I've been thinking about agents a lot during this revision cycle, and one of the things getting my goat at the moment is agent preferences.
Don't get me wrong. It's great that agents post their preferences on websites. Doing this is incredibly helpful when I'm trying to pick between four agents at one agency who all sound amazing. But...but sometimes it's confusing. See the following:
If I were to define the genre of my manuscript as specifically as possible, my description would read young adult high fantasy. (Where the definition of "high fantasy," ripped from Wikipedia, is "fantasy fiction set in an alternative...world, rather than the real...world.") J. R. R. Tolkien. Sherwood Smith. Tamora Pierce. N. K. Jemisin. Kristin Cashore. All (by this definition) high fantasy. I can't continue for fear of going on forever. Literally. Seems pretty straightforward, right?
...Except when it comes to agents who state they don't want "high fantasy" (defined as Tolkien) but are interested in "character-driven fantasy." (Insert several books here that meet the strict definition of high fantasy, including several of the above, but for whatever reason are simply more compelling than "high fantasy.") So, if I'm querying this agent I would not put "young adult high fantasy" in my query. I'd quietly erase the "high" and use "young adult fantasy" instead.
You'd think this would make sense for all my queries....except that my manuscript has mermaids. (This is not surprising, as it's a retelling of the fairy tale.) One of the agents I'm considering likes fantasy, but doesn't want anything to do with paranormals -- no vampires, mermaids, werewolves, etc. While my book has a mermaid, it's not a paranormal fantasy kind of book. The point is not the paranormal, the point is the war and the cursed polar bear and the imprisoned god, etc. When querying this agent, I'd be very specific about saying "young adult high fantasy," my point being that it's not paranormal fantasy. (And then I'd cross my fingers and hope that agent looks past the MERMAID blinder and requests material based on the rest of the pitch.)
So, young adult fantasy? Young adult high fantasy? Neither of these are incorrect. They're just...molded specifically for the attention of specific agents. It's kind of like resumes and cover letters in that regard -- just as you highlight different jobs and experiences to suit the particular job you're applying for, you can always tweak your query letter to hit (or avoid) particular buttons for particular agents.
(And anyway, if an agent loves your manuscript enough to offer representation, who cares how you defined the genre in the query? Sometimes I think people forget that queries don't have to be perfect or encompass everything in the manuscript. The sole purpose of the query is to get the agent to request material. Period. But that's probably an entirely different blog post...)
Total word count: 23,965.