letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 131
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genres of partials/manuscript requested: N/A

[Note: currently there are nearly 300 queries waiting to be read. The oldest one is dated the 10th of February.]

Dear Authors:

Though this has happened on and off over the years, there is a characteristic in query letters that seems to have picked up lately. Or perhaps I am just noticing it more. In any case, there seem to be a number of queries wherein the author states the reason as to why they believe I’ll reject them. Often in the first paragraph before I’ve even had a chance to read the idea and make up my mind for myself. This week I read one in which the author said in the very first line that they didn’t believe their book was right for me, but perhaps I could recommend a few agents — this struck me as an odd way to open a query letter, I must admit. Some of the other reasons I’ve been given recently include:

* the fact that the author is young
* the fact that the author is old
* the author did not graduate high school
* the author is not an American citizen
* that the author is currently in prison (but innocent!)
* this is a particularly unusual story
* the author is not photogenic
* the book is approximately 363,000 words long

Even better than the reasons that the authors state about themselves, or their work, are the ones where they presume to suggest a characteristic about me that will mean I am likely to reject them. Often I wonder how they come up with these, since many of the reasons they suggest are, shall we say, inaccurate, and few, if any, of these people have ever met me, so what data they are using to draw these conclusions escapes me.

And finally I am left to wonder why an author would begin a query by setting up the rejection. What’s that supposed to accomplish? Why are they giving the agent an excuse right from the get-go? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

41 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I’d be inclined to read the ones from the people in prisons, but only if they’re guilty.
    I think it’s just false modesty. Most of us were raised with the idea that bragging on ourselves is in poor taste.

    • It could also be lack of self-esteem. They aren’t really giving the agent a built-in excuse for rejection, they’re making one up for themselves. It doesn’t hurt so bad if you can say, “I was rejected because I’m old,” rather than, “I was rejected because I can’t write.” Of course, the fallacy here is the writer using “I” in either case. The query was rejected, not the writer.
      Elissa M

  2. Meh, I rather think the ‘you’re going to reject me’ up front says two things:
    1. the author has NO faith in his/her story. This person might not even know it. This person is sending out work he/she knows on some deeper level (or not so deep)is NOT ready–bringing me to #
    2. the ability to pass the blame once said person is rejected. “See! I knew she’d reject me.”
    And then this person never has to consider that the novel just isn’t ready yet. Or the query wasn’t compelling enough. Whatever. As long as it was the unfair agent and nothing THEY did.

    • I would think it’s more the latter. It’s a helpful exercise for me to think of the most likely worst-case scenario before doing something stressful (i.e., sending a query letter leads to a form rejection), and I think this is something of an extension of that. It is then combined with a desire to control what is rejected: Reject my trait, not my story.

  3. Interesting
    I am an English teacher and I always seem to get a student or two who come in saying that they suck at English and at writing. Obviously, no way to approach a class…or anything for that matter. I am going to remember that when I go to grade their first essay. The more I read, the more similarities I find in being a lit agent and being a lit teacher. LOL

  4. There’s a couple of reasons I can think of:
    -Humility–either genuine, because they have the notion that they’re “bothering” you by taking up your time with a query, or false, because they realize out-and-out bragging will be looked upon poorly.
    -Lack of confidence in their work–stating their fears out loud gives them something to fall back on when they are rejected. Rather than wondering what was wrong with their work (and even acknowledging that something could be wrong with it), they have something certain to point back to. They could then either pass the blame to you (if they can feel you were stupid for passing on them due to the mentioned reason) or give you a pass if they wanted to query you in the future (“Of course she passed on me, because of X! Can you blame her?”).
    -Lack of confidence in themselves in general–they feel some urge to offer a disclaimer, in case you really like their work but then are disappointed in them as a person/client.

    • Right, there are some cultural backgrounds where this would be pretty normal or even expected (and geeks/writer-types in general are pretty self-effacing in person) but it seems odd if there’s a trend. Hm.

  5. I think that its a defense mechanism to automatically assume that there is going to be rejection. However, the only reason I can think of for a writer to tell you straight up that you will reject them is because they feel it will be viewed as humility and win them brownie points. As a writer about halfway through my second draft, I can’t imagine putting this amount of sweat and tears into something that I think is unpublishable and then taking the time and effort to send it to an agent who I honestly just *know* will reject it. My book rocks. It rocks my socks. I will not be putting that in my query letter, but I certainly will query with all the professionalism and care that my novel deserves.

    • You know, now that I think about it, I have a friend who wrote a query letter basically saying, “This book sucks, don’t waste your time, but if you do take the time to read his turkey, try not to vomit.” That sort of thing. He thought it proved he could write, and that he had a sense of humor (which he does.)
      I tried to talk him out of it, but I couldn’t.

  6. Good heavens.
    (Sometimes, I’m heartened to think that if I ever finish writing something, there are a few folks I’ll actually have a leg up on.)

  7. It seems to be that weird defensive ‘you can’t fire me, I quit!’ reaction at work.

  8. It’s crazy-interesting all the ways that people try to destroy themselves.

  9. As an administrator in education, I see that same trend happening with many students. By pointing the finger at someone else, he/she has eliminated any fault on their own behalf. In this case, the person blaming the agent has eliminated any personal fault for a bad query, writing, and/or uninteresting topic. Instead of reflecting upon those things when rejected, the author can move on to query a more “compassionate” agent who might buy the self pity approach. Now I know where the kids get it! LOL

    • Thinking is hard, so they imagine there’s some list of hoops to jump through and apologize for (or whine about) not having jumped through all of them.

  10. I always wondered if you could break people of this kind of thing just by responding with, “Yes, exactly,” to all such comments… it’s really common in any sort of process that involves evaluating people, anyway. I saw it years ago evaluating applications for an online community that was known for being picky, and have noticed it more recently in actual hiring. “I know I don’t fit any of the qualifications listed in your ad, but…” But they apply anyway. I think they want validation. Not just to be good enough for the job, but to be reassured that yes, they are *exactly* what is wanted.
    I used to think they were just trying to soften the failure, but noticed over time in the first case that everybody blamed the application reviewers when they were rejected anyway, even after they’d set us up for the whole list of reasons we were rejecting them. So… yeah.

    • If you use the “Yes exactly” approach it does at least make people start to notice they’re doing it. I have used that on friends before. “Yes, you’re right. You suck.” People are expecting/looking for an “OH MY GOD OF COURSE YOU’RE WONDERFUL” and giving them a flat agreement stops them for a moment. You have to be insanely consistent, though. 🙂

  11. Moral of story: Never write the query letter when you’re in the “Oh gods my stuff suuuuucks” part of the emotional swing. Or at the peak of “I am BRILLIANT!”, either.

  12. * the book is approximately 363,000 words long
    Hmm… They were probably right.
    I stopped bothered with querying because I couldn’t figure out a good way to sell myself. But I don’t think I ever would have said “You’ll think this sucks, but…”

  13. Fear of success? Why else would you sabotage your own query letter? Whiners trying for a pity play?
    I’m stumped.

  14. Maybe it’s just too hard!
    Trying to obtain an affirmative response to your query from an agent, one has to admit is not easy. I believe the people who write such stuff (using the term write lightly) are running out of ideas to try an attract the all elusive agent. Therefore, instead of writing a humdinger of a query letter, they resort to every trick in the book (sorry for the pun)in the hope of a “Yes, can you please send me the rest of your manuscript.”
    Write a succinct query with a powerful opener, a great synopsis and the best first five pages you’ve got, and you’ll have the every chance of a positive response. Good Luck!

    • Re: Maybe it’s just too hard!
      “Write a succinct query with a powerful opener, a great synopsis and the best first five pages you’ve got, and you’ll have every chance of a positive response.”
      Of Course! Why didn’t I think of that?
      Probably because there’s only one set of first five pages in an MS, so best and worst mean the same thing. And probably because the word great is completely undefined and undefinable.
      I have written a great but indescribable book. If it were describable in a paragraph I certainly wouldn’t bother trying to write it, and would almost certainly not end up writing it. No query is going to be both ‘great’ and true.

      • Re: Maybe it’s just too hard!
        Without Prejudice!
        From the tone of your reply, one might determine that you have been unable to write a query which has attracted an agent.
        Being an “Author Guy” I would have thought you would understand what was meant by the best five pages. i.e. If I were submitting a query which required five pages from my manuscript, I would not be submitting the five pages from my first draft. Indeed I would more likely submit the five pages from my seventh or eight draft, which would of course be my best first five pages. “I’m explaining this simply so you can understand what I’m trying to say.
        You’re right about the definition of great, it has about ten definitions depending on what context you wish to use the word great in. Taken from one of the one hundred or more dictionaries that define great (This of course means that it is definable)is the definition of great in the context which I used my original comment in:
        Great – remarkable or out of the ordinary in degree or magnitude or effect.
        So my question to you is: “Are you always this stupid or are you deliberately trying to annoy me?”
        The English language is one of the most dynamic and fluid languages in the world, constantly changing as society changes;
        So lighten up!!!!
        Finally! The idea of a synopsis is for the agent to see if you “can” describe your book in a paragraph, it is one of the defining tests of a great (Sorry I used the word again) writer. So if I were you, I would start working out how to describe your indescribable book in the paragraph or two agents call a synopsis.
        Just so there are no hard feelings: I wish you the best of luck getting an agent and your book published.

  15. Why? Because they want you to say, “Oh no, I’d never think that way!” and prove it by offering representation. They’re relying on you not wanting them to think poorly of you.
    But I’m a cynic.

  16. This is a tactic often used by stalkers
    “And finally I am left to wonder why an author would begin a query by setting up the rejection. What’s that supposed to accomplish?”
    It’s to awaken that latent bit of guilt in you, the urge to prove you’re not biased, that can’t-help-but-be-nice thing that stalkers and bad guys use to great advantage. It’s their way of taking control of the situation – they think you cannot resist the urge to prove that you’re above being influenced by their age/prison/citizenship/educational status.
    Fortunately, they’re wrong.

  17. Years ago, when I first started in real estate, I got some advice from my manager on my first sale. He told me to have all my paperwork in order. Know ahead of time what the loan officer wanted and have it ready for him. Discuss the load process with my clients and give them a list of what they needed to bring.
    Lastly, he told me to walk in like I owned the bank. Be prepared and confident.
    I went in prepared and acted confident even though I wanted to throw up. I acted confident until I actually became confident because I had my ducks in a row and the loan officers knew they could depend on me to know what I was doing.
    I may not be (insert famous author of choice), but I am danged good at being me and I’m willing to put the work in to make the work the best I can make it.
    After that, all I can do is set it free, acting confident, and trust it will find the right home.
    Lawsy, people, don’t tell someone you’re trying to sell something to they won’t like it.
    Well, I did that with a house and they bought it anyway, but that’s another story.

  18. wow.
    i, too, am perplexed.

  19. Human defense mechanisms very rarely make immediate sense; but they make even less sense if you come at them from the perspective of they should know better. Many times, the writers who are sending these queries haven’t gotten far enough into the process to know what they’re doing, or even to know how to figure out what they’re doing. A few of them probably barely know how to use their email, let alone find and read a blog.
    The reasoning behind the preemptive apology goes something like this: “Rejection is bad. Rejection implies that I have done something wrong. If I am rejected, I don’t want the other person to think that I am a bad person for doing something wrong. Since I can’t apologize after the fact, I’ll include an apology up front.”
    The other reasons are all valid as well, but this is my immediate suspicion.

  20. It’s supposed to indicate some level of industry savvy and self-awareness. Across the spectrum of agent blogs I’ve seen reluctance to take on writers or books with those qualities. The idea is to get past the first perceived road block quickly so you can be rejected for a more meaningful reason. By acknowledging the very good chance that an agent will put down the query at the sight of a 363,000 word count, they’re trying to give the agent a reason to read just one sentence more and reject it because of something in the summary.

  21. Maybe they think you are weak willed, so you will fear confirming their crazy suspicions.

  22. The one that really get me . . .
    “This is a particularly unusual story.”
    Really? Wow. You’re right. Every editor with whom I’ve spoken has said, “Great Pulp Plot-Wheel Novel, no! Please don’t send me ANYthing original. We want to read the same thing we’ve published for the last fifty years! Unusual stories make my brain seize up and dance with spasms of enlightenment all at the same time! My kids tell me I look like the love child of Harpo Marx and Julia Childs when I read a book like that!”
    What ever happened to not pre-rejecting your work? That’s the editor’s job. She does it better than you. She doesn’t need help. Had I decided not to submit to a few magazines that weren’t publishing exactly the kind of fiction I was writing, I’d have missed out on a couple dozen sales.
    J. Haines

  23. Please excuse me, I have a question related to queries but not to the specific issue you address here.
    I recently attempted to submit an electronic query to you, following the submission guidelines of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. I did not mention your name specifically in the subject line or the body of the message because I did not see any mention of this in the guidelines.
    In just over a week I received a rejection letter from Donald Maass himself, rather than from you.
    While I appreciate the response from Mr. Maass, I had intended to submit my query to you because your client list seemed to me to express literary interests that might enjoy my fiction.
    Did I err in my submission? If so, how might I adjust it to have it reach you? Or does this, rather, mean that I have been rejected by the agency and should turn my attention elsewhere?
    Thank you for your time.

    • If you want to query me specifically, since queries go to a general email, they would need to mention me (or whichever agent you are querying) by name (I recommend “Dear Ms. Jackson”). Without mention of a specific agent, a query is assumed to be sent to the agency at large (because there really is no way for us to know otherwise in that case).
      This is actually addressed in the submission guidelines, under the section labeled “Whom Should I Query” at http://www.maassagency.com/submissions.html

  24. People sabotaging their own queries. That’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve heard in this business. It really boggles my mind.
    BTW, I’m sorry you’re inundated with queries. I hope you’ll be able to come up for air soon! I think I’d feel guilty if I added one more to your overflowing Inbox.
    Have a wonderful night!

  25. Sabotaging one’s own query letter is also a way for a person with no confidence to try and take some control…
    If a person feels truly helpless, and hopeless of success in a particular endeavor, they may feel bound to themselves to keep trying anyway (because their desire is too strong, or they feel that to stop trying would be to break some kind of promise).
    But — if they’re 100% (or darn close) that they’ll fail, if they can explain in advance WHY they’ll fail, they’ll at least prove to themselves that they know what’s going on. There’s a bit of sour, bitter satisfaction from being able to say to oneself: “I told you so.”
    Anyone who finds themselves in that situation — with query letters or anything else — needs to stop their attempts, and turn their efforts to changing their attitude. But alas, it can take human beings a long time to even recognize their own attitude problems, let alone confront them . . .

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