letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 183
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of requests: general fiction

Dear Authors:

Agent Nathan posted a very handy list of Things I Don’t Need To Know in a Query yesterday. I think I agreed with them all – the things he mentions just aren’t relevant to the decision-making process at the query stage. And I particularly liked: “That your manuscript is completely different than anything that’s ever been published” – because every week more than one author assures me of that very thing, and I wonder how they have read every single book ever published when I can’t even find time put a dent in my TBR pile….

Here’s my own list this week — Things I thought of while reading queries this week….

* 40,000 words really tends to be too short for an adult novel (ymmv with YA/MG).
* When you get three queries in a row about novels featuring children being abused you have to take a break.
* Yes, I do find it sad when I realize the author didn’t even use the spellchecker for their query. (Typos do happen, but 3 in the first line is just sloppy.)
* Certain kinds of email address names are really not appropriate for professional correspondence. (But sometimes they make me laugh. Or cry. And, no, they don’t determine whether I ask for pages. I just notice some of the really outlandish ones when I’m drafting replies.)
* My Official Sidekick still fears staples.
* Please do not assume anything about the religious background, racial background, political bias, or sexual orientation of the agent you are querying. In particular, do not expound at length on the pro or con arguments for any of the same. This could potentially backfire. This is not to say these elements and concepts cannot inform your story. But being preached to in a query (whether you agree with the perspective or not) is a terrible distraction from ascertaining its literary worth.
* It’s not helpful to apologize for how bad your query letter is…
* In the same vein, I’m pretty sure many authors believe their novel is far too complex to be sufficiently summarized in a query or synopsis but explaining how ineffective the method is doesn’t remove the necessity of providing one.

With all this in mind, and many queries still to read, I invite you to ask about the do’s and don’t’s of the query letter — just in case these points have raised questions or there are things that you’ve been wondering about.

51 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. rejections
    Do you send rejection e-mails out daily, weekly, or as you dismiss them? I ask because I sent my query off early August. I know you’ve been on vaca (hope it was great) but by my count I may have been passed up already, yet haven’t heard.
    Yeah, I know, a nervous writer checking her mailbox way too often. Thanks.
    Carson Flanders

    • Re: rejections
      Hi Carson – My responses vary depending on how many other things I’m juggling in a week. I can tell you that I am still working on the first week of August at the moment with some replies that will be going out later today (and yes, that’s the fault of being on vacation).

  2. If you’ve queried a particular agent before, and are now querying them again about a new novel, should you mention the previous query if it was politely turned down?
    And oh! A second question. Say an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, and then politely says no thanks. AND THEN you get an offer for publication directly from an editor. If you really liked the agent, should you go back for a second try, offer in hand, or find somebody new?

    • If you’ve queried a particular agent before, and are now querying them again about a new novel, should you mention the previous query if it was politely turned down?
      IMO – if you got a standardized rejection, then treat this as a new conversation and start fresh. If the correspondence was personal, or you were specifically invited to resubmit or send new projects, then definitely mention it.
      Say an agent asks to see the first 50 pages, and then politely says no thanks. AND THEN you get an offer for publication directly from an editor. If you really liked the agent, should you go back for a second try, offer in hand, or find somebody new?
      I have a client on my list who did that very thing. There were revisions in the mix as well. But also, agents’ lists have an ebb and flow and so do their interests, and the market as well. As long as one is polite and professional, I don’t see how it could do harm, and if they still aren’t interested, perhaps they will be able to give you a referral.

      • Speaking of standardized/personal rejection, if an agent takes the time to provide some feedback on a query is it good manners to thank them, or more professional to not say anything ans spare them another e-mail to deal with?

        • This is one of those questions, I tend to be on the fence about. In my opinion, if an agent took time to send personal correspondence, and it feels appropriate to you to recognize that, then by all means. (After all, they started it.) I think it’s really up to you. If you think it’s polite, then go ahead. But I don’t think it’s necessary.

  3. Summaries
    The two most painful questions I’ve been (repeatedly) asked since I sold my first novel:
    (1) Why are you still working? (Because I’m not making enough money to replace my salary. What, you think I work here for fun?)
    (2) What’s your book about?
    “It’s about 350 pages.”
    I grok in fullness the feeling that My Novel Is Too Complex to summarize, but Summarize We Must. Having to summarize for a query letter is good practice for what you’re going to tell your maiden aunt (who lives in Northumbria) what your book is about.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Moderately Successful Midlist Writer

    • Re: Summaries
      I hate writing summaries, I really do…but what made me cringe even more was my fourth book; the back cover copy department took the summary that I wrote and twisted it, to the point that when my editor sent me their version to look over, I was WTFBBQISTHIS?? @.o *twitchytwitch*
      …Because what they wrote for the back cover copy was NOT the book I had written, in any way, shape, or form. I rechecked the summary I wrote…and I still couldn’t figure out how they got from point A to point 3.14159. (Seriously, the only things they got right were the characters’ names.)
      I didn’t have consultation rights with that contract, but my editor didn’t think the back cover copy was quite right, and gave them to me at that point, very nice lady…and I got the consultation rights put into the next contract. Not quite the same thing as having the final say, but at least it’s a stop-gap measure against the wrong back cover copy going out.
      Thankfully, she’s accepted my rewritten version of the back cover copy–for all of my books, not just that one, but book 4 was particularly bad. The back cover copy is exactly like a summary, except the summary gives away the end of the plot. Both have to be interesting, even gripping, and make the reader/editor/agent want to know the rest of the story.
      If you want to get good at writing summaries, start practicing writing the back cover copy. Browse the bookstore shelves in your genre/category, see how other books have done their back cover and fly leaf blurbs, and see how the summaries for the stories are put together so that it catches the readers’ attention, making them want to buy that book.
      Once you’ve got that hook practiced (which doesn’t usually give away the ending)…you can write a summary (which usually does).
      …Mind you, I’m very tempted to use your “It’s about 350 pages” answer for my next novel, because I still hate writing summaries…but I think my editor would kill me.
      ~Lotm
      (If anyone’s curious, http://www.JeanJohnson.net)

  4. I don’t know that I notice a total lack of introduction in a negative way, per se, though I suppose it isn’t quite proper. I can tell you my personal preference which is “Dear Ms. Jackson” or “Dear Agent Jackson” (cue spy music).
    “Mrs.” should be avoided because one does not necessarily know if the person in question is married, or (these days) kept their maiden name. (I still think it’s peculiar that men get “Mr.” either way.) Use of my first name without meeting me tends to strike me as forward and too familiar for a business correspondence, but YMMV on that one.

    • I still think it’s peculiar that men get “Mr.” either way.)
      I think the opposite: I think it’s peculiar that women get 2 different ones. Like, it matters whether a woman is married or not and needs to be noted/made public, but the same thing doesn’t matter for men. (While I suspect some agents wouldn’t appreciate it, I love the idea of sending queries addressed to superspies/MIB.)
      So for preference, would you like “Dear Ms.” and then right to the novel’s description, or info about the writer and then the description? I’ve seen both of those, too. (I thought it seemed odd to have a “Dear Ms.” line and then no transition to the description, but that might just be me)

      • I think it’s peculiar that women get 2 different ones. Like, it matters whether a woman is married or not and needs to be noted/made public, but the same thing doesn’t matter for men.
        I think we’re saying the same thing from different angles…
        So for preference, would you like “Dear Ms.” and then right to the novel’s description, or info about the writer and then the description? I’ve seen both of those, too.
        I think I could go either way, but it seems to me the most efficient opening would be along the lines of…
        “Dear Ms. Jackson:
        I have written a 100,000 word mystery novel for which I am seeking representation.”
        Or some variation thereof. I’ve noticed many people state their name in the opening paragraph (which is often redundant as it appears elsewhere). People sometimes cite the source for their information about the agency (agentquery.com and the like) or why they’ve chosen to query me specifically.

        • At a conference I went to recently, someone asked this very question about what to write after the “Dear Agent” in a query letter. All four agents said they preferred the novel’s stats right up front: title, genre, and word count.
          Hope this info will be helpful to somebody!

          • Presumably agents like this information up-front because it helps them decide whether to read even the next paragraph or to move on to the next query on the monstrous pile. So, say an agent receives a query beginning “I have written a 200,000-word …”. Will this not result in instant rejection? But suppose the person really has written SHOGUN, or OUTLANDER, or A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE? Or, alternatively, 26,500-word THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA? Would the querier not be better advised to open with the hook? Would one ever just not mention the word count?

            • Of course, the market changes all the time, so word counts are at best a guideline. And I don’t use that line as a way to go to automatic reject. It’s always the story.

    • I find I cringe at the thought of addressing a complete stranger as “Dear…;” anything. I prefer a cheerful, straightforward “Greetings;” and leave it at that. I definitely agree with you that one shouldn’t use a personal name in a business setting until after invited to do so, which is usually after a business arrangement has been made. Not when sending a query letter.
      ~Lotm
      (*stealthhugs Meta*)

      • *hugs back even stealthier* (Yeah, yeah, “more stealthily” just doesn’t sound cool…)
        I’ve never liked the whole “Dear” opening for someone I don’t know. “Greetings” could work for queries, I guess.

  5. Oooh, I have a question. In the query letter, I’ve always assumed that you state what genre of fiction the story is. Is that correct?
    If that’s right, what if it straddles two genres and you’re not certain where it goes? For example, The Time Traveler’s Wife I would normally think of as science fiction, but it got published as general fiction. A story I have been working on seems to be in the same position as far as genre goes, and I’m not sure how to say that without sounding presumptuous; an agent would know much better than I where to put it. If I were to say, “It is science fiction, but possibly also general fiction,” does that sound okay?

    • I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to state the genre, though it does help the agent/editor to know what the author has in mind. My advice when looking at something that is genre-blending or genre-bending is to think about where the book would be found in the bookstore and use that as a guide.

  6. Query qara
    Thanks for the funny posts. Will you still accept queries regarding ms from the last month’s suggestions? Will you tell us if you have agreed to represent any writers with a ms based on the agency suggestions?

    • Re: Query qara
      The monthly suggestions don’t expire. We just change them up every month or two for variety. They are meant to inspire, not to impose boundaries. So, to answer your question, yes.
      I have to admit that I don’t always remember the lists from months ago, and some of the entries on them are composed by the other agents, so I’m not sure that I could commit to that and be sure to keep up. Plus, since every author is different, two approaches to the same idea might still be of interest to one or more agents at DMLA.

  7. I actually started out sending query letters with introductions, but Janet Reid, when judging queries and pointing out their flaws, thinks that query letters should start with the story and finish with the more mundane details.
    I’m a little surprised that they don’t even include an addressee. It may be a query, but it’s also a letter. What do you think about a “Ms./Mr. Agent” followed by the description without any sort of lead-in?

    • Well, as I’ve said before and will likely say again sometime — your mileage will vary. In so much as some people will go on and on for quite a while without getting to the story, that can be a problem (indeed, I have received queries where the author doesn’t seem to get around to telling what the book is about at all). But I don’t believe an introductory line (or maybe two) is amiss. Then follow that with the hook/pitch for the story, and then relevant personal details (such as previous publication, etc.).
      But I will admit that a large number of queries do arrive without any introductory line or paragraph and I don’t treat that as a negative. I just get down to business.

  8. Staple Rage
    I used to be surprised at how many editors/assistants/agents would have rip-snorting tantrums when I stapled something, even going so far as to return my work unread, though I now understand why it can be annoying. But I’ve had a few comments about paperclips, too, which has left me wondering what, exactly people do want. You don’t want to offend someone before a single line’s been read. But it’s confusing, very confusing.
    -Rolli
    http://www.rolliwrites.blogspot.com

  9. “…but explaining how ineffective the method is doesn’t remove the necessity of providing one.”
    Lol, funny! I can’t believe some of the things you get in the mail. Thank you for sharing. πŸ™‚

  10. Query letter instructions
    Another related entry on Nathan’s blog is about when to include publishing creds, and it raised a thought: while I’ve noticed query letters submitted to agents and cover letters submitted to publishers often take similar forms, is it more appropriate to mention publishing creds to the publisher than to the agent? Nathan recommends only mentioning publishing creds relevant to the work you’re querying about, but in working for a small press, I was told it’s good if the author includes publishing creds that are relatively unrelated (like a guy who was talking about his experience publishing in medical journals when he was submitting a fiction piece) if only because it proves the author knows the publishing world professionally and will likely more easily navigate the process. Obviously, the cover letter and query letter are different forms, but since publishing creds are relevant to both, I’m curious to hear if you, pitching a book as an agent, would mention such unrelated publishing creds to a publishing house or not?
    Nancy D’Inzillo
    http://www.mightypenediting.com

  11. Ms. Jackson:
    Sorry I’m late to the party today. Along the lines of the opening I have a question on “Women’s Fiction” with your example above:
    Since I can’t follow “fiction” with “novel” how would I write the opening sentence? What I’ve been doing is this:
    Dear Ms. Jackson:
    I have written a 100,000 word women’s fiction for which I am seeking representation.”
    Is that right or are agents laughing at me?
    Thanks and have a wonderful weekend!
    Amy

    • I think the phrase above would do, or you could use:
      I have written a 100,000 word novel (women’s fiction) for which I am seeking representation.
      I have written a 100,000 word novel in the genre of women’s fiction, and I am seeking representation.

      • Ms. Jackson,
        Thanks for the answer! I’ll use one of these next time as I think what I have been using is a bit awkward.

    • I think “100,000-word work of women’s fiction” is the most elegant answer. Don’t forget your hyphen.

  12. synopsis
    What length of synopsis do you prefer to be sent with a query? If you ask for a partial, do you want the same synopsis resent or do you want a more detailed version?

  13. Queries
    My ‘day job’ used to be as an art agent – the worst ever query started with ‘Dear … You’re the only agency I’d like to work with. I’d like to offer you an exclusive …’ Unfortunately the artist had forgotten to cut and paste the correct details and had sent us a letter addressed to a competitor. If he was going to submit to everyone in town, at least he could have made us think we were special …

  14. Certain kinds of email address names are really not appropriate for professional correspondence. (But sometimes they make me laugh. Or cry. And, no, they don’t determine whether I ask for pages. I just notice some of the really outlandish ones when I’m drafting replies.)

    I just gave a spiel on email addresses appropriate to professional correspondence to my students yesterday. Agents are probably one the few groups of people who don’t let inappropriate email addresses influence their decisions. One of my colleagues even has a story about junior-league hockey players being dropped from the team for inappropriate email addresses.

    • Oh, that got me interested. What kind of e-mail address gets you dropped from a junior-league hockey team?

      • These kids weren’t dropped just for their email addresses, but when the coach was deciding which of two players with roughly equal on-ice talent, (something like) hotsk8rd00d was presumed to be less serious about his hockey than jsmith, as I undertand it.

  15. When you get three queries in a row about novels featuring children being abused you have to take a break.
    Perhaps the result of the wild success of Ender’s Game?

  16. I have a couple of questions if you have time.
    First off, how on earth do you plow through nearly two hundred queries a week?
    I guess what I am asking is how many do you know very quickly you aren’t interested? I have to think there are a lot of people out there who just don’t have a clue, but from watching these blogs, I am also guessing there are a lot of talented writers searching for agents.
    You mentioned what is too short, but what do you consider too long?
    Sorry if you have answered this before.
    Julie

    • First off, how on earth do you plow through nearly two hundred queries a week?
      I’m taking crazy pills. Er… seriously. I just do as many as I can fit in around other things. Sometimes I don’t get through nearly that many. The amount of time each one takes is variable.
      As for the word length issue, as I said above, it’s more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. A brilliant writer trumps everything. And it also depends on the genre. Fantasy and science fiction can be much more forgiving, than, say, cozy mysteries.

  17. Ms. Jackson,
    I’m going to show my ignorance of current Internet lingo, but what does YMMV stand for?

  18. Word count
    I know *insert eyes roll here*.
    In a query, which do AGENTS want, the actual freaking word count according to MSWord or the old NY 250/page Courier font deal. It does make a difference if you have a lot of dialogue.

    • Re: Word count
      I think the 250 words per pages it the easiest one for a sense of the standard. Typesetters can do a lot with that these days. It’s just helpful to have a place to start from, I think.

      • Re: Word count
        Hello, Ms. Jackson.
        For e-submissions, do you prefer a particular type of font and/or line-spacing? I’ve heard tell that Verdana (10pt) or Arial (12pt) with 1.5 space is best for electronic format.

  19. Agent Nathan just posted about personalizing queries:
    http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/09/personalizing-vs-kissing-up.html
    I think it can be interesting to see why a person has chosen to query a particular agent. But don’t spend more than a sentence or two on it. The important thing is the story.

  20. queryless
    Your last point is the one that nailed it on the head for me. I can’t write a query letter to save my life, and the synopsis is usually the worst part. I’ve written three, one suspense, one romance, and one scifi/paranormal, all equally true. I’ve had two novels and four short stories published, but only because the publisher I’m associated with doesn’t require it of me. I can’t even write my own bio.

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