Guest Post: Cassandra Marshall - Tales from the Slush Pile

Karly says that me being an agent intern is a lot like being behind enemy lines. While I don’t think agents and writers are enemies, I can see where she comes from. I get to learn from the thousands of writers who query the agency I intern for. I get to see what they’re writing about, how to set my own writing apart from that, and the different ways to approach the query process.

What they’re writing about:

- Vampires. Even after all this time and moaning about the influx of vamps, at least 10 out of every 50 queries out there are about vampires.

- Angels/demons.

- Cops/detectives/FBI whodunit’s.

- Women with low self-esteem issues.

- Memoirs of people with boring lives.

 How to get your query noticed:

- If you’ve got a vampire story, don’t use the word ‘vampire’ if you can help it. Use “undead” or “blood-suckers” or “night hunters” or some other vampire-esque euphemism. The sad truth is that after seeing vampire query after vampire query that are rip-offs of Twilight or True Blood, as soon as we see the word vampire we’re already looking for hints of which other vampires you’re copying.

- If you’ve got an angels and/or demons book, don’t name your characters Gabriel or Michael or any of the other obvious names. Just like with vamps, as soon as we see a name we recognize to be part of a formula, we’ve probably already decided to pass. We’ll finish reading of course, but we’re more than likely looking for more reasons to pass rather than looking for ways that your query is different.

- If you’ve got a cop story, don’t name your cop Jack. There are a million ways to die, and most of them have been done before. A cop who’s wife has just died, or a detective who didn’t see that his ex was cheating on him, FBI agents for some secret undercover operation, those have been done to death. Get a new angle. Surprise us. Make the story truly terrifying, not one we can guess the ending of by reading the flap copy.

- We see way too many women who have just been dumped, and reeling, move “back home” usually to a small southern town where they fall in love the “guy that got away” or the “wounded manly carpenter/lumberjack-type.” Give us those smart and sassy women who don’t just run away from their problems but attack them head-on (and win not because they are bitches or because they give in to the first man that looks at them, but because they grow stronger in their own self-worth.)

- If you’re going to write a memoir about your life, make sure you’ve done something interesting. Just because you’ve got a few funny stories to share doesn’t mean that the world will rush out to read them. We’ve all got funny stories and most of them are “you just had to be there” moments. Read other memoirs. Make sure something truly unique has happened to you and you’re not just writing because you like to hear yourself talk.

Ways to approach the query process:

- All business. There’s a line you can cross when trying to be professional when you become too stiff and your query gets lost in it’s own long-windedness. Don’t be afraid to let a little of your personality show through. Think of it as writing to a colleague, not the CEO. You won’t want to say, “Yo, what up Sugarmuffin?” but you won’t want to take all of yourself out of it either.

- Apologetic. Don’t apologize for wasting our time. If you don’t have the confidence in your work that it’s worth our time, then why will we have confidence in it? Don’t thank us for taking time out of our busy lives to read your query. Without authors, agents wouldn’t have jobs. And to find those authors, they must read slush. It’s give and take: you give a query, we take a moment to read that query. There’s no need to grovel.

- The jerk. Don’t say that you’re including the first 22 pages because chapter two started on page nine and you didn’t want to truncate it. Don’t say that you didn’t know how to paste in your book without messing up the formatting and so you’re attaching it instead. If you can’t follow a simple set of submissions guidelines, what other “rules” are you going to break and flaunt?

- The ignorant. If you don’t know how to do something, Google it. If you can find the name of an agent, you can find their submissions guidelines. If you can search for an email address, you can search for “how to query.” Be proactive in your query process. Read agent blogs, read forums, participate in twitter chats like #askagent, #askintern, #queries, #querychat, #YAlitchat, etc. The only way you can truly understand the process is to learn everything you can about it. If you don’t even try, the only one that looks foolish is you.

C.A. Marshall is a freelance editor, lit agent intern, YA writer, and dog owner. She dreams of one day owning a small house near the water, preferably in England, with a shelf full of books she has written and has helped others to write. She can be found in Emmett, MI and at


  1. My cop is named Jacques, 'cause he's from France; is that okay? lol
    Brilliant and enlightening and funny blog post C.A. Marshall, thank you!

  2. I will definitely use 'yo, what up sugarmuffin?' in my next query!!! Agents beware!!!

  3. This was an informative post, Karly. Thanks so much for sharing. I am really enjoying your blog!

  4. I follow alot of agents on Twitter and I'm always shocked by how rude someone can be when they submit a query. I mean, do you seriously think an agent will was to work with you if you are an a-hole? I tell my readers all the time that there are three keys to success: good writing, original stories, and professionalism. It also doesn't hurt to have a little luck on your side. ;)


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