Query quandary

We write a lot about queries on this blog.  A lot.  A query letter is the Moby Dick of the writer looking for an agent—crafting the perfect one can become an obsessive and bloody quest.  For those of us on the receiving end, query letters are both bane and blessing.  For every well-proofed, well-crafted, lucid missive that makes you want to request a manuscript or proposal and which puts you on the road to representing a work you love, there are hundreds riddled with typos, grandiose or patently false statements, endless plot summaries,  and tiny, tiny margins.

And, of course, not all queries we receive can be answered personally.  We rely on the dreaded form response to thank authors for their submission and let them know that their work is not what we are looking for right now.  Some authors take this to mean that no one read their query letter or that the evil gatekeepers don’t think enough of them, in particular, and all writers, in general, to send a personal response.  Not true.  We do read everything we receive (some things more quickly than others) and the reason most people  get a form letter back is that we simply don’t have the time or manpower to send individual responses to the thousands of queries we receive every week.

Most authors who have educated themselves about the business understand that a form letter or even a personal one simply means that you need to try someone else.  Or, if you’re getting them from everyone in town, that you should re-evaluate your query and see if you can make it better, more eye-catching.  In some cases, it may mean that you need to re-evaluate the work you’re pitching because clearly the description you are giving doesn’t appeal to anyone.  The ideal response is to try to learn from this as from all other steps in the arduous publishing process, which is why I liked this upbeat piece in  the HuffPost.

Here’s a short tip list:

  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines and only query them in areas you know they are interested in.
  • Proofread, for goodness sake.  (Don’t send it to an agent at a different agency than the one your envelope is addressed to, and make sure there are no embarrassing typos.)
  • If you have a connection to the agent you’re querying, use it.  Don’t be shy about mentioning that so-and-so asked you to submit your work, or that your aunt Mary is the agent’s husband’s former babysitter.
  • Don’t summarize the entire plot of the novel in the query letter; try to come up with a good “high concept” pitch.
  • Do tell us anything important, exciting, unusual about you or the work.
  • Don’t compare your work (or yourself, for that matter) to that of people so iconic and brilliant that you will only suffer by comparison.
  • Do know your category and what kinds of books yours might be a shelf mate to.
  • Don’t cram 500 words into one page.
  • Make sure all of your contact information is included.  (We’ve actually had instances where we have not been able to contact people who have submitted work to us because they did not provide contact information. I know, right?)

Does this help?  Do you guys feel your querying process has been satisfactory if not necessarily successful?  What bugs you most about sending out queries?

5 Responses to Query quandary

  1. Katie Newingham says:

    When you lack the ability to sell snow to Olaf (the melting snowman in Frozen), writing a sales pitch that is going to make an agent reach into a pile and pull your hopes and dreams out, seems daunting, and yet unavoidable.

    What the author said in the link is true, each rejection means we’re one step closer to finding an agent who loves our work and will be our greatest advocate.

  2. Hillsy says:

    I think the process in place in the main works fine as a mechanic for the industry. One could argue it’s the only tangible method. However, as an analyst by day, the lack of tangible feedback is excruciating at an individual level. You know that a query letter, as an effective pass through a barrier, is sort of measured on a continuum – at one end is “PERFECT” and at the other “CLEARLY DELUSIONAL”. Each agent will have a different minimum on that scale, for different genres, at different times of the year. As the PERFECT query letter is impossible – you know you’re going to get rejections.

    At this point, THE most important thing you need to know is: “Is the query letter far enough along the continuum that if I keep swinging, I’ll hit something? Or does it need improving?”……And this is where the form rejection doesn’t help. While I appreciate there is a certain element of “It just didn’t do it for me”, as an author I’m desperate to know if that’s true, or it’s just a cut-paste reply meaning “DUDE! GOOGLE! Type in “what is a query letter”! GAH!!”.

    As a writer I think you want to give your novel the best chance you can – and if it’s not good enough, that’s fine. It’s the not knowing if it’s the product or the pitch that’s so damn frustrating. I think with the tiniest, tiniest, weeniest, extra effort – maybe through the use of hyperlinks or some kind of grading system where you look up the grade on the agency website – you can give an author enough feedback to move forwards. So Grade A would be: “I’m sorry I’m rejecting – query is good but book isn’t for me. Keep trying you’ll be fine”. Whereas a Grade D would be: “I had a hard time discerning what your book is about, the conflict, etc. Your query could probably do with redrafting”. If this was industry standard – even better. Fire out 10 query’s and if you get no bites but lots of ‘A’ replies, you know to send out 10 more. D’s? Yeah redraft.

  3. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    As this is an inexact science on both ends, one needs to have enough of an ear to the wind to know when the wavelength is right; if you get an A reply from an agency famous for non-responses you know you’re tuned in, but there are no standards; back in the days when you could talk directly to editors I made a short story sale (this was back when you could still make money writing short fiction-Clinton Administration or thereabouts) from a magazine that got bombed with 500 manuscripts a month just because the editor was bored to screaming with usual crap they got. Same thing works with queries-sometimes. You’ve got to approach it like a cross between Siberian fly-fishing in December and long range target shooting in a sandstorm and enjoy the challenge of it; and don’t long for the days when you could deal directly with editors-they got paid the same whether the landed a hot seller or not, by and large, and many of them would cheerfully walk you slowly through the Death Valley wastelands till doomsday just for the fun of it. (Check out John Kennedy Toole’s backstory for details) So if the local burghers roust you out of the marketplace of any given mountain town, just shrug like any gypsy in an old Universal monster movie and hitch your wagon towards the next one. It’s never been a predictable business………………….

  4. Darlene Chester-Fowler says:

    There is no way that you will understand the depth of the major characters in my story when the first 3-5 pages are often requested or the standard query letter. I would probably have to submit chapter 11 and then write the story as a flashback on how the main characters resolve their conflict in order to present a united front that eventually reflects their true feelings.

    Lost is the major fact that a poor southern black woman, working as a domesticate to support herself in college, would marry a rich pompous ass frenchman that are the the basis of the stength and wisdom that the main character depends on to survive alone in New York.

    Regardless of how we feel as writers we will continue to meet the requirements that are set and provide the query letter that reveals even less of the gist of our story.

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      I agree, and have had a “no sippers” policy on my material for a long time. Taking the trouble to write a smoking query (which I’m not half bad at)and then getting a request for the first 3 pages “just to get the voice” is equivalent to walking into Bobby Flay’s restaurant and telling the waiter to just bring you a bite of the house specialty. That’s why God created the delete button, eh, what?

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