Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Query Time: Interview With Literary Agent, Jason Yarn

Today we have awesome agent, Jason Yarn of Paradigm Talent Agency here for an interview!

So Jason, What's the number one mistake that query writers make? What makes you hit the "delete" key after the first line?

It’s difficult to answer these two questions together, as I don’t know that there’s a constant common mistake I see, whereas there are a number of things that a writer can do that make me pass quickly, like:

·       Start with a joke. (99% of the time it’s never funny)

·       Write the letter like its coming from one of their characters.

·       Tell me how it is going to be the next world-wide bestseller and I’m a fool if I pass. (More common on adult thriller and non-fiction political queries, I think)

·       Just writing to ask if I’m accepting queries.

·       Querying me in an area I’m not looking for. (There’s an old interview with me on Writer’s Digest, I believe, which has a lot more categories than I look for now – people need to keep in mind that an agent might change what they are looking for later on.)

·       Writing a massive query letter – it needs to be as tight as you can make it. (That’s before getting to sample pages or a synopsis)

That’s just a few things that are easily fixable. As for #1 mistake/instant pass, I guess it has to be the people who just write blanket letters, without even addressing each agent by their name, or, worse, leaving all the agents in the email so we can see each other. I get more of these than you’d think and they are always bad news.

On the whole, people querying with YA novels usually have the best, most polished queries, so I am rarely rejecting those because there is something wrong at first sight with the query.

Woohoo! Go YA writers! We must be awesome.

What would you love to see in your inbox right now?

Some more epic, genre stuff – any level – I get a lot of genre queries, but they have been quieter, smaller lately. I like them, but they have been harder to sell I've found.

What story line/character type/cliche do you wish would die and stay dead? (I promise, no vampire jokes).

Cliché: No doubt, the “looking in the mirror so the writer has an excuse to have the character describe themselves” cliché. That’s a pet peeve for me, and I know for others. Don’t do it.

Story line: I guess deserted wasteland dystopias. I like dystopias in general, but I don’t like the “empty world” ones a whole lot. I think I was scarred by Z is for Zachariah as a child.

We all want to be special, shiny and unique in our query letters, but does trying something "quirky" or different really work? Should writers stick to the basic query formula? Any examples of a unique hook that has caught your eye, or failed miserably?

You’ll see some of my thoughts on this in Question 1. The unique hook you are looking for has to come naturally out of your story. The easy way to do this “it’s X meets Y” with some combo of other books or movies, or “my character is Z plus A” in the same fashion. It’s an effective short-hand – I know some people look at it as a cheesy Hollywoodization of everything, but remember that you’re just looking at a way to grab someone’s attention and get them to read further in where you’ll get beyond the surface. Also, make sure your X’s and Y’s are not both classic novels – got to have something in there that worked in the last 5-10 years. A better approach of course is if you can build your opening line, your hook, directly from your book.

Erin, I went back and checked, and you actually did something I don’t see that much of, starting your letter off with text from the book (after first introducing what it was, of course). This may be an effective tactic, if you can find a short passage from the opening that is really grabbing (no pun intended for your query). I think most writers are wary of this, and it is not a no brainer. But it could be one to think about.

 Aw, shucks. If you guys are curious about the query letter Jason is referring to, you can read it HERE.

Let's say an author gets to phrase two. Their writing is good, the first pages pull you in...but once you have the full manuscript you decide it's not for you. What usually motivates that decision?

If it becomes a slog to read it – if I don’t want to keep picking it up. The interesting thing here is that the writer has to make my work not be work anymore. It should be a joy to keep reading, and if there are any problems, I’m excited to tackle them with an author, not trepidatious that they will be too hard to fix.

Sadly, there’s no easy fix for this, though you might be able to control for it with beta readers. You might want to ask people to read the book as fast as they can. Bug them about it. If they start and are not getting into it, that might be a sign. It’s a purely commercial form of quality testing – is this a beach read, is this a page-turner? Not every book falls into that kind of category, but then, maybe your question is “Did it make you cry?” If it’s supposed to make people cry, and there’s nothing but dry eyes, you know you have an issue.

Do you prefer reading queries, or being pitched to in person? Will you be attending any conferences or workshops this year?

I like doing conferences, but it's more for the workshops. Pitching in person is interesting, and I know how hard it is on the pitchers, but ultimately it is no substitute for reading someone’s writing. I like the workshops on query letters and opening pages because I find authors can get a lot of quick, good info on how to hone their work there.

I did some earlier this year and some last year, but probably not many for the rest of the year, I’m just too busy. Sadly, the nice one put on by BackSpace here in NYC has come to an end. I did a couple of online contests, and those were fun and easier since I didn't have to get off my butt.

Is there anything you've sold that is coming out soon (or just come out) that you're excited to tell us about?

Apropos to the last question, I had a book come out that I picked as a winner in a contest a while back, The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan. It’s women’s fiction, not a category I really do, so it’s a bit of a fluke, but I think it’s a good example of finding new clients and books in unexpected places. I got into Amy’s book because the contest exposed me to more of her writing than I might have if I’d seen a query from her that was tagged in this genre, because I would have quickly passed by. But because it spoke to me personally, I kept on going with it.

Also, because I do a lot of work in the comics world, I’d encourage people to check out the trade paperbacks for Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis Wiebe and Tyler Jenkins – it’s good stuff, and Kurtis’s next comic, Rat Queens, is going to be loved by any Joss Whedon fans and fans of funny, butt-kicking women in general.

Thanks, Jason!

Stay tuned for more Query Tips. Also, be sure to check out my new query "Dos and Don'ts" video HERE, in which I issue a fellow writer (and YOU) A CHALLENGE. Ooooh.

Questions? Comments? Be sure to leave them below!


  1. Great interview!

    I just facepalmed at reading the mirror-character-description-reveal in The Cuckoo's Calling. But Rowling can do ANYTHING now! (I can't remember, actually; did Harry look in mirrors at the beginning of each book?)

    1. No way! Was there really one in The Cuckoo's Calling? I'm totally going out to buy that tomorrow out of sheer, burning curiosity.

      I think the way HP was written allowed her to describe him from other people's perspective.