letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 84
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: fantasy

this week’s casualty: the person who sent me the same exact query for the 4th time in as many months (they’re like clock-work — I could almost set my watch by it)

So, last week I tried to explain how I view the option to re-query. And I have to admit that the above-referenced casualty almost made me want to withdraw my willingness to be open to this. I don’t want to be discouraging. The submissions process is challenging and writing a pitch and opening pages that will stand out takes talent and perseverance. But I have to admit that the person doing the resubmitting has a responsibility to the process too. And it should include more than just wash, rinse, repeat. The kind of stubborn persistence displayed by the above casualty only ends up feeling like a battering ram. It’s a spam-a-licious behavior that doesn’t appear to accomplish anything from my point of view (unless you count ranting on my blog as accomplishing something). And I really don’t think it’s fair to the other writers out there, particularly the next one in the queue who didn’t get their query read this week. (There’s just over 170 in the queue at present….)

Another thing that I find puzzling are the people who email to request submission guidelines. On the one hand, it’s a good idea to get them. On the other, the email address the person is using ends in maassagency.com, which also happens to be the website that has the submission guidelines. I have to admit that if they can send an email but refuse to do the smallest amount of legwork on their own, I may think that says something about how seriously they are taking their writing career.

Writing may be [challenging, rewarding, compulsive, illuminating, exhausting, satisfying, demanding, insert your description here], and I’ve heard a lot of people say that writing queries is even more difficult than the novel itself. Do you feel that way? What do you think is the hardest thing about writing a query?

34 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. Writing a query is a lot like writing copy. Books (like any merchandise) appeal to different people for different reasons. If I’m selling a soft drink, I’ll use one pitch in one market/demographic and another one in another market/demographic. The hard thing with writing a pitch is that you don’t know which demographic the person you’re pitching to is, as you only print one book cover, and you only get one query letter.
    In film and television, pitches are generally done in person. You almost never sell what you went in the door to sell. Rather, during the pitch you get active or passive feedback, and can tailor your pitch based on what’s working and what isn’t for that particular executive.
    With a query letter, however, unless I’ve taken the time to stalk you at your public talks and parse your blog to know exactly what you respond to, I’m shooting blind with where to put the emphasis in my one-page letter.

  2. hardest thing about queries
    Hmm. I find the query and the synopsis to be equally challenging. For the synopsis, condensing 350 pages into one is a serious trial. What to cut? What to leave?
    I guess it is the same with a query but worse. One needs to include the most important aspects, while showing “voice”, an author bio, and some kind of connection to the agent/agency on one page. And it’s scary. The choices are harsh. And one always wonders, “If I’d kept this, and cut that instead, would that agent have asked for the full manuscript?”
    Lisa Iriarte

  3. The query process and the writing process are completely different. Writing a query is not substantially difficult (at least it shouldn’t be), and for anyone having trouble with it, there are a lot of free websites that do a good job explaining the details. Writing a query for a fiction novel is easier than writing a query for a book of non-fiction, mainly because the latter requires a good deal of a plan for marketing the book while the former is generally accomplished by the publisher.
    The most difficult part of the query process, as points out, is trying to anticipate the best way to grab the attention of an agent. All agents are different, so as much homework as possible should be done in order to anticipate what a specific agent is looking for. This isn’t always a simple thing to do, especially if the agent hasn’t sold a lot of books.
    On the subject of re-query, I never do so unless I’m specifically asked. It’s a waste if my time, as well as the agent’s time.

  4. Distilling the heart of a story down can be very challenging. It exercises muscles that aren’t always being put to use in novel writing (though I think they benefit your writing, if you have them!)
    The business-letter side of the query is not challenging, though.
    Somehow there’s a lot of magical thinking out there about the query. If editing a letter for someone, I often have to point out unbusiness-like phrases.
    You obviously see behavior that is not professional or business-like.
    I don’t know why *that’s* hard…

  5. Honestly, I don’t think query-writing is hard.
    Writing a synopsis is harder, but it’s still not the end of the world.
    I think all the hand-wringing over query writing may be a form of waxing the cat. Something to obsess over to take writers’ minds off of what they should be obsessive over: becoming better writers. I went through my phase of eating up whatever I could find out about writing the perfect query. I found a lot of great advice online and I’m grateful for it. But these days I find that what I really want advice on is how to write a better novel or a better story.
    Folks seem so sure that if they get rejected it’s because their query letter failed to show off how truly wonderful their project is. If I get rejected, I’m inclined to think it was my story that failed to impress, not the query.
    *shrug*

  6. I think for me it’s harder. In writing fiction, your own voice is very important. Dynamism and personal touches (even eccentricities, sometimes) are great in fiction.
    But writing that query uses a whole other part of my brain, I sometimes feel. It’s the part that makes resumes and business letters – not only should one not diverge from accepted norms, but the better one adheres to them, the more successful one is likely to be. It’s a real shift, sometimes.

  7. Another thing that I find puzzling are the people who email to request submission guidelines.
    I think some people need to have their hands held. We get emails asking where to send news items…at our news@ address.

  8. I will soon be a first-time query writer. Just reading through these comments points out my frustration at the prospect. Is it meant to reveal my voice, or should it be written strictly as a business letter? Should a rejection be viewed as a rejection of the novel or is it a rejection of the query letter? In my research, I’ve read some agents’ admissions that it doesn’t take much for them to immediately reject the query, perhaps not even reading the whole page. In light of this, it seems only natural to view the writing of a successful query letter as quite a feat.

    • In my opinion:
      All good agents, at least the successful ones that take on unpublished writers, usually have one thing in mind when reading a query: Can I pitch (sell) this? Understanding the agent’s process is probably the key to getting a good agent. Successful agents want to spend more time trying to get a publisher to buy a client’s novel than finding a new novel to pitch. This is what makes the query an important part of getting a request for a partial.
      Expect to get rejected a lot, this happens. Sometimes your query may not be the issue and sometimes it is, and even if it’s a good query it might not be what the agent can sell.
      I recommend reading this: http://misssnark.blogspot.com/
      It’s very funny, but also very helpful. She is an agent, and while the blog has been discontinued, she took the time to sort of walk the mind of a hungry writer through her process. She also graded querys in there, so you can get an idea of what catches her attention and what turns her off. Start at the beginning of the blog and read up to when she ended it, I promise that it will open your eyes to a lot of what the publishing process is really all about.

  9. The dreaded query
    What I believe makes writing a query so difficult is not only condensing a multi-layered story into one paragraph, but also finding the right opening.
    Many websites offer the option of opening with “I’m seeking representation.” I myself am not a fan of that one, seeing as how we’re contacting agents. Why else would be sending a query letter to an agent if not for the search for representation.
    As for keeping true to one’s voice, that’s also quite the challenge, but that’s another story altogether.
    Great post.

  10. I try to leave 4-6 months between queries to the same agent, even with a different book. Hard to wait that long. I’m quite clear on the definition of ETERNITY now.
    I now consider querying simply an exercise. You query X agents for Y length of time. If it doesn’t catch anybody’s attention, then move on to the next project.
    However, just because an agent doesn’t fall in love, that doesn’t mean my book is unworthy. That’s what self-publishing is for. Does it “hurt” my chances of landing one of the elusive agents? Yanno, I don’t care. Sure, I’d like one, but I also want a Mercedes.

  11. Thoughts
    >>Writing may be [challenging, rewarding, compulsive, illuminating, exhausting, satisfying, demanding, insert your description here], and I’ve heard a lot of people say that writing queries is even more difficult than the novel itself. Do you feel that way? What do you think is the hardest thing about writing a query?<<
    Na, queries are easy for me. So are summaries and synopses. I mean, I’m careful with them because they’re important — they have to sell the whole manuscript. But they’re not all that hard to write. It’s really about condensing the core ideas into a tight little package that will immediately tell the reader how your writing meets their needs. I suspect it’s easier for me because I think fractally — I can often render the same concept in several pieces of different lengths.
    Also, many people write things without really knowing what they’re writing about or why. They have the story or article or book, but they can’t explain its main idea in a sentence or a paragraph. If you’re lost like that, it’s going to show in the manuscript, and writing any kind of pitch for it will be a nightmare.
    There are various things I’ve wound up adding to my writing/editing repertoire just because they’re easier for me than for a lot of other folks. I’ve written press releases and edited synopses and all kinds of stuff.
    (There are things I’m less ept at; I’ve neither the talent nor the taste for writing scripts.)

  12. The Logline
    I notice that no one uses this jargon, but I hale from Hollywood where we called the single sentence or two a logline. I find that loglines are easy for me to guide others to create brilliantly, but incredibly challenging to create for my own books. My objectivity is demoolished through the writing process and I tend to completely overthink the lolgine. I’m a big believer in the “writing is rewriting” theology, but I’m currently on something close to draft 37 of a logline that’s torturing me right now!

  13. Oh yes, writing the query is hell. We’re supposed to capture what makes our story unique, identify the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict and the stakes, let our own voice shine through, entice the agent to read more, raise questions that intrigue, not raise questions that confuse… In one or at most two paragraphs.
    I want to cry.

  14. Query writing is hard because we’re too close to the story. We want to tell you everything, but you only want to know the main thing. And even if we figure out what the main thing is, we have a hard time deciding what information is required to make it:
    1. make sense
    2. be interesting
    3. sound original
    4. show our voice
    I’m at the point where I can help others, but I’m still too close to my own stories to write my own without help.

  15. I’m going against the grain to say I don’t find writing a query any harder than writing the novel. In fact, I usually write the query as I’m writing the novel to make sure it makes sense. I find my queries to be a representative sample of my writing. I’m not implying either my queries or novels are good, but rather I don’t blame my queries on the fact I don’t have an agent.

  16. Yes, I do feel writing a query is ten times harder than writing a book. My manuscripts are generally well received, in fact I’ve been agented in the past (it was an amicable parting and I’m currently seeking new representation) however…I’ve also had problems with my query. My other agent was the only one of a lot that asked for a partial, full, and then eventually agented me. I think she saw promise, not that my query was great..but she saw just enough promise to make her want to try. Which in the end served us both well and I’ll be forever grateful to her.
    But I say that to say this, I’m now requerying and having a heck of a time getting anyone to request my work. Out of a batch of maybe 20..I got one request. And I know it’s not because of my book..because frankly..I only sent a sample of manuscript with maybe 4 of the 20 queries. My rejections have been off the queries alone and I suspect if the queries don’t grab an agents attention they likely won’t bother reading the sample either. I totally get that, would probably do it myself if the situation were reversed.
    Knowing my query sucked I figured I had nothing to lose so I completely revamped the darn thing. I know it’s generally frowned upon to write a query in first person but my book is written in first and by this point I figured I’ve got nothing to lose. My 3rd pov query was getting me nowhere so why not go for broke, as it were. Well I tested out my new query with 4 agents..3 of whom I’d already queried and gotten rejections from. Within hours of sending them out I received 3 responses, 2 from already queried agents with my 3rd pov. 1 form rejection, 1 personalized rejection stating how much my premise had ‘commercial appeal’ to it but that my style of writing just didn’t resonate with her and one request for a partial. Gotta say…I’m finally beginning to feel like I’m doing something right. Although I’d still prefer the rejections to be requests, but beggars can’t be choosers. 🙂

  17. I’d rather write a synopsis than a query any day. Synopses are easy. I am too close to my stories to be able to figure out the best way to pitch them. There are a dozen ways each of my stories could be pitched, and figuring out which way has the most market/agent/editor appeal is impossible for me to do without help from people who are not as close to the story.

  18. Query writing & synopsis writing are sheer hell. Give me a rejection any day – it’s far less frustrating than the trauma of sitting down to write a query letter and synopsis that I *know* won’t do justice to my novels.

  19. Writing queries is easy.
    Writing -synopses- is hard.
    Writing novels is hardest.

  20. Adding, from above:
    The reason people find queries so hard is that they think there’s a magic formula which will convince an agent to rep them. But really it’s much simper than that. Say you contact an agent who’s interested in x, y, and z. You describe what you wrote. If it’s x, y, or z, and you appear professional and competent, she’ll have a look. If it’s brilliant, but a, b, or c, you’re out of luck. If it’s written by a rented monkey, you’re out of luck.
    Dear Agent:
    When Claire was 13 years old, she fell through the cracks. Literally. In the aftershock of an earthquake, cracks appeared in the floor of her High School auditorium, billowing smoke and reeking of sulfur.
    Now two years after the failed rescue attempt, she’s back. Without any memory of her lost years, Claire attempts to regain her normal life … but everything seems skewed. Her parents are empty shells, her brother’s hiding a secret, her two best friends now hate each other.
    Everything’s changed. Or maybe it’s just her.
    THROUGH THE CRACKS is a blah blah blah.
    I don’t know, that’s off the top of my head. But if someone doesn’t want YA, they’re gonna reject that even if it’s great. If they’re only looking for YA for boys, likewise. If they wonder what kind of writer doesn’t include more than a single plot point in a query, forget it. But if they find the set up intriguing and the prose adequate, and it’s the -sort- of thing they enjoy, they’ll ask for pages.

  21. I treat the covering letter as a business letter/job application. Straight-forward and to the point. Not the place for breathless attempts at writing my own advertising or cover copy – though I do mention where I see my proposed book in the context of the current market, to show I have actually thought this stuff through. With restraint and a realistic attitude.
    As to the synopsis, I write these as continuous-present, third-person summary, showing all my cards and pointing out exactly where the smoke and mirrors are, the key twists and turns and issues.
    Because that’s what shows the agent/editor that I am fully in control of my story and my characters – and encourages them to think the book as delivered will be pretty close to what they’ve paid for.
    On submission guidelines, I have heard a great many agents/editors explain that they almost always bin queries that don’t follow guidelines for one of two reasons.
    One, as mentioned, because it indicates the hopeful writer can’t even do that much research. So, if they’re that clueless, how many other things do they not know about the book trade? All too often, these turn out to be the folk who expect a million dollar advance and to shoot instantly to the top of the best-seller lists. And get upset when they’re told otherwise.
    Second, because this particular writer has indeed found out the guidelines – but has decided that actually, the rules don’t apply to them, because they are so special/talented/ deserving of special consideration. Unlike the ordinary folk.
    I am told, by those in a position to know, that these are even worse to deal with than the clueless. Who can at least be encouraged to become more usefully clued-up.

  22. I’m always quite intimidated by any king of official correspondence where I don’t know the person.
    The only submission query I’ve written so far was for a short comic; it got accepted but I know now what terrible mistakes I’ve done in the submission.
    I think one of the problems with writing a query for a longer piece of your own writing is that you feel you’re not giving justice what you have written; you feel you’re making it sound wrong, simpler than it is etc. It’s like writing a review, only you want to show the best points. Only you can’t, because you have to write summary and have not that much space to do so.

  23. I’m finishing up a novel set in a somewhat well-worn historical niche, but focusing on an element that as far as I can tell has never been treated as more than a footnote. The hardest thing for me is trying to figure out how to explain ‘yes, you’ve read this story before, but not from this angle’.

  24. I think the people who contend query writing is easy really mean query writing is easy for me.
    Query writing drives me insane. The synopsis is a bit easier because I can do a linear view of the action. The query is basically pick out a very few important details and make it represent the entire work. Then rewrite it so it’s interesting. Then rewrite it so your voice shines through.
    We all have different strengths and weaknesses as writers. I can take some statistics and an interview and churn out an intriguing account of a horse race. Writing about a Nascar race would be frustrating for me and boring for the reader.
    I’m satisfied with my current query letter for my epic fantasy even though there are bits of it that concern me. However, it took a long time and a lot of work to get it there.
    Julie

  25. I wouldn’t say that writing a query is harder than a novel. A novel has to make sense and flow over thousands of words; a query has to be compelling over one page. Both are difficult in different ways.
    I think the hardest thing about the query is making that pitch stand out above thousands of others.

  26. Queries used to be difficult for me, but now they’re not; they’re rather easy. The hardest aspect of this process for me is editing my novel once it’s finished. >:-/ LOL.
    ~Tyhitia
    http://obfuscationofreality.blogspot.com/

  27. Getting the hook right is the hardest part.

  28. I’m so glad people are being nice about this on here. I’ve read everything I can find about query letters, and I get irritated with the people who have the attitude of “puh-leeze, writing a query should be easy… you’re a WRITER.”
    I think writing a novel is a piece of cake next to the query, because with a novel I feel like I know what I’m doing. Why? Because I’ve been reading novels my whole life and I know what works and what doesn’t work. I have a feel and an instinct for creating a story. Not to say it’s easy, but I know what I’m supposed to do. At various stages I get feedback from readers I trust so I can fix what isn’t coming across right.
    Not so with a query. I haven’t spent years and years reading queries the way you agents do. Even with the research I’ve done, it’s hard to get a feel for it. And since the understandably necessary form rejections give us absolutely zero feedback, there’s no way to know if you’re being rejected because the query sucks, the idea sucks, or your writing sucks. Even Patrick Rothfuss said he sucks at query writing, and it was not a query that finally got the attention of his agent.
    My “solution” has been to read the query letters of published writers (queries that work), pick the ones that got ME interested (because most of those queries I didn’t like at all) and try to learn from those. I also learned a lot from reading the Fur, Fangs and Fay hooks. After reading so many my eyes started to glaze, they all sounded the same, and I started to appreciate what you agents are up against. If I want to break through that fog, my query has to rock.
    Queries are a necessary evil and, as far as I’m concerned, a method of torture invented by the devil himself. But in the end, I really believe it’s the novel that does the work. If your novel is a gem, one way or another, you’ll sell it, and people will read it.

  29. Writing the synopsis, by far. Everything else is pretty much form letter.

  30. The hardest part is maitaining faith in your novel if its query keeps getting shot down.

  31. Writing a query is brutal. I’ve been working on mine for months and haven’t even finished the novel yet. I know it’s going to be the hardest part about pitching the book. I’m stumped by how to sum up a complex plot in three or four sentences.

  32. query vs. novel
    Writing a query is absolutely more difficult. Summarizing your work, making every twist and turn and character quirk that makes your book live and breath and filing it down to two or three paragraphs is daunting enough in itself. Even more frightening is selling yourself. What does an author do that has no background or “qualifications” for writing their book other than a smart ass sense of humor and a wild imagination? Not exactly something you want to add to a query letter, and yet I’ve found myself scrounging at the bottom of the barrell as far as the college courses I’m taking and what gave me the idea for the book in the first place.
    My vote is yes, but the submissions pages on agency websites are godsends.

  33. Writing queries…
    From an author’s perspective, writing the query is harder. They know the whole story, therefore, they know all the details. And with the incessant show don’t tell guideline, what are they to do but show every detail.
    But if authors take a step back and realize that only they know all the details (for now), and a summary using show don’t tell guideline is best, then it does make it easier to write the query.
    Jimmy Ng
    Sorry for all the anonymous postings. I don’t have and OpenID, and with the mere thousand passwords I have to memorize for work, I hesitate to get one.

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