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Monday
Apr192010

Fiction is So Subjective is the Agent's Equivalent of It's Not You, It's Me

Yay! Today we have a guest post from my fabulous agent, Elisabeth Weed, who will be chiming in here every month or so, whenever it strikes her fancy. For more info on Elisabeth and her agency, check out Weed Literary. And please feel free to reply in the comment section, so that she knows how much she's loved here. :)

We've all been there. We meet a guy who looks great on paper. He's got a great smile, a cool job and a full head of hair.   But we just aren't feeling it.  We don't want to go home with him and make out all night. We aren't imagining what our kids will look like. We don't want to call our best friend and our mother the next day and tell them just how fabulous he is.  Nope.  We are going to smile politely and decline the dinner. Drinks were great. We're glad we met, but we're pretty sure there's someone out there who's a much better fit for us...and him. There's nothing wrong with him, per se, but he's just not right for us.  

The same can be said about agents and authors in this similar dance of trying to find the perfect match.   I can't tell you how many times I've read something and thought, this is really good, but I am just not super excited about it. In lieu of the make out, I don't want to stay up all night reading it and  I don't want to call my favorite editors and tell them that I have found the one that is going to change my life. And theirs. 

So, for any of you out there who are going through the agent search, looking for the perfect match, please take heart when you get the rejection that "fiction is so subjective, I'm sure another agent will feel differently."  We agents use that line. A lot. But it's really not just a line.  Fiction IS so subjective.  And, to prove my point, I wanted to share a little publishing anecdote with you.

Recently, a fabulous agent and dear friend, who I will refer to here as Super Agent, called me close to tears. A novel she'd rejected about year ago had just sold for a big sum to a very tony house and to a very respected editor.  "What's wrong with me?"  Super Agent lamented. " I feel like such a loser, but I really didn't like the book at all.  Did I just miss an amazing opportunity? Do I suck? I suck, don't I? " Okay, maybe those weren't her words exactly, but having been in her shoes myself, I knew how she felt.  In fact,  I am not sure there's an agent out there who hasn't been in this situation, scrolling through Publishers Marketplace, only to see a deal announced about something they rejected.

But what I told Super Agent, after reminding her of her super-ness, is that fiction is subjective and if she didn't love it, she was very wise not to take it on because she wouldn't have sold it the way the other agent did.  In dating terms, she would have strung the guy along, not really feeling passionate about him, and wasted both of their time.  And, okay, I am stretching my metaphor here, but if the dating goal is to find the chapel/temple and priest/rabbi (Publisher! Editor!) It never would have happened because she just didn't like him enough.  Thank goodness for the author that she did reject it. 

So, in all seriousness,  when you do get those responses, try to remember that it's not just a form rejection. There is hope that someone else really will see your work differently.  And comfort yourself knowing that you are lucky that the agent who passed, did pass, because would you want that agent be telling her editors that you are great and all but you're just not in love?

One more anecdote that always makes me laugh. My first boss, an older gentleman who has great taste, actually likes to brag that he turned down The Perfect Storm, because, "Why the hell would anyone want to read about a storm that kills everyone on a fishing boat?"  Perhaps it's his age, or more likely his Y chromosome that gives him the confidence, but it all comes back to the fact that while we are all looking for that next great book, that next great book is different for everyone. So, take heart.  It's Not you. It's Us.  

 

Wednesday
Mar312010

Multiple Submissions

Question of the day: I have just completed my first novel, and got a referral from a writer friend to my first agent. My question is, can I query more than one agent at a time? How accepted is this?

Not only is it accepted, it's standard and agents expect that you are out there querying your tush off to agents other than them. Landing an agent is sooooo difficult that you have to protect your own best interests in the process, and you may end up querying 100 agents before landing one. If you did this on a one-by-one basis, you'd be downright geriatric before you got representation. Agents know this, and yes, you should thus be querying a bunch of them at a time. 

When I was on the agent hunt myself, I queried in about 10-person batches. As in, I'd fire off about ten emails and then as a rejection came in, I'd send off another one, so I always had about ten irons in the fire. I know that this is counter-intuitive to magazine writers (such as myself) who are very, very careful not to send in multiple queries for story ideas, but unlike with magazines, who demand some sort of propriety non-compete, agents can't ask for this. And when they do - some will ask for an exclusive read - it is in your best interest to say no. Politely. That you already have the manuscript out with someone else and that while you'd like to honor the exclusive, you simply can't. If they refuse to read, you have a pretty good indication of what said agent would be like to work with, but most will shrug their shoulders and read anyway. They just want a leg up on their competition. Which is fine, but remember that finding an agent is about YOU and YOUR career, not theirs...so keep querying and keep going. And good luck along the way!

Tuesday
Sep152009

How Long is Too Long?

(TWSS! - Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Question of the day: I recently wrote a novel and started querying agents in early August. Two of the three I queried requested the manuscript right away, which is great ... except they're taking their sweet time to read it. Any thoughts on how long I should wait before moving on? I don't want to break some agent protocol that I don't know about ... but I'm also excited about this (maybe naively so :) and want to find someone sooner than later. I also want an agent who's super enthusiastic about the book, and taking a month to read it doesn't scream excited to me. But again, maybe I'm being naive. 

Ah, the great agent waiting game. Been there, done that. It sucks. 

But, a month isn’t unusual, unfortunately. It’s actually pretty standard, even though, yeah, it seems like if they want it, they should want it NOW. But I do think the standard window is between four to six weeks, at least that's what agents will tell you. That said, sure, there are plenty who read faster and there are plenty who don't. I'm not sure it's really an indicator of enthusiasm because if they requested a ms from you AND a few dozen other people, they're interested in them all, and they all take time to read.

But – what I’d say, just to keep your nerves calm AND your chances higher – is to keep pitching even while they’re reading. You should probably pitch about ten at a time (even agents tell you this), so you always have a lot of irons in the fire and aren’t banking on anyone in particular. I used to send out a new query as soon as I got any sort of rejection, so the wheel was always turning. Having just three queries out is putting too few eggs in too few baskets. Some writers will literally query hundreds of agents, and again, the good news is that multiple queries is both expected and encouraged.

Also, I do think that after a month or so, you're well-within your rights to follow up with an agent when they've requested materials. I wouldn't follow up if you don't get a reply to your query - I think that's answer enough (though some might disagree, and that's fine too - think it's a personal decision), but since you've already gotten their attention, sure, you can send a polite, quick email to hopefully get an ETA.

Good luck! Anyone else want to chime in here on time frames?

 

 

 

Friday
Sep112009

My Agent Chimes in On My Query

So, just a quick late Friday post, as I'm traveling and might not get a post up on Monday.

Two fun things - first, I did a Q/A over at The Novel Girls blog, which consists of a fabu group of debut novelists...check their blog out regardless of whether or not you want to hear what I have to say. :) But check it out to hear what I have to say on the best and worst things about writing and my advice to new authors.

http://thenovelgirls.blogspot.com/2009/09/novel-girls-welcome-allison-winn-scotch.html

Also, perfect timing: turns out that my agent, Elisabeth Weed, whom you guys know I adore, chimed in on the Guide to Literary Agent's blog, responding to what she liked about my initial query to her and why she signed both me and the book. Check it out here.

 

Thursday
Aug272009

Query #5 - Nice Work!

Okay, I'm going to wrap up the query week here at AA with an example of a query that I think does just about everything right. It's snappy, it provides enough detail to set it apart, it has a good energy to the writing that I think would interest an agent. If for some reason I DIDN'T post your query here, it's only because a lot of the ones I got in had the same issues as the others I DID post, so I just tried to pick and choose good examples of where people - again, only in my opinion - might go wrong. But I'm hoping that this exercise was helpful to everyone, whether or not your specific query was critiqued.

Okay, so without further ado:

Dear XX, 

Mapleton Falls is a perfect town where perfect families lead perfect lives. At least, that’s what Jenny Sampson thinks when she first moves in. But, four years later when Jenny’s next-door-neighbor, Amanda Brennan, a beautiful, caring, doctor’s wife and mother of two, turns up dead in the entryway of her Georgian-style McMansion, Jenny finds herself muddled in the middle of a murder.

Bree Lang, the Assistant District Attorney, is one of Jenny’s best friends. Lucky for Bree, Jenny’s got the inside scoop on a host of potential suspects. Like Stone Brennan, Amanda’s anesthesiologist husband, who knocks people out for a living and carves manger scenes out of tree trunks with chainsaws for a hobby; or the neighborhood gals Nikki, a raven-haired ex-stripper, and DeeDee, a mother of two sets of twins, who have one gigantic thing, in common: they’ve both slept with Stone. Then there’s Sean Roberts, a member of St. Augustine’s where Amanda’s kids go to school. Sean’s got a crush on Amanda, which his wife’s not too happy about. And, of course, there’s Father Groark – the priest at St. Augustine’s. If only Amanda hadn’t uncovered his secrets and written about them in her journal…

As Jenny, a nice, Jewish girl from Long Island, and Bree, a privileged shiksa from the Main Line, navigate their way around upscale Mapleton Falls, will they be able to solve Amanda's murder? Or will this perfect town be forever marred by a killer in their midst?

MURDER ON TWILIGHT CIRCLE is the first in a series of edgy cozy mysteries where doctor’s wives disappear faster than wrinkle lines on the faces of Hollywood movie stars.

I’m a freelance writer living in the suburbs of Philly where I write articles for the Philadelphia Examiner. I’m a doctor’s wife, mother of two, and slave to six cats. Conferences I've recently attended include the BEA Writer's Conference, the Backspace Writer's Conference, and the Algonkian Pitch and Slam in New York City. I am a member of Mystery Writers of America.

Wednesday
Aug262009

Queries #3 and #4 - MORE details please

Okay, so today I'm highlighting two queries because I think they both suffer from the same problem, and that is they're simply not interesting enough to garner requests from agents. This isn't a slight on the authors (authors - please don't take it that way!!) because it's not a reflection AT ALL of what your ms might be like. I have no idea what your ms might be like, but from these queries, I'm not sure - IMO - I'd ask to see the ms because, well, there's not enough information to make them distinguishable. When you're writing your queries, remember to be specific! What sets your book apart from the gajillions of others? Why would a publisher want to take a risk on publishing YOU and YOUR WORK if there's nothing unique about it? Let the agent know just what that uniqueness is via your voice, characters and plot, in your letter.

Also, on a side note, I just want to thank everyone for submitting their queries - I think this is a great exercise, and I appreciate that people are game to put themselves out there. If you're reading my comments, PLEASE know that none of my comments are intended to be blunt or mean-spirited - only kind. I just know, though, that sometimes, emotion can be hard to detect on the page, so I just wanted to be sure that the authors knew that! :) <----Insert this little smiley face in your mind after all of the comments after you read them. 

Anyway, per the first paragraph, here's what I mean:

QUERY #3:

Dear Ms. XXX:

I read your profile on Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents and thought you might be interested in my exciting YA novel, LIFE IN THE FAST LANE.

Danger lurks around every corner as the protagonist goes on a wild ride through adolescence in my 63,000 word YA/ chick lit crossover novel. Using flashback, the protagonist illustrates exactly how a “good girl” in a small New England town can easily get caught up in the sex, drugs, and rock & roll of the 1980’s. With numerous twists and turns in the plot, she finally finds the right guy, falls madly in love then loses everything. It’s an edgy/racier version of Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen.
[OKAY - SO, BEYOND THE VARIOUS ADJECTIVES YOU'VE USED TO DESCRIBE THE BOOK, THERE'S NOTHING DANGEROUS, TWISTY/TURNY OR EDGY ABOUT THIS PARAGRAPH. YOU'RE TELLING ME ABOUT THE BOOK, NOT SHOWING IT TO ME. I SUSPECT THIS IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST MISTAKES THAT ASPIRING-AUTHORS MAKE. AGENTS DON'T WANT TO BE TOLD ABOUT A BOOK, THEY WANT TO READ THE NITTY GRITTY. INSTEAD, TRY "SO-AND-SO WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE GOOD GIRL ABOUT TOWN. SHE WAS THE HEAD CHEERLEADER, THE A-STUDENT, THE GIRL EVERYONE LIKED TO BRING HOME TO HER PARENTS, UNTIL ONE BAD DECISION CHANGED EVERYTHING. (I'M MAKING THIS UP, BTW, BUT I THINK YOU CAN SEE THE DIFFERENCE.) I'D ALSO GIVE YOURSELF TWO PARAGRAPHS, NOT JUST ONE, TO REALLY DRIVE HOME YOUR DESCRIPTION.]

I’ve been a middle school Health and English teacher for over 16 years. I’m currently seeking my Master’s of Education in Literacy/Language Arts and will be graduating in May 2010. I have taken several writing workshops including 2 from published authors: Hillary Davis’s “Writer’s Boot Camp” and Bruce McMillan’s “Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books” and am close to completing the full 2 year course from Institute of Children’s Literature. This is the first of 4 YA novels I’ve written. Complete manuscript available upon request.

Thank you for your time; I look forward to hearing from you.


QUERY #4:

 

[NOTE - THIS IS A QUERY FOR A SCREENPLAY, BUT I THINK THE SAME LOGIC CAN APPLY...THOUGH SCREENPLAYS ARE NOT MY AREA OF EXPERTISE, I'M THE FIRST TO ADMIT THAT! :)]


Dear XX,

 

Kevin Mehler is on a bad streak until he drunkenly declares he would

sell his soul for a better life. After a five million dollar deposit

mysteriously appears in his bank account, Kevin tries to figure out

his place in the afterlife before the devil comes to collect. 


[OKAY, SO AGAIN, IN A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT WAY THAN THE ABOVE QUERY, YOU NEED TO GIVE US MORE INFO. YOU'RE SHOWING, NOT TELLING, SO THAT'S A GOOD START, BUT THIS ISN'T ENOUGH TO SET IT APART FROM THE HUNDREDS/THOUSANDS OF OTHER QUERIES. THIS COULD BE ABOUT ANYTHING, MORE OR LESS. I MEAN, I GET WHAT IT'S ABOUT, AND I THINK IT'S A CUTE CONCEPT, BUT IF THIS WERE A BOOK PITCH - AND MAYBE IT'S DIFFERENT FOR SCREENPLAYS - THIS ISN'T DISTINGUISHING ENOUGH. HOW DOES HE TRY TO FIGURE OUT HIS PLACE IN THE AFTERLIFE? WHY DOES IT MATTER? WHAT'S THE URGENCY? HEIGHTEN THIS...RIGHT NOW, IT'S A CUTE PITCH LINE WITH NOT ENOUGH MEAT. OF COURSE, JUST MY OPINION!]


I have written and produced a number of short films and studied both

writing and video production at Concord University, where I was twice

named Outstanding Student in Television. I am also a published film

critic.


I would like to submit this screenplay for your consideration and can

be contacted as listed below.


Thank you.

 

Tuesday
Aug252009

Query #2 - Great Story, Change the Bio

Okay, I really like the below query - great story idea that intrigued me - a little Brave New World meets Fight Club, but I think one thing that could be detrimental is the last paragraph (and the author specifically asked me about this, so I'm allowed to comment on it!). As with yesterday, my comments are in CAPS.

Dear Ms. XXXXX,

What would it take to make you a revolutionary?

I am currently seeking representation for my novel, The Offensive - a tale of oppression and rebellion in a politically correct, dystopic United States. I hope you will feel The Offensive,a thriller with a hint of satire,is a good match for your list. [I'D MOVE THIS SENTENCE TO AFTER THE SUMMARY - IT SORT OF THROWS OFF THE MOMENTUM OF YOUR OPENING QUESTION.]

Two generations from now, freedom of speech is a shell of its original intent, government control and corporate greed pervade every aspect of life, and political correctness has evolved to a point where offending someone is illegal. To relieve stress [MAYBE HEIGHTEN THIS A BIT - "AS THEIR ONLY OUTLET FOR SANITY" OR SOMETHING - "RELIEVE STRESS" SOUNDS LIKE THEY'RE GOING TO PLAY TENNIS], a group of people
meets in secret ["A COVERT GROUP CONVENE"], simply to insult one another using a list of government-banned words they have discovered. Initially content to enjoytheir private rebellion, the group's leaders are forced to make a difficult decision [HEIGHTEN THE STAKES - "MAKE A DIFFICULT DECISION" IS BREAKING UP WITH A BOYFRIEND - THIS IS LIFE OR DEATH!] when members begin to disappear - one even reappearing, a victim of torture -shouldthey go away quietly or begin their own revolution?

The story follows the group's leaders: Warren Ingram, a scientist bored with a job in which all chemicals are replaced by colored inert liquids in order to avoid an accidental discovery that could elevate one scientist's status above that of another; Corrine Blake, a radio talk-show host whose controversial government-mandated topics like
Cats or dogs, which do you prefer? are identical on every station across the nation; and Matthew Carter a businessman thrust into a leadership role when his co-worker is abducted and his homoromantic brother is arrested for assault. At 75,000 words, The Offensive asks the question, What happens when ordinary citizens are forced to become revolutionaries?

I hold a B.A. in English from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and self-published my first novel, Paranoia, in 2008. I chose to self-publish so I could learn about the publishing industry and the work that goes into promoting a book. It was an invaluable experience. Paranoia was met with great reviews, including 5 out of 5 in plot, characterization, and grammar by Writer's Digest judges in the Writer's Digest Self-Published book awards. I am anxious to take the next step in what I know will be a successful writing career and I hope that your agency can be a big part of that. I thank you, in advance, for your time and look forward to hearing from you. [OKAY, THIS IS THE PART I'D CUT. FOR ONE, NO AGENT CARES ABOUT YOU BEING SELF-PUBLISHED SINCE THERE IS NO BARRIER TO ENTRY AND FOR TWO, IT SHOWS THAT YOU DIDN'T GET AN AGENT TO REPRESENT IT THE LAST TIME AROUND. I UNDERSTAND WHY YOU INCLUDED IT - TO DEMONSTRATE YOUR EXPERIENCE WITHIN THE INDUSTRY, BUT I REALLY THINK THIS DOES YOU MORE HARM THAN GOOD. LIKE IT OR NOT, SELF-PUBLISHING IS JUST NOT HIGHLY LOOKED UPON BY THE UPPER ECHELONS OF PUBLISHING. AGAIN, JUST MY OPINION - ANYONE WANT TO SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS SECTION?]

Monday
Aug242009

Query # 1 - Just a little more zip

Okay, we're kicking off query week with a query that I think is in pretty good but is also a good example of a lot of what I'm seeing in the queries that were sent to me ...as you'll see below, the author gives a good idea of the specifics of her novel, along with infusing it with some of her own voice. My suggestion, however, is to take it even further. Yes, the plot points are there, but energize this, really, really make it stand out. Because while I think that this is pretty strong, I think the author can take it even farther in making it unique. Remember that agents get hundreds of queries a week, and you need to do EVERYTHING you can to make it stand out. Everything, that is, within professional reason - don't send gifts (as Sarah Pekkanen pointed out) or include any gimmicks. Those just highlight how UNprofessional you are.

So without further ado, the first query, with my suggestions in CAPS. I do want to say - and this holds true for ALL of my thoughts this week - that these are my opinions ALONE, and I am not an agent, just someone who has gotten multiple offers over the years, so I hope that I have a decent idea as to what works. (But again, feel free to disagree with anything I'm suggesting!)

Dear Agent X,

[I'D REWORK THIS FIRST PARAGRAPH - I THOUGHT THE CRUX OF THE BOOK WAS GOING TO BE ABOUT A WOMAN WHO LOST TRACK OF HER LIFE, BUT IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S ABOUT AFTER SHE'S A RADIO HOST, SO YOU DON'T NEED THIS FIRST SENTENCE.) "Somewhere on the way to becoming a wife and mother, Miranda West believed she lost track of who she was and what she wanted to become. So she set out to find that girl and in the process turned her journey into a hot radio show where she helps listeners find success in life and love.

[I THINK YOU COULD COMBINE THIS WITH THE ABOVE, BUT WITH MORE ZIP - I.E - WHAT IF EVERYTHING YOU EVER THOUGHT YOU WANTED PROVED THAT YOU STILL COULDN'T FIND HAPPINESS? THEN WHAT? DO YOU GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING? DO YOU GIVE YOURSELF THE RIGHT TO FALL APART? THESE ARE THE QUESTIONS THAT SUPER-SUCCESSFUL BUT STILL UNFILLED DJ MIRANDA WEST, ETC, ETC, ETC,]Now, seven years later, the life and relationship-mending scenarios Miranda orchestrates has brought her close to the pinnacle of radio success. But behind Miranda’s success facade is a crumbling marriage and the still unanswered question, "Am I who I thought I’d be?". So as talk of syndication swirls, Miranda sweeps her faltering marriage and discontent at life under the rug.

When Miranda is asked to host her 20th class reunion, where former classmate and famous rocker, JT Gracie, will be returning to his roots to promote the release of his new album, she accepts hoping the publicity will boost her audience and seal the syndication deal. But JT Gracie is Miranda’s first love and things never tied up neatly for them. When JT steps on stage and reveals that Miranda is the inspiration behind his new album all eyes and cameras turn toward Miranda.

Miranda's show gets the publicity she wants but the glare of the spotlight and the return of her first love isn't exactly the marriage-mending sceanario she needs. As the spotlight heats up her life, and old, once closed roads open, Miranda has to decide just what it is she wants to be. [THIS READS A LITTLE GENERICALLY TO ME - A LOT OF WOMEN'S FICTION BOOKS ARE ABOUT WHO WOMEN WANT TO BE - MAKE THIS MORE SPECIFIC, WHY YOUR BOOK STANDS APART, WHY IT MATTERS THAT THIS AGENT REP IT - GIVE IT MORE URGENCY.)

My 85,000 word women's fiction novel, If You Listen, explores the dichotomy of what we want and what we need and how if you really listen to your heart you just might find what you want and what you need are one in the same. [I LIKE THAT SENTENCE.]

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Wednesday
Aug122009

Giving Voice to Your Query

Question of the day: Can you explain what you think makes a good query? I think mine could be better than it currently is.

Absolutely: in a word - VOICE. I've discussed queries here in the past and offered up the example of my Department of Lost and Found query as an example, and I think the single biggest mistake that aspiring authors make is forgetting to infuse their letters with their unique brand of voice that sets them apart from others. Let's be honest: there are thousands of writers out there looking for agents and among them, a lot of them probably have half-decent book ideas. But if you're an agent reading through these half-decent book ideas, the only way to set them apart is via the voice - that je ne sais quoi that compels you to keep reading.

If you're confused as to what I mean, I'm referring to the energy that you try to infuse your manuscript with. A query letter ISN'T a business letter: it is your ONE SHOT to demonstrate why YOU are the next big thing. Don't be so formal, don't be long-winded - apply the same energy/pizazz that you put into your book.

I'm headed on vacation next week, but if you guys are interested, I'd be willing to evaluate a few queries and suggest changes for them, just in case this isn't making sense. Let me know if some of you would be up for that, and if so, we can pull it together for the week after I'm back.

Tuesday
Jun302009

Querying Dos and Don'ts

So I was fortunate enough to get attend an event recently with a few agents, and took the opportunity to chat with them about the blog, what I do here on Ask Allison, and ask them if they wouldn't mind submitting a few tips on querying. I know that often times, landing an agent can be among the hardest barrier to break in this industry, so today, here are a few dos and don'ts, straight from the horses' mouths. I'm following up on email with a few of them for more tips, in terms of client relationships, so stay tuned.

-DO your homework. Know who you are querying and why you think you might be a good fit with said agent.

-DON'T address me as Sir or Madam or Novel Agent as I will delete you without reading further.

-DO refer to other books I've done and say you loved it even if you didn't. Flattery will get you far.

-DON'T refer to a book that you read about on Publisher's Marketplace that you loved that I just sold and won't be pubbed for a year! (This happens a lot too. Take the added step of checking Amazon for a pub date.)

-DON'T query agents exclusively. It doesn't benefit you in anyway. Go ten at a time and let the agent know it is a multiple submission. When you get an offer, email those of us that have it and let us know. We have a a lot to read and probably just didn't get to it.

-DON'T accept representation from another agent while other agents are reading. Our reading time is precious.

-DON'T attach a manuscript unsolicited, and DO spellcheck (and grammar-check) your query letters. Why should I take you on if you can't get your letter right?

-DO keep it to one page or a few paragraphs. If you can't sum up your book and your bio in a page, you need to learn to self-edit.

So there you have it. Anyone have his/her own tips for querying?