letters from the query wars

# of queries read this week: 216
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 0
genre of partials/manuscripts requested: N/A

Dear Authors:

Let me be really, really, really, exceptionally blunt: Many of the queries I receive are either (1) entirely wrong for me (e.g. despite posting on our website and agentquery.com and the like that I don’t represent poetry, I get queries for poetry every week), (2) just aren’t well-written enough, or (3) are sent before the author is really ready to begin querying. With respect to the 3rd reason, this is something I think is really tough for a writer, particularly if they don’t have a critique group/partner or someone a little more objective than their dearly beloveds to give them feedback.

Over the years, talking to writers at conferences, online, etc., one of the things that I find most inspiring is the flush of the cheek, the gleam in the eye, the tremor of the voice as they excitedly announce they have finished their manuscript. It’s a rush. Writing “the end” and knowing that feeling of accomplishment. And I often find myself just amazed at the determination and imagination that must fuel that. Any writer who has come that far deserves to feel proud.

However. (You knew that was coming, right?)

I have noticed more and more in the queries I get that writers are not pausing at that point to assess the next steps carefully. And while it’s understandable to want to move forward and share your story with the world, and get caught up in the thrill and the passion, it seems like it’s become all too easy to careen out of control with sending queries out before doing research or making sure a writer has the sharpest possible query and pages ready for submission. It seems to me that just about every week I get someone writing to ask if they can substitute a new query for the one they sent just a couple days ago. Or asking to resubmit because they’ve realized something important that needs to be revised in those opening pages.

Please consider this: There are thousands of writers a year sending out queries. Everyone talks on and on about how long the odds are. Doesn’t every writer owe it to themselves to take every advantage that they can get? Remember that while writing can be full of emotion and inspiration that it’s counterpart, publication, is a business. After a writer types “the end”, it is time to realize that is only the beginning of the next part of the journey. Take some time, even if it feels like pins and needles. So much effort and so much of a writer’s self goes into creating the story in the first place. Don’t sell it short by not letting its first steps into the world be strong ones.

I do my best to be flexible on this count, but I’m sure mileage must vary from agent to agent. Sometimes I suspect that querying in haste may mean that the writer is wasting that all-important first-impression effect of (1) something I’m desperately looking for (whether I know it or not), (2) that’s well-written and carefully proofed and sets a strong hook, and (3) reveals a writer that is ready to go to the next level. Queries like that really can make a person sit up and take notice. I love getting swept away too.

38 responses to “letters from the query wars

  1. I made that mistake once. Felt pressured because an agent showed some interest from a excerpt post. It was NOT ready. The query was fine; but the work was NOT ready.
    Won’t make that mistake twice.

  2. Yep
    I’m guilty as charged and I haven’t even finished my manuscript (not even half-way done actually). I’ve written PB manuscripts and turned around and queried them before they were ready. It’s bad form.
    Some of us know we need to learn patience. I pray when I’m done with this manuscript (my first novel) that I will harness my excitement and get it whipped into shape before I even think about querying!
    Thanks for the helpful reminders.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me that wanna-be authors can spend weeks agonizing over a single paragraph, editing and re-writing until it’s “perfect” yet slap together a query letter in ten minutes and expect that agents or publishers will line up in a bidding war. Huh?
    Whatever, I guess.

  4. Sadly, you could not be MORE right. Who’s guilty of this? (The First Carol raises both hands, blushes profusely, and stammers apology, uh, to you). If we were not stumbling over our enthusiasm to move forward, and actually took the time to pause, inhale a cleansing breath, assess the landscape, and plot next steps as carefully as we plotted the manuscript we’d know exactly where we were. NOT READY. My experience has shown it takes as long to edit the manuscript as write (STILL EDITING!). Happy Weekend.

  5. I did this with my first novel too, but my first novel was a learning process by design, and I learned a lot by querying too early.
    Now I’m at the end of my second novel and the challenge here is to sit down and do all the work I know needs to be done on it, even though it’s “finished”. It’s a heavy weight, but then so is writing a novel in the first place. This is just the next stage.

  6. Although necessary for reasons you point out, one of the problems with waiting to query is that when you’re writing and you have people who know, particularly if said people don’t exactly support you, the moment you type ‘the end’ they expect to see it on the shelf. I had to really fight against this telling my mom that I need to edit x20935235, refine my query letter, find some agent blogs and sites to get familiar with, and generally learn more of the business side. She (and others) expect that the end means THE END OMGZ IT’S PUBLISHED, which of course it doesn’t. So when you have hordes of people pushing you and you want to feel like you’re doing something, it is hard to say ‘no no no no, it’s not READY yet!’ That being said, there is something of an element of self control necessary to the whole business (writing and publishing), so you kind of just have to not get too swept up. As much as I want agents to read my manuscript, I want them to, you know, actually read it. Because if I sent my first query out, it would have been rejected. If I send out a query that I’ve tweaked, poured over, edited, had critiqued, and edited again, that will up my odds. So I agree completely with this, but from an author perspective also completely understand the temptation to jump first and look later.

  7. What if I don’t know what makes a good query?
    OK! Lets say I’ve written a book, it’s a fantasy and I’m on the 4th edit. Maybe a few edits more and I can say it’s ready to send to the likes of Jennifer Jackson. But having read many editors ideas of what they like to see in a query, how does a novice writer even begin to write a good query. You can read copious excerpts on how to write queries and synopsis’s but as many writers say this is one of the hardest steps to undertake.
    On many occasions agent’s know the writer is a novice or it’s their first submission. So why don’t they take this into consideration and perhaps give some lenience to their queries, (as long as they follow the basic guidelines) and read the first five pages. This at least gives the writer a fighting chance.
    Of course writing this comment most probably indicates that I am exactly the type of query submitter that Jennifer talks about. But I will assure her and other agents that I will, when the time comes, will at least attempt to comply with the guidelines for submissions and queries. And in doing this I would hope as long as my manuscript is of the appropriate standard it would be given the due consideration it deserves.
    What I’m trying to say is this. If at least we try to comply with agents request, then hopefully agents will give us the same consideration and look at the five required pages. It’s when submitters ignore the guidelines that they can’t really expect to have their query seriously considered.

    • Re: What if I don’t know what makes a good query?
      You know, I’ve never been one to complain about form rejection letters and I’m not about to start now. I completely understand the logistical necessity of a form reply. However, the kinds of problems you’re talking about here might be less frequent if form letters were a little more helpful. If, as you say, most queries fall into just a few categories, why can’t you have three or four form letters to choose from, instead of just one?
      Have one that says, in essence, the quality of the writing is poor and the writer needs more practice.
      Have one that says the writing is fine but there are problems with the story itself which the author might be able to ferret out with the help of a good writing group or a skilled, objective reader. (I’m assuming this would be a small percentage of your queries, so if you’re feeling extra generous, maybe you could scribble in the margin a quick clue that says “weak main character” or “cliched plot” or whatever. Maybe this letter, and the one before it, would need an extra sentence saying you don’t have time to answer follow-up questions.)
      Have one that says the standard “this isn’t right for me”, and only use it when you mean “this is good, but not right for my list” (which is what EVERY writer thinks when getting said reply) instead of sending it when what you really mean is “this is crap, but some agents like crap, so why don’t you try them instead?”
      Have a truly generic form letter for those inevitable cases that don’t fit neatly into one of your other two or three categories.
      Because the most frustrating thing about getting a form rejection is having no idea WHY you’re getting that rejection. Writers are notoriously blind to their own problems. I would LOVE an agent to just point out what they think my problem is so I can fix it (if I agree), instead of wondering. The “this isn’t right for me” approach might be politically correct and gentle, but it does me absolutely zero good. This is a brutal business, and information is power.
      No, it’s not your job to give individualized feedback, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Might it be worth the effort to write a few more form letters that you could use for ever after? How long would that really take? Would it cut back on queries that have no business crossing your desk? If this became standard procedure in the agenting world, would so many NaNo hopefuls be swarming the post office in December? Maybe. Maybe not.
      I understand the truth behind the oft-used, “this isn’t right for me” reply. But on this end of it, that just feels disingenuous. Yes, another agent might think something is good that you think is crap. But the query came to YOU and so as a writer, I want to know what YOU think, not what you think some other agent might think.
      Just my two cents.
      For the record, I think you’re a fantastic agent and greatly appreciate the help you give to aspiring writers. Your blog is the first agent blog I started following and it’s still at the top of my list. Thanks for all you do. 🙂
      P.S. Many times I’ve heard writers imply that if they received a rejection to their query, the agent must not have read the first five pages that was sent along with it. I don’t understand this reasoning. Agents who ask for it want it, and I assume they read it as part of the query package. I also assume that if I’m getting rejected, the first five pages aren’t strong enough. I think five pages that kick a** will trump a weak query letter any day. What do you think Jennifer?

      • Re: What if I don’t know what makes a good query?
        I’d really love to know what you think about this. In an upcoming post, perhaps? Hint, hint. 😉
        I’m kinda surprised by all the people saying they know what they’re sending out is weak. I didn’t query until I had edited, rewrote, polished, workshopped, edited, polished, polished, polished, polished until I ran out of people to read it and it was as good as I knew how to get it.
        I had several agents request partials or fulls, but all came back with the “this is good but not right for me.” What does that mean at that level? Is there a marketing problem with the plot? Is the writing just missing something? I wish I knew. My feedback crew is at a loss, and so am I.
        I finally put it aside, but if I get an agent for the new book I’m writing, I plan on asking them to tell me what it needs so I can make it better. I love the story and want to see it on a shelf someday.

  8. I actually typed ‘the end’ during the week, so am going through that euphoric phase right now. Luckily I have a rather pessimistic/realist side that is telling me that it is way, way,way from ready.
    I can understand the desire to get it sent out as soon as it is done though.

  9. I completely agree, but must admit that I was one o the ones who queried you without being ready. Probably worse, I knew it wasn’t ready. I knew I was going to be rejected.
    Of course there was that part of me that fantasized you or another agent would see past all the faults I saw and love it anyways. I’m not stupid though and wasn’t really counting on it.
    But understand, I finished my rough draft in November 2008 and got good feedback from a Writers Digest workshop on the first fifty pages. Since then, at the time I queried in March, I had only the first two chapters and the prologue (which I now decided to cut out) edited.
    I don’t know how people do it. It takes so much of my energy to edit a single page and often I procrastinated.
    It was probably the panic of never finishing and sending it out and the excitement of querying that I felt from reading Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog that I decided to skip a step and work querying and looking for agents.
    Even as I wrote and rewrote the query and synopsis I knew I sucked. In fact the more I learnen, the more I realized my own lack of skill. But I was so frustrated that I didnt care and sent it anyways.
    You replied the next day with the rejection. I was absolutely thrilled! Its my first official rejection letter and I felt like I was finally making progress.
    Of course I am still struggling. I’m on chapter 4 now and still it feels like grueling work, specially when I find entire scenes that need to be redone. I don’t even want to think about what I have to do to make a better query.
    You talk about critique groups or a partner to review the work. How in the blazes do you find one? I am surrounded by writers who are too busy with their own work to bother and I have been searching.
    Its all very diffcult. So I hope you understand and not roll your eyes when I query you again in the future (probably months from now). It will be what I know for sure is the absolute best I am capable of.

    • Compuserve Books and Writers forum has workshops and critique groups. You have to exchange so many critiques to post your chapters, but it does help. Critiquing other writers is as important as getting critiques because you start looking for the same flaws in your work.

    • The Share Your Work thread in the Absolute Writer Water Cooler Forums is an excellent place to get feedback. I’m a published and agented writer, and I post my work there quite often, especially when I’m dealing with a troublesome scene or chapter. There are some amazing writers there who love to assist other writers, as they ask for assistance themselves. I’m one of them. It costs nothing to join, but you need to be a member to participate. Go to http://www.aboslutewrite.com/forums

    • If you write mysteries or suspense, the online Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime can help. We have a critique group coordinator that puts members together. I credit my group with helping me snag an agent. You could also check libraries and bookstores. (My face-to-face group meets at B&N every week, which is advertised in the B&N newsletter.) Is there a writing organization in your area? That could be another way to search for crit partners.

  10. Hello coincidence! I just wrote a blog about exactly this topic a few days ago.
    Writing my query letter was harder than writing my entire novel. Waiting to write the query letter until I’d edited the entire manuscript (the first time) was a bit like childbirth. A long, painful process that was well worth the wait in the end.
    I wrote my query the first time without censoring myself at all. I allowed myself to spew out everything I wanted potential agents to know about my manuscript. Then I thought “Hmmmm, nine pages? That might be a little bit much.” So I summarized and condensed, prayed I hit all the right high points, and settled on a page and a quarter (thereby breaking the cardinal ‘one page’ rule, I know.) Finally, I shut the document down and refused to look at it for two days. New birthing process (yay, twins!) Pretending that letter didn’t exist was my own elephant in the living room.
    When I came back to it, I read it with fresh eyes. I made a few adjustments and began sending it out.
    Actually something that nearly made me commit homicide happened between the last adjustments and the sending out, but I vented enough about that in my blog.
    I’m glad now that I did wait and I hope it pays off in the end. Now I’m waiting to hear from the agents I queried.

  11. All I know is, that when I went back over the submission that resulted in my most recent rejection, I was able to take somewhere between 150 and 200 words out of the sample five pages, without sacrificing a scintilla of substance.
    The manuscript’s long. I’ve continued the process just to see the result, and I’ve come to see it’s a necessity. I’ve removed about 1700 words now, again with no sacrifice to substance, and I’m only on page 42. Since my career involves writing, I’ve simply grown overconfident about needing to do this.
    Do any of you have manuscripts that friends have looked at? And your friends say they love it? And they’re sincere enough that they probably genuinely do at least LIKE it? But — they take a LONG time to read it? For some reason — it’s just not a book that “you can’t put down”, right?
    That’s why. Extra words. Are there great long books? Sure there are. The absolute number of words is less important than the fact that you don’t waste them. And if there are extra words in the synopsis, forget it. No matter how effectively you grab an agent (or anyone), extra words WILL loosen that all-important “grip”.
    And the reader will decide to put the book down and do something else.

    • Heh … sorry I overdid it with the ital.

    • I agree with the substance of your post. Even when cutting words is a painful process, it’s a necessary one. I once had a discussion about that topic with a really amazing literature teacher I had in college. We had differing opinions about the degree to which cutting is a wise choice. What’s your take? Is it possible to edit to the point that you derail from the truly literary? Can you move into a place where your work is so stripped down it starts to lack the detail that allows a reader to feel they are experiencing the story rather than just reading it? I’ve never had a chance to get another opinion, so I would value your input.

      • IME you have to make the call about what constitutes “good stuff” that HAS to go in for one reason or another — and then cut around that.
        I strongly believe that you shouldn’t cut the “good stuff”, though you should of course pare it down if you take too long with it. I feel that if the story’s too long, then there is always a way to edit — by cutting or rearranging — that lets you keep its substance.
        There’s a lot of disagreement about how you decide what the “good stuff” is. I find that, when cutting dialogue, if you cut words for the sake of cutting words, then all the characters start to talk the same. Sure, you can have all your characters be slick and efficient all the time when they’re under all kinds of stress, but most people don’t talk like that.
        I tend to start the writing process by prioritizing my “good stuff”, then deciding what order it should happen in, then writing it. But the editing process is more than just cutting around the “good stuff”, I also re-assessing what the “good stuff”. Maybe I’ve changed my mind about some detail of the story, and what I thought was interesting before doesn’t seem so interesting now.
        In short, the editing process helps you make the percentage of your story that is “good stuff” as high as possible. I think that’s how a story strengthens its grip.

      • Hmm … just made a reply, but I seem to have done so anonymously by mistake. I guess it’ll appear later.
        All this editing is getting to me… I gotta get more sleep!

        • Wow, 4500 words gone and I’m not close to halfway through yet…I thought the word count was this high because there’s a lot going on in the story, but again, I’m not cutting any substance.
          I just hope I’m doing a better job with this editing job than I’ve edited my own posts on this blog so far.

          • This is insane … first used italics longer than desired, then posted anonymously by accident, and now bad grammar (wrong verb tense in last post)…

  12. Coming to terms with rejection
    I was in the recent batch of the queries you rejected. And I must say after receiving 20 plus rejections for my query that I am really beginning to think that I’m in that catogory of writers who aren’t ready. I thought I was ready after two years of being in a critique group and editing my novel more times that I could count and using online writing resources. Also I had some beta readers who “seemed” to enjoy my book, but, after your rejection and reading your post above which was very insightful, I’ve begun to think maybe I’m that person and just don’t know it.

  13. I confess I’m guilty of this. You hit the nail on the head. There is that period of bliss, like the first days of falling in love, and you’re sure everyone wants to get to know the source of your glow. And then reality hits…
    For me, I’d only sent out three queries when I realized perhaps another edit was needed. This put me in the strange position of hoping the queries were rejected because I dreaded sending the partial.
    They were.
    The next time I send it out, it will be the best it can be.

  14. This is such a tenuous balance for me, because I’m so prone to over-edit and over-revise.
    I mean, you can get to the point where you just have to put your work out there and see what kind of response you get, right?
    I’ve dragged it through beta reading and critique group, set it aside and then come back to it with fresh eyes. And every time I look I find something to revise. But at what point do you say enough is enough?
    (My beta said it’s about two weeks after you think you’re done. ahahahaha)

    • If you’ve gone through the revisions, beta readers, set aside and more revisions, I think it’s time to set it free. Revising just for the sake of change isn’t improving it.

    • That’s funny! Two weeks after. So true! But you have point. I have edited the life out of a story. After awhile, it felt stiff and fake.
      When we finally received the ARC’s for Perfect Circle, I opened them and, out of habit, I’m sure, started editing and you know what? I found things.
      It’s a balancing act.
      Good luck with yours.

  15. Thank you. I needed that. I have mine out with beta readers now. Two of them won’t be able to get to it until next month and the racehorse part of me wants to say, “Go with what you have.” However, the other two readers are exceptional writers and I know their feedback would be invaluable.
    Just hard to hold back.

  16. Query Wars
    Thus the slush pile is created. We as writers cannot expect agents to be quick about reading our submission when you’re inundated by incomplete, incorrect, or badly done work. It’s so sad, but true, the fault of having to swim our way through slush piles is our own ‘peers’. -HeatherM

  17. I’m certainly guilty of #3 – – sending out queries before the ms. was really ready. And as a first novel, there’s probably some of #1 and #2 there as well. I realized some time ago how I’d blown that opportunity to make a first impression that would count.
    A lot of blogs mention first novels that get shoved under the bed. That’s what I did, painful as it was.
    Hopefully the learning curve will kick in and I’ll fare better with my second work.

  18. This is really useful from my end of things.
    Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s so much more useful than the kind of “feedback” like Queryfail…

  19. I think its the mistake of beginner writers. I’ve done it. I’m sure lots have done. But as you collect rejections, find critique groups and grow as a writer you learn not to rush, to review, rewrite and then rewrite again. I think the thing all writers need to know is that you never stop learning.
    Now my problem is when to stop rewriting! How do we know when it’s perfect?

  20. Querying — a different talent
    I started a critique service specializing in proposals (query letter, synopsis and partial) and I’ve noticed that people who have great voices and decent partials still tend to jump the rails on the “sales” stuff. Querying is a different talent than manuscript writing. From reading the comments, I think several of my clients were so eager to get their book out there that they just threw a query together, focusing on things that had nothing to do with why their book could sell — just what they loved about it. Some focused on the theme and didn’t say anything about the characters; some focused on the setting and the basic premise without ever mentioning conflict. And this is just the query letter!
    Basically, I think you need to take a break and then deliberately “wear a different hat” when approaching the querying process. But that’s just me. 😉

  21. That’s what I thought … but there’s been an awful lot of talk about querying recently, and it’s not surprising Jennifer would want to focus elsewhere once in a while. It’s also nice to see her give well-deserved congratulations on hard-earned successes.
    Anyway, it’s going to take me quite awhile to make full use of all I’ve learned in the query exchanges in the last few weeks, so even if I miss query wars, I can take this pause and put it to good use.

  22. Querying notreadyforprimetimenovels
    Years ago, I had the privilege of visiting with you over breakfast at an RWA conference in Omaha. I had just put the ‘magic’ THE END to one of my manuscripts and didn’t wait until it truly was ready. After a Dorchester editor requested a partial based on my enthusiasm, you agreed to look at it as well. Of course, he and you were not satisfied, nor should you have been. I’m happy to say that after a long period of rewriting and polishing, that novel will be published this fall by Red Rose Press.
    That had to be one of the most embarrassing moments of my life and one I’m not likely to repeat. I’ve long wanted to apologize to you for wasting your time. Best wishes for at least one good query this week, Jennifer.
    Dale Thompson

  23. query letters
    I really don’t like writing the query—I’d rather write five novels than one query and I think it’s because I am very insecure about my ability to query. I am one of those writers who continue to edit and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite–(did I mention that already?) ad nauseum. My current novel, for instance, was first drafted two years ago and then revised over this long period and I shopped it out for the first time last weekend at the Mad Anthony conference. I wish there was a hard and fast rule about when a book is ready to be queried and how to query. I’ve taken several workshops from agents and editors on the subject and everyone has a different idea.

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