It isn’t a mystery to understand the perks of going to Query Roulette: in ten-minute sessions, literary agents give critiques of query letters to authors seeking feedback and, hopefully, representation. Each session is different, whether caused by the diverse genres the agents represent or their critical style. The suggestions could be line edits. They could be macro-examinations of the pitch. They could stem from questions about the platform.
Despite the intimidating nature of this process, what’s rather magical and consistent about this event is something unexpected—maybe unfairly—of the process: it’s kind.
Query Roulette is one of the biggest events the WNBA-NYC hosts each year, and it’s almost always sold out. This year, despite a record-breaking blizzard on the event’s original night in March, Rachel Feldman and her coordinating team managed to book even more authors for June.
“This is such a great opportunity for writers who may not be able to get an appointment with a NYC agent on their own,” says Feldman. “Maybe they don’t have personal connections, or their query letters aren’t working.”
And if your query letter isn’t working, Query Roulette is for you. I’ve had the privilege of attending three Roulettes in my time at the WNBA, and I can personally attest to the transformative power of an agent’s critique.
Each year, I’m always taken by a bout of literary ecstasy by the professionalism and quality of the event. The second year I attended lacked no fervor that I felt in the first year when I was pitching my own letter. And this third year has stood out, to me, as just how powerful the literary community can be when it steps up to aid its own.
In the case of the terrifying querying process, where it’s all too easy to feel alone as an author, there’s comfort knowing that there are agents on authors’ sides, and there are volunteers who are willing to pair the two groups together, seeking a greater collaboration.
“I Must Have Rewritten My Query Twenty Times”: The Authors Who Give Their Work
For an author, going to Query Roulette is like taking a spin on a very productive merry-go-round. It’s insightful, sometimes intense, yet it’s also so, so enjoyable―and all without the painted horses.
First-time attendee Neil Floyd, who just finished his first novel, an upmarket literary work called What Happened At the Lake After Rosie Got Smoked, came to the event on my recommendation, a little suspicious of how it would all play out. After three successful sessions with agents, he knew he’d made the right choice in coming.
“I could get all my critiques on the Internet, but getting notes face-to-face is so much more effective,” Floyd said. “[A]nd the people are nicer!”
You couldn’t look down the event hall without seeing authors jotting notes, drinking copious amounts of water, thumbing through their query letters to confirm they had printed three copies instead of two. Preparation took precedent.
“I must have rewritten my query twenty times,” said Hannah Bennett, president of the New York chapter of the WNBA. She also spent time “reading online posts from agents on how to write the best queries.”
Bennett finished a first draft of her YA fantasy novel, The Lucomin, and for the first time in five years was able to participate. Quite nervous, she’d been to a Roulette but didn’t know what to expect once she was at the table.
However, “[t]he nerves dissipated the moment I sat down with those friendly, brilliant agents.”
With only ten minutes, the fury of an agent session can be exhausting and overwhelming. Antoinette Coroni spent the day relaxing and reading to prep for the night.
Of course, this also entailed revising her novel and query letter beforehand.
“Sign up early… think about the suitable niche for your book.”–Antoinette Coroni
“Do your research―be prepared with questions to ask based on your understanding of the query process. And don’t be disappointed if they don’t take your query―every agent is a new audience.”–Hannah Bennett
“Playing to Your Assumptions and Smashing Them Apart”: The Agents Who Give Their Expertise
Halfway through the event, I stepped into the large space where the sessions were held, which is typically reserved for de-stressing motions like downward-facing dog and in that moment was more like the trading floor at Wall Street. Rachel Feldman told me that, through the night, there were only three open time slots where I could talk with an agent for comments, and this was one of them. At one of the tables in the center of the room, I found Monica Odom.
Odom’s eyes lit up, ready for whatever I was about to say, for whomever I was. She could have been exhausted, but you wouldn’t have known it.
She mostly works with nonfiction, but she’s in pursuit of fiction, too―literary, upmarket, the like. Not much genre fiction, but only because she doesn’t typically read genre and doesn’t quite have the formula. She’s an accomplished agent at Bradford Literary Agency, and she’s been coming to Query Roulette for the past three years.
The reason was flattering: “It’s really well put together.” But in a matter of a few minutes, it was also easy to glean that Odom, like the other agents at the Roulette, was a compassionate person who simply cared enough to give back.
Different elements of a pitch will pique different agents. One of the authors, Kate Gardner, said an agent with whom she spoke “gave me very positive feedback on my query letter―which got [them] to read my pages overnight.” While the idea for the story impressed the agent, ultimately Gardner found she had “a ways to go on developing my fictional writing style.”
For Odom, she looks for “challenges to stereotypes…. Playing to your assumptions and smashing them apart.” She skims a query first for bits that interest her, like time periods and “certain flavors” (in this case, cultural layers like those in the popular podcast S-Town are in vogue with Odom).
Ultimately, the goal of any query letter is to snag an agent’s interest. But what Query Roulette has done, in Odom’s perspective, is maybe much more than putting authors in front of agents.
“[Query Roulette] reminds you,” said Odom, “there’s a community… [and] agents are part of it.”
“Nail your elevator pitch and comp titles.” —Jaida Temperly
“[It’s] always good to get your work out.” —Monica Odom
“Energy and Openness”: The Volunteers Who Give Their Time
Amidst the din of the authors and agents were the steadfast members that made the event happen. Among others, Rachel Slaiman and Bridget Marmion signed in authors and provided support. Hannah Bennett gave a rousing introduction to the night. Liberty Schauf kept time. And Rachel Feldman, who had been organizing the event for the past year alongside Bennett, Christine Sikule, and Laurel Stokes, monitored and managed, keeping Query Roulette in flow.
“I love organizing events,” Feldman said of working with the WNBA, having organized the event for the past few years. She’s fully aware of how important it is to the chapter, “not only because it’s the chapter’s main fundraiser but because it specifically helps a large portion of our members―the writers.”
I’ve worked with these folks in several capacities, and what doesn’t surprise me is the vigor in which they pursue this event, to make it a boon for writers and agents alike.
Sheila Lewis has known about Query Roulette for the past nine years. She attended as a participant herself, but also volunteered to had the opportunity to collect comments from authors and agents across the night. Cheery all night, Lewis had nothing but good things to say about the Roulette.
“The energy and openness is collegiate and supportive,” Lewis said. “I feel glad to get not only professional feedback but to build the WNBA community.”
What Lewis said is true. Query Roulette connects authors to agents, connects authors to authors, connects authors to the WNBA, connects agents to the WNBA. It builds something that might not have been.
Ultimately, “the focus [is] the query,” says Feldman, “to teach and improve upon it.”
“People take it seriously!” Lewis said. And I believe her. I saw it firsthand, and I imagine people will continue to take this event seriously for quite a while.
“The goal of Query Roulette is not to perfectly pitch to or get signed―though those would be nice bonus outcomes indeed―but to get expert help and advice with a writing project.”–Rachel Feldman
“Get ready in advance, then follow up… If an agent asks you to submit, put WNBA QR in subject line and respond as soon as you can.”–Sheila Lewis