Agent Questions Volume One: What is #MSWL, What agents look for in queries, How long should it take to read a “Full,” What NOT to DO, How to increase your chances of being read, and More…


#MSWL- How Does it Work?

The link is to a Twitter grouping. Agents and Editors list what they desire to see in their inbox (their ManuScript Wish List), and mark it with #MSWL. These tweets show authors what an agent is looking for, sometimes on a daily basis. Some agents change their list by the direction of the wind, others remain static. You can also look to the following websites for more detailed lists, though not revised as often: or

When you see a tweet that seems to ask for just what you have written, speed yourself to that agent’s site to find their submission guidelines and how to contact them.

Do include in your query, any of the #MSWL traits that that they desire, and how those relate to your book. (More about this later.)

You will get to know people as you continue to read their tweets. If you really like an agent, but they are not looking for what you’ve written, keep watch on their #MSWL thread and hopefully it will change in your favor. In the meantime, query the agents who match with you now.

*Do not query agents over Twitter- if they answer you at all, it will most likely be a form response to query them according to their submission guidelines, so start there.

*Do not tell agents, “I know you’re looking for zombies, I don’t like zombies. My manuscript is about vampires, but it’s okay, because they’re both undead.”


What Agents Look For in a Query:

First, I want to talk about what I call, the query “formula.” Occasionally, I give authors help with queries and I begin by telling them this:

A query, after all the formal addressing at the top, consists of sections. The first section is the intro. You’re going to have researched your potential agent on http://www.manuscriptwishlist,com where you can see what agents are looking for exactly what you’re writing (the most current wish lists are on here at ). You are going to say, “Dear Mr./Ms. Smith, I noticed from your profile on _________, that you acquire steamy romances with a dash of horror (quote something from their wishlist). As such, I thought you might enjoy my 86,000 word romantic thriller titled GUNS AND ROSES. (Make sure you capitalize your title and the names of your characters, the first time they appear.) Feel free to embellish this paragraph a little, but make sure that all this information is there: title, genre, word count, and why you chose this agent.  

The second section is the section where you will summarize your novel.  Don’t use more than 2, possibly 3 (if they’re small), paragraphs explaining the main concept of your plot. Do not include the ending. This is your opportunity to hook the agent and make them want to read your synopsis (where you will give the entire scene by scene of your story, including the ending). Make the book really shine here, if it’s mysterious, show us, if it’s humorous, make us laugh. Showcase your work briefly.  I read the query letter to see if I like the book’s concept, the synopsis tells me if you can write a whole story, with rising action,  a climax, and resolution. Then, your sample pages tell me if you can pull off that story in your synopsis. Make sense? So each part of your query arsenal is important for a different reason.

The final chapter of your query is going to be your bio. Just one paragraph, we want to know anything that has to do with your writing experience. Did you write for the school paper in high school and it began your love of prose? Were you a Young Author Award winner? Do you publish poetry in your spare time? Do you write songs for your church? I do not need to know the names of all three of your cats, and yes, that does happen. Your five kids’ names and favorite sports do not go here, leave that for your bio in the back of your book. Make sense? That is not to say you can’t make it personal and tell me you like writing journal after journal by firelight in your mountain cabin, that you share with your family, or that the scenery inspires you to create your colorful fiction, but make sure you are letting me know about you and how you got to be writing this query.  That’s what your agent is interested in.  Make sure to follow up with a “thank you for your time and consideration,” then Sincerely, and your name.  All this should fit onto one sheet of paper. Single spaced, with paragraph indentions.  With the advent of email queries, if your query letter is a LITTLE over one page long, the agent will not be able to tell when you copy and paste it into an email. However, if it is two pages, or so dry that it drags on and on, the agent will lose interest and that is not to your benefit.

I hope this helps you a little when it comes to forming your query letter. There are many excellent articles about query writing online. Writer’s Digest ( has every article under the sun for aspiring authors. Make sure to use your resources.



What Are Publishers Looking For in 2018?

This is kind of a loaded question. Lately there is a huge push toward books with all things diversity: dealing with social and economic oppression, anything LGBTQIA+, cultural books that deal with real-life issues, and #ownvoices (Which is a book about people of a non-white ethnicity, writing about and through their culture).

I’m also seeing lots of witches on wishlists. And normally light things like mermaids and faeries, with dark twists. If you are keeping your eye on the current wishlists, you will eventually see the patterns. Agents will be asking for the current trends, because that’s what editors are looking for, and they acquire books for publishers.


How Long Does it Take to Read a Full Manuscript Submission?

Chip MacGregor takes two to four months, and has readers.

Janet Reid tells us on her blog that she has had fulls and partials for a year or more.

Mary C. Moore admits to holding on for too long, like many of us, because she believes she might miss a gem if she doesn’t give each book a fair chance at being read and responded to.

This is a personal question whose answer changes from one agent to another. We all have different amounts of queries coming in, but believe me, there is always a full box. Your full box may have thousands of queries, and my box may have hundreds, but they are both full boxes depending on the agent. If you want to see current patterns of reading time for your favorite agents, check out

Many authors do not realize that a lot of agents have full time jobs outside of agenting, which only pays when we successfully contract an author with a publisher. We all have families and friends, like you do.

I recently read an article by Janet Reid, where she explains:

The first question is what you really need to know though: how long does it take an agent to read your work. And the answer is a whole lot longer than you think.  Remember that she’s going to read your whole manuscript AND give you notes, or at least feedback. In other words, she’s not just skimming along with “do I love this, can I sell this.”  That kind of read takes time. (Read, not reading for my eagle-eyed proof readers out there)
Agents prioritize their reading. The rule of thumb is: the closer you are to the money, the faster you get read.
Thus, things I read right away are: contracts. Contracts trump everything.
Next: books on editorial deadline. Those books have contracts and production deadlines. I read those as close to instantly as I can. Often getting that book to the editor triggers a payment and we like that a lot.
Next: books/proposals ready or close to ready to go on submission. Revisions to books on submission are here too.
Everything else comes after those three categories.  Your book isn’t under contract, and it’s not on editorial deadline. It’s not on submission. That means you’re probably not going to be read as soon as you wish (or your agent wishes either–trust me, I’d love to have eight eyes and a robot brain most days.)
What will surprise you here is often I’ll read queries and requested fulls before some client manuscripts. That’s because I can often get them an answer pretty quickly. I don’t have to do more than say yes/no and I don’t have to read the entire manuscript on a request if by page X I know I’m not going to take it on.
It can feel good to get something done, and off the to do list at least once a day, even if it’s not the most important thing on the list. Sometimes mental health requires that. (At least it does for me. Other agents might be more mentally balanced.)
And just to make sure everyone is having a good time here, there’s the really fun moment when you’re just about to read something that’s eight weeks overdue, and a client pops in with a manuscript on editorial deadline. Or a contract for a short story they sold. Or an editor calls with an offer to be negotiated.
Sayonara reading plans.
With manuscripts like yours I have to respond in detail and that means time.
Blocks of time are increasingly hard to find. Any kind of schedule is a fervent hope at best.
Bottom line: don’t get on the rodent wheel of panic. Don’t assume your agent is a slacker nincompoop. Do not assume she’s lost interest in you.  Stay in touch with her gently. Have patience. Keep writing.

Finally, Fiona Mitchell gives us advice on What Not to Do When a Literary Agent Asks For Your Whole Novel:

It’s going to be a nail-chewing, neck-tensing, grumpy-mood-inducing time, so here’s some tips:

1. Don’t start monitoring the literary agent.

Googling her name, looking up other people who she’s offered representation to. Sound familiar? Force yourself to look away from the screen, and stop logging onto Twitter every five minutes to see if she’s posted. Put your energy into starting something new. A short story. A new novel. Read or collect ideas for future work.

2. Don’t bombard the agent with emails.

Coo-ee, just wondering how you’re getting on with The Masterpiece? Then two days later: Me again. And, don’t phone. That’s the equivalent of repeatedly ding-donging someone’s doorbell when all the lights are on, but no one’s opening up. Reading a full takes time. Some agents take about three months to reply to an initial submission of three chapters and a synopsis, so how long is it going to take to read your 90,000 words? A few weeks ago I read an account by a published author that went something like this. I wrote to a literary agent and 24 hours later she offered me representation. Two days after that, she negotiated me a three book deal with Penguin. I lay my head on the desk and almost muttered the words, I’m unworthy. I ate a scone instead. Thing is, it doesn’t happen like that for most writers. Exercise patience, distract yourself, keep writing. Agents who’ve requested a full can take anything from one month to six to reply.

3. If an agent who requested a full hasn’t replied after three months, do email and say you’d welcome some feedback.

Sometimes when an agent requests a full they don’t reply at all. Yep, this happened to me with an early version of my first book. It’s happened to other writers I know too. Try not to take it personally, it’s more of a reflection on the agent than on your writing. So there!

4.When the agent turns your book down with feedback, don’t do anything apart from flaring your nostrils and swearing.

Don’t bash out an instant reply. ‘Thanks for your patronising comments, but…’ Step away. Go for a run. Punch that pillow. A rejection usually comes with pointers. ‘The narrative wasn’t taut enough,’ for instance. ‘The plot lost direction halfway through.’ File the email somewhere other than in your inbox, so it’s not staring out at you for the next few miserable mornings as your damp cornflakes slap onto your keyboard. When you’ve calmed down, read the email again, process it and adjust your manuscript accordingly. Send it to an editor too – you might think that’s a waste of money, but the fact that anyone has requested your full means that there’s some magic to it. An editor could be just the genie you need.


5. When the reply doesn’t contain any feedback, write back saying you’d welcome some.

Most agents will be more than happy to give you their thoughts. Don’t expect compliments. Do expect constructive criticism.

6. When an agent reads a full, and asks for a second read once you’ve made changes, definitely send it back to her.

Once you’ve made changes, you could send out more submissions too – to up to eight agents at a time – after all, by the time your MS has risen to the top of the slush pile, your almost-agent might have signed or rejected you anyway. Alternatively, you could stop sending your book out. But remember, this is limbo land – an exciting yet anxiety-ridden place. Do whatever feels right for you. But whatever you do, eat scones, don’t cyber- stalk, and keep writing.

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.


How Can Authors Increase their Chances of Having Submissions Read?

The best thing you can do is have a great book.

What I mean, is to have the characteristics of a good book.

Isn’t that a bit subjective? Different people like different things in a book.

Bingo. Every agent has a different set of credentials, but many of them are similar across the board have: strongly voiced characters, detailed world-building, no plot holes, unique plot or familiar storyline with a twist, correct word count, good grammar usage, dynamic first sentence and page, and grips you emotionally somehow from the start.

After they come to the table with a quality manuscript, I enjoy kind, respectful business people in my clients, just like in any job; but here I get to choose my coworkers. I like friendly people who understand my time constraints on top of family, my other jobs and hobbies, not chewing me out for having a family emergency and not getting to your query on time. Lol.

Other things I look for personally, are: completion of the manuscript, editing, clear genre, revision, character development, a full synopsis (generally 1 – 3 pages), uniqueness, follows current literary trends, has lots of action, and no prologues. It’s not as easy as just making a list, though. Agents and editors who have been in the business will tell you that it is an indescribable ability to read a query and inherently know that it is acceptable or not, according to your own tastes.

Agreeing with me and elaborating on the subject of needing to have a great story to win at the publishing “game of chance,” is the website:

I hate to tell you this, but there are no outside forces at work in the publishing business other than the simple economics of the business. The publishers want to sell books. If they think your story can do that, they won’t care whether you’ve sold twenty books or none. Remember: every established writer out there, all of those multi-published authors, once had to sell their first novel or their first story. They managed it. You can too. If your manuscript can’t find a home, then I am suggesting that the best place to look for the problem is in a mirror.
Let me repeat: the publishing business is not a lottery and there are no odds. If it were a lottery, the editors would dump all the slush manuscripts into a big bin, give it a good spin, and reach inside to pluck out a single manuscript, proclaiming “Here’s the one we’re going to publish this month!” That’s not how they do it. They actually read the slush, at least until they know they don’t need to read any more…
Nor is it a closed club for the glorious Previously Published: if it were, the markets wouldn’t even bother to allow unsolicited manuscripts or even agented ones — why bother to go to all that trouble, time, and expense if the only people you’re going to publish are the ones you’ve already published?
Here’s the truth: If your manuscript is poorly presented — if it isn’t in proper manuscript form, if it has five mistakes in the first paragraph, if the prose is riddled with cliches, if the characters are wooden and the dialogue forced and the plot obvious, if you can’t write a complete sentence or you switch tense and viewpoint at will — then you have 0% chance of being published.
It won’t matter how many times you send out that manuscript to the professional markets. Your story will never sell… because it isn’t good enough. Period. Note that many of the qualities I’ve just cited are simple technical aspects that anyone can learn, like ‘proper manuscript form.’ I’ve heard from editors that a surprisingly high percentage of the manuscripts that come in over the transom ignore that one little rule, and as a result get bounced. In fact, I tell my students this: want to learn how to substantially increase these mythical odds’? Then learn how to do proper manuscript form. It’s easy. Honest, it is.


That’s all I had for this week. Tune in next week for more questions, I hope. If you have publishing questions that you’d like some candid answers to, send me a message, or join my tweet- in- progress. Before we leave though, I wanted to share with you the following list of reasons manuscripts are rejected, so you know NOT to do these things!  Have a great week!




17 Reasons Manuscripts Are Rejected by Editors and Agents

After I list the reasons manuscripts are rejected, I offer several writing and publishing tips from a literary agent and a book editor. Julie Scheina (Little, Brown editor) and Haile Ephron (writer and book reviewer at the Boston Globe) joined Janet Reid for a 90 minute session about sending queries, editing manuscripts, and publishing books.

The writer uses the phrase “fiction novel.” “The writer uses the phrase ‘fiction novel’,” says Reid. Misusing the English language is why she – and many editors, publishers, and agents – stop reading and reject manuscripts.

The manuscript doesn’t seem organic or authentic. “If you’re trying to follow a trend, you’ll lose your voice,” says Scheina. “If I feel like this is something I’ve already read, I’ll put it down.” (Read How to Write Authentically From Anne Lamott for tips on better writing).

The book is too complicated to be published. “If there are too many characters and I have to make a list to keep them straight, then I’ll put the book down,” says Ephron. Your manuscript will be rejected if it doesn’t flow or transition easily.

The book is boring (immediate manuscript rejection!). “If your opening paragraph is someone driving and sleeping, I’ll put it down,” says Reid. “Most writers need time to warm up – but I don’t want to read that. Make sure your story starts in the first sentence.” (Read Grabbing Your Reader by the Throat for tips on writing introductions).

The writer offers no reason to care about the character. “Why do I care?” asks Scheina. “Each character has to be unique and special, or I’ll want to close the book.” The first day of school, moving, or packing your boxes aren’t gripping leads. “Prologues are really boring most of the time,” she says.

The writer slips into a sliding point of view. “You get one point of view character per scene,” says Ephron. “Every scene should be narrated by one character in that scene.” Don’t shift the point of view. Stay with one specific character’s perspective throughout the scene.

The writer includes too many stock characters in the manuscript. Beautiful blonde bombshells, evil billionaires, and hookers with a heart of gold are all stock characters – and Reid is tired of them! Limp descriptions are also boring. “I want complex, nuanced characters,” she says.

The book is too “moral” to be published. “Don’t send me fiction books that give moral messages, because neither kids nor adults will reason them,” says Scheina. “If you have a message, it shouldn’t be on the first page or in the first chapter.” She also says readers don’t want to be preached to; morals and messages should occur to the reader after they put the book down.

The writer keeps saying how great the book is. “When I don’t know what the book is about, I’ll stop reading your query,” says Reid. She urges writers to describe what your book is about, but don’t brag about how great it is.

The writing is too flowery. Ephron says that writers should show what the character is feeling through their physical behavior – not through phrases like “she whimpered morosely.” It’s the classic “Show, don’t tell” — and get rid of adverbs and adjectives, or your query letter will be deleted. (Read Tips for Improving Your Query Letters for help).

The writer sends illegible or handwritten queries. Make sure your queries are professional and easy to read. “When you’re sending an email query, include white spaces,” says Reid. “Don’t send big blocks of text in a query, because that’s hard to read. Remember, you have 15 seconds to catch my attention.” She suggests sending your query to several different people first, to make sure it emails properly.


The writer uses too many cliches in the manuscript. “Show emotions in a stronger way than ‘butterflies in my stomach’”, advises Scheina.


The writer incorporates graphic violence, profanity, and explicit sex. “I feel as if a writer has to earn the right to go there with me,” says Ephron. “Develop your characters, show me you can write, before we go there.” She doesn’t necessarily reject those books, but she’ll want to stop reading if graphic violence happens right away.

The writer has an unpleasant tone and attitude. Reid says she gets a lot of queries from writers who don’t like agents, and those writers are often open about their dislike. She suggests not revealing that you dislike literary agents.

The book’s pacing is off. “Don’t write your slow parts too slow, or your fast parts too fast,” says Ephron. If the pace of your novel is off, then your manuscript is more likely to be rejected.

The writer is a stalker (immediate manuscript rejection). Don’t send agents, editors, or publishers anything that’s clever or cute. Reid wants to read queries and know about your book, so you don’t need to bribe her with your gifts. “And, don’t disrespect yourself in your query letter by saying ‘I know how busy you are,’ – you’re important and busy, too!”

The manuscript has an improper word count. “Make sure your word count is around 100,000,” says Reid. Manuscripts under 50,000 or over 200,000 words don’t meet the common industry standards – so aim for the general target of 100,000 words.



*Don’t forget- you can do this! ~jenn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s