Today I’m sitting down with the lovely Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency, who’s here to tell us some common query mistakes, what makes her stop reading a manuscript, and what she’d love to see in her inbox. Welcome, Whitley!
What are some of the most common mistakes you see in queries?
Not enough focus on the manuscript being pitched. Much too often, queries wax on about the author, their inspirations or the aspirations, and I go to the sample not knowing at all what kind of book I’m potentially looking at.
Not following directions. Like many agents I know, I ask that queries include the first 10 pages pasted in the e-mail body. We don’t ask this to be annoying; there’s just so much to read that we need the uniformity to keep the workflow going. I read a lot of queries on my phone, and attachments are a no-go. Unless I’m completely in love with the pitch, I’m very much more likely to pass without the sample than I am to reply asking for one.
Trying to pigeon-hole your project to meet a specific point on our wish list. I completely understand the desire to prove that this project is the one that we want, but it often feels like you don’t know your project as well as I would hope. If a manuscript fits our wish list item, then please do say so, but in general I’d prefer to have the pitch speak for itself and surprise me than to question how an author equated the two.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a writer’s sample pages?
Too much exposition and not enough proofreading. Also, rule of thumb: don’t include your epitaphs and prologues.
For the last few years, many agents have shied away from worn-out YA subjects like vampires, werewolves and dystopians. Is there anything you’re seeing a little too much of in your inbox lately?
I see a lot of YA contemporaries that don’t have a strong hook or that focus on an already flooded topic or issue. I also see a lot of plain ol’, ordinary girls who just don’t see how beautiful/smart/generally awesome they are. When that’s the focus of the manuscript, there’s really nowhere to go. Also, fantasies pitched as the next Graceling or Throne of Glass. I know that Game of Thrones is huge right now, but epic fantasy isn’t really my thing. Plus, the market is well on its way to being thoroughly saturated.
In MG, I see a ton of ancient Greek and Arthurian retellings that don’t have a strong enough hook to set them apart. In Women’s, I seem to see mostly romances pitched as WF and several variations of “middle-aged woman who’s husband left for a younger woman…”, both of which just aren’t for me.
Is there anything you’d LOVE to see in your inbox?
I’d love to see a good geeky YA thriller; something like Chuck or Ally Carter’s Heist Society series—only Simon’s P.O.V., and preferably with an awesome female protagonist with a great voice. The thrill of the heist, the hidden identities, the espionage… ah!
Not YA, but I’m always looking for a really good women’s fiction. This craving or women’s is very particular and rarely satisfied. I’d love see something like Rainbow Rowell’s Landline or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette—a contemporary with heart and a strong, relatable voice, and an interesting hook. I’m also always on the look out for emotional historical. I still find myself spinning from Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours. That said, however, I’d also love to find a YA that impacted me in the way that those books did.
In general, though, I’d just love to be surprised; to find a great hook or a fascinating world, a real female protagonist, a story I can sink my teeth into, and, most importantly, a voice I would follow to the end of the world and back.
If a writer doesn’t grab you in the query, first line or first paragraph, will you keep reading to see if it picks up, or toss in the towel then and there?
If I’m not sold on the query and first paragraph, I’ll read on an extra page or two before cherry-picking my way to the end of the sample. Voice is truly the most important aspect to me, and it is what I’m looking for in the sample. If I’m immersed in the writing, then I will definitely keep reading, but if it’s not holding my attention, I’ll more than likely stop and move on to the next query.
Finally, here at Coffee Cups, every Thursday is #ThrowbackThursday – what is one of YOUR favorite books from childhood?
Growing up, I was big on children’s adventures (Harry Potter, Peter Pan, etc.), classics (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables), and Mary Higgins Clark mysteries (thanks mom!). But in terms of YA, I most remember Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood and Celia Rees’ Pirates! I read those books over and over in middle school and high school, and loving the history and the kick-ass girls who showed the boys up over and over again.
Whitley Abell joined Inklings Literary Agency in 2013 after completing successful internships with Carol Mann Agency and P.S. Literary Agency. She graduated in 2011 BA in English and Creative Writing, and again in 2012 with a MAT in Secondary English Education, which basically means she can tell you anything there is to know about feminist literary theory and the Common Core Standards.
If you’d like to query Whitley, you can check out her wish list and submission guidelines here. While not currently open to submissions, she will consider queries referencing this post. Please send queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.