At a time when concept is king, character development is the way to win the day.
You’re querying literary agents with your latest novel in the slow-motion, post-pandemic publishing nightmare of 2022, and it feels like you’re getting nowhere. Rejections pile up in your inbox—if you’re lucky. The truth is, you’re so used to getting ghosted by literary agents that at this point you welcome any response at all.
“No response means no,” the agency website declares, but even agents who do promise a response might, um, not respond.
And the full request you were so excited to receive? That was six months ago, and it’s been two months since you anxiously nudged, praying it wouldn’t trigger a quick pass. Still, nothing. It’s starting to feel like this book isn’t the one, that maybe you should shelve the manuscript and move on to the next project.
Maybe that’s true, though I urge you not to give up after a couple dozen queries. That might have been appropriate in the ‘90s when all you had was a forty-dollar copy of Writer’s Market and a book of stamps. Today? Newly signed writers and debut authors post their stats on Twitter all the time showing that many racked up 100+ rejections before they finally received an offer.
How many agents should you query? As many as you can find who appear to be legitimate and who represent your genre.
Still, if the rejections keep coming, eventually you will have to decide to move on and write your next book, but before you do I have a little piece of advice on where to focus your energy moving forward.
Madison Avenue, We Have a Problem
Before I get to that, I want to clarify two things:
- I’m an idiot, and you shouldn’t listen to a word I say, and
- I only chose the title “Post-Pandemic Querying” because that’s how a lot of industry professionals frame the problem.
But the problem has nothing to do with the pandemic, if my memory serves me correctly. Slower turnaround, an increase in “no response means no” policies, agents ghosting authors on partial and full manuscript requests? This started happening long before Covid. Covid exacerbated the problem, sure, but it didn’t create it.
The problem, in this nobody’s opinion, is the internet itself. More specifically, there are now more writers than ever before, and they’re writing more books than ever before, and the process of finding and querying agents has become much, much easier than it was in those prehistoric, pre-internet days when you would snail mail a query and sample pages in a manilla envelope to the Fancy Publishing People in New York City and hope your rejection slip might come with a hand-scribbled note of encouragement—and, hey, maybe a bit of feedback.
The publishing world simply hasn’t adjusted to the massive influx of new writers.
On top of all this, most agents have shifted to using Query Manager, where they can sort, save, and doom to a “maybe” pile your precious hopes and dreams. It’s no secret that I hate Query M—
Okay, I’ll tone down the cynicism. I’ve talked about QM with a grumpy “back in my day” tone plenty on this blog. This post isn’t about the increasingly messy experience of trying to get a literary agent. This post is about how to stand out in the disorganized chaos of the publishing industry today.
So let’s get to the point.
How to Write a Query Letter in Three Easy Blah Blah Blahs
I read a lot of query letters every week, and what I’ve discovered, particularly in the past year or two, is that most writers have figured out how to properly format a query by now. They know how to structure a pitch. They know to personalize to each agent, to explain how their comp titles are similar, to follow agency guidelines. Blah. Blah. Blah.
The internet is packed full of copied and pasted query writing advice. Go back a couple years on my blog and you’ll find my version. Sure, most of the queries I edit can be improved, tightened, reworked to emphasize the hook, etc., and those minor tweaks can prove to be vital, but these days querying authors tend to know the basics.
What they might not know, however, is what those sample pages need to promise about the rest of the book—and ultimately what that book must offer at a time when agents’ MSWLs seem to suggest that concept is king. This idea begs the question:
Do you need a fresh, flashy “high concept” in order to get an agent?
Kinda. Sorta. Not really. But kinda. But really? Not really.
What the Heck Does “High Concept” Mean?
I’ve talked about this before. “High concept” means two things: 1) the pitch looks, feels, and smells fresh, and 2) it can easily be summed up in a logline.
The best example I can think of is Andy Weir’s The Martian. The pitch? Castaway on Mars.
That’s it. Three words are all you need to understand what The Martian is about. And it’s indeed a fresh concept. There hadn’t been a mainstream book about Matt Damon geeking out and growing potatoes on Mars until Andy Weir dreamed one up.
“Well I got her numbah. How do you like them taters?”
And now Andy Weir is a Fancy Famous Author.
But was The Martian successful because it had such a perfect pitch?
Of course not.
Over the past several decades, the influence of Hollywood—and now television and streaming services—on the publishing industry has become more and more apparent. Books need to be pitchable in a single sentence, like a Netflix show. Books need to adhere to rigid word count restrictions that agents swear by—and some agents have the audacity to claim that if your book is 10,000 words over their preferred word count limit, they know, without having read a word, that the book has problems.
That means your domestic suspense novel better not exceed 100,000 words, even though Gone Girl was 145,000. Eye-roll emoji.
Publishing is run by dinosaurs who think, These kids these days with their TikToks and their vapes don’t have any attention span whatsoever.
It wasn’t true when the idea first cropped up with the rise of the internet, and it’s not true now.
The Hollywood influence on the publishing industry is a big part of why we have Manuscript Wishlist now. Instead of literary agents keeping their genre preferences basic and taking what queries come, they’ve developed this method of matching-making manuscripts with their own whims and fleeting interests. They imagine what Netflix movie they’d love to see, and they call out to writers who might have that concept.
Disclaimer: I know and accept that things change, and if you don’t adapt you become obsolete. I’m not advocating for the dismantling of Manuscript Wishlist (or Query Manager, for that matter), and I’m not questioning the competence of any given literary agent.
But I do think a problem emerges if MSWL becomes the primary filtering method for querying authors, because MSWL prioritizes concept over something astronomically more important.
Again, I’m not saying don’t use MSWL. You, the author, should use every resource at your disposal.
The cold, hard truth, however, is that while high concepts might generate offers of representation, and high concepts might lead to book deals, what ultimately matters is book SALES. The most sparkly concept in the world won’t matter one bit when readers open up the book and find lackluster, passionless prose by some author who was singularly motivated by the desire to make a popular Twitter agent happy.
What matters, what sells books—what made The Martian so damn popular—doesn’t have a thing to do with concept. Even “voice” and plot take a backseat to the most fundamental element of storytelling.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s an Upmarket Coming-of-Age Mystery/Suspense Courtroom Drama Romantic Thriller and Kinda Historical!
Have you heard of a book called Where the Crawdads Sing?
Of course you have. Your mom, your aunt, your sister, your neighbor, your local policeman, and your dog have read it. Where the Crawdads Sing has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for 162 weeks, with no signs of going anywhere. Last I checked it had sold 12 million copies, and I haven’t checked in over a year.
That book is dominating the market, and everyone in the publishing industry is wondering why. How do I know that? Because I wrote a post called “Something’s Up With Where the Crawdad’s Sing” and it’s been getting tons of Google traffic ever since. Lots of people want to know why Where the Crawdads Sing is pulling Gone Girl numbers. Why it and not some other book?
“Know your market,” your friendly AuthorTuber will tell you. “Know your genre’s audience expectations.”
I guess Delia Owens did tons of research on audience expectations for upmarket coming-of-age mystery/suspense courtroom drama romantic thriller novels that are kinda historical.
Sure, if you want to be a successful self-published romance author, you do need to know the market, the niches, the trends, etc., because it’s your ad dollars at stake, and you’re relying on Amazon ad algorithms, Facebook ad algorithms, and bargain newsletter promos to find a niche audience.
But if you want to get an agent and a book deal and go on to be a #1 New York Times bestseller?
That’s only going to happen if you write the story you want to write. It doesn’t matter if you see yourself as the next James Patterson, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Ruth Ware, Riley Sager, Cormac McCarthy, Nora Roberts, Colleen Hoover, and on and on and on.
What Where the Crawdads Sing shows us is that you don’t have to fit neatly into a genre to be a bestseller, as some would have you think. The book is too slow for a thriller. It’s too simple for a mystery. Its love story isn’t centered enough for romance. It has elements of genre fiction, but it meanders and meditates like literary fiction.
And yet millions of readers are captivated.
The debut novels that become bestsellers all have one thing in common: the author cared passionately about their protagonist, and they worked tirelessly to bring that character—and secondary characters—to life. That’s what Delia Owens did. She obsessed over her protagonist for a decade, and 162 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List is the result.
At a time when concept is king, character development is the way to win the day.
How to Get an Agent? Character Development.
I’m either a totally awesome editor or an extremely lucky one. At this point I don’t know how many of my clients have signed with literary agents, but it’s not a single-digit number. So far this year three of them have acquired representation.
So I know a thing or two about what lands writers an offer. When I look at those clients’ work, what they all have in common is crystal clear.
Take a guess what it is.
You got it.
The clients who’ve signed with agents—and the unsigned ones I’m most confident will before long—span the genre spectrum: romance, mysteries, thrillers, contemporary, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. MG, YA, and adult fiction. First and third person. Past and present tense. “Voicy” and not so “voicy.” Remarkably intricate and twist-filled plots, and simpler, more straightforward plots.
But the characters stuck with me, and that’s how I knew the story was special.
Plot is driven by character action. External conflict is boring without the interplay of your protagonist’s internal conflict. Description and imagery are meaningless if they don’t reflect your POV character’s unique way of perceiving his/her/their surroundings and the world at large. And pacing? A slow pace just means the reader isn’t immersed, and there’s no chance of immersion if the reader isn’t invested in your protagonist.
My Advice for Querying Authors in the Post-Pandemic Trenches
If you have a fresh and flashy concept, great. It certainly helps. But don’t put the cart before the horse. Don’t put an agent’s Manuscript Wishlist before your own. Don’t worry about how you’ll pitch your manuscript, how it might fit into the market, what comp titles you can use.
Just focus on your characters. Fall in love with them. Come to know them so intimately that you wind up only showing the reader 10% of what you know. Give them secrets you’ll never expose. Way more backstory than you can possibly use. Discover their deep wants and needs. Their quirks, their habits, their triggers, their fantasies.
All other story elements emerge through character. Character, not plot, is the basis of great fiction.
Earlier in this post I mentioned what your sample pages need to show an agent, no matter how perfect your query letter. The answer, in my opinion? Your sample pages need to show what every agent should ask for in their Manuscript Wishlist: a character they can fall in love with.
Concept can suck it.
I am a freelance developmental editor who has helped many writers increase their rates of full manuscript requests, acquire agents, and even land book deals with traditional publishers. If you’re interested in a fresh perspective on your novel or query letter, visit my services page where I offer affordable manuscript critiques and my popular Query Package.