and their caregivers will relate to this story of hope and love. That’s different than saying something like: This is an amazing novel that all cancer survivors will fall in love with. Or saying something like: My novel is better than WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and will be a mega hit. Though you could say something like this: Like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, my novel explores circus life, but this novel goes deeper, revealing how… (etc.)

      Basically you want to take out the emotional superlatives that make you sound like you are raving about your own work. I hope this makes sense 🙂

  3. Thanks and it’s make sense, Judge Marie. I don’t rave about my novel. It’s original but not amazing and the writing is simple, which hopefully is okay following this article:
    But it’s the only YA fiction targeting 140 million people in the U.S. and Europe who don’t have any novel (as far as I know) written for and about them in a positive way. have a great day.

  4. So happy to have Agent Mondays back! And great post, as per usual. I *cringed* reading the examples, especially the ones about the adoring family and friends…funny thing is, my mom is my toughest critic! So if I ever query you with the line “…and my mom gave it two giant thumbs up” you should know that really means something ; )

  5. If I wrote juvenile fiction, I might send it to you with a bouquet of Mylar balloons. Seriously, though, when people send “you’ll really love this” queries, it smacks of an amateur. I love your references to Judge Judy, as I’ve often watched that show, too.
    Thanks for a great post.
    Barbara of the Balloons

  6. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 12-06-2012 « The Author Chronicles

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