letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 213
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 3 (they were all partials, and all from the same author)
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: paranormal romance (1), urban fantasy (1), YA urban fantasy (1)

this week’s query wars casualty: the author who sent their email query cc:ed to over 70 agents with several attachments


Dear Authors:

There were several posts about queries this week and the writing of them. There was my own on Wednesday about the reading, assessment and writing of queries, and Agent Kristin’s about her new(ish) client Courtney Milan, and Agent Nathan’s two posts.

These posts prompted some really interesting comments. In particular, a few made me think about the idea of hiring someone to write a query for you. I know there are services out there that do this, but I can’t say that I recommend using them. I occasionally get submissions from them, and nearly all are stilted and, well, tedious. Plus, their format is so uniform it becomes quickly obvious. I don’t believe I have ever made a submission request based on one of those.

And, as I said in my previous post, the query gives me some insight into the voice and personality of the author. I don’t get that if the author doesn’t write the query. Sure, my submission guidelines also call for the first five pages to be included with the query, and those provide more on the quality of the voice and prose. But, I don’t think sending just the pages would work either, because there is still so much that can be communicated in the query. Those first five pages don’t tell me about the author or how they see the book, or, often, what the book is about. The combination of the query and pages is where the assessment advantage seems to lie.

I’m sure I’d be famous were I to discover an alternative method, but I have to say that I can’t think of a better one. There just has to be a winnowing process of some kind. I have seen a lot of people rail against the query system, but has anyone proposed a solution that’s more accurate and more efficient — without making the logistics impossible? Would that there were such a thing. I’d take advantage of it in a second. And I’m sure a lot of other agents would too.

18 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Ms. Jackson,
    It’s funny that I found you on Live Journal from reading the archived blog of Miss Snark (which is entertaining and informative as hell), it never occurred to me that Literary Agents would be here. And don’t worry, I’m not looking for one quite yet. Anyway, I added you and intend to dig into your entries (adding me back is encouraged but not required as most of my entries are not locked, unless you want to miss out former employment motherfuckery).
    I do have a question or two, if you have a moment. I’ve been using Live Journal for over eight years (I’m user number 1,922 which means dinosaur here), and a few years ago my friends encouraged me to publish. Now, I find myself in a position to pursue it, and I love to write, so I’m starting with non-fiction (a lot of these people think I should just publish the better blog excerpts in book form, but that doesn’t sound marketable to me).
    While writing a contemporary fiction novel, I’m trying to make a living by freelancing (or even getting regular columns where possible) in some of the weekly publications that accept non-fiction.
    Recently, a publication accepted some blog entries that I made here and then mirrored elsewhere in another blog. Should I continue to leave such entries up after publication (they have no specific rules concerning this)?
    Also, is it in my better interest to stop blogging anything that I wish to submit later?
    Any advice is appreciated, and thanks for giving good advice to authors, when I’m ready for a Literary Agent I am sure that your work here will help greatly.
    – Dave

  2. I have to agree, I don’t want to, but I have to.
    I agree about the query thing. I’m one of the someones who are ripping out their hair, writing and re-writing the darn thing. No one looks like me, no one talks or walks like me, no one thinks the way I do. How could anyone else write for me? People need to suck it up and get with the program. Writers are lucky. There aren’t degree requirements. You take a glimmer of an idea from nothing and make it into something. So that’s free. My daddy said, “There ain’t no free lunch.” You have to pay somehow, I guess %$#@# Queries are how.

  3. I’ve been following this query discussion on the three blogs and I like your point about seeing the writer’s voice.
    I’m actually a little more curious about the three partials you requested (if it’s all right to ask for a few more details). My understanding of advice I’ve seen online is that one should generally query one project at a time. Did that author do so and the three queries were actually sent at different times (viewed by you around the same time), or was it one query which mentioned three projects and you liked the sound of all three, etc.? I’m not asking to see if I should do the same–I’ll stick to one manuscript at a time–but pure curiosity. That detail caught my eye.

  4. Getting published w/out querying?
    Nononono, I have never done such a thing and have a hard time imagining writing life without the traditional query-or-die approach.
    But Dennis Cass (he of last year’s Book Launch 2.0 video so popular among writing, agenting, and editing-type folk) has proposed a provocative thought experiment: a sort of fairy tale, in which you need to get into a costume party, past the cynical, seen-it-all bouncers. You’ve put in a lot of thought and effort on your costume, which you have donned because don’t you HAVE to wear a costume to a costume party?

    Here’s the question:
    If you knew the Big Event was going to happen in a year, would you still put your time, effort and emotional energy into your costume, or would you explore alternative methods of gaining access?
    What if the show were five years away? How about ten?

    (More details at his blog post of a few weeks ago.)
    I’d be interested in seeing, here or at Dennis’s site, others’ thoughts about it. I keep coming up blank. On the face of it, it seems easier to unsnarl than the “How to succeed at querying” dilemma, but it’s not, really.

  5. Queries and Tigers and Bears, oh, my!
    I wouldn’t let anyone write my query letter, though I wasn’t above having someone I trusted (David Coe) give me pointers on how to go about it. But write it? No.
    One thing I would like to see is some sort of standardization with queries. (And I’m not the only one. Ask around.) Some agents want a query letter and synopsis and first three chapters. Some want query and synopsis. Some want just the query — email only, please. Some want query. Some want query, a three page synopsis and first ten pages of the manuscript. Some….
    Well, you get the idea. A writer friend of mind was telling me how she was mailing out queries and practically every agent she was contacting wanted it done differently.
    Of course, I don’t know how you would implement said process. Even though we have standardization in format for manuscripts the query thing would be more difficult to enforce since it reflects agents’ desires.
    But, yeah, anything that makes *my* life easier I’m all for, haha. 🙂

  6. I think the one ingredient that has to be missing from a surrogate query is the passion or the emotional investment the author has for the work. Even when the author isn’t trying to, I can’t help but to think some of the excitement for the work bleeds into the query letter itself. I would imagine this would be impossible if someone else wrote it. Now, that’s not saying you couldn’t sell an agent on a MS through a query-by-proxy, but it seems a bigger hill to climb asking someone else to get excited about the work when there isn’t any measure of the author’s excitement to be found in the query.

    • One of the things that’s hard for authors to find is a good format for their letters. Honestly, some of the sample queries were more informative than the outlines themselves. And you sweat so much since you have to sum up so much in so few words.
      Proposition: Who does the summaries of the stories for the backs of the books? Those would be the people to assist with query letters I would think. That blurb is the biggest decider for a person as to whether to pick up a book or not. The cover get’s their attention but that part is what grabs someone or fails to do so. They manage to capture the essence quite well. So why don’t they do query letters as well?

  7. I think query and five pages is an excellent way to judge material. The query gives you some idea what the story is about, and the pages show if the writer can actually write. I know some writers think you can’t judge a novel by five pages, but they are delusional.
    Keep doing what you’re doing, Jennifer. I’m a fan of many of your authors, and their books tell me you must be doing something right.
    Elissa M

  8. I detest writing query letters. With a deep, abiding, rabid passion.
    However, in revising the last one, I discovered something very important. I’m writing epic fantasy, but there are also some strong mystery elements. To make this work smoothly, I had to rearrange some chapters and “clues.”
    The work is much stronger now.
    The dissection makes me decide what is truly important.
    If for no other reason than that, a writer should go through the query writing process.

  9. I prefer to write my own query, simply because no one loves my story as much as I do.:-) Another person won’t show the emotion or hard work that I put into it.
    For example, just for fun a romance writer who’d read my for former WIP wrote a query for it and made it sound like a chick-lit novel rather than the dark urban fantasy novel it was. It gave the wrong impression and I couldn’t believe that she was describing the same book. So it goes to show that we should all represent our own works, IMHO. 🙂

  10. Ooops. That anonymous comment was me. 🙂

  11. re: letters from the query wars
    I’ve been taking part in the discussions on all three blogs, after discovering it on Nathan Bransford’s blog. I learned a lot! My query letters have always included lengthy descriptions of my projects and a long Bio. Thinking that I should cram as much information as possible into a query letter, I honestly did not realize that I should try to convey the writing voice of my fiction in a query letter. Also, I have only recently learned how to research lists of literary agents to find the best ones.

  12. I hired someone to help me with my query and synopsis. She’s a published author and writing teacher who offers these services for a small fee, and came highly recommended by several fellow writers. But she didn’t write the query and synopsis FOR me. She offered very helpful worksheets and information, along with invaluable input. Although I wasn’t that far off the mark with my materials, she definitely helped me take things to the next level. I got a 50% request rate from my query letter–and an agent. (The book didn’t sell, but that’s another story.)

  13. Wow. CCing 70 agents with a query.
    I’ve heard legends of such things, but they were always “My brother’s cousin’s agent”-type stories. It never happened to people you could confirm existed.
    Thanks for the great post!

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