on the reading, assessment, and writing of queries

As those who saw my annual stats post know, I read a large number of queries in a year. I’ve already done almost 200 this year, and it’s only January 7th. (I am working hard on catching up that holiday backlog.)

Yesterday, someone replied* and asked how a person could judge a manuscript without having read it. They seemed genuinely perplexed about how an agent arrives at a decision and sincerely did not wish to offend. I have a policy of not replying to these inquiries because one can rarely, if ever, explain one’s self to the author’s satisfaction. And I also must be fair here and note that the original query didn’t include the first five sample pages as per our guidelines, so I really was making a judgement call based on just the query.

Here’s the plain and simple answer: I can’t be 100% sure that I didn’t make the wrong call.

But, I have to acknowledge that there is a necessity in taking that risk. Unfortunately, there has to be a system that attempts to mine for gold by shaking it out rather than examining every rock in the landscape. If I tried to read a full manuscript before making a decision for every query that I received in 2008, that would have been around 2,600,000 pages (assuming an average of 100K words per book at 400 pages in standard manuscript format**). *blink* *blink* Even with just a one-page query, one-page synopsis, and five sample pages (if everyone included them), I’d be looking at over 45,000 pages of reading according to my 2008 stats. It’s hours of work every week that doesn’t immediately or directly get a commission and pay my mortgage. Luckily, I have wonderful clients to fund my R&D.

While I was thinking about this, I inevitably (for me) veered into a foodie comparison. I said to myself: “Self, think of it like picking a restaurant based on the menu when you haven’t had an opportunity (or the finances) to sample the dishes in every restaurant that you want to try.” There are a lot of different kinds of restaurants out there. And there are some, based on past experience, that I suspect are really just not places I want to go. So, if I’m going to try a new one, there has to be a way to narrow down my choices, because, even if I wanted to, I can’t try them all. Not even every one in Manhattan alone.

Sometimes I think a query is like fast-food. It really doesn’t matter whether I go to McDee’s or BK, the menu choices will be pretty much the same anywhere in the world, and I probably won’t find it satisfying from a culinary point of view. I’m not saying this to hurt anyone’s feelings, but there are queries that are like that. The otherwise uninteresting boy finds his destiny, saves the kingdom, and gets the girl (yes, I’ve read the Belgariad and I don’t want to read it again — it’s like the Big Mac of fantasy at this point). Incidentally, I don’t really eat fast food anymore either. Probably somewhere there is a grillmaster that makes a better burger in his town than the next one over. After all, they have to start somewhere — Jacques Pepin once worked at Howard Johnson’s, and look at him now. However, they have to have both the menu that appeals as well as the talent to pull it off. The query needs to show that they are not a BK knock-off, but perhaps a steak-n-burger place that’s a step up from the same ol’ thing. There’s something really satisfying about a burger made just right. (see: Rare Bar and Grill)

There are a lot of queries that fall into the middle range — non-chain restaurants, if you will, that have a decent, but unimaginative menu. They might sustain you, but they will not rock your foodie universe. One might be tempted to give them a try, to see whether the chef’s skill in the kitchen outmatches the menu. There are a lot of dishes out there that many cooks can make passably well, so then it comes down to innate talent, not just competent execution. Sometimes you get lucky and find a favorite. (see: La Bonne Soupe)

Very rarely, queries are like “the most amazing restaurant evar,” and you know that no matter what, this menu gives you the feeling that you will have a gustatory experience you will not forget. These would be the Michael Mina’s or Jean Georges of query letters. And, yes, I have read queries where the voice shines through that strongly.

To me, this is also one of the reasons that you should always write your own query. While Agent Kristin said as an aside in her blog post about marketing letters that sometimes it’s hard to write your own query (a point with which I will certainly not disagree), she also said it was fine with her if someone else wrote it as long as it was good. That’s where I will differ. I have a few reasons: (1) No one will know your book as well as you, (2) No one will be as passionate about your book as you, and (3) The query letter may reveal things about voice and personality which can contribute to the overall sense of you as writer. This is not to say that you can’t get help with writing a query. Your critique partner or writing group may be able to give you valuable feedback, or insight into something you might not be getting across, just as they might with your novel. At the same time, it seems to me, lately, that a lot of queries come across as over-thought-out and over-worked, and many of them end up sounding all too similar. The query letter is the agent’s first impression of the writer, and in that sense I feel it can be important. It should be the invitation to the appetizer of sample pages, and then those should be so very compelling as to lure the agent in for the full meal.

And now I’ve managed to make myself really, really hungry. Luckily, it’s time for lunch.

*Actually, I tend to get several replies, but most of them are of the “thanks for your time” variety. Some want more information, which, due to the volume of new inquiries, I simply can’t provide, except as best I can here on this blog. Only a very few are argumentative or angry.
**Those giant fantasy/sf epics sure do balance out the YA, though even those are getting longer and longer it seems.

24 responses to “on the reading, assessment, and writing of queries

  1. OMG. I love your food analogy. 🙂

  2. So to continue that analogy: Say a chef rewrites the description of his or her dish to make it sound as appealing as it tastes. Any point in sending it again to agents who saw the first menu? (OK, that’s where the analogy breaks down. And obviously this applies only to agents who don’t want to see the first five pages … or writers who have substantially rewritten the beginnings of their novels.)

  3. I’ve always “grokked” that agents and editors can make that call, as frustrating as it can be. But this is an exquisite way to explain it to others who don’t get it. Thank you!

  4. “It’s like the Big Mac of fantasy.”
    ROTFL! So true.

  5. This is an awesome analogy. I tend to think of an agent reading queries is like me going into a bookstore. No way am I buying all those books just because the authors put their hearts and souls into each and every one. I have two main criteria for picking a book up off the shelf: is the cover art okay, and is it a stand alone novel*? Fantasy is my favorite genre, so lots of books don’t get past the initial (query) phase. Is that fair to the authors? No. But it’s fair to my wallet.
    Agents aren’t spending money to look at partials and fulls, but they’re spending time, which everyone knows is far more valuable. Of course they are going to have to pass on some projects, and of course they might make mistakes now and then. That’s just life.
    *I make exceptions for recommendations from trusted readers and when researching authors represented by agents I might query.
    Elissa M

  6. Wonderful analogies! And I’m looking forward to trying out some of those Manhattan restaurants now. 😀

    • I have been to every single one of the restaurants I linked to (and took Jim to Rare last year).
      Of course, Michael Mina’s was in SF for last summer’s RWA. I love when a conference is in a good foodie town.

  7. Nice Analogy
    I think the Food analogy is a very apt way of describing what the purpose of a query letter is, and how to understand one from the mindset of an agent.
    Writers, myself included, often have a difficult time divorcing the artistic and business aspects of being the literary world.
    Spot on with the David Eddings comments. I’ve tried to read him, but his characters and plotting where far too flat for my tastes.
    Bradley Robb

  8. Love the food analogy. Fortunately not all writers are foolish enough to email an agent after receiving a rejection. We move on.
    And I agree that it’s never a good idea to have someone else write your query. I posted my recently on a writer’s board. Someone tried to rewrite it in his voice and according to how he thought the story should go. When I didn’t go with his suggestions, he became verbally abusive and attacked other aspects of my query. Fortunately other writers were quick to defend me. Yes, I now have a better understanding how agents feel when they get the angry emails.

  9. Argh! The Rare Bar and Grill website won’t load here at work!
    (I really need a good userpic of a burger.)

  10. Ok, I have to shake my finger at you for making a pregnant woman so unbelievably hungry, craving any kind of food now! But in all seriousness, this was a great comparison. Go you with the creative spin! I would’ve never thought of comparing queries to food chains.
    And I gave a good chuckle at the “the most amazing restaurant evar” line. I agree, queries have turned into over-thought-out and over-worked letters. I’m not sure if it’s the pressure of the industry itself (or the condition) or well intentioned advice that is being overdone (like Hollywood’s snatching of the Sequel idea — they’re everywhere now!), or writers just in general trying too hard. I’ll admit, I’ve work-shopped my query letter after researching how to write one, simply because I was convinced it still wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t entirely sure I knew what the heck I was doing anyway. I think as a writer, when you get to that stage (of writing the query letter) you have to learn what advice to take, what to leave, and while using suggestions, not drowning your voice with generic writing.
    I’ve rambled enough. Didn’t plan on having such a long reply, sorry!

  11. Wow. Stupendous post — thanks so much!
    I think writers’ neuroses about getting a complete book through the barriers to publication sometimes function, collectively, like cheap blenders. It doesn’t make any difference what you dump into the bin; hold the Liquefy button down long enough and everything ends up looking pretty much the same as everything else. I remember a… was it a commercial? Anyhow, somebody was saying, dismissively, I don’t eat tan food. Agents probably come to feel the same way sometime, oh, say, after their first six weeks of reading queries. I don’t eat tan books.
    Dang. Now I’m hungry, too!

  12. I must admit the Belgariad falls into my ‘guilty pleasures’ category – its quick and doesn’t require much thought. McD’s to the letter.
    I’m a big, juicy steak man myself, preferably so raw it still moos when you stick a knife into it. I guess my taste in books runs that way too. Not necessarily long, but certainly ones that require you to think and have flesh on their bones.

  13. I’ll remember to say, “Bon appetit,” next time I send my agent my revisions. 😉
    Clever analogy!

  14. Hello, Ms. Jackson! This is my first time posting so I thought I’d introduce myself first. Thanks for all the wonderful advice you provide for us eager writers.
    Ditto to what everyone said about the food analogy. I love that bit about how most queries are fast food… I’m reading the Belgariad now and it has exactly the feel of a Big Mac! Here’s hoping we all become “the most amazing restaurant evar” in our own little way.

  15. Crap. Now I have to write my own query *and* I’m hungry.

  16. Great analogy, Jennifer. 🙂 I think one should write their own queries as well.
    After all of my wedding craziness and other project craziness is over, I cannot wait to get started on my “saleable novel”, so that I can have something good to query. 😀 Thanks for the wonderful insight.
    ~Tyhitia
    http://obfuscationofreality.blogspot.com/

  17. Nice analogy. Also I think all authors should have critique partners, etc, but the query has to be in their voice, and composed of their words, phrases, etc, not someone else.

  18. There’s another side to this fine analogy: you don’t have to eat the whole meal to know if it’s tasty. A few bites can tell you if you want to eat at a restaurant again, just as a few sentences can tell a smart agent if a book is worth reading.

  19. I agree completely. That will come as a shock since I have written so many versions of the query letter it could have been a novel by word count. I even had a friend who is a best-selling author pen one for me. In the end, I had to take all the advice of friends and hone it myself. I’m happy with what I have. It showcases the novel and a bit of my personality comes through.
    As for food, I suppose my writing runs the same as my favorite eating place, Garland’s in Lincoln, Montana. They can probably seat twenty people at once. Every day is a different made-from-scratch soup, dessert, salad and sandwich special. The sandwiches are made on your choice of luscious breads. It’s just plain good eating in a fun environment with the nicest people on earth.
    So, I think, hope, my writing is satisfying, unique and fun. Refined and classy…not so much.

  20. I think you explained it in the best metaphor possible. We’ve all looked for new restaurants and rejected possibilities out of hand for various reasons. Thanks for including the link to Agent Kristin’s blog about marketing letters.
    It’s nice to know that query letters and such are just as hard for other people to write. Now-I think I’ll try to go back and figure out what to do with a heroine I left off making dinner and letting out her dog…descriptive or filler. Hmmm.

  21. I’m in the process of reading Golden Heart entries right now. And I think it is amazing how quickly I can tell if I’m going to enjoy it. Often, I know in the first paragraph. But I keep slogging through all 55 pages anyway–and that first paragraph rarely fails to predict the whole.

  22. I thought it obvious that one should write the query himself… If one is not able to write one how can he write a whole book?
    This reminds me pretty much of the way I was choosing what books to read on a convention: I went to the panels with authors and choose the ones that made good impression on me with what they said and in what way. I was not disappointed once.

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