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Thank you to Susan who, in the comments for my last post 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation, wanted to know the opposite: What questions might an agent have for a potential client? There’s no way I can speak comprehensively for everyone in the industry on this one, but here’s what I’m often curious about, and why.

A little more about yourself: All that crazy stuff you left out of your query bio? Give it to me here! Just kidding. I don’t want your entire life story on the call, but I am curious about you as a persona and about your sense of humor, sensibilities, storytelling abilities off the cuff (no pressure!). I’d rather have one or two cool and unique facts about you that are memorable than the dry this-is-where-I-went-to-college spiel. In turn, I usually take a few minutes to say what makes me tick.

Future ideas: I want to get a sense for what else is in your pipeline, so I ask you to pitch me a few more ideas that you’re kicking around. Your pitches don’t have to be perfect and the books can be far from finished–or even started–but this is a biggie for me. If you have one amazing idea and then a nightmare litany of things I will never be able to sell in a million years, that will honestly dampen my enthusiasm. I’m not looking to sign you for one project, I want to work with you for a long time. Those projects are a-comin’ ’round the mountain, whether I like it or not, and it’s only going to mean friction down the line if I sign you now and then fight you on every subsequent manuscript. If that’s the feeling I get, we’re likely not a good fit for the long-term, and it’s better to find out now. Don’t feel too much pressure on this one, though, because sometimes all I’m really curious about is whether those ideas are workable. They don’t have to be perfect just yet.

Your submission goals and overall career goals: I’ll ask you a little about where you see your career going and how you see this submission being handled. This is where I’ll also talk a little bit about my submission plans for the book and see if the two sync up nicely. The subtle thing I’m trying to figure out here is about your expectations. If you start talking book tour and six-figure advance right off the bat, I know you are going to be a handful down the road. Publishing is full of big and little frustrations and decisions about your work that are completely outside of your control. Sure, you want to be as proactive as possible about your book and your career, but that doesn’t mean expecting the world handed to you on a silver platter by publishers who are, frankly, not handing out much of much to the majority of debut authors these days. Are you savvy and humble? Are you realistic? Are you prepared to work hard to see your goals to completion? This is what I’m really asking here. (God, I can’t believe how much I’m showing my cards in this post…)

Your reaction to feedback: If I’m offering representation, I will have editorial feedback for you. Now. A lot of agent colleagues have spent hours on the phone with a potential writer, giving all their notes, laying out a revision plan, only to have the writer go elsewhere and incorporate their revision notes anyway, but after signing with a different agent. I’m not this precious about my editorial suggestions for you, but I do think it’s a bad idea to dump all of my feedback in your lap at once. It’s overwhelming, and it may come across as me not liking the book (which, if I’m calling to offer, is the opposite of what I want to convey). So I take my three biggest revision suggestions, including one or two that might be controversial, and float them your way.

This is probably the most important thing that happens during this call, for me. First, I get to see if you and I are on the same page editorially. If you’re writing a dark psychological thriller and I call, saying, “What I basically need from you is to make it more like the Clique series,” then we’re not going to be a good fit because you and I see the book differently and we want different things for it. (I sure hope I never miss the mark this badly…) It’s fun for me to get into revision back-and-forth with authors, even if we disagree. But there’s workable disagreement and then there’s an impasse. If we butt up against the latter in the call, we probably shouldn’t work together. You’re always going to want one thing, I’m always going to want the other, and that sort of resentment is not good in a partnership.

Your revision style: If we do agree on most of my revision suggestions and it seems like we’re thinking about the book and its potential in a similar way, I still want to know about your revision process. I’ve found that being able to revise is the single most important skill a writer can have. I’ve taken on promising first projects, given tons of notes, and what really made or broke the new relationship is how well the author has been able to run with those notes and take the manuscript to the next level. Every manuscript will need work once it comes in. I’ve only had one manuscript in my career come in that only needed a minor revision before going on to sell. How well and how thoroughly and how deeply you delve into the task of revision is paramount. Of course, I can’t know all the specifics of how it will really be from a phone call, but that’s what I’m really talking about when we talk about revision.

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This is a list that I’d written a while ago to help a friend who had just been offered representation. I thought it would be perfect for the blog, and frankly can’t believe I held on to it in my files for so long.

When you’re offered representation by a literary agent, you should have the opportunity to talk to them about potentially working together. This is an exciting and nerve-wracking phone call for a writer (and sometimes for an agent if we want to work with you really, really badly!), but it’s important that you really take the time, ask the right questions, get full answers, and give yourself as much information as possible.

The following are 10 questions that I would ask if I were signing with an agent. They’re questions I answer about myself when speaking to writers all the time. If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.

So do your due diligence. Here’s the list I would use to get started:

1. What is your communication style? Do you prefer phone or email? Do you check in often even when we’re not on active submission?
2. Tell me more about how your agency works and handles clients. Is there an agency agreement for new clients? (There usually will be, it’s okay to ask to see it beforehand.) What are steps for termination? (You hope it doesn’t happen, but you need to know that you have an out if you need it.)
3. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives. Member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics. Their website is www.aaronline.org.)
4. What books have you sold and what publishers do you work with?
5. What is your submission strategy? Do you go on a big round to editors or do you do smaller rounds that let us hear feedback and make changes, should we need to?
6. How would you position this book to editors? Where do you see this fitting in to publishers’ lists?
7. What editorial changes do you think I should make to this manuscript?
8. What happens if we don’t sell this book?
9. How do you work on revisions with clients?
10. How do you work with clients as they’re generating new ideas? (For example, I ask clients for idea pitches and then help them hone in on what’s strongest to pursue.)

Before you put these questions to an agent, of course, figure out what you feel like you want the answers to be. Some of these issues may not matter to you, but you may have strong opinions about others. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, per se, but right and wrong answers for you. (“If we don’t see this book, I will burn down your house and run around your backyard naked,” would probably be a wrong answer for everyone, though…)

Different agents have different styles. Part of this feeling-each-other-out process after an offer of representation is made is to see if you like their answers and strategies and if you can see working well with them.

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Long story short:

Just like with citing comparative titles, if you’re not going to do it well, don’t do it at all.

Long story:

It’s great when you take the time to personalize your query. Think of all the time you spent writing and revising. That was months, maybe years, or your life. Put some time into researching agents and into writing queries as well. Most agents are online or beefing up their blog/Twitter/Facebook presence. Most agents have books out that you can buy and read and think about. You should want to reach out to specific agents because of what you think they can bring to your career, not just because it says “Literary Agent” on their business card and you’re grasping at straws.

So the personalization part should be a no-brainer. But there are many times when I get “personalized” queries that have tried to work around this step. “I am contacting you because of your love for books” is a lame personalization, (as is, “because you are an advocate for children’s literature” or “because you have sold some books” or “because you come from a reputable agency,” etc.) I know immediately that the same line is in every other query you send out. (With agents like me, who have almost psychotic levels of online presence, there’s almost no excuse not to personalize with something that shows me that you really do intend to reach out to me and make a connection. I don’t get offended when a query isn’t personalized — far from it, I really don’t care — but in some cases, it’s just obvious laziness on the writer’s part, which does knock them down a peg or two.)

Unless you have something real to say in the query personalization part, maybe don’t even mention why you’re contacting us specifically. It’s well understood that you’re emailing because you want to get published. And I should hope that every agent you contact loves books, is an advocate for children’s literature, has sold some projects, comes from a reputable agency, etc. That’s not personalization, that’s a waste-of-time sentence.

And, as I wrote earlier, in my query formatting post, you can put the personalization nugget either at the beginning of your query or below the “meat.”

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I was at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference this weekend in Cleveland, and I got several questions about simultaneous submissions. Just as I was thinking of crafting a post about it to remind writers that it’s not only okay but recommended to query multiple agents at a time, I found the following excellent post from Chuck Sambuchino on Writer Unboxed. There must be something in the air!

Chuck’s points are all valid. He encourages writers to submit to batches of 6-8 agents at a time. If you get no requests at all, there’s something wrong with your query or your writing sample. If you get no good feedback or full requests after sending out writing samples or partials, your work isn’t quite there yet. Critique helps here, so will your writing partners. The one thing I’d add to this post is that exclusive submissions do have a place…but only in one or two instances.

One is if you’ve been working with an agent on a manuscript and they’ve given you several rounds of revision notes or if you’ve corresponded a lot. If an agent has invested serious time in you and your work and you feel it’s the right and professional thing to do, you can grant them an exclusive to consider the latest version of your manuscript. But do limit the exclusive — two weeks to a month is fair — so as not to leave it open-ended. The other scenario is if the agent requested the exclusive and you’ve agreed to grant it.

Agents like exclusives. They let us consider things on our own sweet time. But this is a competitive business. If you have a hot manuscript, it doesn’t behoove you to have just one person sitting on it. Honor agent relationships that you’ve already nurtured and exclusives you’ve already granted, but, beyond that, you can and should submit your queries and writing samples to well-chosen batches of multiple agents. Simultaneous submissions are just a part of the game, and anything else could be unfair to you and waste your time.

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Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented by a literary agent. They are not happy in their relationship, so they are seeing, first, who else is out there, and, second, if there is potential interest in their work. Writers have approached me at conferences with this particular situation, and I occasionally get queries that outline a similar conundrum.

After just such a query this past week, it dawned on me that I’d never addressed this on the blog. First of all, this isn’t in reference to any particular writer who I’ve counseled on this issue (you know who you are). And it’s not a specific response to that one query. But here, for the record, is what I always tell writers who are struggling with what turns out to be a bad writer/agent relationship:

It is considered unethical by many agents to seek other representation while still in a relationship with your current agent. It’s like looking for a new romantic partner while still dating or married to your current one. I know there’s fear at the front of your mind that you won’t find someone new if you cut ties with your dysfunctional agent relationship and go out on “the dating scene” all over again, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to query after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship

There’s another option for writers who feel like they’re not getting their needs met by their agent: communicate. If you’re feeling bad, be honest in an email or phone call. Some of the time, an agent will not know that you have these issues festering. Writers are often intimidated to talk to their own agents, or they don’t want to be seen as “high-maintenance,” so they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Where’s the point in that? Tell your agent what you’re not getting and what you need to be getting in order for the relationship to function.

In some cases, the agent will say, “Wow! I never knew you felt that way. Here’s what we can do to make things better.” In other cases, the agent might be feeling their enthusiasm wane as well (this is not said to make you paranoid, but it does indeed happen in the business) and will either be honest with you about the poor fit of the relationship, or they will keep doing whatever dysfunctional behavior in order to avoid confrontation (we can be like writers in this regard). If your issue is that your agent isn’t being responsive, for example, they can own up to the past and set a better course for the future…or they can continue ignoring you.

If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off elsewhere. It’s scary, I know, but the situation isn’t likely to improve. If you’ve done your due diligence and voiced your concern and it’s still not getting resolved, I’m afraid you have your answer, unless there is a real reason on the agent’s side that is temporarily impacting their job performance (illness, etc.).

As daunting as it is to face the idea of being unrepresented again, to consider queries and conferences and rejection after you thought you were done with all that, you need a better fit for you, and making an agent change is a proactive thing you can do for your career. This move happens all the time.

But don’t query or court agents before you either try to fix your current relationship or leave it. It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a “poacher,” someone who steals clients from other agents.

As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are in this situation, but I have to draw the line before looking at any material. My verdict is: no walking papers, no query. For our sake, for your agent’s sake, and for your own, make sure your dealings are all above board. As with any relationship, you don’t want to blur those lines.

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Writers are very used to hearing “show, don’t tell,” right? Well, one of my cornerstone posts is what “show, don’t tell” really means, and, more importantly, why it’s such a big deal. If you haven’t had a chance to read that yet, you can find it here.

Telling your readers about characters or atmosphere in your work is taking away their agency, their participation in the story. Plus, it’s just plain lazy. Really good writing is hard work, and telling is an instant shortcut, but it doesn’t fly with me.

There’s one type of telling that I’ve been noticing a lot of lately. It’s more subtle than the basic “Johnny felt sad” example of telling which you never, ever want to do. Let’s call this new type of telling…atmospheric telling. Here are some examples:

“Well, I never!” he said, with an air of superiority.

An awkward silence filled the classroom as I hunted for my seat. Of course, it had to be in the very back, where the bully awaited me. I could almost swear I saw him lick his chops.

The echoing hallway of the old, abandoned hospital was just plain creepy.

The tone of her voice changed just slightly; there was an edge there now that I hadn’t noticed a moment ago.

Now, once you know what to look for, this is exactly as underwhelming as more obvious telling. Do you get where I’m going with this? In the first example, you’re telling in terms of characterization. This character has been insulted by someone and their tone has shifted and they’re being superior and defensive. I would argue that the dialogue does that work and conveys that without the telling phrase of “with an air of superiority,” so this example is also redundant.

The next two are examples I see all the time. You want to convey the mood of the scene. You need to get across that there’s something in the air, whether it’s awkwardness or fear or a jovial atmosphere. But just because someone tells me that something is awkward or scary or fun, I’m not going to feel it. That’s really the base problem behind all telling. You tell me something and it sort of bounces off of me on a surface level. “Oh, okay, it’s awkward in the classroom,” I think. But at no point does it go deeper, at no point do my toes start to curl because the scene you’re showing me is so uncomfortable, embarrassing, terrifying, creepy, etc. Instead, I’m getting the shortcut, the lazy version, the cop out.

The tone of voice example is also telling. It’s a shortcut to conveying emotion. Next week, I’ll tell you more about why that kind of telling, that which describes vocal tone and also small changes in gesture or facial expression just doesn’t work on the page. But here you’re, in essence, doing just what the writer of the ultimate telling sentence “Johnny felt sad” is doing, only you’re doing it a touch more subtly. If I could rewrite all the examples above and reduce them to their essences, it would read like this:

The king was offended.

Mark felt awkward.

Amy felt scared.

Julie was on edge.

My examples of atmospheric telling are certainly better than the above but they’re still not quite letting go of the telling baby blanket. They’re still only halfheartedly approaching the topic of showing. And they’re both hard to notice and hard to break yourself of. Still, they’re one of those really subtle things that could make a huge difference in your writing. Look for it in your manuscript and I think you will start to see atmospheric telling in many, many places.

So how do we show instead of tell? Use scenework and interiority more. I had a great question posed to me a few weeks ago, and that’s “How do we tell the difference between good interiority (a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, usually narrated to the reader by the character in 1st person or the close 3rd narrator who has access to the character’s head), and telling?” It’s a really higher-order question, and I’ll delve more deeply into it on Wednesday. (Just to get you started thinking in that direction, here’s a post from one of my readers, actually, about when to tell instead of show.)

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I’ve been seeing some query letters lately that state the obvious. It’s unnecessary. For example, you don’t need to waste your time writing any of the following:

I am querying you for possible representation of my novel.
I am writing to you because I would like representation from a literary agent.
Publishing a novel is my goal.

Etc. I’m an agent with a submissions pile. If I get an email to that inbox, I know exactly what it is, exactly what it’s doing there, and the exact intentions of the email’s author: to publish something with the aid of a literary agent. You really don’t need to waste the time or words and state the obvious.

Also, don’t give the agent instructions. For example:

Please read the following sample pages and reply if interested.
Contact me to discuss representation.
If interested, please reply and I will submit a partial or full manuscript.

This may be your first query, but it’s not my first time getting one, by any stretch of the imagination. If I’m interested in your project, I know exactly what to do. Leave tips and pointers out of your query as well and let me do my job. Instead of these inane and obvious phrases, do your query job and make me care about the character and plot, instead. That’s really the heart of the letter, and you can see my tips for doing just that here.

None of these little phrases are an automatic rejection, per se, but they do indicate to me — perhaps unjustly, but they do indicate it nonetheless — a lack of higher order logic or thought put into the query. So make sure you’re not sending that message.

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I’m surprised by the number of times I’ve gotten this one recently. But everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a complete manuscript for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Non-fiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for non-fiction (though there are fewer of these on non-fiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG non-fiction
  • YA fiction and most YA non-fiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older non-fiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age rage or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered as if finished…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult non-fiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finish and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. Besides, a strong, complete manuscript is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. Having a full manuscript works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

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This question comes from my Writers Digest webinar. The reader asks:

I recently conducted a focus group made up of 68 teenagers (male & female between the ages of 13-18). I had them read my manuscript and complete an anonymous survey at the end. I received many wonderful comments and scored an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. Should I mention this in my query to agents or not?

The writer has done a lot of work to reach out to readers, which is always admirable. But does it matter? Will it sway my decision? Not really. Why? Because an agent’s first customers in publishing aren’t teenagers. In the trade process, my customers are publishers: the editors bringing my manuscripts to acquisitions, the sales and marketing people evaluating the work’s sales potential, the finance guys upstairs crunching numbers (in the form of a P&L, a “profit and loss” statement) to determine whether the project makes good business sense to bring to market.

While teens are the “end user” in the YA publishing process, they’re not my first buyer. They’re not even a publisher’s first buyer. After a house buys one of my manuscripts, they will edit it and then pitch it to booksellers and librarians. Those are my customer’s customers. And it’s booksellers and librarians who will then reach out to the teens: my customer’s customers’ customers. So before an actual reader gets their hands on a book, it will have gone through several layers of gatekeepers and decision-makers.

Is a B2B system that ignores its end-user in favor of a customer with more capital a good one? There are people who say that this is one of the things wrong with the publishing business model. Most publishers simply don’t do the kind of “on the ground” research that this writer did for their manuscript. But while these questions and issues are definitely valid, this post isn’t an attempt to address them. And for now, that’s the way things are in the trade publishing landscape.

With the above in mind, I say that I don’t really care what a focus group of teenagers said about a manuscript. Because I’m going to be pitching this project to editors, not teenagers. And most readers who don’t work in publishing and don’t read as much as the people who work in publishing may not have the discerning taste of those who work in publishing, so they’ll usually rate random things pretty highly.

It’s all a matter of context. Agents and editors, who read thousands of manuscripts a year, can be picky and choose the best of the best because they’ve also read the worst of the worst and the meh-est of the mediocre. The average teen who reads maybe a few dozen books a year will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

This is also why I’m not a fan of sites like Inkpop and Authonomy. Sure, they’re sponsored by HarperCollins, and, sure, highly rated manuscripts posted there get some official Haper eyeballs on them (having spoken to a few of the people who are on duty to vet these manuscripts, I can tell you it’s less glamorous than described), but your chances of getting a book deal out of posting there are still about the same as your chances of going through the slush or self-publishing something that becomes an international bestseller.

Writers often come to me with praise from real, live kids or high ratings on these online writing communities. But since most kid readers and most online community participants don’t have the kind of context and standards that I have — and since they’re not my immediate customers, publishers are — I don’t really weigh their opinions heavily when making my decision. I know that I have to impress publishers first, then impress the reading public with the products that publishers create on my client’s behalf.

I’m an agent. A tastemaker. A gatekeeper. My unique opinion and judgement, after all, is why people come to me in the first place. (And if they don’t like my judgment, they can go to another agent.) My personal list is what I shop around to editors. Who I rep and what projects I attach my name to are a matter of my opinion. When I’m considering a project, that’s the only opinion that matters to me. (And, of course, the opinions of my colleagues and my foreign rights co-agent but you know what I mean).

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For my Writer’s Digest webinar, I pledged to answer all the questions sent in by students. This one got me fired up enough to transfer the exchange to the blog:

What can we do to ensure that an actual agent sees my query? I’ve received rejection letters directly from assistants, therefore I know that the agent hasn’t seen my query or sample work. Perhaps the agent would have liked it, but if he or she wasn’t able to see it, then both the agent and I miss out on what could have been a wonderful opportunity.

This writer seems to have what I would call Assistant Attitude. It’s a belief that assistants aren’t really important and that only the big names at an agency can make or break a writer’s chances at representation. A lot of (beginning) writers think very poorly of assistants and are shocked — shocked! — to learn that these are the people reading their queries.

I invite everyone currently suffering from a case of Assistant Attitude to consider, perhaps, the complete opposite viewpoint. The truth is, assistants are amazing. Especially when it comes to going through the slush. First off, they are often the hard-working, unappreciated souls who make sure your queries get a response. Would you rather you submission languish in obscurity while a big shot agent caters to clients, makes book deals, speaks at conferences — you know, agents — for a few months or years, or would you rather an eagle-eyed assistant go through submissions and respond to you in a timely manner?

Here’s another thing to consider: Assistants are hired directly by the agent and know the agent’s tastes intimately. They also tend to pay more attention while reading. Would you rather an assistant read the whole query and sample or the agent glance at it and reject after reading a sentence because they are overwhelmed with a deluge of other submissions?

Assistants are also on the hunt and spend more time and energy giving writers a chance. A really busy agent may not invest a lot of time on a promising-but-not-ready-yet writer. Their assistant, though, could really spearhead a writer’s growth and give someone some editorial feedback, a shot to revise, an invitation to resubmit, a phone call, etc. Some assistants can even take on their own clients (see the Newer vs. Established agent conversation for more thoughts on this). Since this is a chance for an assistant to prove him or herself — and use the training they’ve received directly from the agent you’re targeting — most assistants and new agents are really hungry and eager to lavish prospective clients with attention.

Finally, assistants are often the ones who champion things they find and recommend them to their bosses. “Stop what you’re doing and read this right now. It came in through the slush but it’s really good” is a very compelling argument when it comes from the right source. Who do you think an agent will listen to? A random query or a personal recommendation from their trusted colleague?

I don’t have a full-time assistant because I work from home, but I do have a wonderful, savvy, genius intern-slash-reader. My intern sometimes cruises my slush and picks out which queries sound the most promising. Sometimes, she emails me to tell me that I need to request something ASAP OMG it is the single best thing she’s ever read. (My intern can get really enthusiastic and persuasive.) So what do I do? If I’m near a computer, I zoom immediately over to that query to see what’s getting her so excited, of course. My intern is a tough cookie and has very discriminating taste — like me — and so I trust her judgment completely. When she gets excited, I’m often not far behind.

Assistant Attitude is toxic and it’s actually the writer missing out on the opportunity of a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on their manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency they’ve queried. Assistants are people, too, and some of the smartest, brightest, and most dedicated I’ve ever met, to boot.

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