5 Funny Literary Agent Contradictions


If you’re like me, scrounging for query-writing advice online, you may feel a little frustrated. Okay, a LOT frustrated. Like, throw the computer out the window frustrated. Why? Because so much of the advice contradicts itself. Some agents like this, some like that, and you can’t seem to please everyone. If this describes your experience, you may enjoy the following five contradictions:

Contradiction #1: How to write a query.

This week I put my query on WriteOnCon.com, an online two-day conference where you can post your query for advice from other writers and agents. I kept reworking it and thought it was fairly good until the agent commented, “A query should always have three paragraphs: the log-line, the mini-synopsis, and the bio. And don’t make me scroll down! If I have to scroll, it’s too long.” With a screen that small, “scrolling down” meant the query had to be less than four to five sentences. Total.

Um…well, my query was six paragraphs, but they were short and focused, and I separated them that way because QueryShark says that white space is good, and to NEVER start with a log-line…blah.

Fine. So I reworked my query to fit her advice, and suddenly none of the attendees liked it–and frankly, neither did I. The mini-synopsis was suddenly too long and boring, and my awesome “hook” was now a story-summing log-line, which actually wasn’t as interesting. Nor as hooking…hookingy…oh, whatever. Lesson learned: One size does not fit all.

Contradiction #2: Don’t follow trends, but make the book marketable.

You hear it all the time, right? “Don’t follow trends. Write what you love, and what you feel passionate about.” Then they follow it with, “But don’t submit paranormal, though. Oh, and not dystopian. And please, no science fiction, fantasy, western, religious, or anything too true-to-life–basically don’t submit anything even remotely interesting to you.”

Is there anything left? It’s amazing that books get published at all. 

Contradiction #3: Every book must fit into a genre…but also be fresh and new.

If there’s one thing literary agents and editors all agree on, it’s that they want to see the “next big thing,” or something “fresh.” The problem is, no one knows that that is.

Here’s the thing, though. If your book is too different, it won’t fit into an established genre, which makes it hard to sell. In other words, they want your book to be the same, but different. Clear as mud? Yeah, I think so, too. And make sure it doesn’t fit into the list of genres above, or they won’t even read it, even if it really is “the next big thing.” Yeah, good luck with that.

Contradiction #4: Make your characters likeable, real, and flawed–but different than every other likeable, real, and flawed character out there.

My book is a YA, which means that like most YA works, the main character is a teenage girl. There are plenty of opinions out there about how a teenage female protagonist should be: not snarky, but independent and confident, but not too confident, and sweet and giving, but not boring, and interesting with a dark edge, but not rebellious. O…kay. Gotcha. No wonder all the boys in these books are the same. At least we can all agree on love interests: strong yet sweet. End of story.

Contradiction #5: Treat me like I’m the only agent you’re querying…but I’ll probably not treat you that way in return.”

Ouch. This one hurts. You’ve heard the advice to use the agent’s name (spelled correctly), research their guidelines, read the books they’ve represented, and think of something politely personal as an introduction. You craft that letter carefully, crossing your fingers for luck when you hit “Send.” Then you wait.

Months later, you get a form letter rejection.

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for submitting (title). Unfortunately, even though you did your research, reading books I represented and taking the time to address me personally and treat me with respect in your letter, I’m not going to do the same for you.

I’m giving you a form letter rejection because it’s not worth two minutes of my valuable time to tell you why or how you can improve. Why? Because I’m the gatekeeper–the wizard of stardom standing in your way, screaming, “You Shall Not Pass!” And you’re just a lowly author, one of hundreds I’ll respond to today, most of which are rejections. Tough luck.

Sincerely, (Name)

It happens, and it happens to unpublished and NYT Best-selling authors alike. Brandon Sanderson didn’t achieve success until he was writing book #11, and it was his sixth book, Elantris, that finally got published. Stephenie Meyer was lucky to publish her “too long” novel, Twilight, and even JK Rowling received eight rejections before breaking into the business. Just pick up the pieces and move on, and eventually you’ll find the right person to represent your book. 

Onward and upward, writers, and don’t give up! Like our characters, we have to climb the seemingly impossible mountain peak before we can descend into the valley of success. (Sorry, I’m in a dramatic mood today.)

Good luck and keep writing!


3 responses »

  1. Thanks for the laugh, you pretty much hit it right on the head! It reminded me of an experience I had a couple years ago. I had submitted at least a dozen queries of my YA Fantasy Adventure to publishers and were all met with rejections or no response at all. I was out shopping with a buddy of mine at Walmart and out of curiosity decided to see what was popular in books they had. They had at least 9 or 10 vampire book series they were selling and remember, this is during the Twilight craze. My book has no vampires. Sigh. Oh well, I decided to publish it myself through Amazon’s Create Space and promoting it myself as best I can. Onward and upward! On to book 2! 🙂

  2. Love it! I saw the same agent’s advice on WriteOnCon, an hour after I posted mine. I looked at mine, re-read her advice, and shrugged. I like my opening! I’ve adjusted parts to answer some questions that other readers had, but that’s it. Ready to go, crossing my fingers. Good luck with yours!

  3. LOL! Loved it. Very true, I’ve encountered all of the above. Sent a query one well-known agent, mentioned an obvious and blatant contradiction in their guidelines, spelled out what the contradiction was, and asked, very politely, for help in understanding it. She emailed back “read the directions” which I already did, and carefully. Bottom line, they didn’t know how to give instructions, and she was rude, arrogant and dismissive when I inquired for clarification. Incredibly stupid, and how this idiot became an agent would be a story I’d love to hear. Many agents have absolutely Zero Clue as to what they’re doing, or the effect that their twisted logic has on the writing industry, or the time they waste for others. I send out dozens of query letters, get rejected frequently, and yet everyone who’s read my work says it’s very good, better than most stuff on the market. So, what’s up? I’m crafting a new query letter that very directly tells the agent that my novel is in the ____Genre, has nothing new to say, is formualic, and the only reason I contacted them, is, well, for no reason at all.

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